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Xuan Truong Trinh

Essence of Nation 

Japan, this is the third country I have been living in. Living here makes me wonder about the most basic things I used to take for granted. I am a Vietnamese, but now I start to question: What is Vietnam? What makes Vietnamese different from Japanese? Or, a more fundamental question, is there any essence for what we call a country or a people?

In Tokyo, I have been socializing with some Vietnamese communities. They came to study, to work, or even to get married and to live here. During those dinners, I was so glad to be embraced in what I call ‘feeling home’, the kind of feeling I have when I stay around Vietnamese, speak Vietnamese, eat Vietnamese food, and do things in the Vietnamese way. It is a collection of experiences that I thought I could only have in Vietnam, yet I am experiencing it here.

The experience is very different compared to the time I went to the Vietnamese community in Otahuhu, a district in the south of Auckland, New Zealand. As a high school boy, I was more than eager to see how my fellow countrymen lived in another country. Expecting something familiar, I was puzzled to see them in suits, speaking only English, and having a totally different manner. They still looked like Vietnamese, but the feeling I had near them was just not the same as my ‘feeling home’.

“They have been living in New Zealand for too long,” – I was explained. It is true that compared to the Vietnamese I met in Tokyo, they were born in New Zealand, raised in New Zealand, and thus behaved just as a New Zealander would. Although I sometimes find it difficult understanding how Vietnamese here talk, it is only because they have different dialects. Also, perhaps they are not so updated with the so-called ‘teenager language’ that is evolving every second through social networking in Vietnam. They said they were going through ‘language isolation’. At this rate, I could envision how they may diverge from being a typical Vietnamese. Sometime later, perhaps I might see in them a Vietnamese community like what I have seen in New Zealand.

Then, is nationality a thing that could be washed away? Of course I am not referring to the detail on the passport, but the actual identity of a person. If there is something that makes a person different from everyone else, it is perhaps his memory. Similarly, for a country, it is her history. To formularize the formation of Vietnam, it could include the local Southeast Asian tribes, similar to Laos and Cambodia, plus a millenium worth of colonization by China, and more than a decade of colonization by France, America and Japan. The formation of Vietnam demonstrates strong influence from external factors on the identity of a country. What it shows is, yes, even the nation itself changes, so nationality would inevitably transform over time. Therefore, at this age of globalization, radical changes are well expected.

So far, I have met Vietnamese who have lived in Vietnam all their life; Vietnamese who have been living abroad since their adulthood; Vietnamese who have been born and brought up abroad; and Vietnamese who have been born abroad, from parents who have never been in Vietnam at all. For me, that is the gradient of changes. Besides, there are international marriages and their children. Vietnamese usually seek out of Vietnam, but on the other hand, there are people like Joe Ruelle, a Canadian writer who has come to live in Vietnam, adapting to our way of life. In a similar way, such changes will be enhanced by globalization, which might eventually lead to the ‘melting pot’ phenomenon, when everyone share a universal global identity, independent of where they come from.

Does putting on a hanten make me Japanese?

Does putting on a hanten make me Japanese?

Similarly, the physical border between nations would need reconsideration. For example, Chinatowns are present in a large number of countries. Consider a place where people speak Chinese, eat Chinese food, live the Chinese way and in fact, are Chinese; is it different from China? This is not to disregard sovereignty, but to rethink what is the essence of a nation.

As the existence of a permanent essence is questioned, it is important to notice that there is nothing unchangeable about a nation and its people. I am glad to have the opportunity to examine different cases of the rapidly evolving cultural values. By representing those observations here, I hope to intrigue you into critically observing and receiving changes that are happening around us. How are we changing?

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