In Vietnam, Even the Dead Need Cell Phones
Pacific News Service, Commentary, Andrew Lam, Posted: May 15, 2003
A Vietnamese American returns to Hanoi to find a country enthralled with the cell phone. A status symbol that meshes perfectly with a family-centered culture, cell phones are even offered to dead ancestors -– and, by at least one young psychic, used to contact them.
In the outskirts of Hanoi recently, I watched as a well-dressed, middle-aged woman burned paper offerings to her dead husband. Along with traditional mock gold bars and horses, one item stood out: a paper cell phone.
I couldn’t help myself. “Why are you burning a paper cell phone?” I asked.
“So that in the spirit world he can have everything that we have now,” she answered matter-of-factly.
A car and a laptop are the lyrical symbols of the American Dream, but for the Vietnamese they remain impossible luxury items. Not the cell phone. In Vietnam, cell phones are so plentiful that vendors sell them on sidewalks. Teenagers have them. On motorcycles, Vietnamese chat with one hand on the handlebars and weave dangerously. In cafes, they have a rude habit of talking to you while checking and sending messages on their cells. They don’t even turn them off in movie theaters.
Or try this classic, modern-day image of Saigon: a husband and wife riding on a motorcycle down a tree-lined boulevard on a Sunday morning. He’s in a black suit, driving while talking on his cell; she, in a traditional ao dai dress, holds onto his waist with one arm and chats on her cell with the other.
These days, the insidious cell phone has invaded even the most sacred space in Vietnam -- the Buddhist temple. I went to one such temple to immerse myself in quiet meditation and incense smoke when, suddenly, the muffled theme of Star Wars chimed from a nearby monk’s saffron robe. Buddha smiled down benevolently on us all, but the abbot wasn’t pleased. He gave the chagrined, red-faced young monk a smack on his shaved head, while everyone else tried not to giggle.
Vietnam came out of the Cold War and ran smack into the Information Age. To own the latest communication technology, therefore, is a must, a status symbol that many urbanized Vietnamese can’t do without. Internet cafes in every city are full, fax machines twitter in every office, and the ringing of cell phones never seems to stop. It’s a paradox -- in a country known for its lack of freedom of expression, where political dissidents are routinely arrested, people can’t seem to keep their mouths shut.
Just a dozen years ago, before the U.S. embargo was lifted and travel was allowed between the United States and Vietnam, a letter or care package sent from America would take up to six months to arrive in Vietnam. Back then, my mother and I would roll $20 bills into tight, compact sticks smaller than cigarettes and hide them in tubes of tooth paste, which we would then send home along with other goods to help our relatives survive. No more. These days, Vietnam has a 7 percent annual growth rate and a growing middle class. Vietnamese can shop in newly built supermarkets, money is easily wired and e-mails zip back and forth as if the ocean doesn’t exist.
While I was in Vietnam, a cousin in Hanoi insisted that I rent a cell phone. For less than a dollar, he said, we could be in contact every day. Never mind that we hadn’t been in touch for almost a decade. Now that I was here, we needed to stay within range daily.
For Vietnamese, the cell phone is ultimately more than a status symbol. Vietnamese are clannish, and for many, the family and extended family are all the social network they will ever have. Connecting to one another is more than just a fad –- it’s a cultural imperative. Bonds are never to be broken and relationships are to be built upon continuously. The cell phone facilitates that task quite well.
I read in a newspaper in Hanoi about a popular young medium who talks to the dead. How does she reach them? You guessed it -- she calls them on her cell. No one else hears the dead but her, of course.
If her phone really does connect with the spirit world, I must say I find it regrettable. After all the stresses they suffered in life, the dead deserve some peace and quiet. With the new technology and the Vietnamese impulse to stay connected, however, they may be out of luck.