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Here is a portion of a letter I received from a Vietnamese acquaintance of mine, who is currently studying abroad.


I think media plays a big role in shaping our opinion about the world. As a child, I noticed that the way my parents, especially my father, treated me was different (in a negative way) from what I saw on TV.


An American father, for example, would ask his children’s opinion and treat them like adults. It is to say that we don’t need to wait until we become adults to experience the cultural differences. Adulthood is critical because it is the time we have to face bigger questions in life, such as love and marriage, our career, etc. Again, media shows us alternatives of lifestyles and other choices. We don’t need to speak English or study abroad to know that.


People who go out, and then, come back to Vietnam are extreme examples. In my opinion, young Vietnamese who understand and appreciate both Western and Eastern values suffer the most. They want to be free, but they care about their families and understand the traditions. They have one foot in and one foot out and they are stuck. When I think about going back to Vietnam and facing tons of questions and pressure from my family to do what they want, I just don’t want to come back. But they are still my family. I have to meet them some day. It is sad to think about your family like that.


There are no questions here, but I will share some thoughts about what she says.


Thank you for sharing your truth with me, as painful as it might be. Your letter is an example of what I hear quite often from my Vietnamese clients. Sometimes they are anxious, quite depressed or deeply frustrated about their situation and don’t know what to do.


I would like to step back from the personal experiences people are having and to look at it briefly through the lens of social change. Vietnam has gone through a great deal of change in the past 70 years, the lifetime of many who are living today. The childhoods of each generation who are living now have been very different from one another. There is no space here for a history lesson, but it's undoubtedly true that years of suffering have preceded the relative abundance that exists today.


That suffering and the losses inherent in them create a history, not unlike what other countries have gone through in the aftermath of war. People existed in survival mode, uncertain if basic physical and emotional needs would be met.


We all know this, but maybe we don’t always see how these differences might change the way we approach life. Abraham Maslow created a model called the “hierarchy of needs”, in which the premise is that the baseline needs for safety and survival come first. When they are not met, the needs higher up the chain such as, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation will not be met.


While I see the problems that many young people are facing as having a lot to do with cultural expectations, I also hold open the possibility that restrictions applied to young people are part of the effect of the collective traumatisation of Vietnamese people.


Recently, some visiting German psychologists shared with me the painful part of their country’s history after World War II, where those who lived through that period and its aftermath were not able to allow the next generation the freedom to advance themselves. The conflicts that occurred and the generation gap that was felt had painful consequences that are still felt in German culture today.


From my personal experience working with Vietnamese people, I also feel a limit in the options that they experience to align themselves with their own aspirations. The obligation to the influences outside of themselves creates internal conflicts that are very challenging.


My hope is that a bigger discussion is created which helps an entire culture navigate the change that is so much a part of modern life.


Thanks for the letter. I hope this is helpful.




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Douglas Holwerda

Douglas is an American trained psychotherapist, writer of the Dear Abby-esque monthly column in the Word, "Dear Douglas". He holds to the notion that the living of life is a creative endeavour... an eternal adventure without promises. And that we are both shaped by the journey and the shapers of what is possible. Our greatest hope is to find love and connection along the way. Live it all.