Do cars stop for you at intersections? Can you tell when a papaya will ripen? Is Heineken your beer of choice? These question may seem innocuous but to Nhu Tien Lu, they were huge discoveries about Vietnam. Read on and learn the varied nuances of Vietnamese life through Nhu Tien Lu’s eyes as she has many of her assumptions erased after spending some time in the country.
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The most wondrous aspects of living in another country are those learning moments when you realize that things that you just assumed to always exist, unspoken cultural rules that you thought were natural and constant, are in fact neither natural nor constant. So this is my list of several of the common assumptions I had, having been raised in America, that no longer apply to my everyday life in Saigon:
- That vehicles will stop, or attempt to stop, for pedestrians, particularly if you’re in a crosswalk.
- That there will be a crosswalk.
- That if you walk on the sidewalk, you will not have to step aside for motorcycles to pass.
- That motorcycles will carry a maximum of two people, and not be used to move furniture, livestock, and other unwieldy objects of great mass.
- That buses will come to a complete stop to let you board.
- That restaurants will provide paper napkins, and won’t charge you for them.
- That prices on basic goods will not rise simply because New Year’s is a month away.
- That a dollar bill is worth a full dollar regardless of whether it is new or old looking.
- That prices quoted will not vary depending on whether or not you look like you know how much the prices should be.
- That people will rely on banks to deposit money instead of finding hiding places for gold.
However, it should be noted that the City, or thành phố, has its own quirks and rhythms as compared to the countryside, so here are a few of the things I’ve learned after visiting my parents’ quê hương in Vĩnh Long and Quảng Ngãi these past couple of weeks:
- That people can be most easily located by going to the neighborhood where they lived 30 years ago and asking for them by name.
- That no one moves, ever.
- That street names and addresses are never used to give directions.
- That rivers are a viable means of traveling from house to house.
- That most everyone has an orchard and a river running through their land behind their house, even if they cannot yet afford a squat toilet or a roof made of something more permanent than coconut leaves.
- That everything that I would normally consider to be garbage can be either repaired, re-used, or fed to the chickens, ducks, geese, pigs, cows and dogs in the backyard.
- That there are more than just two or three types of coconuts, mangos, durians and pomelos. Many, many more.
- That most people can tell, as casual knowledge, when a papaya will ripen, how to pluck a duck, and if a mai tree will bloom in time for Tết.
- That there are more Vietnamese words for “rice” than I may ever be able to learn.
- That your parents, upon coming back to where they were born and raised after 30 years away, won’t ever look quite the same to you.
And lastly, on the flip side, there have also been behaviors and assumptions that I’ve never questioned as a part of my Vietnamese culture and upbringing, so the following is a list of the most common things that I take for granted in Việt Nam, but which I understand may come as a surprise to foreign visitors:
- That in the Vietnamese language, “you” and “I” cannot be said without knowing how old the person is in relation to you or what your familial relationship is. This is the reason you will be asked, within the first minute of speaking to someone, how old you are. If you are not asked, it’s because they already know.
- Additionally, “hello” and “thank you” and any other address to another person requires the use of “you” and hence the knowledge of how old they are in relation to you or what your familial relationship is.
- That the question, “When’s your birthday?” is actually asking for your birth year and answered by giving your zodiac animal.
- That Vietnamese is a tonal language, so that any slight inflection up, down, up and down, or down and up will mean the phrase Cai nay la bao nhieu could translate to “How much is this?” or “Jailkeeper, now shout ‘bag’ a lot!” Seriously.
- That you will be asked, by friends and strangers alike, how much money you make and how much you pay for rent, expenses, and that shirt you just bought. Likewise, you are expected to ask the same of others, which is how you will learn what fair prices are for meals, clothes, groceries, rent, and that shirt you just bought. (Essential when dealing with #9 from List 1.)
- That people you’ve just met will say, with great affection and frankness, “You are too fat (or skinny or short or dark-skinned).”
- That Heineken is the beer brand of choice for the Vietnamese communities in both Vietnam and the U.S.
- That politeness includes taking your shoes off at the door, offering tea with two hands, and waiting for the oldest adult to begin eating before you do.
- That families will reunite each year in recognition of the anniversary of their deceased grandparents, but will not celebrate birthdays.
- That you will honor your ancestors, and through them, your roots, by an offering of food and drinks. You will call them home on a waft of incense smoke, and it will taste both familiar and strange, and in this way, you will know you’re also coming home.
Nhu Tien Lu earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, and an MA in Social Documentation from UC Santa Cruz. Born into the year of the roaming horse, she has lived in 3 countries and 6 states thus far, and has worked in the fields of domestic violence, racial justice, and human trafficking. She likes to call herself a writer and social justice activist, but doesn’t really believe it yet. She is inspired by those who keep their hearts in their mouths, by her truly activist and artistic colleagues, and by writers who write through the darkness.