Recently I was at the Swiss embassy in Hanoi to submit visa applications with my parents. You walk in, press the button at the ticketing machine to get a number, wait for your number to be called and then hand your files over to a Vietnamese employee and answer her questions about your plans and itineraries.

The first morning we went in, I took ticket #4, waited an hour and didn’t see any number called. It was getting close to my dad’s lunch time so I asked the above-mentioned Vietnamese woman how long it normally takes so we could decide whether my dad had enough time to go grab something, explaining that he’s diabetic and has to eat on schedule. She was rather stingy with her words: “I don’t know. The number will be called.” She didn’t take her eyes off the computer, which actually did not even surprise me. Vietnamese staff at European embassies and other supposedly privileged working places are notorious for their attitude toward their own countrymen.

Our interactions afterward confirmed that she’s indeed quite terse and quick to point out what I wasn’t doing right. For the most part, I didn’t mind. If it’s a mistake I made, like pressing the ticket buttons too many times, I simply said sorry. If she complained I was being too slow in getting all the documents ready, then I focused on taking everything out of the manila folder. No need to add fuel to the power trip.

That said, it really irked me when she kept that mannerism to some other applicants. I understand that sometimes Vietnamese are too quick to ask questions without looking around for written instructions (my dear mom is one of them), but there were the elderly who couldn’t see too well, and folks from the countryside that were just lost because they had never seen a ticket machine and they didn’t know that they could go online to the embassy’s website to download an application form. All her sentences were polite on paper: “There are many types of applications. Wait for your number if you have questions.” (The visa section is only open for 2 hours in the morning and it’s normal that some numbers won’t be called.) “Please close the door!” “Please don’t walk around in this area!” “Please don’t look at that bulletin board here!” But we know communication is 60% body language 30% tone and 10% verbal. So 90% of her communication was cold and impersonal, borderline disrespectful and intimidating when directed toward people much older than her.

On our second day, for some reason, she didn’t succeed in taking my mom’s fingerprints digitally so she went to ask for help from her Swiss coworker. The man started up a different computer; it was booting slowly and he had to sit there for a while. A Vietnamese girl in the waiting room, after some deliberation, walked up to his window and asked if she could get an application form to be filled out. “Oh sure, you want the tourist application right? Just a second.” He smiled brightly and darted off to get the form. She came back a second time to ask for another form for a different person, and again, he gladly helped with a big smile. The whole room was impressed and I bet many would later go home and, like my own dear mom, dish the Vietnamese employee for being all high and mighty. Now to be fair, Vietnamese can be quite nasty to each other, especially in the north. You’re looked down if you have a provincial accent, or dark skin color, or a manual job, or a beat up scooter licensed in the province, anything that signals either loudly or softly that you’re not from at least a middle class family in the city. (I feel a little rebellious every time I wear lowly vendors’ rain boots into fancy buildings. Yes, sneer at me all you want. These boots rule and I rock them hard.) Anyway, back to the main character. I’d think that a highly educated professional (I assume) working in a very “civilized” environment would have picked up some “civilized” manner by now. Swiss embassy should install a feedback box.

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