This blog post reflects my observations of the growing Vietnamese middle class.
I have had my students read excerpts from Thomas Friedman’s 2008 Hot, Flat, and Crowded in which the author links climate change, economic growth and the communications revolution, and population growth to explain the major world problems – war, poverty, disease, famine, government instability, tyranny, and loss of biodiversity and depletion of natural resources. As a journalist, his sources – personal anecdotes, recalled conversations, and news summaries – are less rigorous than I would prefer, but his presentation is clear and his writing accessible.
He begins and ends the book with the not-so-new idea that everyone wants to be just like Americans. The ambition of every family, every city, every nation is to develop a wealth that will allow for all people to live become like us. He then goes on chapter by chapter to convey the dire consequences of 2-3 billion “Americans” instead of the 350 million in our country and another 500 million or so scattered about the globe today. Humanity already lives beyond its resource supply, so doubling or tripling the number of affluent consumers will lead to disaster after disaster. “Petrodictatorships” and terrorists, Crash of fisheries and loss of productive farmland, and the looming costs of the climate crisis are three examples. Friedman gives credit to the great benefits of technology, the internet and wireless communications as economic equalizers: Every developing country now has a growing middle class, creating a snowballing effect of investment, growth, consumption, and more investment, growth and consumption... But this same middle class constitutes the “Too Many Americans” of his thesis.
What I have seen this year in Vietnam suggests that the perception of definition of what it means to be an “American” is part of the problem. The middle class in Vietnam, and elsewhere in the developing world is preoccupied with status symbols – Large Mercedes sedans, SUVs, or high-end sports cars are the vehicles of choice. I have seen more Rolls Royces, Bentleys, and Maseratis driving around the crowded streets of Hanoi that in New York or Chicago. Other displays of wealth include the constantly growing houses, and construction of massive 2nd homes out in the country; shopping only at brand name stores in dozens of new western-priced shopping malls going up all over town; and eating lots of meat, less rice, and increasingly, western foods like ice cream and chocolate. Middle class Vietnamese families do everything possible to send their children to (a) boarding school in the US, (b) boarding school in Australia, Canada, or England, or (c) international school here, all in hopes that their kids will go to university in the US. But the school system here is not training critical thinkers who will pursue a liberal arts education abroad – just consumers who will study business, finance, economics or engineering so that they can get a high paying job so that they can buy a bigger car, build a bigger house, take expensive shopping vacations to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore…
There are almost no overweight adults in Vietnam, but an increasing number of overfed children. I see parents chasing their children around the lobby of my building or in sidewalks and alleys, bowl and spoon in hand, forcing the child to eat and eat and eat. Vietnam is one generation away from food insecurity, subject to the whims of drought and flood. Their eating habits – eat as much as possible now because tomorrow we may have nothing – haven’t changed, whereas the caloric content of their foods have double or tripled.
So what have the imported from our culture – material consumerism, worshipping the dollar, and a preoccupation with advertising wealth. But they have not adopted our inventiveness, our appreciation for nature and conservation, or our value of education for its intrinsic benefits. How do we begin to export those qualities of Americanism? I don't know. We achieved our wealth by depleting our resources and despoiling our land. Their mimicry of our overt symbols of wealth is understandable. Sadly, the less visible yet equally American qualities of social justice and personal responsibility remain unknown and invisible.