Over the years, as we came to know the Vietnamese culture more (and by no means do we claim to understand all of the subtleties and intricacies of this amazing group of people), we became aware that they generally had a difficult time imagining themselves as anything but what they were. For instance, we and Americans we know can decide that they want to change something in their lives: their job, family ties, daily habits, etc. They can then put the pieces in place to accomplish this. They don’t always succeed and some are better than others at making fundamental changes, but at least they can visualize the change and try.
Vietnamese, for the most part, seem to be more challenged by this. Because their culture has been hard-wired just to get through the day (to feed their family, respect their rituals, farm the land, etc.), they are a society that perhaps dreams about a better life, but taking steps to become that dream is not always obvious to them. Cultural emphasis is on developing stability through collective behavior, as opposed to American culture, where it’s put on developing individuality first. Many school children are still taught with rote as the primary tool; coming up with original ideas is apparently not a typical part of the classroom activity.
Because of its collective, or hive-like, nature, Vietnamese are inextricably tied to each other and their ancestors, and any decision-making must take all of that into consideration. As opposed to American ways of thinking (“This will be good for me, so therefore I will do it”), Vietnamese must stop and consider, “How will this affect my family? Does it follow their closely-held beliefs? Is this how my Great Grandmother would have wanted me to proceed?”
Vietnamese have conflicts with their own government and institutions on a daily basis, which of course happens in most countries. For example, Want a job? Money under the table. (Wait, when you have a job, aren’t they supposed to pay you?) Want your university degree? Maybe money under the table. Want to get out of this traffic ticket? Well, you get the picture. It’s pervasive and exhausting.
When Larry and I would try and help some of the remarkable women we came to know with seeing themselves differently (as leaders, as innovators, as mover and shakers), we were often met with enthusiasm, but a puzzling lack of action. And it wasn’t because they didn’t want these things for themselves, or didn’t believe in themselves, or weren’t capable of accomplishing them; they just couldn’t envision what that would be like and how they would get there. So, many times in our experience, they would take the easy way out, meaning a fast track to marriage and family.
Young Vietnamese women in general are hounded about marriage and offspring, a theme that plays out from the time they are little. There is the mythical belief that if you’re not married by the ripe old age of twenty-seven, that your chances are all but doomed. Of course, this is a platitude put in place to scare the living daylights out of women to get them to comply, and most of them do, or at least try to. But because they’re done for reasons that obviate the couple’s compatibility, many of these unions aren’t happy, and certainly don’t contribute to the economical, creative and human resources side of the equation as far as the woman is concerned.
This challenges Vietnam’s desire to become a fully developed country, as the talent of half their population is not being used effectively, and not generating an adequate income to lift the family out of poverty, or lower middle class status. This cycle can be broken, and most likely will be at some point in the near future. In fact, one might predict that in the next decade, there will be a revolution such as the one in Japan at the turn of the century, where women started to flat out refuse to marry. (Today, a third of Japanese women in their 30’s are unmarried.) They hadn’t gone to university, earned a degree, just to sit at home with children and cook and clean. So, Japanese men had no choice but to see them as equals or import brides who hadn’t evolved as far as their countrywomen.
One of our very closest friends, we’ll call her Hien, felt the need to have a baby, so she married a very sweet and capable guy with whom she may not have been in love. He is an only child, and grew up without a father, so his love and loyalty go first to his mother. (This is a pretty Asian thing for men to do, as it’s steeped in thousands of years of hierarchical one-upmanship. The mother has no power until she has a son, then when he marries, suddenly her status is elevated to ruler of the household, and boy, does she rule. The poor daughter-in-law doesn’t see the light of day unless she, too, has a son, and waits for her turn in this very destructive circle of life.)
So this is the situation Hien has found herself in, and she is already, after barely two years of marriage and a female toddler now in the mix, considering alternate options. Multiply this by thousands of Vietnamese women and you have a picture of how this is going to come to a head, and soon.
Of course, part of the problem is the men; they are getting no training in updating their way of relating to a partner in life, and so far have zero incentive to change. But, the women are changing, because they all have laptops and can see what’s happening in the rest of the world. It’s just a matter of time before there’s a critical mass of I’ve Had It Up To Here!
Divorce in Vietnam isn’t as high as many countries, but it is on the rise, with the woman the more likely person to put the wheels in motion. If divorce does happen, it’s generally considered by the older generation to be the woman’s fault (she didn’t keep herself attractive, she didn’t cook the right dishes, she didn’t get along with her mother-in-law, etc.), and up until now, she has a difficult, if not impossible, time finding another relationship.
Visualizing change is certainly problematic right now in Vietnam. Vietnamese themselves tell us that they don’t believe their country is capable of competing on a global scale; they still think of themselves as a bunch of farmers, not big time creative thinkers. “We are just a small country,” they say to us. “Who would pay attention to such a backward place?” This, from the world’s thirteenth largest population, who only recently tossed out one of the most powerful countries on the planet, the good ol’ USA!
A couple of other examples of this in our experience involves the production of coffee and the use of a highly effective fertilizer, two separate examples. In the coffee example, an American interested in investing in a coffee farm was in Da Lat. (The highland area of Da Lat, incidentally, is an absolutely ideal climate for coffee growing. Vietnam is still the second largest exporter of coffee in the world next to Brazil.) This American friend gathered all the farmers in that area, and got the chairman of that village to attend, and proceeded to show the farmers how they could make more money by producing high quality Arabica bean coffee. (The farmers had been growing the ubiquitous and uniformly awful Robusta, because it’s cheap and easy to grow. The better Arabica bean is slightly more difficult, being susceptible to a leaf disease.)
Our American friend laid his plan out carefully in front of the farmers, showing them how they would increase their incomes many-fold if they only would focus on the better beans, which he knew he could then sell to single source coffee shops in the U.S. The chairman of the village was also on board, and gave a speech about it. But, the farmers had been operating this way for many centuries, and couldn’t initially break away from the old way of doing things, so ultimately, our friend was frustrated and moved on to other ventures.
There seems to be some movement in the direction of growing better coffee, finally, several years later. And once one farmer succeeds, they will all cross over to that way of growing the beans.
A similar story involved a Vietnamese friend of ours whose company had produced a fertilizer that gave a yield thirty percent higher than the fertilizer farmers typically use. He convinced a group of farmers to use it, they did, and got the better yield. But, when he went back in a year to sell them more, they told him that they had decided to go back to their old fertilizer!
There is a complicated system of “I’ll scratch your back” in Vietnam where you can’t just walk away from established business relationships without it having a negative effect somewhere else in your life. So, even if there’s clearly a better way to do things, in this communal culture it’s sometimes just easier to do it the old way and not rock the boat.
Photo by Lawrence D’Attilio