Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Basic Personality of Vietnamese

Titus Leidesdorf

Most Vietnamese are singularly self-centered people who, like the Chinese, view the broadest events and circumstances in the most personal terms. Like the Chinese, they make a great show of social behavior and group activity; and like the Thais and the Filipinos, they are substantially more shrewd and clever than the Chinese about this and often seem to be truly involved with other people and truly committed to outside interests. But in most cases this is wholesale deception (albeit habitual, often unconscious, and even innocent) ; what the Vietnamese does is usually done out of commitment to himself and to his own needs, not to some grand purpose, some great ideal, or some compelling loyalty. Ideals and loyalties exist, to be sure, but in most cases they are projections of the selfish needs of the individual. Even his participation in mass activities (a la Red Guards) is most likely to come about "because it appears to be the wise individual thing to do."

It is true, in some sense, that everyone is motivated by his own needs and interests. But while the Westerner (and particularly the American) accepts direction from others, commits himself to external causes and obligations, and endeavors to submerge his selfish interests in some greater social purpose (usually experiencing a sense of guilt if he fails to do so), the Vietnamese qua Oriental is free from this sense of compulsion, and rather comfortably so. Thus a major characteristic of his is detachment-especially noted in the rural peasant, but also observable in different forms of insulation and dispassionate bystanding among urban dwellers.

The Vietnamese can "get involved" when it is to their personal advantage to do so-because of coercion, for the sake of survival, or out of an opportunistic awareness of the direction in which things are moving. (They will not help us win by pointing out minefields, but we can be sure we are winning when they start to do so.) Thus on their own motivation (or in self-protection) they can support a movement, and in their own interests they can develop close and very personal loyalties. This support rendered either to movements or to individuals tends to be quite circular: the Vietnamese supports a movement which is strong enough to protect him or meet his needs and thus helps keep it strong enough to attract him; and he identifies with a leader on whom he can depend for support and protection, adding thus to the following which makes the leader strong enough to provide the protection and to earn more support.

In both cases the attachment is personal, deriving from the individual's need for support, protection, survival, or aggrandizement, and has little to do with issues, goals, or grand purposes. The Vietnamese is looking for insurance, and he will buy it wherever he can get it, without any misgivings about doubling up on his coverage. His loyalties can be intense, but they are not necessarily singular nor total. Insofar as he has some defined goals of his own, he does, not necessarily have to ride the same horse all the way to reach them. Nothing succeeds like success, especially as a criterion for leadership, and "loyalty may be a virtue, but consistency is not." Even in their religions the Vietnamese are likely to defend themselves in depth, sharing with the Chinese and the Japanese a sense that if one religion is a good idea, two or three are probably better.

Despite this independence and looseness, the Vietnamese is not entirely his own free agent, however. With the attachments he makes he assumes reciprocal obligations, and these obligations substantially control his freedom of movement. He has obligations to his family and its wider ramifications, to his hamlet, village, or its equivalent in some other geographic-social-political group. In seeking affiliations with groups, movements, or leaders who can offer protection or other rewards, he assumes obligations to give them support as long as the loyalty relationships exist; and although these can be severed, there are unwritten rules which govern the proprieties of separation. Conversely, the leaders and authorities who have the power which attracts support do have the obligation to protect or otherwise meet the needs and expectations of those who support them. Because the Vietnamese has attachments in many dimensions and directions-family, religious, geographical, scholastic, political, fraternal-and because many of these are contradictory or competitive (especially in the atmosphere which exists today), he is simultaneously pulled in many directions and effectively pinned down by a network of subtle, informal, but nevertheless compelling social forces.

In sum, then, the typical Vietnamese is intensely individualistic in outlook and purpose-often bovine, passive, and seemingly uninspired (in Western terms), but adequately motivated to pursue his own interests or to secure his own survival. His consequent loyalties and attachments can be intensely expressed and pursued but also tend to be diverse (to accommodate a variety of pressures in the complex society) and opportunistic. His outlook is inclined to be narrow; his sense of loyalty diminishes as one moves away from his immediate colleagues, family, or neighborhood; and his concerns, if authority ends at the hamlet gate, will rarely extend far beyond the hamlet hedge or its symbolic equivalent in terms of the needs of his family or the interests of his colleagues. He seeks attachments for the support and protection he can derive from them; be seeks a job or an office (if at all) for the immediate rewards or opportunities it provides for him-rarely in order to accomplish something in a Western sense of productivity and social service. Altruism is virtually absent; and with his detachment he can be heartless, ruthless, or cruel. But he can also be charming, and he certainly shares the typical Oriental determination (in most normal circumstances) to maintain pleasant relationships and avoid disagreements. For the Westerner this raises the troublesome problems of "face," "true understanding," and "honesty" or "frankness." To the Vietnamese it is part of the struggle to survive in a society whose complex dimensions impose competing and often contradictory demands, where opposition is subtle, loyalties are conditional, flexibility is essential, and clandestinity is a way of life.

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