I just arrived back in Perth after leaving Vietnam last week. I spent three days in Ho Chi Minh City and then headed to Melbourne for a city break and to visit my brother. The contrast between the two cities is vast: Melbourne so clean and structured, with even the old buildings looking new, and HCMC a sprawling lovable mess crammed with 5 million motorbikes. I’m not sure which I preferred, though there is something exhilarating about seeing a city like HCMC with its guts all hanging out, as if it’s saying, ‘here I am, take me or leave me’.
It got me thinking about the differences in culture and how perhaps they are reflected in these cities. In the Western world, we place a lot of importance on order, on hiding faults and never admitting to them. I know I’ve been guilty of it too: of putting a positive spin on things, of not admitting to feeling annoyed or having a bad experience, of wanting people to like me. I’m not sure whether it was because of the language barrier that things seemed more open and clear in Vietnam: perhaps there is no room for these bravadoes when language is acquired rather than native. One of my friends in Vietnam, with whom I had had many enlightening conversations on all sorts of taboo subjects, said this to me. When the language is not your mother tongue, it loses some of its power, so it is easier to say things that might be difficult or controversial in your native language. For example, saying I love you is difficult in your own language as it has a lot of meaning, but to say it in a second language strips a lot of meaning away.
Whichever it is, I think there is something to be said for honesty, not only towards others, but also to yourself. If we’re feeling bad, we’re better to admit it and deal with negative feelings than pretend we’re in a good mood. The Vietnamese as a people live in the moment: they don’t worry too much about the past or the future, and I think this is a healthy way to be. They also seem to be more emotional, and there is no stigma for men to be in touch with their emotions. It was refreshing, to see men expressing themselves and not holding back, and I wish we could tear down these stereotypes in the west.
Speaking of emotions, it was a lot harder than I thought to say goodbye to the Vietnamese friends I have made over the past two months. It really has been a brilliant experience, and one I want to share with as many people as possible. To avoid bringing up Vietnam in every conversation I have, I have vented this desire into a volunteering scheme which I hope will allow others to go to Kon Tum and those living there to have more access to native English speakers. If you are interested in finding out more about it: please visit the website here: www.vietnamvolunteerteachers.com.