Saturday, May 31, 2008
On Vietnam: Reflection and Rejuvenation
What is Vietnam? The word still means "war" for those who, like many Americans, see it through the prism of military defeat. For others, like some of my generally well informed friends in academe back in America, it is a third world police state, thanks to it's one-party system and alleged suppression of the opposition. For millions of others though, like the 80 plus million Vietnamese and many of of those in its diaspora, it is family, friends, culture, nation and a society undergoing radical change.
What is Vietnam for me? Why do I care?
I grew up in Ohio in the 1960s and 70s, but also always with an "image" of Vietnam. That image was constructed by nightly news reports on what the Vietnamese now call the "American War." I saw "Vietnam" with amazing regularity on the family TV at dinner time, from the other side of the ocean. But it was Vietnam by numbers: the number of North Vietnamese Army regulars killed, the number of Viet Cong killed, the number of South Vietnamese soldiers killed, and lastly, the number of Americans who had died. I remember Walter Cronkite making this announcement solemnly, but almost as if it were a daily sports score.
I learned that the Vietnamese had also fought against other "good guys," the French (or so we were told). The French had lost Vietnam in a battle called Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and since that time, the story went, America had stepped in and was there to stop the spread of communism. America had to help countries like the Soviet Union throw off the "yoke of communism" and we had to help Vietnam from embracing it (or so we were told).
Communism. That was the key word. That was why we American kids in the 1960s had to hide in the basement of our school during nuclear bomb drills. Since the start of the so-called "Cold War," after the end of real fighting in World War II, it had become America's duty-- or so we young Americans learned in school, from TV, from our families -- to fight the "Evil Red Empire" led by China and the Soviet Union. Vietnam was just one more "domino" on the board in that struggle, it was a place for America to contain communism's global expansion (or so we were told).
I learned to see that situation differently though, starting sometime between 1965 and 1966. I was in third grade (primary three). The girl in my class who I fancied the most -- I can't remember her name -- was sweet, cute, and smart. But what I remember most about her now, 40 years into the future, is how our lady teacher entered class one morning and announced that this classmate's daddy, a pilot, had been shot down over North Vietnam. Now he was dead. But, of course, he was also a hero (or so we were told).
I guess some boys would have found cause in that story to dream of being a pilot themselves, or of being a president who could one day say "bring 'em on" and help to kill "all them bad guys." But not me. I was at a loss. My friend's daddy was DEAD. Gone forever. Killed in Vietnam. And yet he was a hero.
So? I asked myself. What was the point in having a daddy who was a hero if he was dead, never to be seen again? ( Yes, war really is hell, heroically fought or not.)
Well, the rest is history. I grew up to hate war, question my country's leaders' motives and develop an opinion about who the real bad guys in Vietnam were. I came to see Vietnam as not just a war but as a place where real people lived, and where, between the time that America got involved in the conflict there and then left in 1975, some 50,000 American daddies, sons, and brothers got killed, and over 3,000,000 Vietnamese died. (How did General Curtis Le May put it? We should bomb them back into the Stone Age.)
All because of that "ugly" word, communism. Or thanks to the American leadership's misinterpretation of it!
Last night, I was in Vietnam. In fact, at about this same time, I was riding in a bus back to Saigon from Can Tho, the main city in the Mekong Delta. (Together with colleagues from my university program, I had just spent a wonderful afternoon meeting and conversing with 30 fellow teachers from Can Tho University in a colloquium on issues in English language teaching.) We visitors left enthused by the welcome we had received, then we watched the sun set from the ferry dock beside the Mekong, then we'd been on the road a couple hours when we finally stopped at a large outdoor roadside restaurant for a break.
A group of us wandered back to the toilet we'd used on the four-hour morning ride down to Can Tho only to discover that it was closed. So in dire need, I walked into an unused back section of the eatery, which was just next to a dark canal. There I stood, alone, in the dark, on concrete steps overlooking the canal, staring at the jungled river bank opposite the restaurant. Then and there it hit me. Mekong Delta? Wouldn't this very place, this spot have been a potential venue for a scene from Apocalypse Now, just 40 years earlier? Might not this canal have been in the war zone? And now look at it. Look at Vietnam today.
Sure, there were pictures, or paintings, or photographs of long gone Uncle Ho in almost every classroom of the five universities we visited this past week, from Hanoi to Saigon to Can Tho. But there is also a vibrancy in Vietnam that defies anyone with thoughts of the "yoke of communism" today, that even defies the country's recent description as one of the new "tigers" of Asia. You can see it in the tour buses and taxis lined up outside Ho Chi Minh City's sparkling new airport, in the entrepreneurial skills of the tour guides, bellboys, waitresses, shop clerks and roadside hawkers; you can see it in the countless shops selling limitless consumer goods; you can see it in the luxury hotels with fully stocked buffets, health salons and roof top bars over million dollar views; you can see it in all the new building projects, including massive bridges, widening highways and shiny new housing estates; you can hear it in the buzz of the 4.5 million motorcycles of Ho Chi Minh City and in the showroom of one of that same city's many auto dealerships, Luxury Motors; you can also sense it every time you see an amazingly professional research presentation made by young academics who articulate in flawless English first rate practical methods based on sound theory --- and you can be humbled by how well they have succeeded, after doing their graduate degrees locally or abroad with fellowships from their own government or from others (some from the repentant Ford & Fulbright Foundations). You can also stand equally impressed by the country's latest educational policy goal: 10,000 PhDs!
Communism? Well, there may be a central command for the country's development, I guess, and the ministries and party cadres probably do play an important part in shaping policy direction. But state control of every aspect of Vietnamese life? I don't think so. That wouldn't make economic sense. And Vietnam, now a member of ASEAN, the WTO, and other formidable organizations, seems to want more than anything to be taken seriously as a major economic player in Asia today. Its social and philosophical "doctrines" notwithstanding.
Over an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch, I asked a vice dean from one of the prestigious universities that we visited if he had to be a member of the Communist Party to secure his position. With a smile he gave me an emphatic "no," and then he explained in excellent Aussie-inflected English that he had never been a party member and maybe never would be. As for the "American War," he confided that what was past was past, and that the Vietnamese are a very forgiving people. He added to that saying,"We Vietnamese are looking to the future."
What an understatement -- and like many of Vietnam's current success stories, he was full of charm, intelligence and enthusiasm, all of which are more prevalent in Vietnam today than even the pictures of Ho Chi Minh I'd come to admire.