42. They’re Not Like Us, Bill (Part 1)

The author finds himself challenged to understand and accept the values and mindset of his Vietnamese hosts, without surrendering his own Western standards.

Vietnamese gather to eat and drink, somehow demonstrating their manliness. (JGA photo)

“I think I have to get out of the country,” said my malcontent friend Bill. “I don’t trust the system and people. I’m tired of persons who have no common sense and are not willing to change their minds.”

Now, Bill is often not willing to change his own mind. And more than once I have questioned his common sense. It goes both ways. But my friend’s frustration with the Vietnamese mindset has some basis — at least to the Western way of thinking.

Perhaps you’ve read the modern science-fiction classic, The Sparrow. Both parties in a peaceful human-alien encounter do everything correctly according to their customs … but things still go disastrously wrong. For a successful intercultural relationship, they would have had to compromise their comfort levels and adjust their beliefs.

That may be more true in Vietnam than in any of the other foreign countries (eight) where I’ve lived for periods of months or years.  In Vietnam, I am more challenged to achieve an understanding and acceptance of my hosts’ values without surrendering my own.

I offer these opinions after 21 months of domicile here, friendships and love affairs with Vietnamese, and discussions with other expatriates — some who have resided in this country for more than a decade. And I am fully cognizant of my own character defects. In the world view, we Americans are often viewed as arrogant. While I hope my comments don’t come across as such, I am a product of the environment in which I was raised.

Perhaps we can use this platform to open a discussion.

Teenage English students at APAX Leaders are taught character traits along with language. (JGA photo)

Seven traits

For the past year and a half, I’ve worked for a company with centers throughout Vietnam, an education organization that specializes in teaching English to the under-15 set. APAX Leaders isn’t perfect, but it has a lot of positives to offset its negatives, and one of them is a determination of what might be good for the young people who represent Vietnam’s future in the world community.

Founded in South Korea in 2007, franchised to Vietnam in 2015, APAX espouses a “Seven Character Traits for Success” program. Its goal is to prepare youth for a career in some aspect of international business such as commerce, communications or hospitality.

Some of the Seven Traits are good rules of life for everyone. Consider Grit (“perseverence and passion for long-term goals”), Zest (“enthusiastic and energetic participation in life”) and Optimism (“confidence in a future full of positive possibilities”). Self Control, which promotes “the capacity to regulate one’s own responses,” is a good one to instill in classrooms of 8-to-10-year-olds.

But some of the traits seem more specific to what some consider Vietnamese character flaws: Curiosity, for instance: “Eagerness to explore new things with openness.” Gratitude: “Appreciation for the benefits we receive from others, and the desire to express thanks.” I’ll talk about them in my next blog. First, I will address Social Intelligence.                                                                                                                                  

The character traits taught to students by APAX Leaders include social intelligence. (JGA photo)

Social intelligence

A year ago, Bill was devastated when his younger brother died unexpectedly in Australia. He turned to his Vietnamese girlfriend for solace and emotional support. Her response? “Get over it. I don’t have time for this right now. My grandmother is sick.”

Ruthlessly cold? That’s how I perceive it. And yes, Bill jettisoned that romance. But the woman’s unsentimental response speaks to a common inability to step into the shoes of another, to understand their feelings.

APAX defines Social Intelligence thusly: “Understanding the feelings of others and adapting actions accordingly.” In my culture, we call this empathy. But the Westerner who goes looking for an empathetic partner in Vietnam may be sorely disappointed.

Here, empathy is often mistaken for sympathy, which in turn is confused with charity. One Vietnamese friend told me he expresses his deep compassion by joining a group of work colleagues to deliver food boxes “to the poor people in the mountains.” With that, he’s done his Buddhist duty.

Charity to flood victims represents compassion to many Vietnamese. (Help Center photo by Thông Tin Chính Phủ)

Us and them

There are exceptions, of course, for which I’m grateful. I have some wonderful, empathetic Vietnamese friends. And I certainly know people in my own culture with not a single empathetic gene. But among the masses, I observe little consciousness, little awareness, of the needs of others. Appointments are made, then forgotten or ignored, and it’s not just the cable guy. My furniture-maker neighbor often begins to hammer at 5 in the morning, without a thought to people sleeping. A line crew offers no heads-up when it disconnects electricity for several morning hours as I’m cooking and using WiFi.

My friend Hà blames the poor education of the working class, but I feel there’s more to it.

Nothing in Vietnam is stronger than the family unit. Life revolves around home and the blood family. There’s us. There’s them. Everyone else is “them.” And as few foreign residents have a “family unit” here, they are left on the outside, looking in. The Vietnamese cannot relate to that. Life goes on.

Vietnamese are taught from an early age that to express emotion is to show weakness. This is especially true for men, who are expected to be “strong” and unyielding. Women will walk away from a relationship rather than discussing their grievances with their partner. They may talk about the importance of communication but when it comes right down to it, they don’t want to confront. Too few people, it seems, want to put themselves in another’s shoes.

Why is this so? It’s a question I will continue to explore. If you live in Vietnam, or if you are Vietnamese, I’d like to know what you think.

The family that rides together has a bond that will never be broken. (JGA photo)

Next: Curiosity and gratitude

Bill is puzzled by the Vietnamese mindset. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

2 thoughts on “42. They’re Not Like Us, Bill (Part 1)

  1. John, I find the lack of empathy in the population at a disconnect with a Communist Government! How does Communism play out in daily life in Viet Nam?


    1. Bob, communism is merely a label here for the one-party government. Everyday life is decidedly capitalistic. Money is not something that is shared, and “black money” is what makes the world go around. One learns quickly who to pay off, and how much to pay. Shocking, eh?


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