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.


6 thoughts on “The Backwards Nation?”

  1. let me try to shed some light:

    1. Cutting backward: In fact, Vietnamese think that the way Westerners cut fruit is back ward, so it depends on whose point of view it is. You don’t always sit across from someone when you cut something so the chance of the knife sliding across and hurting someone is way less than it hurting you (that is if it ever). See the wisdom?.

    2. In Vietnam, white stands for purity but also moaning. If you study Vietnamese, have you ever heard of “ma`u tra(‘ng tang to’c”. In addition, can you imagine Vietnamese wearing black in the burning heat of this tropical sun?

  2. Hi there,

    Thanks for your comment. When I wrote this, I did not intend to imply that my cultural norms are better or worse than those in Vietnam, but rather to highlight some differences that people usually don’t even consider when they think about Vietnamese and Western culture.

    Even though I’ve been here for six years, sometimes I stop and think, “Wow, that’s so different from what I grew up with.” I still struggle with the proper etiquette of addressing my mother and father in law in the proper way, simply because I wasn’t raised with those cultural norms (although I hope I’m getting better).

    Cultural differences don’t have to be a negative thing. Rather, I see them as a chance to learn more about another place and furthermore an opportunity to step back and ask questions about one’s own culture and norms.

    Thanks again.

  3. only the family wears white, others just need to choose the simple clothes with black or white is ok. That is just the cultural for thousand years, it happens at almost everywhere in Asia.

    for cutting fruits I think you take it so seriously.

    for rowing on the river I think it’s a lot different thing here. The river in the South of Vietnam is not calm, the flow is so strong. With the 2 pictures you can see the difference between the surface of the water. second thing to mention here is people use the boat to transport their goods. they put anything on the center of the boat and stand or sit at the end to drive it. when it arrives the port or the market they can sell or trade easily.

  4. I don’t get the white=mourning thing (maybe black is just too hot when your country is only a few degrees away from the equator?) but the rowing and fruit cutting things make a lot of sense!

    When you row backward, how do you know where you’re going? If you’re the only one rowing on a river, I guess you don’t need to see where you’re going. But if you’re trying to avoid bumping into a lot of other boats, forward rowing is a must. If you’re the only one walking on the street, walking backward or forward is not a huge issue. But if you have to share a tiny alley with a lot of other people, walking forward to see where you’re going to better avoid bumping into other people makes a lot of sense.

    If you notice, not a lot of Vietnamese cut fruits directly and closely in front of other people. With the blade pointing away from your body into an empty space, cutting is much safer for everybody!

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