I am an historian

The site of the current U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City was the site of the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam from 1968-1975. As a result, the site is of considerable historical significance.

I won’t go into the details, but if you’re interested, Wikipedia’s article has a pretty good summary of the events that happened on the compound.

Many of the officers that are posted here have an interest in history, so a “consulate historian” group has formed. When high-level visitors (government officials) come on an official visit, they often want a tour of the grounds, to understand how the events that happened here played out. An officer will lead a tour and explain what happened. It’s sort of like being a docent in a museum.

Shortly before coming to post, I joined the historian team. I’ve given a couple of tours so far. The group has a collection of documents and photos that we can use as visual aids when we give talks, but we also tailor our talks to the particular interests of the visitors.

Last week I gave a tour to a cabinet secretary who was visiting Vietnam on an official visit. Because the Secretary was born in Michigan, then later represented Georgia in Congress, I took the time to find both Michigan and Georgia connections to the events at the Embassy. I managed to find people from those respective states who played significant roles in the events at the Embassy.

At first, I thought I would be giving a tour to only the Secretary and his wife, but it turned out that a large group of his staff and other departmental personnel tagged along as well. There were about 20 people in the group. The Ambassador was also there, and provided some additional details as I gave my talk (he has extensive knowledge about the recent history of the Consulate, because he was here when the U.S. was re-establishing diplomatic relations with Vietnam in the late 1990s).

When I joined the Foreign Service, I didn’t picture myself giving historical tours, but it certainly fits in with our job description. Talking about the history of a U.S. Embassy is definitely one of the roles of a diplomat.

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.

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?!

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.