Quick! What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say “Vietnam”? If you’re like many Americans, your answer is “The War”.
Not so with Vietnamese. Since I got here a few months ago, other expats have been the only ones who mention the war. Not only that, but it comes up pretty quickly, even in the first few minutes of meeting someone. So why is it always Westerners who bring it up, and never Vietnamese? The short answer: Americans have one association with Vietnam, while Vietnamese have dozens of associations with America.
Before I came here I thought to myself, “Hope no one’s mad at me for that war-thingy from before I was born”. With the exception of a few loons milling around the War Museum, the war doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s minds other than outsiders’.
Of course, I can’t read people’s minds. For all I know, my landlord and his family could be downstairs plotting my demise even as I type this. Maybe he’s been waiting patiently for over 40 years to finally stab an American in the neck! But I doubt it. If what comes out of people’s mouths is any indication of what’s on their minds, the Westerners are the only ones still thinking about the war.
I recently polled a number of my Vietnamese coworkers, “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear ‘America’?” Almost everyone had a different answer: Apple/Steve Jobs, Beyonce, racial diversity, New York City, guns, Calvin Klein, aggressive government, Google, Barack Obama, Hollywood, crazy people, “where I want to work”, McDonald’s, Ralph Lauren, good television shows, materialism, Nicki Minaj, guns, Las Vegas, “where my sister lives”, Microsoft, the Kardashians, high standard of living, Burger King. Broadway and of course, me!
A Scottish person messaged me recently, “an american in vietnam cant go down too well with the locals.” Well, why not? I just replied, “Sounds like you know what you’re talking about,” and left it at that. I see him as just another person taking a topic he has no firsthand experience in, and thinking that his stab in the dark will miraculously resemble reality. Why do so many people like to do that? For this Scottish guy, his primary association with Vietnam is the War, and his assumptions just fly from there. But for a Vietnamese person, the war is buried deeply underneath American brands and pop culture.
Nhung told me the very first American music she ever heard was Britney Spears. And that’s how Britney got to share the title of this post with Steve Jobs. (Sorry, Steve Jobs. R.I.P.)