A story in the local newspaper grabbed me. I’ve been preoccupied during the past few months writing a book about my experiences in Viet Nam -- both experiences - during the war and and again while living there in 2005-06. Once upon a long time ago, my son had asked me what I would have been like if I hadn’t gone to Viet Nam, but that question was asked before I’d ever thought about returning. He meant the war, but if he were to ask the question today, I’d have to ask him to clarify whether he meant the war or the country.
There aren’t many Vietnamese living in deep south Texas, so when the story in The Monitor appeared, I read it immediately. Once again, I was struck by how I was changed by my experiences in Viet Nam - and in this case, by living there as an English teacher.
It is said that if you really want to learn about your own culture, live in another one for awhile. I learned a lot about my American culture in 2005-06. I learned how intensely individualistic we are.
In America, older people have a mantra that says “I don’t want to be a burden on my children”, so they live by themselves, away from their adult children.
In America, kids are expected to be out of the house by age eighteen - go to college, join the Army or get a job, but you’re outta the house.
In America, a boomerang kid (someone over the age of 21 who comes back to live with Mom and Dad) is considered a loser.
And - most certainly - one does not ask Mom and Dad for help. We want to do it (whatever “it” is) by ourselves.
To the Vietnamese, all the above are anathema - you are part of a family and expected to always be a part of a family. While teaching a course in American Culture to my third year university students in Viet Nam, I started one lecture by saying I was the oldest son, yet my 89 year old mother lived by herself. There was an audible gasp in the room. In their world, the oldest son cares for his parents.
Though it is changing as Viet Nam becomes more westernized, many homes have four generations living in it. If I had been Vietnamese, I would not have been caring for my Alzheimer’s stricken mother from 2006 to 2009 - my grandchildren would have done that. They would have grown up with Grandma around and just considered it the normal course of things to care for her.
As I read the newspaper story, I wondered how many Americans would have said “Thanks Dad, but I’ll do this by myself.”
To the Vietnamese, things are done on the basis of relationships. Need a job? Call a distant family member. Need a loan? Talk to your family. Need somebody at your business whom you can trust to do the job right? Hire someone in your family. We call that nepotism - they call it smart business. They don’t separate business from relationships.
So - what would I have been like if I hadn’t gone to Viet Nam? Maybe I am a little more appreciative of relationships, and a little less prone to think I can do everything myself.
I’m just sayin’