He Caught My Eye But…

While I was riding the bus to work this morning, I noticed this impeccably-dressed  man on the streets of downtown. He wore a dark wool single-breasted coat, a camel v-neck sweater, a white collared shirt, and a wide red tie. Now that’s fashion styleHe’s definitely not from around here.

Dressed like a fashionable foreigner, with no briefcase in hand, and in the heart of the shopping district, he couldn’t possibly be heading to work. As the bus pulled away, I wondered to myself, “Where is he from? Who are his friends? What is his status?”

He walked with a level of confidence while he inhaled the last of his cigarette. He looked like a well-respected and highly-envied guy among his friends.

Then I started thinking about my sociology class while I was studying in Vietnam. One topic in particular was on the social phenomenon of Viet Kieu (ethnic Vietnamese who live outside of Vietnam) men returning to Vietnam.

To understand this, I’ll have to give you a quick history lesson. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, when the communist North captured the capital of South Vietnam, waves of people fled the country in fear of the new regime. Many invested all they had in hopes of a better opportunity, even if it meant sending only one family member. Oftentimes these were the sons of the family because they were higher valued over daughters.

In new territory, with no money and a lack of network, many immigrant Vietnamese men worked low-wage jobs such as dishwashers and custodians. The social stigma associated with these jobs made it especially difficult for these men to attract marriage partners. Along with the cultural pressure to marry young, many of them returned home to find wives.

Although these low-wage jobs translated to modest lifestyles in the First World countries, those same incomes were higher value in Vietnam. Able to spend lavishly on meals and gifts, Viet Kieu men were highly respected. But once they returned to the First World, so too did their status.

It’s interesting how one’s status can change from place to place.  It makes me wonder if social status is weighed more on hard work and savviness or on other factors such as income, wealth, and power. As much as we’d like to think we don’t discriminate, status is a big determinant on how we interact. How does social status affect how or if you interact with others?

Oh, and if you want to up your status, go to Vietnam. You’ll be an instant millionaire!