Having heard this word for a long time, I hadn’t really thought about it until I asked a friend for a literal translation. It is not even a name for a person, but “a house in the country”.
This was sort of a surprise to me, because I had always heard it used in insulting ways. “Look at that nha que.”
Why is it bad to be from the country?
Not that America is better, but it is different. Even though we are a predominantly urban nation, we all like to pretend we’re from the country. We buy big SUVs that can drive up a mountain, but only drive them into parking lots.
My mom lives in the mountains in North Carolina. If any place is the countryside, it’s there. But when I visit her, we spend most of our time driving down well-paved highways to malls and shops and movie theatres.
I don’t know why we are so obsessed with being from the countryside, but we are. We love cowboys. We love to be rustic, or at least pretend to be so.
In fact, I’ll tell you this: one cannot become the President of the United States without putting on a working man’s shirt, the sleeves rolled up, and making a speech about how you come from a humble background. “My father was a farmer; My mother worked at nights as a janitor; I put myself through school shoveling trash.”
Most of it nonsense.
Nobody really checks up too much on this stuff. I do not believe we have had a president with a callous on one finger since Theodore Roosevelt. And if he had callouses, they were from leisure activity, not because he had to work.
Many things in Vietnam seem to be turned upside down. Or maybe they’re upside down in America. No way of knowing.
But I find that despising somebody because they are from the countryside is not only unfair, it is also ignorant. From the Ho Chi Minh City office worker, to state officials. All of you, all of us, eat rice. Where does this rice come from?
This rice comes from the people sometimes ridiculed as nha que.
The only reason that the proud urbanites have the strength to point and laugh at the people with dirty hands, and, yes, perhaps sometimes even bad manners, is because of the food they grow and bring to us.
Those flowers you got for your wife or girlfriend on International Women’s Day? Who grew them? Who brought them on the back of a motorbike, from another province, to arrive at 4am?
One time I was at Megastar, a cinema in Hanoi. And before the movie started there was a little commercial, reminding people to turn off their phones.
This commercial had two couples: one very well-dressed, the other obviously from the countryside. The message at the end was, “Turn off your phone. Don’t be nha que.”
Now I’m all for manners. There are so many things that offend me. I’m a bit queasy actually. But I am offended in Hanoi at least as much as I am in the countryside.
To be urged to have good behavior is an excellent idea. Everybody should. However, one of the disappointments - among the many other amazing things I’ve learned about the language - is that bad manners is synonymous with being from the countryside.
I am a newcomer and a learner. But I’m going to ask a favor from the Vietnamese people right now. Can we change this word please? Nha que should not mean ignorant, stupid or foolish. Because it isn’t. There are just as many ignorant, stupid and foolish people in Hanoi. Just as many in Los Angeles, London and Paris.
Can we change the word to something else? Yes, sometimes there is a need for a good insult. I would often like to have a word to say to somebody who is bad-mannered. But I refuse to