Last weekend, a few friends and colleagues from the UN, Canadian, and Swiss embassies went away on a vacation to a sweet little village three hours North of Hanoi called Mai Chau. We hiked 1,000 steps to see a giant cave and biked 24km up and down winding mountain roads to visit a waterfall. In the evening, after the rice-wine started to flow at our homestay, the fireside conversations at our multinational dinner party turned to political topics.
At the first mention of Brexit, the crowd of English people at the fireside exploded into a discussion about all the problems with the current administration and their well-founded fears about the upcoming election. Though I found it interesting to hear reflections from English people directly, I noticed that over half of the other travelers at the fire went quiet. As my new English friends lamented the fact that their society was fissuring along political lines, and that the social tensions at home were palpable – I wondered what could be done to engage the dissenting or silent parties without making others feel as though their message had been watered down or derailed. It’s such a struggle to know how to hold space in political conversations so that everyone feels comfortable engaging. My colleague from the Canadian Embassy was a trade specialist – and probably had more knowledge about the broader implications of Brexit than anyone else in the group, but also remained silent.
Though we didn’t end up changing hearts and minds that night, we did play a ridiculous game where we linked each nationality represented at the fire with an adjective that best described its people and culture. There was a consensus that Canadians are very “cute.” Perhaps we can use that to our advantage!
At the office one of my biggest ongoing cross-cultural learnings has been how important language is, and how differently we construct meaning from words across cultures. Some of the words that I see used repetitively in English reports here (for example: technical, promulgate, kindly, and socialization) would not be used as frequently in western contexts, and would not hold quite the same meaning if they were. At first, I was always trying to rephrase wording so that it would resonate more with native English speakers, but I am beginning to understand on a deeper level that letting written language be shaped by my colleague’s ways of thinking is sometimes more important than having perfect grammar and using common diction. My Vinglish is still rocky at best, and I am only beginning to understand the particular timbre of humility that my Vietnamese colleagues express so seamlessly, but I can feel the awareness deepening, and that’s all one can really hope for.
To be sure, this language/cultural gap will become increasingly important to unpack as I embark on my latest project – to collaboratively develop a study with the International Organization for Migration on migrants in HCMC and climate change-vulnerable populations in the Mekong Delta. Here in Viet Nam, the words ‘refugee’ and ‘displaced’ are not used to refer to nationals on the move in official documents. There is no government ministry dedicated to migration specifically, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees does not have a national office. Prior to the 1990s, domestic migration was severely restricted by the government, but recent laws have been created to counter these outdated policies. On paper, people are now allowed to move wherever they want – though migrants still experience challenges due to the Household Registration System, which actively classifies people as permanent or temporary residents of a given commune. It is not entirely uncommon for people on the move to lose their registration (and the access to public services that this status guarantees) if either the commune/city that they are leaving from or moving to does not complete the required paperwork. As climate change related phenomenon like floods, droughts, salt water intrusion and climate related disasters continue to plague residents of the low-lying Mekong Delta with increasing severity, more and more people are likely to move North. The government has responded with relocation programs such as the Living with Floods Program, but massive urban planning initiatives still need to happen to accommodate the increasing number of rural residents flooding into cities. The work is difficult for sure, but the latest research in this area leaves me hopeful that Viet Nam is gradually moving in the right direction.