VietNamNet Bridge – The experience of social integration and assimilation depends largely on the individual, their past experiences and how adaptable they can be. While my origins lie in Japan, I have noticed that being Japanese has its benefits and downfalls when trying to adapt to Vietnamese culture.
Fried: Vietnamese banh ran were inspired by the Japanese dorayaki,
the favourite dessert of Doraemon, the famous robot-cat comic book character loved
by both Japanese and Vietnamese kids. — File Photo
Hue is a city whose tranquillity and warmth embraces all visitors and whose meals full of fiery heat and soul provide a balance to the placid nature of everyday life. It’s the perfect place to discover the limits of my adaptability to new cultures, as well as remark on the similarities and differences between two Asian societies. Having spent the last year and a half in Hue working at an NGO called Hue Help, I have developed a strong perspective on what it really means to be Japanese in Viet Nam.
Firstly, although Japanese and Vietnamese cuisine are certainly distinct and different from each other, they nevertheless share certain qualities, such as the staple of rice and noodles, and the addiction of savoury flavours, especially soy.
Banh canh is often compared to udon; mien and harusame are substitutes for each other; and mi and ramen are very close cousins. In the same vein, xoi and sekihan share similar textures, while all sorts of banh (cakes) are not too dissimilar to mochi cakes. And that’s not even starting on the drinks, where sweet milk coffee, milk tea, green tea, rice wine, light lager and smoothies are a few of the beverages where the two cultures share common ground.
Desserts too cross paths, and there have even been sightings of banh ran, or banh Doremon, inspired by the Japanese dorayaki – the favourite dessert of Doraemon, the famous cat-like comic book character of Japanese and now Vietnamese children and teenagers.
However, along with the similarities there are of course some key differences, and I was not quite prepared for the liberal use of chilli in Hue cuisine. Hue people say the food is so spicy due to the harsh weather conditions, and I couldn’t disagree after a hot bun bo each morning got me through the wet 2011 winter.
Then there are the people. Although located in different parts of Asia, Vietnamese and Japanese people do bear some physical resemblance. And after sprucing up on my conversational Vietnamese and buying the latest fashion line from the local Big C, no one looks twice as I order a banh mi sandwich on the street corner.
It didn’t take too long to learn the essential food vocabulary in Vietnamese and to fluently verbalise it, but beyond being able to order a meal correctly down to the tricky hoi tone, I would be caught out as a foreigner after uttering two words. I have had to get used to the inevitable response. A look of confusion and then realisation: Confusion that this customer doesn’t seem to understand a basic question, and then the rapid realisation soon after that he is in fact not Vietnamese – quickly confirmed by a closer look at the contours of his face. Nevertheless, being outed as a nguoi Nhat [Japanese] never receives anything other than a smile or a “Nhat?” which helped me get over any fear of inadvertent deception. Although it would sometimes be followed by a friendly discussion about how much I should pay.
During my travails in adapting to Vietnamese culture, I have had to learn the hard way what it means exactly to “lose face” in Viet Nam. Hue is a field of cultural eggshells where faux-pas can be made easily, but luckily I was well accustomed to this phenomenon as Japan is very much the same. It was ingrained into my inner psyche at an early age that hierarchical structures are abound in society and respect for elders is mandatory – with almost legal bearing. I understood in the early stages of my time in Hue that Viet Nam and Japan stood side by side in familial structures, and painstakingly memorising Vietnamese personal pronouns (em, anh, chi, chu, di, bac, and so on) ensured that I wouldn’t forget this. Nevertheless, some things I had to learn first-hand, such as handling money with two hands, or that “inviting” someone for a meal or a coffee involves financial obligation.
Viet Nam, as is branded by the National Administration for Tourism, truly is a charming country and for me, it’s all the little nuances of local community that make it tick. Travelling through the country will certainly let you experience the beautiful sights and much of the well-known food. But it is once you delve into the microcosm of everyday life and start exchanging with the community around you that the charm really begins to shine through.
Viet Nam is a place like no other, and comparing it to other places would prove counterproductive. With such a rich history and a fast growing economy, it is becoming more and more heterogeneous as it draws on influences from different parts of the world. But all the while, traditions like family hierarchies and hearty food help retain the uniqueness of this country and make it more and more inviting for people to come and explore what Viet Nam has to offer.