Letter to New Expats in Vietnam, a Conversation About Privilege and Integration

Letter to New Expats in Vietnam, a Conversation About Privilege and Integration

Posted by Jessica Drolet

Dear new expat in Vietnam,

During most of your stay here, you’ll feel lucky to be living in such a lively environment. And most expats around you will feel the same way about this country, which allows them to be entrepreneurs, teachers, lawyers, designers, volunteer workers, and much more. 

You’ll have difficult moments too though. Because there are many challenges to living in another country, let alone a developing one. Everyone reacts differently to hurdle, but you’ll probably complain at some point. You may even end up leaving sooner than you thought, after a bad working experience, which can happen anywhere.

But at least, you have the choice to live here.

Unlike Singapore which has been tightening its restrictions on visas and work permits for foreigners, Vietnam is still a relatively easy country to live and work in. But that doesn’t mean everything is smooth. Getting here is just the first step.

A friend of a friend recently posted a heartfelt Facebook post in which she condemned blindness to white privilege as well as excessive complaining. So I felt the need to start a conversation in the Female Expats and Locals in Ho Chi Minh City Facebook group to better understand the situation. Here are my takeaways.

Be Aware of Privilege

The whiter your skin, the better people may perceive and treat you. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that you get special treatment in Vietnam. You’ll be allowed to walk into almost any hotel or fancy restaurant and use the restrooms without being turned away. People won’t ask you as often to check your bag in certain department stores. And these are just small examples. If you’re a teacher, parents will prefer you over a more experienced and competent teacher with non-white skin. You’ll be payed more and treated better, all else being equal.

If you are white, you reap the benefits of white privilege. It’s a fact, not a reprimand nor something you need to apologize for. Nobody is saying that you don’t have any problems and that your life is perfect. They’re saying that you don’t have the kind of problems that come from oppression. Also, white privilege is a systemic problem and no one is asking you to fix it, just to acknowledge it. Because privilege is often invisible to those who benefit from it.

If you’re not white, than you may be treated better or worse. Racism exists here too, even amongst different asian cultures. But the point is that if you benefit from privilege, you should recognize it. And you shouldn’t come here with a holier-than-thou attitude.

Integrate in Your New Environment

Some locals are rightfully fed up with expats who are not making an effort to integrate, but they’re still hoping that things change: “We welcome foreigners to come visit, and even live in our country, but please, step out of your bubble and try to understand us. Because we are your taxi drivers, we are your landlord, we are your cook, we are your friends,” said Ngoc Chi Le, a member of the Female Expats and Locals in HCMC Facebook group.

So what can you do to better integrate in your new environment?

  1. Do your research before you arrive. Read about Vietnamese culture, starting with Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. Some people tend to forget that Vietnam is a collectivistic society.
  2. Get to know Vietnamese people. There are incredible people here, not just within the expat community. And you’ll learn more about the culture by hanging out with your local friends than your expat friends. As a side note, Vietnam is ranked #4 in the Expat Explorer Survey when it comes to making friends.
  3. Reflect on privilege. If you’re white, reflect on how your whiteness impacts your perspective. Talk to people who think differently. You may realize that you are missing something.
  4. Be careful with complaints and always consider “the other” point of view. Here are some common expats’ complaints and what you can make them realize if you adopt a more positive point of view:

1. Language barriers

2. Working salary and conditions

3. Unwanted attention

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below. And enjoy your time here!

Many thanks to everyone who was willing to share their points of view and experiences on the Female Expats and Locals in HCMC Facebook group.

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