Tuesday, July 28, 2009

When cultures collide

Culture is a funny thing. Differences in customs, traditions and thinking are deeply set within all of our societies. However we never quite appreciate them until we are caught in the midst of circumstances where our own tolerance, understanding and acceptance are called into question. You have probably guessed by now, I've had a few occasions where my patience has been tried, and let me be honest, it's far from easy to deal with.

I don't really respond to conflict well. I like to consider myself as a reflective type, who over analyses the simplest of situations. I listen to what other people are saying and try to understand their point of view and way of thinking. Usually this is very easy as it doesn't often directly impact on my immediate situation, let alone for the rest of my life. Over the past couple of years, I've had to start questioning just how compassionate and tolerant I am of other cultures. When I first went to Korea, I was keen to learn and adapt to the society I found myself in, but more and more recently I've developed a reluctance to embrace the Vietnamese culture as I feel I should and I don't know why.

When you over analyse things as I tend to, it can lead to an internal battle. We've all seen the films where the Devil and Angel appear on the main character shoulders telling him or her what the best course of action should be. Well this is how my world is operating right now. I know what the right thing to do is, and what the correct way of thinking should be (given I'm now in Vietnam) but the core of me is strongly opposing it due to my core Western values. By this I mean the ability to determine the direction and timing of my decisions free from the constraints of tradition and society. This, in my mind, is where the fundamental difference comes between East and West. Don't take this the wrong way. I'm not saying ones' right and the other is wrong. Again, I'm reflecting from a westerner's point of view of the difficulties of fully integrating into a culture that I can understand but not fully accept.

Now, cliche time. I have been blessed with amazing luck throughout my life. I have amazing parents who have always been there to support me. And it's here I want ground this posting. When you have a son and he falls over, what do you do? Do you run over to him, pick him up and cuddle him? Do you run over to him, pick him up and let him try again? Do you sit and watch. Watch your child try to pick himself up. He struggles, but he does it! He now learns that walking is difficult, he will fall over but he can stand again and continue. Option 3 was my parents. They let me live and learn by my decisions. They were always watching for if I couldn't get up on my own or if I needed advice. But largely they left me to my own devices and supported me, even if they didn't necessarily agree with them. With this in mind, I've always chosen my own direction which has lead to being here in Vietnam.

In the East, parents don't tend to opt for option 3. It's option 1. Again, I'm not saying it's right or wrong, just different. It just explains a lot about the culture and in particular, respect for parents and therefore traditions, customs and values.

I've found that most major decisions in this part of the world have to verified and approved by the parents. Whether that be for education, work or love. In contrast, I inform my parents about the decision I made probably a couple of weeks after. The former occurence leads to the situation where a lot of decisions made by the offspring are largely based on what will make their parents happy. Overall, I don't have a problem with this, I think. However, invariably, you have to make decisions which may or may not please the elders. And this is where the Devil and the Angel appears.

Keeping the family happy plays an important part of life here. Of course, most of us don't want to do things that we know will upset our loved ones, but we're also prepared to make those decisions when they come along. And I guess this takes me back to my core western values. We live in an individualistic society where I only really consider what's best for me and those who are immediately affected by actions. My happiness, of course, is the most important thing. I guess this has lead me to become a touch self centred and selfish in my outlook on life. My rationale behind my decisions is based on, primilarly, my happiness and then other factors such as logistics and finances.

In the East, the decision making is a lot more family orientated. Relationships need the approval of parents, kids should take the advice of their parents about subjects of study and thier eventual profession. However, this runs a lot deeper than first appears. Given this respect, many of the old customs have been past down from generation to generation, which has somehow been lost at home. I've never really studied our culture properly to see what customs we used to have but have now been forgotten. I'm sure we must have had rituals on New Year and weddings and funerals which are now long forgotten. I guess that a decreased level of respect or obedience (perhaps stemming from freer, but individualistic, thinking) has lead to customs becoming lost.

This links me back to my conflict. I will shortly be married to a Vietnamese girl. She is equally as lucky as I to come from a happy, loving and thoroughly supportive family. I've been sold on many of the rituals and customs that accompany certain aspects of life. However, I can't change my personality completely. I've accepted what I can accept and I'm trying to understand what seems a little strange and alien to me. Hopefully I've grown as a person and become more rounded and tolerant. There are bound to be times where either my future wife and I disagree and conflict over decisions that we need to make, but thus far they've brought us closer together. Who knows, maybe we'll develop a middle ground which merges parts that we both consider to be the best parts of our upbringing and perspectives.

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