Thursday, December 12 2019


Living in a world of difference

Update: March, 20/2014 - 09:28
Worlds away: A food stall at HCM City's Ben Thanh Market. Markets are where foreigners can see most obvious differences in behaviour culture of Vietnamese people. — Photo

by Rebecca Hendershott

I'm a behaviourist. I watch animals – specifically, primates – and boil down the complexity of their actions into measurable, quantifiable behaviour. I use my skills at spotting particular behaviour to try and understand people, as well. This is, in no way, an insult, as all behaviour is on a continuum, and humans and non-humans alike respond to certain situations in a similar manner.

Take a baby elephant away from its mother and both will react similarly to humans, by showing distress and searching for one another. Starve a rat and a human, and both will show desperation. Show a dog something different, and it will stare at it for longer, just like a human.

And, to the people of Viet Nam, I am certainly strange… and I get stared at a lot. I don't eat meat or seafood. I don't drink alcohol or coffee. I'm a white girl with dreadlocks. I can make my motorbike fall over without it even moving. I take pictures of electric lines and trash. I talk about my dogs like they are my children.

Through my observations I've noticed a few differences between Eastern and Western culture. The most obvious is that people have a different definition of personal space. Here, vehicles that pass one another without touching are considered to have plenty of room, while those that swerve into another's lane, even slightly, would get a reprimanding beep in the West.

Car horns are used differently in Viet Nam, and it has taken me a while to not feel that I am doing something wrong every time I get honked at. I get touched, uninvited, constantly. I understand the curiosity about my "dreads", but I find it difficult when I'm being shuffled along in a crowd and someone grabs my hair from behind.

People often do not know why they behave a certain way. I've asked many Vietnamese people why they answer their phone with an English "Hello?" (some say it's not an English word), why some men have a couple of long fingernails ("So I can pick my ears"), why I never see women smoking cigarettes ("Because women have to be strong to bear children"), why they create altars if they don't believe in it ("So my kids will take care of me when I'm old").

What I have been able to gather, by asking people about their habits, is that Viet Nam is an extremely old country with a rich diversity of cultural input. When talking about how they feel about Americans after the American War, and details of maritime conflict with China, I've been able to slowly piece together the amazing amount of history that influences every day behaviour.

But nobody I've talked to can remember if Viet Nam ever had a traditional wedding dress. It seems strange to me that the white gown is so ingrained that people have forgotten about the ao dai; or the dichotomy between giving me ginger tea when I visit a doctor, yet using caesarean surgery instead of natural birth.

Baguettes are served with traditional Vietnamese food, heroin needles are washed up on the beach while old men smoke tobacco out of bamboo pipes, and the year changes on January 1, while the Vietnamese new year is celebrated about a month later. All of this is evidence of the historical influx of French, Chinese, Loatian, and Christian influences.

People have so seamlessly incorporated their country's history with the everyday life that it becomes invisible to them, an integral part of their behaviour. Other countries also have history and outside influences. Neither of my home countries, however, are old enough to have really "forgotten" about them. As Ha Noi is five times older than either the United States or Australia, I find it difficult to wrap my head around the intense amount of background that goes into such an old, cultural part of the world.

However, as humans are not all that different from non-humans, one culture is not that different from another. Take a Vietnamese baby away from its mother, and the baby and mother will both react as a German baby and mother do. The trick to not getting overwhelmed while travelling is to remember this.

Sure, a smile means something different on a Vietnamese face than a French face. Sure, divorce is more shameful in Vietnamese culture than American culture. Sure, Vietnamese eat a wider range of animals than the Irish. Sure, clothing will be different in Croatia. But, when it comes down to it, we all feel happiness and joy, we all fall in and out of love, we all need to eat, and we all wear something. Concentrating on the differences in behaviour keeps me researching and studying. Concentrating on the similarities of behaviour is what keeps me, the researcher, sane while living abroad. — VNS

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