What Vietnamese need to know about the West

The original essay published by the BBC in Vietnamese can be found at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/vietnamese/vietnam/2011/11/111102_vietnamese_west_kimhuynh.shtml

These days many young Vietnamese want to study and live in the West, particularly English speaking countries like Australia, the U.S., England and Canada. However, their impressions of the West and Westerners are too often misguided, narrow or lacking in nuance. Some people think that the West is a paradise where wealth, happiness and freedom is guaranteed. Others view Western society as dangerous, alien and incompatible with the ways of the East. Who is more right? What is the West really like?

We should, of course, avoid seeing the West in a rigid or homogenous way. Each Western society and individual within that society has particular characteristics. England for instance has a long national history and was, not so long ago, a mighty empire. Today that empire is all but gone. Consequently, English people have a tendency to look backwards. They respect their traditions, customs and nobility. The English sense of humour is grimacing and sardonic, and often makes you laugh and cry at the same time (consider comedies like The Office, Extras, Psychoville and the films of Christopher Morris).

Americans, on the other hand, are incorrigibly forward looking. America is, to them, the Promised Land and the indispensible nation that saved the world from fascism and communism. Often, Americans see themselves as Jesus-like figures, a self-image that is reflected and perpetuated in their culture. Consider how many American films tell the story of a young man from a modest upbringing who through fate, virtue and courage becomes the saviour of the world (The Matrix, Transformers, Rocky, Shrek etc.).

If you want to go to Australia then it is worth remembering that, ‘Australia rhymes with failure’. Because the first white people to live in Australia were convicts from Britain, it is not so much a Promised Land but rather a forsaken one. Australia is an isolated continent at the bottom of the globe. For these reasons many key stories in Australia glorify defeat (the battle and film Gallipoli, for example, and the unofficial national anthem ‘Waltzing Matilda’). Australians like to tease one another because they are instinctively egalitarian and irreverent, they like their poppies short.

Although many differences have developed amongst people across the Western world, there remain features that they share in common. Grasping some of these fundamental features can be very useful in understanding Westerners as individuals. And perhaps, at some stage in the future, this will allow you to know Western society, culture, politics and Western people better than they know themselves.

One critical point that you have to know about Westerners is that they tend to shower in the morning. I did not discover this until I was a teenager and was taken aback because my family, like most Asian families, favour showering in the afternoon. At that stage I could not fathom how Westerners could stand, after working all day, going to bed covered in sweat and grime.

Today I realise that the bathing habits of Westerners and Easterners are linked to their economic history. Traditionally, Asians come from an agricultural background and many of them still abide by the farmer’s daily routine: wake up early, sleep after lunch and wash the dirt off in the afternoon before going to sleep. Westerners, on the other hand, need to shower in the morning to help them wake up and prepare for work. Their society is post-industrial and essentially middle class. In Australia for instance, around 20% of people can be regarded as rich, 30% as poor and 50% as in between (meaning that they have a tertiary education and usually an office-based job). These people do not have to shower in the afternoon because they have not broken a sweat during the day.

To put it simply, compared to Vietnam, Western countries are rich – and they have been rich since at least the end of World War II. This does not mean that Westerners are better than Vietnamese. It does not even necessarily mean that living in the West is better than living in Vietnam. What it does mean is that material wealth has influenced not only the bathing habits of Westerners, but also their outlook on the world and relationship with one another.

Because the West is rich, it faces certain problems that are not so prominent in Vietnam. For example, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around one in three people in America are obese. Australia and England are not far behind where the proportion is around one in four. If you want to see some extreme instances of Western obesity and the debilitating impact that it has on people’s lives, watch a few episodes of The Biggest Loser or You Are What You Eat. This illness is not so much an aesthetic or cosmetic problem, but rather is closely related to other illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and bowel cancer that dramatically reduce the quality and length of people’s lives.

A related point that might be of interest and surprise to Vietnamese is that the fattest people in the West are often from the poorer and working classes. The reason for this is that in societies defined by abundance – where almost everyone can afford a car and more than enough food to survive – some people do not have the opportunity to exercise or sufficient knowledge to consume food and drink in salubrious ways. So when you arrive in the West, be prepared to discover that not everyone looks beautiful and slim like the stars on Glee or Desperate Housewives.

Another major problem that affects all wealthy English speaking countries is that when people are preoccupied with money and material goods, they tend to neglect their communities and social wellbeing. Francis Fukuyama, the most well-known intellectual of Asian descent in the Western world, observed that individualism has helped make Western civilisation creative and prosperous, but at the same time it has eroded almost every form of authority. As a result no one respects anyone anymore. Fukuyama suggests that family, neighbourhood and national bonds are far weaker today in the West than they have been in the past.

In the 1970s Americans on average went on five picnics a year (meaning that they had the time and inclination to relax outdoors and share food with friends and family). At the end of the twentieth century Americans on average went on two picnics a year. Researchers regard this as being one of many indicators of how English speaking countries are facing a shortage of ‘social capital’. Where this shortage reaches crisis levels people no longer believe in each other and have little hope for themselves and their societies. This crisis is particularly evident in young people amongst whom levels of depression are rising. More young Australians aged between 15 and 34 die of suicide than any other cause. In 2006 a report from think-tank The Australia Institute found that 30% of Australians said that they needed alcohol or other substances to help them cope. There are, then, great opportunities for dreams to come true in the West, but also great scope for failure and disappointment.

No doubt many Vietnamese are aware that economic development is often associated with social dislocation. I am familiar with one Vietnamese family who was previously poor; their house was ramshackle and overcrowded with family and friends. In the 1980s they pooled their money to buy a black and white television. Each evening the entire household and neighbours crammed into the guest room to watch television together. There were often disagreements over which program to watch, but the atmosphere was always cheerful. Today the family has built a new multi-storey house and each bedroom has its own LCD television. No-one quarrels anymore over which program to watch because no-one interacts with one another. They are undoubtedly more comfortable than they were before, but not necessarily happier. The West has and continues to confront many issues like this. Vietnamese should pay close attention to their experiences in order to both understand Westerners better and also avoid the social traps that they have fallen into.

The centrality of the middle class and abundance of material comforts in Western society have also shaped political outlooks. In Vietnam, according to the theories of Marx and Ho Chi Minh, the main struggle of the Left is to achieve material justice for the proletariat and peasantry. In the West, these people usually have enough to get by and so are not really interested in class struggle. For this reason, the political left in the West is less concerned with material issues and more concerned with post-material issues relating to identity, culture and lifestyle. They want to advance and protect the rights of women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals, migrants, animals and people in developing countries.

Often the Western left feels uncomfortable about their colonial history and levels of excessive consumption that have contributed to the climate change crisis that the entire world now confronts. For this reason many left-leaning young Westerners are critical and pessimistic about their societies and feel a little guilty and embarrassed about their wealth. These youth crave less adorned lives. They wear threadbare clothes, are vegetarians, ride bicycles (the less gears the better) and like to work for development NGOs. They might be rich, but pretend to be poor.

Right-wing people in the West view their primary responsibility as protecting Western culture and civilisation from their left-wing opponents and other enemies. Notwithstanding the global financial crisis, these people are proud of the wealth and achievements of Western liberal capitalism. They think that ever since the West won the Cold War, there is no credible alternative or threat to the liberal democratic model. This is, for them, a positive outcome not only for the West but for the entire world. The Western right looks back on the last thirty years of economic development in Asia and attributes it to decisions made by Asian leaders and Asian people to be more Western; that is, to open and liberalise their markets and in some cases their political systems and societies.

With respect to culture, outlook and expectations, the Western right observes that young people in many countries – including Vietnam and the countries currently involved in the Arab Spring – are becoming more Western every day. They want to wear Western clothes, use Western technology, consume Western goods and break away from the constraints of their old societies. This momentous shift is not a result of compulsion or old fashioned colonialism. Rather, Western civilisation and culture is simply attractive to a wide range of people. For the political right it follows that Westerners should protect and promote their ideology for the benefit of people all over the world.

Young right-wing people are often concerned with the same sort of problems as left-wing people: social cohesion, environmental conservation and the rights of the oppressed. However, for them the answers to these problems can be found in the creativity, confidence and prosperity of the West. Americans, English, Australians and other Western countries should therefore be more confident and active in international affairs. They must stand taller and prouder instead of stooping down to other ideologies and cultures or succumbing to the uncertainties of the left.

Most Western people do not totally fit in the left or right camps and many do not consciously follow either of them. However, when we appreciate these simple points about Western politics and society we can start to understand the fundamental forces and issues that impact upon every individual. This understanding can mitigate the culture shock of coming to the West and help us take advantage of the many opportunities for individual growth, wealth, freedom and friendship on offer. Moreover, such an understanding opens our minds to important questions like, ‘Will I like the West? Will the West change me? And will I shower in the morning or the afternoon?’


About the author: Kim Huỳnh is a lecturer in international relations at the Australian National University. Kim has written a biography of his parents, Where the Sea Takes Us: A Vietnamese-Australian Story (HarperCollins 2008) and is the co-editor of The Culture Wars: Australian and American Politics in the 21st Century (Palgrave MacMillan 2009). Kim originally wrote this article in Vietnamese (before translating it to English) and is grateful to his teacher Dr Hà Thị Thu Hương from Integrated Culture and Language Studies for her assistance. BBC Vietnamese also lent their editing assistance.