Several weeks ago, as I sat in the Bich Duyen hotel lobby chatting with the receptionist, I received a phone call from my father. As has become the weekly routine during my stay in Vietnam, we chatted for a moment and our conversation was filled with lighthearted banter, several gems of fatherly advice, and an “I love you” to end the conversation.
I say those three words before hanging up the phone with anyone in my family. It has become so normal to me now that I hardly even notice, but the look of complete shock washed over my receptionist-friend’s face as soon as I told my father that I loved him. Chanh said that it felt strange to hear me at this age tell one of my parents that I love him. Imagine his surprise when I told him that I also do this with my brother, sister, extended family, and best friends.
Love in Vietnam is shown in different ways than it is shown in America. Back home we are vocal about our feelings towards friends, family, and lovers alike, no matter our age. Here, actions are said to speak far louder than words, and the only circumstances in which I have seen Vietnamese people be so open about their love have involved very small children. Parents and elders alike dote over babies to no end, sniff-kissing them at every given opportunity.
Somewhere along the way from childhood to adulthood, though, Vietnamese people simply stop saying the L word to each other. And it’s not just the lack of spoken affection that I notice but the total avoidance of discussing anything remotely related to one’s feelings for another person.
The paradox that I have not been able to wrap my head around in Vietnam is that while people rarely seem to voice their feelings for their friends and loved ones, the public displays of physical affection between members of the same sex are always on display in this country.
Women hold hands with other women as they stroll down dusk laden streets, and men do much of the same, cupping each other’s wrists while walking and talking. You will rarely see a male and female publicly display affection towards one another in Vietnam, and if they do, they are most likely young.
I grew up receiving affection from not only my family but also my friends, which makes staying in Vietnam a little bit like an affection rehab program. Sometimes I find myself craving for a rub on the back, suffocating hug, or kiss on the cheek from friends and family members. It is after all what I grew up with, and going from feeling like I was surrounded by physical love all the time back home to nothing has been so difficult.
This problem of conflicting displays of love between vastly different cultures is truly one that is not easy to overcome. What I perceive in Vietnam between friends as a complete lack of love is to the Vietnamese as normal as apple pie to Americans. And my ideal level of affection between myself and friends is to the Vietnamese going entirely overboard.
While both ways are fine, my way is what I am used to. So while I live in Vietnam I will need to either find other foreigners who share the same understanding of affection as I do or suck it up and try not to feel so frustrated that I’m not allowed to hug my friends or kiss my Vietnamese family members on the cheeks as I do back home.
During my first ever trip to Vietnam, I spent one evening trying to teach a female friend how to slow dance the way that Americans slow dance. When I brought her body close to mind, she could not stop her face from turning red, her body from trembling, and her palms from sweating.
I had known my friend for nearly six months already and was bewildered. I asked her why on earth she was so nervous to let me show her how to slow dance. Shyly glancing away from me, she responded that this wasn’t normal in Vietnam. Little did I understand at the time how unnatural it really is here.