by Mai Khuyen
HA NOI (VNS) — As in many other cultures, it is considered inauspicious in Viet Nam to say or do "bad" things during the first days of Tet (Lunar New Year). The belief is that this will set the tone for the rest of the year.
Therefore, Vietnamese all over the world are likely to be on their best behaviour during this holiday.
The air of cheerful bonhomie that prevails in the country is even more pronounced during the festival, and this has charmed many foreigners, residents as well as visitors, giving Viet Nam the reputation of being one of the most peaceful, happy countries in the world.
However, it is shocking and disheartening, to read an announcement by the Ministry of Health that more than 6.200 people were hospitalised to treat injuries caused in fights that took place during the holiday. Worse, 15 people succumbed to their injuries, 11 of them on just one day, when 900 people were hospitalised after fights.
I cannot remember statistics of this sort being mentioned before. Usually, the focus is on traffic accidents and deaths and injuries, and, sometimes, food poisoning.
Now, we are apparently saddled with a new, very serious problem, and, I would argue that this one that is linked to the other.
I also think no one would argue that the new problem relates more to the younger generation, denoting not only a cultural shift that embraces violence, but also, experts say, psychiatric or mental disorders stemming from many factors including the pressures of modern life, also known as the rat race.
According to the Health Ministry, the Tet fights were triggered by different causes, including drunkenness, conflicts after traffic accidents, and disagreements during gambling.
No surprises there. Alcohol is a common thread that runs through many negative social phenomena.
Dr Khuat Thu Hong of the Institute for Social Development Studies has called for urgent measures are needed to tackle excessive drinking, which she sees as a social evil. She has warned that failure to act now can lead to this problem becoming unsolvable.
"Drinking and being drunk during normal days is itself worthy of condemnation, but it is unacceptable that people get so drunk during Tet and fight each other so badly that people are hospitalised," she says.
However, focusing blame on a product is unlikely to get us anywhere.
We need to look instead at how human behaviour has changed in a way that many people seem to disrespect or disregard the nation's traditions and culture of peace and tolerance.
Dr Hong says there has been a "boom" in hot tempered or short-tempered people in the past several years, and Vietnamese society as a whole, in particular the younger generation, is apparently becoming more violent.
While there are several factors responsible for this development, their roots lie deep in the soil of malaises like poverty, unemployment and rising inequality.
And then there is the cultural aspect. Viet Nam has been, and is a patriarchal society, and absurd notions of "manliness" still dominate popular consciousness. Even if it is not stated explicitly, there is an implicit equating of manliness with violence. This means that a minor disagreement can blow up into a major confrontation.
Dr Huynh Van Thong from University of Social Science and Humanity once said that many Vietnamese people were displaying several negative characteristics on the road, including refusing to give way, ignorance of laws, drivers being rude to each other and frequently breaking traffic regulations.
Many people recklessly drive their vehicles illegally at high speeds and overtake without giving signals, he noted.
All these negative tendencies are only exacerbated in a "modern" society that becomes increasingly materialistic, and one's "progress" depends on becoming increasingly ambitious, competitive and ruthless.
The problems of drunkeness, rudeness and violence cannot be solved in the long-term if we treat these merely as law and order problems.
Dr Hong says alcohol use has to be managed better and education for the youth should not focus merely on technical and academic competence. She says greater attention should be paid to teaching soft skills and life skills.
We need to re-examine, very seriously and earnestly, the impacts that our current materialistic approach to life is having on our society.
Our history is one of shared struggles against many forms of injustice, struggles waged with great courage and determination. We cannot afford to forget what these struggles have taught us, but we seem to have failed to teach these values to the younger generation or have taught them in very superficial ways.
We need to realise that these values are also indispensable for our survival in a globalising world.
And while we do this, it's time for a New Year resolution that we will ensure that the next Tet will be one that stays true to tradition, marked by non-violence and amity. — VNS