The assumptions of a foreigner

Over the last three months, we’ve both learned a lot about assumptions. We all have them, and not until a we were confronted with reality rather than just the common myths, did we have to take a step back and re-think what we thought we knew. Joe and I strive to unlearn what we’ve been taught about stereotypes, biases and expectations, but they are still ingrained in us. Some of this comes with a certain amount of vulnerability; showing us exactly what we didn’t know, but with that comes a sense of openness (shout out to Brené Brown). Our musings below are just that, learning through exposure; some written ponderings of what we’ve learned moving to a different place with a different culture.

As a recap of who we are and what we’re doing, check out: Move to Viet Nam and Jobs at Tra Vinh University.

Assume you can get away with stuff as a foreigner.
Don’t assume you can get away with anything because you are a foreigner.

I learned both of these to be true. There are some actions that are permissible because you are not from Viet Nam. Excused as stereotypical behavior by a Westerner, or just a brush off because you don’t know better. An example would be visiting temples. You should read about temples before going, and follow the guidelines, including dressing modestly, not doing certain things because you are not a local, etc. We really wanted to respect Vietnamese culture so we don’t bend the rules on this one. However, there is also the grace of not knowing. Just don’t be an ass and take advantage of ‘foreigner status’—too many people do this already.

This has also been true for my wardrobe choices for work. My coworker tells me I can get away with more because I’m a foreigner. More, in this context, means wearing more comfortable clothes, not following the policies on conservative clothes, etc. However, the classic “because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.” Although it should be noted that while we read from others and current policies that conservative clothing is required there are some locals who don’t abide by it either.

Assume people don’t know English.
Don’t assume people know English.

Obvious, right? Here’s two times where it matters.

Learn the local language. It’ll help if you are traveling out on your own and need to figure out transportation, food, rentals, etc. We’ve found that people are appreciative if we can have a conversation (mostly about where we work and where we are from) or at least they respect the attempt as we stumble over our new found Vietnamese words.

For as many people who don’t know English, we’ve also found that several people do. They watch English-speaking TV shows, listen to music from around the world, and take English classes, etc. In our experience, we’ve also seen a lot of people want to talk to us about anything just to improve their English. They’ll come up to us at cafes, restaurants, and in shops. We’ve been advised, and we respect the suggestion: it doesn’t help anyone to be critical about life in Viet Nam out in public as you never know if there are wandering ears.

Assume people mean what they say.
Don’t assume they’re always honest.

We’ve found that the people we work with are direct. They don’t skirt around issues and freely give their personal opinion. Where we have found this to be the most true is around our appearance.  Joe has quickly learned that his ‘slightly larger frame’ has been perceived as … fat. Justine has been told she would look prettier if she wore heels. This is a shock to our self-esteem because we’ve been taught that unpleasant words or giving direct feedback (without prompt) on a person’s appearance is not kind. How interesting that they don’t see saying fat as an unkind thing?

We’ve also learned that when the answer is negative, including a straight ‘no’ or something that may not be a well-received response, it’s hard to get the honest answer. Sometimes this leads to situations that are difficult to decipher. Our most recent example was at a restaurant where we ordered, then waited 30 minutes only to be told they ran out of a vegan meal. I asked if they had an alternative and the server knew they didn’t but while avoiding eye contact, awkwardly responded with “maybe.” Needless to say I did not eat that night.

Assume that there are universal truths.
Don’t assume things are the same as you know them to be.

My excitement for ketchup in Kyrgyzstan in 2008 taught me this one. I was so eager to feel the familiarity of home that I ended up pouring a seemingly red, stale, sour imposter of ketchup all over my fries. To the restaurant, it was the ketchup they knew; and to me, it was my awakening of the difference in similarity. Just like that, I’ve learned that even if we use the same words, across cultures we can have different meanings. Joe and I have run into this a lot with our colleagues.

I’ve also learned that there are just some things that connect people across differences like the ideas that “love is hard, but worth it,” “everyone loves to laugh,” and “food can fix a broken heart, a homesick belly, or a worried head.” Even more so, we’ve made fools of ourselves by assuming things to be the truth we know. I supposed the main point to this one is, be flexible and don’t have your heart set on Heinz Ketchup.

Just like every culture, there are dualities. They seem more obvious when you are learning about them as an adult.

Finally, don’t assume you can make sweeping assumptions about cultures. Another obvious one, but we constantly check ourselves. In this blog, we attempt to ground our examples in our experiences.

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