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Colonialist Advertisements

On a recent business trip in country, I stayed at a very nice hotel. The decor was French colonial, very tasteful. However, some of the artwork in the hotel was off-putting at best, offensive at worst. The reaction of my Vietnamese coworker was surprising to me, though.

So look at this ad. Do you see what I see?

king of the world

I see a white man (and he’s dressed in white, as if to underscore his race), prominently strutting, as “natives” toil.

Look at the details of the Vietnamese people’s faces. What’s wrong with this picture?

hint: Vietnamese people do not look like this.

It’s as if the illustrator went out of his way to make the Vietnamese people more “other.”

And here’s another one. This one is a little more subtle, but the message is still clear:

All of the servers are Vietnamese, and all of the servees are European.

I showed these to my wife, who was as horrified as I was. She asked what the Vietnamese people though of them. I happened to be traveling with a locally-employed staff member, so when I had the chance later that day, I showed him the photos that I took of the ads. He didn’t seem to have a strong reaction, so I asked if he thought they were racist, or colonialist, or simply offensive. He thought a moment, and told me that he understood the message of the advertisement, and intellectually agreed that it wasn’t appropriate, but he wasn’t offended by it.

I told him that if such an advertisement appeared in China, there would be a very strong reaction by the government. There would possibly be economic sanctions on the hotel that posted them. Why not in Vietnam? I asked. Vietnam has an even more recent history of colonialism than China does, and fought a bitter war to gain its independence. Wouldn’t the country want to put that painful period of humiliation behind it, and certainly not glorify it in advertisements for a hotel?

He seemed bemused, and hinted that I was thinking too much. He said that Vietnamese people have more important things to worry about, implying I was overreacting. He asked how many Vietnamese guests we saw in the hotel. I had to admit that he was the only one. So, he said, maybe the artwork is aimed at foreigners.

But that’s the point! I countered. Why would the Vietnamese people not have a problem with glorifying colonialism to the colonists?

He conceded my point, but maintained that it didn’t bother him. He said that he knows about Vietnam’s colonial past, knows that it was an unpleasant period in his country’s history, but he didn’t think the symbolism of the ad was worth getting upset about.

Maybe he doesn’t want to waste time and energy re-fighting a fight that his people won.

I guess he is OK with us foreigners dwelling in the past. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese people know who won in the end.

Sunrise over Vietnam (and Cambodia)

When I was on a survey trip to the Mekong Delta last week, I stayed one night in a hotel that sits on the bank of the river that separates Vietnam and Cambodia.

The (very) little town of Châu Đốc.

I was awakened at 4:30am by the call to prayer from a nearby mosque (thanks for nothing, guys), and since I was up anyway, I took the opportunity to do a time-lapse video of the sunrise.

Not funny, Google Maps

America’s soft power is strong

Traveling on a survey trip in the countryside is rewarding in many ways. When you live in a big city, it’s easy to forget that most people in the country don’t enjoy a high standard of living.

Yesterday I had two heartwarming interactions with Vietnamese people. The first was in a very small town in the Mekong Delta. We got a little lost, and were trying to figure out what to do. While we were standing on the side of the road, a young man walked up to me and struck up a conversation in English.

As a matter of principle, I like to engage with people, especially with students. You never know who kids will grow up to be. I’d love to be the American that a future leader remembers talking to, way back when. It’s also good for America when people have a favorable impression of us.

Anyway, this young man said he was 16, and asked where I was from. When I told him I was from America, his face lit up. He was clearly delighted to be talking with an American. His English wasn’t very good, but we managed a brief conversation. I admired his courage to approach a foreigner and try using a language that he was just starting to learn. I don’t think I am that brave.

The other interaction happened later that night, in town. We were on he street, when a small child, about 3 years old, walked by with his mom. With the encouragement of his mother, he smiled, waved, and called out “Hello!” to me. He didn’t speak any English, but he wasn’t self-conscious or shy, he trotted over to me and gave me a high-five.

I’ve had interactions like that in other countries. But Americans seem to enjoy especially high favorability among the Vietnamese people, even (or maybe especially) in rural parts of the country. In the eyes of many people here, America never wasn’t “great.”

I know it’s probably two different things, but…

I kinda want to see what a “motorbike laundry” would be. Especially the automatic kind.

I went to necktie paradise

We spend the holiday weekend in the city of Hoi An (Hội An). It’s a very charming old town with amazing old architecture, and a very nice beach.

The town has a tradition of making clothes. There are a lot of tailor shops, where you can get anything made from just a photograph. My wife had a beautiful formal dress made for her. I didn’t think I needed anything, so I just watched.

Later, we were walking in the old town, when we came across a small shop that sells neckties. The person working in the shop said that it’s a family business.

I picked out five ties, including a bow tie to match my wife’s new dress, and we practiced our Vietnamese with the people in the shop. After I chose the five ties that I wanted, the shopkeepers chose a sixth one for me, asked if I liked it, and said that it was a gift for me, because I spoke Vietnamese.

So I walked out of the store with six new neckties, for a total price of US$22.

I wholeheartedly recommend this shop to everyone. I asked them for a name card, so I could spread the word, but they said they don’t have one. The store doesn’t even have a name, it’s just the front room in their house. But if you want to find it, here’s the address:

Dường Trần Phú 146

Tỉnh Quảng Nam

Hội An

Is it art?

Is it like a Jackson Pollock painting?

Or is it just part of an old and decrepit wall?

Does the truth about the nature of something negate its potential to be art?

Korea is a wonderful and strange place

Korean Music in the Airport

Korea’s Inchon airport is very good. In addition to the shops and food, free showers and rest areas, there are also cultural resources. The government rented a storefront to display art objects. There is also a small stage where I saw a performance of Korean classical music. 

Language Immersion Trip, part 3

We are leaving Vietnam this morning (I’m actually writing this on the airplane).  Yesterday the Consul General hosted a lunch for us in Ho Chi Minh City. Several officers who are will work with us in the Consulate also attended. Despite the torrential storm that swept through in the middle of lunch (or maybe because of it) we had great conversations. I think we will enjoy our tour. 

View from our hotel last night in Ho Chi Minh City. Lots of green in the park.

Although I still am not where I want to be linguistically, this trip has helped a lot. I’m more confident using the language, and I’ve picked up ways of saying things. For example, to get the attention of a waitperson in a restaurant, you say: “em ơi!,” which means something like: “hey, younger sibling!” Little things like that will help us interact with people more naturally. 

There is one sociological factor that will continue to be a challenge to me. Vietnamese people consistently, almost insistently, speak to me in English. I’m sure this is because most foreigners in Vietnam don’t speak Vietnamese.  People here simply don’t expect the Vietnamese language to erupt from a person with a white face. Even when I initiate conversations in Vietnamese, the answers are usually  in English. It’s frustrating to a person who’s trying to practice language. The exceptions seem to be people who have zero English, like many taxi drivers, and very educated people who recognize that I want to interact in their language. 

My wife, who is blessed with an Asian face, has a different problem. She is commonly mistaken for a Vietnamese person, and so people address her in colloquial Vietnamese. That’s great if your Vietnamese language proficiency is where you want it to be. It isn’t so great if you’re still a struggling learner, like we are. We will probably have to deal with this phenomenon throughout our time in Vietnam. But if that’s our biggest problem, we should be fine. 

I still have ten more weeks of language training before I return to Vietnam to begin my tour. I think my language proficiency is where it has to be for my job requirements. I would like it to be higher, though.  I will have to work really hard until June. 

They haven’t accepted this excuse from me yet, but I’ll keep trying.