The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division , at sacred-texts.com
p. 90 p. 91
The basic physical, mental, social and spiritual needs of man are universally the same, but the ways in which these needs are expressed and satisfied differ as radically as the language he speaks. The reason for this disparity is twofold. In the first place, varying geographical, historical, economic and religious factors determine the value systems of a people or locality. In the second, these various value systems then dramatically influence the manners, customs and daily behavior patterns of communities and individuals. So behavior, no matter how unusual or unique it may seem, is never haphazard, but habitually consistent with the structures of value built by a particular complex of influences.
In South Vietnam religion plays an unusually determinative role in the establishment and operation of the value systems of indigenous peoples. This influence is observable not only in the presence of the bonzes and other clergymen, temples, pagodas, dinhs, and spirit houses, but also in the sacrifices, taboos, fetishes, magical practices, etc. so frequently encountered. The various religious rites and ceremonies can be individualistic, or may require collective community participation.
Americans cannot really understand the Vietnamese, nor work harmoniously with them, without an awareness of these religious beliefs and the ways in which they affect everyday attitudes and practices. Only when their seemingly strange and puzzling behavior is seen as reasonable and logical in its environmental context can it be fully appreciated. American patterns of thought and action might be just as bewildering and confusing to the Vietnamese as their ways are to us. Our familiarity with our own cultural values and behavior patterns should not be allowed to create a negative reaction toward differing systems of values and behavior. We can, instead, strive to comprehend their underlying motivations as a way of deepening and broadening our experience of life as a whole. SO:
(b) Search for areas of agreement, rather than disagreement, and as understanding develops, harmony and unity of purpose will result.
(c) Demonstrate a keen and vital interest in people as individual persons and in their personal beliefs.
(d) Be willing to ask genuinely interested questions of "Why....?" Questions which sincerely seek information are normally considered to be complimentary. The most foolish question is the one not asked!
The following are some positive attitudes and actions which can help you relate more effectively to the people of Vietnam:
DO TREAT TEMPLES, SPIRIT HOUSES, SACRED PLACES CAREFULLY
Reason: Vietnamese religions teach the presence of ancestors as spirits. Credits or debits may be earned for the future life through the faithful practice or neglect of veneration and respect for the spirits of departed ancestors. So treat these places like you would want others to treat places or things that are sacred to you.
DO TREAT RELIGIOUS LEADERS WITH RESPECTFUL COURTESY
Reason: Religious leaders are considered to be "holy" men and are very important in their communities regardless of different religious beliefs. Special courtesy is given them by the Vietnamese. Their friendship and support can often make your mission more successful; their opposition can mean its failure.
DO BE PREPARED FOR THE VIETNAMESE TO SMILE OR LAUGH AT UNEXPECTED TIMES
Reason: Confucius said, "The smiling face calms the anger". Buddhism teaches its adherents not to retaliate for wrongs done them, but rather to smile and turn wrath away. The Vietnamese often smile when in doubt, confusion or embarrassment. They may smile when they are most unhappy or use laughter as an antidote for weeping. A smile may also be used to conceal disagreement rather than risking offense. It may be used as a means of hiding genuine bewilderment as to just what the "strange" American wants. If directions are not understood the Vietnamese will sometimes try to "smile his way through" in the hope that all be well.
DO BE PREPARED FOR POSSIBLE VIETNAMESE TARDINESS
Reason: Tardiness by American standards may be perfectly acceptable for the Vietnamese who utilize an entirely different concept of time. They do not normally compute time in a straight-line manner as do the Americans. Their religiously-influenced calendar year cycle repeats itself every twelve years, in contrast to our idea that once time and its opportunities have passed they are beyond recovery. Consequently, the pressure to get things done quickly is not felt as acutely by most Vietnamese as by Americans.
DO BE PREPARED TO BOW TO THE VIETNAMESE INSTEAD OF SHAKING HANDS
Reason: Many Asians, including the ethnic Vietnamese, bow to others with hands pressed together in front of their chests rather than shaking hands. Both excessive humidity and religious beliefs discourage touching people; it can be uncomfortable and may be regarded as over familiarity. Contrastingly, the tribes-people will often shake hands by grasping your hand with both of their hands. The friendly thing to do is to respond in a like manner.
DO BE PREPARED FOR HOROSCOPES AND OMENS TO CHANGE ACTION PLANS
Reason: Many Vietnamese believe, because of religious influence, that their lives are controlled by the stars or the relationship of the elements of the earth. A reading of a horoscope or earth element table may cause them to change proposed plans or action timetables. Thus, an individual or group of Vietnamese may fail to execute a previously agreed upon mission without notifying the other people involved. Superstitious tribesmen may also alter their actions upon observing certain negative omens such as the unfavorable movement of birds, animals or people. Such omens are strong enough reason for them to change plans and actions without advance warning.
Patience and understanding are necessary if success is to result from joint endeavors.
DO BE PREPARED FOR AN APPARENT DISREGARD FOR PERSONAL SAFETY BY VIETNAMESE
Reason: The Vietnamese are conditioned by religious concepts to ignore many safety factors and combat precautions deemed essential by Americans. Belief in reincarnation and karma, as well as the concept of resignation to fate, makes them more likely to disregard danger. This helps to account for the startling sight of rural villagers continuing their routine tasks while battle rages about them.
Another example of seeming indifference to personal safety is the Vietnamese failure to react to the sound of the horn of a moving vehicle. Most of them will proceed along their intended course without hesitation because of a culturally-determined interpretation of the horn's meaning that is different from that of Americans. An American regards the sound as a warning and reacts by getting out of the way. But the Vietnamese, influenced by religious ideals of patience, humility and restraint, interprets the horn to mean, "Continue what you are doing. I see you, so do not panic". The driver who fails to understand this interpretation, or who shouts or swears at those who do not clear the way, only creates confusion and hostility.
DO BE CONCERNED WITH EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION
Reason: There is an obvious language barrier to quick and easy understanding between Vietnamese and Americans. Even in dealing with those who speak English, it is wise to remember that to them it is still a foreign language. Textbook English is quite a bit different from speech that has been "Americanized" both by accent and colloquial expressions. Since
[paragraph continues] Vietnamese is a tonal language, changes in the tone of one's voice can be interpreted as changing the entire meaning of his words. Faulty understanding can create havoc, especially when the Vietnamese will often indicate comprehension and agreement rather than risk offending the person with whom they are talking. Take the time to make sure that you are understood and that you understand what you have been told. Allow the tribesmen especially to talk over your ideas among themselves and reach agreement as to a course of action; once it is their decision they will hold to it tenaciously. Learn some Vietnamese to increase your chances of exchanging ideas clearly. It's not only good human relations, your life may depend on it.
DO BE AWARE OF FOOD CUSTOMS AND MANNERS
Reason: Good manners at a meal are highly regarded in almost every culture. To be invited to share the food of a Vietnamese family is an important gesture of friendship and an opportunity for improving cross-cultural relationships. Take an inexpensive gift to your hostess, but give it to the host. If there are children in the family, a small gift for each child is most appropriate. Remember that age is highly respected in Vietnam; let the older folk start eating before you do. Eat all the food on your individual dish, but never take the last food from the main dish. To do so is considered impolite and an insinuation that the hostess did not provide enough food. If offered the last bit of food, politely refuse. Express appreciation to the host, not to the hostess.
Since Buddha taught that life is not to be taken, some Buddhists are vegetarians. When inviting known Buddhists to eat with you, courtesy indicates that vegetarian fare be served. Bonzes are almost always vegetarians.
DO BE AWARE OF THE VIETNAMESE ATTITUDE TOWARD WOMEN
Reason: As a result of religious and ethical concepts Vietnamese women have a different status than American women. While exposure to our movies in the cities has modified traditional attitudes and behavior among the young, most Vietnamese still adhere to time-honored customs. Public displays of affection between the sexes (holding hands, kissing, embracing, fondling) are unacceptable. Since most marriages are arranged by the family, "nice" girls do not associate with Americans except in a properly chaperoned environment, nor can they have their pictures taken with any male except their own relatives. Girls seen in public with servicemen are considered to be involved in improper conduct and are regarded with disdain. Hostility toward the Americans is an understandable result and is often exploited by the communists.
Visits to Vietnamese homes should not be made without specific invitation and only when an adult male member of the family is present. At social occasions conversation is normally directed to those of one's own sex.
DO SHOW RESPECT TO LOCAL AUTHORITIES
Reason: The religions of Vietnam emphasize respect for village elders, older men and authority figures as a cardinal virtue. These leaders should be contacted and consulted before dealing with the people of a village or community. Their tacit consent or support will, not only avert resentment, but increase cooperation and friendliness.
DO LEARN TO CONTROL ANGER
Reason: A display of bad temper, like the public display of other emotions, is offensive to the Vietnamese. Their religious teachings encourage admiration for patience and composure under all circumstances. Any number of irritations can combine to make calmness difficult, but "letting off steam" by shouting, swearing or erratic behavior will only make things worse. Such actions can alienate the Vietnamese and give the communists an effective propaganda weapon.
The following are some attitudes and actions which should be carefully avoided in the interest
of wholesome and effective relationships with the people of Vietnam:
DON'T TAMPER WITH SACRED OBJECTS WITHOUT DIRECT ORDERS
Reason: Many Vietnamese are concerned with the welfare of the spirits of the deceased and wish to avoid giving any offense which might anger them. Some country areas, for example, have bamboo "spirit poles" which look identical to anti-helicopter landing devices. They have been placed about so that the spirits may have resting places as they move about through the rice paddies and fields. Their needless removal, like the desecration of graves and molestation of spirit houses, can create potentially dangerous antagonism among those who might otherwise be our friends. Similarly, mirrors or red crepe paper located about some Vietnamese homes are not merely decorations but are placed there to guard against evil spirits.
DON'T USE INAPPROPRIATE GESTURES
Reason: Vietnamese religions assign differing values to the parts of the human body. It is unacceptable for a stranger to touch people, particularly children, about the head since it is believed to be the residence of the soul. The feet are assigned the least value, so care should be taken not to point the sole of your shoe at a person or sacred object lest it be considered an insult. The best rule is to keep both feet flat on the deck. Do not beckon someone with a finger or point as we sometimes do; to the Vietnamese this is similar to snapping your fingers at a "naughty" child. If you want to signal to them the custom is to use the whole hand with the palm down and move all the fingers rather than just one.
DON'T JOKE ABOUT SICKNESS OR DEATH IN THE PRESENCE OF VIETNAMESE
Reason: Many Vietnamese believe that sickness, death, and other misfortunes are caused by angry "spirits". Joking about such things is in bad taste since the spirits may be provoked into harmful activity.
DON'T USE OBSCENE OR DEROGATORY LANGUAGE
Reason: The religions influencing Vietnamese culture idealize the qualities of patience, quiet humility, restraint and unusual degrees of politeness and courtesy. The serviceman who staggers along the streets swearing in loud, vulgar language is particularly offensive and often creates hostility. It is possible for such action to create a negative impression that can outlast the memory of heroic deeds on the battlefield. Strangely enough, the "tough foxhole warrior" is often more concerned for the consequences of his behavior than are some servicemen who are not usually exposed to enemy fire.
Intentionally derogatory terms used to describe other peoples are obviously improper. Even such seemingly neutral terms as "native", "foreigner", etc. can be misunderstood. It should be remembered that language is comprised, not only of words, but of gestures, facial expressions, and tones of voice as well. Sometimes in these ways we convey attitudes that seem to imply that others don't count as people. American self-assurance and overt confidence can appear to disregard the needs and desires of others. Individual efforts must continually be made to make it apparent that the feelings and concerns of the Vietnamese people are of vital importance to us.
DON'T EXPECT EXPRESSIONS OF APPRECIATION
Reason: Acts of charity and the giving of gifts are considered by many Vietnamese as a means whereby the giver can gain merit for future existences. He is the one, therefore, who should be grateful rather than the one who
receives the gifts. The Buddhist bonze, for example, with his "merit bowl" into which people place rice is not considered to be begging but to be giving others an opportunity to acquire merit through their gifts. He does not thank people for the food; instead, they express their appreciation to him.
DON'T EXPECT A HOLIDAY FROM MORAL RESPONSIBILITY
Reason: Many Vietnamese know what Americans claim to believe about acceptable moral standards. When they observe us in drunken or vulgar behavior which is outside these standards, they come to regard us as insincere and untrustworthy and will disbelieve our avowed standards and intentions in other things as well. The things we do speak so loudly that people cannot hear what we say in our idealistic speeches and publications. If you
transplant the experiences mentally to your own home town it becomes easy to understand Vietnamese resentment of increasing prostitution among their young women, of the growing "red light" and bar districts in their towns and cities, and of unwholesome advances toward their wives and daughters.
Friendly and mutually-enriching relationships with the people of Vietnam will become increasingly likely if the following realizations are kept in mind:
REMEMBER THAT RESULTS ARE AS IMPORTANT AS MOTIVES
Reason: The American serviceman is normally quite generous in helping those who seem to be in need. Sometimes, however, while the motive behind his gifts and actions may be excellent, the techniques and methods he uses can be misunderstood and do more harm than good. The random distribution of candies, money, cigarettes, etc., especially among children, may create a habitual attitude of dependence which can come to be resented by both Vietnamese and Americans. On the other hand, gifts and services that are carefully planned and administered in close cooperation with respected Vietnamese leaders can help bring about the self-respect and progress so vital to effective intercultural endeavors. Careful consideration should be given, both by individuals and organizations, to a determination of what practical help is needed, what indigenous peoples can--or prefer to--do for themselves, and how valid mutual involvement can be achieved. The finest gift that can be given is that one which helps a person, or a people, to help themselves.
REMEMBER THAT NUMBERS ARE IMPORTANT TO MANY VIETNAMESE
Reason: Because of deeply engrained religious and cultural traditions the Vietnamese regard numbers as significantly and directly related to their personal welfare. Even numbers are generally more acceptable than odd numbers. Many Vietnamese prefer not to pose for pictures with a small group of people unless the group is even-numbered. Good etiquette in the giving of gifts indicates the advisability of even-numbered giving; it is often better to present two inexpensive gifts than a single more expensive one. Incidentally, gifts should be offered with both hands rather than just one as an indication of your fullest personal participation in your gift.
REMEMBER THAT SELF-SACRIFICE IS CONSISTENT WITH VIETNAMESE ETHICAL TEACHINGS
Reason: Confucian and Mahayana Buddhist principles make it possible to witness for personal convictions by bearing pain. Hunger strikes, burning one's self, or otherwise afflicting the body can be used to dramatize a grievance publicly and to bring "shame" to those believed responsible for the injustice involved.
REMEMBER THAT "FACE" IS IMPORTANT
Reason: Prestige in the eyes of one's contemporaries is treasured by most people regardless of their cultural background. Vietnamese religious and ethical customs add significance to the importance of saving "face". Extreme discretion is required in offering advice and practical suggestions so that others involved are not made to appear incapable. Private consultations should be held with Vietnamese leaders to avoid any possible public disagreement or seeming reprimand which might cause embarrassment. Such discussions allow ideas and plans of action to be their own rather than an external imposition by an outsider. The role of partners with, rather than benefactors to, the Vietnamese is the goal. Adequate public acknowledgement should be given for their part in planning and executing joint activities.
A noteworthy example of the importance of "face" is the attitude of some Vietnamese toward education and manual labor. It is felt that education places one above the performance of manual labor in contrast to the American idea that any work well done is honorable. Personal example is more effective than exhortation in demonstrating that educated people can perform manual labor honorably in the interest of national security and development.
REMEMBER THAT CULTURAL DIFFERENCES MAY BEWILDER BOTH VIETNAMESE AND AMERICANS
Reason: Americans have a dynamic concept of life filled with needs and desires requiring satisfaction; while many Vietnamese think of the world, its social order and man's place as essentially "pre-ordained". American culture is often conceived as active, material, and logical, while that of the Vietnamese is primarily passive, spiritual and mystical. The abundant American vitality created by these concepts,
and by such factors as health and diet, sometimes seems to overwhelm the Vietnamese who by their religious and ethical backgrounds, and because of diet, climate and disease, are less exuberant and extroverted. Unless these cultural differences are remembered, American vitality can be mistaken for egotism and arrogance, even as Vietnamese passivity can be wrongly interpreted as lethargy and indolence. Awareness of these differences does not require the surrender or compromise of ideals and principles, but it can help develop attitudes of patience and understanding that supersede the differences.
REMEMBER THAT RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AFFECT WARTIME CONDUCT
Reason: Certain practices and reactions of the Vietnamese peoples under wartime circumstances seem bizarre and illogical without a comprehension of religious motivations. The mutilation of corpses, exposure of naked prisoners, removal and hasty burial of bodies, threats to mutilate the living are all traceable to religious beliefs. Proper funerals for the dead, for example, are believed necessary to prevent the wrath of the "spirits" which may cause grief and death. This explains the intense desire to recover and bury the dead. Bodily mutilation is feared because its effects are believed to continue in the spirit world or in future existences.
REMEMBER THAT GENERALIZATIONS ARE MISLEADING
Reason: Stereotypes of a people are usually superficial and unrealistic; they are often barriers to understanding and respect. The idea, for example, that Asians are cunning, devious, impassive and inscrutable can retard the development of effective interpersonal relationships. The notion that all Americans are rich, live in mansions, "drink like fish", and are completely sex-centered except while attending sporting events or committing murder, conveyed by our movies, magazines and unthinking Americans abroad, can create distrust or even hostility.
A good guide to intercultural understanding is to discard any preconceived notions about the Vietnamese based on rumor or distorted evidence and form your own opinions through personal involvement and a knowledge of the facts. Such personal investigation will not obscure the reality of cultural differences. In comparison with most peoples of the world, for instance, an American is rich. One pack of cigarettes a day burns up more money than most Vietnamese earn in a year. It becomes understandable that the "rich" American is a natural target for higher prices and other forms of exploitation. When we react with understanding rather than resentment we make it possible for the Vietnamese to re-examine his negative preconceptions about us and about others in general.
REMEMBER THAT THE VIETNAMESE ARE STRONGLY ORIENTED TOWARD FAMILY AND VILLAGE
Reason: Religious beliefs and traditional customs tend to make the family the important social, economic and religious unit in Vietnamese society. Most Vietnamese live in small, rural, agricultural communities which are rather isolated from meaningful contact with events larger than their local concerns. The lack of communications media, insufficient educational opportunities, and inadequate financial resources severely limit any world view and reinforce the importance of the family and local community. A sense of nationalism and its consequent privileges and responsibilities, as understood by most Americans, is a new and strange experience for them. This realization can help account for the seeming lack of courage and loyalty occasionally observed.
REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE A STRANGER IN TOWN
Reason: Strangers are always watched more closely and critically than those with whom we are familiar. Most people who have lived in small towns remember how the unusual or incorrect behavior of a stranger could cause indignation and be regarded as typical of all those who lived in his home locality. As foreign guests in Vietnam we are subject to the same type of scrutiny and reaction. An American stands out like a coconut tree in a rice paddy--every phase of his activity is carefully observed. In contrast, the Viet Cong, or even the Vietnamese violator of accepted mores, blends more readily with the environmental scenery. The end result is that a foreigner gets most of the unfavorable attention, and beyond this, his conduct will be considered typical of all his countrymen.
Certain courtesies and limitations of action are expected of strangers that are not required of others. The Vietnamese, for example, may come in contact with graves through the play of
children or as a laundry-drying site. After all, the spirits about the grave are all "in the family". But an American should avoid touching, molesting or damaging a grave; he is an outsider who could dangerously provoke the spirits about it.
You are a "Stranger in Town", a guest in this country, a representative of all Americans. When you behave accordingly, on duty, behind the wheel of a vehicle, or on liberty, you help build a bridge of understanding and respect between our nations.
* U.S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE: 1968 O-325-206