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The ‘Say cheese!’ culture of Vietnam

Friday, February 21, 2014, 16:18 GMT+7

Editor’s Note: Stivi Cooke, an Australian expat, has lived in Hoi An Ancient Town in central Vietnam for five years. If you are a regular reader of the City Diary page, you might have noticed some of his contributions last year. Starting today, Cooke will join columnists Scott Duke Harris in Hanoi and Derek Milroy in Ho Chi Minh City in writing about their life experiences in Vietnam every week. Cooke will please you with his humorous style of writing in comparison to contemplative lines by Harris and fast-written but informative articles by Milroy.

My Vietnamese friends and I chat a lot on Facebook or the phone. It’s a mix of jokes, discussions, emoticons and of course, the never ending flood of cute photos. Just one problem, they are truly horrible. I struggle to smile and it’s awkward when you have no idea of what you are looking at and it raises the question: when is a photo in Vietnam’s photo culture good or appropriate?

When we go out for coffee, it’s inevitable that they’ll pull out the smartphone and start showing me photos. Now this requires I should be very, very careful with my words…

“Do you like it? It’s us at the park!” I squint and make silly faces with my eyes as I buy time to work out where the heck they were as the photo offers no clues from the grey background and blurred colors.

“Oh, it’s…um.. great! That’s you, isn’t it?” I hope they say yes…

Chat on the phone or Facebook with your Vietnamese friends and you get these grey, washed out, out of focus, over-exposed shots that look run over by a truck shoved as close to your nose as is possible and that all too tragic question, “Great shot huh?”

It does get weird on Facebook and the local forums with a million ‘selfies’ (photos of yourself) floating around. Sure, you get the cute but fuzzy shots of girls standing next to flowers or holding babies but then it gets really strange. Girl standing next to garage can. Boy selfie next to empty table. Couple posing next to dead tree. Wedding couples posing next to buffalo. Student asleep on desk…face down. Is there no shame?

Banning parents from photographing their kids until they are at least two years old might be advisable. Does anyone really want their dad or mum to show the neighbors that picture of you, naked, in the kitchen sink taking a bath? Or that day the family dog kissed you and you cried and cried? Plain embarrassing. And these days, millions of people can see them online. Quick! Hide yourself in a hole.

The era of the selfie also seems to go with hand signals which must be a new language about going to the hospital. “V” fingers under chin, called ‘duck fingers’. One finger next to ear. Two fingers above eye and she looks like she’s in pain. Puffed cheeks and folded arms… what? Is she upset? Cute? Or having trouble breathing?

What I often find too funny is the need to take a photo anywhere yet the background isn’t considered as part of the photo. Him next to the laundry hanging in his room. Her next to a dead cat food stall or my personal favorite, the love pose in a restaurant with a pile of dirty, empty plates all around them. Please… look behind you before you show those pics!

Karaoke photos show a particular lack of photographic talent. Oh, look! Here’s me singing! It’s so dark you can barely see the microphone… Hey, aren’t we having fun? Five unsmiling faces caught at the wrong moment are trying to read the words on the screen and another favorite, the girlfriend asleep on the sofa. Oh really? Good luck posting that one on Facebook.

Interestingly, there are incredibly expensive cameras here, but somehow the bigger the camera, the worst the picture. It’s great fun to sit in a coffee shop and watch the locals taking ‘snaps’. This is even more fun around Tet (Vietnam’s Lunar New Year) time, the mid-year festival or national days. The family’s nominated cameraman spends twenty minutes shuffling people, moving elbows and arms, pushing the grandparents, grabbing the kids and generally looking like he’s setting a firing squad rather than a family portrait. And guaranteed, the one on the end of the line is looking down at his mobile phone. Mind you, it looks great when grandma does the ‘duck fingers’! Grandma’s such a teenager.

By the way, why do parents always look so uncomfortable in photos? They are happy their kids are getting married, right? I love weddings; everyone looks paralyzed and really angry after being asked “Mot, hai, ba, yo!” (One, two, three, cheers!) for the twentieth time.

You gotta love the status symbol of a big camera. There’s power in that thing! Around this time of year, engaged couples trudge around the rice fields with a manic photographer who seems determined to kill them in the summer heat, full wedding gown, groom in a three-piece suit, and both of them dying in the heat. Now it’s time to show his huge camera because it can take pictures of the moon.

His positioning of the hapless couple is great to watch. “Here!  Over…HERE! Now, over there! Not there, THERE! Oh! That dirt patch is perfect next to that really skinny cow! Now I want you to smile… SMILE! Now go back… back…BACK!” They are now half a kilometer away, the bride looks ready to kill him and the groom has lost interest and is busy on his mobile phone.

Maybe someone should give all young Vietnamese photography courses in high school, since this is where the ‘selfie’ love affair begins. Boys in particular seem to have no idea of what a romantic or handsome photograph of themselves should look like. 

Guys, ‘selfies’ taken in the shower, wash tub or just woken up are big no-no’s. And check your backgrounds again, your buddies are very likely to be checking for pimples, nose hair and bald spots just behind your right shoulder. Girls, super close-ups with eyes the size of motorbike wheels are not cool, ‘duck fingers’ under your chin is not going to make you stand out from the crowd and over-sized glasses make you look like an extremely young accountant, not cute.

I’m kidding, of course. It’s a very funny reflection of what interests young Vietnamese and the growing gap between traditional Vietnamese ways and modern technology. But I warn you, if you show me your grainy, dark, odd photos…I’ll bore you to death of my photos from my childhood.

Tuoi Tre

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