Vietnameseness, what is Vietnameseness?
Here I am, 100% Vietnamese inside and out, past, present and maybe future. My nationality can change but my heritage cannot. I was born into a Vietnamese family, a family with a rich history. I grew up with Vietnamese culture, a culture that’s both stable and chaotic. Here I am, 100% Vietnamese biologically and culturally. But many have said that I don’t seem Vietnamese. I agree with that, but I also replied that I am very Vietnamese. Why is that? What is Vietnameseness?
It’s stubbornness that characterizes so many Vietnamese. Is stubbornness a trait of ‘Vietnameseness’? Maybe. The country boasts a rich history of heroes and heroines who stood up to internal oppression and external invasion all the time. Our language even has a proverb “9 người 10 ý”, translated as 9 people 10 ideas, to describe how we hold discussions. Rarely do Vietnamese come to consensus without force being used. Now, is your mind already working on millions of objections even though deep down you agree? See the point I made about stubbornness?
On the other hand, one might argue that because of stubbornness, Vietnamese people have the ability to nurture strong undercurrents of intelligentsia. Now, that’s something I believe is worthy of being characterized as part of “Vietnameseness”. I call that ‘being stubborn not just for the sake of being stubborn.’ One can train their stubbornness into useful perseverance if it has an objective. A stubbornness without an objective is as useful as throwing eggs against rocks.
Another characteristic that makes Vietnamese so popular is their enthusiasm. You see smiles everywhere you go, especially if you’re a tourist. You notice their boisterous laughters when they listen to you talk, the light in their eyes when they look at you, their wholehearted efforts to buy things for you or to cook food for you or to take you to places. You notice right away that when they ask you about your background, your job, your family, they’re not doing it out of courtesy, but out of actual curiosity or sometimes, genuine concern. You notice they’re not hesitant to share their lunch with you, give you cookies when you say you’re hungry, or give you a ride when you don’t have one. They’re doing it with full enthusiasm until one day, whether you’re Vietnamese or a foreigner – it doesn’t matter, you grow a bit tired of it all, because deep down you question why they’re being so nice to you, and you wonder if you have to do anything in return.
Let me tell you something: 99% of the time, Vietnamese expect a fair share of things. We even have a proverb “Có qua có lại”, which means “I give you something you give me something”. It might not reflect a calculating nature. It’s just that they believe everything in the world should be about helping others and they expect to be treated the same way. They are not breaking it down like I am (fair share, transactional relationships), because it’s ingrained that it’s the right thing to do. Enthusiasm reflects a communal way of living and most are simply oblivious to the fact that there are other ways to live.
A relaxed nature is another famous characteristic. This is quite problematic when it comes to work. Half-hearted jobs, prolonged hours of breaks, treating the workplace too casually, are all side-effects of this relaxed nature. A Vietnamese will likely interpret anger or disappointment as a passing thing, and believe that in order to be happy in life, you must turn a blind eye to certain issues. Most won’t aspire to have careers, and are just satisfied with a routine job that does not require them to do ‘too much’.
But because of this nature, they don’t take things too seriously. Vietnamese will not analyze issues too much, whether they are work-related to relationship-related. To them life is constantly moving on like the flow of motorbikes they have to be in every day. If they keep dwelling on a situation, analyzing it, contemplating it, they risk being hit by something. To them, it’s as foolish as staying still in traffic to analyze the flow and then get hit by another bike. They surf the surface of things, until one day, something ticks them off and they explode. Which is not pleasant.
I might have come across as being critical and dismissive of ‘Vietnameseness’ because I wrote about both negative and positive sides of Vietnamese characteristics. I might also have come across as trying to defend the shortcomings of Vietnamese. My intention is totally different. The point I want to make is simple: There are multiple sides to everything, and “Vietnameseness” is not a fixed set of characteristics. It is constantly expanding and changing due to you. You can choose to develop the positive side and manage the negative side or you can choose to do the opposite. Contrary to popular belief, it is actually simple to set certain rules or define yourself in certain ways and live according to them. It is simple to say “I’m Vietnamese” when you’re late or you’re being stubborn, but that’s not being fair to the country or the culture. You’re not doing your country, your heritage, your culture any good if you use them as excuses for personal shortcomings.