43. They’re Not Like Us, Bill (Part 2)

Continuing his musings on differences between Vietnamese and Western values, the author takes on curiosity and gratitude — in a culture with “no queues, no order, no concessions.”

The author thinks carefully, writes cautiously, and expresses himself honestly. (lan Anh photo)

When I was young, and by that I mean my 40s, I often didn’t say what I wanted to say, didn’t do what I wanted to do. I feared that someone would disapprove. It might have been a parent, a spouse, a best friend. More often, it was casual acquaintances or readers. I worried that my words or actions would reflect badly upon me, would come back to haunt me. I never wanted to be hurtful with my words. I still don’t.

After I published my previous blog, a friend whose opinions I deeply value conveyed her disapproval. “I don’t think as an expat you should write such a piece,” she said. “It makes you sound condescending. To me, it only shows a lack of understanding of your host country on your part. It also sounds like you’re implying they lack gratitude when this whole thing makes you sound like you have none. I honestly wish I didn’t read it.” I thanked her for telling me what she really thought.

Was I condescending? It was not my intention. Do I lack understanding? Yes, of course I do. I said as much. Am I ungrateful? Nothing could be further from the truth. The people of Vietnam are wonderful. They have welcomed this aged expatriate into their homeland, and I am so very grateful.

Another friend wrote this: “It takes guts nowadays to approach any topics around cultural differences. I appreciate when it happens, purely for the sake of sharing and listening to ideas without judgment. Thanks for making yourself vulnerable and writing a great piece!”

Life is too short not to express myself. If someone takes offense, so be it. During 17 years as a weekly restaurant critic, I learned that as long as I speak or write with honesty, and hopefully with sensitivity, I am comfortable with the response.

It is precisely because I am an expat that I feel I should write such a piece. Self-improvement comes only with self-awareness. For the most part, the Vietnamese are not very self-deprecating. They find no more fault with themselves than they do with their government (which is just the way their leaders want it). Sometimes it takes an outsider to raise a critical brow. Please indulge me this indiscretion.

Young English students at APAX Leaders are taught to ask questions at an early age. (JGA photo)


The Vietnamese are very good at following rules laid out for them. This waxes well in a nation with a one-party government that tolerates no serious dissent. It is also useful during pandemics, as no one questions the importance of wearing a face mask.

Public education is rote. Students read and recite with considerable skill, although they often don’t understand what they are reading and repeating. To my students, I emphasize the importance of asking questions. Rule No. 2 in my classes, after “Speak English,” is “Raise Your Hand.” I encourage children to put aside their books and use their brains — their “grey matter,” as Minerva Niemi, my seventh-grade teacher, called it — to puzzle out problems.

Without a sense of inquiry, many Vietnamese can be obdurately judgmental. Without exploring all sides, or even being open to doing so, they will jump to conclusions based only upon hearsay and assumptions. What their parents told them, what their government tells them, must be true. If it comes from a trusted source, why question?

They tell me that Donald Trump, who is “only bad to bad people” (i.e., the much-despised Chinese), was deprived of reelection by fraud. That’s what Trump said, so it must be true. How can I not believe what my president tells me?

Often they think they know our countries better than we do — as when they tell my friend Bill how easily they might start a business and become rich in his native Australia. When he alerts them to government regulations and other hoops to jump through, they tell him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Judgments of foods never tasted, of restaurants never tried, of movies never watched, of books never read, are rampant. My forearm tattoo (which honors my deceased son) has been mocked by people who don’t know what it stands for … but didn’t think to ask.

On the other hand, as a journalist, I do not know how not to question. My girlfriend Hà, by contrast, doesn’t like to ask or be asked questions. “Why, why, why?” she says. “Why do you always ask me?”

Saying “thank you” in Vietnamese is taught on YouTube. (Learning Vietnamese Online photo)


Is it really so hard to say “please” and “thank you”? Is it a waste of words to say, “You’re welcome”? I rarely hear these words spoken outside of my classroom, where I have tried to instill them in students.

It’s even an alien concept to Lan Anh. Before we began dating in March, she had never been close with a foreigner before … and in her 45 years, she had never encountered the expectation that she might express appreciation for what others had done for her.

“It’s the custom,” she has tried to explain, acknowledging feeble childhood education as part of the reason. She insists there is no need to express gratitude in one’s home, which is the focus of traditional Vietnamese life.

But why do you not say vui lòng (please) or càm ơn (thank you)? I ask. Don’t parents teach their children common courtesies? They provide food and shelter, and hopefully love, as they raise their offspring. Aren’t children taught appreciation?

The answer, apparently, is no. There is no real concept of courtesy. It’s rare for someone to open a door for another person. Another common example: People who see me as I walk down an urban sidewalk, rather than allowing me pedestrian passage, pull their motorbikes out directly in front of me. It’s not an accident. It happens to locals as well as foreigners.

Anh concurs. “In this culture, there are no queues, no order, no concessions,” she says.

Vietnamese do not lack gratitude. It’s simply that they don’t express gratitude.

Anh owns a yoga academy. When she concludes a lesson, she sits in cross-legged lotus position and recites a verse in Vietnamese: “Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.” “I pray for my own peace,” she explains. “I pray for peace for my family, loved ones and friends. I pray for peace for everyone in the world.” She prays from her mind, her soul and her heart.

No one would question her gratitude. But does she offer thanks? No, not specifically. That’s left for me to interpret.

“Om Shanti.” Lan Anh prays for peace after yoga exercises. (JGA photo)

The author backs himself into a corner on a one-way staircase. (Lan Anh 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

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