Last Friday I was waiting for some friends at an expat bar. I struck up a conversation with a couple somewhat older, somewhat grizzled expats -- one from the US, one from Aussie. Soon the conversation turned to the nature of the Vietnamese. "Aww, they're arrogant" said one. "They're impolite and rude" said another. "I can't stand it when I hear people say how the Vietnamese are so polite and soft-spoken. If only they knew the truth." One of these guys spoke fluent Vietnamese, and told of how Vietnamese often make rude comments about him on the street because they think he cannot understand.
I've heard similar sentiments from other long-time expats, although theirs is not a universal opinion. You will find other long-time expats who have nothing but the nicest things to say about the Vietnamese -- warm, kind, generous, etc. What accounts for the difference?
Thinking about this I had an epiphany -- all reality is subjective and dependent on the observer. What you perceive around you, how you interpret events and interactions in your life, is completely subjective. When you encounter one of the ubiquitous shoe-shine boys on the street, is it a positive or negative experience? The encounter alone has no intrinsic positive or negative value -- it's how we interpret it and what we focus on that creates the experience. I know expats who are always annoyed at the continual hawking by xe om drivers, gum-selling kids and shoe-shine boys. Instead of being annoyed, I choose to look upon each of these as a positive encounter - I can practice some Vietnamese and maybe make a connection of some kind.
I remember a high school physics textbook that explained how the wave property of light beams can interact with each other to produce a stronger beam or cancel out both beams entirely. Our subjective reality interacts with the outer world in much the same way to create our sense of reality,the difference being that we can control the outcome. In a very real sense, we actually CREATE our own reality. That's why I have no patience when someone says "Let's be realistic" when talking about a goal or task. What is realistic? It's all in your mind. Saying "it's not realistic" too often is the mark of a thinker without vision.
Sure, there are negative aspects to living in Vietnam. Sure, sometimes they do bother me. But I live in a reality populated by Hung the parking lot kid, who told me to keep my money today and gave me my spot for free, or the enthusiastic "Chao anh Lam!!" I get every morning when I get my coffee at the shop downstaire. It's a bright and charming place filled with interesting people, not a dour and bitter one.
To be fair, I haven't experienced many negative events since I've been here. Maybe I've been lucky. And I've only been here six months. Perhaps after a few years I'll have the same attitude the grizzled expats do. Perhaps, but I doubt it.
Thoughts from other Vietnam expats?