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Pet Sins May 2006

Cultural conflicts between East Asians and Vietnamese

Perspectives on East Asian/Vietnamese interactions:

K, Vietnamese American:

My boyfriend is Japanese and he does not get along with one of my best friends, who is Vietnamese. My boyfriend is quiet and serious but my friend is chatty and jokes a lot. Vietnamese are generally friendlier than East Asians. My boyfriend thinks my friend is a flighty airhead with no sense of gravity. My friend thinks my boyfriend is uptight and has no sense of humor.

A, a Chinese student:

When I first started hanging out with my friend, C, who is from Vietnam, I sometimes found her behavior a little irritating because she laughed often and for no apparent reason (at least to me) in the middle of what I thought was a serious conversation. I always wondered, "What are you laughing about?" But later I got used to her and after being exposed to more Vietnamese people, I noticed that Vietnamese are generally more humorous and jovial than Chinese. So I am learning to put aside my cultural expectations when interacting with non-Chinese.

T, a Vietnamese immigrant:

After coming to the US, I found that many Japanese, Chinese and Koreans looked down on Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians. Some of these people are genuinely racist - I've encountered individual Japanese and Koreans who think that Vietnamese are 'dirty' or somehow racially inferior, without having any reason for this sort of bias, i.e. even having any significant interactions with Vietnamese individuals.

But I've met other East Asian people who may not have any personal bias against the Vietnamese people in general, and yet found it hard to get along with individual Vietnamese due to cultural misunderstandings. The most typical is the 'laziness' issue. On the *average*, Indians and Chinese tend to be more 'driven'; they value excelling 'rigorous' academic fields such as the sciences, and take pride in their achievements. Not that Vietnamese families do not value academic achievement, but we also place more emphasis on time with community and family, and having the time and space to enjoy the quality of life. I'm not implying that ALL Indians and Chinese families are less community/family-oriented than Vietnamese families - certainly this cultures are also known for their strong family values. But from my observation, there are higher incidences of certain behavior types in a culture, and that's what makes a culture unique.

Some of my Indian and Chinese associates seem to feel uncomfortable if they're not working their brains hard on something all the time. They get *really* very happy (at least by my standards) when they achieve something through hard work. Vietnamese tend to see such people as workaholics, people who don't have time for enjoying other people and life in general. I catch myself thinking, "Don't these people ever stop long enough to enjoy what's around them?" By the same token, some of my Indian or Chinese associates see individual Vietnamese as 'lazy', 'unmotivated', and 'unfocused'. I certainly know of instances in which this kind of label was well-deserved by the individuals to which they have been applied. But in other cases, it's just that we're used to a different pace and are being judged by the standards of another culture's pace of life.

It's not really anybody's fault. All humans are ethnocentric - that's what I learnt in Anthropology class. We can't help but evaluate things that are new to us in the light of things we have already seen.

X, a Chinese American:

I have many Vietnamese friends and I noticed one striking difference they have from Chinese (or at least the Chinese I'm around) is their strong sense of family and co-dependence/interdependence. Many of my Vietnamese friends live at home with their parents even though they are adults - not necessarily because they can't afford to move out, but because they like living with many people in the same household. For the Chinese, we do expect adult children to live with their parents if the aging parents need care, and it is not uncommon for grandparents to live with their adult children temporarily to provide childcare for grandchildren, but it tends to be seen more as a 'necessity' or a 'duty' than a 'pleasure'.

One of my Vietnamese friends really dislikes what she perceives as the Chinese (or more generally East Asian) trait of being 'calculating' - always keeping tabs on what favors/gifts we have dished out to other people, and what they have done for us or given us, so that we won't end up giving too much and getting short-changed. I see it differently, as do other Chinese and Japanese individuals. To us, it is an honor code - we remember what we have done for others and what they have done for us so we can make sure we repay in kind and quantity and owe no one anything. This way, our friends and associates would not feel we took advantage of them.

By the converse, I am not at all used to seeing how people in *some* Southeast Asian (not just Vietnamese) families 'take advantage of' each other - lazy family members would rely on (or even demand that) more hardworking family members to do a disproportionate part of the work in maintaining the household. There also seems to be more individuals (at least more than I'm used to in my own community) who have very little reserve asking for repeated favors from extended family or friends, without feeling obligated to give such favors in return, at least not within what I consider a 'reasonable' timeframe. To me, it seems like 'taking as much as you can without giving back'.

Of course, there are people like that in any culture, including East Asian culture - I can only accurately say I observe this sort of 'dependent' or 'one-sided taking' behavior in Southeast Asians more often than I do in East Asians. Then, to be fair, I've seen much worse 'taking-without-giving' behavior among Euro-Americans than I have among Vietnamese. I think, compared to Euro-Americans in general, Vietnamese do have a more sense of 'giving back' to those they have taken from. It's just that their sense of 'repayment' is not as urgent or as specific as the Chinese and Japanese's. Of course, the expressions I have used, such as 'take advantage of' is a value-judgment based on my own cultural perspectives.

What I've learnt in Anthropology class is that while all cultures practice the same types of giving behavior - generalized reciprocity (no concrete or immediate payback expected), balanced reciprocity (payback expected), and negative reciprocity (take as much as you can and give as little as possible back) - different cultures have different ideas about the people each degree of 'reciprocity' applies to. And one type of giving behavior may be more widespread in one culture than in another.

Perhaps what can be learned from our contributors is that while no particular way is 'right' - whether it's the East Asian way or the Southeast Asian way - the invisible issue of cultural differences can be a greater barrier to cross-ethnic relations than the visible issue of 'race' (mere physical characteristics).