American Stephanie says she has learned a lot about friendship and family love from her Vietnamese friends.
I decided to live and work as an English teacher in Ho Chi Minh City for a year in 2007 with the hope of learning more about the world. As a student of anthropology, someone whose parents are from very different cultures, and a person who grew up moving from place to place from a young age, I believe that learning about ways of living that are very different than your own teaches compassion and humility. When coming to Vietnam, I was looking to learn about the Vietnamese way of life – but I couldn’t have imagined the wisdom that I gained about the value of the people that I love. Vietnam taught me that, as a tree derives its strength from the depth and complexity of its roots, love and friendship should seek depth and complexity in order to give it strength.
In the United States, where I am from, we value the quality of “independence”. Imagine the lone cowboy in the desert with no need for companionship or convenient luxuries to survive. This icon still remains as an ideal in the heart of Americans, although perhaps we have given up the pretense that we don’t need convenient luxuries! A fierce sense of independence from others, though, still defines friendships, romantic relationships, and even familial relationships.
In the majority of American friendships, the ideal friend, lover, or family member is one that never asks anything from you. With even the closest of my American friends, I couldn’t imagine asking them to pick me up from the airport, I would never expect them to pay for my meal, and exchanging gifts is a rare occasion – this might mean that I would owe them something in return! In a romantic relationship, if I were to give up my job so that I could move to a different city to be closer to my boyfriend, I would be seen as weak. Instead, I should give up my boyfriend for my job. And, even in families, parents save a large part of their paycheck every month for retirement, so that they will never have to ask their children to help support them when they are too old to earn money for themselves.
When I came to Vietnam, I was intimidated by the way in which women would try to befriend me: Just because she brought me fruit last week, why was she asking for something from me in return? Why did I have to pay for everyone else to come to MY birthday celebration? Why did she expect me to bring her a gift when I went travelling for the weekend? It made me suspicious and uncomfortable. I wanted to become friends with these women, but felt that they shouldn’t expect anything from me in return!
However, I learned quickly to admire the strength of a friendship in which each friend makes sacrifices for the other. A gift expresses to a friend that I’ve been thinking about her and would prefer to spend my money on her, not myself – and the gesture can then be returned, starting a dance-like exchange of gestures of friendship.
I came to love the strong sense of support that came with my friendships developed in Vietnam: If I needed help understanding how to pay my bills, I knew that I had people to ask for assistance; if I was sad and homesick, my friends would give me their time to make me feel loved and in good company. And I enjoyed the feeling of making my own gestures of friendship and support in return. One of my favorite gestures of friendship, which was especially unique to Vietnam and would rarely happen in America, was when my Vietnamese friend, a tour guide, offered to arrange the entire itinerary for my parents’ two week visit to Vietnam. He put so much time and effort into the organization of the trip, but I knew that he wouldn’t charge us his usual rate – and I was happy to return the favor by bringing his family suitcases full of gifts the next time that I returned from America. My American friends couldn’t understand why I was willing to lug extra suitcases across the world for someone else’s family.
Although I had less insight into Vietnamese families than friendships, the interdependence of the Vietnamese family also influenced me strongly. The closeness, both geographical as well as emotional, of the family provides shared support for any personal burden: My friends took care of their aging grandparents with joy; the demands of a new child were shared among the family, rather than falling solely on the mother and father; and the stress of a financial challenge was eased by the knowledge that you’d end up on the street if you didn’t find a job that paid more.
I truly loved the time I spent in Vietnam, and I valued this new wisdom so much that I left to return to my family – to my 94-year-old grandmother, who lives alone; and to my parents, who I want to help as they take their next step into retirement. But the friendships that I built in Vietnam are, even now, the deepest, most generous, and most consistent (even from thousands of miles away) that I have ever experienced. I look forward to always having those friendships rooting me to Vietnam.