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A week of constrasts

It feels like I’m doing more work out of the office during this tour.  Being able to do work in addition to visa interviews is rewarding.  I like talking to visa applicants, and I think I’m good at it.  But doing that all day, every day, for weeks on end, can become tiring.

For three days last week, I went on an investigation trip into the outer provinces.  This is a different kind of diplomatting.  We sometimes have to check the relationships between U.S. citizens who are married to Vietnamese citizens, and are applying for immigrant status for the spouses.  Most of these cases are legitimate, but there is a lot of fraud as well.  By visiting the homes of the applicants, and interviewing them there, we can determine whether the marriages are real or not.

We were a small team of three: me, a locally-engaged staff member, and a driver.  We drove a LOT over bad country roads.  We typically had to drive from one to two hours between appointments.  By the end of each day, my butt was sore from hitting all of the bumps in the road.  One of the managers told me that we really earn our hardship differential when we go out on these trips.  I agree.

The trip took us west, toward the Cambodian border.  That area is very rural, and is home to some of Vietnam’s 50-odd ethnic minorities.  Most people in this part of the country work in agriculture.

Farm workers

Economically, there just isn’t a lot happening in the countryside.  Here’s the local store:

A busy shopping center.

And in case you’re wondering, here’s a typical gas station bathroom:

Desperation makes one do things that one would not do under ordinary circumstances.

Not only is the countryside spread out and sparsely populated, but the roads are not well marked. Compared to well-organized urban areas, addresses in the provinces seem arbitrary.  We had to stop several times to ask directions.  One time, we asked directions from an old guy who was cooking outside his house.  He started to tell us how to get to the house we were looking for, then he stopped and thought for a moment.  He seemed to figure that it would be more efficient for his to show us himself.  So he walked away from his pot, but kept his spoon in his hand, as he led us down the street to the applicant’s house.

My Impressive Spoon of Direction will lead us to the correct destination.

 

Houses are constructed of wood and brick.  We saw several places in different stages of construction.

Very basic brick construction.

After seeing the low standard of living in the countryside, it isn’t hard to understand why some people would want to leave.  Some people move to the city for work, some people choose to emigrate.

Among the farms and poverty, though, we got to see some interesting regional culture.  A local religion called Cao Dai started in the 1920s in one of the provinces that we visited.  The religion combines characteristics of traditional Chinese religions like Confucianism and Taoism, Buddhism, and even Christianity.  I don’t pretend to understand much about the religion, but their temple is beautiful.  We were allowed inside for a brief visit before the evening service started at 6:00 pm.

Cao Dai temple at twilight

 

Inside the Cao Dai temple

On Friday, we finished our investigations, and returned to Ho Chi Minh City on Friday evening.  The next day was the annual Marine Corps Birthday Ball.

Many Embassies and Consulates have a detachment of Marine Security Guards.  Their official role is to provide security to the grounds and guard the classified information inside post.  Every year, the Marine Corps celebrates its birthday (November 10).  MSGs at posts abroad hold a ball to celebrate, and invite all the diplomats and their families.  It’s like prom for grownups.  People have a “day of beauty” to do their makeup and hair.  The Marine Ball is about the only opportunity that I have to wear my tuxedo.

We went to prom in order to learn how to do this.

I had the privilege of writing the speech for our guest of honor this year.  This was my second speechwriting experience for this tour.  Like most skills, speechwriting takes practice, and like most tasks in the Foreign Service, there are structures and rules.  I forgot some key elements in a standard State Department speech, like acknowledging the guest dignitaries (oops), but the speaker was experienced, and she filled in the parts that I left out.  The speech was well-received (whew!).

This was an interesting week.  My job took me out to the dust and poverty of remote provincial countryside, then back to a night of glitz and dancing in the city, all in a few short days.  This wasn’t a typical week.   My schedule for next week should be business as usual.  It will be nice to calm down and relax by doing some routine work.  Even so, the meaning of “routine” while living abroad is different from in the U.S.

I swear to God this is not a joke

I’ve received many WTF things in the mail before, but I usually have to open the envelope before I know that it’s WTF.

When they put the WTF right on the front of the envelope, I’m afraid to open it, for fear of what’s inside.

I am a YouTube Violator

So apparently my food videos are offensive to The Powers That Be at YouTube. I was just notified that my video violated YouTube’s delicate sensitivities.

This is part of the notification:

Your video “Ca Loc in Danang” was flagged for review. Upon review, we’ve determined that it violates our guidelines. We’ve removed it from YouTube and assigned a Community Guidelines strike, or temporary penalty, to your account.

I thought it might be a spearfishing attempt, so I went to my YouTube page. Sure enough, this snippet of text was waiting for me:

The video is question is an 11-second shot of my lunch: clay-pot fish. Sure, it’s “steamy,” but not in the pornographic sense:

Does this video offend you?

What “Community Guideline” does this video violate? Here are the categories, according to YouTube’s website:

Nudity or sexual content: Admittedly, the fish is not wearing any clothes. Maybe this is the one?

Harmful or dangerous content: Well, if you asked the fish, it would probably say that the video isn’t good for its health.

Hateful content: Some people don’t like fish, it’s true. Maybe this is the one?

Violent or graphic content: I’m sure that the fish was murdered. This could be the one!

Harassment and cyberbullying: Um…

Spam, misleading metadata, and scams: It’s fish, not spam. Pretty sure this one is out.

Threats: No one is saying anything bad will happen to you if you don’t eat the fish.

Copyright: It’s my video. I shot it, I own it.

Privacy: Again, the fish is nude. So, maybe…

Impersonation: The fish isn’t trying to push itself off as anything but a fish.

Child endangerment: You’ve got me: some kids don’t like fish. This definitely could be the one.

 

I assume that this is an AI fail. But it’s pretty funny to think that my food video was found to be inappropriate.

The Many Poses of Den

I was giving a student visa talk the other day, and my wife, who knows me all too well, was in charge of taking photos. She managed to capture much of my “special” body language. Clearly, I need to get some life coaching, or go to finishing school. Or just stop talking in front of people.

As usual, my humiliation is your entertainment. Enjoy.

75%

We’re 75% through the year, and I’m over 75% through my goal of running 2,017 kilometers this year.

This happens every so often

I work in Asia, and most of the people that I interact with on a daily basis are Asians, with Asian facial features. It gets to the point where the Asian face becomes the “norm” for me. Then when I see a Western face, I get confused.

It’s a strange feeling. I look at myself in the mirror, and my reaction is: what a funny-looking person. His eyes are sunken in, face is pale, and look at the size of that dude’s nose!

How I must appear to my colleagues here in Vietnam

This phenomenon reminds me of the line in the famous Robert Burns poem:

Oh, would some Power give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us!

Not really a gift, of course. Especially in my case. Sheesh, the schnoz on that guy…

Light Trails

I’m not a very good photographer, but I really love my iPhone camera. It’s easy to use and very forgiving of amateurs like me. With a few specialty apps, you can take some amazing photos.

Last night I went out and experimented with taking photos with light trails. These are just my first attempts. I still have to tinker with the settings, so I can get the exact effect that I want. Even though these aren’t perfect, they’re still interesting and fun.

This is cool?

In my dream last night, people were impressed that I knew the lyrics to the theme song of the TV show “Laverne and Shirley.” Clearly, my subconscious’s concept of what is impressive needs a reality check. Also, WTF, brain?!

I am typecast

Extra nerd points if you can remember the character’s real name. Need a hint? Initials R.H.

When I worked in China, the local staff called me “professor.” Part of the reason for the nickname was because of my former job in academia. But another factor could have been that “professor” in Chinese is a lot easier to pronounce than my last name in English. But anyway. I didn’t mind the nickname, it was a nice throwback my former career, and besides, it’s a sign of respect.

Last week, the local staff here in Vietnam told me that they have a nickname for me. I never told them about my former career in academia. So it was surprising (but not really) when they told me they have been referring to me as “professor.”

I guess if I have to remind people of something, there are a lot worse things to remind them of. As nicknames go, “professor” isn’t too bad. I would have preferred “Fabio,” but you can’t choose your own nickname. Oh, well.

Impressions of Vietnam So Far

I have been in country over a month now, and I am starting to form some initial impressions. Some are pretty obvious. Of course, my understanding is pretty superficial right now. As I get more familiar with the language and culture, I’m sure I’ll develop some more informed opinions as time goes on.

1. Vietnam is not China

Of course, I knew that all along, intellectually at least. But it’s hard not to compare your current post with your previous post. I spent two years in China. A lot of my initial impressions have been colored by my experiences in Northeast China. In addition, there are some similarities. Vietnamese culture and history cannot escape the influence of over 1,000 years of cultural domination by China. The Vietnamese language has an enormous number of loanwords from Chinese, for example. On a very superficial level, the Vietnamese people eat with chopsticks. So it’s tempting to see Vietnam as a subset of China. But that thinking would be very misleading. The Vietnamese people have been able to maintain very distinct cultural traditions of their own. I could go on and on about the differences between China and Vietnam, but long story short, Vietnam is a very distinct place, not China at all.

2. Communism’s Thumbprint is Obvious

Hagiographic posters like this are everywhere in the country. They promote official doctrine about political and social values. This one encourages people to follow the example of “the great Uncle Ho” (Ho Chi Minh).

I think this is one of the factors that misled me to see more similarities between China and Vietnam. Both countries have a communist government, and the governments in both countries have adopted a similar economic policy. The local economy is allowed to operate as a market economy (just please don’t call it “capitalism.” That’s a dirty word in communist countries). Although there are a lot of freedoms here, the government keeps very (VERY) firm control over politics and the press. Just like in China. There is a very clear line where economic freedoms end and government control begins. A Chinese taxi driver put it this way to me many years ago: you have freedom from the neck down. That seems to be the case in Vietnam, too.

3.  War? What war?

The Vietnam War (or as they call it here: the American War) is ancient history. Unlike many Americans, the Vietnamese people don’t seem to obsess over it. I think there are two reasons for that. One is that on the average, Vietnamese people are too young to remember the war. It all happened before they were born, so the whole event is an abstract idea. The other reason that they don’t dwell on the war (and this is just my opinion) is because they won. In comparison, we Americans don’t spend time re-hashing the Spanish-American war, although the effects of the war influenced global events. Why? Because it could be argued that we won that war. Things went well for us afterwards, and America gained significant advantages from that war. For the Vietnamese, the end of the “American War” war meant that they could stop fighting for independence (after 25+ years), and move forward to building their country. The war is part of their history, of course, and we see many military artifacts all over the city as a reminder of the war. But psychologically, it seems, they have moved on.

4. Huge gap between the haves and the have-nots

I live in an upscale part of the city. There are lots of shopping centers, international restaurants, and well-educated people here. But you go just a kilometer in any direction from my apartment, and you can see people really struggling. There is also some crushing poverty here. You can see the same phenomenon in any country, of course. Even in America, there are some areas that seem to have been missed out on the American Dream. I have to remind myself that I live in a bubble here, and most of the people that I come into contact with here are not the 1%.

Machine shop in the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. Note the lousy lighting and lack of steel-toed boots and safety glasses. OSHA would not like this.

5. America is Popular

I’m interviewing a lot of students who want to study in America because they think that an American education is the key to their success in Vietnam. Many Vietnamese people have a high regard for the U.S. There are some political and strategic reasons why the Vietnamese government would want close relations with the U.S. (mainly to counter the growing influence of China in the region). But on the individual level, many Vietnamese people seem to like Americans. Many times, I have walked down the street (especially in poorer areas), and Vietnamese people smile and greet me. I’ve been greeted with “America, good!,” accompanied by a thumbs-up gesture, from many people here. I’d like to think that a lot of this good will is due to our successful public diplomacy work here.  We spend a lot of effort on our “soft power” relationship with Vietnam. But that can’t account for all of the positive impression of America in the minds of the Vietnamese people. You can’t transplant a positive attitude toward a country into the hearts and minds of people. A good reputation has to be earned. I think that in Vietnam, the U.S. still enjoy a reputation as a country that, for all its faults, has had a positive impact on the world, and at least tries to treat other countries fairly.

I’ve only scratched the surface. I still have two years to discover this country, and I plan to take advantage of every opportunity to learn. One of the perks of my job is having the time to get to know a country in depth. The more time I spend outside America, the more I appreciate America. The patriot part of me will love my country forever. The student-scholar part of me loves the chance to be a livelong learner. This has been a great experience so far.