Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Everyone's an expert

After signing up for Technorati, I started using it to search blogs about life in Vietnam. One of the interesting blogs that I've found is Ethnically Incorrect, which is written by a conflicted Vietnamese adoptee. I have a few friends who would fall into the KAD crowd (although they aren't all of Korean extraction), and it's quite enlightening to hear someone so plainly voicing the concerns of their experience.

One of her posts spoke about how some ex-pats return from a stint abroad with a greater sense of "understanding" of the foreign culture than they truly have obtained. It was a riff off of this post from What Happened to Your Hair? These two posts stirred within me a latent impression of a few of the expat discussions on blogs and forums. It seems everyone thinks they're an expert - be it from two weeks or two years in a foreign land, all the while living high on the hog.

I live in the greater D.C. area - am I an expert on life in S.E. D.C, DuPont, Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, etc.? Heck no, even though I've spent significant amounts of time in some of those places. I'm an expert on life in a cul-de-sac in a particular suburban development, and that's it.

It's wholly presumptuous to think that you've done anything other than scratching the surface of a culture and a society when you don't (1) speak the language (2) look like a local - even a fat V.K. doesn't cut it - and (3) earn a living like everyone else. It's great that you've used your passport, it's great that you've learned to order beer in a foreign language. But, for god sakes, realize that hundreds of thousands of other people have done this - they're called immigrants. They just don't blog about it.


layered said...

D., You have raised some interesting challenges for us expat bloggers to consider. My response is too long for this comment, so please click on over to
-- Mel

D. said...


Thanks for reading and for your comments - I've posted a reply on your blog.

HanoiMark said...

(Reposting my comments from Antidote to Burnout on the same issue.)

This is a very thought-provoking discussion and also makes me reflect on my experience as an expat blogger for a short period in VN. I see this tendency to be the "expert" even among tourists. I've had people tell me the "truth" about Vietnam after they have returned from a two week trip! Some humility is certainly in order.

When I was blogging in VN I often had self-doubts and wondered why on earth I should write something on a cultural phenomenon when in fact my understanding was so surface compared to even the average person on the street. I agree that the problem is in the way you present yourself when you are writing. I dunno - I may have been guilty of "white expat expertise" at times in my blog, but I tried to write from a personal perspective and just tell the stories of my own experience, rather than drawing grand conclusions.

But ultimately I don't think economic, cultural or linguistic gaps mean that you cannot have insight into a culture. These gaps are inevitable. But the point is to be aware of them and despite them, attempt cross-cultural understanding. This is about trying to understand "difference" which implies that there IS a gap. Who says you can only have insights about a culture if you coincide with it? If you had to live in a culture for all your life before you could comment on it, there would be very little cross-cultural understanding even possible.

I have been asked several times since I returned to Canada to talk about my experiences in Hanoi. So again maybe I'm one of the guilty ones. Again the issue is the way you do it. But I have been amazed at the incredible ignorance and misconceptions people have about modern Vietnam (even by some Viet kieu here). I'm no expert, but I do feel like I am able to talk about what I've learned and it is obviously very eye-opening to some.

So I agree with the thought-provoking critique. At the same time I would hate to see people stop sharing their (partial) insights because their knowledge is not absolute. Whose is?

sume said...

Hey D,

Personally, I see nothing wrong with sharing personal perspective and possible insights. There is a difference however, in that as opposed to when people speak of a people as if their narrow and often prejudiced window of experience makes them an expert.

Anyway, I might just have to bounce or re-bounce off this one.

sume said...

Oh and thanks for the linkage. I've linked you too and intend to check back for updates.

Most of my writing and conversation along these lines kind of skew off towards matters of identity. Growing up "white" adds an strange twist to the whole thing. Which brings me to another point.

I grew up on the inside but would that necessarily make me an expert on "whiteness"? I don't think so though it might give me some insight. Even that would be limited because of my own personal perspective and experiences are limited.

You know that old saying, "You can't see the forest for the trees." I think it would take a combination of "outsider" and "insider" perspectives to get a more complete picture when it comes to understanding.

Example, my life experience is that of a transracial adoptee but it took the help of other people to help me get a better grasp of what that meant to me as a person, even those who didn't necessarily agree with me.

What I hate is when adoptive parents consider themselves as "experts" on adoptees when they have no idea what it's actually like to live as one. They hold all the cards and make all the choices yet they claim to know what it's actually like without ever actually listening to the diverse adoptee voices out there? I'm totally going off on a tangent here, but the premise is pretty much the same.

Pheww! I should have just written a blog post.

omih said...

I'm probably as guilty as anyone but I do try to draw my own conclusions from what I have seen myself and hopefully understood. When I don't understand, I'll say so.

For the most part I avoid sweeping generalisations.

But as you say, I read a lot of travellers blogs and their understanding it a lot less than they imagine. They are simply parroting the Lonely Planet at times. For the most part they make me shudder.

But remember, it's not just expat culture, its blog culture. Spouting your own opinion is the whole point of a blog. What do you expect expat bloggers to about their lunch?

You've just posted an opinion on people who spout opinions. Misguided or not, or in whatever circumstances, bloggers have something to say. If you disagree then that is what comment boxes are for.

Finally, one statement about Vietnam, is that the more you learn the less you realise you know. It is a truly baffling country. I've been here two years and most of it still just confuses me.

D. said...

Thanks all for commenting - this post, by virtue of Mel's linking - has generated the most traffic this little blog has ever seen.

Just to reply to OMIH before I let this rest on my end - I'm not telling people not to share their opinions, I'm just pointing out how ridiculous some of those opinions sound, especially to Asian Americans and Vietnamese Americans in particular, or more precisely, ME in particular.

Responding in the comment section of their blogs is fine, I guess, but that's like poking someone in the eye to make them see better.

There's a better chance that folks modify their behavior through an internally motivated process - maybe this little post of mine provides the impetus for that introspection.

Finally, I can help but comment on your use of "baffling." On the one hand, it demonstrates that you recognize, even with the wealth of experience you've accumulated, you're not an 'expert,' while on the other hand, that description evokes a parallel to antiquated adjectives for Asia and its peoples as exotic, mysterious, etc.

I submit that Viet-Nam, or any other country, is neither baffling nor bizarre nor weird. As an American, I find little that is odd with America, yet I'm sure tourists would look quizzically at some of the things we do. If those same tourists tell us that America is baffling, we'll smack them upside the head and call INS. We're jingoistic xenophobes in that way. And in a small way, we'll be right.

A description of baffling demotes and diminishes that which you are describing - it signals that the observer has not understood the object not for want in the observer, but because of a failing in the object.

omih said...

Vietnam is baffling. Baffling to me at least. I'm not complaining about that. It just it. For the most part I love that. Just because scientists understand nuclear physics it doesn't make it any less baffling to me.

My point being, me saying it is baffling is surely fair point. Nothing here makes any sense, and I have said, the more I learn the less I know.

Of course it isn't baffling to local people but its not local people who are writing my blog, it's me. And, for the most part, its not Vietnamese that are reading it either.

Sure I have probably made errors and generalisations early in my Vietnamese blogging but that is party of the journey.

I've heard various versions of the same quote a number of times here: "You can spend two weeks in Vietnam and understand it enough to write a book. Any longer than that and you've no chance."

It's true.

It all seems pretty straight forward, if a little different, when you first get here. Spend a little more time in this culture and it gets stranger and stranger.

It not the customs that are strange. It the decision making, the attitudes the though process.

I think the biggest mistake we all make is generalising. Like you meet a friendly bloke and you think how friendly Vietnam is. Then you meet a miserable git and you think how miserable the people are.

In truth, Vietnamese are invdividuals. Patterns are harder to spot than you think.

For what it's worth I agree with what you said about gog in your last post. As much as anything because it makes cliched reading and why the hell shouldn't people eat dog?

And for the most part, in general, I agree with what you are saying. Certainly as regards people passing though Vietnam or living lives so removed from Vietnamese culture that they have no insight at all.

As for myself, I wouldn't pretend to get it right. If I have any expertise, after two years here, it's shamefully not as regards language or culture, just simply how to survive being a volunteer here without going insane or running off home. Hopefully I don't try to pretend anything else. Although I am sure I probably have at some point.

But the only thing I am sure is that this is a wonderful country. Absolutely awesome and its history, culture, and sheer atmosphere makes us all quite evangelical at times.

Kev Minh said...

Hi D.,

(Re-posted from layered's blog comment section)

"Each person's opinion of a place that one has visited/lived in is valid, in so far as it is that person's lived experience. But, one should be cautious that opinions and raw observations of a country and its people do not cross into the realm of fact and thus become a substitute for these people's real lives and national identity."

But, I must add more to this: Since the advent of colonialism, Europeans and Americans have avidly traveled and written/spoken about the colonies and their inhabitants without any input from the “natives”. These travelogues and reportages were taken at face value by those in the motherland because back then, let’s face it, “White is right”. The opinions and prejudices contained within these people’s accounts led to real negative attitudes being formed and policies taken against the colonized.

It has only been until the natives started learning to communicate in the mother tongue that they started writing and talking about their own lives, legacies and memories. And, not only in the mother tongue, but also reclaiming local dialects, which offered them a sense of pride and unity. Once these colonized people threw off the yokes, new voices were being published and transmitted, which had previously been silenced.

So, this topic should be bringing up the following questions: Who owns whose story, and why or why not? Is it really a question of “ownership” or is it really about mutual understanding and respect? Or, could it preclude both these questions?

I look forward to reading more from your blog.

Hong said...

Sup D-man!

charvey said...

"These two posts stirred within me a latent impression of a few of the expat discussions on blogs and forums. It seems everyone thinks they're an expert..."

Interesting point. Can you share a post or two from a self-appointed "expat expert" blog that led you to your conclusions? It would illuminating to read a raw post from one of the blogs that caused all the hubbub.