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Respect

Not Vietnam.

Not Vietnam.

Next to a well-regarded and successful doctor, guess what is the most respected profession in Vietnam? No, not a model, football player, newsreader or Celebrity Apprentice contestant ... it's a teacher!

Wow. Weird, huh?

In fact, teachers are so admired they have their own pronoun*, reflecting both the esteem in which the Vietnamese hold education and the people who provide it.

When I discovered this during my recent New Year's vacation in the country, I thought "What a wonderful order to life, how sensible, how adult, how wise."

Then I got drunk on Saigon Red beer and pretended to be a teacher, flirting hopelessly via broken English with a beautiful local gal sporting a gleaming, midnight black, bob haircut.

Now, I'm sure local teachers don't use their status to try to pull roots - but the social deference shown to educators of all stripes must be some consolation; it's nice to be appreciated.

The salary levels for teachers in Vietnam are pretty much in step with all white-collar professions over there - they don't get paid very much. But then nobody gets paid very much in Vietnam.

Anyway, just before I left the country, I had the opportunity to speak to several classes of students - from years 7 to 11 - at a Ho Chi Minh City international school.

When I walked into the classroom I almost leapt backwards as the kids shot up from their seats, smiling and welcoming their teacher: "Good morning, Mr Simon", then offering me the same: "Good Morning, Mr Sam."

I rumbled for 20 minutes about writing and blogging, the importance of language skills, and the kids could have been at their parents' double funeral, so silent were they.

I'd like to think this was because of my aura of authority - or maybe because I'd stepped momentarily into the august role of teacher - but my friends who live in HCMC tell me respect for elders happens pretty much across the board in Vietnam.

To whit: while there, I saw an altercation in traffic between an older and younger man - junior giving senior some lip about a perceived misdeed (which was bizarre enough, considering HCMCs chaotic roads).

However, as the young guy went on with it, yelling at the older man, people converged from all side telling him to "zip it", "shut up", "respect his elders".

The guy's teenage girlfriend, sitting on the back of his scooter, even joined in telling him to wise up, until junior nodded, apologised to the older man and went on his way.

This respect for elders, though I'm sure not universal, is also enshrined in Vietnamese culture with strangers quick to ask how old the other is, so they can then refer to them by the correct (junior or senior) salutation.

Now, I'm not suggesting everyone who is your elder deserves deference, but ya know, generally, as a system, it's pretty ancient and seems to work well in Vietnam.

The temptation to "know it all" when you're 16, 26, 36 or 46 is rather strong - having been there for three of those ages myself.

However, I imagine this impulse never gets too out of hand if you constantly have to acknowledge: "Hey, there's people who've been around longer than me, so just nod, agree, and see how it pans out."

I reckon, nine times out of 10, you'd probably be happy you kept your mouth shut and accepted a senior's perspective.

* Any Vietnamese speakers, please correct me if I have this wrong.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.

54 comments so far

  • This is not only limited to Vietnam. If you go to India and Sri Lanka you will see the exact same thing. Teachers are well respected and kids are taught by the parents to respect their teachers. In fact, I remember being taught first respect the Mother then Father, then Teacher and only after that God. Most of the time teachers make sure they deserve the respect tey are given.

    Commenter
    Dushy
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    January 19, 2012, 1:12AM
    • pronouns are fairly scarce in Vietnamese Sam the nouns for teacher are gaio vien or thay ( man ) co ( woman ) I live here and I found your article accurate and just how I feel about being a teacher here .. a real privilege we have a teacher\'s day fr example .. imagine that in Australia ??

      Commenter
      Bobby
      Location
      Sai Gon
      Date and time
      January 19, 2012, 1:46AM
      • Teachers are pretty well respected in Mexico, as well, as are older people. In regards to older people I\'m not sure it\'s respect so much as an accepted mode of behaviour. We\'ve had teen parties at our house and the teens tend to get just as drunk and play just as loud music as in Australia, but they recognise that they\'re in someone else\'s house and that a certain level of politeness is required. It applies in the other direction as well. Mexicans are far more comfortable with babies and young children than Australians, they don\'t get upset at their presence and know how to interact with them. There\'s a lot of great things about Australia, and certain aspects of Australia culture that are better than (for example) Mexican culture, but there\'s also a lot of ways in which Mexican culture is better.

        Commenter
        JEQP
        Date and time
        January 19, 2012, 2:56AM
        • ive been to a few asian countries and, of course, there are a lot of customs and beliefs ive experienced which, from an australian perspective, are quite wierd. but a correlation between respect for a profession and the contribution it makes to society definitely has to take the cake.

          Commenter
          cos1
          Date and time
          January 19, 2012, 3:43AM
          • Sam I enjoyed the best NYE ever. It was a shame we did not cross paths. Living in this small town for so long, maybe we could have had a lively debate, Anh Cao

            Commenter
            AnhCao69
            Location
            Saigon
            Date and time
            January 19, 2012, 5:06AM
            • i\'ve been to vietnam numerous times and have always got on well with people there, from the north to the south, but am not well-versed enough in their culture to comment knowingly. however, i have lived in japan for over 7 years, and respect for elders is one of the major differences when comparing japanese culture with australian. and i think that it\'s perhaps the biggest ting that keeps japanese order in society so harmonious, and prevents kids from trashing everything, from property, to others. i know i\'m getting old (late 30s) now coz it just gobsmacks me every time i come back to oz for holidays and see how kids treat other people, especially their elders. and also how much disregard they have for everything, including private property and public facilities.

              Commenter
              icedare
              Date and time
              January 19, 2012, 6:31AM
              • You\'ll find that respect for elders is pretty widespread across the Asian countries. I think it\'s mostly a result of the dissemination of Confucianism from China to the neighbouring countries a long time ago, most likely before we had Kim Kardarshian.

                Commenter
                The Scholar
                Date and time
                January 19, 2012, 8:43AM
                • Very similar in parts of Indonesia too, Sam. The way to say teacher in Indonesian is by the word which says it all. Guru. I once backpacked from one end of Java to the other staying with some families who were both thrilled and privileged to have me in their homes. Amazing it was. Access to an education is a prized thing in some countries. It\'s a pity many Aussies don\'t see it the same way.

                  Commenter
                  MJ
                  Date and time
                  January 19, 2012, 9:53AM
                  • I\'m a teacher so am used to Asian kids being respectful while Oz kids are not. I suspect kidsrule started with Hollywood motion pictures young stars in the 1920\'s with IT/flapper girls celebrity and sudden wealth. Throw out the old respect - look at those gorgeous sparkling young things! In the wider world, increasing affluence correlates with increasing individuation - as people have sufficient without needing others, they tend to lose a sense of needing to respect others, and it becomes more about me-me-me. Baby boomer parents and particularly single mothers have encouraged this by falling into the trap of wanting to be friends with their kids rather than parents, and not wanting to say No for fear of damaging their kids delicate self-esteem, and never hitting the child for fear of life-long trauma - poor little darlings - who now rule the roost marching around like little tyrants. Asian family-based cultures build respect by training the kids that parents pay when you are young, you will look after them when they are old - but fear/risk that getting eroded when their kids grow up as Australians ! I see respect as an investment - if you are seen to work hard helping others other time, you earn and build trust and respect - I loved Hanoi Vietnam 10 years ago as a beautiful culture soon-to-be-overrun by western influences - glad to hear respect survives - but suspect, like China, that when kids are getting rich, respect for elders may fly out the window.

                    Commenter
                    Frank
                    Location
                    Sydney
                    Date and time
                    January 19, 2012, 9:59AM
                    • When parents try to be their kids\' friends, the parents get what they deserve.

                      Commenter
                      MJ
                      Date and time
                      January 19, 2012, 11:47AM

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