In a Complex Manner
The older I get, the more I realize there are different types of rude. One of my all-time favorite films is Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lecter made everyone’s skin crawl. He was crafty. Everyone remembers this chilling tale of cannibalism. What made Lecter dangerous wasn’t his lack of remorse for his crimes but his ability to blend in. What I found intriguing was that Lecter ate only the rude. The media has everyone convinced all criminal psychopaths look like Charles Manson in that we can spot them a mile away. The truth is nobody can tell them by sight due to their social camouflage. That’s what makes them difficult to catch. Ted Bundy was considered America’s most prolific serial killer. Bundy was charming and manipulative. He was the last person anyone suspected to commit such heinous things. Bundy even worked at a rape crisis center to deceive people. Like Lecter, Bundy was mild-mannered. Whoever said having great manners in life would get you far was right on the money.
Too Close for Comfort
The biggest culture shock to me living in East Asia is what’s considered rude and polite. My blog yesterday noted the most important thing in Eastern culture is keeping face. That concept is still foreign to me after living here three years. I’ll never understand what it means to its entirety as a Westerner, but I get the big picture. If I had to put it into words, keeping face means avoiding embarrassment. Time and again, I’ve had to bite my tongue and look the other way when I’ve seen locals do what’s uncouth in America. It’s not uncommon to witness people hocking up loogies and blowing ass at a restaurant or other public venues. Often I notice folks coughing their heads off without covering their mouths. Asian parents let their children run around restaurants like wild animals because they think that’s cute. I’ve lost count of how many times people asked me what are considered personal questions in America like how old am I, why I’m over 30 and not married, and why I have no children. I’ve had to throw red herrings and say I like having my freedom. That’s easier than going on about Asperger’s or how most American women would rather date a two-bit criminal than a guy on the spectrum. It’s expected in Vietnam for everyone to follow those guidelines. They don’t have a social safety net like we have in the West.
He Said a Mouthful
Last night, during an online lesson, one of my students was eating and talking with his mouth full. His parents deemed it wise to have dinner during the session. My instinct was to scold his parents about how unprofessional that was. Instead I complained to the TA on WeChat. I asked if someone could talk to his parents. Myriad times I’ve asked my students to get their bags out of the aisles when I was teaching in public schools. I don’t know if it’s because they’re kids and they’re absent-minded or if the Thai and Vietnamese teachers allowed it and didn’t speak up. Whatever the rhyme or reason, it got tiresome because it happened daily. I’ve even seen adults and children relieve themselves like dogs in the streets, sidewalks, alleyways, and parks. They have no shame in any of that. Does this stuff bother me? Of course it does. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. But I’ve had to remind myself day in and day out I’m a guest in their country, and I must play by their rules. Any Westerner would say this is just common sense. That may be true, but the Average Joe doesn’t realize common sense is a Western thing.
The Confucian Solution
Vietnam and China lived under the Taoist philosophy over 1000 years. Most people under that system thought anyone who wasn’t family was their enemy. These are also communist countries where critical thinking is discouraged. It wasn’t like that until Mao Tse-Tung discouraged manners because he thought they were too bourgeois. These patterns are the aftermath of living in lawless societies the past 70 years. People don’t call others out on their bad behavior because that’s losing face. They won’t take kindly towards anyone correcting them as that’s bringing shame and humiliation to the individual and everyone around. Thus, I’ve stopped expecting a straight answer from anyone. I’m not just referring to my students who by default say yes if I ask them whether or not they understand the material because they’re too ashamed to say no. When I inquire if there’s a problem, most Asians tell me. They’ll blow smoke and tell me everything is fine even if it’s absolute garbage. They’ll send it through the pipeline and inform the whole neighborhood in their native tongue, but they won’t tell me. The only way I’ll find out is through second or third-hand information. The secret is out by then, and I’m the last to know. They’d rather die than lose face.
Hit the Road, Jack
These experiences help me respect this culture more and reflect upon my own. Americans don’t have the best reputation around the world for our behavior, either. People can have excellent manners and still be rude. My sister’s first husband was a prime example. I’ll call him Jack to avoid any reprisals. Jack had great etiquette. The guy was well-spoken and cultured, but he was still toxic. Anyone who knew Jack could see past the superficial charm and realized how conceited he was. The guy is a classic narcissist. Everything is all about Jack. His ability to exhibit class at the dinner table and in public only went so far. That doesn’t discount that Jack was a pathological liar with no ambition. Jack was just another two-bit musician who knew how to weasel his way out of any situation with his good looks and flattery at the end of the day. That to me is rude. There came a point after my sister divorced Jack that his groupie friends came out of the woodwork and stated what a tool he was. Nobody liked him I later learned. They tolerated him and pretended they did because Jack was one of the cool kids. Sadly, Western media encourages this behavior.
Give it Time
Now I give the locals a free pass on what’s deemed improper in the West. The truth is they don’t know any better. Public toilets didn’t exist for the longest time which explains some of the dirty habits. The older generation is accustomed to it the same way Americans once used outhouses because they had no indoor plumbing. Vietnam is a developing country, but the hospitality here outweighs the rest. Imagine backwoods country folks from Appalachia moving to New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. That’s about what it’s like. The younger generation is more sophisticated because they grew up in the urban areas. They’re more used to dealing with foreigners unlike the older ones. The latter aren’t stupid; they’re just simple, and it’s not their fault. Jack knew he was conniving, but he didn’t care. He was aware of his actions, but Jack never took accountability for anything. If Hannibal Lecter was as smart as the movies depicted, he’d understand the circumstances. Whether Lecter would forgive someone like Jack is another story. In the end, I’d trust the locals on my worst day more than I ever would jack on my best because I at least know the Viets are sincere when they’re polite.