Vietnamese meta language

She said No, but her body language said Yes.

He said Yes, but his other language said No.

How to figure it out? Context is key.

Mothers love you your entire life, but never said “I love you” directly.

Teachers who were mighty proud of their students’ achievement, but remained stern and strict behind thick glasses.

Harsh society? Hardly. But one needs to learn how to decode it.

One moment, the lover scolds you, then kisses you the next  second.

Enough to give Westerners a heart attack.

Do not react quickly. Just paraphrase and confirm your understanding. Use a third party for independent verification.

Vietnamese is an interlinked society, way before LinkedIn .

My friend recommended “Com Tam Bui Saigon“, an upscale version of blue-collar broken rice dish. So I found myself dining there.

Word-of-mouth. Trusting “Like”.

Hard to break in if you were an outsider. But once you untangled the knot (after finding out that everyone seems to be related to someone else: from being an in-law to being a distant relative), then you know you are dealing with collective self.

Things get done, but not on your timetable. It takes time to build trust.

Lots of toasting and testing.

People don’t give you deserved praises directly. Even when they do it indirectly, praises came across as having been dipped in vinegar. It keeps you humble. On this point, it’s best to let others sing your praise. Self-promotion belongs in the West.

By nature, it’s a communistic (and somewhat stoic) culture . The nail that stands out gets hammered down.  You can dance, you can shout, but only for  a minute before someone steps in to enforce the rule (I experienced this first hand during my senior year: sending out some guy to rent a base guitar, just to see the power got cut off when it was finally arrived). Recently, a club (Feeling) got inspected with search warrant for running past closing time. Nowhere do we see this conflict on display then at the Water Park, where kids are into action and adventure, while stoic adults sit watching in complete aloof and alienated. Unwanted pregnancy used to be top of the shame list.  Now, it is joined by out-of-closet gays, abortion, interracial marriage and old maids.

Yet Thai Tai, Dao Vinh Hung not only defy the rule, but thrive on it (the former even went so far as undergoing surgery in Thailand, and changing his title, from Mr to Ms).

Imagine Vietnam as a boat, with everyone on it.

Rationing the morale, and rationing the meal.

Take your turn to speak, but make sure group speak has the last say.

Consensus, compromise and often win-lose is the way to go (the winner would rationalize that his win is for the common good. Hence, “hieu” vs “tinh” or filial duty overrides personal self-gratification).

To understand Vietnamese meta language, one doesn’t need a dictionary. Just be ready for upfront loss to hope for eventual gain. And be careful what you wish for,  just like the nation itself which is still trying to win the peace in the midst of urbanization and modernization. It will need a whole set of new language to define itself just to keep pace.


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