Flexibility – by Tabitha

12 Oct

One of the difficulties of forming friendships with Vietnamese people stems from the idea of flexibility.

Compared to Australians, the Vietnamese approach social engagements with complete spontaneity, and while I might think of myself as someone who likes the idea of a pop-in or a swiftly planned get-together, it turns out that I actually only really like these things on my terms.

Vietnamese people don’t seem to make social plans; they just DO things. And their friends always seem to be available to just DO things with them at a drop of a hat, because, I guess, they’ve never got anything else planned. It’s kind of like when you were at school, and your friends all lived close by and you could just go knock on their door and see if they wanted to play.

So, it’ll be 7am and your Vietnamese friend will come knock on your door to go get breakfast together. They don’t come over to see if you’re busy, or to see what you’re up to, they come to GET YOU.

Or your Vietnamese friend will call you to say, we’re planning a motorbike trip to the countryside. Do you want to come? And you’ll say, sure, why not! I’m a crazy, free-wheeling, fun-loving kind of sort! And they’ll say, okay we’re going this evening. And you’ll say, oh right, like, just a short trip then? And they’ll say, no, we’re going to China. Right now.

Or you’ll get an invitation for a friend or colleague’s wedding which is being held… in two days’ time.

The problem with all this is that it means you’re always saying no. You’re always saying that you’ve got plans, that you need more notice, that you have STUFF TO DO. This, of course, makes you seem extremely anti-social and inflexible. It also makes you feel ridiculous when you ask if you can book in a social occasion with them for two weekends hence.

So then, to make yourself feel better, you say to yourself, no! THEY’RE the ones being inflexible! They’re being inconsiderate! They’re imposing!

But you know the amazing thing? You can call your Vietnamese friends AT ANY TIME and ask them to help you and they will be there IMMEDIATELY. You can call them and say, there is a man at the door and I don’t know what he wants, and no matter what they’re doing, they’ll deal with it for you right away. You can call them and say you can’t find a particular shop you were looking for, and they’ll turn up immediately to take you there themselves.

Now, if I were living in Sydney and befriended a foreigner who then proceeded to call me asking to translate things for them, or open bank accounts for them, or explain their mail to them, I would get pretty peeved. In fact, I would probably stop answering my phone. I would say I was busy, had plans, or just other STUFF TO DO.

So many of the cultural differences between Vietnam and Australia come down to different ideas of what is public and what is private, and different ideas of personal space. The Vietnamese are less attached to “me time” than we are, and they manage their connections with other people more easily than we do, by virtue of living so close to so many other humans.

By contrast, our preference for independence actually seems like loneliness. And while there are many aspects of Vietnamese society which I don’t like, this idea of connection and interdependence is really growing on me. I might not want to get up at 7am for a bowl of pho, but I do hope that when I leave Vietnam, I’d be a little more flexible and generous with my time should I meet a hapless foreigner in need.

Basically, I could have saved myself some time and instead of writing this entry, just posted these images about the Eastern vs Western approach to relationships and way of life:

Blue = West, Red = East

And contacts:

Blue = West, Red = East

And parties:

Blue = West, Red = East

These images probably appear in every expat orientation session ever carried out in Asia, including ours, but I still think about them all the time, and how spot on they really are. You can see the rest here.


14 Responses to “Flexibility – by Tabitha”

  1. kgo October 13, 2011 at 6:34 am #

    I am too am taking the privacy=punishment belief as the major lesson from my Asian experience

  2. kshyva October 14, 2011 at 11:44 am #

    I can’t decide whether Poland leans more to the blue or to the red. In a lot of respects more to the red. Although no one will come round at 7 am unannounced, they will drop their weekend plans to come and help you move. Or pick up a package on their way from Warsaw at a random address so that you don’t have to pay for postage. Bits and bob like that.

    Enjoyed this post a lot.

  3. bmktaylor October 17, 2011 at 4:07 am #

    All of your posts are fascinating and funny and wonderful! I find myself wanting to quote them in conversations with live humans as if they’re interesting face-to-face conversations I’ve had with you all.

    I recently finished reading a book called ‘Our Babies, Our Selves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent’ by Meredith Small, and this post rings so true with what I’ve read and spent many hours on and off pondering. In much of the developed world, we socialise our babies in a way that values independence and the individual because of how our society/economy works, and in the developing world it’s all about the collective. So no wonder individuals and society function as they do. The second a kid pops out here (and I’m talking majority of kids, not all) they are put in their own bed, wheeled around in strollers at arm’s length, moved into their own room away from the parents, strapped into car seats, locked behind safety gates and plonked into playpens. Small talks about the different types of “parental goals” people from different cultures have. It doesn’t make cultural sense for people in Australia to think or act collectively because that’s not how our culture and economy works.

    I am drawn to a different style of parenting because that’s how I was raised. All sleeping together in the one bed, carrying rather than stroller etc., and it makes me feel like an outsider in most parenting circles here, but I’m used to that now.

    My favourite thing about the book, was reading more about the very small number of hunter gatherer societies still living in a way that’s reminiscent of how our ancestors would have. Lest I get misty-eyed about that lifestyle where they share parenting and sleep, and have bodily contact with children 90% of the day (as opposed to as low as 25% in the West today), there are also practices of polygamy and (rare cases) of burying a child alive when a parent dies. Also, we do things like drive that weren’t an option for them.

    I guess reading this book has been me getting my fix of having my values and beliefs questioned in a way you all live with 24/7 where you are. I imagine Justyna’s is a particular spin out because she is a product of both cultures.

    Fascinating stuff!

    • kshyva October 18, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

      I’m finding that I’m rejecting or accepting the Oz/Pole bits that suit me the best. The end product will probably be a confused Kazek who fits in neither here nor there.

    • hanoitabitha October 19, 2011 at 2:36 am #

      I feel the need to add something. While in Vietnam children are much more the centre of attention than in Australia, and are better included in the family, there is one key difference between Vietnam and Australia (and probably, by extension, the “East” and the “West” generally), which actually undermines this pretty considerably. It is this: here in Vietnam, the only thing that matters to you is YOUR family; everybody else’s family can go to hell. In the West, the duties towards “society” are much stronger, and while we mightn’t be as bound to our families as the Vietnamese, we are more likely to care about how we treat our non-family members.

      • mischb October 19, 2011 at 10:56 am #

        hi gals, i love this blog and read it often. such smart, interesting and funny ladies! (i love your hanoi blog too tabitha.) i was prompted to comment by this post in particular because it rings very true for me (and i generally find stuff to do with the impact of living with different cultures and languages on the ‘self’ fascinating).

        it’s been interesting to notice how my boyfriend matt has inherited some ‘eastern’ influences from his chinese parents, despite being born and bred in australia – in particular in relation to valuing ‘group integrity’ over personal autonomy. i have to beg him to tell me what he really wants cos the habit of agreeing with me just to maintain social harmony is deeply ingrained. i also have to be careful about saying ‘no’ to suggestions his parents make (even if the reason’s totally legit) because ‘group’ beats ‘individual’ hands down.

        when i lived in tunisia, i also observed a similar phenomenon to the one tabitha has observed – people will do anything to help/protect/care for their own family but have very little sense of civic responsibility (this was before the jasmine revolution – maybe something’s shifted).

        just a few words to show i’m reading!

      • kgo October 19, 2011 at 11:22 am #

        Thanks for the comment! I think your point about civic duty is not one that gets explored a lot by western researchers, who are hesitant to be seen to be criticising eastern cultures. I had a friend in Hong Kong who asked her local colleagues when she was pregnant, “why are you guys always so concerned about whether I’m carrying anything heavy or wearing the right clothes, but when I’m on the MTR, people won’t give up the courtesy seat for me when I obviously need it?” Their answer: “well, they don’t know you.” Perhaps the idea of civic duty (when no one from my family is watching) is something that is drawn from a sense of individual identity. We do it because of our self-concept.

        Before anyone gets tedious, obviously, there are displays of civic duty in eastern and western countries, yadda yadda.

      • hanoitabitha October 20, 2011 at 1:21 am #

        Thanks for commenting Mischa! Since living in Vietnam I’ve also thought a lot about my Asian Australian friends. I’ve never really seen them in any different light to my Anglo Australian friends, but I can now see that some of them have inherited subtle “eastern” traits, no doubt from their families, despite being as Aussie (if not more so) as me. I actually think that living in Australia, and being surrounded by so many different backgrounds, is as rich a cultural learning experience as living overseas.

      • kgo October 19, 2011 at 11:41 am #

        Oh, and to throw another spanner in the works – no one displayed civic duty like the Japanese during the Tsunami! I can’t imagine another society in modern times acting quite like they did.

  4. bmktaylor October 19, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    Mischa! We have a smart, funny, interesting reader! It’s impossible to unpick and unpack it all and really understand what makes people tick, but it’s fun trying, hey!

  5. bmktaylor October 19, 2011 at 11:30 am #

    I always marvel at how few mentally ill Asian people you see wandering the streets In Australia. They are looked after by their families unlike many whities. I guess that system of flesh and blood loyalty works well when everyone is a member of a family, as most are… Another fascinating thing from this book I was talking about was how children are viewed as a burden in the developed world, a drain on resources, whereas in the developing countries they are seen as a blessing. This is totally in line with the whole value of family thing.

    I was raised by a woman who wasn’t very close with her own family, but she would give away every last penny to a stranger in need. It makes for a strange dynamic in my own head.

    The best thing about my life here is the community of women I’ve found myself in in my neighbourhood. Being from a family of 3 (no sibs) it’s such a comfort that there are people who have my back.

  6. bmktaylor October 19, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    There’s a case study on Japanese culture in this book. They are freakin’ a-mayonaising.

  7. kshyva October 19, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    My two cents in on the subject matter of civic duty. In Poland it seems to be reawakening. A country which dictated civic responsibility, a duty to do it for your fellow man, for your neighbour, for the good of the economy, for the greater good of Communist Poland, meant that people didn’t elect to do it at all simply because it was forced on them. And although now there are murmurs and grass root movements to act and be proud of displaying your civic duty, they are still quite far behind. I guess that’s why the green movement for example, has been so slow in forming here. There is very little environmental consciousness and what is most disappointing is there is hardly any concern for green issues shown by uni students (which, to me, is a starting point).

    On the other hand, people are good to their neighbours, they’ll help strangers out and the old nanna will feel free to tell off a young girl for wearing too skimpy an outfit is she so pleases. Just because she can. This can go overboard of course, with strangers telling you on the tram that your kid should be wearing more layers or that it’s too confusing for it to be communicated to in two different languages. On the other hand it is completely acceptable for me then to turn to them and politely tell them to stick their opinions up their shorts. But thanks for your concern.


  1. Essential…. « Far Flung Four - October 17, 2011

    […] How Culture Shapes the Way We Parent‘ (just wrote a lot about it on Tabs’ latest post). It fascinates the hell out of […]

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