At a small meeting in Paris, writer Nguyen Thanh Viet recounted a story that moved him.
By chance in a store in the US, he heard an Asian man talking on the phone with his son while shopping. The writer knew he was Vietnamese when he heard the question: “Son, it’s father. Have you eaten yet?”
Those words, spoken in English, were insignificant, even a little disturbing. But Nguyen Thanh Viet said: “In Vietnamese, it is everything”. And he was so moved that he almost cried when he heard those dear words, even though he couldn’t speak much Vietnamese.
“Have you eaten yet?”, to Vietnamese people who are hesitant to express their feelings, is “I love you”. It was a small thing, even insignificant, but it confirmed he was Vietnamese. It is something a little metaphysical, which cannot be learned or imitated but can only be felt. “As long as I am touched by what belongs to the Vietnamese people, then I will remain Vietnamese,” Nguyen Thanh Viet said.
Sociologist specializing in Southeast Asia, Benedict Anderson, while studying nationalism, coined and popularized the term “imaginary community”. Accordingly, a country is defined not only by hard borders but also as a “soft” community artificially built over time by people who consider themselves to be in that group. The nation is also an “imaginary community” because most of the people in that community do not meet each other, but are only connected through common habits, ideals or interests.
Of the nearly 100 million Vietnamese people around the world, few have met more than 10,000 people in real life, but they are upset every time they hear the news that China is operating in the South China Sea, when their homeland encounters natural disasters, or their compatriots go through many hardships. lost in the last pandemic. The imaginary community could be thousands of people marching everywhere against China, remittances sent home or it could be very small features like the question “have you eaten?”.
There are things that are so essential but so familiar that we forget their existence until they are gone. Culture and ethnicity are the same.
We all have friends who are studying or working abroad. Having a “green card” is already difficult, the journey to truly integrate into a new nation is even more difficult. Many of them are caught in the middle of two worlds: they feel lost in their new country while their home country greets them with an unfamiliar name – overseas Vietnamese. How will their patriotism be shared, when “patriotism” has always been an exclusive feeling – only for one and only one source.
Vietnamese people today continue their journey towards the world, going all the way to study, make a living or seek their life-changing dream. Vietnam is always in the group with the most students in the US, Australia or the UK. Questions of ethnicity, patriotism, and ancestry probably continue to plague many people. Which side will the new generation of Vietnamese lean towards, the homeland where they were born or the new homeland?
The stronghold of “ethnicity” and “national culture” has never been shaken as violently as it is now. But perhaps in that danger of survival, we will have the opportunity to re-evaluate our nationality and reflect on the fate of other cultures.
What makes millions of Vietnamese across five continents call each other compatriots? There are things that are not necessarily named, defined, or detailed in resolutions and documents. So are cultural and ethnic identities. Millions of people with millions of different ways of feeling and vibrating about “Vietnameseness”, that will be the strongest protective net for Vietnamese culture.
A culture can only last if it values the openness and freedom to feel of each individual. Cultural policy, therefore, needs to ensure freedom of thought, promote culture and real creativity, so that a new culture has the collective strength to last. That is, the role of cultural policy makers is to open up rather than reframe values, to define what is national, what is cultural, and what is not.
In order for Vietnamese culture to develop in a pluralistic and clashing world, the mindset of untying, minimizing restricted areas, and creating conditions for culture to develop more naturally must be encouraged. In fact, in the age of globalization, no one “forbids” anything. It’s not hard to find a banned movie online. Most recently, the success of the “Korean wave” did not come from prohibition but from the encouragement of the development and investment of cultural products by the majority of the private sector. No one criticized the Oscar-winning “Parasite” or “The Squid Game” watched by hundreds of millions of people as non-Korean, although the story in the film criticized the dark corners of society very heavily.
If everyone has the right to have “Vietnamese” according to their feelings, Vietnamese culture will have millions of protective nets. Globalization has brought civilizations into collision and we are faced with a choice: open and adapt or resist in a cultural jihad like Don Kihote fights windmills.
If we still struggle to fix values that always change over time, we will still be stuck in our own imaginary cage.
Nguyen Khac Giang