A little Marx, Foucault, and the ethics of online, global education

Power, Subjection, and the Ethics of Online Education

Note: In this short reading log, I want to look at the connections between the industrialization of education and the ethics of distributed learning, particularly on a global scale. I will use some of the theories of Marx and Foucault to ground this conversation. And, if the writing gods are backing me, I’ll even get in a little Said. I use the terms “distributed learning” and “distance education” interchangeably throughout this log and I cover several articles outside the initial readings for Cultural Studies in an effort to discuss the theories we’re learning in class through a “lens” unique to my research interests. In other words, I’m trying to take theory from class and “do” something with it.

Garrison calls the 21st century a “postindustrial” era of education, an era that will be concerned largely with transactional issues—teaching and learning—instead of structural issues like geographic distance[1]. This is a popular notion because it reinforces the promise of distance education; specifically, that distance education (DE) advances a “democratic social ideal.”[2] Thanks to more affordable infrastructure and the human capital to build and deliver quality instruction, even housewives in Nebraska, or Hutu women in Rwanda, can take a course in Feminism. That’s what the rhetoric of DE says, anyway.

But Garrison’s postindustrial decree bothers me. Is education really postindustrial? Doesn’t the very language with which we talk about distributed learning with its modules and centralized curriculum and leveraged efficiencies created by divisions of labor—not reinforce Otto Peters’ theory of industrialized education? In his groundbreaking work, Peters analyzed the structure of distance education and found the industrial production techniques of the 19th and 20th centuries best fit the DE model[3]. This theory of educational organization, in my mind, is still largely at play across the globe.

Additionally, there is another interesting rhetorical that tension exists between the “anytime, anywhere, anyone” promise, and the relative rigidity, structure and silencing that takes place in an industrialized online environment. Courses are—generally—designed in advance, by designers who may or may not be curriculum or subject experts, and then delivered by instructor who may or may not offer local support or synchronous contact. Although new technology helps to reduce “transactional distance,”[4] it also, perhaps inadvertently, silences and isolates students with its focus on high structure/low dialogue.[5]Further the technology used to reduce transaction distance requires an infrastructure, namely high-speed Internet service, that isn’t available in the remotest areas.

Other tensions run deeper still: if more people across wider geographies are accessing education via the Internet (I am thinking now of the popularity of the Open University in England or the “open” courses from Stanford, Harvard or MIT, or corporate-run “diploma mill” programs) who is controlling the curriculum? Who is calling into question the cultural implications of post-colonial countries like Kenya importing curriculum designed by and, arguably, advancing the interests of, its former colonial power? Does distance education give the ruling class yet another distribution method whereby they can affect a Gramcerian “consented” coercion?

Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned. . .the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”[6]

How ominous. Everywhere we go, he suggests, the proletariat must be ever vigilant for the bourgeoisie is constantly chasing financial ends. Marx and Engels never utter the word “globalization”, but for modern readers of this passage, it would be hard to see anything but. Technology, worldwide systems of communication, integrated financial markets, and fluid trade zones allow the bourgeoisie to chase expanding markets and education is such a market. Here we come to the heart of the ethical problem with distributed learning: both the commoditization of education and the hegemonic control of knowledge production.

On the surface, it seems silly to suggest that access to an Oxford course in Political Theory would do anything but advance democratic values. But a closer look at the political history of colonial education and this claim isn’t so easily made.

As Islam and Christianity spread, so too did their respective educational reaches. Interaction, disruption or displacement of indigenous forms of education was essential to advancing a monotheistic agenda. Hungry empire builders—first the Muslims and later the Europeans —colonized the world’s population using an educational apparatus to help spread its values. European-colonial education spread modern value systems through its curriculum of episteme, rooted in the Greek tradition. But largely, colonial education was an industrial enterprise, as it sought to develop global trade by providing native labor with skills and the “disposition” needed to maintain and extend its political and economic base. “Hegemony work[s] by diffusing the ideological position of the dominant class throughout the fabric of social practices so that the special interests of the powerful become identified as the interests of society at large, become the “common sense” to which we all automatically subscribe.”[7] This is also why colonial education was selective, educating a few elite who would adopt the “right” disposition, a disposition that did not include utilizing knowledge to alter power relations.

Today, as Tikly points out, many postcolonial governments (and government generally) use education to foster nationalism, but in many low-income countries, access to computers or the Internet is still limited to an elite few. Marx might call these few the petit bourgeoisies. These elite are “keyed into” and invested in the capitalistic drives of an information economy.[8]  Formerly, these were the very elite who helped maintain colonial subjugation and advance the bourgeois agenda.

Foucault would not find it coincidental that, since the 19th century, educational institutions in colonial countries were designed and maintained by their colonizers, as were their penal and parliamentary institutions[9]. Everything from classroom layout to uniforms to curriculum were designed in the colonial “center” and reproduced in the outer lying “oriental.”

Technology and distance education promised to change this, to liberate the oppressed, to shift the marginalized to the center of the political and cultural conversations, to give access to the remote and un-actualized. Instead, old patterns perpetuate. Content flows in from the bourgeoisie (from Europe to Australia in example) while payment for content, digital information, and access flows in the other direction, from poorer regions to wealthier regions.[10] By continuing to use the Internet as a means by which one delivers knowledge in exchange for a fee, we will not overturn the neo-colonial relationship already entrenched in post colonial countries.

Lest you think I sound hyperbolic: “The globalizing of curriculum standardizes teaching in an effort to ensure that students share the same educational experience regardless of their location.”[11] Local references are removed from curriculum and there is support for only those “universal approaches” that can be applied across context,[12] effectively disassociating education from the “social, cultural and political origins” of one’s home country,”[13] establishing the  “common sense to which we all… automatically subscribe.”[14]

It may be that education is the path out of poverty and political powerlessness. But, “we well know that in its distribution, in what it permits and in what it prevents, it follows the well-trodden battle-lines of social conflict. Every educational system is a political means of maintaining or of modifying the appropriation of discourse, with the knowledge and the powers it carries with it.”[15]

How then, do we encourage access to and make good on the democratic promise of distance education while “re-narrativising,” as Hall suggests, the global education story such that those who have been on the periphery of its discourse move to the center where they can shape the debate[16] without sacrificing access, identity or the opportunity to hear counter-ideology? How do we get to the place that Zembylas & Vrasidas suggest wherein online education empowers teachers and learners to “deconstruct fixed identities and develop a capacity for thoughtful flexibility in the pursuit of new kinds of knowledge?”[17]

Wouldn’t an ethical global education theory encourage ‘‘political resistance to hegemonic and exclusionary views of subjectivity,’’[18] whether those views were local, national, or international? Education, regardless of the method of distribution, should seek to constantly renegotiate Foucauldian power relations, even or perhaps especially as, education becomes more “governmentalized.”[19] Wouldn’t ethically sound curricula reflect a particular view of the universal informed by the “geographical and social location of the curriculum developer”?[20] Then why does it often not?

“Worldwide education is not only affected by global forces, but it is the primary means through which global forces affect the daily lives of individual people.[21] In other words, globalization works both on and in education policy. As the world integrates its economies, political realities, and cultural differences, some countries and educational networks will suffer fragmentation and stratify, while others will become enmeshed and marginalized.[22]

Though the economic imperatives of education generally use technologies like distributed learning specifically to maintain the status quo, Gramsci suggests that this underlying economic and political reality may also be used to influence said factors.[23] “Hegemonic activity is a process of continual struggle; if there is a powerful dominating hegemony, there are also “counter-hegemonies,” competing forms of “common sense” that disrupt the power of the most powerful classes. This suggests “rhetoric can analyze cultural discourses and identify ways in which they construct a common sense that serves the interests of a limited class and that can identify possibilities for counter discourses.”[24]

If, as Moufee and Laclau argue, the “central problem is to identify the discursive conditions for the emergence of collective action, directed toward struggling against inequalities and challenging relations of subordination[25]” then that is what this short log seeks to do: to enter or start the conversation, to ask discomforting questions, to challenge the rhetoric that distance education is a democratic panacea.

Indeed, if we are to develop an ethic of online global education, then we must understand the way the international community is using language to represent the real, to exclude ideas that are detrimental to existing power structures, or privileging certain ways of thinking or being, or accessing, in order to advance and perpetuate unchecked power.

Bibliography

Brown, P. & Lauder, H. (1997) Education, globalization and economic development, in: A. Halsey, H. Lauder, P. Brown & A. Wells (Eds.) Education, Culture, Economy, Society (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Dore, R. (1997) The Diploma Disease: education, qualification and development (London, Institute of Education, University of London).

Foucault, Michel. “Truth and Power.” Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and other Writings 19721977. 109‐33.

‐‐‐. “The Subject and Power.” Critical Inquiry. 8.4 (1982): 777‐95.
‐‐‐. “The Discourse on Language.” The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon, 1972, 215‐38.
‐‐‐. “The Carceral” Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 1975.

Hall, S. (1992) New ethnicities, in: J. DONALD & A. RATTANSI (Eds.) ‘Race’, Culture and Difference (London, Sage).

Herndl and Brown “Marxist Rhetoric.” The Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from Ancient Times to the Information Age. Ed Theresa Enos. New York: Garland Pub. 1996. 422‐2

Garrison, D.R. & Baynton M. (1987), Beyond Independence in Distance Education: the concept of control. The Journal of American Distance Education. 1, 3, 1-15.

Garrison, Randy. (2000), Theoretical Challenges for Distance Education in the 21st Century: A shift from structural to transactional issues. International Review of Research In Open and Distance Learning. 1,1.

Pennycook, A. (1995) English in the world/the world in English, in: J. Tollefson (Ed.) Power and Inequality in Language Education, pp. 34–58 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Peters, O. (1993). Distance education in a postindustrial society. In D. Keegan (Ed.), Theoretical Principles of Distance Education (p. 39-58). London: Routledge.
‐‐‐. (1994a). Distance Education and Industrial Production: A comparative interpretation in outline (1973). In Keegan, D. (Ed.), Otto Peters on distance education: The industrialization of teaching and learning (p. 107-127). London: Routledge.
‐‐‐. (1994b). Introduction. In Keegan, D. (Ed.), Otto Peters on Distance Education: The industrialization of teaching and learning (p. 1-23). London: Routledge.
‐‐‐. (2000). The Transformation of the University into an Institution of Independent Learning. In T. Evans & D. Nation (Eds.), Changing University Teaching: Reflections on creating educational technologies (p. 10-23). London: Kogan Page.

Tikly, Leon Comparative Education Volume 37 No. 2 2001 pp. 151–171 Globalisation and Education in the Postcolonial World: towards a conceptual framework.

Ziguras, Christopher and Fazal Rizvi (2001) Future directions in international online education. in Dorothy Davis and Denis Meares (Eds) Transnational Education: Australia Online. Sydney: IDP Education Australia. pp.151-164.

Zembylas, Michalinos & Charalambos Vrasidas. Levinas and the “Inter-Face”: The Ethical Challenge of Online Education. Educational Theory. Volume 55. No. 1. 2005.

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Blogging in Vietnam and Cultural Studies in the Future Tense

Dieu Cay before his 2008 arrest, with the words “Dan chu cho Vietnam” or "Democracy for Vietnam." Authorities have slapped new charges on prominent blogger Dieu Cay to keep him behind bars and prevent him from once again become a unifying force for Vietnamese bloggers. Source: AnhBaSG / http://anhbasg.multiply.com/photos/album/3/3#photo=13

In “Critical Power Tools” Richard Johnson describes cultural studies as a “movement or a network” with its own degrees, college departments, journals, and meetings (38). But the work of critical studies suggests it is more than a movement or network and that the least important of its aspects are the degrees and college departments under its domain. Academe is quick to codify works under a particular discipline, as codification gives a discipline structure, legitimacy, and power.

Hence we have sociology, economic, and anthropology departments—all of which are governed by a body of theories and modes of study. But to codify cultural studies in the same way that anthropology or economics is codified is to cripple cultural studies’ unique magic. For, Johnson says and Grossberg would agree, cultural studies have an alchemic quality (Johnson 38). Where politics, philosophy, history and economics seek to produce stable objects of study, cultural studies is more interested in the conjuncture—to use Grossberg’s term—or the conflict and change surrounding and interacting with an object.

Let me try to illustrate this with an issue I will return to throughout this brief essay: the politics of blogging in Vietnam. Were we to investigate the politics of blogging in Vietnam through the lens of history, we might study Vietnam’s political system of communism and its legacy of media and speech suppression. We may even study the rise and influence of the Ministry of Information and Communication. History might suggest how and through what contexts Nguyen Van Hai (a.k.a. Dieu Cay) was arrested in 2008 for establishing the Free Journalists club and protesting against China, but history would have to stop there. His offers reflection, but it can’t work to write a “better story,” again to quote Grossberg. Cultural studies would say that is not good enough.

Grossberg believes cultural study scholars have a responsibility to attempt, even if it fails, to change the world. Cultural studies goes beyond describing everyday life to investigating how people are empowered and disempowered and how lives are “…articulated by the trajectories of economic, social, cultural, and political power” (8). History can show us how and when and under what circumstances people (Vietnamese reporters, writers, and intellectuals) came to find themselves subalternated, but cultural studies is more interested in the “relations of power within which those realities are constructed” (8) because it seeks to change them, often to undo them.

That such immense challenges are carried out in the name of cultural studies is one of the many reasons it is nearly impossible to define. It is also the reason why Grossberg advocates the necessity of doing the empirical work but detouring through theory. He scaffolds his theories in “Cultural Studies in the Future Tense” by leveraging the very best of theoretical knowledge across multiple disciplines, taking what he needs to fit the conjuncture from semiotics, rhetoric, Marxism, post-structuralism, and theories of modernity.

Perhaps we can arrive at a better understanding of what cultural studies is by agreeing on what it is not. Here, Grossberg is clear. “Cultural studies is not the attempt to find the universal in the concrete…it is not the celebration and empirical elaboration, in all its detail, of popular cultural in the everyday” (2). In other words, it’s certainly not what many think of when they think of cultural studies in a limited sense, and that is the study of culture for culture’s sake.

For Grossberg, it would not be enough to study the textuality of Nguyen Van Hai’s blog posts, for this would only highlight the placement of Hai’s words and perhaps the reader’s interpretation of those words, and maybe their political consequences. Nor would it be enough to rhetorically unwind the Ministry of Information and Communication’s public position that all blog posts must use “clean and wholesome language” (Wilson). Further, Grossberg would not rest content reading “a grain of sand” in Hai’s blog posts—important though his work may be, his work alone cannot tell the whole “story” of the culture of media suppression in Vietnam. Finally, Grossberg would not be happy with interpreting Hai’s work through the lens of popular culture only, or even a subaltern lens specifically. What Grossberg would seek to do is to describe and intervene in the ways Hai’s work, and the practice and politics of blogging in Vietnam, operates within and for or against the Vietnamese citizenry, so he could “reproduce, struggle against and perhaps transform the existing structures of power” (8). And even this, Grossberg would argue, is not the all or even the essence of what cultural studies can do.

But it’s a start.

Just what is it then that cultural scholars or “political intellectuals,” as Grossberg prefers, do? What are cultural studies committed to?

Cultural studies looks at how contexts (a situation of objects and events) reveal or illuminate matrices of power and how discursive practices—or cultural meanings produced and understood—involve themselves in relationships of power (8). They see, open and realize the possibilities of a particular conjuncture (96). Such political intellectuals are “antireductionist” (33), never satisfied with reducing the complexity of a problematic to its simplest forms, as might Marx in his suggestion that all of society’s ills can be solved through the dialectic of class struggle. Problematics are studied best in context and the context is “the beginning and end of our researches” (54.) Those who study culture are in the position of “scholar, teacher, artist, and intellectual” and they are charged with “politicizing theory and theorizing politics” (9).

If cultural studies practitioners are interested in how power “infiltrates, contaminates, limits, and empowers the possibilities that people have to live their lives in just, dignified, and secure ways” (29), then Hui’s story of political imprisonment would certainly qualify as a worthy subject of study. But, without a specific methodology—a complaint often lodged against cultural studies—how does one make meaning of (much less change) the matrices of power at work against Hui and his fellow journalists?

Grossberg would argue, I think, it’s the act of “reconstruct[ing] relations and contexts” (52) that starts the conversation from a cultural studies point of view. If we look at Hui’s arrest and imprisonment as a conjuncture, we must look at all of the events, reactions, struggles, and wider political beliefs and practices surrounding blogging in Vietnam that gathered, like warm air to a tropical storm, resulting in the hurricane of protest, imprisonment and the wider resistance movement that followed. What I mean to say is that if cultural studies “takes its shape in response to its context” (33), then the study of the arrest of a dissident blogger writing about Arab ghettos in Paris would result in a far different story, response, and political action than the story unfolding in Dalat, Vietnam. This is largely why cultural theorists cannot be reductionists. To reduce a problematic to its smallest parts presumes that the atomic level all objects in a conjuncture are the same, can be experienced as the same, or responded to universally; cultural studies would argue that is not so.

If cultural studies are a response to “experienced changes, to changing political challenges and demands, as well as to emerging theoretical resources and debates” (33) then we need only to look at the aftermath of Hui’s imprisonment to see that this is truly a conjuncture worthy of cultural study, as bloggers there seek to shift oppressive and restrictive power dynamics. There are 24 million Internet users in Vietnam, nearly one-third its population. Just 10 years ago, there were only 200,000. Like most, Vietnamese bloggers write about technology, life, speaking English, and their kids, but some—like Hui—speak about China’s ever-tightening grip on Vietnam; the lack of a multiparty democracy, corruption, secret police, and land seizures.  The Ministry of Information and Communications strictly monitors blogs and colludes with Internet service providers to shut down any blogger who repeatedly breaks the purposefully ambiguous rule that says posts must use “clean and wholesome language.” Ministry spokesperson, Luu Vu Hai, told a Times reporter that the country’s monitoring is not meant to “censor blogs, but to help and to educate the bloggers to maintain a healthy way of using Internet for their benefits” (Binlot). As of July 2010, 10 blogger-activists seeking to disrupt the political powers controlling the blogosphere were in prison, many serving multi-year sentences. One cannot miss the connection between blogging and power; it is not about how or even what Hui wrote (as might be studied in rhetoric) but the political consequences of the technology that allowed him to reach, unite, and stir the emotions of Marx’s proletariat. It’s also about the political response to Hui’s act, and the multiplicity of foreign pressures to which Vietnam’s government will now have to answer. Grossberg would find nothing unususal in looking at this problematic through the cultural studies lens because he believes that Cultural studies is inherently political. But, what makes the political, political (95)? How do we know the political when we see or experience it?

Grossberg conceives of the political in three ways. He sees the political as the state, as bodies, and as effects. “The relations among these sites are immanent: none constitutes a transcendent event of power per se; none determines the political in and of itself (234).” The political is what actually happens politically—Hui’s imprisonment was a political response—but “micro-political” and “macro-political” elements were also at work driving the imprisonment. This “architecture of collectivities” that results is a power struggle between “power as capacity” and “power as control,” between the threat of imprisonment for radical blogging and actual imprisonment (252). These virtual and actual environments are not just about power though they also intersect the cultural and economic.  Hui is an agent of political change because political transformation must, according to Grossberg, “start where the people are” (287). He is “denaturalizing the present” in order to “open up the future” in the hope of transforming journalists’ relationship to the powers of communism and media control (100). Hui’s imprisonment shows that Grossberg was right: telling better stories is a dangerous business (219).

Hui was sentenced to two and one half years in jail. This is what’s at stake—liberty—if the work of cultural studies goes undone, if political intellectuals cannot conceive of a new conversation, one that is not binary. Grossberg says that it is only through a “theoretical and empirical” investigation into the “the unbecoming and re-becoming of modernities” that the possibility for an alternative reality exists (74). We can use the situation of blogging in Vietnam (empirical) as a context framed and negotiated by theory (insert a theory here: post structuralism, Marxism etc) to reshape the power dynamic. What we can’t do is reduce the reason and explanation or base our future action on the current euro-modern theory of globalization.

Globalization has too many contexts that overlap if not compete, and are bound by too many varying “geographies, logics, connections and stratifications” (60) for it to meaningfully answer questions like: how did this happen and what can be done?

Globalization, Grossberg says, tends to contrast the old with the new and proposes a time when life was better before but also denies return to that mythical state without enabling a new, and preferentially better, story to take its place.  Such a simplistic and reductionist theory is not sufficient to analyze contemporary conjunctures like the politics of blogging in Vietnam because this problem-space is not just about the politics of blogging or the suppression of journalistic freedoms. It’s about “the forms of association and communication…the ways the various specific activities of life [are] integrated together into a coherent and meaningful totality” (189).

Works Cited

Binlott, Ann. “Vietnam’s Bloggers Face Government Crackdown.” 30 Dec. 2008. Web. Sept.8. 2011. <www.time.com>

Grossberg, Lawrence. Cultural Studies in teh Present Tense. Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 2010.

Johnson, Richard. “What is cultural studies anyway?” Social Text Winter.16 (1986): 38-80.

Wilson, Emma. “The Politics of Blogging in Vietnam.Human Rights Watch. 29 Oct. 2010. Web. Sept. 8 2011. <www.hrw.org/news>

Ch-ch-ch-chages

It hardly seems possible that a little over a year ago to the day, I was trying to convince my mother that no, I wasn’t crazy and yes, I was really moving  to Vietnam. As it happens, about the time I acclimated to life in Ha Noi, I moved back to America and had to adjust to a new world, language, and experience–that of the university. A little over a month ago, I started a Ph.D, program in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of South Florida.

I still remember crashing my motorbike on the way to take the GRE at a dirty little hotel in Ha Noi named something ironic like “The Diamond.” Some 200 anxious Vietnamese adults sat waiting on me. Seriously… I was the last one to get there. I was late by about an hour, and I was bleeding. I bled all over my GRE test booklet actually. They sat me next to the only other American taking the GRE in Ha Noi — a lovely bloke who went on to study Urban Planning at the University of Ohio, if memory serves.

I bombed the test, of course. Barely broke 1,000. But I plead my case before the review committee, and I guess my life experience, (and a disproportionately high verbal score) made up for the otherwise abysmal mark. Anyway, I got in, and I got a full ride. And then I won a grant to study and build online writing programs. So maybe getting suck behind a diplomatic barricade and crashing your motorbike and bleeding all over your bubble sheet is a good strategy.

Dr. Herndl. My fearless leader of Cultural Studies and the Director of the Rhet/Comp program at USF.

In my Cultural Studies class I recently wrote a survey of the material covered thus far (books and journals) and tried my best to link the readings to the cultural dimensions of blogging in Vietnam. (See next post). One of my peers, Lauren, suggested we turn our reading logs into a blog. Good idea. Happen to have one. So, Hanoi Hopton will now follow a new adventure: the adventure of a native daughter returned,  slogging her way through graduate school.

Strangely, there are many similarities between dropping into a foreign country for half a year and going back to school for a Ph.D.

First, the Ph.D. — especially in the Humanities — requires that you learn a new language, the language of philosophy, generally, and the language of pretentious academics more specifically. Let me give you an example.

Academic writing uses phrases like: conjectural specificity, embedded disembeddedness, or (my favorite) the “double morphology of identity” (WTF!?)

Or this, from a journal article on Marx.

“…the most general characteristics and qualities of ideology can help in the formulation of contestatory tactics for specific struggles.

Which, in real people language says: beliefs are powerful tools of resistance.

For the the most part, I’m at the stage of language acquisition wherein I can manage to point and grunt. Occasionally, I’ll manage a few words but they’re usually the wrong words, much as when I tried to speak Vietnamese at a restaurant one night and ended up ordering something like fried underwear with chili sauce.

Sigh.

Other similarities include meeting new people and trying to figure out who’s got what you need, or which building has the goods you’re after. For example, I discovered that my building has a groovy bottled water distribution system. I can reuse my bottle and get clean, filtered water out of a fountain-like machine. The display tells me how many plastic bottles I’ve saved by reusing the one I have. I feel good when I do this. I’m saving the world. I’m part of the change, not the problem. This feeling was similar to the elation I felt finding a mechanic that didn’t rip me off, or teaching my student how to carry on a conversation about the meaning and history of the Vietnam conflict from both countries’ points of view. Be the change. Cultural studies in action. Cool.

Finally, going for a Ph.D. and moving to Vietnam are similar in their level of novelty and the delight and anxiety inspired. When you move to a new country everything is challenging, but this gives life an unmistakable brightness, a certain zest. Sometimes, the constant challenge brings about a psychological anxiety, an undoing that I think is akin to joining the military and surviving the disembodying experience that is boot camp. Starting something new and radical like a Ph.D. program or moving to a country where no one speaks your language is a constant dog paddle.

But, when you give over to the process that’s at work on and in you–whether the process involves proving you deserve to be at a particular intellectual table or  proving cultural exchanges are worth the emotional strain–wonder takes over and suddenly, you’re not dog paddling, you’re floating. You’ve assimilated. You’re pointing, grunting and then you’re ordering:

I’ll take a double helping of fried underwear, please.

Enjoy the posts. I’ll try not to be too academic or pretentious.

Retreat! Retreat!

Which came first the chicken or the -- er -- water buffalo?

Common wisdom in Ha Noi says that every two or three months, you have to leave. Otherwise, you start going a little Marlon Brando. For me, it’s every two to three weeks. If living here has taught me anything, it’s that I’m not a city girl.

I’d been planning a retreat to Cat Bau Island for over a month. This retreat was a yoga and meditation retreat mixed in with some hiking and rock climbing. The retreat was going to be held at the Cat Bau Resort and Spa, which, in my mind,  conjured up images of women lying on orchid-perfumed massage tables, wrapped gently in puffy cotton towels while waves beat the beach behind the tiki bar. That’s what I had in my mind’s eye as we pulled out of Ha Noi.

The Resort

That we were leaving an hour and one half late because the driver forgot to come get us should have tipped me off to the fact that any expectations of impeccable service I had for the retreat should have beenleft at home with the hairdryer.

We were so late getting out the city and getting to the port, the tour operator had to hire a private boat to ferry us to the island. And after a long, bumpy bus ride, a longer, bumpier boat ride, (from a darkly lit dock that I swore I’d seen in a ‘C’ rate horror flick) and another thirty minute bus ride up and down the mountainside, we arrived at a perfectly manicured, very promising-looking resort. The serious yogis among our group headed straight for their mats, but it was 9 pm, I hadn’t eaten and I was cranky as hell, so I headed straight for my room and downed the SNICKERS bar I’d hidden in my bag.

Stunning vista from atop the mountain we trekked.

The following morning our group met at 6 in the meditation room–and I use this word loosely.  It was really the game room, and still smelled like cigarettes and stale beer. But the staff was nice enough to push the ping pong tables out of the way so we could get our Zen on. Incidentally, the cleaning crew thought this was hilarious, and watched us ‘downward dog’ and ‘chaturanga’ for nearly an hour, pointing and giggling, as they do.

After a very good, but odd breakfast of boiled eggs, coconut-flavored buckwheat pancakes, boxed juice, and stir-fried noodles, I headed back to the room to dress for a day of rock climbing and all-out adventuring. I had noticed that my key card was cracked, but thought nothing of it until a friend bounded up the stairs and hit my hand, accidentally breaking the card in two. No biggie. I’ll just get another one. And herein started what would become a weekend-long resistance on principle.

Pit stop on the side of the mountain to let my aching knees rest.First let me say I do not like being “organized”. Why I decided to book an organized tour is beyond me. I know myself well enough to know that being told when to eat, what to eat, and where to eat is kinda like being on the third rung of hell for me. This is why I’ve never been on a cruise. This is why I picked Prague instead of Paris for my senior class trip. But the thought of coordinating my own retreat in Vietnam seemed impossible, so there we are. I mention this only because the entire weekend was something of a pressure-cooker with a militaristic schedule we were held to lest we miss a bus to one site or another. So, I was under some pressure to get my hiking shoes on when I stopped off at reception to pick up a new key card and already reatreating from the retreat.

“That will be $20, please,” the male receptionist said to me, smiling.
I wasn’t smiling.
At first, I thought I’d misheard him. “I’m sorry, come again?”
“You broke the key. It’s $20 to replace it.”
“The hell it is.”
But he would not budge.
And neither would I.
We stood staring at each other for a moment and then he reminded me he had my passport.

I didn’t have time to fight with him about the money or the passport (handing over your passport as identification is standard practice, I’ve come to learn) so I borrowed a key card from my roomie, grabbed my hiking shoes, and jumped on the bus, cursing the receptionist under my breath. Cheeky cow.

After an all too pleasant day of hiking, climbing, and napping in a tree sling with a drunk police officer, I had almost forgotten the attempted extortion when I realized I was locked out of my room. Trekking back to reception I tried to explain to another receptionist what had happened. He too looked at me sweetly and then said, “That’s $10, please.”

“Wait. It was $20 this morning. Has technology so radically improved in the development of key cards that you’ve been able to offset the cost of replacing the one I accidentally broke this morning? The one, incidentally, that was already cracked?”

He stared at me blankly. Cynicism has no place here.

And herein lies one of the biggest problems with Vietnam. Everything is negotiable and if there is money to be extorted — it will be. The traffic police. Travel agents. The woman who sells me grapes. Receptionists at resorts.

At least they’re consistent…

The key card incident was just the beginning of what would become an even larger and more complicated negotiation for a one-month VISA extension later in the week. But at that moment, I just wanted to get into my room and wash the dirt from between my toes.

I am not usually a stubborn woman, but I needed a beer in a bad way, and the idea of paying for a key card I didn’t break — at nearly 1,000 percent markup — infuriated me. Perhaps it was the accumulation of disappointment in the retreat or the angst of being perpetually shuffled. Or maybe it was that  I felt I’d been ripped off in other ways i.e. poor service generally, beds that were harder than mine at home — is that even possible!?– no wifi (though it was advertised), bad Western food (who comes on a yoga retreat to eat pizza and chips?) and karaoke music that blasted through my window until 1 a.m. (how is THAT retreating?).

Whatever the cause, I did what any self-respecting woman would do. I pitched an absolute knock-down, drag out — what we in my family call a — Smith fit. According to those who witnessed this event, I was a sight to behold.

Eventually, I garnered the head manager’s attention, and eventually I won the battle, though certainly not the war. I got back my passport, and did not have to pay the key fee, which jumped up and down in price like ENRON shares. By Sunday afternoon, I was ready to retreat from the retreat.

Tis a shame too. My experience with the lackluster service tainted the rest of the visit to what was otherwise an extraordinary vacation spot. Vietnam’s tourist industry, like all it’s industry, is emerging and developing, and some concessions need be, understandably, made for this. But if Vietnam wants to continue to lure Western visitors (and their cash) to the country, it has to shake its inclination toward extortion. Had the fee even been remotely reasonable to replace the key card, I’d have likely paid without thinking anything of it, and we would have all won. But no one likes to feel like a dupe, which is what they must have thought me trying to charge $20 for a .20 piece of plastic.

UPDATE: Since writing this post, I have since had dinner with a friend who is both an economist and sociologist. His Master’s thesis studied the Vietnamese reaction to and replication of Western management practices. He offered insight into the price hijacking and I thought his insight was relevant and illuminating.

Essentially, the price of the key card replacement moved up and down based on the tense negotiations going on behind the scenes between the big boss and the reception clerk. Matthew said that the manager’s “fee” was probably a response to his knowing he’d be responsible for paying the cost of the replacement card out of his already unhealthy wages if he could not get me to do so. The fee needed to be high enough to anticipate and offset this cost. It is also possible that half the fee would be pocketed for some pho at lunch, and half would go to cover the replacement. The buck was literally and figuratively being passed around and whoever was left standing with it would have to pony up.

I was sad and frustrated to learn this. Sad because even though I’m not rich, as most VM think, it’s likely that I could afford to lose $20 more than the clerk. Frustrated because as a former employer who tried to take care of her employees, it offends me on a deep level to know this kind of mafia management style is regularly practiced. Those who can least afford to lose, often do.

I’ve been thinking had I know this in advance, would it have changed the outcome? Probably not, but it wouldn’t have changed how I handled myself. Replacing the key card is the cost of doing business. I likely would have been gentler in my negotiations. I might have given something, but not $20. I would have wanted to help the clerk because I know the anxiety caused by not having enough, but herein is a huge problem with development and aide programs worldwide. Often, the aide doesn’t reach the people it’s meant to help, but instead lines the already deep and heavy pockets of those who will simply take what they are not legitimately given.

With Thanks

My Canadian roomate and wine pal Tom.

I live on the top floor of a five story house. I share this house with five other “expats”. We are our own little United Nations, representing South Africa, Canada, America, Wales, and Senegal by way of France. Though my commute to work is twice as long since moving to Ho Tay (West Lake), I am thankful for their company and friendship. It makes the difficult days a little less difficult when you can cracks jokes with someone who actually gets the punchline.

The alter in my bedroom, which was slightly Photoshopped.

I chose the fifth floor of this house for a few reasons. First, climbing 72 stairs is the only work out sans smog I can come by. Second, I have my own bathroom and a balcony that overlooks–well, nothing really–but still; I’ve never had a balcony before. The most important reason I chose my tiny attic room though, is that it has an alter (see photo). When a Vietnamese family is living in this house, this is the room not reserved for the living, but for those who’ve lived before.

I knew I wanted the room the moment I saw the alter. I took comfort in the thought of sleeping next to spirits. One of the things I love most about the Vietnamese is their reverence and respect for the elderly and the dead. This sense of position in the hierarchy of space and time is so prevalent it has infused the language as well, which is peppered with specific, respectful addresses to women and men older than the speaker.

It is sometimes strange and funny to see what people gift the dead. Notice the Coke cans on the alter in my bedroom. On a rational level, it’s easy to poke fun. Surely we don’t crave sugary, caffeinated drinks in the after life. But the gesture is not meant to be rational. Leaving Coke cans is like leaving your grandmother’s favorite flower on her grave. It’s the remembrance of the spirit in life and what they loved about life that is being honored at the alter. I guess my landlord’s ancestors really liked Coke.

That was a very long prologue into this post, a post that is supposed to be about Thanksgiving. Tomorrow is turkey day and many of my friends have sent me e-mails or left voice messages, worried about how I might feel celebrating a day of thanks so far from all that is familiar and warm. I appreciate the concern, but the truth is that I feel closer to the spirit of the holiday now that I am so far away from those with whom I would normally share it. My gratitude list is far longer  than it might have been had I not taken this journey east and in.

Tonight, my adult students wanted me to explain what Thanksgiving was, really. So, I started with the same myths we were told as children. Once there were these guys with funny hats that had sex through holes in the sheets (just kidding). They came to America and damn near starved…

What, that wasn’t the story you heard?

We covered our bases: turkey versus ham, what exactly are collard greens, the art of mashed potatoes. And we wrestled with one of the paradoxes of human history. How was it, one student wanted to know, that the Native Americans saved the first settlers but were later nearly exterminated by them? How indeed…

This got me to thinking about the essence of the holiday. Thanksgiving was largely a celebration of compassion and education. There is nothing that will lead a man to God quite so quickly as satisfying his hunger. Having been hungry here myself more than a few times those first weeks, I know the spontaneous jubilee the settlers felt when Squanto taught Settler Joe to catch his first eel.

So tonight, I’m going to place my offering on the alter, a little stick of incense and a needle and thread. I am dedicating the offering to my grandmother, who passed away just over one year ago. I have fond memories of “messin n’ gommin” with her at the sewing machine — and to my knowledge, she didn’t drink much Coke. I miss her at the bone level, but I am thankful I had 31 Thanksgivings of her food, laughter and grounding touch.

I am also going into school tomorrow conscious of my responsibility as a teacher and passion for education. I am thankful to come from a land that–imperfect as it is–recognizes and values the free exchange of ideas and information. And, maybe to honor old Squanto, I’ll even catch n’ cook me an eel.

Observations About Teaching in S.E. Asia

My student from the countryside who either didn't like my lesson plan or is uncomfortable with her photo being taken.

I haven’t written much about my students, so I thought I’d use this post to explain my experience thus far.

The shock of transitioning from adult education to teaching literature to middle and high school students was pretty severe. It’s been difficult to separate the fatigue generally felt when working with this age group from the fatigue felt at being in over your head. But, that’s how I feel most days: totally unequipped to handle the learning needs of Asiatic students. The past three months have been a crash course in ESL pedagogy, educational psychology,  secondary school composition strategies, and cross-cultural exchange. I can only offer observations; very little wisdom. I certainly haven’t “cracked the code” when it comes to Vietnamese middle schoolers, but here’s what I see.

The Vietnamese classroom is largely teacher-centered, book-centered, and grammar-centered, with a special place in the heart of the Vietnamese student for rote memorization. When it comes to grammar, my students often know more than I do–because really, who remembers how to diagram a sentence beyond the 7th grade? Those who know me well will not find it unusual that my students also often point out my spelling errors. Case in point: I spelled forest with two ‘r’s the other day. Being corrected by a 6th grader is bad enough, but it is particularly infuriating when I remember that English is not their first language. But, what can I do? Hooked on phonics did not work for me.

If you give a Vietnamese student a spelling and grammar worksheet, they will happily (and quietly) work, but ask a Vietnamese student to wonder, to think, to question, to consider and you will be met with fierce resistance and a lot of unnerving silence. This is not to suggest VM students are incapable of critical thinking, but it is to suggest such thinking is not largely encouraged here. They have had little practice interpreting, applying, and conceptualizing and I wonder whether this is because of culture or communism.

Their lack of practice is made nastier by the fact that they HATE, and I mean HATE to be wrong. My 6M class is so fiercely competitive they think nothing of ganging up and badgering another student into silence so they might take their turn to answer a question. They are like soldier ants to an apple pie when a one of them answers incorrectly and they are outright cruel to anyone with a tick or stutter. They do not understand the idea of respecting one’s peers and so reading work aloud or verbally checking answers doesn’t work unless I’m the one telling them the answer. Otherwise, they talk over each other. They are very self-centered in this way, though there is no malice behind it; they just take every opportunity given to push their way to the top and shine. When they answer a question correctly, they are quick to publicly (and loudly) gloat. That attitude is certainly part of the culture. Image is everything in Vietnam.

In fact, mastering the subtle art of keeping or losing face is like a pair of ninja nunchucks for the ESL teacher. Raise your voice and you’ve lost control and thus have lost face. If you want to elicit better behavior or participation, call a students out in front of the class or make them a public spectacle (calling a student to the front of class and forcing him/her to hold his/her hands up till their poor little arms shake with exhaustion seems to work wonders). Doing this in the West would land us before a disciplinary committee, but in the East it’s called classroom management. There is also a secret weapon called the So Gee Do Bai (phonetic not proper spelling). This is a little green book wherein you record and rate student performance. Anything less that T for “Tot” or good gets them a good reaming by their Vietnamese teacher the following morning. Sometimes I just have to take it out or ask for it and the room falls deathly silent. It’s absolute ecstasy for me.

Though 6M is highly vocal, 7Ma/b and 9S are not. You must call on them by name, and this poses another challenge as my Vietnamese is terrible and so I end up calling my students by the wrong name or calling them something like ‘Dove’ or ‘Cow’ which causes them to laugh and make fun of me and I lose control of the class.

Worse still, the Vietnamese tend to name their children after famous or important dignitaries. So, it’s not unusual to have six students all named Zung or Hien or Ly. Imagine then the time spent learning to pronounce a name correctly, and then sorting out which Zung or Hien or Ly you meant to call on. I’ve thought about just assigning them numbers or Western names, but the first idea feels militaristic and kinda creepy, and the second feels insulting. So I do a lot of chin thrusting and deep staring — a total Jedi mind trick on naughty Asian students (they are completely unnerved by unbroken eye contact).

I have to chin thrust because pointing in Vietnamese culture is considered very rude and antagonistic. When the Vietnamese point in a general direction in example, they will turn their hand over and make a shoeing motion with all their fingers. It’s quite confusing to the unsuspecting Westerner, who can find it dismissive.

My students are very wealthy. I mention this because many other teachers cling stubbornly to the belief that money really is the root of all evil, or at least really bad behavior in 7th graders. I think my students near-notorious naughtiness is  partly due to their social standing–money tends to make arses of most of us–but it’s partly just their age too. They are at the age that if popped in a microwave, I am certain they would reveal themselves for the slimy, evil gremlins that they truly are.

Most of my students are pretty lazy and I do think this is tied to their station in life, which has already been determined. I hear countryside kids are different because their education and position in society is not set by the time they reach puberty, but this may be a cultural myth.

Other observations: they are loud. Really loud. This is certainly a cultural reflection, as everything in their environment is loud, but it is difficult to manage the volume because there is nowhere to send them. They think nothing of playing ball in the classroom, and telling them to use “inside” voices is meaningless to them. Shrieking is their inside voice. There are few resources, no play ground and so they are forced to play with impossibly hard, plastic balls in a small courtyard of the school. The balls fly into and shatter windows daily. I’ve been hit in the face, back of the neck and thick so hard it made me cuss and I definitely did not use my inside voice for that.

This lack of space for play, I think, is an extension of their general disregard for personal space generally. Or maybe its the other way around. Fish will only grow to the size of tank provided. Perhaps the Vietnamese have no sense of personal space because they do not any to speak of. Either way, this has been the hardest culture difference for me to overcome. If I am texting a friend on break, I have ten students hovering over me, looking at what I’m texting. They commander my computer and desk as soon as the drum beats (no bells here) to play video games. They will push you down stairs, up stairs, and out the doors. They will knock over your motorbike or knock you off your motorbike and then laugh.

There is no relief, no sacred space to which a teacher can retreat–at least not at my school. But then, that’s a reflection of poor management more than a reflection of culture differences. We don’t even have a single classroom that can we can call our own. We teachers move to meet the students, not the other way around. You can imagine the kind of chaos that ensues as a result.

The combination of student traits, cultural imperatives, and physical discomfort make teaching in Vietnam difficult at best and drudgery at worst. But, there are those  students who make enduring the work easier, like the adorable little boy in my 6M class who read my palm for me the other day and told me I would be a very famous writer. I’d pack him up in my suitcase and take him home if I could. Or, the very studious and gifted young woman in 7ma who wrote me a card for Teacher’s Day that she had learned more under my tutelage than any of her other Western teachers in her seven years of public and private school. Or the waif of a girl child, Hien, in 7mb, who’s mere smile and infectious joy at learning anything is like aloe to a burn.

The Good Stuff

At a tiny craft village outside Ha Noi with a 75 year old woman. If you look closely you can see her teeth are lacquered black, an old custom. She is one of the last of her kind.

Feeling a little guilty that most of what I’ve put on this blog has been about the mishaps and crap taken while living abroad because the truth is that there are great things about living here too. So, thought it was time to recount some of the good stuff about living in Ha Noi.

My friend Audrey asked me a while back to list the top five things I loved about Vietnam. In no particular order they include:

1. The smell of incense wafting on the air.
2. The energy created in a culture based on street life and community (even if that means the little old woman and the Communist party “flag checker” are always up in my business).
3. The flavor, freshness and novelty of the food items.
4. The sweet sound of my adult students saying, “Hello, teacher.”
5. The way the breeze off Ho Tay hits my cheeks early in the morning as I drive around the lake to work.

Although living abroad–and especially living here–is more often than not irksome, it is also cherished time. There are moments when humanity is so obvious as to overwhelm me and I am stunned by the beauty of human invention (the temples) or human connection (the way a young country girl leans into her lover as they sit on their motorbikes overlooking the lake) or the power of human exchange (Tango dancing at Lenin Park with 60 year old men who speak no English).

Fatigued and soul-starved by city life and the stress of working with children I cannot quite reach, I often forget how magical these months have been and how pleasure is derived not in the sweeping gestures (like the disappointing 1,000 year celebration), but in the smallest expressions of joy, or comfort.

Tonight on my way home, I was in a place where I could see beyond the smog and the blaring horns and I marveled at what I saw: an old women enjoying the brisk night air, a faint smile spread across her mouth,  a beautifully hand-painted cup of tea balanced on her knee; two old men warmly greeting each other at a bus stop, their chins and heads covered in hoary frost but their eyes dark, young, and sparkling with the energy stirred by reuniting with old friends; two school-aged girls riding their warbley bikes holding hands, black pony-tails swinging in tandem against their uniform jackets.

I know that when I leave here, when my life returns to a relative normal, when it is easy for me to get places, buy things, and when the doldrums of routine dull my senses, I will long for such nights–for the gaudy neon lights of Hoan Kiem Lake, for the smell of roasting chickens, the insect-like buzz of people on motorbikes just trying to get home. It’s easy to get wrapped around the axle of angst here, but there are moments of absolute delight too. That’s what I want to hold on to. That’s the Vietnam I want to take home.

What’s So Hard about Ha Noi?

A fellow Hanoian posted on his blog today an interesting question: what’s so hard about Ha Noi? Apparently, he’s been reading other expats and listening to their long litany of complaints and wondering, where’s the beef? You can read his blog post here and it’s worth a read because he raises some very valid points like: how can we really complain when we can afford to pay for all the drudgery of life (cleaning, cooking, and raising kids) to be taken care of for us. This is true even for we English teachers, who certainly don’t make as much as most expats working outside the education industry. Granted, we’d have to be very frugal and wouldn’t save anything, but we could certainly live la vida loca here if we wanted to.

But, after reading his post (and having had another shit Monday) I wanted a shot at answering the question what’s so hard about life in Ha Noi because my litany of complaints as a Western woman is somewhat different than his. Perhaps to those considering a journey or move here, this post might be of some value. Certainly it will be educational, as I’ve been asked by many of my friends at home this same question.

1. The Pollution: I was just recently in London (as in last March) and while I certainly had a case of the black nose snot per OMIH’s post, it was nothing–and I mean nothing–compared to the absolute filth I wash from my body each night when I shower — to say nothing of what comes out of my nose. I am covered with dust, dirt, grime and the black smoke of burned off diesel fuel each night. Skipping a shower is not an option. I wear a face mask faithfully to work and back (I even wore it running the other day around the lake), but I’m not entirely convinced it’s working. My throat is always sore and I am sick about every two weeks; this coming from the woman who hadn’t been sick in years back in the States.

I’ve gotten headaches in the country too before due to pollen allergies, but I can fix the temporary pain of an allergy headache. I hate to think of the long term effects I’m having on my lungs and the lining of my esophagus by subjecting my body to the constant smog and pollution. Advil Sinus won’t help that. I don’t have a basis for comparison i.e. I wasn’t here four years ago, per the blog post, but I can tell you from someone moving from a developed country to Ha Noi — yes, it IS that bad.

The air pollution is not the only kind of pollution one must consider here though. The noise pollution is equal to if not worse than the air pollution. I have had a constant ringing in my ears now for the last month due, I’m certain, to the sly and not so sly buses (which the Vietnamese affectionately refer to as flying coffins) that lay on the horn as they’re barreling down on you at 35 miles per hour. Besides the horns, there is the incessant barking of enormous, mean-looking albeit malnourished dogs, whose existence I’ve yet to figure for protection or a future meal. There’s also the chipping and grinding and sawing that happens at every small shop on every street corner until late into the evening, as well as the roosters, (who, contrary to popular myth do not crow when the sun rises, but well before) and let’s not forget to mention the incessant construction. After all, a house is torn down for rebuilding every 7 minutes (according to national statistics). There’s no getting around it: Ha Noi is insufferably loud. And don’t even get me started on its kids.

2. The transient nature that is Ha Noi. While some might find this refreshing, I find it quite sad. It is hard enough to make friends in Ha Noi, and even harder to keep them. It seems that for most here, the average stay is somewhere between 4-6 months. It takes time to cultivate good friendships, and just as you do those friends leave. It must certainly be easier to know you are truly any “ex pat” meaning you plan to repatriate to Vietnam permanently. But for those of us in the middle, we have to get used to the idea that at a moment’s notice, our best mate might be recalled to Holland (as just happened to me). Most who do end repatriating reproduce some semblance of a “normal” life here. They get married, or at least have a steady girl friend; many have children, but I’m mostly talking about the men.

I’ve yet to meet a woman who has taken to dating a Vietnamese man, and I’ve only met a couple (i.e. 2) who have married other Westerners they met here. Part of this is due to the transient nature that is Ha Noi, part of it is the “yellow fever” syndrome mentioned in an earlier blog, and some of it is that the candidate pool is just lower. Still, a soft place to fall seems to be a necessary requirement to long-term satisfaction in Ha Noi–or anywhere for that matter–and when that is missing from your life here, it makes living all the more difficult. Life is reduced to fighting — fighting for space on the road, for consecutive weeks of good health, for livable work conditions, for sanctuary, to integrate into a society that isn’t sure it wants you here. That isn’t easy.

3. The Hustle. On the one hand, there is a cool groove to the city. There’s a vibe here, a pace, a strangeness that you just won’t find in the West. Every day you’ll see something new, overcome some obstacle you’d never be faced with on your leisurely commute to the office back home. Where in America, in example, except maybe the barrios of New Mexico or Texas, could I buy half-dead ducks or pheasants off the side of the road on my way to or from work? Kinda cool.

The downside is that nothing is as it seems. Corruption is rampant (though at least acknowledged and openly talked about, unlike the corruption of American lobbies, which is quietly tolerated), and if you think something will take you an hour to get sorted, it will take all day because life is negotiable and impermanent in ways most Westerners can’t imagine. Vietnam reminds me of that Zen koan: you can never put your foot in the same river twice. This lack of reliability or predictability is precisely what makes living her hard.

Getting to and from is harder, negotiating at the market is harder, getting your hair cut is harder, finding quality anything is harder. The pre-packaged, standardized, franchise model of whatever hasn’t hit Vietnam just yet. And while that’s exactly what makes it exciting to be here on one level, it’s also what unnerves most on another and it just makes things…well…hard.

Halong Bay

Ha Noi sucks. Viet Nam is lovely, but Ha Noi sucks. Yes, there is plenty to appreciate. For example, you can walk down the polluted, dense street, nearly run over at every turn, feeling bitter and crusty and then stumble upon a thousand year old temple that is breathtaking in its gilded splendor. But generally, Ha Noi sucks. Which is why you must leave Ha Noi ever so often (more often than ever, I’m learning…)

Ha Long Bay Junks Sailing at Sunset

That’s what I did this weekend. After the two weeks I’ve had (more in a future post), it was time to either chuck it in or check out. I chose the later and booked a trip to Ha Long Bay with my friend (and one of the best things about Ha Noi) Kirsten. These photos were taken with my video camera, and do not do the area any justice.

The magnificence and splendor of Ha Long is hardly describable. And though it was foolhardy (as it’s winter here), I went for a swim, jumping off the top deck of our boat, as is customary. Our boat was not luxurious, but it was clean, affordable, and the food was good. Speaking of food, I caught some of the squid we ate with nets off the back of the boat, which didn’t make me too keen to eat because the water is rather polluted with oil and grime from boats that, according to official statistics, ferry some 10,000 tourists a day through the limestone outcroppings. I will probably shine green under a black light now from the toxic waste that is undoubtedly dumped or pumped or mined into the bay (the largest coal mines in the country are located in the are), but frankly, it was cool, quiet and absolutely worth it. I swam in the green water as tiny fish nibbled my toes, Japanese tourists gawked and took photos of the “crazy American”, and eagles circled over head. The Vietnamese say that you haven’t been to Viet Nam until you’ve been to Ha Long. I can see why.

Our guide, Nam, (meaning ‘man’ in Vietnamese, so of course I took to calling him Mr. Man, which delighted him to no end) was thoroughly entertaining. As we bussed it along a bumpy highway, flanked on either side by rice patties and perfectly manicured plots of green vegetables, Nam explained that in the countryside a man must have three things in order to be happy: a water buffalo, a house of his own, and a wife. I asked if the order was significant. “Yes, yes,” he said seriously. He explained that the water buffalo was for working, the house for sleeping and the wife for entertainment. “That’s why so many Vietnamese have many, many children. Because in the countryside there is not much to do and  men are very poor, eating only rice and so they must do something to stop thinking about their empty bellies.” I started to point out the irresponsibility of that logic but then I remember this was Vietnam and logic has no place here.

The Amazing Penis at the Amazing Cave

Nam’s country wisdom didn’t stop there. While at Ha Long, we were taken to the “Amazing Cave,” which was discovered by the French and originally named something like the “Unexpected Cave,” but that’s didn’t draw so many tourists, so the Vietnamese renamed it in the early 90s. The largest of eight such walkable caves, it truly was amazing (as the photo only mildly suggests), and we spent considerable time “finding” images in the limestone formations, much as we did as kids finding images in the clouds. We found all manner of image: turtles, elephants, drunken Buddhas, and this giant, illuminated…well, you can figure it out. Nam said this was called the Amazing finger. I told him there was no way a hungry man from the countryside would mistake that for a finger, but I digress…

Kyaking through one of the caves at Ha Long Bay.

Nam explained that the reason the Happy Buddhas have long ears is because Buddhists must listen carefully to all the people’s woes, and because they need to be good at this, they cultivate long earlobes. He also explained that round-faced people were compassionate, and square-faced people were courageous, so I should always look for a round-faced person to buy things from and a square-faced person to ride on the back of of a motorbike with. In a last bit of parting wisdom, he said that though he prayed to the Buddha for peace and prosperity, he would rather be a tour guide than a monk.

“The monk has a happy mind, but an unhappy life,” he said. “No buffalo, no house, no wife. You see?”

At the edge of the Amazing Cave looking west.

I nodded. The paradox was painfully clear: unhappy mind, happy life or a happy life and an unhappy mind, but not both. As I sat on the deck later that night sipping my Ha Noi beer and gazing at the same stars Magellen sailed by, I felt both happy in mind and life, and I stayed in that place until the Thang Long reared its ugly head once more.

Girlz Rule!

WARNING: If talking about v-jay-jays and their related medical impairments makes you squeamish, read no further. If you are a relative (particularly a father) and do not wish to know about parts of me in the Biblical sense consider yourself warned. Now, for all the ladies in the howz..

Wednesday was Vietnamese Women’s Day. There are a couple of days specific to the celebration of the woman; October 20th is one of them. My female adult students, whom I teach at night at a place called CleverLearn, explained that they celebrated Woman’s Day by taking a naked male mannequin and throwing darts at his private parts. Whoever “nails” him wins a banana and two, hairy lychee fruits artistically arranged to represent the male groin. She then must devour this fruit plate with the ferocity of the Hindu goddess Kali thus metaphorically expressing her power over the male form and sexual mystique. I was assured this was all done in jest and is considered great fun among women far and wide.

Teachers however are entitled to no such metaphorical devouring of the male anatomy on Vietnamese Woman’s Day, and instead receive all manner of age and rank appropriate gifts from ripe, open lilies to extravagant bouquets of exotic orchids made by talented street vendors to money to clothes. My 7ma class brought me flowers, 7mb brought me a lovely, red, silk, hand-made purse from Sapa and my 6M class—my favorite bunch of sixth graders—gave me, very ceremoniously…body wash.

I wasn’t quite sure how to take this, but after checking with several other expat teachers who are much more experienced in the gift giving ways of Vietnamese children, I was told this gift was not a not-so-subtle dig at my level of personal hygiene, but a gift of great consideration and some expense. Body wash, especially “brand” body wash, is a luxury in Vietnam. Such bath milk can only be found in western grocery stores where the stock fluctuates, and the cost is at least 50 percent higher than normal because of scarcity. When I opened my polka dot covered bag and pulled out the body wash, I felt very much like my mother must have felt when, as a child, I imperially presented her on her birthday a smooth, shiny rock. And, just as my mother did, I oohed and ahhed and said something like, “You shouldn’t have.”

At any rate, this body wash was potent smelling. Lily of the Valley or some such and other. I used it faithfully for a day or two and made sure to have my 6M students come and sniff my neck and hair to prove just how much I loooooooved smelling like a gardenia. Now, I’m not saying what happened next is a direct result of the body wash; I’m just saying it didn’t help.

The body is a delicate organism. Added stress, a change in the brand of milk one drinks, or new body wash can send the female body into a tizzy. When you move to a new country you can expect that your body and mind will go into shock. There’s a lot written about culture shock, but less written about the shock your body goes through, probably because each body reacts differently. Since I’ve moved to Vietnam, I’ve suffered mouth ulcers, breakouts on my face and back, ant attacks in the middle of the night, and one very confused salamander who launched an assault on the beach of my leg at 2 a.m. causing my heart to momentarily stop. Little did I know, this was just the beginning…

I noticed that as the days of this week wore on, I had developed an insufferable, interminable itch in the nether parts. Immediate horror struck. What terrible disease had I contracted while in the jungles of Vietnam that I’d have to—oh wait—I wasn’t in the jungle.

Okay, what rare Southeast Asian microbe had crawled through my ear canal such that would land me on the Discovery Chanel’s program Mystery Diagnosis? Okay, no microbes either.

In the end the “itch” turned out to be a garden-variety, unexciting though terribly irritating yeast infection. Common enough (as in three out of four women will have at least one in their lives — who knew?!)  but still painful and inconvenient. I mean, it’s not like I could pop down to Publix and pick up some Monostat 7 with my lettuce. Oh no, this is Vietnam, baby, where shopping is definitely not a pleasure.

Because yeast infections are so common, I thought it would be easy enough to go to one of the dozen or so street pharmacies that stock every manner of legal and illegal substance and score some over-the-counter remedy. I took a Vietnamese friend of mine with me to interpret, but my modesty got in the way and royally confused the situation. The dialogue went something like this:

“Huyen, I need your help.”
“Okay Sarah.”
“I need you to explain to the pharmacist that I have some itching down there,” I pointed in the general direction of the v-jay-jay.
“I don’t understand, you skin scratch?”
“Well, yes, kind of. It’s a yeast infection.”
Blank stare.
“Yeast. Yeast infection. Itchy. Scratch.”
She made some verbal calculations, said some words in Vietnamese, and the pharmacist handed me cortisol creme.
“No, no, this is topical. I need something to go—you know—inside.”
More blank staring.
She whipped out the Vietnamese-to-English dictionary and flipped to the ‘Y’s.
She scratched her head again.
“You want to make bread?”
“No. I have a yeast in-fect-ion.” Pointing wildly to a small rendering of a packet of yeast in the dictionary and then to my va-jay-jay. “In there. In there. Itchy. Yeast. Bad.”
“I sorry. I do not understand. Beer? You want to make beer?”
“This isn’t going well.”
She shook her head. “I tink you see doctor.”
“Yes, a doctor would be good.”

In the end, I had a shockingly pleasant experience at a very Western clinic that did not have Monostat 7 exactly, but had a Bayer-made equivalent and spoke enough English to realize I did not want to use my v-jay-jay as a bread or beer maker.

As I sat in the clinic feeling terribly sorry for myself, I was reminded of the T-shirts that were all the craze a few years ago at tourist destinations. They said something like: My wife went to Yosemite and all I got was this stinking T-shirt. Sigh…Yeah, I went to Vietnam and all I got was this stinking yeast infection.

So, I did what any self-respecting woman with a yeast infection would do – I went and drowned my sorrow in some beer at the bia hoi. And later that night, of course, I got lost, which seems to be my permanent state of being these days. On my way home at 11 o’clock, the streets were empty and I was irritated and itchy. I pulled up next to a xe om and tried in my best Vietnamese to explain I was lost and tired and not feeling well and could he please, please, please show me how to get home. He looked at me nonplussed and said, “You just a girl.” As if that had anything to do with it.

But then I thought, yeah, I am. I’m an American girl who moved to Vietnam and learned to drive a motorbike, and survived her first yeast infection, and smells like a gardenia. What have you done lately stinky, smelly xe om man? Besides, it’s Vietnamese Woman’s Day. I’ll find my own way home, damn it. I pulled out into the night, lost, but totally empowered and–I don’t know why–but succumbed to the overpowering need to yowl at the moon as I sped down the empty streets of Ha Noi – “Girrrrrrlzzzzzz Ruuuuuuuuuuule!”

Happy Vietnamese W0man’s Day.