“Culture is a little like dropping an Alka-Seltzer into a glass-you don’t see it, but somehow it does something” (Enzensberger). Cultures, albeit invisible, do indeed have enormous effects on people’s daily activities, people’s perception of lives, and even people’s apprehension of the world around them. Those physically indiscernible impacts, which are created by their culture, have contributed to one of the major themes, culture clash, in the movie Daughter from Danang. The daughter, Heidi Bub had never been aware that she would face a major shock – the family in Vietnam approaching her for financial assistance – when she decided to visit Vietnam to finally meet her biological mother after being apart for 22 years. The film takes the audience on the journey, following Heidi to witness a conflicting experience with her family, bringing viewers into a realization of the immense influences generated by culture. The conversation with her Vietnamese family that Heidi finds heartbreaking is a result of her lack of cultural understanding of the Vietnamese views on family obligations, the family’s scantiness of information about western culture and the differences between the two, and their natural desire to enjoy a higher standard of living.
There is a scene where the family members are sat around in Heidi’s mother’s simple and crude dwelling, conferring about the family obligations that they feel Heidi should take on, with their ultimate goal being to ask her for money. As a direct result of their seemingly aggressive attitude towards money, the family in fact destroy the real love between the birth mother and the daughter, which Heidi had thought she would find. However, money could have different symbolisms in various cultures. In Vietnamese culture money is considered as a symbol of filial piety, family obligation, and the expected support between kin. That filial concept originated in Asia thousands of years ago; it has been common practice among Asian countries, and has been ingrained in the minds of people who have been raised in those parts of the world. Dawson (1915) quoted Confucius in his book “The Ethics of Confucius” (p.156): “Our bodies, to every hair and shred of skin, are received from our parents. We must not presume to injure or to wound them. This is the beginning of filial piety.” Most Asian cultures emphasize family order and the respect toward their ancestors, and those perceptions have been carried down through the generations. According to Do Trong Tinh, Heidi’s brother, it is very common in Vietnam that in a family, the child who is better off needs to help the family members out of tough situations (Daughter from Danang). Thus, in the film, the Vietnamese family thinks giving back the rewards to parents is a duty of children in their lives; it is a manner of conveying their love and their regard; it is a method to develop a stalwart relationship between kinsfolk. The effects of culture are influential factors that drive the family’s behavior and perhaps amaze the audience watching the movie.
While some people might criticize the family’s almost total lack of understanding of American culture, because as depicted in the movie the family do not try to comprehend Heidi’s culture, it is not correct to say it is all the family’s fault. The scarcity of information about western culture in their society at that time reflects their impoverished living situation in Vietnam and the more or less negligible connection with other countries. For the great majority of Vietnamese people at that time, America was such an unfamiliar place, and the only thing they “know” is that people who are living in America are rich; they considered America to be a place like heaven. As Heidi Bub said, “They are just so proud, and they don’t know what else to do but just show me off.” Her siblings look upon her as a millionaire, and feel proud that they can claim to have an American relative. It is impressive that because the movie is so realistic, it makes the audience sigh for the family, seeing that they simply did not realize the vast differences that exist between western culture and Vietnamese culture. Since most Vietnamese are unaware of American culture, her Vietnamese family members do not realize they are upsetting Heidi. That state of ignorance leads to the situation where the family approach Heidi about monetary assistance, unaware that she knows nothing of the Vietnamese traditions in that regard.
Besides the cultural impacts and highlighting the cultural differences, the very realistic longing to be financially better off is also one of the themes in the film. Although, in the film, the subject family is seeking money, the desire to be better off is a natural human instinct. Heidi’s siblings in Vietnam are living the lives of peasants. Their house is small and dark; the door has been eroded and has become rusty, and only weak sunlight passes through the crudely-fashioned window. Bub says “At my sister’s (Hien’s) house, their shower consists of having a bucket of water and pouring it on you.” (Daughter from Danang).
As portrayed in this documentary film, the family in Vietnam has been struggling and fighting against their gruelling existence for many years; their desire to be wealthy is a genuine aspiration. According to Samuel Butler (1872) “It has been said that the love of money is the root of all evil. The want of money is so quite as truly” (p.95). The yearning to escape poverty and to achieve a higher standard of living are traits of human nature. Thus, people should understand that Heidi’s family’s desire for money is a normal aspiration.
The enormous cultural impacts, the striving to be wealthy, and the inadequacy of knowledge of western culture are all elements that lead the family to make the decision to have a conversation with Heidi about money and support. The film leads the audience to think deeper about the relationship between that family and the daughter, and to help people realize that culture exists everywhere – it is like an invisible hand that guides our daily lives. Cultural differences can create major misunderstandings between people, therefore better comprehension is needed.
Butler, Samuel. “Erewhon”. (1872). Retrieved from
Dawson, M., M. “The Ethics of Confucius” (p.156). (1915). Retrieved from
Dolgin, Gail & Franco, Vicente, dirs. Daughter from Danang. Perfs. Mai Thi Kim, Heidi Nevill-Bub & Gerald Ford. PBS Home Video, 2002. Film.
Enzensberger, H., M. “Culture is a little like dropping an Alka-Seltzer into a glass-you don’t see it, but somehow it does something.” Quoted by Hans Haacke, New York Times, January 5th 1987.