UNIVERSAL DHARMA

Your Questions, My Answers ~ A THING OF GROWTH

QUESTION:

"As an expatriate Vietnamese, I’m afraid that the Vietnamese in the West will lose their culture. Can you offer us any suggestions on how to preserve our culture here?"

ANSWER:

I am aware that such concern is widespread among the Vietnamese in the West, and rightly so. This is how I see it:

The dictionary defines the word ‘culture’ as ‘a form or type of civilization of a certain race or nation, and the customs associated with it’. So we talk of ‘Greek culture’, ‘Chinese culture’, ‘Vietnamese culture’, etc. Etymologically, it comes from the same root as cultivate: to grow. So, culture has to do with growth, and, like all things, it goes through various stages: (1) Birth, or coming into being; (2) Growth, or development; (3) Decay, or degeneration; and (4) Death, or disappearance. But a culture doesn’t just disappear, without trace; usually, elements of it are absorbed into other cultures and thereby prolonged, just as a man’s surname comes from his ancestors, and continues through and after him in his descendants.

Thousands of years ago, the Greeks had a very high culture—so high, in fact, that many aspects of it are still looked upon as models. From them, we got many of our political theories, the very terms of which remain with us in their original forms: democracy, autocracy, theocracy, dictator, even the word politics. Greek art and architecture is considered classical in Western history; the Parthenon, in Athens, which was built according to ‘the Golden Mean’—taking the human body as the standard—is considered the most perfectly designed structure in the world. It was from the Greeks, too, that we got the Olympic Games, and the concept of internationalism.

But look at Greece today: impoverished, barren, and no longer a model for anything. Strange? Sad? Not really; in fact, it is normal, according to what Buddhists call Anicca: all things, having come into being, remain for a while and then pass away, no matter how much we may dislike or disbelieve it. The Law of Life is Change.

Many Vietnamese claim Vietnam has a history of 4,000 years, but there are no written records to support this; however, its culture is certainly very old. Where did it begin? Is it possible to say? It would not have begun with a deliberate attempt to create a definite culture, but developed as a result of many influences, with Chinese influence predominant as an even-older culture bordering on and overlapping Vietnam. This can be seen in the many Chinese words in the Vietnamese language. The French, Japanese, British, and Americans, who came later, must also have left their mark. Would it be possible to separate these influences from Vietnamese culture? Is not Vietnamese culture composed of these things, and many others besides? If someone were to say: "I am Vietnamese, and am going to follow only Vietnamese culture and have nothing to do with other cultures", he would have to live very simply, rejecting everything not produced by Vietnamese culture, like cars, TV, refrigerators, radios, watches, washing machines, and so on—and even the well-known ‘Vietnamese bread’, which is not Vietnamese at all, but French! Indeed, how would it be possible to live just by Vietnamese culture? And the same is true of all other cultures, except the most primitive, like the Aborigines who live in the remote outback, out of touch with the rest of Australian society; and yet even their primitive lifestyle is still touched, at times, by outside influences. What it means is this: Nobody lives alone, complete by himself; we live together with others, and our lives are influenced thereby. Therefore, we must build our philosophy of life, and our ever-growing human-culture, around this fact, realistically. If we were to put out of our houses everything not made by people of our own nationality or culture, we would have very little left; in fact, we might not even have a house!

Now, I am a Westerner, and will be until I die; it would be silly to deny this. But if you asked me to give a description of Western culture—and particularly British culture—I would find it very difficult to do so, especially as it stands today, as I have not made a study of it, even though I know something of Western history. And the same would be true if a Vietnamese were asked to describe Vietnamese culture: he probably would not be able to tell more than fragments of it. We all know, however, that Vietnamese culture is something more than just eating with chopsticks and wearing national dress. Could anyone give a description of Vietnamese culture that would accurately depict it from ancient times through to the present? Of course not, we can say with certainty, for a culture is not something still, like a statue, but something growing, evolving, changing. Vietnamese culture as it stands today, even in Vietnam, is not what it was 2,000 years ago, 1,000 years ago, 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago; it has changed, is changing, and will change, like everything else. When and if it stops changing it will be fit only for the history books and museums.

Let me digress a little here to speak briefly about British culture—there is, or was, such a thing, I think, as apart from Western culture in general. Britain—also sometimes called Great Britain—once ruled the largest empire the world has ever known. Britain is a comparatively tiny land, but it used to be said that "the sun never sets on the British Empire" because it held territory all over the world, and the sun was always shining on some part of its empire, whether on Canada, some Pacific islands, New Zealand, Australia, Malaya, India, Africa, or just on Britain itself. Because of the power and extent of the British Empire, English has come to be accepted as the international language today, and this is just one legacy of the British Empire and British culture; it is not because English is the best language in the world, because it definitely is not (in fact, I think Vietnamese, as a written language, is superior to English—and this is because of the French colonialists—as it is possible to know the correct pronunciation merely by reading it, unlike with English). Personally, I think English, as a written language, is rather silly and in great need of upgrading. It became the international language only because the British were the most forceful and successful in their efforts to conquer other countries and hold them in submission for a while; in other words, because the British had more guns and practiced ‘gun-boat diplomacy’! And so British culture has had tremendous influence in the world, and even the country that has the most influence in the world today—an influence felt everywhere, causing almost the whole world to turn towards it in fascination and imitation—the USA, has its roots in Europe, especially in Britain, the ‘Mother land’ of the USA. But if we look into British culture and try to trace its roots, we find a ‘mongrel-culture’, a compound of many different sources, for Britain was invaded, conquered, colonized and otherwise influenced from ancient times, by Romans, followed by Jutes, Picts, Scots, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Vikings, and Normans, who were the last to invade. Through inter-marriage of royal houses, there has been Danish, French, Spanish, Dutch and German blood in the veins of the Kings and Queens of Britain, even until today. It is as if the British have soup in their veins; their blood is such a mixture!

Life is like a play, in which we are all actors, but the script is written as we act, and no-one knows what will happen next. In 1975, one of the most murderous regimes the world has known took control of Cambodia, and this once gentle land became a slaughter house, with 2-3 million people being murdered or dying of starvation or disease. The killing would probably have gone on unabated if the armies of Vietnam had not attacked at the end of 1978 and taken over there, driving Pol Pot and his demons over the border into Thailand, thus saving what remained of the non-communist Cambodians. In Bataan Refugee Camp, however, where there were Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, I met few Cambodians who saw it this way, but many who felt great resentment towards the Vietnamese for invading their country. Ironically, had it not been for the Vietnamese—and the Vietnamese communists, at that—most of these people would not have survived; they owe their lives, therefore, to the Vietnamese communists. Which is better: to be dead in one’s own country, which had become a charnel ground, or to be alive and free in another?

Yesterday has gone, and we cannot change the past in any way, but we can learn from it, and attempt to make a better future, a future with less stupidity and suffering than the past. This, I would say, should be the aim of the overseas Vietnamese now; having suffered so much, and not desiring more suffering, you should have it clearly in your minds to avoid the mistakes of the past, so that what Vietnam lost—you—will be the gain of the West.

I cannot deny that I was born in England, but do deny that this makes me English. Apart from several visits to England in the past few years, I’ve not lived there for a long time, nor do I expect to return there to live; I am a stranger in the land of my birth, but do not care. I do not look at life through the eyes of an Englishman. I refer to myself as a European from England, not something so narrow as ‘English’, as I’ve seen beyond this and found something bigger and better. Of course, when I must state my nationality for bureaucratic purposes like immigration, etc., I write ‘British’ or ‘Australian’, depending upon the passport I’m using at the time; it’s a formality. The Dharma has taught me to think in terms of internationalism instead of nationalism; if I have ever been under the conviction that I should ‘stand by my country whether it is right or wrong’, I certainly do not think that way now; and if Britain or Australia want to make war, they must do so without my support. On the other hand, if there is anything right that I can do to help Britain or Australia, I would do it, and try not to do anything detrimental to them; but I would do the same for any other country, too, and not just those of which I am a registered citizen. Right now, as I rewrite this, I am in Malaysia; I was not born here, and it is not ‘my’ country, but while I am here, I think of it as my home, as it is part of my world, and try to act in a way that will, at the very least, not make it worse but better, if I can. It is a matter of ‘reverence for life’, and life cannot be confined within such narrow barriers as nationality, race, politics, religion, etc. To say my religion is Buddhism would not be quite correct; in fact, it would be a limitation, and too small for me. My religion is nothing less than Life, which is why I am vegetarian, of course.

Now, denying and rejecting nationality myself, I am not about to champion the cause of Vietnamese culture in the West, or any other culture for that matter. I will, however, exhort the Vietnamese in the West not to think in such a misguided way as ‘East is least and West is best’, for such is not the case. I foresee that the Vietnamese in the West—or the vast majority of them, anyway—are ultimately going to lose their culture; it is only a matter of time and cannot be prevented; at most, it can only be delayed. Having visited Vietnamese in many countries—the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway, Germany, France and England—it is my opinion that Australia is the best country, overall, of resettlement. People are lucky to live there and shouldn’t forget it (although, if you never knew it to begin with, how can you forget?)

A country like Australia is a ‘melting pot’, a conglomeration of many kinds of people, all of whom have something to contribute to the society as a whole. Although many Vietnamese are concerned about losing their culture and are trying to ensure that their children do not forget how to speak their mother tongue, at the risk of sounding pessimistic, I must say that I think it’s a losing battle. Some will succeed, for a while; many will not. Time and other things are against them, but this does not mean they shouldn’t try. I have known Vietnamese kids who speak even less Vietnamese than me, and I tell them that’s a shame (some find it difficult to even read the monosyllabic Vietnamese words, although English is no problem for them; thus, English has already become their first language!) I encourage them to speak their own language and not be ashamed of the fact that they are Vietnamese (what is there to be ashamed of?); their parents need not worry that their kids won’t learn English; they learn it automatically, including some that it would be better not to learn. The process of assimilation takes place automatically and soon enough, though seldom painlessly. What I do not like to see, however—although I can understand the impulse behind it, too—is Asian people trying so hard to fit in that they become more Western than Westerners! It seems that they are ashamed of being Asian, and try so hard to impress others that they often go to extremes, with the result that they wear themselves out to no useful purpose, are not happy, and frequently find themselves in limbo—they are not Westerners, and never will be, but they are also divorced from their own cultural background, which might have provided some sense of security, acting like an anchor.

I am full of admiration at how well the Vietnamese, on the whole, have adapted to living in the West. There is, of course, as everyone knows, resentment on the part of some white Australians towards the Vietnamese, though much of this is due to prejudice, misunderstanding and plain jealousy. If, however, they had closer contact with the Vietnamese, I am sure many of them would change their attitudes. We all know there are many kinds of people in the world, some good, some bad, and many shades in between. Most people anywhere, I think, want to be good, and would like others to think of them as ‘good’, but few people know how to be good, it seems, and many are easily misled and sometimes influenced into doing things they normally wouldn’t do if they thought for themselves instead of following others. This is the danger of living in the West: the way of life there is an enemy—a sweet enemy—that robs people from inside without them realizing they are being robbed; in fact, this enemy is often mistaken for a friend and embraced as such. An overt enemy can be resisted, but a secret enemy is much more dangerous and difficult to resist, especially if it is regarded as a friend.

Many Vietnamese are now returning to visit Vietnam on Western passports, and I’ve heard some say that, if Vietnam becomes free, they will go back to live there. But I doubt it. Visit, maybe; but having lived in the West, and grown used to the luxury there, it would be very hard to return to living a simpler life in Vietnam, where most people had/have no car, TV, refrigerator, and so on. Having such things is very nice, but if we were called upon to give them up and live without them, would we be willing to do so? It is unlikely.

So, accept the fact that you will probably spend the rest of your lives in Australia, and never go back to live in Vietnam. Australia is your home now, as it is mine, until we go elsewhere. Do we or do we not feel a responsibility to our home? Australia is a soup, with many ingredients, and the recipe is still being written; it is waiting for the Vietnamese to add their flavor, and they must do this while they still have some flavor to add, before they lose their culture and become Westernized, so that their flavor is preserved in the soup and not entirely lost. I am speaking of integration, not disintegration. For the older people, who have known other things, this is a time of sacrifice, so that their children may benefit from both East and West. I’m not saying that you should not fill your homes with all the beautiful consumer goods that are readily available to us, and not just to the nobility, the elite or the rich; it’s quite alright to have all those things, but as Jesus said—and I will quote him as far as I agree with him—"Man shall not live by bread alone". We have a spiritual life and a physical life to take care of; neither should be neglected. Being religious isn’t a matter of calling oneself ‘Buddhist’, ‘Catholic’, ‘Hindu’, and so on, or of going to church or temple, putting something in the offering box, and praying for help or salvation, but of how we live in relationship with others. What does it mean to call ourselves ‘Buddhists’ or ‘Catholics’ if we are not honest and fair in our dealings with others, if we hurt and exploit others instead of helping them when we have the opportunity to do so, just as we like others to help us? The name is just a lie.

So, don’t worry about losing your culture; don’t cling to the form—which you have inherited from others—but try to understand the things of it that are good anywhere, and put them together with the good things of the West. The essence is more important than the form, and the main thing is to live as human beings, aware that the other people among whom you live have rights and feelings just like you, no matter what race, nationality or religion. Before you lose your culture, become part of a bigger one. When the waters of the Nile, Ganges, Mekong, Amazon, etc., enter the sea, they lose their separate identities, but are not thereby lost; they become part of something greater. And I believe that Australia can benefit and become greater and better from you living here.

Rudyard Kipling, an Englishman who lived in India at the zenith of the British Empire, wrote: "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet". His time was quite different from ours, and he couldn’t see what we can. I do not accept his words. Do you?

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