The Backwards Nation?

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.

Backwards rowing

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.

Story Attempt Number 1

Vietnam is not a pancake-friendly society. After I moved back here, it took at least two years before I had pancakes or waffles in this country. I took Ngan with me for waffles one time, and she was not very impressed. About a year after the waffle incident, I started working for a company that owned a hotel with a breakfast buffet, and one of the perks was the free breakfast buffet every morning, if I could tear myself out of bed early enough.

I usually had the waffles, although sometimes I went for the smallish pancakes. The problem at this particular place was the syrup: It was basically non-existent. Most of the time, choosing pancakes or waffles was a gamble. My coworker Tyler and I were traumatized several times after putting pancakes or waffles on our plates only to find that the only syrupy topping was honey. We’d sit across the table making dour faces at each other and wondering who to blame for the lack of maple-flavored syrup.

On the days when maple-flavored syrup was available, it was placed in a tiny pot with only a spoon – which was smaller than a teaspoon – provided for ladling it out, and almost always placed not next to the pancakes and waffles as one would expect, but next to the pastries by clueless Vietnamese staff who either didn’t know what it was or took pleasure from seeing the frustration of Tyler and I searching for it in the morning. A tiny pot and a tiny spoon are not proper transfer vessels for an American like me, and sometimes when I’d get frustrated with the whole situation I’d just pick up the pot and dump its remaining contents on my waffles and flavorless bacon.

Most of the people staying at the hotel were Chinese, and they seemed to prefer garish things like pate and rice porridge with pickled eggs for breakfast. They would stare at me, befuddled, while I took my waffles and smothered them with butter and syrup. Occasionally I’d look around at breakfast time and see an adventurous Asian picking bravely at a pancake with chopsticks, but overall, they didn’t go over well with the Asians, adventurous or not.

One holiday weekend, my neighbor Jeff invited Ngan and I over for a Bloody Mary morning. I excitedly went out and bought bacon, instant pancake mix and 2% maple syrup with Arabic labeling at an import shop downtown. After cooking the pancakes and dousing them with generous amounts of butter and syrup, we were ready to eat. Jeff, along with another American neighbor and myself, were in heaven. Everything was delicious and we devoured the pancakes and bacon with gusto and relish and élan. Ngan and Jeff’s wife, Ca Loan, were not as impressed, but saw our excitement and at least made an attempt to play along.

Now I had a supply of syrup all to myself. I was deathly afraid that the vicious, sugar-loving ants that invaded our kitchen from time to time would find the bottle, get inside somehow and ruin it, so I kept it safely in the refrigerator.

Then the syrup condition at the breakfast buffet started getting worse. Tyler would usually arrive there before me and text me to let me know about the syrup status. For the final few days that Tyler worked across the hall from me, I just carried the bottle of syrup with me to work and wrapped it up tightly in a plastic bag so that it wouldn’t get on my laptop.

After breakfast, I’d bring the bottle to my office with me. I placed it proudly on my desk, like a trophy. “What’s that you’re drinking?” asked a kindly female coworker who shared my cubicle.

“Oh we don’t drink this,” I replied in Vietnamese. “We put it on pancakes. Do you know what a pancake is?”