“Sit down, drink some tea.”
Never was there such a dreaded phrase if I had a list of tasks to complete, and it’s a phrase I never encounter any more.
When I lived in Vietnam, completing ordinary, everyday tasks was sometimes a huge challenge. Getting something fixed or trying to find the right item to purchase took an extraordinary amount of time, but that dreaded phrase, “Sit down, drink some tea” compounded the issue on a daily basis.
For example, I would pull up to an open-air shop on my motorbike, get off, remove my helmet and sunglasses, and walk towards the shop owner. I could always see the apprehension in her eyes as this tall, big, lumbering, over-sized, freak-of-nature person came at her with all the white skin and brown hair he could muster. But I had the proverbial ace up my sleeve, and I would look at her, smile, and inquire in perfect Vietnamese, “Hello ma’am, do you have any _______ (insert item here).” Her face would light up, and she would start talking a mile a minute, and we would have a polite and friendly conversation about anything and everything except for the item that I wanted to purchase. And then she would pull out her trump card:
“Sit down, drink some tea.”
I would oblige. She would pull out a small teapot, fill the bottom with the world famous Thai Nguyen “che bup” loose green tea leaves and then pour in some steaming hot water from her red thermal water container. She would dump out the first batch of water immediately, then pour in a second, allowing the tea to blend slowly into the hot water. I would sit patiently on the six-inch-high plastic stools, knees almost at my chin, waiting for the tea ritual to end.
After several thimble-sized cup fulls, I would thank her, stand and inquire once again about the item that I needed. She would oblige and after twenty minutes, I was allowed to make the purchase.
When I first came to Vietnam, those rituals caused nothing but frustration. But I learned, eventually, that the best way to accomplish anything in Vietnam (and oftentimes Asia in general) is to sit down, chat, and have tea before doing anything else.
At the university I used to work at in Thai Nguyen, I learned how to play the system. If I had an issue that needed dealt with, I would slyly walk into the Foreign Affairs Office, seemingly with no agenda at all. I always met Ms. Lien (a wonderful woman, who has since passed on), and we would immediately sit down for some tea, chatting for 30 minutes or so until I would then stand up and tell her I had to go. But before I left, I would turn around and say, “By the way, I have a small problem with ….(insert problem).” She gladly would say that she’ll take care of it for me. I would leave. Case closed. Relationship built. Problem solved.
What’s going on here? It’s all about value orientations: Task Orientation vs. Person Orientation. Westerners are typically taught that tasks, goals, and, achievements are the most important things in life and so we tend not to like it when people get in the way, taking us off task. Asians traditionally come from the mindset that people and relationships should take precedence over tasks. When a westerner charges in and wants immediate action, it must feel like an impersonal cowboy invasion. It can be seen as rude and uncaring. The westerner doesn’t view it that way. He or she just wants to get the task done, then it will be talk time. But for the easterner, the relationship must take precedence over the task.
If a westerner can learn to build relationships and connect with people, they’ll find their time in Asia will go much smoother.
But times are changing in many parts of Asia. I live in Penang now – a very westernized place in many ways – and many of the personal connections are not so easily established as they were in Vietnam. That is probably the one thing I miss the most about living there. I wish I could sit down and drink tea more often.