I am indebted to my friend and colleague Julie for this post. This June, Julie will have completed 4 ½ years teaching in Huê, and will be going home for some new adventures in life. She speaks fluent Vietnamese and therefore has a window into the culture I don’t have.
When I say the Vietnamese culture is relationship-based, I’m not kidding. Westerners are so task-oriented, we keep “relationships” as a separate part of our lives. To the Vietnamese, relationships are central. To Americans, personal relationships get in the way of business. To the Vietnamese, they don’t know how to do business unless it is within a relationship. As an illustration, here is a conversation Julie had with a stall-owner at the local market – a few hours after the Mystery Guest Blogger had been there.
Julie: Hello older sister! How's your health?
Grocer: Hello younger sister. I'm fine, and you?
Grocer: Aren't you cold? You aren't wearing a jacket.
Julie: No, I'm okay because I get warm pedaling my bike.
Grocer: What would you like?
Julie: Two kilos of apples.
Grocer: Why do you want so many?
Julie: My friend didn't buy enough when she came here this morning. We're going to make a special American pie for a holiday we're celebrating today called Thanksgiving.
Grocer: That American was your friend? Ohh, I'm so sorry! I didn't know. I charged her so much! I shouldn't have done that. I promise I will give her a good price next time. I'm so sorry. (As she grabs onto Julie and buries her face in her sleeve)
Julie: It's okay, don't worry about it. How much do I owe you?
Grocer: 25,000 Vietnamese Dong. (less than $2)
Julie: Thanks older sister.
You’re wondering “What’s this ‘older sister’ stuff?” The answer is your first clue into how important relationships are in Việt Nam.
Personal pronouns in the Vietnamese language are based on how old the other person is in relation to you. In this case, Julie is younger than the grocer, therefore she uses the word chi when addressing the grocer. She called Julie em, an affectionate diminutive used when talking to younger people – as well as a cozy word a boy says to his girlfriend.
Put another way, there is no way to say “how are you today” simply because there is no word for you. To talk to another person, you must have a relationship, even if it is nothing more than knowing whether the other person is older than you.
Of course, the Grocer is referring to the MGB when she spoke of “That American.” Foreigners often think the Vietnamese are always out to rip them off. Not so – they trade on the basis of relationships. Julie has taken the time to know the grocer, and is treated accordingly. The next time the MGB goes there, she too will be treated like a friend.
Now imagine that you are at the Đông Ba market and you're going into a new shop where you don't know the seller. You've chosen what you want to buy and you go to the counter to buy it. This is how the conversation is likely to transpire:
Seller: Hello. Where are you from? (As she takes Julie's goods to decide the price)
Seller: How old are you?
Seller: Do you have a family yet?
Julie: Not yet.
Seller: Do you have a boyfriend yet?
Seller: When will you get married?
Julie: I don't know yet, maybe next year.
Seller: You speak Vietnamese very well...(putting Julie's goods in a plastic bag) 9,000 Vietnamese Đông.
Julie: (handing the seller the money and taking the bag) Thank you.
Seller: What do you do here?
Julie: I teach English at the University.
Seller: Do you teach any extra classes out of your home?
Julie: No, I'm sorry I don't.
Seller: If you open a class, I want to join. Can you teach me? I really want to learn English.
Julie: I'm sorry, I don't have extra time to teach extra students. See you later.
Can you imagine having a conversation like that the next time you go to Home Depot or Wal-Mart? You will be lucky if the clerk looks at you, much less engages you in conversation. Most likely, you would be very offended to have someone ask your marital status. What Julie does not say is that prior to her meeting her boyfriend, people would usually admonish her to find a boyfriend, get married, and have children. If the clerk at Wal-Mart told you to get married, you’d probably report her to the manager.
Can you imagine a clerk at your local supermarket asking you why you need so many apples?
Can you imagine prices being charged according to whether you know somebody?
Can you imagine strangers asking about your personal life?
Can you imagine living a life built on relationships?