What cultural differences can I expect from a Vietnamese new employee?
November 8, 2010 8:15 PM   Subscribe

What cultural differences can I expect from a Vietnamese new employee?

The company I'm working for hired a new employee (approx. 35 years old). I was told he was born in Vietnam and later studied in France for his bachelor degree. He then moved back to Vietnam, worked a few jobs in Ho Chi Minh City and decided to move to Canada with his family. He's landing in Canada from Vietnam in two weeks with basically nothing but one luggage. His wife and daughters will be here a month later, giving him some time to find a place.

I'm extremely excited to have a foreign coworker and learn about his country (learn about other parts of the world). We have exchanged a few words on Facebook and he seems very polite and excited about moving to Canada.

I'd like to know what cultural differences to expect (this is what I'm looking forward to). Banal things we will do that will surprise him. And things he might do that will surprise us.

I'd also like to know if there are major do/don't that we should aware of.

I tried to read on this topic on the internet, but I wasn't sure if the articles I read were true for a young Vietnamese who (I think) has lived in the city most of this life and in Europe for a few years.
posted by kag to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Um, sorry to burst your bubble, but he might not be all *that* different. Especially if he spent time in a Western country to earn his college degree.

I have a friend from Vietnam, who had only been living in the US for a few years when I first met her. She didn't seem very different to me from my American friends. She dressed like everyone else (Hollister, American Eagle), watched American films... the few "different" things were eating out at Asian restaurants more often, as opposed to fast food joints and listening to Asian pop-music, which to be honest, I didn't find all too different, since I'm half-asian and share similar habits.

You'd be surprised at how much Western culture has infiltrated Asia, particularly within the larger cities. They wear our clothes! They know our movies and celebrities! Sometimes better than we do! Of course, there are still certain traditions, familial and otherwise, that may still be practiced among certain people, however, I don't think that you'll get the exotic, cultural exchange that you're expecting. I mean, the dude will come to work in a suit, just like you do. And no, he probably won't take his shoes off or bow to the boss.

I'd also try not to be overly excited about this. I'm sure you mean well, but sometimes it comes across as a little bit offensive. Not in a I-hate-you-now kind of way, but more of an "ummmm...what is going on?" kind of way. I've had people speak to me verrryyy slowly in English, thinking that I don't speak it, or offer me english-foreign language dictionaries in class, trying to be helpful. They have no idea that not only do I speak ONLY English, but I also have a degree in it, teach it at a university, have edited a lit journal for a number of years, and have been published as well. So when people look at me and go "CULTURAL! YAY!" and try to patronize me, it gets really annoying really fast. (Although it's very fun to politely decline them in a perfect Californian accent.)
posted by joyeuxamelie at 8:33 PM on November 8, 2010 [16 favorites]

I worked with many Vietnamese co-workers. Most were from refugee families and smoke little English... some learned English and spoke with a thick accent.

I didn't notice any difference, really.

Maybe that they ate fish at lunch and it made the whole place smell.

Also, they had a great sense of humor, they all smoked and were super intelligent and detail-oriented. They also gave gifts to me (as their supervisor) and to the managers for the holidays. They also loved to do things for my family (my uncle was the ops manager, my mother and my grandmother also worked there) like landscaping. Very nice people. Never complained about anything.

Also, one of the individuals who came from a very poor part and whose family had very hard times until coming to America years ago. He did not like to talk about that part of his life. Very private individual.

That's just my experience, though.
posted by KogeLiz at 8:51 PM on November 8, 2010

May well be very keen on very fresh food. May party very hard at Lunar new year. That's about it.

I had to teach a course in Tuscany a few years ago and the half a dozen Vietnamese folks complained about the food - the coffee and bread were OK but the food was greasy, the vegies mediocre and the fish inedible.
posted by hawthorne at 8:52 PM on November 8, 2010

Best answer: Yeaaaaaaaahhhhhh. Why don't you let the employee himself share his culture - along with its mores - with you once he arrives, if he chooses to? He may just want to be treated like everyone else. He may find you interest flattering and reassuring. He may find it condescending and a bit racist. There is no way to tell until he arrives.

Dude's not coming from Mars; you will have more in common than different - especially in a work context. Different nationalities may have different personal, familial or private norms, but "western" work is a model that has spread far and wide. Even if he has not practiced a corporate model of work, it's highly highly unlikely he would be unfamiliar with it.

I understand you're coming from a good place with this, but not everyone may understand that, and I would suggest you take a gentle, curious, but not interrogatory approach with welcoming him and learning more about Viet culture.

And remember, he's an individual before he's a race, a nation, a people, etc. His responses may not be typical or representative, and he - like everyone - would no doubt like being thought of as "that guy Toan, who likes puppies, and samba, and tulips, and is also Vietnamese", rather than a personification of Vietnam, or as someone who exists primarily as a cosign for all things Vietnamese.

We contain multitudes, celebrate that. I'm sure he'll like you getting to know him because you think he's a nice guy first and foremost (with a variety of interests and thoughts), rather than because he's a guy who's Vietnamese.
posted by smoke at 9:01 PM on November 8, 2010 [10 favorites]

One thing I've noticed with coworkers recently moved from South Korea and Vietnam- if you (sincerely) offer something, whether it's carpooling, work tasks, or snack food, always offer twice- mention that it really isn't any trouble or you're happy to help/share.

When/if he mentions things that are different, acknowledge it as 'cool, interesting- never would have known that if you hadn't told me' and not 'how EXOTIC. how AMAZING. I can't believe Your People do it That Way'. Not that you would have, but be aware. It's okay to be curious about him and his culture, but don't treat either as a curiosity.
posted by variella at 9:11 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd say just don't be too excited.

If he's going to share, then he will share. Please don't constantly bring attention to how different he is unless he starts a conversation about how different things are.

Just in general, if his English isn't all that great or accented, don't assume he doesn't understand. There's a tendency for humans to assume someone who doesn't speak the language is also inherently not as smart.

Treat him like normal, then ask him about what he finds different a few weeks later.
posted by just.good.enough at 9:41 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's not a bad idea to try to be a little prepared in advance to help mitigate culture shock on both sides. It IS a bad idea to turn a person into a project or an artifact, which is what I think joyeuxamelie is concerned about. I think it's entirely possible that you don't have that in mind or wouldn't even do that inadvertently at all, but it could always come across that way, so be careful. :)

I don't have any specific information about Vietnam (I've only had a few students from there), but you might try the book Culture Shock: Vietnam and Kiss, Bow, Shake Hands (superficial, but popular).
posted by wintersweet at 11:25 PM on November 8, 2010

You will want to help him get ready for winter! Depending where he lived in France, he may not know much about what type of clothing or boots to buy for winter (wool and fleece good, cotton bad, etc), what to do with a car in winter (good tires, and how to drive), etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:35 PM on November 8, 2010

And CIC has some "adjusting to life in Canada" pages that might be fun reading; they explain things like how some common retail transactions work in Canada etc. (As to your "what we do that will surprise him" question.)

If you're going to be his main welcoming committee, you might think about whether there are facts about the local rental housing market that would be helpful for him -- where are good places advertised? What are the good neighborhoods for families? What do landlords want to see from prospective tenants (first month's rent? how much of a security deposit? do they require a cheque or is cash okay? should he expect to sign a lease when handing over cash? how long a term does the lease usually run for?)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:43 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

As an icebreaker in getting to know him better (and give him an avenue to question you about stuff he needs to know in a new place and job), be interested in his French experience. Let that lead into how Canada compares to France compares to Vietnam.

As other people have already said, his western experience will probably have him fitting in pretty well pretty fast. But you might expect him to:
- continue seeming to be more polite than other people you know,
- perhaps be a bit more reticent around issues that might cause conflict,
- start conversations with more discussion about family than you're used to (and it would not generally be offensive for you to do the same with him),
- work hard in comparison to yourself or other coworkers (that's not necessarily an ethnic thing, it can simply be a product of being an immigrant),

Beyond that sort of general stuff, he's from the south so he may be a Buddhist of one of several sorts, he may be a Catholic, he may be a Caodaiist, he may be an atheist. Depending on which (as well as all the usual stuff that makes us different), his cultural and personal background might be very very different. The only way to find out more is to ask him, but please do it gently.
posted by Ahab at 12:08 AM on November 9, 2010

I think something that fits in the banal category- that he may or may not do, is in regards to knocking and entering.

In France, one knocks to announce entrance into a room. In the USA (and perhaps Canada) one knocks to ask permission to enter. It's very perturbing to have someone knock and then barge in, without consent, from my American POV. Being in France, it's still something I'm getting used to. You can see this in offices (in the USA) where the door is even open- someone will knock on the door frame and hangout until they are clearly invited in.

I think this is something indicative of what you might expect, it's those really small things that are sometimes the most interesting.
posted by raccoon409 at 12:29 AM on November 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

In many parts of Asia it's polite to refuse food or water once or even twice even when you are hungry or thirsty. So offer things two or three times until he or she is used to the American way of being direct with our hunger and/or thirst.
posted by bardic at 12:43 AM on November 9, 2010

On asking more than once: Maybe, maybe not. When people have lived in multiple cultures, they often vary their behaviours according to the culture they find themselves in more readily than people who have not had as much practice/exposure to unfamiliar cultures. So, don't go into this with a whole lot of expectations.

I remember being a little offended and then amused that my college RA expected me not to be able to converse much in English. You learn to have a sense of humour about people's assumptions, but I always felt more comfortable with people who just behaved the way they normally do, and gave me room to do the same. If something struck them as odd, and they asked or commented, cool. If not, that was cool too.

This whole "Oh you're from an Asian culture, you must not say what you mean the first time" thing can be REALLY annoying.

So, yeah, your enthusiasm is kind of sweet, but it would have made me feel like I was a circus act or something. Please continue to feel excited about meeting someone from a new culture. But please don't let that excitement lead you to treating your co-worker like he's a different species.

On a more positive advice note: The one thing I would suggest when dealing with anyone from a different culture (or really, anyone who you don't know well, for that matter) is when they do something that you don't understand or are uncomfortable with, do some information gathering and then communicate clearly with them about it if it's something that needs to change, without being judgmental about the differences in baseline behaviours.
posted by bardophile at 2:38 AM on November 9, 2010

One more vote for "you're over-thinking it a bit", and he's not going to be that radically different.

That said, cultural factors may make him reluctant to look you directly in the eye as much as you'd expect from someone of your own background, and he may be a little less direct than you're used to in conversation, for instance when asking questions.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:39 AM on November 9, 2010

A couple of things from my personal experience (I'm married to a Vietnamese citizen and I'm myself of Vietnamese descent).
- The extended kin network is very important in Vietnamese life. People depend on it for lots of things that we (in Western countries) would get from paying services. This network is usually missing abroad, and the "viet khieu" (people from Vietnamese descent or naturalised immigrants) tend to adopt the more individualistic western lifestyle. That's OK for many Vietnamese immigrants, but some find this individualism uncomfortable or at least impractical.
- Due to the above, I tend to see Vietnamese culture as an "ask" culture.
- Everyday life in Western countries is perceived by some of the Vietnamese I know as much more heavily regulated and constrained (legally or socially) and less free than life in Vietnam. To use an extreme example, crossing a street in Hanoi looks like this and nobody will tut-tut you about jaywalking. Generally, there's a lot of flexibility and rule-bending in daily Vietnamese life.
However, since your coworker is French-educated, none of this should be a surprise to him.
posted by elgilito at 5:13 AM on November 9, 2010

If you decide that you must help your coworker acclimate themselves to Canadian culture at the workplace, you should stick to helping him rapidly complete tasks that would otherwise detract from his work life:
- completing any work related immigration paperwork (does he have to get a Social Insurance Number?)
- completing any health insurance related paperwork (does he have to visit the ministry of health somewhere to set up the insurance)
- getting driver's license, buying a car
- registering children for school
- getting daycare if needed
- hiring accountant that specializes in international taxes to help with taxes first year if necessary
- obtaining benefits at your workplace

I am assuming he has a competant immigration attorney already courtesy of your workplace, otherwise he will need one of those as well.

These are things that he'd probably be unfamiliar with. Also you could spend some time explaining to him taxes, withholding, etc - that might help. As the others said, culturally it's not a huge deal since he has lived in western/modern countries.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:25 AM on November 9, 2010

I spent a couple months in Vietnam on a study abroad program. The program director was a Vietnamese woman who had spent many years living in America, both studying and working. Based on my (very limited!) experience, I'd say that, yeah, there shouldn't be too many surprises. Since he has already spent some time living in France, there probably won't be too many surprises.

The biggest pitfall in dealing with Vietnamese people, in my experience, is this: they won't necessarily tell you if you did something wrong. Since he's just a coworker, not a boss, I don't see this being a problem for you. But it's possible that if you offend him, you'll never know. On the plus side, you probably won't offend him. YMMV on this one - I am just very aware of this because on my study abroad program, we expected our program director to be very Americanized and tell us when we messed up. It was very jarring when we realized that she was never going to tell us that. (And there was at least one occasion where someone really messed up, and all she did was reassure us that it was fine. Super awkward.)

The flip side of that is that it can be awkward to tell a Vietnamese person that they've messed up, because Vietnamese culture tends to not be so direct about things like that. I wouldn't say anything about this to him, as he might be much more hip to western directness than the woman I knew. If you have to criticize him and it goes much more poorly than you expect, though, this could be the reason.

Based on my experience, I think Vietnamese culture is waaaay more Guess than Ask. For reasons of saving face, one tries to avoid saying "no" or being said "no" to, which is pretty much the definition of a Guess culture.

Anyway, these things shouldn't be a big deal; he's lived in a similar country before, he knows what to expect.

Don'ts: Don't badmouth Ho Chi Minh (unless he does it first). Don't ask about the war, especially not at first. It's not offensive, but most Vietnamese I've known preferred to treat it as something in the past that they're not really keen to talk about. And I think they get tired of Americans who only want to hear about what happened decades ago, rather than Vietnam as it is today.
posted by mandanza at 12:41 PM on November 9, 2010

> Don't ask about the war

Yeah if you want to ask about the Vietnam war, don't be surprised if he asks "which one?". You'll probably want to talk about the American one.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:19 PM on November 9, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you for the answers and for pointing out what was interpreted as being "overwhelming". I can assure you my intentions were never to be condescending. It was an "honest" question.
posted by kag at 7:34 PM on November 9, 2010

Hey OP, it says a lot about you that you were open to the advice that most chastised your original question. A lot of people might have reacted defensively, but you didn't at all- in fact you embraced viewpoints that critiqued your question. Your "best answers" suggest that you actually are sensitive to his experience, and willing to re-frame the experience and put aside your curiosity to see him as an individual first, rather than an ambassador. That's awesome, and I bet it will really make him feel welcomed!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:22 PM on November 9, 2010

« Older Turning china into gold   |   Time to suit up! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.