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Vietnam

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.

The fool valve is a real thing

In his entertaining book “Japanese in Action!,” author Jack Seward describes something that he calls the “fool valve.” The phenomenon is that some Japanese people see a white face, and assume that the person can’t speak Japanese. Even if the white person speaks very fluent Japanese, the preconceived notion in the Japanese person’s mind prevents him from hearing the Japanese coming from the white person’s mouth.

 

There’s also a hilarious YouTube video that illustrates the point:

I never really experienced this when I was working in China. Sometimes people were surprised to hear me speaking in Chinese, but they always seemed to adjust very quickly.

Today, however, I interviewed a visa applicant who apparently had his fool valve stuck. I finished interviewing the person before him in line in Vietnamese. When this guy came up to my window, I asked (in Vietnamese) to see his passport. He said in Vietnamese: “Vietnamese, please.” I responded in Vietnamese: “No problem, I speak Vietnamese. Please give me your passport.”

I want to add at this point that although my Vietnamese isn’t as good as my Chinese, I can still hold my own in a visa interview. Several of the local staff have complemented my language skills. I’m comfortably sure that a reasonable person would understand me if I walked up to them on the street and asked to see their passport. They would definitely think that I was a strange little man, but they would understand me nonetheless.

However, this guy was stuck. I think he saw my white face, and assumed that anything out of my mouth would be English. He stared at me with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, and said again in Vietnamese: “Vietnamese, please.”

I repeated myself slowly and loudly, enunciating every word like I was talking to a child. “Please. Show. Me. Your. Passport. ” That seemed to help. It took about four back-and-forth turns before the valve in his mind got unstuck, and he realized that I was speaking to him in Vietnamese. I worked my way up, gradually speaking more quickly and naturally. By the end of the interview, we were chatting at normal speed in Vietnamese.

So, Mr. Seward, I apologize for ever doubting you or thinking that you were exaggerating. The fool valve is definitely a thing. I think it’s an unfortunate term, but it’s definitely a thing in Vietnam.

You wish…

…you were as cool as this guy.

 

Teh Dar

A nice perk of my job is that occasionally get a ticket to cultural performances. I’m a very low-ranking person at the Consulate, so opportunities like this are rare for me. But I really got lucky yesterday. Last night I got to see a show called “Teh Dar.” It’s a dance performance based on the culture of one of the ethnic minorities in Vietnam, the Tây Nguyên (“Day Ween”) people.

Here’s an official trailer for the performance:

I’m a Philistine, so abstract meanings are lost on my tiny, uncultured brain. So I apologize to if my description of the show completely misrepresents the intent of the producer. The performance was in several parts, representing (to my uncultured eye) aspects of the life and culture of the people. The impression that I got was that there were themes common to all cultures: planting crops, hunting, building a house, courtship and love. Then there were some more pieces that were more abstract, representing (I think) the supernatural, war, and storms. The quality of the performance was terrific. The dancing was athletic, like Cirque du Soleil.

After the performance was over, the performers sat in a stairwell in the lobby, singing to us as we left the opera house.

It was a real treat to experience this show, and to see the inside of the famous Opera House.

The Opera House at night.

Here’s what it looked like 100 years ago, in 1915:

By David Shapinsky from Washington, D.C., United States – “Municipal Theatre” and stand for “Malabars,” Saigon, Vietnam by Underwood, ca. 1915 (LOC), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3000345

And here’s a link to the performance’s website: http://www.luneproduction.com/teh-dar.

Don’t worry

He’s on the “right” side of the window.

Mind=Blown

Thanks to M.T. for spotting this one!

Anti Social Social Club

 

4377 Yeah!

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.

See who in what?

Nice sunset

Taken from the roof of my building, about 6:30 pm.