I left Vietnam in 2000 to study in Thailand and then the United States.
When I returned to Vietnam in 2007, I gladly discovered a modern, transformed Ho Chi Minh City. I saw more cars, brand new and expensive ones, in the streets. There were a lot more foreigners working, living and touring. The pace of life in Ho Chi Minh City seemed more hectic"”people had more places to go to and more things to do. Women seemed to dress better, especially around the city center's office buildings. In the supermarkets, I noticed a wider range of consumer brand choices. One could now buy many imported goods.
And more importantly, people could now afford them.
However, the experience of raising a child and working in Vietnam for over five years has taught me that, while Vietnamese people embrace Western consumer brands and wish to send their children to study abroad, they are very resistant to the Western ideas of independence, innovation and open communication"”the very ideas driving Western products and education.
My mother criticized me for not force-feeding my child, telling me I was lazy and neglectful for not constantly hovering over him or obsessing over his needs. In her view, my needs no longer mattered now that I had a child. She wished for me to always be preoccupied over feeding him and insisted that even water must be fed to him with a spoon. She deemed everything I had read in American childcare books and online, rubbish and untrustworthy.
When I started working at an international university, I thought the working environment there would be international considering all the different nationalities on campus. However, a week after starting, a well-meaning senior colleague reminded me that I was in a Vietnamese workplace. It took me a year to understand what she meant by that. Because I am Vietnamese, I was automatically considered to belong to the Vietnamese "tribe" at work.
I was expected to conform to their working and social styles, whereas I expected myself to learn and grow professionally in an open, dynamic workplace. I discovered people did not favor the originality of ideas over deference to those higher up in the organization. If preserving the status quo slows things down and hampers progress, so be it. Oftentimes, tasks and projects could be delayed indefinitely or purposefully blocked because of difficulties in personal relationships. People were more focused on making other people feel good than completing the tasks on schedule. When there personal difficulties arose, people did not use open communication to try to resolve them.
The working environment there eventually came to feel stifling and frustrating to me.
I moved on to another workplace with a less cumbersome organization structure, but the pressure to fit in socially both inside and outside work was no less severe. And just like the previous organization, performance evaluations and promotional decisions were handled behind closed doors. It seems to me neither fairness nor employee morale is of high priority to Vietnamese management.
Above all, I found the lack of open communication most problematic in a Vietnamese working environment. People would rather discuss issues indirectly than to those directly involved. People are not willing to find a way to resolve relationship difficulties via honesty and open communication. By not resolving personal conflicts, people simply cannot move on to better cooperation in work-related matters. Even when it comes to work matters, honesty and direct communication are not often encouraged.
Overall, I cannot quite figure out if I have merely had bad luck in seeking a suitable working environment or if productivity and professionalism are merely unimportant in the Vietnamese workplace.
By Calina Nguyen
The writer is a Vietnamese who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City