Category Archives: Ideas

My [Doi Moi]

One of the things I missed most about New York when I was living in Ho Chi Minh City was theaters like the IFC Center in the West Village. While looking for a Thursday night diversion recently, I discovered that the director of My Perestroika, Robin Hessman, and one of the families she profiled in the documentary, the Meyersons, would be attending a screening of the film that night at IFC.

The film tracks the lives of four subjects, from their childhood in Soviet Russia through their coming of age during perestroika to the present Putin-dominated day. In addition to documenting the day to day of schoolteachers Boris and Lyubov Meyerson and their son, Hessman turns her lens on a French shirt shop franchisee, a hopeless punk rocker, and a wealthy wife cum billiards company saleswoman.

In a film such as this, history and politics are certain to loom large, but Hessman manages throughout to establish Soviet culture as a context rather than a subject. This is a film about people; the tagline, after all, is “A nation’s history is personal.” Still, I was not surprised when, during the Q&A, audience members, both Russian and American alike, either directly questioned Hessman and the Meyersons about politics or paired their comments with statements about the dire situation in Russia.

At one point, an American man asked Hessman if she ever felt compelled to question her subjects directly about politics. She offered an explanation of the relationship between the personal and political in Russia. For many people, politics existed parallel to their everyday lives during the Soviet era, and the two very seldomly intersected. It was only during the 90s that free elections created that intersection. Under Putin, the personal and poltical have since diverged into parallel existences again. The Meyersons’ answers to similar questions seemed to echo this idea; things are not getting better, and they will not at least until Putin is out of the picture. But we’ll keep living our lives.

This idea of a parallel existence between the personal and political, where seldom the two shall meet, seems very much to apply to life in Vietnam, as well. The questions I get about living in Vietnam often imply an overriding idea of the place, one essentially defined by one-party communist rule. But Vietnam is a country of about 88 million people in which membership in the ruling Communist Party stands at 3.6 million. And while the I consider the Vietnamese to be tremendously well-informed–the sight of xe om drivers cracking the morning paper is still fresh in my mind–it also struck me as a fairly apolitical place. Like perestroika, doi moi and subsequent reforms have placed the focus squarely on a now obtainable better future.

And that’s why I think, as a journalist, filmmaker, or documentarian of another stripe who lives long term in a country like Russia or Vietnam, one’s attention naturally veers from the overtly political and begins to focus on the ways in which people create paths of self-determination in places where human rights and civil liberties are curtailed. It’s why the topics broached in a soap opera seem as fascinating as the outcome of a party congress, why consumer trends can seem revelatory, and the choice of one motorbike over another is suddenly fascinating.

When you crack open that monolithic idea of a place and start examining the minutiae of everyday life, you realize that you could spend your entire life in a place, and never come close to offering a definitive portrayal of it. You can only ever offer glimpses and impressions–hopefully rendered with respect and discipline (which Hessman certainly does in My Perestroika). There will always be people whose instinct is to boil down a place or a people to an essential truth, but for journalists and documentarians, I think the best possible retort will always remain, “Yeah, but…”

My Perestroika is successful, I believe, because it acknowledges a widely held belief about a certain place in a certain era, but offers plenty of buts.

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Telling Stories in an Adopted Land: Or Why I’m Not a Foreign Correspondant Cowboy

The guy was an old hand–if you’ve practiced journalism in Vietnam, you know the OH type. Within a few minutes of talking, my elder colleague was boasting of being blacklisted, or having suffered some such form of censure by the Vietnamese government. Exactly what offense had invited the attention of the information authorities the OH did not disclose. Or perhaps I simply do not remember–because I was busy eyeing the room for an escape route.

Jesus. I was just here for the press lunch.

Unfortunately, I was unable to elude the OH, and during our lunch,  the conversation cycled around to a topic that I thought I’d discouraged earlier by changing the subject from subversive journalism to something so thoroughly inconsequential I cannot now remember it. The OH complimented my magazine, AsiaLIFE HCMC, but he wanted to know why we hadn’t used our long-form journalism platform to dig deeper, explore the good stuff, the really controversial stories that would get people talking.

Re: the type of stuff that would get me blacklisted, possibly denied my next visa.

In the past, I had been pretty non-confrontational in answering this question. It came up frequently enough. The OH designation isn’t exclusive to august journos. It’s a cowboy mentality inspired by the perception (or projection) of Southeast Asia as the Wild Wild East, a place where one can live out one’s own modern-day Dispatches. The OH credo might be, “If a story doesn’t stir enough shit, it’s not worth telling.” I’ve found that OHs typically assume that you, as a fellow journalist in rollicking Southeast Asia, abide by the same maxim. When you burst their bubble, it can get uncomfortable.

But this time, I don’t know. Maybe I wasn’t feeling so polite. Maybe I just wanted this guy to stop talking so I could enjoy my coffee. I told the OH that I felt it was presumptuous for Western journalists to enter the country and immediately begin writing about what was wrong with it. Although heavily censored, domestic media exists in Vietnam, and institutional criticism is best handled by Vietnamese, the people for whom the end results of that criticism matter the most.

That did the job. I finished my lunch in peace.

This incident came to mind last night while I listened to a panel of journalists and media professionals speak on working in East Asia at the Weatherhead East Asia Institute at Columbia. Among the speakers were Isabel Hilton, founder and editor of the bilingual news site chinadialogue.net and Abi E. Wright, director of Columbia’s DuPont and Chancellor Awards and formerly of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The conversation, perhaps inevitably, led to self censorship and respecting the situation of partner journalists in countries with limited press freedom.

It was particularly refreshing to hear Hilton say that chinadialogue is strategic about what subjects they cover. They do good work, penning stories that many would be surprised they’re allowed to publish. On top of that, they’ve never been censured. I always felt our role at AsiaLIFE was to provide the context and insight necessary for a majority expatriate audience to process Vietnam more thoughtfully and compassionately. Doing so month after month, I believe, was more valuable to our readers than a one-off expose that resulted in our publishing house being shuttered. 

Wright also brought up a great point in response to my question about partnering with foreign journalists. Sensation sells, especially a sensational story from a place widely perceived as repressive, and for someone who will be leaving the country behind, it can be tempting to snag that big byline. But when you leave the country, your contacts and partners are still there. To breeze over this reality is a pretty clear breach of journalistic ethics.

On a similar note, moderator Robert Barnett, director of Columbia’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program, spoke to the importance of writing on the issues rather than the event. One runs the risk of getting an editor (and oneself) hooked on sensational event pieces, when in fact an investigation into issues is more valuable to the reader. 

For me, the speakers’ insights reinforced that foreign journalists and media professionals working in countries with established, albeit controlled media need to listen to and learn from local journalists. If I decided not to write or assign a story at AsiaLIFE, it wasn’t always because I knew the censor would contort it into a misleading jumble of non-information; it was just as often because I felt that I or the writer did not have a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the culture or underlying issues to achieve what the story sought to achieve. In forming partnerships with local journalists, I’m convinced that the foreigner should more often than not play a supporting role.

It was serendipitous that just before the event, I was reading a chapter entitled The Newspaperman from former Washington Post Beijing Bureau Chief Philip P. Pan’s Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the New Soul of China. This chapter of Pan’s excellent book follows the role of Guangdong Province’s Southern Metropolis Daily and its editor in chief, Cheng Yizhong, in exposing government dishonesty during the SARS epidemic and closing down the brutal shourong detention system. Cheng and his staff took on these fights at tremendous personal risk, and were only able to accomplish what they accomplished thanks to a cunning rooted in their deep understanding of the context in which they were working.

Out of Mao’s Shadow is full of stories such as this, stories in which ordinary people rise above fear and champion the truth. I wondered as I finished the chapter on the train home whether telling their stories might have been just as rewarding as any byline Pan ever earned in his eight years in China.

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The Next 9000 Hours

A question: What do you do with a blog named 9000 Hours in Saigon when you no longer live in Vietnam?

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and I’ve reached a decision. But first, some mildly digressive context.

Before Saigon, there was Rome. At the time I made the decision in my sophomore year of college to apply for a semester abroad in Rome, I didn’t exactly know why I was making the decision. Nor did I understand what a good friend who had recently returned from the same program meant when she told me something to this effect: You’re going to expect that this experience is going to change you in certain ways, but when all is said and done, those expectations will become irrelevant. You’ll have changed in ways you never imagined.

And she was right. I won’t go into the personal realizations that came out of that experience–they matter little to you, dear reader–but I will say I carried this knowledge with me to Saigon. Did I have expectations for what would come out of my time in Vietnam? Of course. But I went into the experience knowing that those expectations might become irrelevant.

So what did come out of it? I’m still processing that. If writing on my experience in Rome as part of an independent study in travel narrative during my senior year taught me anything, it’s that it’s rare to understand the process when you’re in it. Only reflection yields the lessons. Certainly, my role as managing editor at AsiaLIFE HCMC afforded me a fantastic career-building opportunity. It was a completely unexpected development, and one that I’m very grateful for.

So that’s the point, I guess–my justification for continuing to write under the banner of 9000 Hours in Saigon. 9000 Hours in Saigon is no longer about a place, but an experience that in part informs who I am as a writer and a person. The content that appears on this blog will be influenced by that experience and the many unexpected developments that came out of it.

I started this blog when I expected to be in Vietnam for a year, or roughly 9000 hours. A little over two and a half years (or roughly 22,500 hours) later, I’m back in the States. So it’s time for a shift. I will continue to write about Vietnam and things Vietnamese here, and likely, some more travel will seep back into these posts. As I process those 22,500 hours, the picture I imagine will become clearer. Here’s to the next 9000 hours.

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The Cu Chi Tunnel Mantra: How Killing Fields Became a Jungle Gym

If any stage of the Cu Chi Tunnels was going to activate my claustrophobia, this was it. I had answered the tour guide’s call for a skinny tourist, but now they were asking too much, this tour guide and military-drab chaperone. Yes, I will pose inside the tunnel entrance with trap door held aloft while fellow tourists snap pictures of me. But actually shimmy into the shoe box-sized hole and seal myself in? No, thank you.

But before I could protest, the military man was shoving me down the hole. I have no problem with enclosed spaces; it’s not being able to move within a confined space the sends me into panic. So as my shoulders brushed the wooden perimeter, the air went out of my chest. Luckily, as I squeezed through a fraction of a second later, I managed to avoid hysteria. I slid the trap door into place and knelt down, twisting my body to test the parameters of this underground vestibule. The fact that I could move calmed me…as did the laughter of Asian tourists above ground.

In fact, only about one tourist per tour group gets the trap door experience at the Cu Chi Tunnels. The rest are shuttled through 100 meters of tunnels that have been widened to accommodate Westerners. The experience, for which the historical site is named, takes place at the end of the tour and lasts about 7 minutes — provided you don’t take one of the escape exits along the way.

The tunnel crawl, along with everything else at Cu Chi, encapsulates the mission of most historical sites in Vietnam laid out by Robert Templer in Shadows and Wind: A View of Modern Vietnam, which is to mint a “mantra of heroic resistance” as “the single, unifying theme of Vietnamese history.” In doing so, Templer suggests, “Cu Chi compresses the war’s problematic layering of civil, international, ideological and personal conflict into a neat David and Goliath struggle.”

Cu Chi is plotted out in guided stages, and the first hint of Templer’s thesis hits visitors at the introductory documentary stage. But the designation of documentary is generous. Visitors are seated in front of a small television and shown a propaganda film produced during the war. While no gem of cinematography, the film’s narration does manage to spin innumerable rhetorical permutations on the concept of villagers who only wanted peace and blood-thirsty American commandos.

Propaganda is surely more interesting than most video installments at historical sites, but the fact that the film is never referred to as propaganda is what’s a bit surreal. You get the sense that no new documentary on the Cu Chi tunnels has since been produced, or that it was never deemed necessary to create another specifically because this one proved so adequate. The audacity of this possibility gives one the sense of being displaced from time, plucked out of the present and dropped into an alien context where such a film might be considered credible.

This seems to be what Templer means by the compression of problematic layers — only a fraction of Vietnamese probably ever considered such reports credible. I can imagine quite a few tourists walking away from Cu Chi, amused by the simple people who would’ve imbibed such pale imitations of reality.

The life-size dioramas depicting Viet Cong soldiers sharing a canteen, writing letters, and turning scrap metal into useful objects (such as booby traps) only feed the sense of a cobbled together propaganda machine. When the tour guide flips the switch to set the soldiers to work sawing a detonated bomb in half, you just feel a bit embarrassed.

But in fact, these are the same dioramas you find throughout Philadelphia and DC. The Cu Chi dioramas only feel so much like propaganda because (1) you’re coming off the film and (2) you’re viewing a familiar genre that’s being used to illustrate the opposite of what you’re used to it illustrating. Dioramas are supposed to depict Abraham Lincoln brainstorming the Gettysburg Address and Pilgrims shaking hands with Native Americans, not Viet Cong guerillas fashioning bamboo shoots into tiger pit spikes meant to impale American GIs.

But in fact, this cognitive dissonance illustrates something that Brian Eno once wrote about propaganda. On his first trip to Russia, he met a musician whose father had been Brezhnev‘s personal physician. He asked the musician about having lived “completely immersed in propaganda” during the Brezhnev era, to which the musician replied, “Ah, but there is the difference. We knew it was propaganda.”

Similarly, Bruce Chatwin wrote of Bolshevik Russia that “Authoritarian societies love images because they reinforce the chain of command at all levels of the hierarchy.” I wouldn’t be so restrictive. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether the instrument of propaganda is a herky-jerky Viet Cong dummy at the Cu Chi Tunnels or a sophisticated Hall of Presidents at Disney World — any monument meant to reinforce an idealized notion of the past, or to make you feel good rather than think, does the work of propaganda. For propagandists, there are simply different shades of indifference to (or contempt for) nuance.

The one aspect of the tour that really caught me by surprise was the working display of ghastly, spiked and barbed traps once used to ensnare American soldiers. Templer mentions in Shadows and Wind that new attractions are constantly being added at Cu Chi, and indeed, since its publication in 1997, some of the attractions he notes have disappeared, replaced by other gimmicks meant to bring to life this spent battleground. One can imagine why the army’s sports and recreation department did away with the trip wire-ignited fireworks — I only wonder how many visiting American and Vietnamese veterans had to suffer this thoughtless ploy.

Still, the row of cordoned-off traps is unexpected. When Americans think of the Vietnam War, they tend to envision unsuspecting soldiers suddenly blown to ribbons by hidden land mines. These iconic weapons, which symbolize the blind terror and paranoia of the war, are burnt into our collective memory by latter-day films and books. Throughout the novel The Things They Carried, author Tim O’Brien uses the land mine as a unifying motif, revisiting the moment the narrator’s friend is suddenly obliterated by a mine during a game of catch throughout the novel.

In comparison to the traps, which snap and swing closed in horrific variations, the idea of land mines seems merciful. Surely, mines killed and left mutilated thousands of soldiers, but the relative swiftness of their devastation seems less brutal than the idea of the cruder traps and the prolonged agony they might cause before their victims were released. This likely explains why they occupy a less prominent position in the media surrounding the war, as well.

Or it could simply be that these traps weren’t terribly effective. The same can be said for the Cu Chi area as a whole. While the tunnels helped the Viet Cong hold the line and were a source of pride not only for their display of Vietnamese ingenuity but because they were positioned merely 60 kilometers outside Saigon, tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians died in cave-ins within the tunnels.

What’s more, Cu Chi took the brunt of America’s chemical assault — the effects of which continue to cause birth defects and cancer — making it a (barely) living monument to one of the country’s worst military atrocities. Now, visitors laughingly crawl beneath the poisoned landscape through tunnels widened to accommodate their Western frames.

Time has transformed these killing fields into a jungle gym.

For these reasons, Cu Chi is actually tremendously interesting. Like most historical sights, it tells us far less about what actually happened than how we feel about, or choose to remember, what happened.

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Fire Drill, Saigon Style

We were enjoying the fire drill just fine until the maintenance men started screaming at us. Students and teachers alike had ambled down the stairway at a leisurely pace, but once we reached the ground floor of the ILA building, the blue-shirted Vietnamese jabbed their fingers violently towards the main entrance as a steady column made for the basement garage.

I was happy to escape an afternoon of English Language Acquisition methodology training, so when one of the men locked me in his frantic stare, I heeded his command. But as I rounded the glass-walled reception desk, I noticed that the massive, open frontage was draped in a curtain of water. Outside, there were no fewer than 3 high-powered hoses firing at the building. I stopped dead in my tracks and turned to find everyone behind me staring ahead as well, clearly thinking the same thing: Do they expect us to run through that?

Out came the blue-shirted madmen, keeping up their ruckus. Question answered.

People emerged from the building, drenched to varying degrees, depending on their individual abilities to duck, weave, and keep their footing on the soaked marble steps. Almost everyone turned to stare up at the building. Had an actual fire broke out prior to the scheduled drill? Had they set fire to the building deliberately?

Neither was the case. Unless ILA is given special treatment as Saigon’s premier English-language school, fire drills in Vietnam are not solely staged for building occupants to practice evacuation, but for the fire department to get in some target practice.

Living in a culture far removed from one’s own, specifically one behind the curve on modernization, you quickly learn that while some things are lost in translation, others are lost in adaptation. This occurs in a number of realms.

Take the realm of staple cuisine. As the Vietnamese develop an appetite for American and European fare — the Italian coffee fad is gaining traction — its common for non-tourist restaurants to offer a few staples from Western menus. More than anything, it seems, the dishes are added for a stylish little touch. Sometimes, however, style doesn’t translate into substance, such as when I ordered fish ‘n chips at a nice, mid-range restaurant and received a plate of fish sans chips.

In the case of the fire drill, I don’t mean to suggest that the West is the fountain of all things rational and modern. Nor do I have any special insight into the origin and development of fire safety procedures or their history in Vietnam. But generally, it’s safe to assume that modern procedures travel from modernized spheres to modernizing ones.

And on that note, someone needs to have a sit down with Saigon’s top fire warden.

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