I stood in the elevator, and silence surrounded me. This was going to be my first job. First time in a corporate setting. Was I overdressed, maybe under? Strings of insecure thoughts circulated in my head. I saw my reflection in the elevator, and I looked foreign to myself. More corporate than I had ever dressed.
I took a deep breath and walked out—a rush of airconditioned air filled with the sounds of clicking keyboards. Everyone in the shared working space looked at their screens with intense concentration and intent. Silence echoed, and I felt like a disturbance in their flow state.
The interior of the workplace was smooth, serene and comfortable. Subtle hints of the incoming new year decorated the office. There were red envelope trees, red symbolising good luck, and the money elders gave to younger people was supposed to be lucky. Stickers of cats adorned the walls, for it was the year of the cat. It gave the industrial office space warmth and comfort.
The work culture
I met with my supervisor, who gave me instructions on the expectations and requirements—9 am to 6 pm with one hour of break. Initially, I was shocked at the intensity of the hours and the lack of break time. Could I adjust to the vigour of the Vietnamese workforce? I felt intimated by the hours. The first day I felt exhausted, the hours were sluggish, and my eyes slowly tried to peer shut by the end of the day. Slowly, I started to become accustomed to the hours. I even joined in on the lunchtime naps. A cultural element that I wish we could take back home.
I noticed the Vietnamese work culture was different from that back home. People would sit for hours without uttering a single word as they worked in silence. There was an intensity in their movements and efficiency in their work. They talked at work, mostly about work, and they worked overtime, and some even started early.
I think it stemmed from the competitive nature of society. The high population and big city incited competition and pushed people to work hard. Too hard in some instances. Everyone wanted to be in Saigon, but Saigon wanted something from them. They needed to work to keep their residence in Saigon. But I can only guess from my limited time here why people are so driven to overwork. The truth was individualised to each person’s circumstances. However, it brought about appreciation for what we have back home. We are aware of work-life balance, and society doesn’t push overworking onto us.