In the summer of 2011, teenagers Nguyen Man Thuy Tien (Man Tien), Phi Quynh Anh (Quynh Anh Shyn), and Le Ngoc Hoai An (An Japan) took fashion photoshoot together and posted it on their Facebook walls. Just like most people would have seven years ago, they underestimated the emerging power of the social media empire in Vietnam. The shoot featuring the baby-faced models ended up going viral, entitling the trio to overnight media coverage and fan pages. Together with thousands of teens exploring unconventional paths to fame, Man Tien, Quynh Anh Shyn and An Japan mark a new generation of celebrities in Vietnam: social media influencers.
Today in their early 20s, the former teen idols still enjoy a massive number of followers online with Quynh Anh Shyn making it as a fashionista and An Japan running her own business. Man Tien, however, took a different turn and left to study abroad. We meet with her at a cozy coffee shop in the town where she now resides as she reflects on life in a foreign land, learning, and leaving one spotlight behind to find another.
What made you decide on studying abroad? Why Japan?
It was all thanks to a stroke of serendipity. Having wanted to study abroad for the longest time, I’d prepared for Europe. One day, I had a coffee break with a student from the university I’m enrolled in now. Along his stories I thought, “Maybe this is the school for me.” I applied for that intake near the deadline. Two months later, I found myself with a scholarship.
In the long term I didn’t want to settle down overseas. I chose Japan because it’s not too distant from Vietnam geographically and culturally. I wanted to quickly catch up with life in Vietnam once I’m back.
Did you experience any culture shock? Any difficulties in adapting life in Japan?
Luckily culture shocks hardly came by. I had a soft landing thanks to the Vietnamese community in my university. One of the largest and most supportive on campus, we’re 500 people strong. We’ve got each other’s back.
What’s the biggest misconceptions that Vietnamese people have about Japan, and what turned out to be the truest?
Speaking of Japan, people overseas often think of an overwork culture. Local and international media constantly report a rising suicide rate. I had the chance to experience life in small cities and saw a completely opposite side of the Japanese society. People here lead vibrant lives outside of work. They set aside time to appreciate the small, daily joy. In the weekend you would always find them chilling on the grass or taking their kids to the park. A neighborhood would gather and practice dances for festivals months before.
An impression that turned out to be true about Japan is social trust. Trust to the Japanese is like oxygen – you can’t see it but it’s everywhere. Trains are always on time. Handbags don’t have zippers. Many shops are without keepers, you can take an item and leave the money on a lidless box.
How’s school life? How do you juggle so many different activities?
I’m not a straight-A student. I was raised by unorthodox parents who allow me to be average in my grades and extra in my adventures. They think it’s crucial to balance didactic education with dialectic learning. They never put pressure on me about stellar achievements, believing that enriching experiences are a kind of achievements in their own rights.
As a consequence, I get stoked meeting new friends in class at the beginning every semester. Sitting across me are people from all walks of life. Their stories enlighten me in a way that textbooks often don’t. Through our interactions, I’ve become much more reflective and culturally aware.
I find life easier to balance without hefty academic pressure. I’m in Vietnam every vacation where I’m kept busy by my social media works. But once I’m back in Japan, all the hustles quiet down.
Have you collaborated with brands in Japan? How was your experience?
I have collaborated with quite a few Japanese beauty brands and tourism organizations targeting the Vietnamese market. They wanted my help to approach local audience in a more genuine way. My voice is trusted because my followers know I wouldn’t risk my image to promote subpar products which are running rampant on social media.
To be honest, it can be more stressful working with the Japanese than the Vietnamese. There’s no such thing as a flexible deadline; you have to keep time by the minute. On the bright side, you’re treated with the most generous and thoughtful services.
Has the change in your surroundings affected your personality or mindset?
I’ve become more considerate towards my family. I’m not sure it’s the absence that makes the heart grow fonder, or simply because I have grown up now.
What are the things in Vietnam you can’t find in Japan, and vice versa?
You wouldn’t be able find such a lovely variety of vegetables and fruits anywhere but Vietnam. For Japan, it’s the myriad of clean public toilets.
What are the similarities and differences between Japanese and Vietnamese youth?
I can’t speak for everyone, but here’s my two cents.
We both embrace globalization. We love to travel and see the world as much as we can. Compared to the previous generation, we’ve grown considerably more curious and open-minded about other cultures. To illustrate this, the Vietnamese language classes in my university are always full of Japanese students. Some even stayed back after their exchange semester and blogged in Vietnamese about life here. Meanwhile young Vietnamese continue to attend high schools and colleges in other parts of the world even though the costs remain disproportionate to the savings their parents have drawn from the developing economy.
We differ considerably in career development and the meaning of success. The emerging economy in Vietnam allows for a more open definition of being successful – it could be anything from simply being able to support yourself right after college, or having a job you love and following your passion. This is more set in stone in Japan – getting admitted into an established company where you spend 10 hours every day, staying loyal to said company, stability. An example of this could be how job-hopping is viewed in the two countries. In Vietnam, it can be tolerated as long as you can present decent reasons in your interviews. In Japan, it’s almost a taboo.
If you could introduce a concept from Japan to Vietnamese people, what would it be? Vice versa.
I’d bring conveyor-belt sushi to Vietnam. In Japan, most of these restaurants target mid-range customers, serving as a healthier substitute to all-you-can-drink barbeques. It’d be great if Vietnamese students can enjoy sushi without breaking the bank, too. The Japanese would love themselves some casual street food; they’re taking eating out too seriously. Tofu is a staple here – how come they haven’t thought of tào phớ yet?!
What’s the plan after graduation?
I’m taking this influencer job full-time. I wouldn’t have taken this seriously before my studies abroad. I came to attention entirely by chance and already braced myself to be forgotten when I left the country. I didn’t expect the relentless support that my followers have for me until today. I want to invest more in sharing knowledge and inspiring positivity to empower the new generation of Vietnam. If things go well, you’ll find me in Saigon very soon.