If you're ever looking for an interesting social experiment, tell Americans that you're going to Vietnam and gauge their reactions. Laughs, jokes and double takes were commonplace when I told people of my plans to embark on a 10-month stint as a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Vietnam. But the reactions that stood out the most were the ones I didn't quite know how to handle. Statements like, "Last time I heard that [someone was going to Vietnam], it was the last thing [he] said to me," or "I fought there, but boy would I love to go back and see it again," or even, "Vietnamese people are anti-American," left me unable to respond with much more than polite smiles and nods.
Like most Americans, when I thought of Vietnam, I thought of the war, even though it was long over before I was born. I chose to apply for a Fulbright scholarship in Vietnam partly because I wanted to learn more about the history of America's involvement there. I quickly realized, however, that serious discussions of the war are few and far between in Vietnam.
I did not expect the Vietnamese to hold a personal grudge against me for the deeds of my country, but I did expect more reference to be made to our countries' checkered history. One reason that the Vietnamese do not dwell on the war is because it has been 40 years since its end. However, for better or worse, the United States' power and prominence cause the Vietnamese to look forward, not back at the war's lasting effects.
On a political level, it is clear that both the Americans and the Vietnamese have an interest in moving past the long ago war and strengthening areas of cooperation. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the normalization of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam and the relationship is rapidly developing. While the potential of the Trans Pacific Partnership (the pending multi-national trade agreement) would create an even stronger economic link between Vietnam and the United States, the countries are partnering in other areas as well. In October, for example, the United States lifted an arms embargo on Vietnam that opened the door for far more advanced military cooperation.
On a people-to-people level, however, Americans and Vietnamese remain distinctly culturally divided. In my work with young students, it has become clear to me that Vietnamese, for the most part, associate America with popular culture and opportunity. After living and working in Vietnam for over eight months, I've only heard a few remarks about the war, but I hear about Lebron James, Barack Obama and Taylor Swift on a daily basis.
Americans, however, across all age cohorts, associate Vietnam almost exclusively with the war. While certainly not a uniquely American trait, it is discouraging that we have trouble separating people from politics.
How is it that Americans can associate Russians and Vietnamese with communism, people from Muslim countries with terrorism and Germans with anti-Semitism, yet people around the world associate us with music, movies and fast food? I am certainly not suggesting that the United States enjoys a benign reputation around the world, but as Americans we don't expose ourselves to foreign culture in the same way that foreigners consume ours. Instead, we associate people with political problems. I fear that in America our political and economic power leads us to believe that we can afford a few enemies — a dangerous assumption.
I am not suggesting that Americans should start listening to Vietnamese music, watching Iraqi movies or eating Russian food. But we owe the world an effort to shift our associations. As the Vietnamese show me daily, genuine cultural exchange can go a long way in working through political tension. The United States would drastically improve its cultural and political standing around the globe by beginning to view people as representatives of culture rather than representatives of politics.
Wars happen, and I don't expect world peace any time soon. But I hope that despite conflicts, people can be disassociated from political enemies. Political conflicts might be inevitable, but distinguishing people from those conflicts is a choice — let's make the right one.
Jonathan Hettleman is a Baltimore County native and recent graduate of Johns Hopkins University now teaching English in Cao Bang, Vietnam, as a member of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. This op-ed is written in a personal capacity and is independent of his Fulbright affiliation. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.