An American woman I know, who has been in Vietnam for six years, is leaving. I am sad for her, not because I know her well, but because she has had such a hard time here.
For six years in Hanoi, this woman led one of the more materially-charmed lives of anyone I know. Her house was a mansion, with high ceilings, fashionable furnishings, and tasteful mementoes of her many travels. Her son received excellent schooling at the city's most prestigious school. Her husband's high government position freed her from the necessity of work, and she enjoyed the services of a cook, a housekeeper, and a driver. But despite these comforts, she disliked the country, and will be bidding good riddance to Vietnam.
Many of the things she told me when I arrived – that Hanoians were rude, that they would pretend to not understand me if I tried to speak their language, that they would constantly try to rip me off – have simply not been true for me. She dismissed my favorable first impressions as naiveté. After some time, when my impressions of Vietnam only grew more favorable, she ascribed it to my work at a language school. She could not accept that Vietnam was not as bad for me as it had been for her.
Unhappy westerners abound here; most of them blame Vietnam for their miseries. Another example: the other day, an Australian woman I know, speaking about the Vietnamese, said, "This is an unkind race." I asked her on what she had based that opinion, and she mentioned the driving, and office politics at her workplace. I asked her if she spoke any Vietnamese, if she had studied the history, or the literature, or if she had any close Vietnamese friends. The answer, of course, was a mumbled no.
These attitudes are hard for me to understand. I like Vietnam: I appreciate its history, I like its food, and most of all, I like the people. I also have practices that help me to live here as a foreigner. First of all, I remind myself every day that I am here by choice. Vietnam did not invite me; I chose this place, and if I want to make the most of my experience here, I had better remember that.
In a similar vein, I don't look for Vietnam to entertain me, or fulfill me spiritually, or provide for me anything that I am unable to provide for myself. I came here assuming that Vietnam would at times be intriguing, frustrating, exotic, horrible, and beautiful – in other words, like every other place on earth. I'm not surprised by its discomforts. Vietnam gives you nothing you cannot give yourself. Why should it? It's as pitiless as the sea.
Happiness – and this is true anywhere – often depends on accepting things on their own terms, not on the terms one would impose upon them. When you take Vietnam on its own terms, you see an ancient culture where Confucianism and traditional agricultural village society have been thrown into a crazy blender with Voltaire, Marx and Mao, and produced a melange of dynamic forces that often operate at odds with each other. It's a country that has experienced enormous social fissures...and not entirely reconciled them. But the thing to recognize is that Vietnam's fundamental dialog is with itself – not with me, or any of the other foreigners that have recently begun to wash up here.
I try to live by the credo expressed in the Henry Miller quote that anchors this blog: look outside, forget yourself – the world is filled with richness and beauty. Learn to appreciate vignettes: the old women in conical sunhats selling mangosteens and pineapples; the weird wooden bong smoked by the uniformed security guard in front of a motorcycle dealership; the scent of rotting fruit peels that, in the summer heat, blends rank and sweetness in equal proportion. These moments anchor a place in memory, and become tomorrow's nostalgia.
Aristotle one day was sitting on a hillside outside of Athens, when a traveller came up to him and asked, "Are you from that city?" When Aristotle said yes, the stranger asked, "Tell me, what are the people like there?" Aristotle answered the stranger's question with a question: "What are the people like where you come from?" The stranger replied, "Oh, they are very nice, very friendly, kind and helpful," to which Aristotle responded, "The people of Athens are exactly the same."
Later, a second traveller approached him with the same question, and Aristotle asked this traveller too, what the people were like where he had come from. The stranger replied, "They're very mean, always fighting and unhappy," to which Aristotle replied, "The people of Athens are exactly the same."