Discovering a National Identity:
Examining Viet (The People) Nam (South)
I journeyed to Viet Nam to immerse myself in the region where I was born and discover what the Vietnamese thought of America – the place I now call home. My summer abroad allowed me to encounter perspectives from an Eastern orient lifestyle and think critically about the culture of the United States. Furthermore, my interactions highlighted the varied opinions the Vietnamese possess regarding America. I left Viet Nam with more questions than answers, and these unanswered questions ignite my curiosity for future engagement in the region.
Over the two-month period, I realized society works to instill values in its citizens regardless of the regime type. One example was the family-style eating. Waiting to be offered food by the elder at the table was a tangible example of how the culture infuses selflessness in its citizens. I was not an individual, but rather part of a larger whole working for a common purpose. This small realization led to a larger question on how a regime inculcates virtue and habituates actions in its citizens.
As a Political Science major and Constitutional Studies minor, I have read political philosophers from Plato to John Rawls who discuss how a government can best instill virtue in its citizen. Tocqueville discussed the concept of a person not truly understanding the regime in which he lives. He drew a parallel to a fish not realizing it is submerged in water. My two months in Viet Nam opened my eyes to the American water I have swam in for nineteen years; my travels challenged me to critically look at news and American actions with a broader frame of mind.
I traveled north to the region of Sapa, east to the waterfronts of Ha Long Bay, and south to the ancient kingdom of Hoi An and Hue. I saw a vibrant Vietnamese lifestyle. The Vietnamese were curious about the American lifestyle, and they gave me varied opinions on America. Many were open to the idea of trade and diplomatic relations, yet some were opposed to any engagement. Some people sought to move to America in the future while others told me that America was ‘too powerful,’ ‘too rich,’ and ‘need not involve itself in Asia.’
My research and volunteer opportunities in the country provided a window in which I could view the country not as a traveler, but as a resident. I see perspectives on the war manifested in the view the people had of America. The ultimate question that I have been left with is “Who won the war?” While America “lost” with the fall of the South and loss to communism, Viet Nam is still picking up pieces after the war. Hanoi is arguably thriving; however, travel just outside the urban capital and there exists poverty, marginalization of the elderly, and emotional scarring from a decade of destruction. I do not think the Vietnamese will say they “won.”
My case-study youth ethnography – admittedly not exhaustive and highly unlikely to be exhaustive given the small timeframe – into their perspectives revealed two encompassing points:
Generational Gap Perspective Shifts: The 173 students I observed and engaged with ranged from 7 year-olds to 23 year-old university students. There was a trend of younger and older students accepting the west and thinking positively about America. Then, there was a deviation in the view of the middle age range of students. 14-17 year-olds did not approve of the US and thought disappointedly about America. The under 14 year-old range spoke excitedly about “New York City,” “California,” “Chicago,” and “The Statue of Liberty,” and the above 16 year-old range thought about educational, economic, and travel opportunities in the USA. The 14-17 year-olds deviated from the excitement. Roughly nine out of every twelve students in this age range responded that they would not like to visit America. These “no” respondents described America negatively in terms like ‘bully,’ and they wondered when America would quit trying to be the world’s police.
Urban/Rural Divide In Perspective: Western acceptance was high in the city center of Ha Noi. The urban individuals wanted to understand the ways of the west and looked forward to market interaction with Europe and North America. Outside of the city, opinions on America were generally more negative. The rural populations were marginalized in Viet Nam’s infrastructure and still carried visual reminders of the war – from ruined villages decaying in plain sight to altars honoring fallen Vietnamese soldiers. A visit to the War History Museum, Prison Museum, and Museum of Ethnology educated me on the history of this community – the fifty-six ethnic minorities and internal struggles it faced trying to define itself in the aftermath of global conflict.
A big thanks goes to Notre Dame for continually encouraging students to engage with the world around them. I do not think of my summer in terms of what ‘I’ did for ‘them,’ but rather what we learn from each other and can provide for each other going forward. I encourage others to take advantage of all the service, research, and cultural immersion opportunities they can while studying on campus.
After my summer, I am left with more questions than answers as my research revealed many doors unopened, doors that two months time cannot unlock. If I were to further this research, I would include gathering perspectives in Ho Chi Minh City in southern Viet Nam. A former US-backed area and distanced from the communist capital, I feel the area would provide a good contrast of opinions. I would also want to explore follow up as to why the 14-17 year old age range was different than the other age ranges and see if externalities led to this deviation from the other students surveyed.
In the future, I plan on returning to Viet Nam and addressing rural development. The rural Vietnamese live on less than a dollar a day while some urban individuals drive Porsches and wear Armani suits. This academic year, I have a virtual internship with the Department of State and American Embassy in Viet Nam, and I hope to work out a future engagement opportunity in the country to work on global human development initiatives.