Early November last year, Mr Pham Van Thoai, a Vietnamese factory worker came to Singapore for a holiday with his girlfriend. He purchased the latest iPhone 6 at Mobile Air, a mobile phone store in Sim Lim Square as a birthday gift for his girlfriend. Not fluent in English and thinking Singapore was a safe place to shop, he signed the contract without reading it carefully. The man paid S$ 950 and was going to leave when he was asked to pay an additional S$ 1,500 as a warranty fee, otherwise, he could not leave with the phone. For a factory worker whose salary is S$ 200 a month, the amount is significant. He knelt down out of desperation and tearfully begged for his money back but the Mobile Air’s staff only laughed at him. The next day headlines about Mr Thoai’s case with a picture of him crying went viral in both Singapore and Vietnam.
Singaporeans immediately condemned Mobile Air and expressed sympathy with Mr Thoai. Beyond sympathetic words, they quickly started a crowd-funding site to buy a new iPhone 6 for his girlfriend, calling this ‘giving him justice’. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, his story elicited completely different sentiments. Rather than the mobile phone shop, criticism focused on Mr Thoai. Vietnamese disparaged him for kneeling down and crying in a foreign country, saying he’s bringing shame to his country. Men blasted him for acting weak, crying in public, in the presence of his girlfriend. People poured scorn on him for buying an iPhone and signing a contract written in English without understanding it.
These types of online reactions are common in Vietnam. Anytime there is a comment from foreigners that is felt to be remotely critical of Vietnamese the reaction of Vietnam’s netizens is either
1) Disparaging and shameful
2) Insisting that it is only the misbehavior of a minority and does not reflect Vietnamese, and therefore, not them
3) Offended, thinking foreigners who criticize are insulting Vietnamese.
In November last year, Richard Branson posted a photo of a rhino horn to his Facebook page called for Vietnamese to stop buying rhino horns. Many Vietnamese felt an urge to comment on his Facebook wall, in a futile attempt to explain that it is only the misconduct of a rich minority and therefore, not Vietnamese in general. Others simply threw offensive words to his wall. The same thing happened when Bill Gates posted a picture featuring a pole with bunches of electric wires and a status expressing concern for the rising energy demand in Vietnam. His Facebook was later flooded with obnoxious comments.
An essential reason for such reactions is what Vietnamese call ‘tâm lý nhược tiểu’, an inferiority complex of people from a weak (‘nhược’) and small (‘tiểu’) country. Vietnam is a country with a long history of foreign rule – 1100 years successively governed by Chinese dynasties and almost 100 years under French colonialism. As Vietnamese are exposed to the world more than ever before, they are increasingly reflective about ‘being Vietnamese’, not only from a Vietnamese point of view but also under the foreign gaze. Today, insecurity and defensiveness still exist in the national psyche. There is a sense of not measuring up to standard, hence, the apologetic response and the need to separate oneself from ‘those people’ who misbehave.
A typical example of this inferiority complex, which is true, perhaps, not only in Vietnam, is the case of local language versus English. English is considered an international language, the indicator of civilization and modernity. Languages that are not English or languages of developed countries such as France or Japan are considered inferior. And so, a foreigner, usually Westerner, who learns Vietnamese, usually gets enthusiastic applause. It doesn’t matter if he makes countless grammar mistakes or sounds like he’s asking for porridge (‘Xin cháo’) instead of hello (‘Xin chào’). He has put down a ‘high classed’ language to learn Vietnamese. (Nguyen Ngoc Thach, 2014)
The expectation for Vietnamese speaking English is completely opposite. They have to speak and write the language as fluently as native speakers. Last year, Ly Nha Ky, a Vietnamese celebrity and former travel ambassador of Vietnam faced harsh criticism for speaking a ‘lower than standard’ English. Other celebrities such as Ho Ngoc Ha and Xuan Lan, whose videos speaking English were posted online, were also scrutinized and sniped at for ‘bringing shame to Vietnam’, because they do not speak fluent English or have a good accent.
“It seems the newly found confidence kindled by the 2006-2007 period is eroded by the economic slowdown in the last five years. A group of Vietnamese appear on the media and social networks as a collective of lazybones who day by day, ‘glide’ from lemon tea shops to street beer bars, then either dognap or join a crowd brutally beating dog thieves and would only stop to loot beer from a capsized beer truck*.
People said: Our culture is now degraded and morality is completely in decay. With this psyche, it is understandable that Vietnamese gravitate towards other peoples as if they are lighthouses amid dark sea, hoping to find an elaborate guide on how to live.” (Dang Hoang Giang, 2015).
Not a single day goes by without an article or Facebook post praising the transcendence of other more civilised and richer nations such as Japan, the US or Israel. Threads about Japanese mothering style and Japanese children’s discipline top mothers’ online forums and websites. News sites rave over Westerner’s love for books to contrast with Vietnamese’s love for the screen, or laugh at Vietnamese’s liquor cabinet while applauding Israeli’s bookshelf. What’s missing is confidence in one’s value and critical thinking to interpret the world.
Back to the Sim Lim square story, while the Vietnamese were busy criticizing each other, Singaporeans had already taken action, crowd funding more than enough money to refund Mr Thoai the money he lost for the iPhone and another holiday in Singapore, which he refused to take. Singaporean’s kind and practical response elicited a lot more debate and reflection among Vietnamese, but this time it was about being Vietnamese. One thing we know for sure is that criticizing each other does not make Vietnamese become any stronger as a people.
*Social events made headlines in Vietnam: 2014: Several cases where crowds were beating dog thieves to death. Vietnam was said to ‘champion’ ASEAN’s beer consumption chart, spending US$ 3 billion each year for beer. 2013: In Binh Duong, hundreds of people looting beer from a capsized beer truck despite cries of the driver.