Expats, Tourists and “Matter out of Place”

In 2011, I overheard a conversation in an elevator that changed my world.

I was coming home from work in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and as I entered the elevator to ride the 23 floors up to my apartment, I smiled at the two men who had entered ahead of me. I was a little surprised when they didn’t smile back, but unperturbed, I hit the ‘Close Door’ button and we began our ascent.

As we rose, the men began to mutter to each other in Vietnamese behind me. Now, as an Anglo-Australian, my Vietnamese is by no means fluent, but I believe I caught their gist:

These foreigners, they come into our country and take the best jobs.

They make more money than we do.

They don’t even bother to learn our language or get to know our culture.

Why doesn’t she just go back to her own country?

I was shocked to my core, although I probably shouldn’t have been – I’d certainly observed foreigners to Australia being subjected to similar views with much greater force. But it was the first time in my four years in Vietnam that I’d ever felt unwelcome. After that encounter, I heard opinions like these expressed with increasing frequency. I spoke to various Vietnamese friends about it, and although they tried to comfort me, they did agree that the sentiment was growing, due primarily to the recent enforcement of a new government decree, Decree 46, along with the highly nationalistic discourse used to convey its necessity to the people.

Decree 46 required foreign organisations to prioritise giving employment contracts to Vietnamese nationals over foreigners, irrespective of whether those foreigners had previously been employed with the company on one of the country’s maximum-3-year work contracts. A conspicuous number of foreigners had therefore not had their work permits reissued by the relevant ministry, causing a backlash in the media from foreign-owned multinationals, which in turn had further exacerbated the anti-foreigner sentiment amongst the Vietnamese community.

Not long after this incident, I had a visit from some Australian friends, who were backpacking around South East Asia. Concerned that Decree 46 could be negatively affecting their experience, I asked how they had found Vietnamese attitudes towards their presence in the country.

“Vietnamese people are SO friendly, aren’t they? Everywhere we go, people tell us how happy they are that we’re visiting their country, how much they love tourists, especially how much they love Australians – we’ve felt so welcome here!”

Living the Liminal Life

I’ve now been pondering this apparent contradiction for years. The job that I held in Vietnam at that point was one that had been designated (in a different directive by a different ministry) as foreigner-only – so I knew I was not taking a Vietnamese person’s job. I paid my taxes (which were higher than for most Vietnamese nationals actually), took Vietnamese language and culture classes, participated in community events, and tried to be a good citizen, even though formal citizenship was something that was unavailable to me in Vietnam. But true assimilation, or even integration, was elusive. Most of my non-Vietnamese colleagues and I lived in a state of liminality; not unfamiliar in the country, but eternally “foreign” nonetheless. And I hadn’t really minded this, until the connotation of “foreign” changed, from being just “different” to being “unwelcome”.

Tourists, on the other hand, seemed to be almost universally adored by the Vietnamese, even though they barely scratched the surface of Vietnamese culture (see more about that in this older post from Simon). They flew in, “did” Vietnam in 2 weeks of hop on/hop off bus or air travel, and left again, content in the knowledge that they could now tick Vietnam off their list. How was it that I was the subject of such derision from my neighbours, while tourists were welcomed with open arms?

Matter Out of Place

When I began reading for my thesis after moving back to Australia, I thought perhaps I’d found…if not an explanation, at least a frame to help explain the discrepancy, so I’m going to try it out on you here. That frame came from anthropologist Mary Douglas’s seminal text Purity and Danger (find a brief overview here), an exploration of dirt, pollution and un/cleanliness across cultures[1]. Douglas takes up Emile Durkheim’s description of dirt as being “matter out of place” – in other words, dirt is only considered “dirty” when it is found in a location that does not match our societal expectations for it. She explains:

If we can abstract pathogenicity and hygiene from our notion of dirt, we are left with the old definition of dirt as matter out of place. This is a very suggestive approach. It implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements. This idea of dirt takes us straight into the field of symbolism and promises a link-up with more obviously symbolic systems of purity. (Douglas, 1966, p. 36)

What that really comes down to, then, is the human desire for order. Douglas describes how we categorise, structure, organise; and when we acquire new information or form a new belief, we either assimilate it into one of our existing categories; OR we ignore it, deny it, resist the possibility of its existence; OR we create a new category.

Take food. Douglas suggests that food isn’t offensive, unless you’ve suddenly smeared it on your jacket after a nice lunch. It’s moved from the realm of order, into disorder. The same with dirt. As Douglas points out, shoes aren’t necessarily dirty, until they’re on the table. So what about expats in Vietnam? What I’m suggesting is that an Australian such as myself poses no threat to the Vietnamese sense of order when I’m in Australia. But when I show up in Vietnam, I suddenly move into a potentially new category.

I understand that there is a messy and deeply affecting history of colonialism, and the Vietnam War, here that I am not taking into account. I am wondering, however, whether it might be the case that when the Vietnamese government changed the law and increased their negative rhetoric about foreign workers in Vietnam, people like me got switched to a new category. That is, one that pervaded the collective Vietnamese consciousness. Did I move from ‘just another member of the employment landscape’, to ‘threat to Vietnamese jobs’; from ‘just another dish available in the buffet’, to ‘god-damn-it I got that stupid sauce on my shirt and it won’t come out and now it’s ruined forever’?

After all, why weren’t tourists treated with similar disdain?

Tourists, in contrast to expatriates, can easily be categorised as a valuable and valued resource. Tourism has, in recent years, become one of the largest sources of income for the Vietnamese economy. Tourists are like snacks: easily consumed, easily replaced, and if they leave a bit of a nasty residue on your fingers, it’s tolerable – easy to brush off, and a low price to pay for their easy tastiness.

On the other hand…

The major possible flaw in my idea (I think – there could be others that are bigger though) is that I’m not taking into account the many and varied debates in Vietnamese society about the impact of tourism, particularly of Western tourists, on the nation’s youth. The Anthropology of Tourism has gone to great pains to explore this notion in other countries (see the recent special section in American Anthropologist as an example), and somewhat ironically, I’m writing this post while being a tourist in Bolivia, and unfortunately don’t have a strong enough wifi connection to verify whether they have explored it in Vietnam. Someone probably has though (don’t worry, when I get back to work, I’ll find out!). Further, it’s possible that tourists are considered ‘matter out of place’ in a similar way to expats, and it’s just that tourists often don’t speak Vietnamese, so they don’t tend to hear about it. I never overheard that kind of rhetoric, but I wasn’t listening for it, either. So there’s obviously further development needed for this idea.

If you’re Vietnamese, or speak Vietnamese, or are an Anthropologist of Tourism in Vietnam, or have a better understanding of Mary Douglas than I, or can point me to some literature, or just have an opinion, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


[1] That’s the most basic description of Purity and Danger possibly ever written. It’s a lot more complex than this, relates heavily to religion, the sacred and the profane, and how these relate to notions of cleanliness – but it is only the ‘matter out of place’ bit that I wish to draw on here.

[Feature image from pixabay, free for use under Creative Commons]

3 thoughts on “Expats, Tourists and “Matter out of Place”

  1. Interesting as always. It will be a problem for such people when airbnb comes to town. I hope you exited the lift with a bright “Tạm biệt chúc một ngày tốt lành.”.

  2. I actually believe that the impacts of western tourists and expats pale in comparison to the impact of Asian tourists & expats. The numbers on this are clear: http://vietnamtourism.gov.vn/english/index.php/items/12769 – there were 10x the number of chinese visitors & 7x the number of korean visitors as compared to Australian visitors in April 2018.

    Re: Decree 46, Westerners working in Vietnam experience the effects of a decree targeted at potential migrant workers and opportunistic companies from surrounding countries. The threat of Chinese companies coming in and hiring Chinese nationals for top positions is real (see http://www.sais-cari.org/data-chinese-workers-in-africa/) and Vietnam does not want to enable a situation like that. Though the research points to Chinese companies hiring many Africans, the perception is that they favor Chinese. The lack of transparency from Chinese companies operating in Africa + the fact that many of them are directly/indirectly state-owned furthers this perception.

    So actually Decree 46 is an imperfect, though relatively reasonable way for Vietnam to reduce its risk of economic neocolonialism by giving a leg up to Vietnamese. The hope is to help the existing labor supply acquire more advanced managerial + service skills, cut down on brain drain, and improve Vietnamese companies’ competitiveness.

    Since Decree 46 was passed I believe sentiment regarding western foreigners “taking jobs” has reduced since, anecdotally, I don’t know of many foreigners doing a job that a Vietnamese could do. Most foreigners I see in VN now either work as English teachers or have specialized skillsets/experience that they acquired overseas. The era of foreign managers coming in to manage local units of multinational companies is mostly over, especially since many Viet Kieu and/or Vietnamese who studied abroad are returning and contributing to the economy. The decree may have had the intended effect, which is great for everyone!

  3. Interesting, as a tourist I found myself feeling quite unwelcome in Vietnam (I think it was in 2015?). I couldn’t really put my finger on why, but at the time I felt like people had tourist fatigue in the areas I went to (Hanoi and Halong Bay). The exception was near the China border where things seemed a little more relaxed.

    Perhaps the way people report on their trips is also a problem? Tourists are often focused on fairly hedonistic experiences and on many trips I’ve seen many people have slightly negative experiences but construe them positively, ignore them, or remember only for a very short period of time. I’m not saying this is what you’ve done but it might explain some of the positive reports you heard?
    Safe (hopefully hedonistic?) travels!

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