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More about Vietnam

Crab Mentality, cooperation, and pagodas on beautiful mountaintops

Having spent so much time in VN the past year I have learned a lot of interesting things, not all of which I like. I have witnessed first-hand what I recall a friend referring to last year as the "crab mentality". The idea is that one crab in a pot will easily escape. But three or more crabs in a pot never escape because they are all constantly pulling each other down due to their complete lack of cooperation. Sometimes it seems as if the Vietnamese really are pulling each other down. It's as if there is no sense of cooperation or spirit even though lip-service is often paid to these things in the government propaganda. In reality it is every man for himself. Bribery is rampant. I am almost ashamed to associate with wealthy vietnamese because the only way to get that way is to participate in the corruption. Those with nice houses probably have them because they were confiscated from someone else. The old-boy network is bigger in VN than anywhere I have seen. There are many well-educated Vietnamese who knows the difference between right and wrong but unfortunately the others around them make them feel forced to play the same game by the same rules.

It's odd: The Vietnamese language has so many pronouns to refer to yourself and others depending on the situation to show the proper respect. If the person is a teacher you call them "tha^`y" and yourself "con". If it is your parent you call them "ba'" and yourself "con". If it is a professional situation you refer to yourself as "to^i". A male older than you (like your brother) is "anh" or a female older than you (like your sister) is "chi." and when referring to yourself (being younger) you are "em". When referring to someone younger than you they are "em". Someone significantly older than you (old enough to be your parent) you refer to as "co^" for female and "chu'" for male. A very old person (like grandparents) you refer to as "ba`" for female or "o^ng" for male. There are more, but that is only what I have learned so far. Very complicated. When receiving something from an elder you always accept it with two hands. Take off your shoes when you enter a house. They treat each other with such respect.

Until they get out on the streets and are dealing with other Vietnamese who are not their family or friends, just anonymous people. The well educated and polite Vietnamese do ok. But the rest behave like animals. Pushing and shoving, cutting in line, cursing and swearing, ripping each other off, it's terrible. It seems so selfish to only treat people with respect when you have something to lose or gain (such as reputation or favor) and treat them so poorly when you know you will never see them again. How we treat others when we have nothing at stake says a lot about ourselves, I think.

I have nearly been compelled to bust some heads on a couple of different occasions this past week. I nearly caused a scene in the airport in Hanoi when some guy tried to cut in line between me and my friends by muscling his luggage cart between us. It's not like cutting in line will make his flight depart any sooner. But they just don't get it.

I have recently visited some very sacred pagodas in the buddhist religion. No westerner ever visits these places unless they were shot down over them. I got quite a few looks of surprise and many comments were made when people saw my white face climbing the long (several kilometers) and very steep trail to the top of the 1000 meter mountain. And when I finally got to the top after a 4 hour hike I found a mass of people perched on the tiny flat spot around the pagoda pushing and shoving and throwing their trash down all over this otherwise beautiful mountain top. They laughed at me for carrying my trash around in my backpack until I got to a place with a trash can. I had always assumed they would have more respect for their holy places than to litter them with trash but apparently they show their respect in some other way.

My friends told me I needed to learn to be Vietnamese. I explained to them that this is how animals behave and I refuse to believe that Vietnamese are animals. Just like crabs in a pot. They seem to have no clue what an ideal or a principle is. They rationalize poor behavior by saying that everyone else does it. It seems that their society would get a lot farther if they could just learn to cooperate and not think only of themselves. It is amazing to me that these are the same people who caused the world such troubles in the 60's and 70's.

I also see the general ignorance of the world of the people making them easy to repress and manipulate. The Internet and satellite television are changing that to some degree but being the only country on earth that speaks Vietnamese makes it very difficult for the average Vietnamese to get outside information. Suffice it to say that their government has given them a very "interesting" version of the history of the last hundred years.

Despite all of this the people who I dealth with directly on a face to face basis were all very nice and hospitable to me and I am very grateful to them. I never ran into a single instance of anti-Americanism or discrimination, other than having to pay double for tickets to anything because I am a foreigner. :)

"Không, tôi là người Việt!"