When I was picked up from the Ho Chi Minh City airport by the xe taxi driver 8 months ago, I excitedly blurted out lớn the driver, “bạn khỏe khoắn không?” or “how are you?” in Vietnamese. The guy looked back at u lượt thích I had just asked him “excuse u, tự you want u lớn phối your underwear on fire?”. What I learned later on, is that you DON’T ask a stranger “how are you?”. Unless of course, you really want lớn know their full health report. Silly, silly foreigner.
You can probably guess that 8 months later, I’m a helluva lot more culturally fluent. I’ve had lớn learn the hard way – yes, I was calling elders “little sibling” (em) for the first two months. And yes, I’ve offended all my coworkers by provocatively showing off my shoulders at work. Fast forward lớn today – I sure as hell don’t know it all, but indeed I’ve learned A LOT, thanks lớn the help of my Vietnamese friends, students, coworkers and kind strangers, who have turned u from a naive, ignorant and wide-eyed Westerner lớn a well-versed fish-sauce lovin’, strong tea drinkin’, assimilated American. Now, before you read it on, I want you lớn know that many of these “American” cultural references actually apply lớn all Western cultural habits, but I can’t compare Vietnam lớn an entire hemisphere of the globe! So, I’m keeping it parallel and limiting it lớn what I know best:
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Seatbelts ready? Through the eyes of an American girl living in Vietnam, let’s take a ride on the culture train.
1. Small talk
When you meet a fellow American for the first time, you ask the simple questions: “where are you from?“, “what tự you do?“, maybe pry a bit more into their job, and leave it at that. Whatever you tự, ya’ don’t get too personal. Already know the person and see them everyday? Great! That means you probably have asked them “how are you?” at least 324 times over the past year. It’s actually quite a skill, American small talk; ask as many meaningless questions as you can lớn avoid awkward silence, without eliciting a response that is any deeper than thở “yea, good!”. Professional small talk questions include the following, said with utmost enthusiasm each time: “how are you, buddy?” “how’s it goin’?!” “How’s your day, man?” “Hey girl, how was your weekend?”
In Vietnam, ain’t nobody got time for that. When you first meet someone, ya’ get straight lớn the point. Almost always the first question is “how old are you?” (which at first, I was put off – lượt thích, don’t you know you’re never supposed lớn ask a lady her age?!). It’s the most important preliminary detail lớn know about someone, as that tells you what pronoun they should address you by (“I” and “you” change based on relative age). Then, typical follow-up questions “Are you married?” “What’s your salary?” “what street tự you live on??”. Yep – if someone wants lớn steal your identity, the cards are on the table. For the people you see daily, there is “everyday small talk” too, but it’s basically limited lớn one question – “Did you eat (lunch/ dinner/ insert meal here) yet?” Followed by nothing…no dinner invites. Just curiosity.
2. Family life
So you’re an 18-year-old American, you say? Run. Go far. Go very, very far. In the USA, as soon as youngsters have their legal independence, you fly and go lớn college far enough from trang chính that your mom can’t pop up at your doorstep with cookies (although the cookies are always welcome). Families are spread out all over the US, often a plane ride away. My fam is a perfect example – my parents are in Thủ đô New York, my grandpa in Florida, my aunt and uncle in Atlanta, my step-siblings in Colorado and my cousins dispersed in too many different states lớn count. I’m lucky if I see everyone once a year.
Now, in Vietnam, families stay as close lớn each other as possible. Family duty is no joke, and it’s your responsibility as a son/daughter lớn take care of your parents and elder family members. And when you have kids, they’ll take care of you. If mom calls at 9:30 on a Saturday night lớn come trang chính and help with chores when you’re out with your friends, you don’t question her – you go. A family unit stays as close to each other as possible. And yes, sometimes that means sleeping in the same bed as your parents! The above pic is a real Facebook post from my friend’s Vietnamese cousin who was about lớn get married (translated lớn English) – only 2 weeks left lớn sleep with mom and dad.
3. Body language
Okay American friends, pop quiz! What tự you think the lovely barista above is trying lớn tell me?? If you said “maybe” – you’re WRONG! That means “no” in the Vietnamese world. “No luck today kid, we’re outta coffee. “Other “no” gestures include my personal fave, the big “X” – crossing your hands in front of your face kind of lượt thích a superhero.
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Now, Vietnamese friends. Your turn. What is this guy saying?
That’s right! That’s a big, fat “NOPE”. In the USA, we wag our pointer finger back and forth or shake our head lớn say “no”. We twist our hand back and forth lớn say “ehhhh maybe“, and shrug our shoulders lớn say “I don’t know.”
4. The sun
In the USA…suns out? Guns out! Quick, everybody get naked and slather on that tanning oil! The goal? To be bronze enough that you might actually be mistaken for a different ethnicity.
In Vietnam, you fear the sun. The sun is your worst enemy, your arch nemesis, and you might just melt if exposed for too long. Or even worse…GET TAN. You’ll see women covered head lớn toe, with only their eyes exposed when they’re out during the day. In Vietnamese culture, the whiter the skin, the more beautiful you are. And the tanner the skin, well…expect lớn be shunned from society. Okay, not quite…but you will get endless criticism from family, friends and even strangers calling your skin “ugly”. It dates back lớn forever ago, when dark skin was associated with farmers, and white skin meant you were of the sophisticated “indoors” class. Which brings u to…
5. The beach
Ask an American what their perfect day at the beach is, and they’ll say something lượt thích this: “give u a beach day with a beaming sun, not a cloud in the sky, and make it hot. Like really hot, with a nice balmy breeze.” The first day I arrived in Da Nang, it was a “perfect” beach day – ví I obviously made a B-line lớn the beach. And then I got really freaked out, lượt thích some weird apocalyptic wipe-out-all-humankind sự kiện was happening. It was 1 PM on a Saturday – Welp, more beach for me!
Turns out, that’s the absolute worst beach scenario for a Vietnamese person. Hot, sunny, middle of the day with not a soul in sight? You might as well voluntarily throw yourself into a volcanic pit. Here, the prime beach experience is 5 am sunrise (yes, that’s right) packed with hundreds of people getting their exercise in for the day – ladies’ Zumba classes, volleyball games, granny aerobics, badminton, joggers – the energy is truly contagious. Or, try 5 pm sunset for a bustling playground full of parents splashing in the shallow over with their babies, swimmers staying close lớn other swimmers in the roped off zone, and dusky “sun”bathers going horizontal on their beach blanket.
In the USA, you only tự Karaoke if it’s past midnight and you’ve taken at least 5 shots, drank 3 beers, and been peer pressured on lớn the stage by fellow drunk friends and strangers. Your alcohol infused self reluctantly accepts. And then you become Beyoncé. You then don’t repeat that night for at least a year.
Have you ever seen 5 dudes sitting in miniature plastic chairs on the sidewalk eating takeout and belting karaoke? Well, if not, then you haven’t been lớn Vietnam. Karaoke is a religion – especially if you’re a middle-aged man. Walk through the streets of Vietnam past dark and hear the echoes of (sometimes not-so) melodious Vietnamese ballads being sung from blocks away. Maybe there was alcohol involved in that passionate Viet-Aretha-Franklin-like singing, or maybe not. Maybe it’s coming from someone’s living room karaoke machine, where the family is gathered together for the love of tuy vậy. Or maybe, it’s leaking from inside a karaoke bar where coworkers are joint together for a little post-work, post-dinner fun. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s coming from a plain ol’ no frills coffee cửa hàng. That’s right – My first week in Vietnam, I stayed at an Airbnb that was right next lớn a coffee shop…that had a microphone. Every morning for an entire week, my 6 am wake up đường dây nóng came in through my window on full blast. And no, they were not drunk from the night before.
7. Saturday Night Fun
As a pubescent, devious teenager ready lớn các buổi tiệc nhỏ in the USA, you’ve got one thing on your adolescent mind: get laid and fuc*ed up. Keg stands, beer pong, funnels…you name it, and young Americans have thought about how lớn drink with it. Fast forward lớn young adults in the 20-something age range – while we’ve matured from shotgunning cheap beer lớn drinking artistically bottled craft beer at trendy bars, our social lubricant is and always will be, alcohol.
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Now, let’s talk about Vietnamese teenagers – ví young, ví beautifully innocent. You ask an 18-year-old how they want lớn spend their Saturday, and they’ll tell you “at a coffee cửa hàng drinking milk tea!” EXCUSE ME WHAT? I taught a handful of teenage classes, and they were all so… pure. Bubble tea is their guilty pleasure, the thing mom is yelling at them for drinking too much of. Fast forward lớn young adults in their 20s… and bubble tea is still the drink of choice for many (girls especially). In fact, it only became socially acceptable for girls lớn drink beer about 6 years ago – no wonder! So, many young women haven’t adopted a taste for it and just don’t lượt thích alcohol in general. I’ll admit, I’m a beer girl through and through, and I had a hard time with this. If you wanna make friends with Vietnamese who drink socially, target the 30-somethings and older. Or, acquire a taste for bubble tea.
But at the over of the day
Americans might eat with forks and Vietnamese with chopsticks. We might use different mannerisms, spend our Saturday nights differently and jam out lớn different kinds of music. But at the over of the day, we can all admire the same beach sunset. We can laugh at the same miscommunications, understand each other through a smile, share a curiosity about each other’s cultures, take a selfie together, sit at one table and cheers lớn a home-cooked meal. As the Vietnamese would say, at the over of the day, we’re all “same same but different.”