Saturday, 22 October 2011

How I became Vietnam’s most hated columnist

One of the best things about writing this blog is getting comments and emails from Vietnamese people saying that my foreigner’s perspective has helped them appreciate their own country in a new light, or pay more attention to everyday Hanoi things, previously passed unnoticed due to over-familiarity.

I know absolutely bugger all about Vietnam really, and exist here in an isolated expat bubble. I have zero expertise when it comes to this country’s history or culture, and no credentials to write about Vietnamese society. All I have to offer is my point of view: what Hanoi looks like and feels like to a complete outsider.

That this has any resonance with Vietnamese people is a great - and surprising - honour.

Also surprising and honouring is that this blog has spawned some amazing writing opportunities for me, including being invited to write regularly for Dân Trí’s online blog. Dân Trí is one of the country’s largest news sites (in fact, they say it’s the most popular of all), with 70 million hits a week. SEVENTY MILLION. That is 69,999,300 more readers than this blog gets, for example. 

My posts are written and published in the English edition, but they’re targeted at the paper’s primary readership - Vietnamese people obviously - who read the translated versions. This has meant that for the first time, my writing is being read by Vietnamese people who might not be able to read English. 

And do they find my light-hearted perspective on their homeland to be fresh and endearing? No. In fact, they cannot stand me.

My first column was about my personal experiences as a Western vegetarian in Vietnam. It was a toned-down version of the blog post which I later published here. To me, this was an inoffensive subject which, from my experience, many Vietnamese people seemed interested in. 

It generated 166 comments. Thanks to Google Translate, I was able to spend an entire dismal day reading all 166 comments as they came in. The first was:
Do not make such an objective opinion. I was really upset when I read your post because you really do not know about Vietnam.

Ouch. The next was along the lines of:
You should try to wade into fields such as agriculture every morning. I think you will understand what is POVERTY.

And on it went:

You live in Hanoi two years but true that you understand nothing of VIETNAM!
Obviously you do not know anything about Vietnam at all.
We hope that the next time you want to write about a certain topic, please do your homework on the subject and then write!

After about 112 comments along those lines, and some complicated arguments about whether or not vegetarians eat eggs, the comments did start to become more positive and supportive of the ignorant foreigner behind the article. I also received many emails like the following:

I think you understand Vietnamese because you are foreigner, you see Vietnamese is different from you and the rest of the world, but most of Vietnamese who don't agree with you, they only compare themself with other Vietnamese. Then they cannot stand when somebody told them that they are not good or something like that.

Nathan asked whether I was positioning myself as Vietnam’s Miranda Devine. It appeared that I was.

Worried that we might receive a Molotov cocktail through our bedroom window, I intentionally tried to win over the crowd with the next column. It was an ingratiating, innocuous ode to cycling in Hanoi. It was pretty boring, but it did seem to salvage my reputation. There were 50 comments, universally in agreement.

But I was still het up about the negative comments (maybe this is how Miranda Devine turned evil: it all started with one perfectly innocent, light-hearted column…). I didn’t care that people disagreed with my opinion (happens all the time), it was the constant references to my failure to “understand” Vietnam that really got to me.

You see, not understanding Vietnam is the whole point of me writing for the newspaper. It's supposed to be an opinion piece from a foreign perspective.
My goat well and truly having been got, my next column was, naturally, about exactly this. It featured narky nuggets like the following:

"I am a foreigner, so I won’t ever understand Vietnam like a Vietnamese person, but does that immediately invalidate any contribution I might make? If I do things differently or interpret situations differently to a Vietnamese person, does that make me ignorant, or foolish, or wrong, or simply different? And isn’t it at least interesting to hear a different perspective, even if you don’t agree with it?"

I emailed it off to the editor with the obviously humorous aside that it should probably be headlined “Ms Tabitha gets all passive-aggressive”.

Turns out you shouldn’t joke about things like that:

It garnered 62 comments, and in a clear piece of evidence that passive-aggressiveness actually works, they were almost entirely sympathetic:

Do not be sad, continue writing for people like us to have the opportunity to learn from you slightly. We become more wise than by learning from our differences rather than to eliminate it.

There are still people like me here to support you. Hope to read your next post. Always wish you well and find more fun in those days lived in VN.

You've opened a very exciting discussion but the topic is quite sensitive, it's a difference about the culture. Remember that some conservative people they believe that something is a truth, it cannot be changed and they won't accept the opposite ideas.

Not only loving your essay, I have to admit that after reading your essays I slapped my lag and said she was so true, I did not realize this before… Overall, I think you essay is too direct, that sounds like this essay want to teach people something. In my mind, most of Vietnamese people do not like this. So I anticipate this essay will receive a lot of negative feedback. Please go out more, discover my country more and then write more for us.

Unfortunately, Tabitha having too many ideas a bit "feisty."

A good portion of the comments were still directly referring to the fateful post on vegetarianism, a subject which seems doomed to haunt me for the rest of my time in the country.

And what since then? Well, the last column, about everyday practices in Vietnam that seem “mysterious” to me (in the same vein as this blog post) got 98 comments. They were mostly really interesting and insightful, even the devastatingly negative ones. And while I still get dispiriting comments about the invalidity of my opinions or my lack of understanding about Vietnam, there’s always a silver lining, or should I say, lightning:

Dear Tabitha. I've read some of your posts. And I feel as though you do not know much about Viet Nam, as well as the Vietnamese people. But I also thank you for the receipt of your personal lightning.

The whole experience of writing for a readership of tens of millions is one of the greatest capital-o Opportunities that’s ever come my way. Not just because I get to be Ms Tabitha, newspaper columnist, but because it allows me to interact with a whole swathe of the population who are usually shut off from me, due to my inadequacies in the Vietnamese language. If anyone can help me try to understand Vietnam, it's them.

And you know how I can always tell when one of my columns has been published? Because I immediately get inundated with Facebook friend requests from total strangers, and my inbox starts filling with emails like this:

Thanks to you because of things you have shared with Vietnamese people, I think you have a heart of gold, if not, you just smile at us and say nothing. For everyone over the world, think about opinions of foreigners, and views our own culture in many different ways always be nice to live, to come closer to each other. I love this way.

Hope to see you soon in Hanoi!

Suck on that, Miranda Devine.


  1. LOL, I can only assume you repeated the most subtly hilarious comments here. Surely, as a foreigner, there are things we will misunderstand at first. I mean, a lot of it just doesn't make any sense. I hope your column doesn't turn into just a foreigner trying to make sense of Vietnam, when there are plenty of legitimate things that Vietnamese people could learn from a foreigner's perspective. Or as they say, give them the opportunity to learn from you "slightly".

  2. Ha! Great post...who knew vegetarianism was such a raw nerve here. I've written a few columns for Tuoi Tre News here in Saigon, in what sounds like a pretty similar situation to what you have going on. Sadly, none of them have ever gotten even close to 166 comments...or even 16, but I did write one about why I love Saigon, in which I included a throw-away sentence about "staying out until 4am while holding a steady job." Wow did that generate some heat from the readership.

    I also wasn't allowed to say a government traffic policy was silly in one piece that was translated into Vietnamese. Oops...

  3. Miranda just called me. In tears. Hope you're happy now.

  4. Tomosaigon: Credit where it's due, I think Google Translate is responsible for a lot of the subtle hilarity. God knows what happens to my columns when they get translated!

    Michael: I think it's impossible to tell what the reaction to certain topics will be. I thought my "passive aggressive" column would surely get more comments than the vegetarian one, but no. Not even half. I feel like I'm conducting some kind of focus group!

    Anonymous: I'm sorry Miranda. I'm sure you have a heart of gold too. Somewhere underneath your reptilian exterior.

  5. I started reading the comments but then started to just get agressive. I DON'T UNDERSTAND.

  6. aladar van nguyen23 October 2011 at 18:06

    one of the greatest laughs ever!

  7. Jodeska: That's right. YOU DON'T.

    Aladar: No, thank YOU. And I like your new Vinafied name btw.

  8. Ba-hahahahaha. If anyone can take 166 poorly translated hate-comments you can Tabs. x

  9. Sigh. It's karma for all those years of being a Harsh Task Master, Beth.

  10. A wonderful read as usual! No wonder Nathan gave up competing with your blog, Tabs. I thought it was just because you're such an awesome writer and he didn't want to compete. But maybe it was a different form of self-preservation? By the way, have you researched whether anyone does a similar blog from their experience as an expat living in your homeland? eg a Vietnamese in Australia? And did you get the blog you wrote about the kids peeing INTO the swimming pool translated for your Vietnamese column? I'd love to hear the reactions to that one!

  11. Pep: Thanks for your comment! There's actually an awesome blog written by a Vietnamese woman living in America, which I strongly recommend:

    I feel like I've learned more about Vietnam from that blog than any other. And no, I haven't dared write about "Chicken Moments" in Dan Tri yet!

  12. Suck on that Miranda indeed! When you start to be compared to Andrew Bolt though, I might start getting worried. Right now though I'm just proud!

  13. It's tricky writing about Vietnam as a foreigner. If you try to write in a way that assures no controversy, your writing will be boring indeed (although I'm still confused as to how the veg post was controversial, but that's only appropriate. I know that most Vietnamese people reading my blog would simply conclude that I'm mentally disabled and/or disturbed.) Now you are our official foreign representative. I'm totally ok with that. :)

  14. Buster: Yes, not quite Andrew Bolt just yet. Hopefully I won't slander anyone either.

    Sarita: Thank you! I will take this responsibility extremely seriously. Let me know if there are any messages you'd like to convey to the people. Maybe subliminal ones? Like, if you take the first letter of every sentence in my column it will spell out "P.E.R.S.O.N.A.L.S.P.A.C.E."

  15. Interesting blog on Hanoi. I come across this while googling or things to do while I'm here. I'm might be based here in near future, will read all of your blogs soon when I have the time. This will be my survival guide here!

  16. I should preface by saying I really enjoyed your vegetarian post and had a laugh at it. When reading this post I was wondering, too, why people would go up in arms against it. Then I went and read the comments (and translation) on Dan Tri and I can kind of see where it’s coming from. Kind of.

    You know the irony is, after skimming through comments on your veggy column on Dan Tri, despite people saying that “we don’t automatically equate vegetarianism to hungry”, there are many more that say, “well if workers don’t eat meat they won’t have strength” which equates to the same conclusion. So yes, we do think that if you are vegetarian, you are at least incapable of heavy work. It’s a very deeply in-grained assumption that has a lot to do with the history of poverty of this country and I think it’s bred into the people so not many are aware of it.

    But in defense, I think that some (or… a lot) of the humour in your original post was lost in translation. It’s not exactly the translator’s fault, it was a pretty accurate translation. I think it’s something about the subject; it’s like an in-joke to those who understand how and why vegetarianism works in Western culture. Also meat in Vietnam is still something considered a luxury, so I guess to many people it comes off as somewhat ungrateful for having meat. (One of the first things that Vietnamese students write home in awe about is how in many Western countries, Australia included, meat is cheaper than or as cheap as vegetable.)

    The other thing also is Vietnamese people in general are very afraid of making mistakes, so they think making an opinion based on something you’re not totally familiar with is not good. This applies to everything. There’s even a proverb that basically comes down to: if you know it, speak, if you don’t know, shut up and listen. So to them, a person relatively new to Vietnam who doesn’t yet have a very clear understanding of our culture, making a comment on our culture, is something like an insult. They don’t see it as a part of the learning process.

    And to be honest, it’s a lot easier and more fun to insult some “clueless Tay” on the internet than to explain rationally. It baffles me but I think we get off of making fun of people and making it seem like we’re superior to others. That’s why the Dan Tri comments are quite patronising.

    Personally I really enjoy your blog but I’m a third culture kid, I’m ethnically Vietnamese but socially not really, so what do I know, really?

    P.S: Sarcasm doesn’t do well in Vietnam, especially in writing, especially from foreigners :P

  17. Lawrence: Thanks, and good luck in Hanoi. I keep meaning to post more actual useful information on here, so thanks for reminding me!

    Hien: Your comment has really hit the nail on the head in so many ways! First of all, you're completely right that I missed the mark in the tone of my first column about vegetarianism. I was used to writing about Vietnam for foreigners and I really failed to adapt the subject and the way it was written for a Vietnamese readership. If I could have my time again, I would definitely write this article differently! Know your audience: what a rookie error.

    Secondly, that's really interesting about Vietnamese people not valuing inexpert opinion. I guess this is the source of the "you don't understand" mantra. The problem is that it's such a contrast to the Western attitude, where we think it's our god-given right to spout off about any old crap.

    Thirdly, leaving insulting comments on the internet is definitely not isolated to Vietnam. I'm actually amazed that the comments are so civil when you compare them to comments left on YouTube for example. Plus, if you publish stuff on the internet, you need to be prepared to cop whatever happens as a result. I'm fine with that.

    Finally, I agree that no-one likes to hear a foreigner criticize their country, just like no-one is allowed to criticize your own family but you. I guess the difficulty lies in what people consider a criticism. Even a factual observation by a foreigner can be loaded. My other problem is that I try to write humorously, and there's not much comic material in saying, "I love Vietnam and everything in it".

    Thanks so much for your comment. It really confirmed a lot of thoughts for me, which was quite heartening. I think your point of view as a "third culture kid" is invaluable. Being able to understand both cultures you hold the answers to so many questions I have! If they could bottle that, I'd buy it.

    Oh, and one final thing: I am 100% sure that the Vietnamese correlation between vegetarianism and hunger is as widespread as I wrote. The other day I ate a vegetarian lunch with a large group of former colleagues (who'd been forced into it), and what was the conversation on the walk back to the office: I'm hungry already!

  18. I COULD NOT stop laughing at that "passive-aggressive" headline. I'm moving to Hanoi in a week and reading your blog for the last few months has been the best introduction to Vietnamese culture that i could've hoped for.

  19. Thanks Koki! And yes, that headline is pretty LOL-worthy. There's a lesson there for everyone I think! Good luck in Vietnam. I hope it all works out swimmingly.

  20. I love this entire post and all of its comments. I as an American, can appreciate the humor. I have moments were I absolutely HATE living in Hanoi, and other moments were I value the experience and the culture. Thank you for the good humor-you actually put me into a mood of appreciation!

  21. There's a little dialogue in "Analyze this":
    Jelly: I can't do it, I am a moron, I am known for it.
    Sobel: (mumble something) You're a moron!
    Jelly: Don't say it like that. It's OK if I say it, but it sounds wrong when you say it.

    (I'm paraphrasing here, but you get the gist)
    Keep up the good work!


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