Stan lived on the top floor of my apartment building in Vietnam and was, without a doubt, a very impressive individual.
He was tall and fit, had lived in many countries and was a highly regarded doctor and manager.
Stan had not come to Vietnamto make money; but rather, to help the Vietnamese, and was therefore in very high demand.
While he was successful at work, Stan was often frustrated when he returned to his apartment.
A putrid smell emanated from the drain in his bathtub, the air conditioner was constantly malfunctioning and he was never able to receive BBC World on his television.
Most of us in the apartment complex encountered similar issues, but had long given up trying to do something about it.
We simply accepted that sometimes Vietnam smells, is inescapably hot and beyond repair.
But not Stan: for him it was a matter of principle.
He was paying international rates for his apartment on the understanding that he would receive an international standard of quality and service.
Just as importantly, Stan was convinced that by maintaining his standards, he was also helping Vietnam.
How could the Vietnamese be world class at anything if everyone had such low expectations of them?
Sometimes Stan was right.
After insisting that the smell in his bathroom was unacceptable, a series of plumbers were called in and a solution was finally found that proved beneficial for everyone.
At other times his persistence only made for more frustration.
There was simply no way he was going to get a new air conditioner when the one that he had could be inexpensively fixed.
His distorted BBC reception was a result of the lengthy cabling required to reach him on the top floor.
Because of these and other intractable matters, Stan’s relationship with the building manager grew tense and difficult.
He eventually left on bad terms.
But there were employees in the building, like the young and dashing Sơn, with whom Stan maintained a cordial relationship.
The two of them always referred to one another as “Mr Stan” and “Mr Sơn” and discussed – in Sơn’s best English – Vietnamese food, the weather and Premier League football. However, they were not by any means friends and equals.
Stan instructed Sơn on how to sit up straight in his chair when he was using the computer, told him that his Manchester United branded motorbike helmet provided no more protection than a plastic bucket and, most controversially, plucked cigarettes from Mr Sơn’s lips and threw them away.
Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Sơn how he felt about the way Stan treated him.
“He acts as if you are a child who cannot make your own decisions!” I said.
As always, Sơn was considered and deferential in his response.
“Mr Stan is right in both his message and his manner.
My posture is bad and my back hurts, I really should wear a better helmet and drive my motorbike more carefully, and everyone knows that smoking kills.
But sometimes I can’t help myself.
So I am grateful to people like Mr Stan.
He is a civilised man who only wants what’s best for me.”
But I also know that, despite his magnanimity, Sơn was upset with Stan.
I know this because Sơn was proud and patriotic; he had a strong grasp of Vietnamese history, culture and proverbs and took pleasure in discussing these things with the apartment complex residents (especially those who could understand some Vietnamese).
I know he was upset because at the end of each month Sơn added 2,000 VND to Stan’s electricity bill for every cigarette that had been seized.
Sơn and Stan’s relationship illustrates how there remains a stark gap between Vietnam and the West.
Understanding Western and Asian Civilisation
It was with the goal of bridging this gap and building mutual understanding between Vietnamese and expatriates that I facilitated forums at Vietnam National University and Bookworm Hanoi to discuss ‘Whether Vietnamese need civilising…or does everyone else?’
We started by considering what civilisation and being civilising means.
Culture and civilisation are closely related.
However, if culture can be regarded as the personality and character of a society, then civilisation can be regarded as its mind and morality.
In the West, civilisation is synonymous with modernisation so that to become civilised is to progress from poverty to wealth, from a static to a dynamic outlook, from a group to an individual orientation, from being confined by local boundaries to pushing the universe’s frontiers.
Western conceptions of civilisation thus focus on transcendence and the need to leave behind past practices, ways of thinking and values.
The Vietnamese and East Asian understanding of civilisation is different, emphasising expansion rather than transcendence.
Whereas the Western individual pursues greater independence, the Eastern individual seeks better integration.
According to Confucius, self-cultivation is a precondition of family regulation, which in turn provides the basis for the effective regulation of the state and pacification of the world.
In this model of civilisation, gradual expansion allows for the maintenance of social coherence in the midst of change.
Of course, no civilisation is perfect or homongenous and there is much cross-fertilisation between the East and West.
Nonetheless, in forums in which I recently participated, people’s views clustered around transcending Stan and expanding Sơn positions when it came to the contentious issues of patriarchy, dog eating, karaoke and traffic chaos.
Mr Stan’s Argument
Nothing is more apparent to me than that Vietnamese women need to be saved.
They need to be saved from a society that oppresses them at home and in public.
The belief that only males can carry the family line means that Vietnamese women are discriminated against even before they are born.
This is not just a vestige ofVietnam’s Confucian past.
It is apparent from the disproportionate number of male babies to female babies which has resulted in doctors being prohibited from disclosing the sex of foetuses to expecting parents.
In Vietnam wives are subservient to their husbands.
I have almost never seen a man doing house work and fathers often have minimal or no child care responsibilities.
Out in public I see women sweeping, shouldering and selling goods, doing whatever they can to support their families; while men sit for hours drinking beer, tea and coffee, talking about football, and playing cards and chess.
The highly educated women who I know are no better off, facing all the pressure of professional life during the day only to come home to find that they have to fulfil all of their traditional domestic responsibilities.
Vietnamese society cannot be civilised without greater freedom and equality for Vietnamese women.
Mr Sơn’s Argument
Just because Vietnamese women are not all like Western women, does not mean that they are oppressed.
Women are honoured in Vietnamas heroes (The Trưng Sisters and Lady Triệu), poets (Hồ Xuân Hương and the wife of the Governor of Thanh Quan district) and deities (mother goddesses).
There is a powerful and pervasive Women’s Union andVietnam has proportionately more women parliamentarians than England and the United States.
Not everything about patriarchy is bad or should be eradicated in an instant.
Vietnamese men and women have different roles because they have generally different desires, qualities and dispositions.
This difference does not necessarily mean subjugation; instead, the measured union of women and men, yin and yang, is essential to building harmonious communities.
So before we totally dismantle the patriarchal structures that have been so central to our culture for centuries, we should consider what this will mean for the family values that are the foundation of our society.
Mr Stan’s Argument
Civilised people do not eat dogs because they are close to humans.
They are ‘man’s best friend’. Many of us grow up alongside dogs and see them as brothers and sisters.
When we start our own families we often raise dogs as our ‘fur children’.
Being carnivorous mammals, dogs are also close to humans on the food chain.
Their meat is tainted by the fact that they feed on the meat of other animals.
Moreover, and this is not something that I like to think about, dog meat is distasteful because canines are feces eaters.
It happens more in South Korea, but the practice of beating dogs before killing them to supposedly enhance the flavour of the meat is especially repugnant and inhumane and should be stopped immediately even if the consumption of dog meat cannot be.
Mr Sơn’s Argument
There is not a strong tradition of owning dogs as pets in Vietnam and so they are regarded as being like pigs which most Westerners consume with a clear conscience.
Indeed, pigs are in many ways closer to humans than dogs as they are highly intelligent, often affectionate and can even offer organs for human transplant.
Beating dogs before killing them is inhumane.
So too is locking creatures in tiny cages and keeping them inside a factory for their entire lives as has been the long-standing practice in the West.
Of course for many people, vegetarianism is the only healthy and ethical way to eat.
From this perspective, the Vietnamese population is not faultless or pure, but it still consumes far less meat and has far more vegetarian Buddhists than any Western country.
Mr Stan’s Argument
My greatest fear in Vietnam is going on a business trip or attending a conference and being invited – or should I say ‘commanded’ – to sing karaoke.
It is even worse when excessive amounts of vodka, cognac and call girls are involved.
It is not that I do not like music, quite this opposite.
The problem is that karaoke, even when it is done competently, is not really music.
It is, like glamour photography, inauthentic and kitsch.
This notion of ‘kitsch’ seems to be unfamiliar to many Vietnamese, but is very prominent in the West.
Singing karaoke is kitsch because it is about pretending to be a star rather than developing the skills and creativity necessary to be a professional performer.
It inflates the egos of amateurs and celebrates the derivative.
So on occasion when I sing and enjoy karaoke it is in a kitschy sort of way, which is to say that, in truth, I do not like it at all.
Mr Sơn’s Argument
Vietnamese language with its undulating tones is inherently lyrical.
Everything from our salutations, to our poetry and cursing are sung just as much as they are spoken.
We like to fill our homes and sidewalks with song.
Singing is the full and authentic articulation of what is in one’s hearts and souls; karaoke is but an amplification of that process.
I do not like the proliferation of call girls and crassness in karaoke bars either, but as I understand it there is no shortage of prostitution, pornography or crassness in the West.
Westerners should first focus on being exemplars in their own societies before casting judgment upon others.
So if Westerners think that someone singing with all their might in public is mad, that is their problem.
If Westerners cannot enjoy karaoke without cynicism, that is their problem.
And if Westerners cannot sing, that too is their problem.
Mr Stan’s Argument
A quick glance at the traffic in Saigon or Hanoi suggests that Vietnamese are becoming less civilised by the day.
The roads are more and more congested with people competing for every square inch of road, climbing onto the sidewalk, driving down the wrong side of the street and totally ignoring red lights, pedestrian crossings and pedestrians themselves.
This is exacerbated at night when drink driving and young hooligans emerge in great numbers.
The road culture – or lack thereof – shows how increased wealth in Vietnam (which is a good thing) has not been accompanied by increased civility or high-mindedness.
Especially disturbing is the way that children are packed and perched upon motorbikes:
Cradled in their wobbly and feeble mother’s arms;
Propped up on the seat so that they can look over their father’s head; or
Crouching between the driver’s feet with their noses poking up over the handle bars.
A society that treats its children with such ill-regard cannot be civilised.
Mr Sơn’s Argument
Road safety is a major concern for all Vietnamese.
However, insufficient capital and poor planning are the culprits, not a lack of civility.
Despite the chaotic aspects, there is something magical about the traffic in Vietnam that makes driving and riding tolerable.
Sometimes I am amazed that the traffic moves at all given the pressure placed upon the roads and infrastructure.
But it does, and sometimes flows well.
It is as if each driver and rider is a fish in a mighty school, a member of an un-orchestrated symphony.
So once you delve a little deeper you can see that the traffic is just as much a sign of civility and harmony in Vietnamese society as it is backwardness and chaos.
Of course I care about our children and the future and am keen to take advice on how to better protect them.
What I will never countenance, however, is the view that Vietnamese do not value human life to the extent that Westerners do; or even that Vietnamese life is cheap and can be sacrificed without ceremony or remorse.
This racist fallacy helped to justify the horrors of Agent Orange and so many other instances of mass murder and dislocation inflicted upon Vietnam by the West.
The forums also included discussions about the lack of queuing, uncouth cell phone use, the sustained prevalence of public urination, along with the practice of pulling young boys’ penis’ in North Vietnam to show them that they are prized.
Little agreement was reached on any of these topics within nationalities let alone between them.
But the objective of discussing whether Vietnamese or Westerners need civilising is not to change people’s views and fashion a consensus;
But rather, to help us all become more comfortable with our differences and thereby gain a deeper understanding of ourselves.
By KIM HUỲNH & TRẦN HOÀNG TUẤN (*)
Kim Huỳnh is a 2012 Asialink Literature resident and 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).
Trần Hoàng Tuấn is a freelance writer and translator whose fields of interests include literature, ethnicity, youth culture, gender and sexual identity.
He has translated a wide range of articles from and for prominent journals and is working on a debut novel about gay life and culture in Vietna
Source: Centre for Integrated Culture and Language Studies (ICLS)