In early 2011, our managing editor of Word Ha Noi Julia Plevin wrote the following comment: “The truth holds that… a lot of expats are somewhat damaged goods.”
One reader was enraged:
“Damaged goods. What a charming turn of phrase you Americans have. Only someone who grew up in a cut-throat society that quickly divides its entire population into a few ‘winners’ and a vast underclass of ‘losers’ would have the nerve to use such a vile and hateful descriptive of the very people your publication claims to cater to.”
Yet, Julia was correct. A small number of expats (please note: not all) do end up in Vietnam because they have been unsuccessful elsewhere. Many others get moved on or rotated by HQ, while a minority marry, decide to become entrepreneurs and stay.
Whatever the reason you are here, if you are an expat, you are a guest in this country. Everyone has difficult moments — it’s inevitable. But if you consistently behave badly, then it will make your hosts treat you with contempt. They will look down not just on you, but on nguoi nuoc ngoai or foreigners in general. Overdo it, then calls to ‘halt immigration’ will start to come, like they have in the West.
Not for Sore Eyes
The recent explosion of a private expat Facebook group that shall remain nameless is an example of expats creating their own reasons to be thrown out of Vietnam. [Full disclosure: I’ve been blocked from the group, even though I’ve never tried to join it!] On the one hand, the group is there to allow people to vent their frustrations at life in this country. There are many, as there are many no matter where you live; letting off steam is both normal and natural. But when people start complaining about this country and its people, and worse, get racist, you wonder why they are here at all.
Take the term zuzu, one that is increasingly used in this group (it originally comes from the name of someone’s pet monkey). Meant to refer to Vietnamese people in the same way that gook once referred to Koreans, and you start to wonder; what are the people using these terms doing here in the first place? If you want ‘damaged goods’, then surely this is it?
Worse, imagine how Vietnamese people would feel if they knew that those very people they allow to live in their country were referring to them by such a derogatory term? Back home you would be up in arms if immigrants or refugees treated your country or your people with disdain. It’s no different in Vietnam.
When I first arrived here, there were all sorts of oddballs hanging about. The Gary Glitter episode got rid of most of the paedophiles — most — while increasingly strict rules on hiring teachers has professionalised the industry. One of the key changes was the enforcement of work permit rules and the tightening up of visa regulations. People may rightly complain about the lack of clear information on how to get that-all important work permit or visa. Yet this has helped to ensure that the majority of people who shouldn’t be in Vietnam, are no longer here.
Yet every time an expat is involved in an incident of road rage; treats a waitress badly in a restaurant; writes a needless, nasty comment on Facebook; or acts towards a Vietnamese person like they are stupid, they are adding to a growing dislike of foreigners among locals. And so this prejudice against foreigners is growing.
Expats are guests, and when they live in Vietnam, many live a charmed life. So enjoy it while you can. Respect what you’ve got and the people who have let you live here, because if you don’t, visa and work permit regulations may get even tighter. Then, the only ‘goods’ that will be ‘damaged’ will be expats.