When I was picked up from the Ho chi Minh đô thị airport by the taxi driver 8 months ago, I excitedly blurted out to lớn the driver, “bạn khỏe không?” or “how are you?” in Vietnamese. The guy looked back at me like I had just asked him “excuse me, vì you want me khổng lồ set your underwear on fire?”. What I learned later on, is that you DON’T ask a stranger “how are you?”. Unless of course, you really want to know their full health report. Silly, silly foreigner.

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You can probably guess that 8 months later, I’m a helluva lot more culturally fluent. I’ve had lớn learn the hard way – yes, I was calling elders “little sibling” (em) for the first two months. Và yes, I’ve offended all my coworkers by provocatively showing off my shoulders at work. Fast forward to lớn today – I sure as hell don’t know it all, but indeed I’ve learned A LOT, thanks lớn the help of my Vietnamese friends, students, coworkers and kind strangers, who have turned me from a naive, ignorant and wide-eyed Westerner lớn a well-versed fish-sauce lovin’, strong tea drinkin’, assimilated American. Now, before you read it on, I want you khổng lồ know that many of these “American” cultural references actually apply to all Western cultural habits, but I can’t compare Vietnam to lớn an entire hemisphere of the globe! So, I’m keeping it parallel & limiting it to lớn what I know best:

Seatbelts ready? Through the eyes of an American girl living in Vietnam, let’s take a ride on the culture train.

1. Small talk

When you meet a fellow American for the first time, you ask the simple questions: “where are you from?“, “what vì you do?“, maybe pry a bit more into their job, and leave it at that. Whatever you do, ya’ don’t get too personal. Already know the person và see them everyday? Great! That means you probably have asked them “how are you?” at least 324 times over the past year. It’s actually quite a skill, American small talk; ask as many meaningless questions as you can khổng lồ avoid awkward silence, without eliciting a response that is any deeper than “yea, good!”. Professional small talk questions include the following, said with utmost enthusiasm each time: “how are you, buddy?” “how’s it goin’?!” “How’s your day, man?” “Hey girl, how was your weekend?

In Vietnam, ain’t nobody got time for that. When you first meet someone, ya’ get straight to the point. Almost always the first question is “how old are you?” (which at first, I was put off – like, don’t you know you’re never supposed lớn ask a lady her age?!). It’s the most important preliminary detail lớn know about someone, as that tells you what pronoun they should address you by (“I” & “you” change based on relative age). Then, typical follow-up questions “Are you married?” “What’s your salary?” “what street vì chưng you live on??”. Yep – if someone wants lớn steal your identity, the cards are on the table. For the people you see daily, there is “everyday small talk” too, but it’s basically limited khổng lồ one question – “Did you eat (lunch/ dinner/ insert meal here) yet?” Followed by nothing…no dinner invites. Just curiosity.

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2. Family life


So you’re an 18-year-old American, you say? Run. Go far. Go very, very far. In the USA, as soon as youngsters have their legal independence, you fly và go lớn college far enough from home that your mom can’t pop up at your doorstep with cookies (although the cookies are always welcome). Families are spread out all over the US, often a plane ride away. My fam is a perfect example – my parents are in New York, my grandpa in Florida, my aunt và uncle in Atlanta, my step-siblings in Colorado and my cousins dispersed in too many different states to count. I’m lucky if I see everyone once a year.

Now, in Vietnam, families stay as close to each other as possible. Family duty is no joke, and it’s your responsibility as a son/daughter to lớn take care of your parents & elder family members. Và when you have kids, they’ll take care of you. If mom calls at 9:30 on a Saturday night to lớn come home and help with chores when you’re out with your friends, you don’t question her – you go. A family unit stays as close to each other as possible. And yes, sometimes that means sleeping in the same bed as your parents! The above pic is a real Facebook post from my friend’s Vietnamese cousin who was about khổng lồ get married (translated to lớn English) – only 2 weeks left khổng lồ sleep with mom & dad.

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3. Body toàn thân language


Okay American friends, pop quiz! What vì you think the lovely barista above is trying to lớn tell me?? If you said “maybe” – you’re WRONG! That means “no” in the Vietnamese world. “No luck today kid, we’re outta coffee. “Other “no” gestures include my personal fave, the big “X” – crossing your hands in front of your face kind of like a superhero.