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[Column] The love is the thing

Foreigners in Hanoi often ponder ‘cultural differences,’ but we have more in common that what separates us, writes Timothy R. Trebilcock




The Tet holiday is pretty exotic for newcomers to Vietnam. The orange fruit bearing, green-leafed kumquat tree and major symbol of the festivities thrives in a hot humid climate and impresses visitors with its built-in ornaments. In Canada, the box of exotic mandarin oranges under the balsam fir at Christmas is as close as we get to warmer climates. Yet for all their surface differences, trees like the fir and kumquat represent growth, resurrection, prosperity and health.

The garishly decorated shopping malls too, despite their different architectural configurations, have somehow become just as culturally significant during holidays all over the world. The parallels between these cross-cultural symbols are so common I scarcely see the point of noticing the differences anymore.

A couple of months ago, at Aeon Mall in Long Bien, a massive colorfully adorned plastic Christmas tree greeted customers who gathered to have their pictures taken with symbols that are mere curiosities except for the approximately 7% who identify as Christians in Vietnam. Muzak versions of Christmas carols played sweetly in the background as shoppers lined up to have their temperatures taken and hands sanitized before doing their regular shopping. Christmas has been the West’s greatest feat of marketing, bolstering economies that might otherwise falter if they had to rely merely on religious piety, and so it seems logical for Vietnam to benefit from the same economic boost during an otherwise depressed season. Thus, the Vietnamese have come to understand Christmas.

More recently, kumquat trees and pink peach blossoms decorated that same mall as people celebrated Tet. Vietnam’s celebration of light and the coming of spring remains a tradition that strengthens the ties that bind for now. Certainly, the many gatherings of families and friends and associated feasts provide an economic boost to the small communities that dot the landscape across the country, and most still remember the reason for the season: take care of each other, reconnect with those you love, remember who came before and gather strength for the long year ahead.

The global fashion company aims to make a positive contribution to Vietnam, and there is no doubt it will succeed if by positive contribution they mean make all humans dress exactly the same.

Festive Aeon mall is the same shopping centre I would find on the outskirts of any town or city in Canada and contains a large department store, household appliance store and all the usual brands lined throughout causeways accessed by humming black escalators. It is particularly crowded during Christmas and Tet at a store called Uniqlo.

The Japanese company recently set up shop in Aeon mall with great fanfare to the delight of ‘shopaholics’ everywhere. The global fashion company aims to make a positive contribution to Vietnam and there is no doubt it will succeed if by positive contribution they mean make all humans dress exactly the same. They have the same selection of clothes, in the same palate of colors, patterns and designs I would find at any department or specialty store in the West.

The lineups of identically dressed revelers made it impossible for someone like me, who does not like crowds, to follow through on the tempting purchases of long-sleeve sweat pullover hoodies, raglan v-neck cardigans and linen long-sleeve popovers in the correct size no less.

Many have pointed out the irony of buying clothes made in Vietnam on my return visits to Canada. They suggest I pack my suitcases with reasonably priced clothes made in Vietnam and sell them at Canadian prices when I’m home. As a spin-off, I can get onto the speaking circuit with a streamlined presentation about my positive contribution to Vietnam.

As above, so below. Forget that on Jan. 3 we violently tear down Christmas trees, cram them out the door and leave them by the trash at the end of the driveway. Christmas trees remain an evergreen symbol of new life and springtime in our imagination if you dig deep enough. Kumquat trees are at least potted and give the impression they live forever in a secret tree warehouse to be reused year after year.

Whatever the reality, they too have real significance as harbingers of prosperity and health. Aeon mall, like malls all over the world, are a clean slate for a rotating showcase of holiday symbols that are necessarily forgotten in the mad rush for clothes that might not actually express anyone’s individuality. Next year, when I see these important symbols of peace, hope and togetherness wherever I am I’ll remember it’s not the differences that are important. The love is the thing.

Illustrations by VJ.

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