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:
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.