A Prized Professor’s Ignorance About Vietnam

Anybody who plans to do business in Vietnam should read Joel Brinkley’s  column (below) that appeared last week in the Chicago Tribune.  The Stanford journalism professor published a textbook example of Western centrism, arrogance, and hypocrisy that insults an entire culture.

People who want to invest in Vietnam would be advised to learn from the ugly top_site_international_businessAmericanism expressed by Professor Brinkley, who once won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting about Cambodia — but made the rookie mistake of generalizing about Vietnam  based on a brief tour there over the winter holidays.  That isn’t unusual for some Americans, many of whom still have archaic notions about Vietnam left over from the 1970s.

The most absurd and pathetic of Brinkley’s assertions is that “Vietnam has always been an aggressive country” because its people eat meat.  Actually,  Vietnam’s history is mostly about defending itself from the aggression of China and others, including Americans.

As penance for his mis-characterized aggression, the professor should be required to read every page of the new book: “Kill Anything That Moves,” which documents America’s systemic culture of war crime during the Vietnam War.

Brinkley also links Vietnamese consumption of birds, rodents, and canines to the demise of tigers, rhinos and elephants in their country.  It’s true Vietnamese eat birds (so do Americans) and rodents, but rice-eating Vietnamese mice in the field are not quite the same as rats in San Francisco’s sewers.  And, yes, dogs can be food as well as pets in Vietnam, but that is about cultural differences, not environmental conservation.

The column contains elements of truth, and even worthwhile information:  Protection of wildlife IS an important issue in Vietnam; perhaps Vietnamese DO tend to consume more protein than many of their Cambodian neighbors (which may imply more about the nutritional values of the workforces than anybody’s propensity for aggression).

But not much in the column rings true to me after my travels in Vietnam over the years.  An award-winning journalist and professor should know that a few days on a tour aren’t enough to generalize about a people. especially a people that was systematically dehumanized by the professor’s “people” not long ago.  And the idea that Vietnamese are aggressive, written from the perspective of an American, is just silly.

Unfortunately, the columnist exacerbated his cultural ignorance by responding to criticism of his column by insisting that meat makes people aggressive and, in the process, insulting Cambodians and Laotians.  He wrote: “Eating a diet rich in protein will make you more robust than others, in Laos, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian states who eat rice and very little else. After all half of Laotian children grow up stunted, even today. In Cambodia the rate is 40 percent. That means they grow up short and not so smart. Would it also follow that they would be less aggressive than Vietnamese? I think so.”

For investors interested in avoiding the mistakes of a Pulitzer Prize winner who needs an editor, here is the column from the web site of the Chicago Tribune, which to its credit issued an apology for publishing it:

You don’t have to spend much time in Vietnam before you notice something unusual. You hear no birds singing, see no squirrels scrambling up trees or rats scurrying among the garbage. No dogs out for a walk.

In fact, you see almost no wild or domesticated animals at all. Where’d they all go? You might be surprised to know: Most have been eaten.

Of course, as with most states in the region, tigers, elephants, rhinos and other big animals are trafficked to China. At this, of course, Vietnam is hardly alone — though the World Wildlife Fund describes the state as the world’s greatest wildlife malefactor.

Various reports show that Vietnamese kill more rhinos for their horns than any other nation. Chinese value those horns for their mythical medical qualities — like so many exotic-animal body parts.

Animal trafficking explains the dearth of tigers, elephants and other big beasts. But what about birds and rats? Yes, people eat those, too, like almost every animal that lives there. In Da Nang in January, I saw a street-side merchant with bowls full of dead rats for sale — their fur removed but otherwise intact — ready to cook.

Last spring, Conservation International reported that several varieties of Vietnamese gibbon, part of the ape family, “are perilously close to extinction” — all but a few of them already eaten.

All of this raises an interesting question. Vietnamese have been meat eaters through the ages, while their Southeast Asian neighbors to the west — Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar — have largely left their wildlife alone.

In each of these other countries you see flocks of birds that are absent in Vietnam along with numerous pet dogs and cats. There, people eat rice, primarily, and for many people in most of those states their diet includes little more than that.

Vietnam has always been an aggressive country. It has fought 17 wars with China since winning independence more than 1,000 years ago and has invaded Cambodia numerous times, most recently in 1979. Meantime, the nations to its west have largely been passive in recent centuries.

Many anthropologists and historians attribute the difference to the state’s origins. Vietnam was born of China, while India heavily influenced the other countries — two nations with drastically different personalities, even today.

Well, certainly that played a part. But I would argue that because Vietnamese have regularly eaten meat through the ages, adding significant protein to their diet, that also helps explain the state’s aggressive tendencies — and the sharp contrast with its neighbors.

Right now, the favored dish is dog. In fact, dog meat is particularly prized. It’s considered a specialty because it is said to contain more protein than other meats. For Vietnamese, tradition has it that whenever you have bad luck you should eat dog meat to change your fate. But you shouldn’t eat it at the start of the lunar month, or the reverse will happen. You’ll actually bring on bad luck.

The Chicago Tribune’s apology:

“Tribune Media Services (TMS) recently moved an opinion column by Joel Brinkley about his observations from a trip to Vietnam that did not meet our journalistic standards. The column has provoked a highly critical response from readers since its release.

“TMS has a rigorous editing process for its content, and in the case of Brinkley’s column that moved Jan. 29, all the required steps did not occur. We regret that this happened, and we will be vigilant in ensuring that our editing process works in the future.”


5 responses to “A Prized Professor’s Ignorance About Vietnam

  1. I live in Vietnam but have access to American television. I watch a lot of travel and living/food channel programs. The other day I was watching a famous American Chef and TV personality go to the Ozarks where he killed, skinned, and cooked squirrel. Another show featured possum. In both places, the subjects of the show said they and all the community around them, ate those varmits almost everyday. There is nothing different from a field mouse/rat and a squirrel except the bushy tail. Not only is the Professor ignorant about Vietnamese culture, he is ignorant of culture in much of the United States.

  2. You didn’t even mention that one of the Professor’s arguments about Vietnamese aggression is the invasion of Cambodia in 1979, which just happened to save the Cambodia from the Pol Pot regime (who was put into power mainly due to the U.S. illegal bombings of Cambodia).

    At the end of his column he agreed with another blogger that Vietnamese culinary traditions are “one of the most gruesome thing I have ever seen”. Brinkley won a Pulitzer for covering the genocide in Cambodia.

    The Professor has clearly gone insane or senile.

  3. I’m tempted to hunt down his Pulitzer-winning Cambodia piece with the view to determining how much of that is truth, and how much was written in a haze of gin & whacky tobaccy from a hotel bar.

  4. Reblogged this on An Underdog's Tale and commented:
    I was a bit sick of the surfeit of comments from my Vietnamese peers who, in some cases, seem rather small-minded. Here’s a good change in both perspective and substance.

  5. “Vietnam is set to welcome its newest concept restaurant, Wings ‘n’ Things, a subsidiary of Tribune Media Services. The chain is run by CEO Joel Brinkley”. Hard to believe this guy!

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