Preya has posted a very thought-provoking essay on her blog Dreaming of Hanoi (she currently lives in Colorado). This essay goes to the heart of why westerners choose to visit, live and work in Việt Nam. Please read her essay. She is very articulate in expressing her opinion that many westerners come to places like Việt Nam out of good intentions to see and experience new things, but often espouse condescending views towards the ongoing changes in these countries that are the choices of those people to improve their lives. She sees westerners as wanting to preserve the innocence and simplicity of overseas life "for our viewing pleasure" to replace what we can no longer find at home. In so doing, westerners are using Asia as a means to the end of regaining what we have lost in the western world, treating Asia as an extension of the west rather than the unique place of Asians for Asians. I hope I have done Preya justice in this summary.
In her essay, though, she gets to the very core of my own reasons for relocating to Việt Nam. She states:
"Do not go overseas and treat the places you see and the people you meet as if their only purpose in life is to "spice up" your world and make your travels more interesting, or provide you with a place to unwind, discover yourself, etc."
But that is exactly why I am here in Việt Nam! My blog Antidote to Burnout says it -- I was burned out in America -- I relocated here to regain the relationship with Vietnamese and construction that I experienced here years before.
So how should I take this? I admit that my first reaction in returning to Việt Nam was nostalgia for what I felt had been lost in the thirty years since my last time here. But I quickly realized that life wasn't any simpler here than it was back home, it was just different in many respects, and the same in many respects. What I did realize is that my real fascination with Việt Nam is its people and their friendliness, and with their culture and approach to life. There is much for me to learn here.
That gets to my answer to Preya -- if one grants that a westerner's base motives for going overseas are at heart a search for validation of western culture over other cultures (even if this is mostly subconscious to us), then the opposite might be gained in the course of living in an overseas culture -- we learn things about other peoples and their cultures that open new perspectives and appreciations for us. What we learn strikes out what we thought we knew or hoped we would find. Ideally, the new balances out the old preconceptions. I am not saying this is true for everyone who visits overseas cultures, but I am striving to make it true for me.