Over one-hundred and twenty years ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” This mantra may have been true at the time, but thanks to globalization many barriers have broken down the silk curtain between the East and the West. Economic development, along with a mild form of “Westernization” have hit places such as Vietnam where it’s trendy for young people to go bowling, eat at Pizza Hut and pretend that they like American music.
However, despite all of the convergence towards a common ground, there are still some things that I encounter in Vietnam that make me stop and go, “What?” Without delving into an exhaustive cultural study though, here are three things that I’ve noticed over the years that are exactly the opposite of what I understood after growing up in Western culture.
Yes it’s true. The traditional Vietnamese rowboat is the exact opposite of what I knew of in the States. Here’s a nice picture of a standard rowboat from the States:
Note how the rower faces the back of the boat and uses the strength of his back, legs and arms to pull the oars through the water and thus propelling the boat forward.
And here’s a Vietnamese rowboat:
The woman is standing at the stern of the boat facing forward. The oars are crossed and thus propel the boat forward when they are pushed forward. Besides the obvious risk of standing in a small boat where a wave or wake could throw you off, it also takes much more effort to get where you are going. In my Western eyes, this is unnecessarily complex and also potentially dangerous too.
Backwards fruit and vegetable cutting
This is pretty straightforward: In the States, I learned to cut fruits and vegetables with the knife blade facing me so that if something slipped, the blade wouldn’t slice through the air in front of me and cut someone else.
But in Vietnam they do the exact opposite. For a right-handed person, a piece of fruit or a vegetable is held in the left hand and the knife in the right. Cutting is always done away from the body, and even though I’ve lived here for almost six years, I still see it as extremely dangerous to others nearby.
White at funerals
There must be some religious or cultural reason for this, but I still don’t get it. Funerals are a somber time and it is appropriate to wear black colors to show to the world that you are mourning the loss of someone; in other words, black expresses how you feel inside, like this:
If you see a funeral in Vietnam, you will be presenting with people dressed like this:
I don’t get what they’re going for. Are they trying to look like angels? To my Western eyes, white is a symbol of purity, which is why Jesus is often depicted dressed in white and brides usually wear it at weddings. To see mourners clad completely in white still throws me for a loop after all this time here.
Like I mentioned previously, these are just three things I’ve noticed here that are the exact opposite of what I grew up with in the States. There are numerous minor cultural differences too, but the above mentioned items are just backwards to my Occident sensibilities.
I’d love to hear your stories of cultural differences in the comments.