Journey to the Center of East Asian Nationalism

I am Vietnamese through and through. Hearing the words “I hate Vietnamese people” was one of the most memorable moments during my two years working for a peace building organization.

I used to work for Sarus. The Sarus Crane is a bird that flies between Vietnam and Cambodia. The name has a special meaning because of the two target countries of one of our programs: Vietnam and Cambodia. I was responsible for facilitating the program in Vietnam. When I first started this work, I did not have huge expectations for what I would learn about conflict between the two countries. I knew the history between the two countries but I had never been aware of things beyond what I learned as a child. Since I learned about the conflicts that exist in daily life, it changed my understanding and changed the way I perceive everything else in life.

It happened during the interview process in Cambodia while recruiting students to join the exchange program. To ask about the knowledge of the candidates towards the other country, we had a question like “What do you know about Cambodia/Cambodian?” for Vietnamese candidates and “What do you know about Vietnam/Vietnamese?” for Cambodian candidates. Even knowing that I was Vietnamese and I was sitting next to the interviewee, one Cambodian candidate said to all the interviewers “I hate Vietnamese. I don’t know why but I just hate them.” I had knowledge before that a lot of Cambodian dislike Vietnamese. But I could never imagine there is so much hatred that a young person cannot hold himself from saying it out loud. It was like a slap in my face. Sadly, based on the answer of Vietnamese candidates to this question, no one seemed to know about the conflict or ever ask themselves whether there has been a conflict. All they could think of was Angkor Wat and Apsara.

Ironically, also in that interview process, something happened where I became similar to the candidate that told us he hates Vietnamese. In a later interview, another person came in and my colleagues asked the same question: “What do you know about Vietnam and Vietnamese people?” The candidate smiled happily and answered: “I know that Vietnamese are originally from China”. When I heard that, the candidate immediately got on my nerve. I waited until the candidate finished speaking (at least I was still patient enough to wait for the candidate to finish), and then said: “Let me tell you this. Vietnamese were not coming from China. We are two separate countries. In fact, China invaded Vietnam for more than a thousand years”. When I stopped, I suddenly realized how angry I was and how much I must have frightened the candidate. But my knowledge, what I have been taught about China, could not let myself hold back from speaking it out.  Was it my knowledge, or was it hatred, prejudgment or nationalism?

I could go on endlessly describing my growth during the time I worked at Sarus. But I guess the biggest lesson learned started from that moment, the moment someone told me the ugly truth about hating my nation and my people so much. From that time, I started to compare the conflicts between Cambodia – Vietnam and Vietnam – China. I reflected on questions foreigner friends asked me about why Vietnamese hate Chinese so much. I saw my own people cause violence to innocent Chinese who working in Vietnam because the territory dispute between Vietnam – China. Then I start telling my friends: stop hating Chinese. Along with that, I tell them: stop hating people over what you were told about them. It kills trust before knowing them well enough. If trust can be killed so easily in daily life, how can trust and peace be built on a much more complicated scale between nations?

Our organization is small. We select only 10 – 12 young leaders in each country every year. Sometimes I felt like the work that I was doing was like a grain of sand in the big ocean. But I believe the impact will grow beyond our leaders. We bring them to face conflicts between two nations so that they can go back and build peace in their home community.

Food across borders - Cambodian and Vietnamese Sarus participants cook together during 2013 exchange program. 

Food across borders - Cambodian and Vietnamese Sarus participants cook together during 2013 exchange program. 

Written by Nguyễn Phương Thuý, former Sarus intern (2012) and staff (2013-2014).