Does Mice-Eating Kill Vietnamese Rhinos?

Controversy over a newspaper columnist’s comments about Vietnam doesn’t seem to be going away.  As if to prove Joel Brinkley’s assertion that meat-eating makes Vietnamese people aggressive, Vietnamese people worldwide are calling for the Stanford professor’s head.

Obscured in the controversy is the central point of the article published two weeks ago:  Vietnam has a bad record of protecting tigers, elephants and rhinos from poachers.  That’s partly because Vietnam’s forests had so many wild animals in the first place, but even so:  The World Wildlife Federation’s crime scoreboard lists Vietnam and China as the worst offenders.

Meanwhile, the culture clash over the newspaper column in a strange way seems like a replay of the Vietnam War:  The American blinded by arrogance and pride; the Vietnamese adversary tenacious and unyielding (attributes that aren’t synonyms for aggressive).

Professor Brinkley’s column, like the American involvement in the Vietnam War, was about a lot of things — including American centrism.  US leaders expected their moral and technological superiority to prevail; the newspaper columnist seems to have thought his wisdom would inform.  Neither intended to offend anyone, but some Vietnamese were offended anyway when the American military killed millions of civilians and when the professor insulted their culture.

Now hundreds of people have signed a petition asking for the professor to step down from his position at Stanford University.  And he seems intent on digging a deeper hole, defending indefensible generalities.  The Vietnamese newspaper Tuoi Tre says this was his response to its question about whether he still thinks Vietnamese people are aggressive:  “I would call the Vietnamese more robust than their neighbors, most of whom eat rice and not much else.  They ingest little protein.  In the  many months I  spent in Cambodia writing my book on that state, I found passiveness and  lassitude among so many people.  A common phrase I heard in Vietnam was this: ‘Vietnamese grow rice. Laotians watch the rice grow. Cambodians listen to it grow.'”

Whatever happens next, the controversy is instructive.  Anybody who wants to build a bridge between the US and Vietnam can learn from it.  Things worth learning:

  • Sometimes It’s not a good idea to generalize.  Some Vietnamese are aggressive.  Some are passive.  Some are assertive.  Some eat mice.  Some eat hot dogs.  Some people who do not eat birds but do eat field mice and an occasional dog are aggressive sometimes, and some are not.
  • Leave causal relationships to scientists.  Does meat-eating cause aggression?  Does rodent-eating cause rhino extinction?  Does rice cause not-so-smartness in Cambodians?  Does winning a Pulitzer Prize make your head grow bigger?  Maybe.  Maybe not.
  • Humility goes a long way.   Cultural misunderstandings are human and common.  Regardless of how smart a professor, decorated a general or successful an investor you are, you’re going to make embarrassing mistakes.  Learn from them.  Acknowledge them. Apologize for them with humility and sincerity, and then forgive yourself.
  • The world doesn’t revolve around the USA.  This is Asia’s century.  You won’t win friends if you don’t get Asian cultures, and you don’t want to take a course from a professor who doesn’t get Asian cultures.

For anybody who missed the column that offended some of the world’s Vietnamese people, you can find it here.

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