The ups and downs of East and West
  • By Tabitha Carvan | dtinews.vn | November 29, 2011 03:53 PM
When I first arrived in Vietnam, I was quite surprised by how social activities are organised here. I can remember it clearly because the surprise came at 7AM one morning, while I was still asleep. There was a knock on our door, and a young man we had befriended at a café the previous day was standing there with his brother, inviting us to breakfast.

I soon realised that spontaneity and forwardness such as this is a defining characteristic of social life in Vietnam. I found myself invited on all kinds of excursions and outings that were about to depart imminently – including one to China, which came with a few hours’ notice – and on the receiving end of phone calls from acquaintances who were waiting outside my house and would not stop calling me, whether I was home or not. When I received a wedding invitation only a few days before the event took place, instead of saying thank you like I should have, my jaw dropped at the short notice. “But I already have plans!” I said.

This is something I say a lot in Vietnam: I already have plans, I’m busy, I’ve got things to do, I can’t do that right now. And it’s always true! The western predilection for organising, and scheduling, and planning as far in advance as possible is deeply ingrained in me, and seemingly incompatible with the Vietnamese penchant for the spur-of-the-moment.

When a Vietnamese friend asks me if I want to do something right now, and I say, no, I’m busy, but can we book it in for two weekends away, we both look at each other like we’re from a different planet, which, when it comes to interpersonal relationships, we may as well be.

In Australia, if somebody you just met turned up on your doorstep at 7AM, this would be extremely strange; it would be seen as an invasion of privacy and personal space, an imposition, and too forward. It would take Westerners a very long time to build up a close enough relationship for this behaviour to be normal. In Australia, not giving someone enough advance notice is regarded as inconsiderate.

In Vietnam, this behaviour is seen as friendly and welcoming and inclusive. So I am well aware that whenever I say I’m busy, I’m coming across as anti-social and inflexible.

It all comes back to the different cultural notions of how we manage our connections with the people around us. Eastern cultures value interdependence, whereas Western cultures value independence; Eastern cultures value close proximity to other people and inclusion, while Westerners need personal space, privacy, and “me time”; Eastern cultures tend to have a notion of time as flexible, while Western cultures see time as fixed. These are all clichés, sure, but like many clichés, also true.

While I have struggled to adapt to the Vietnamese style of socialising, I must accept that I have also greatly benefited from it. As a foreigner, I regularly have to call upon my Vietnamese friends, colleagues or even acquaintances with questions and problems which I can’t work out how to resolve myself. I find this embarrassing, and presumptuous, but they never seem to mind, doing everything they can to help me immediately.

I can call them and ask them to speak over the phone to a shop assistant, and they happily oblige, never saying, “Actually, I’m doing something else right now”; or I might need them to accompany me somewhere as a translator, and they will be there in a second, without demanding more advance notice.

I wish I could say that a foreigner living in Australia could find such accommodating local friends, so adaptable and so generous with their time, but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t. Most Australians would instead declare the foreigner’s behaviour rude and demanding. This leaves me feeling extremely grateful to be a foreigner in a culture where I don’t have to worry about imposing, or wearing out my welcome.

It’s a lesson in taking the good with the bad when it comes to cultural differences, and while I will still curse when I hear the door-bell ring at 7AM, I wouldn’t wish for it to be any different.

* Tabitha Carvan writes the blog The City That Never Sleeps In about expat life in Hanoi.

Leave your comment on this story