MELISSA BLOCK, host:
If you are feeling stressed out, you're not alone. This country is full of people who feel overwhelmed by too much to do and too little time to do it. Commentator Andrew Lam counts himself among the stressed of America, and recently he found out that stress has begun to infect his native Vietnam as well.
ANDREW LAM: A friend from Saigon called me on the phone the other day with good news. Though he'd been through tough times, he had nevertheless emerged an entrepreneur in the new era of openness. In fact, he just opened a second restaurant.
We spoke in Vietnamese, but one English word he kept using was, interestingly, stress - or rather, see-tress - as in these days, I am so see-tress I have no time to breathe.
There is no equivalent in Vietnamese for the word stress. The closest you can get is the archaic phrase (Speaking foreign language), tension of the mind. See-tress, therefore, has become a Vietnamese idiom in the new capitalistic Vietnam.
Just a generation ago, almost everyone had to stand in line to buy rice from government issue stores, and the majority of the population in this agrarian-based society have known nothing but sweat and toil. But see-tress is not a phenomenon of simple hard labor. It is also not the jargon for those who simply work in order to survive.
It is a word used by young, upwardly mobile urban professionals in a country in enormous transition toward modernity. They have to constantly learn new skills in order to be successful, like my cousin in Hanoi. She manages several cosmetic stores, with more than 20 employees working under her. She had to learn to use a computer while training her workers in customer service, all the while trying to raise her two children as a single mother. She said cousin, I'm so very see-tress these days.
Another friend, who has a real estate business in Saigon, bought a cell phone for $350 recently, but had to upgrade it to a $1,200 model. Why? All my business partners have expensive mobiles, he said. If I don't have one, they think my business is failing. I'm really see-tress.
Listening to my countrymen, I cannot help but detect a touch of bragging in the familiar complaints. When a Vietnamese says he is see-tress, he is also saying it's the new world, but I'm successful and busy and this is the price I'm willing to pay for it.
Busy, indeed. When my friend the restaurateur was talking to me, his business partner interrupted our conversation. They were about to build a hotel together and needed to meet with a potential investor. I have to go, he told me. You're lucky you live in America, we're so see-tress here in Vietnam.
BLOCK: Andrew Lam is author of the book Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.