Reporting from: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
I spent Sunday night excitedly watching a discussion unfold on Facebook. The only thing missing was popcorn. (Microwaves aren’t so common here.)
A Western female expat living here in Ho Chi Minh City posted a comment on Facebook about where to find expat men who were willing to talk to women from their home country. It triggered a debate with over two hundred comments – some civil, some not – about the status of expat men in Asia.
There are several stereotypical views of foreigners in Asia, and in particular, foreign men. It’s a widely held belief that foreigners can do no wrong and that white men will have Asian girls bowing at their feet from the moment they step off the plane.
The fact that people willingly believe such stereotypes fits my typical view of the West, and of Americans in particular. Far too many Americans hold the view that their country is the only one worth living in and that the world would cease to exist without them. If you don’t want to live, work, and get married in the USA, there must be something wrong with you.
Think about it, no one gripes about all the Asian guys in the United States who want to date white women. Why WOULDN’T they want to date Americans? “America” is so perfect!
So, if you’re from a country where both men and women spend hours preparing nasty zingers they can use to shoot down members of the opposite sex at nightclubs, it would be easy to write off a place like Vietnam where people are more approachable. You might even call it “white people worshipping”.
Generally friendly vs. white people worshipping
It’s true that many places in Asia give off a friendly vibe. You can barely walk into a store in the Philippines without being trampled by at least one – and often two or three – giddy young clerks eager to help.
Yet, it’s easy for cynical Westerners to write that off as “they need your money”; as if anyone who shows a modicum of politeness, friendliness, or common courtesy is a money-grubbing low-life out to take advantage of you.
I could dispel that notion simply by presenting the fact that – in my humble opinion – the world’s friendliest store clerks are actually in Japan. Yes, the country is being QE-ed to death, but they’re far from starving.
Here in Vietnam, and much of Asia, people are pretty friendly. Go to a bar where people speak English and you can have plenty of pleasant conversations with almost anyone you want. “Pick up artists” need not bring their magic tricks and velvet hats to talk to women. I’ve made good business contacts just from approaching people of either sex while I’m out socializing.
Yet again, cynical nationalists often cry “they want your money!” It’s an easy way to paint with a broad brush and stereotype people from other cultures so you don’t have to examine your own country’s problems. Thinking that “dirt poor Asians” are always conniving to steal your money is one way to mentally condition yourself to do this.
The reality is, white people aren’t having their feet bowed at here in Vietnam, or anywhere else in Asia for that matter. The one thing you learn when you spend enough time in enough countries is that we’re all people. There are poor people in the US and I don’t see much bowing going on there, either.
In fact, there are rare occasions when I momentarily forget where in the world I am, simply because the world looks a lot more similar than you might imagine.
What a growing economy in the East means for white people in Asia
And here’s the thing, people in Asia don’t really need your money. Savings rates here in Vietnam – even among poorer families – are among the world’s highest. Ditto for places like China and India.
More and more Vietnamese, and Asians in general, are entering the middle class. Here in Ho Chi Minh City, that could mean a salary of $800-$1,200 a month, which affords a decent life to a young professional. In China, it’s slightly higher.
Even among those who aren’t middle class, life isn’t so tough. Children in most parts of Southeast Asia typically live with their parents until they get married. It turns a $300 a month starting salary into a pleasant life of sipping coffee with friends in cafes.
In my view, a number of people here have it easier than over-indebted families or recent graduates in the West.
To someone who’s never left their jingoist borders, these facts might be missed. To someone unaware of or upset at the rise of developing economies and the fact that they’ve surpassed their bankrupt Western counterparts, it’s easier to imagine that everyone in a place like Vietnam is eating out of garbage cans.
Economic growth in the 21st century will not belong to the West. It will belong to Asia, South America, and perhaps Africa. As Western nations continue to slide into socialism-induced bankruptcy, the more fiscally sound Asian nations will continue to have less and less need for foreigners at all.
That doesn’t mean they’ll turn their back on the world. It simply means they’ll have more resources at their disposal. For example, many large firms in China are now hiring Chinese expats to serve in top management positions; positions formerly filled by Western expats believed to be more capable. These days, however, an intimate knowledge of local culture is more important than being a foreigner.
In Hong Kong, English continues to be pushed to a more and more distant third place among the country’s languages. It used to be English was widely used in official communications – and it still is – but Mandarin and Cantonese are much more important there than they once were.
None of these examples show me anything that suggests that white people are having their rings kissed in Asia.
Sure, many Asian women prefer white guys with blond hair. For some, it’s a fad; for others, it’s a type. However, I don’t hear anyone complaining that the Kardashians seem to share a “type” in the guys they date.
Nor do I hear the Westerners who hurl arrogant stereotypes at Asians accusing the $10-an-hour secretary in Chicago of being “just out for money”. In Vietnam, $1.50 or $2 an hour can go a lot further for a young person than $10 an hour in the USA. Yet few – including the 200 commenters on that Facebook post I mentioned – would accuse an underpaid secretary of being “only out for money”. (And, of course, not all white people living in Asia have money.)
As Asians gain more and more wealth, a lot of men and women are choosing to marry within their culture. Go to China and try to get with a model. You’d be hard-pressed to do it. The wealthiest and most attractive women there, just like in any culture, have their pick of the litter, and it’s a lot easier to marry someone from the same background. They’re not lining up to date white people.
So, if you think white people are living the perfect life in Asia with a parade of women begging them for dates daily, think again. Likewise, not everything here is about money. Yes, many Asian cultures place a high value on entrepreneurship, working hard, and building wealth. Those are the reasons I respect the culture and feel comfortable here.
Just don’t confuse a desire for success with a parasitic eye toward white people.