Recently there has been a very lively discussion in the English-language Vietnam blogosphere about the phenomenon of the self-proclaimed expat expert. Kevin of What Happened to Your Hair? started it all off with a provocative posting on the Westerner who returns home after a short stint and adopts an authoritative attitude on his host country. This discussion spread across several blogs including Ethnically Incorrect Daughter, VA to VN and Antidote to Burnout. When the dust settled there seemed to be an agreement that cross-cultural insight is most fruitful when it is also accompanied by an awareness of what we do not understand.
An example of this kind of cultural dialogue is a discussion amongst Vietnam bloggers on the nature of Vietnamese social relations. This strand began with several posts in Six Months in Hanoi about the contrast between Vietnamese and Western patterns of socializing. In one post, HanoiMark describes a mixed party in which these patterns were in stark contrast: the fluid networks of Western expats vs. the family-like groups of the Vietnamese. In another post he tries to understand the nature of “closed social networks” or “groups” among Vietnamese friends. While Western modes of socializing often involve mixing circles of friends and creating new acquaintances, the Vietnamese approach affords a spontaneity and intimacy between friends that is perhaps less common in the West.
Mel of Antidote to Burnout elaborates on some of these themes as he describes a typical social event with Vietnamese friends. Many of the observations HanoiMark made of social dynamics in gay groups in Hanoi also seem to hold true in professional circles in Saigon. He also notices that introductions are rare in social groups even when new people appear.
Of course these sorts of cross-cultural comparisons also teach us much about ourselves. In seeking to understand another culture, one comes to see the peculiarity of own's own point of reference.
Virtual Doug brought in a Vietnamese colleague into the discussion who was able to reflect on the differences in social relations he perceived when living in the US. Duong Lam Anh contrasts the traditional Vietnamese “sitting party” which is about deepening existing relationships with the more Westernized “standing party” which encourages mingling, introduction and casual chit chat. He also notes that the term “friend” has a very different meaning in the West and in Vietnam; Westerners may use this word for casual acquaintances, but in Vietnamese culture it implies a closeness and intimacy.
There can be profound differences in the way different cultures socialize. It is far too easy to assume our own ways of interaction are natural and the result are misunderstandings and frustrations. Such dialogue helps foster cross-cultural understanding between expats and Vietnamese.