Authors note: I was asked to write an article for the Tuoi Tre news about cultural differences I experience as a foreigner. This is the topic I chose. The article can be viewed here: http://tuoitre.vn/Ban-doc/Trong-mat-nguoi-nuoc-ngoai/495981/Nguoi-Viet-nhan-xet-that-tinh-qua.html though it's in Vietnamese. Below is the English version that I sent to them.Update: june 11th, article now on the English site but also still below: http://www.tuoitrenews.vn/cmlink/tuoitrenews/city-diary/mirror-mirror-1.75467
“Mirror Mirror on the wall…”
When I left my 26th birthday dinner I went home and cried. Not because it wasn’t fun, but because my Vietnamese friend remarked that I must have had a good holiday because “you look quite fat now.” I’d only been in Vietnam for two months and it was the first time anyone had ever said anything like that to me. Her British boyfriend had immediately jumped in, telling her, “You can’t say that to a western woman!” but it was too late, the damage had been done and my fears were confirmed: the fried food I’d eaten for two weeks did, in fact, have an effect of my body.
Since then, I’ve had the way I look be the subject of scrutiny many times. I’ve had coworkers inform me that I should ALWAYS wear makeup, comment on my too tan skin, or remark on my big nose. I never have to weigh myself because I am always told when I’ve gained or lost weight. I’ve also been witness to people asking (not pregnant) women when their baby is due. When it’s revealed that they aren’t pregnant the asker just laughs like it’s the funniest thing (whereas in the US, Europe or Australia they’d be very embarrassed and apologize profusely) When I explained this to my Vietnamese friends and coworkers they were surprised that such a thing would be offensive, “But if someone doesn’t tell you, then how do you know?” one asked me incredulously.
In Vietnam, uncensored remarks are normal and not considered rude, as they are purely stating an obvious fact. Since many Vietnamese share first names, deciphering adjectives act as identifying nicknames, like tall Hoa, fat Hoa, or smart Hoa. In my culture, such comments would be deemed as the ultimate insult, and wouldn’t be said to someone unless you were trying to hurt their feelings. In the western world, we are so conscious of being polite and complimentary; if someone complains that they’ve gained weight we tell them they look beautiful, if they ask us how an outfit looks, we tell them they look good even if we don’t like it. When asked to describe someone, we focus on their generic features (hair and eye color, skin tone, height) and leave out anything that could be considered mean (big nose, fat.) Anything “negative” is either not said at all, or said behind the persons back in a mean way.
It’s been almost two and a half years since my 26th birthday dinner, while I’ve not yet been able to adopt the Vietnamese way of telling things like they are (probably due to my 25 years of pre-Asia preconditioned “politeness.”) I’ve come to accept and even appreciate the honesty, finding it refreshing. It’s made me realize that foreigners are sensitive to the point of ridiculousness, getting hugely insulted by the smallest thing. Offending a foreigner is easy, just say something that isn’t a compliment. We need to be coddled, told that we’re wonderful, beautiful, and smart. We even have to use words like “feedback” instead of “criticism” and start sentences with compliments before we approach an unpleasant subject. Example: “You are such a hard worker, with a lot of enthusiasm but your writing needs improvement.” Or: “I like your dress, I’ve just seen you look better.” Even showered with compliments (and still not staying what we really mean: why can’t we just say, “Your writing is boring” and “your dress is ugly?”) a lot foreigners will still think you’re being “mean.”
Perhaps we foreigners are too concerned with things looking nice or sounding good, rather than the truth. We ask each other how we look to feel better about ourselves, lapping up compliments even if they’re insincere, knowing full well that if someone told us something we didn’t like, that’d we’d be upset and angry with them. However, the fact is that sometimes we DO look ugly, or HAVE gained weight and we need to be able to accept these realities. Maybe we are afraid of the truth and prefer to pretend like things are how we want them to be, rather than how we are. As tough as we think we are, we crumble too easily.
Even though I have embraced the Vietnamese straightforwardness, valuing it greatly, it still, at times, can hurt my feelings. No matter how much I understand the cultural differences between my country and Vietnam, I will never be happy to hear that I look “much more beautiful with makeup” or that I’ve put on a few pounds…(however I am grateful to my friend Ha for informing me that I should never wear a certain pair of jeans again. I gave them away immediately.) Living in Vietnam, we don’t need mirrors. The people around us act as our mirrors, always telling us EXACTLY how we look, whether we like it or not.