Living as a single woman in Vietnam definitely has its challenges. My first three months there were pretty lonely. Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to make any friends. In the US, I was used to being able to make friends easily, but in Vietnam, there was an invisible friendship barrier that I just couldn’t break down. I felt isolated – in the out group.
My difficulties had their roots in the differences in the social structures of the two countries. US culture is based on what sociologists call individualism. People are seen as individuals who happen to gather in groups. The groups may change over the years, or even from day to day. There’s the happy hour group, the weekend volleyball group, the once-a-month book discussion group. Most of the time, the people in these groups don’t overlap. Even your best friends may never meet the people in your beginning accordion group if they’re not into that sort of thing. Since people are individuals coming together to form ever-changing groups, it’s relatively easy to accept newcomers into the mix.
On the other hand, Vietnamese culture is based on collectivism, which has its roots in a deeply Confucian philosophy. In a collectivist society, the group is a person’s fundamental identity. There are no individuals, only parts of the whole. Just as an arm is useless without the rest of the body, an individual is nothing without the group. Accepting new members into the group is much more difficult this way. It’s more like surgically attaching a third arm – a lengthy process that creates a much more permanent connection.
Where I Fit In
Still, my foreign male co-workers seemed to come to the office daily with new stories about their encounters with the locals. They were often invited to have a drink with the group at the next table in a bar, or to join a group for dinner in a restaurant. It seemed that foreigners, at least foreign men, were more readily accepted. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing differently to be left out of those inter-cultural exchanges.
Then I took a look around and discovered that I was the only woman at the coffee shop. I was the only woman eating at the restaurant at nine o’clock at night. I was the only female customer in the bar. Where were all the women? As it turns out, they were all at home. In Vietnam, the public is a man’s domain, whereas women rule the household. I didn’t see any women in the coffee shops or bars because that wasn’t their realm.
I was aware of the in-group/out-group idea in Asian cultures, so I decided to conduct an experiment. Perhaps I could find a way to become part of the in group, to gain access to the female world at home. For several weeks I went to the same coffee shop every morning at the same time. I brought my laptop or a book to read and sat there for hours, smiling at the other patrons who stared at me, the strange foreign woman alone at a coffee shop.
After a number of weeks, the coffee shop employees timidly started trying out their English on me, asking me the most common small talk questions: Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married? Soon they started teaching me a few Vietnamese words too, giggling at my inability to pronounce the language. I laughed too – I was finally making friends!
A few more weeks passed in this way when one morning I was suddenly surrounded by a large group of people, including a couple of the employees I had been hamming it up with. They turned out to be the family that owned that coffee shop. I guess they had decided that I was a good egg, because they invited me to have lunch at their house that same day, and I happily accepted. The next day they took me to see a beautiful Buddhist temple at the edge of town, and on the weekend we went to the park to relax and enjoy each other’s company.
Over the next several months, this family became my connection to Vietnam. In addition to inviting me to have lunch in their home at least once a week, they also included me in quite a few important family events. I was witness to a Vietnamese wedding ceremony, a death anniversary celebration, and even the burial of the patriarch of the family. Curiously, in all the time that I spent with this family, I hardly ever spoke with the husband. He would occasionally nod hello, and only when he was drinking would he say a few words more.
Just before I left Vietnam, the family invited me to spend several days at their country home in Hanoi. There they had a great feast which included the slaughter of several ducks, various chickens, and a pig or two. I was surrounded by scores of family members that I had never met and couldn’t communicate with, but I was so happy to be a part of this celebration, and to be part of the in group.
At the time, it seemed that my life had transformed in an instant. One day I was alone and lonely at the coffee shop, the next I was fully accepted into the very personal space of one Vietnamese family. But in reality, that change had been forged over weeks and months of consistency and patience. I had finally figured out how to make friends in Vietnamese.
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