Vietnam and Norway: A Cross-Cultural Comparison
The cultural dimension of individualism-collectivism was first studied by Hofstede (1980) and has become the source of much cross-cultural research in recent years. Individualism is defined by Taras, Steel, and Kirkman (2011) as the degree to which people prefer to act as individuals rather than as members of groups. Individuals from collectivist cultures tend to place greater value on the harmony within social groups (Taras et al., 2011). For the express purpose of comparing cultures with respect to the dimension of individualism-collectivism, two individuals were interviewed: Ingrid from Norway and Linh from Vietnam. Norway scores high on individualism while Vietnam scores low, meaning Vietnam is high in collectivism (Hofstede, 1980). Both individuals were interviewed separately and asked a series of questions relating to such aspects of culture as tradition, family structure, parental expectations, education, and stereotypes pertaining to their home cultures.
There are similarities and differences in the ways Ingrid and Linh have each adapted to American culture. Ingrid has been studying abroad at Concordia for the last two years. For her, adapting was not difficult since America and Norway are culturally similar. Consequently, she has primarily made only surfacelevel adaptations. She indicated that the cost of living is much cheaper here than in Norway, and this is something she must continuously re-adapt to when she travels back and forth. The other primary adaptation Ingrid made is speaking English. She admitted to still having difficulties understanding higher level academic literature, but she said she feels as though she has developed a firm grasp on the English language. This may be, in part, due to the fact that Norway begins teaching English as a second language to students at a very young age— something Ingrid indicated is common throughout many European countries.
Linh, a senior at Concordia, first came to the United States with her parents when she was four years old. Her adaptation to American culture has been more extensive—perhaps due to the fact that the differences between Vietnam and the US are more pronounced than the differences between Norway and the US. Indeed, research has shown that cultural assimilation is easier when greater similarities exist between the host culture and an individual’s heritage culture (Lu, 2006). Linh had no experience with the English language prior to coming to the US, so learning English was a journey in and of itself. However, she did have the luxury of learning English at a young age, during a sensitive period when language acquisition is typically easier for children (Ibrahim, 2014). Linh also had to adjust to the fact that her parents were a lot stricter than the parents of many of her friends growing up. Linh had a set curfew all the way through high school and was frequently unable to attend group get-togethers because her mother expected that helping out around the house was the number one priority.
There are similarities, however, in the way that both Linh and Ingrid have attempted to maintain cultural ties to their respective cultures while living in the United States. During the interviews, each indicated that they actively surround themselves with individuals from similar cultural backgrounds. When Linh initially came to the US with her parents, they moved to Detroit Lakes, MN, which Linh indicated had a decently sized Vietnamese community. In so doing, Linh and her family made an effort to keep their culture alive through traditional celebrations and rituals. They would celebrate the Vietnamese New Year and recognize death anniversaries of ancestors by having a feast and performing ritual Buddhist prayers. In a similar vein, Ingrid indicated that she preserves Norwegian culture by surrounding herself with other students from Norway, since she does not have family here to connect with. Ingrid and her Norwegian friends frequently convene to reminisce about home, cook Norwegian food, and engage in activities like cross-country skiing—a common Sunday afternoon activity for them back in Norway.
When asked to explain family structure and the relationship with extended family, Linh and Ingrid had very different responses. Despite having lived in the United States for a significant portion of her life, Linh and her family still place great emphasis on the value of familial proximity. She indicated that her extended family in Vietnam—children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—all live in the same grouping of houses, clustered side by side. Ingrid expressed a dramatically different dynamic in Norwegian culture, in which she has contact with her extended family, but they all live in different parts of Norway and primarily see each other on special occasions.
There is a strong divide between Linh and Ingrid in terms of the obligation they feel toward caring for their parents. Linh frequently expressed a deep-seeded anxiety about leaving her parents because they may need her help or support at some point. Her parents grew up in a culture where it is customary for children to stay close by, work in the family business, and care for their parents as they age (Dinh, Sarason, & Sarason, 1994). Linh feels nervous about leaving for further schooling because she knows her parents are not used to having family spread apart. It is clear that Linh aligns more closely with an interdependent self-construal, meaning she identifies herself through her roles and relationships with those closest to her (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). This is typical of Vietnamese individuals, who view themselves as being morally responsible for the wellbeing of others (Phan, 2005).
Ingrid is quite the opposite. When asked about the family structure in Norway, she indicated that extended family is spread out across the country. She and her family still visit their relatives for special occasions, but not everyone lives in the same place. During the course of the interview, Ingrid was informed about some of the differences in familial values between Western and non-Western cultures. Ingrid indicated that Norwegian culture is very Western, and she feels her parents will be fine as they age. Although she believes she and her siblings will still play an active role in tending to their parents’ needs, she does not feel obligated to stay nearby. She feels free to move out and start a family of her own, independent of her parents.
These findings are consistent with the literature surrounding the topic of family structure and parent-child relations. Having lived in the United States most of her life, and having been brought up in an environment lacking a healthy degree of cultural diversity, Linh still strongly identifies with the belief that it is her duty to stay close by and take care of her parents. In traditional Vietnamese culture, it is the duty of the children to express their appreciation and “pay back their debt” by becoming the primary caregivers as their parents age (Ngo & Lee, 2007). Contrasting this with the individualistic culture in Norway, the profound difference between the two countries and their cultures becomes clear. Ingrid lacks that sense of obligation to her parents. Although she values and appreciates them, she feels free to make a life of her own, independent of her parents’ needs. This brings us to another closely related aspect of cultural difference—parental expectations about education.
There was a dramatic difference between Linh and Ingrid on the subject of education. While they both place great value on having an education and each possesses the desire to do what they want in life, they differ greatly with regard to what is expected of them by their parents. Ingrid expressed that she did not even have to think about whether or not to attend college. It just felt like the natural thing for her to do as more and more Norwegians are going on to earn degrees. While her parents expected that she and her siblings would go to college, they never pressured her into it. Furthermore, Ingrid’s parents had given her free reign to choose her major based on what interested her, and they had never set specific academic goals for her to meet. Their primary concern was that she work hard and do her best in her own endeavors.
The story was quite different for Linh. Her parents always had high expectations for her in school. While she was growing up, her parents insisted that she get A’s and go on to become a doctor so that she could make money and provide support for her family. After realizing this was not what she wanted to do, Linh was very anxious about telling her parents because they had always expected she was going to continue on to medical school. While Linh’s parents have held firm to their traditional Vietnamese values regarding education, Linh expressed that she has been slowly wavering from those values. Linh said when she has children of her own, she will try to be a more lenient parent and teach them to do what makes them happy in life. This is consistent with research indicating that Vietnamese- American individuals experience significant internal conflict as a result of trying to maintain familial and cultural values while simultaneously trying to adopt Western values (Dinh et al., 1994).
It seems that while the stereotypes people are perceived to hold about Vietnamese and Norwegian cultures are very different, they are formed for many of the same reasons. Linh talked about the ever-present stereotype that all Asians excel at math and are on track to become doctors or engineers. She explained that these stereotypes are likely a result of the way Asians are portrayed in the media, and people just assume that the media’s portrayal is infallible.
Ingrid expressed frustration that everyone assumes she always eats lutefisk and lefse because she is from Norway. She explained that lutefisk and lefse used to be the traditional foods during a time when Norway was a poor agricultural country that relied mainly on fish and potatoes. However, modern day Norway is much wealthier and no longer relies solely on those foods. Ingrid asserted that people in the Upper Midwest automatically assume they know everything about Norwegian culture because of the strong Scandinavian heritage that exists in this part of the world. Although the stereotypes people hold about Vietnamese are very different from the stereotypes people hold about Norwegians, the stereotypes in both situations seem to arise as a result of availability bias, a phenomenon in which ideas or beliefs that are prevalent and come to mind readily are believed to be more common and more accurate reflections of the real world (Ibrahim, 2014). These stereotypes may also be a result of ignorance on the part of Americans for not taking the initiative to learn the truths and myths about other cultures.
The interviewees both expressed frustration that inaccurate cultural stereotypes are not only formed, but perpetuated, as a result of the ignorance of people to learn about other cultures. It is important to reflect on our own stereotypes about other cultures, as well as the sources of these stereotypes. Furthermore, we need to become aware that, regardless of background, individuals are not wholly defined by their countries and cultures of origin. It is the responsibility of Cobbers, and more importantly of human beings, to be thoughtful and attentive to the cultural differences present in the community and in the world.
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Ibrahim, M. (2014). Culture, language, and communication [PDF Document]. Retrieved from lecture notes online website: https://moodle.cord.edu/pluginfile.php/389268/mod_resource/content/0/F12_Ch_9.pdf
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