One of the best parts of living in a new country, is being immersed in a different culture. By putting your self out there, talking with locals, eating with locals, etc, you can really learn about the country, yourself and humanity. I am sure that sounds like I am overstating things, but I assure you that I am not. To prove my point, I will share some examples of major cultural differences that I have experienced since moving to Vietnam, and the lessons I have learned from each of these differences.
In American culture, when meeting a new person, there are certain topics that are off limits. For example, Americans would consider it taboo to ask someone about their age, or why they are single at their age. But in Vietnam, these questions will very often be the first questions asked. An American might be offended and consider these questions rude. But, if they were to understand Vietnamese culture, they would understand why these questions are asked in this situation.
In Vietnamese society, age is extremely important. In fact, the pronouns two people use in a conversation will change based on their respective ages, their age difference, and even based on the differences in age between their parents. There are formal pronouns for when ages are unknown, but they sound cold. When a Vietnamese person asks your age, it is actually a sign that they are being polite, because they want to use the proper pronouns and show the proper respect and closeness.
In my last post, I wrote about how Americans consider their careers among the most important aspect in their lives, and therefore when meeting new people, “what do you do?” is one of the first things usually asked. In Vietnam,”are you married yet?” usually takes that place. And if you are in your mid twenties, or higher and single, they will ask you “why aren’t you married yet?” Americans would find this line of questions intrusive. But, once again, a lesson in Vietnamese culture will help you understand why these questions are asked.
In Vietnamese culture, family is everything. In fact, according to traditional Vietnamese beliefs, when one does good or bad deeds, it will lead to happy or sad children, as opposed to western traditions that have the ideas of heaven and hell. When I was taught this, I asked my teacher, what if an evil doer didn’t have kids? She replied, that that person really is in hell because the idea of never having kids is unheard of in traditional society. Knowing this, you can understand that asking one, why they are still single, is on par with asking about one’s job in American culture.
It is not just what is considered rude that is different here, but also what is considered polite. In you are sitting in a cafe and would like service, in America, the customer would raise his hand and try and get the waiter’s attention. If you do that here, you will be waiting a long time. In Vietnam, if you would like your waiter’s attention, you basically call for them from across the cafe. The cafe is noisy and the waiter can’t hear you? Call louder.
When I first moved here, this was one of the hardest differences for me to get used to. I couldn’t get beyond the idea that yelling for a waiter is rude. But here it isn’t. In Vietnam, the way to call a waiter politely, is to use the correct pronoun when calling for them. Many times, I would be out with my good friend Hoang, and we would need a waiter. He would tell me to call the waiter, but I would feel too uncomfortable yelling for them. I would ask Hoang to call for them, but he would just sit there and say, “You need to learn, so if you don’t call them, no one will.” After sometime, I got over my preconceived notions of what is polite and what is impolite, and now I can call across the restaurant like a local.
The online expat forums are full of foreigners complaining and asking “why are Vietnamese so rude?” If these people took a step back and thought about the fact that they are living in another country, and tried to understand the local culture, maybe they wouldn’t be so upset all the time. Of course this is easier said than done. I still fail at this sometimes. But what I have come to learn is that “rude” and “polite” are completely subjective ideas. Therefore, our reactions to certain situations doesn’t have to be automatic. Is there really a reason to automatically be upset when someone asks your age? Social rules change from country to country, and from culture to culture. The travelers and expats of the world need to open up their minds to these differences, or be cursed to always be upset and feel perpetually insulted.