Tuesday, November 10, 2009

4 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Coming to Vietnam

True, discomforting cultural differences will rear their ugly heads in every country one ventures off to. I can not expect the Vietnamese people to be mirror images of the typical American persona that I am so accustomed to - nor would I want them to be. But knowing the following facts surely would have served me well upon my arrival here:

(1) 'So-so' actually means 'No.' Ever shake your left or right hand back and forth, in a clock-and counter-clockwise motion, in response to someone asking you 'How are you?' or 'How did you do?' Well, in America, this action would indicate 'so-so.' But here in Vietnam, this gesture is a flat out NO. I am embarassed to admit that I did not decipher the meaning of this commonly understood form of communication until three weeks ago. I have foolishly lingered in the presence of many a shopkeeper or food vendor, inquiring about this-or-that, and have recevied that gesticulation. While I sat there wondering why these Vietnamese couldn't be more decisive and why they continued to give me unsure answers, they probably sat there thinking, 'Why is this idiot still sticking around when I clearly told her NO?!'

(2) Cancelling An Appointment = A Sin: Saving face is a HUGE deal in Vietnam. They don't like to be embarassed here, and their definition of embarassment includes breaking appointments. Case in point: A lovely couple from Missouri, who I had the most fortunate opportunity of getting acquiainted with a few weeks ago, told me that they cancelled a dinner reservation with the guy who helped them find their appartment. After politely asking him if they could move the date, they were surprised to find that he didn't speak to them for three days. When he finally did, his contact was via e-mail, and he flat out told this sweet, young couple that he didn't want anything to do with them anymore. Bizarre, huh? Not only did it startle me to hear this, but finally I understood why a certain group of students, whose coffee date I had cancelled a month before, didn't hit me back a second time around: I had dissed them. Bad.

(3) Curious stares, or contemptuous glares? I feel like I almost have the right to say that I now know what it's like to be a black man in white America, constantly aware of my race. But that's quite the statement, so maybe I won't jump that far ahead of myself. However, I am always getting scrutinized and sized-up any time I step outside my door. It's been bothering me a lot as of late. You would think that the surrounding community would have gotten used to the dirty blonde-haired white girl who patrols their streets in the morning, afternoon and night. Nope; I'm still getting as many gawkers and ogglers as I did on day one. I know the majority of the onlookers don't mean anything by this rudeness, but some of the looks I've received have been menacing. And it takes all of my inner strength not to act like a REAL New Yorker would and lash out at them, demanding 'Would you like to take a picture, @$$hole? It'll last longer!"

(4) Got bug spray? Was it foolish of me to assume that a country, infested as it is with malaria-plagued mosquitoes, would more than likely have an abundance of bug repellent for sale? Why, yes, yes it was. While I was thinking that it would be one less item to cram into my already full-to-the-brim suitcase, Vietnam was thinking that bug repellent wasn't really a necessary item to stock in its' precious shelf space. The only brand that they DO have is one known as Soffell, which is actually a smelly, sticky lotion that ceases to be effective three hours after application. I would KILL for some OFF! right now; and I would like to make a public apology to my mother, whose suggestion of 'bringing bug spray' I carelessly dismissed during those last few hours of packing. Mother knows best!

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