Being Vietnamese is to accept all that we are and will be

December 2, 2021 | 04:51 pm PT
Nguyen Khac Giang Researcher
At the heart of an identity crisis in a globalizing world is the struggle to define a national culture, a national identity. Aren't some things better off undefined?

Author Nguyen Thanh Viet once told me a story about the time he heard a man speak Vietnamese to his child in a shop in the U.S.

"It's me. Have you eaten yet?" the man said into the phone.

It was nothing more than a conversation opener. But for Viet, it was everything he had wanted to hear. He told me he was close to tearing up upon hearing those words, despite not speaking too much Vietnamese himself.

"Have you eaten yet?" is the Vietnamese equivalent of "I love you." It's a mundane and insignificant greeting on the surface, yet a loud proclamation of being quintessentially Vietnamese. "So long as I still feel moved about the things that belong to the Vietnamese people, I am Vietnamese," Viet said.

Political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson developed the concept of "imagined communities" to analyze nationalism. He depicted nations as socially constructed communities, not only defined by physical borders but also by how people imagine themselves to be part of it. A nation is an imagined community because they are not just connected via physical proximity, but united under common ideals and interests.

Out of more than 100 million Vietnamese across the globe, how many of us have actually met 10,000 others in real life? Yet we are all linked in inexplicable ways, like the longing for home when Tet arrives, or the collective grief for victims of the pandemic. Even small snippets of our daily interactions, like a question to see if others have eaten yet, are a sign of our intangible connection.

But to be human is to wrestle with life's contradictions, and sometimes that struggle applies to our own cultural identity.

There are many Vietnamese citizens who are now studying or living abroad. Gaining permanent residency is hard, but to truly integrate into a different community is even more so. Many are torn between two worlds, strangers to both foreign lands and their own home country, who calls them "Vietnamese expats." How are they supposed to reconcile the halves of their hearts?

Despite all this, Vietnamese still choose to embark on their journeys, whether to seek new opportunities, chase their dreams or change their lives. The question of patriotism, nationalism and one's cultural identity stays with them and only the future can tell where their hearts will belong.

On the other hand, within such an identity crisis lies our chance to look back and see what it means to be Vietnamese. There are things that need no definition, and I believe our identity is one such thing. There can be a million ways to say we're Vietnamese, and that's okay. I believe there's strength in numbers.

However, a culture can only last if it allows individuals to freely perceive the world and express themselves. Therefore, for a culture to utilize its people's collective strength, policymaking needs to ensure ideological freedom and foster innovation.

This means opening doors and not shutting them; leaving cultural values room to grow and not confining them within arbitrary boundaries of what should be part of one's culture.

In an increasingly more open world, Vietnamese culture should be allowed to develop naturally. Nothing can be denied access to for long nowadays; human civilization has moved far beyond the point where such degree of control could be reasonably sustained, and it shouldn't be.

The success of the Korean wave, for example, did not come from tight restrictions and censorship, but from the encouragement to invest in and develop cultural products, mostly thanks to the private sector.

"Parasite" by Bong Joon-ho became the first international feature film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and "Squid Game" by Hwang Dong-hyuk is Netflix's most watched series of all time with over 142 million viewers. Both films decided to tackle social issues and didn't shy away from exploring the darker aspects of the human experience. It was their unwillingness to look away from the uglier parts of life that clicked with the audience, and I believe such a pursuit for authenticity is the key for a culture to truly prosper.

If each of us is allowed to define what it means to be Vietnamese ourselves, that diversity will be the catalyst to drive our culture forward and protect it from deterioration. If we see ourselves at the crossroads... of having to choose between keeping our culture in a panic room or giving it wings, there's only one obvious choice. We must let our culture grow as part of human history, or risk leaving it frozen in time.

*Nguyen Khac Giang is a researcher in policy making and government transparency. He is a PhD candidate at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The opinions expressed are his own.

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