Anyone who has studied media will have come across the concept of discourses — the hidden messages, ideologies and agendas emanating from the use of language. They run through anything from the spoken day-to-day word through to TV commercials, online blogs, feature articles, music, radio and film. They represent a person or group's belief system, a set of values, and can contrast to such extremes that one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.

For anyone not born in Vietnam, living here can cause a clash of discourses, a conflict of values. The returning, younger generation of overseas Vietnamese flounder the most — culturally many struggle to balance the values of where they were brought up with those of their roots. But this clash affects all ‘foreigners’ and can come in many forms.

Take a recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) lambasting Vietnam for its treatment of “drug addicts”. It made a host of accusations and in doing so latched on to the discourse of the politically correct, ‘high’ moral values of certain elements of the west. Every human, no matter how immoral or how debase, has basic rights that should be respected (except of course when it comes to those who have ‘hurt’ the west).

Unfortunately for these ‘crusaders’ — for essentially they are trying to impose their ‘higher’ morality on the ‘infidels’ of Vietnam — these values just have no sway out here. A byproduct of development is the increase in street crime. For Vietnam, the people whose rights have been abused are the victims of this crime. By committing such an offense, the perpetrator not only loses their right to live a normal, day-to-day life, but foregoes their human rights as defined by HRW. And by general consensus, in Vietnam most of the perpetrators are “drug addicts”.

I'm Right, You're Wrong

Contrasting values also take a different form. Take the traffic. Back in the developed west, “civil society” tells us we must give way, let people cross the street and on the road try to be polite, no matter how much it puts us out. In Vietnam, politeness, giving way and being nice to people is reserved for family, friends and people you respect. On the road, most people you encounter are strangers. So, why be polite?

These are two different value systems. That's all. In the west it's "common sense" to be polite on the road, in Vietnam it’s “common sense” not to be polite of the road. Unfortunately for the country's reputation, tourists come here and can't cross the street, leading to countless blogs, write-ups and word-of-mouth accusations against Vietnam. One person's normal driver is another's maniac.

A recent blog on Thanh Nien Online exemplified a similar clash of values between west and east. “If you mispronounce a word in Vietnamese,” wrote the blogger, “They turn away and won't try to help you.”

In the blogger's American belief system this equates to rudeness, but in the Vietnamese belief system, foreigners can't speak Vietnamese. And if you try and communicate with someone who you can't understand, you may end up losing face. So, best to not communicate.

Another issue that recently exploded on Facebook was the destruction of the ‘cultural heritage’ of Saigon. Just in those two words you see the value problem. For the landowners and the people with the power, this is not ‘cultural heritage’. It is valuable land in a city where real estate prices have gone through the roof. And anyway, the buildings in question were built by the French. For the person making the complaint — a long-term foreign resident of this city — the viewpoint couldn’t be more different.

And here lies the problem. Very few value systems or discourses can be indisputably said to be right or wrong — to be a genuine part of the global community, absolutism just doesn’t exist any more. But if you want to live here long-term, then to be successful you need to understand and accept the values of Vietnam. It doesn’t mean you have to embrace them, but dogma just doesn’t work out here. Likewise, for Vietnam to make its way in the world, its people have to understand the values of the ‘foreigner’. The mistake comes when one person thinks their values are better or more worthy than the other’s. And that’s when the trouble starts.

The Word

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