My last post of the 2013 Lunar Year…
Vietnam is a highly homogeneous society. I’m reminded of this whenever I look in the mirror and see a white guy staring back at me. For those who are not Kinh, or ethnic Vietnamese, it’s pretty cut-and-dried. We look different and therefore are different.
There is a growing segment of Vietnamese, however, who are also outsiders in not-so-visible ways because of different life experiences that have taken them far from home and changed, if not transformed, them. For those who study overseas and return home there is always a period of readjustment and reverse culture shock. For many, this journey includes various emotions expressed by their fellow citizens ranging from admiration to jealousy to resentment.
I recently read a message from a young Vietnamese woman who graduated last year from a U.S. college and returned to Vietnam. Another Vietnamese told her that she should “connect with my own people” and not have a superiority complex because she was in the States, the assumption being that she had lost some of her “Vietnameseness” because of her overseas experience and felt superior to other Vietnamese because of that experience.
Rather than appreciating the fact that she had become bilingual and bicultural, that she had gained familiarity with and perhaps an affinity to some aspects of her host culture and that she now had multiple affiliations, the armchair critic’s cultural (read ethnocentric) antennae perked up when he detected something in her manner, speech or whatever that he deemed un-Vietnamese. Maybe he was projecting his own insecurity onto her or maybe he was simply expressing his own jealousy and resentment.
While the boundaries of what it means to belong (i.e., to be Vietnamese, in this case) are expanding with the country’s integration into the global community, they are still more narrowly defined than in many countries, including those in which tens of thousands of Vietnamese study. Given how long Vietnam was closed to the world and the nature of what it means to be Vietnamese vs. foreign, these comments are not likely to go by the wayside anytime soon. While they may contribute to the sense of alienation that is part and parcel of reverse culture shock, returnees can and probably should respond in kind, albeit diplomatically. Though it’s doubtful that they’ll change the mindset of their critic, it’s nevertheless an opportunity to educate and enlighten, and therefore worth a try.