越南 | Việt Nam | Vietnam
By Henry Ho
While visiting Vietnam for one week, I have experienced two worlds. What does this mean? Given the short time, I have observed a society integrated with deep eastern cultural roots while at the same time living a modern world with western influences. How can this be possible? This query is particular interesting to me as a young man of Asian descent having grown up in the United States.
The name Vietnam in Chinese means “the people of the south.” Viet, or 越, means the people racially non-han or Vietnamese while Nam, or南, means south. Vietnam has been an area of interest by many countries over many centuries allowing for the integration of a complex society. For instance, for over a thousand years Vietnam was ruled by a series of Chinese dynasties, beginning with the expansion of the Han that led to the integration of a complex Confucianism societal dictation. The French colonized Vietnam from 1958-1945, leading to modernization and reformation such as the Romanization of the Vietnamese writing system. The Communist Government led by Ho Chi Minh, reunified the country after a ten year war with the United States. Given the complex historical background of Vietnam influenced from China, France, and the United States, when one travels to Vietnam to experience the culture, it is a mixture of Asian and Western influence, a combination which has developed uniquely and elegantly for over thousands of years.
While living in the United States I never really thought about the Vietnamese culture, even though my parents lived in Vietnam before coming to the States, and even though occasionally I would enjoy the classical foods prepared at home (such as Phò). I always though of it as my normal diet. I normally would not consider the recipe as “Asian,” “Vietnamese,” or “Chinese” used thousands of years ago from a far away land that I never visited. Now, visiting here for three short weeks, I have given more thought about my roots and the distinctive nature of Asian culture. For example, what we eat, how the people are dressed, the way people act, and the essence of time itself is so different, perhaps one could say uniquely culturally Asian, and yet very Western influenced. In essence, the Vietnamese are distinctly unique compared to the rest of Asia. Over the course of a thousand years of Chinese rule, the Vietnamese borrowed words and phrases from the Chinese and developed a tonal structured language; one word may have multiple meanings. More recently, during French colonization the writing system was Romanized and now uses a Latin alphabet. This language structure illustrates one way that Vietnamese culture is deeply rooted in its Asian background, while at the same time has Western influences.
In addition to the fusion of language traditions, I have noticed a difference in how time is spent. When I first arrived in Vietnam, I noticed that the society here is relatively fast paced, just like in the United States; however, after visiting for one week I realized that this is not always the case. To clarify, people within the States are very strict with their schedule. People have planned meetings or events that are finished in order, XY&Z. However, in Vietnam I noticed that there is more flexibility in time. For instance, people here still have meetings XY&Z, but meetings XY&Z can be move around, shift to the evening, or even moved to the night or next day. Also, people here have time to sit and enjoy a tea or coffee break in between each meeting. When I observe the lifestyle here, even though people lead very busy lives, they still find a way to allow for flexibility in their schedule and slow the pace of time. In the United States, time moves very quickly and people need to get from point A to point B without any breaks; time is shortened and allowing for flexibility is relatively difficult. In essence, comparing the unique time differences between the two societies is an interesting personal experience for me.
Even though living in the United States, as Americans, we pride ourselves on being multi cultural; in reality this often is not the case. The main language in the States is English, and Americans are not very sensitive to what happens in other countries except their own, and at times we are very vain about our actions, always seeking for self-improvement. These actions are not necessarily bad, they are just part of American culture. Vietnam runs on a different culture base, which reflects on family values, honor, respect and harmony.
Personally, learning more about Vietnam has helped me to reflect on how I grew up in the States developing distinct individualist actions. While I continue my journey in Vietnam I would like to someday “harmonize” my two worlds, Chinese and American. I’m not exactly sure what this might look like, but after only a week, I can see that I have more to the learn about myself and the world around me.