The "A Rice Cracker?" posting here three weeks ago engendered ongoing contributions of comments regarding these fairly controversial issues. Chris of the blog Charvey in Vietnam came in a little late yestersday, though, and posed a challenge to antagonists to present evidence of expat bloggers felt to be presumptiously posing as experts in a foreign location or culture. Since this is an important direction in this thread of issues, I want to elevate it out of the relative obscurity of the comments to that posting and bring it forth in this posting where others might more easily see it and respond. Here is the challenge:
Ok, so I've read this comment thread as well as the posts and comments in several (but not all) other blogs. I'm still confused though.
There's a lot of talk about how some small number of expat bloggers claim to be absolute experts on Vietnamese society. Obviously that's bunk. But I haven't seen one citation of this phenomenon. Could someone point to a representative post make the "expert" claim and then makes an erroneous generalization? [emphasis added by layered] It would be good to get an unfiltered read on what all the fuss is about.
Posted by: charvey | 24 September 2006 at 12:44 AM
Chris, the practical point I think I learned from this exchange is that the problem is generally one of omission -- one doesn't at the outset qualify one's position to offer viewpoints of a culture not his own. In addition, bloggers (especially travel bloggers) tend to make generalizations that may not apply to an entire country or culture. I am constantly having to remind myself that the remainder of Viet Nam and Vietnamese may well be quite a bit different from what I observe in HCMC. You have lived in Washington, DC, and I in San Francisco. I think we both know that we cannot characterize America or Americans based on our experiences in those two cities.
There was an interesting interview of the noodlepie blogger in the blog Shortcut a few days ago, wherein Graham Holliday ("pieman" of noodlepie) states "I feel I have gained a real insight into the country and the people, both the good and bad. I don't think I wasted my time there. It's been educational in many ways. And of course, I learned MASSES about the food." I believe him because I know he lived in Viet Nam (both HCMC and Hanoi) for 8 to 9 years. But I am sure there are many Asians (my wife included) who might say that it would be impossible for a caucasian to ever understand an Asian culture, including its food.
Posted by: layered | 24 September 2006 at 09:58 PM
I couldn't disagree with you more, Mel. Although I have not lived in every city in America, I *can* make characterizations of America and Americans based on my experiences living there nearly all my life.
I also disagree with what seems to be the fundamental thrust of this thread -- that anyone living in another culture (i.e. western expats in Asia) cannot really get a sense for that culture.
The Graham Holliday quote you cite is utterly innocuous: "I feel I have gained a real insight into the country and the people, both the good and bad." I don't see him claiming to understand everything about Vietnam. He's saying that he "feels like" he has made "real insight" into the culture. And why shouldn't he? He lived there for 8 years!
Regarding whether it's impossible for a westerner ever to "understand" Asian culture (or an Asian to "understand" western culture) depends on how you define "understand." If you define it as "have identical thoughts and beliefs as a native" (a crazy high bar) then perhaps understanding is in fact impossible. If you define it as "getting a good sense for, learning the reasons behind certain customs, adopting local mannerisms (for example here in Vietnam, receiving a card with both hands) then yes, understanding is quite readily available with some effort.
Of course, a stranger in a strange land should think twice before making sweeping generalizations and presenting them as absolute truth. But I don't think we need to pour on massive disclaimers before rendering an opinion. As long as an opinion is presented as such, I just don't see a problem.
I enjoy reading raw, unvarnished opinions and impressions of bloggers of all stripes and nationalities. Keep those posts coming!
Posted by: charvey | 24 September 2006 at 11:16 PM
Chris, OK, I agree with you that the Graham Holliday quotation is innocuous -- maybe not "utterly", but at least "fairly". My concern is for others who will disagree on principle that a non-Asian cannot possibly begin to really understand Asian culture. I agree with you that we need to hear from these people, if there are any -- I may be overly concerned.
I shouldn't use locations like Washington, DC, then as an example of a place different from the remainder of the USA since I have not lived there (although I have visited my older daughter who lives and works there several times). But I know that as one who lived in San Francisco for over thirty years, I find it hard sometimes to understand the remainder of America and Americans. It takes travel to other places (like my annual trips home to Montana) to remind me how interestingly different San Francisco and its citizens are from mainstream America. The point is, I have to remind myself of this difference and seek out ways to better understand America, whether that be more diverse media and blog sources, or bettter yet, travel and discussions.
Chris, since we're kind of hidden here in this old thread of comments, I am going to copy our latest discussion to a posting today, in the hopes of drawing a response to your original challenge to cite some specific blog examples of expat experts.
Posted by: layered | 25 September 2006 at 12:23 PM