Thursday, 11 January 2018 05:30

Orientalism

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Telling people what to do or think can be a mistake

 

The recent online spat over the opening of McDonald’s in Hanoi demonstrated the gulf between the perspectives of ‘us’ and ‘them’ — local Vietnamese versus people from overseas. While many local Hanoians greeted the arrival of the fast-food behemoth with glee, a large number of expats treated the inauguration with disdain.

 

“The Vietnamese should not eat this junk,” wrote one expat. While according to another, McDonald’s should “stay away from spoiling an innocent country.”

 

This gap in world views creates an interesting conundrum.

 

Expats with their knowledge of the outside world and experience of working in a more global environment have something to give Vietnam. Whether it’s skill transfer, education, consultancy or business, the presence of foreigners and foreign ideas in this country adds value.

 

Yet Vietnamese see things differently. This is their country, land that they fought for for hundreds of years. Time and again they’ve rid themselves of unwanted foreign influence and fought off invaders. So when foreigners tell them what to do or think, or that the arrival of McDonald’s in Hanoi is bad, why should they listen?

 

Hegemony

 

In his 1978 work, Orientalism, Edward Said argued that Western writings and thought on ‘The Orient’ were dominated by a need to establish European imperial domination over non-European societies. In doing so, the westerner, or Orientalist, claims to have more essential and definitive knowledge about the Orient than Orientals do themselves.

 

Applied to modern-day Vietnam, this can translate to expats telling Vietnamese that “having McDonald’s in Vietnam is bad for Vietnam”, or that the Vietnamese “need to stop destroying their environment” or need to adopt the modern, liberal teaching practices espoused elsewhere. It can emerge in many forms, from talk about corruption to human rights to driving motorbikes correctly to how tourism should be done. Orientalists as we know them today are non-Vietnamese, mainly expats or Viet Kieu, telling Vietnamese what to do because their knowledge of life and how things work is more ‘worldly’ or superior.

 

Yet, as an expat, when I look at Vietnam there is so much I feel I can give this country. Take tourism.

 

In the early to mid-noughties I lived in Vung Tau, a seaside tourist town southeast of Saigon. While I loved the lifestyle and the tropical sea air, I was constantly irritated by the beachfront. From the ramshackle businesses lining the sea to the litter on the beach, it was a mess.

 

For years I had this desire to take key people from the local tourism authorities on an all-expenses paid trip to Mediterranean Europe to ‘show them how it was done’.

 

I was missing the point.

 

Every weekend the city was packed out with Vietnamese taking a break by the sea. Tourism was working, so why change it?

 

Yet 15 years later, this city is off the tourist radar and is missing out on all those tourist dollars that are heading to destinations elsewhere. Do I feel vindicated? Yes, of course I do. Even though this is not my country, my opinions and ideas are still valid. That they’re not is frustrating — not just for myself but many other long-termers who live in Vietnam.

 

Black and White

 

Yet, no matter how valid, expats need to be careful about how they impose their ideas on Vietnam. One reason is hypocrisy.

 

It’s okay to promote craft beer to Vietnam, an American creation that most expats approve of. Indeed, how often have you seen online comments like “educating locals on craft beer”?

 

Yet, that other American creation, McDonald’s elicits a different response. There are almost 40,000 McDonald’s restaurants on this planet. So, why shouldn’t a few of them be in Hanoi? And anyway, if McDonald’s is good enough for everyone else, why shouldn’t it be good enough for Vietnam?

 

So, when people express their anger at this fast-food chain or their love of craft beer, are they really concerned about Vietnam? In many instances, no. Instead they’re airing their own feelings towards a particular phenomenon.

 

Another reason to be careful is understanding how things work here.

 

Some years ago a financial analyst explained to me how he saw negotiation in Vietnam. Negotiation, he said, is never black and white. It’s constantly moving, constantly changing — a bit like the traffic — with nothing set in stone.

 

If you accept this, he explained, then you can be a successful negotiator. You understand that there are no boundaries and that everything is changeable. But if you try to impose a Western, absolutist sense of negotiation on the Vietnamese, then you will fail.

 

It’s the same in terms of perspectives. If as an expat you accept that Vietnam has its own worldview, one that may never be influenced by your own, then you’ve already made half the journey. And if you do want to make change, then any ideas you have must fit into that worldview. If you’re mindful, then people will listen. But the moment you try and impose your own, foreign perspective on Vietnam, you will fail.

 

So, are you an Orientalist?


 

PHOTO BY OLGA ROZENBAJGIER

 

Nick Ross

Chief editor and co-founder of Word Vietnam, Nick Ross was born in the humble city of London before moving to the less humble climes of Vietnam. His wanderings have taken him to definitely not enough corners of the globe, but being a constant optimist, he still has hopes.

twitter.com/nickrossvietnam

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