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Pet Sins January 2007

Double standards in entitlement - does marrying a spouse from another culture make one an 'expert' on said culture?

Has anyone noticed how some outsiders (typically Westerners) think themselves entitled to criticize the culture and/or human rights record of a non-Western country just because they are married to someone from that country? E.g. a white American guy married to a Vietnamese immigrant woman would presume to have the right to loudly criticize Vietnam's human rights record in front of a group of Vietnamese people. And he expects all of us to listen respectfully.

Now I am not at all against outsiders giving their perspectives on a country's problems. And I am not saying that non-Vietnamese cannot comment on what they perceive as negative aspects of Vietnamese culture. Sometimes outsiders have a valuable perspective that insiders don't have because we're stuck inside the situation. But think - if the situation is reversed - if a Vietnamese man married to a white American woman takes it upon himself to criticize the human rights record of the US and point out the bad points of European American culture in front of a group of European Americans. What kind of response will he get? White people, including that so freely critical white guy, will most likely tell him "you don't know what you're talking about because you're not from here," or "you have no right to criticize a culture you're not part of and don't really understand."

I believe that American law professor and writer Frank Wu alluded to this sort of double standard in his book Yellow, when he pointed out that some whites expect Asians to applaud them for their effort and open-mindedness in learning only one or two Asian words, but don't extend the same courtesy to Asians who learn only a few English words. Instead, they put us down for 'broken English' in a way they don't expect themselves to be put down for their 'broken Vietnamese', 'broken Tagalog' or whatever.

Anyway, the white guy criticizing Vietnam certainly wasn't expecting anyone to point out he did not have a fully informed view of Vietnam's problems, having only experienced it vicariously through a spouse. And he talked as if he is more well-informed than the people who are actually from that country. And this is not the first time I've heard of something like this - friends from different Asian communities have mentioned similar encounters with some arrogant white guy who thinks he knows better than the insiders just because he is dating/married to an Asian woman. Such guys don't realize it is not so much the criticism that offends people, but their arrogant attitude.

J.M.
2006