Real people Real Experiences

A Vietnamese perspective of America


My wife’s first impressions of life here vs. life in Vietnam…

If someone were to ask me if there are any similarities between American and Vietnamese cultures my answer would be “No”.

We are so different. The language, the people, the faith, and the way we do things.

My first impression of America was at O’Hare Airport when my husband and I landed in Chicago. It is the biggest airport I have ever seen in my life.

It overwhelmed me.

There were lots of restaurants and stores. It was more like a shopping center than an airport. I remember saying to my husband “Oh my, there are alot of foreigners here”, and he said “No, honey, you are the foreigner”.

I was like a kid getting lost on a new planet. Due to the weather our flight kept being delayed so we had the chance to explore. It helped me to understand how huge it really was.

While we were walking I saw a dinisaur in the middle of the hallway. I was shocked! I didn’t know why it was there, why people put it there. At first, the airport seemed a shopping mall, now it reminded me of a museum. It was my first time seeing a dinsaur too! I thought, “I gotta take a picture or my family will never believe me”.

The flight from Japan was exhausting but somehow I found it interesting looking around, watching people at the airport, because it was so new to me.

When I went through the boarding gate, an officer asked me “How are you doing?”.

I found it very surprising. I didn’t ‘t know him, he didn’t know me so why would he care how I was doing? I didn’t answer him right away because I just didn’t know how to react! I thought he was confused because he didn’t understand my response, so he looked at me. I thought “Oh my, I have to say something. I was tired but I said I was fine because it was an easy answer and I kept moving.

In Vietnam we only say Hello to people we know or to somebody older and respected such as our grandparents, teachers or a co-worker. We don’t usually say hello to people we don’t know. It’s just weird. When we say “Hello”, when we ask “How are you doing?”, that means something else. We only say it when we mean it, when we really want to know how they are doing because we could end up having a very long conversation.

That’s why I found it confusing everytime someone asked me how I was doing. Not anymore, I’ve gotten used to it.

After the airport, the supermarket was next.

The supermarket overwhelmed me too! There were alot of things I had never seen before. What is this? What is this used for? How does this taste? Those questions were on my mind. I thought, “it will take me a long time to understand the kinds of foods they sell here.” One of the first things I tried was an ice cream sandwich. Oh my, I loved it! We don’t have these in Vietnam so for me it was the bomb! It’s facinating that they combine ice cream with cookies and make a sandwich out of it. Sure enough, I took a picture of my first ice cream sandwich.

I was thinking I would buy one new item each week so in time I would be able to figure out all the stuff they sell there. Anyway I love the supermarket. When I was in Vietnam I used to go shopping with mom and we had good time together. Now I have good time shopping with my husband.

In time he showed me how things work here. When he would write a check for our bills he would explain to me what it was for and exactly what a “check” is. In Vietnam, we don’t do things like that. If someone from a utility company comes to your door you are supposed to pay it in cash right away. If no one is home, they leave a note. We usually keep cash in the house so It’s not surprising when you find someone who doesn’t have a bank account. That’s why we dont use checks.

When I found out my husband had a huge debt on his credit card it drove me nuts! That amount of money was too much for me. I had no idea how we were going to to pay it off. I had never been in debt and my parents never carried that kind of debt so this was very shocking to me. Debt in Vietnam is almost shameful. I couldn’t understand how my husband could live with that kind of pressure. Now I see that debt is an essential part of American life. You go to school, you get a loan. You buy a car, you get a loan. You buy a house, you get a loan. Even when you go to the hospital, you go into debt. Being in debt, carrying a big debt, is not how we live. I don’t know any Vietnamese people with long term debt. Most of us only buy something when we could afford it. Things might have changed but when I lived there no one carried long term debt. Credit and debit cards are still new to us.

Another thing I have to say about Americans…you guys are so friendly. Everytime I’m in the supermarket the employees say hello to me and smile. I find it very sweet. When I ask for help, they give it happily.

When my husband was in the hospital, I didn’t have have a drivers license so I had to use Uber for transport. The drivers were so friendly and easy to talk with.

My first six months in America, I never met or spoke with anyone who wasn’t friendly, with one exception. Once when I was sitting on a bench outside the hospital waiting for my driver, a woman sat next to me. She told me she had cancer and that she was a single mom. I felt sorry for her and I gave her all the money I had in my handbag, around $94.00 I think. I told my husband and he said I might have been “had”…cheated. Perhaps he was right, but if she lied to me it’s a burden she will have to carry. But if what she said was true, and I didn’t help her it would have been my burden.

This is my first attempt at explaining the differences between daily life in America and Vietnam and they are early impressions. I have much more to share. In the meantime I look forward to reading your responses and thank you for taking the time to read my story.

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