D. has posted a provocative thread of ideas on his blog VA to VN entitled "Everyone's an expert" (5 September 2006). He points us to the website Ethnically Incorrect Daughter, published by what he describes as a "conflicted Vietnamese adoptee." He writes,
"One of her posts spoke about how some ex-pats return from a stint abroad with a greater sense of "understanding" of the foreign culture than they truly have obtained. It was a riff off of this post from What Happened to Your Hair? These two posts stirred within me a latent impression of a few of the expat discussions on blogs and forums. It seems everyone thinks they're an expert - be it from two weeks or two years in a foreign land, all the while living high on the hog......It's wholly presumptuous to think that you've done anything other than scratching the surface of a culture and a society when you don't (1) speak the language (2) look like a local - even a fat V.K. doesn't cut it - and (3) earn a living like everyone else. It's great that you've used your passport, it's great that you've learned to order beer in a foreign language. But, for god sakes, realize that hundreds of thousands of other people have done this - they're called immigrants. They just don't blog about it."
"What is it with white American males who travel to a foreign country and come back presuming they "know" a whole culture? Are we to believe that these men are outfitted with an osmosis/camouflage gene that allows them to travel to a foreign country and soak up its essence and blend into the native surroundings in order to fraternize with the locals? Then, they return home, book and movie deal already in hand, to write and speak extensively about their exotic adventures and proclaim their expertise in the field? Of course, I'm being facetious, but do notice that I am denigrating a certain annoying characterstic called "White privilege". In the White privilege paradigm the tendency is to speak one's mind as if it were the bible-truth, without reservation or qualification, and convince oneself that apologies and concessions are for weaklings."
Well, that thread of ideas has certainly caused me to reflect on my own motivations and identity as an American blogger writing about my observations in Viet Nam. Here's my starting point:
1. I am a white American male.
2. I have been in Viet Nam now for seven months, but have not yet returned to America, so that makes me an expat at this time.
3. I don't speak the Vietnamese language or any language other than English, but I am currently trying hard to learn Vietnamese. It appears that this is going to take a very long time, but my current intentions are to live in Viet Nam for a long time. In the meantime, I can definitely order beer (bia) in the Vietnamese language.
4. I definitely don't look like a local, but I have made a choice to live among locals rather than the expat areas of Ho Chi Minh City. My Chinese-Vietnamese wife looks like a local, but the locals recognize her easily (I don't know how) as a Việt Kiều (an overseas or returned Vietnamese).
5. We do and don't earn money like the locals -- there are many Vietnamese real estate developers in this rather closed market here, and we are trying to compete or work with them. Typically, developers work for nothing until an income stream from their projects comes online. For us, it appears that this will be several years from now if all the risk factors fall my firm's way. In the meantime, we live off savings. Therefore we try to live at the same economic level of our Vietnamese neighbors.
6. I don't have a book or movie deal in hand, but I do enjoy publishing my experiences and observations in my blog.
I definitely feel that I have achieved some understanding of the circumstances and culture of Vietnamese life, and I enjoy offering my observations for the possible benefit of those who will follow me in the coming investment rush to Viet Nam. But the longer I am here, the more I realize how much more I have to experience and learn. I have come to understand that it would be presumptuous to think that I have done anything other than scratch the surface of the Vietnamese culture and society. But I want to try to understand as much as I can. 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.
"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."
Yes, I do tend to offer my experiences and observations on my blog without enough reference to "reservation or qualification". I assume too often that most readers will read my "about" and "essential" postings to understand my privileged background and put my postings in the context of that background and current stated intentions.
But I think Sume of the blog Ethnically Incorrect Daughter has a good solution -- she wrote in a comment to Kev Minh's posting: "Why not take them head on, pick their opinions apart, point out the flaws and show them for the experts they're NOT? At the very least, make it known that their's is not the only opinion out there."
I might not like it, but I hope I would learn from the experience of others challenging the gross generalizations to which I know I am prone. I hope that these challenges would come from Vietnamese people themselves. I attempt to ask questions and try out my ideas on the Vietnamese around me, but they too reflect a limited cross-section of the population and culture. I am sure I could learn a lot about Vietnamese life and culture from reading Vietnamese blogs if I could read Vietnamese.
As for immigrants not blogging about their experiences, I suspect there are some that do. We need to find them so that we can better understand what they think about their adopted land and people, and thus we learn about ourselves as we meet them.