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Mixing with the locals
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In this month’s edition of expat life we ask Ceorge Harris, who has lived in Vietnam for almost 10 years, having already spent many years living and working in societies around the world\ how he blends in with local people. It turns out he has a lot to say on the subject.

In your opinion, are there differ*ences between Vietnamese people and Western people?
Yes, of course! Some of them are quite obvious. Vietnamese people can be quite blunt on matters that Western people tend to consider eminently private. Someone you may have just met will think nothing of asking you about your age, or your earnings. Friends can com*ment on you gaining weight, or losing hair, or looking like… well, looking terri*ble, without meaning it to be a criticism. For sure, Western people have the same thoughts, but they would consider it total*ly inappropriate to express them out loud. Behaving ‘nicely’ (even if your thoughts are not) is more common in Western cul*tures. The Vietnamese approach at least has the merit of its sincerity
But there are strong similarities between Vietnamese people and Western people too. Because of my work, I know Latin America quite well and have many friends there. Sometimes Vietnamese people remind me of Latin American people. There is something very warm and caring about both. You don’t make real friends immediately but once vou do, friendships are strong. Both Vietnamese and Latin American people pay a lot of attention to feelings, they both love to gossip… and they both rejoice at jokes with sexual innuendo!
■ Do you manage to communicate in Vietnamese?
No, unfortunately not, and my inabili*ty to do so is one of die few real frustra*tions I have experienced during my time in Vietnam. And it is not for the lack of trying! Like many other expatriates, 1 started studying Vietnamese as soon as 1 moved to 1 lanoi, many years ago already. 1 confess that 1 should have tried harder and not stopped half way. That was a mistake. But studying Vietnamese is above all learning a lesson in humility. Before coming to Vietnam I used to feel proud that I could speak (sort of…) sev*eral Western languages. But: after being exposed to a multiplicity of tones that my
ear could not distinguish, and to a vocab*ulary with very few roots T could recog*nise, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t speak several languages, only several dialects of the same language. And that was a depressing thought!
That said, communicating with Vietnamese people also turned out to be easier than I had anticipated… or rather than I had feared. Many of them speak decent English, or occasionally decent French, especially young people. It is much easier to live and travel without knowing the language in Vietnam dian it is in (supposedly) more developed China! But even for those who are incapable of saying a word in die language, it is often possible to find a way to communicate. In the market, for instance, one can bargain using just a few words… and many smiles! Sure, a Vietnamese person can almost cer*tainly get a better deal than me. Bur T am confident that T have more fun. And I am still happy that my poor command of the Vietnamese language allows me to spend some quality time in Vietnamese street mar*kets, which arc always so lively and colourful.

■ How about differences between Vietnamese men and Vietnamese women?

The differences are quite striking too. On die surface, men seem to be given a bigger role by society. New families are always keen to have a son, less thrilled if they only manage to have daughters. Women are still supposed to obey their fathers, then their husbands, then their older sons. But ail that is quite misleading. In reality, Vietnamese women are strong and determined, whereas Vietnamese men can be incredibly sentimental. Many Vietnamese men appear to have lived (or agonised through) some impossible love story with die ideal woman, to whom diev seem to remain attached for the rest of their lives. Years after it is over, they still cultivate their melancholy by listening to syrupy songs whose lyrics they know by heart… and whose melodies they massacre in drunken karaoke nights.
Vietnamese women, on die other hand, may look very practical and deter*mined, if not directly cold. \\Ъеп they get together they may discuss which character*istics they expect to find in a husband (smart, for sure) and in a lover (funny, of course). They may compare the wealth prospects of the Vietnamese and Western men interested in them, and conclude that it is better to stick to a smart Vietnamese man.
■ But many Vietnamese women still marry Western men!
And who would blame them? Vietnamese women are often charming, smart and dedicated. In some ways, they seem to be cold and practical, but they are also sensitive and passionate. Seeing their very rational side, some W estern men believe that Vietnamese women approach marriage with interested eyes.
Think of The Quiet American, the won*derful novel by Graham Greene. Both the main male character and the reader are convinced that the young Vietnamese woman, Phuong, runs away with the American character just because he is younger, treats her better and is keen to marry her. Bur it is very difficult to tell what she really feels. just as it is difficult to tell about the feelings of the main female character in the famous Talc of Kicu’ saga, by poet Nguyen Du.
My personal impression is that Vietnamese women being practical does not mean that they are not romantic. In fact, they are very romantic. It is just that they can tend to be even more rational than they are romantic, which indeed says a lot!
I suspect that Western men who man- age to get beyond the stereotypes find true passion in their Vietnamese girl*friends and wives.
■ How about you? Do you have a Vietnamese girlfriend?
Wow! When you proposed this inter*view 1 feared that you may ask me about my age or my weight… I had not anticipat*ed a personal question of Ti I AT sort! By the way how old are you?