(VOV) - Sitting outside my favorite Bia Hoi (fresh beer) spot last night I caught sight of a funny trio.
Three Vietnamese men in their sixties were walking down the sidewalk abreast hand-in-hand-in-hand. They looked cheerful with an eye-wrinkling grin at me, but I was not much surprised as the first time in Hanoi. Almost everyday since then I have been greeted by similar examples of physical contact. School children walking arm in arm on the way to or back from school. Adults talking on the sidewalk. Passengers sitting on a bus…
In my opinion this different concept of personal space. Where westerners have strict physical boundaries with strangers and even with friends, the Vietnamese welcome contact with open arms, literally.
For westerners this contact forward culture can be difficult to adjust to but once you are able to moderate your culturally ingrained stigmas accordingly then it is truly liberating. Other than observing examples on the street, I am inundated with this reality every time I teach a class of young students. Like any young students they will hug my legs and try and jump on me but they will also try to touch my beard and hair and pull my leg and arm hair. I also notice their subconscious neglect for personal space when I get on a busy bus. Recently, I was standing on the number thirty-one bus, holding onto a hand rung when the bus began to seriously fill up. People crammed in from all directions and a little old white haired lady found it perfectly normal to nuzzle into my side and depend on me to hold her up, as any Vietnamese would do for an older citizen. Another great example is what I like to call, “the ol’ knee touch”. You know when you are sitting in a crowded area and someone sits down next to you and accidentally touches your knee with theirs? Yeah, we all know that one. Well, when you brush knees with someone here there is no jumpy appendage retraction, rather the other party just hunkers their knee in there in an unconscious display of personal comfort.
Those devoted to the social sciences claim that Vietnamese social cohesion was shaped in the village where the production of rice demanded an extensive collective effort. The strong collaborative family unit, an ever-present cornerstone of Vietnamese culture, was a necessity when it came to the overall survival of the village. Large family unites traditionally live and work together in the same house, making the western ideal of personal space an impossibility. Whether or not this socio-historical analysis of Vietnamese culture accurately decodes the actions of those three delightful men walking down the street in a heterosexual display of masculine friendship may never be known. However, the relaxed and self-confident physical expressions of friendship and love are, from an outsider’s perspective, delightful to observe and act as unbridled enlightening moments.
Randolph Lovelace III
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