Sunday, December 04, 2016


“You should study French since you can use it in Vietnam one day” my mom told me when I was picking a foreign language in middle-school.   With limited references at this age this was like choosing between crackers & brie or a plate of nachos, a choice I'd still wrestle with to this day, but brie won for sentimental reasons from all the French cheese and crackers I scarfed down with my dad.  The town I grew up in also happened to have one of the top French schools in the NYC area so knowing the language would be useful both in making friends and eavesdropping on my many French neighbors, “Ah oui inspecteur Closeau.”  However, little did I know about French colonialism and the cultural influences France had on Vietnam.  I knew even less about Vietnam, a place I was from, but cared little about in my little world that consisted of my family, the school I went to, and the sports I played in a small town Larchmont, N.Y.  Vietnam was my birthplace, a minor part of my bio that I would remember now and then when looking at my passport, but hardly spoke about much less understood till later on.  Little did I know that the events in my life would gradually wake a hidden curiosity and send me on a journey back to my motherland almost two decades later. 

Growing up in the 80’s the Vietnam War was still too fresh in many American’s memory, Vietnam’s identity was consumed by a war that brought more shame than pride and so I too avoided this part of me.  Vietnamese-Americans were still coming to America trying to survive which also came with the shameful aspects that overshadowed the greater good like gang violence.  Hollywood blockbusters like Rambo also glorified killing the gooks and movie sound bites of Vietnamese prostitutes became mainstream rap lyrics, “me so horny, me love you long time.”  After tuning out any Vietnam war movies for a decade I discovered 90’s Franco-Vietnamese movies that I would watch countless times with relief that the stories were not about the war and were the total opposite of Hollywood with antiheroes who were poor and didn’t get the girl. They even went from bad to worse with depressing endings that went back to the loop of mundane routines.  Films like ‘Cyclo,’ ‘Scent of Green Papaya,’ or ‘Three Seasons’ with typical French style cinematography which had drawn out scenes of water dripping off a lotus leaf or watching a person lying in a room next to a rickety fan just sweating for what might have been a minute, but felt like an eternity.  Finding these rare Vietnamese 90's movies without stories about the war was a far cry from the hip Vietnamese culture people nowadays embrace from the trendy food trucks in many cities to Vietnam being a top travel destination.  

Self-portrait 1995

When venturing out of my predominantly white neighborhood I'd sometimes meet other Vietnamese people, though these encounters brought both excitement as much as they brought anxiety caused by uninvited judgment as I proved to be the same only in appearance, but then had little else to show for my heritage and the momentary joy quickly turned to disappointment.   It's not as if being Vietnamese was a sham, but rather that explaining my story was both complicated and met with mixed responses, the worst being pity for having lost my biological parents.  Because of this I'd often not want to explain much, keep quiet, and just let them make conclusions of who I am.  It wasn’t till high school and college that I started to make some Vietnamese friends, we found common ground in being American and I was always curious to learn about their families.  Things like hearing about their journeys to the U.S. or familial duties that was something totally foreign to me and intrigued me as I was searching for anything to learn about being Vietnamese.  

One college friend who left a lasting impression on me was Hai. We were floor-mates, but he didn't hang around with everybody, and quietly shuffled by us often returning from the library late at night.  I eventually met Hai in the lounge playing ping pong together on study breaks and I found behind the serious facade was an easy going big-brother type of guy, and how different our lives were.  College was a given path for me with hopes that I’d do well, I was never pressured into any major, and my mom's main concern was whether I had enough money on my dining card.  Hai on the other hand came from a big family of six brothers who were first generation Americans, they were living the American dream with a family restaurant and going to the best public schools.  However, with this Hai also carried the burden of his parents’ dreams to go to med school. As if this wasn’t enough pressure, he was expected support his younger brother who was also at the same college, plus help run the family restaurant when back home in the city during holiday and summer breaks. I always remembered Hai's words saying how lucky I was and that he wanted to move away and travel on his own, but couldn't break family obligations.  Upon finishing college I didn’t have a definitive plan, but I was free and with my mom’s recent passing her words that I should someday go to Vietnam resonated even stronger.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Quality of Life

According to the Quality of Life Index for 2010, Vietnam ranks 52 just behind Fiji and ahead of Gambia. In case you don’t know, FIji is a small island in the Pacific off the coast of Australia and Gambia is country in the NW of Africa known for its slave trade in ; both areas of British colonization in the 20th century, but neither countries having significant impact on the recent world socio-economical events.

The quality of life index is calculated by the International Living Organization and is based on factors such as cost of living, leisure culture, economic environment, freedom, health, infrastructure, risk & safety, and climate where the higher the score, the better such as the case of the US with an overall score of 86. Why Vietnam’s ranking is only 52 is quite shocking considering it was coined as the next Asian Tiger just a few years ago. If we were considering Vietnam’s ranking purely based on it’s capital, then maybe it’d rank higher next to its neighboring countries such as China and Thailand.

While this website admits being biased, having weighted rankings for factors, plus giving a Western perspective (American to be exact), it does bring to mind some warning signs, some that are evident to even the normal citizen’s eyes like myself while living in Vietnam for the past years. The cost of living in Vietnam has risen dramatically in the past years since I moved here in 2004 where the prices for commodities and utilities such as petrol, rice and electricity have gone up as much as 50%, but not in line with most inhabitants salaries. Vietnam ranked 71 in this area which is not even that bad and while electricity price increases are expected to cause outrage, the cost of living is still relatively low to most other countries.

Weighing in with average scores are Vietnam’s economy and environment. It is argued by many economist that a country needs to be financially stable in order to address social issues, however despite Vietnam’s rapidly growing economy with of the strongest GDP’s in the world this past year with 6.7% growth, the environment is literally an eyesore in many areas where you can see debris of all sizes just about everywhere on the streets, canals and coastline. Furthermore, Vietnam faces issues of even more serious environmental hazards from industries such as agricultural manufacturing and petrol with a recent historical settlement case against Vedan for environmental pollution.

Unsurprisingly ranking the lowest on the list are Freedom and Infrastructure. Again, we must remember that this is a biased ranking from an American point of view from which I’d agree that areas of censorship and political corruption are problematic, but what government is not corrupt? Infrastructure is a big problem and even while roads have improved significantly and the Internet is accessible, there are too many other problems such as public transportation, water and electricity that can hardly be understood in this article alone. To put it briefly, Vietnam is a developing country and it’s better to embrace old world development as a charm rather than convince yourself that all these infrastructure problems will soon be a thing of the past. I just hope they prove me wrong.

The last items on this index weigh in very well for Vietnam for Risk & Safety and Climate. Considering where to raise a family, I personally think that Vietnam is safer than most developed countries like the US, France or Japan. While Vietnam experiences crime at all levels, violent crime is significantly low and most people feel safe walking around the streets at any time of the day. The recent shooting of Representative Gabrielle Gifford, annual news of school shootings or even the US's worst terrorist attacks of 9/11 makes me rethink how the US ranked the highest as the safest country. Back to Vietnam's social woes, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor has seen petty crime on the rise and adding insult to injury by ostensibly emphasizing a more class-like society where Bentley luxury sedans pass by bicycle peddling merchants. Last, but not least the climate in Vietnam is pleasant most of the time, yet can be stifling in its hottest times of the year with the South at about 33 degrees Celsius with hot desert like conditions in the Spring and the north near 40 degrees Celsius in the summer months.

At first glance, Vietnam’s ranking of 52 next to Fiji and Gambia seems oddly out of place, but upon a closer look at what makes up this number it seems that Vietnam is fairly ranked with areas such as environment and infrastructure that it should seriously address, whereas factors such as cost of living and climate seem like they were glossed over considering outsiders do not intimately know about the problems of inflation or pollution that are deteriorating the quality of life.

Quality of Life Index:

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Rainy Season in Saigon

Rainy season in the southern part of Vietnam lasts for about half of the year from about March until October. Each day has occasional rain showers passing by with people taking shelter and others just going about their daily routine. By the way, this is the first video I've ever tried to edit and post on my blog so I hope you like it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Six rules of thumb for doing business in Vietnam

So I got this slide, "Six rules of thumb for doing business across cultures" from a grad school class that I'm taking and thought I'd share some ideas with a twist about working in Vietnam since I wish someone told me something about these points before I started working in Vietnam.

1. Be prepared - Can mean many things, but for business I'd suggest you learn a few basic pointers particular to business in Vietnam as well as SE Asia. For example, use 2 hands when exchanging business cards. If you don't have a business card, get some made since they're crazy about them here for exchanging contact info. When you receive someone's business card or vice-versa it is polite to examine it for a while and ask even what might seem like obvious questions, "oh so you're based in Ho Chi Minh City?" Another important tip is to know your rank in a business meeting since if your merely a facilitator then maybe you only say a few words, whereas if you are considered a leader then people expect you to make a speech as a part of formality even if it's a few words, "I look forward to prosperous cooperation." Lastly, understand that meetings are formalities and most business is done over time through relationship building over coffee, dinners and other social activities.

2. Slow down - Take a step back and observe the scene. If you have the luxury of time then you're lucky as you can learn many skills from observing, however if you are on a tight time-line, then it's best to probably work with a local partner to help you understand that steps aren't as linear in Vietnam as in Western society. One example is foreign companies want to do things the way they do things back in their home countries, however to ultimately achieve an international standard, certain practices must be trained, expectations must be spelled out and results measured. While both sides might have separate methods for achieving a specific goal, the important thing is to agree on and work towards the same common goal.

3. Establish trust - as in any relationships trust is extremely important, however what you might not know and be naive to is that trust is the most important business factor, even more important than the contract. While contracts have legal binding, trust is the end all for successful 1 on 1 relationships as well as business relationships. It takes time to build trust, and some relationships are easier with certain people than others, however it is these so-called ties that bind Vietnamese society.

4. Understand importance of language - Learning the Vietnamese language is so crucial for business and knowing people. I often grappled with this idea as many Vietnamese are learning English by the mass compared to foreigners learning Vietnamese. You'd think as long as there's a language to communicate by then you're fine. Wrong! As in any country, locals appreciate foreigners learning their language, but in Vietnam it means opening your world to so much more. Vietnamese language is contextual which means not only do you have to understand what is being said, but the context in which it is being said. For example, Vietnamese love to give/receive gifts so it's often common to give a gift along with a speech and a group applause. While this might seem like overdoing it, being discrete about gift giving is considered strange.

5. Respect the culture - Of course any culture has it's way of doing things so it's very important to respect the values and traditions of the local culture. Vietnam is no different and as in many cultures family is number 1. How this cultural aspect relates to business is the same as it relates to the entire society, most people work for their families which makes their job important as a means to serve their families, but not their most important priority. For this reason you should first understand that people want to work in a family type manner where they look up to their elders and learn from them. Second, you will see more dynamic interaction and greater results from group tasks versus individualistic created incentives as in the US.

6. Understand components of culture – Surface culture and Deep culture. What does this mean? Maybe simply put you can ask what is explicit (surface) and what is implicit (deep). Surface culture relates to how people behave on the outside such as greeting one another both physically and verbally. For the locals, men generally shake hands and women do not. In the casual sense, men show friendliness with other men by putting their arms on each others shoulders or leaning on each other whereas women might hold hands or also lean on each other. The words and gestures you use are also very important. Learn how to address elders in terms of pronouns to use and use two hands giving and receiving as a sign of respect. Deep culture is harder to understand and takes time. One example is that you should address people formally, especially elders in the presence of others. While this might seem easy to remember, try to always keep it in mind since showing respect for elders which is an underlying fabric of Vietnamese culture.

While these six rules are applied to doing business in Vietnam, I think the main points carry over to doing business in any foreign culture. Why Vietnam is unique is that it is a country that is welcoming to many cultures, tolerant of foreigners making mistakes, but your experience is enriched so much more if you make the effort to learn how things are done the local way.

Sources: "International Business: The Challenge of Global Competition," Ball, D. and W. McCulloch, McGraw-Hill, 1999.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Most Agreeable

From the Merriam Webster’s Dictionary agreeable means pleasing to the mind or senses; ready or willing. For the Vietnamese language I can count about a half dozen ways to agree, whereas disagreeing is less common both in spoken language and cultural context.

Having grown up in New York and lived in various parts of the US, plus France I’m used to people telling me exactly what they mean. New Yorkers are known for being in your face brash and not sugarcoating anything whereas the French are known to complain and seem like nothing is perfect. Having this background, Vietnamese culture is quite different and not in a way you can immediately know, but in a more subtle way in which you must read between the lines.

My first faux pas of being non-agreeable was when I was told to try to speak Vietnamese more. This phrase was daily for me back in the day and like poking a stick in my eye followed up with comments like I don’t speak Vietnamese when actually trying to speak. I can’t remember exactly, but in the moment I wasn’t keen on on practicing my Vietnamese and said so. To me that was fine, but to my friend’s disappointment it was as if I insulted her family honor. So what might you say to disagree, but agree at the same time you might ask? The most common response is putting yourself down in some sort of jest instead of disagreeing, "oh, my Vietnamese is so terrible, but your English is so much better!"

Indirectness and conflict avoidance are other strong skills in the Vietnamese language repertoire. “Hey, you want to go to a wedding of my distant cousin, uncle’s dog’s neighbor’s friend this weekend?” A short answer such as “no, I can’t” would suffice back in the US or maybe complaining about the same boring menu at every wedding could be a welcomed conversation topic with the French. However, Vietnamese are really good at pressuring you and if that’s not enough, others will join in. Peer pressure is the norm. As Seinfeld once said, it’s like you need an excuse rolodex so try, “No, I have charity work this weekend ..or I’m busy helping my my niece with her homework ” to get you by.

For those who’ve heard the all to common Asian stereo-type that Asians are sneaky, well it’s true. However, the reason why people agree or avoid you is not for reasons you might think, but simply to be what is considered respectful or somewhat polite. For some this might be considered lying, but it is not and can become a rather playful back and forth conversation that takes its course. In fact, you can take it as a form of flattery for the more they try to avoid you the more they are still showing their respect for you. Hey at least, they didn’t tell you a flat out "No!"

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Who are you?!

Just the other day I sat in one of my regular joints where I grab a bite, escape the oppressive Saigon heat and ponder life. I sat in my usual area at the back wall where I usually camp out for a few hours, eating lunch, having a cappuccino, and using my laptop. I couldn’t help, but overhear a group of women on the far end of the room. The head of the group was a middle-aged woman who unmistakably spoke in a firm American professorial style at a level the dining crowd could easily hear her annunciate as if she were giving an important commencement speech, Dear class of 2009 it’s with great pleasure and pride that I say, “please order anything on me, there’s a wide selection of menu items ..American, Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese; you’ll find the selections have funny names like the Elvis or Halle Berry.” Great marketing pitch I thought.

After finishing my Romeo sandwich and catching up on some office emails, I paid attention to the professor again now talking about inequality for women artists starting with China as the example. Her statement was that while women’s art work is better and more detailed, it is the men who get the attention and are paid more time and again. Based on this statement, she made a forceful vow to not let this happen to her students, the Vietnamese female artists, and to be their voice. A group discussion mixed in English and Vietnamese then ensued of which I didn’t catch everything and went back to my laptop to see what world riveting events occurred in the last 15 minutes on Facebook.

“WHO ARE YOU?!” errupted through the room. The professor exclaimed rather than asked. It came across in the way I remember Dana Carvey doing his best McLaughlin impersonation where whatever you might answer the response would be an emphatic “WRONG!” Maybe they understood the professor’s question, maybe it was not a simple answer, but their reaction was respectful silence which led the professor to prod them with multiple choice answers, 1. You are an artist 2. You are a wife or girlfriend 3. You are a daughter. From what everyone in the room heard, the professor was urging them to pick answer #1.

For me this was a moment of reverse culture shock and I was instantly transported from Saigon back to any classroom-USA. I reflected upon how much individual identity and success are stressed. According to the professor’s tone of voice you must hold who you are high in the air like flag and don’t wane or women will be never be equal. She continued by breaking it down for the lunch group discussion “Who are you” can have priorities where 1. You are an artist 2. You are a wife or girlfriend and 3. You are a daughter. Her words were delivered with such force and conviction you might have expected a group huddle and chant 1-2-3 Let's go Team!

But, there was the calm after the storm. A moment of silence. I couldn’t help but think that the professor might have discovered a fault in the American view as the students then calmly, politely, and collectively commented 'who they are' depends who they answer this question to. Of course they strive to be successful artists, but they equally strive to be good wives/girlfriends, and daughters to their parents. Whether this is a hindrance to beating male artists time will tell, nonetheless these women are very ambitious.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Nurture versus Nurture

We cannot definitely say what part of us is biological and what part is a product of our environment is, but for some adoptee friends coming back to Vietnam has resolved some of these issues and helped us figure out ourselves. Being able to look at your biological family might answer a lot of questions for who you are, but take this away and then you can only go back to the environment you originally came from.

When asking Kai what part of him is Vietnamese, he confidently says that he can relate to how people here share, especially in the family. For Kai, there’s no doubt that he’s willing to share and take care of those around him which is obvious by his generous and friendly nature.

What brought Kai back to Vietnam was a gradual process of learning Vietnamese culture, first back in Munich and continues in the present now living in Ho Chi Minh City. Unlike my experience in the US, Kai did not have the same early opportunities to attend adoptee reunions to learn about Vietnam and meet others adoptees. Being adopted was rather a fact, remaining for a long time undefined, and something that Kai had to process by himself.

From the day Kai arrived into his mother’s care, Kai was a part of his German family and undeniably accepted as German from that point on. To discover what it is like to be a Vietnamese adoptee came later in Kai’s teenage years as what he explained as a personal self-exploration to understand who he is. It was later in Kai’s early adult years that he started to connect with other adoptees and had a Vietnamese girlfriend. From dating a Vietnamese girl Kai said he learned so much about Vietnamese culture and the importance of Vietnamese family such as dependency and his role to take care of girlfriend which extended to her family.

There have been many studies on how much environment affects one’s behavior and for many adoptees the ratio between nature versus nurture can never be fully answered. One thing we can undeniably state is that we are the sum of our experiences. For Kai, he laughs when he says many things about him are typically German. For example, he says like other Germans he complains a lot, that he’s not flexible and that he’s very decisive. Kai is eager to learn Vietnamese and embraces the culture, however he knows that characteristics about him are Western and it also important that others understand that about him as well. Kai states that “as adoptees we are lucky since we can go back and forth between being western and being Vietnamese, we are both. This is to our advantage.”

Being adaptable is a common trait amongst Vietnamese adoptees. Having grown up in western culture, mostly in white families and neighborhoods, we accepted our difference and adapted to fit in. Coming back to live in Vietnam is also challenging being confronted by language barriers and learning the nuances of the culture, but again we can adapt and continue to grow.

To live with a Vietnamese family is probably the best way to know Vietnamese culture and for Kai this was something he had sought and found with his fiancées family. Something so little as sharing a meal with a family is considerably an ordinary activity; however as adoptees we take to such actions with both pride and humility. We know that others who do not know our backgrounds usually expect us to have gone through these motions our entire lives. And so we can only identify with this and feel a sense of fulfillment as it is something comforting, almost familiar as it makes up who we are.

Kai Kleiber

Hometown: Munich. Germany
Birth date and Birthplace: April 18, 1974
Occupation: Regional Sales Director for Medical Devices
Duration of stay in VN to date: Been coming to Vietnam to visit and for work since October, 2004. Living in Saigon since September 2008