I had envisaged my trip to Đồng Hới and Ka Sen would be about ‘going local’, listening and learning from locals about grass-roots community building and philanthropy.
I had packed by bags with that expectation: mosquito repellent, waterproof jacket and pants, hiking shoes, quick drying loose clothes, etc for my stay at my host’s family home and for our visit to the school and its ethnic minority communities up in the mountains in the border region. (I confess to packing an item of luxury, a pillow, for the 16 overnight train rides and for sleeping on the floors since I didn’t know what my host family’s home would be like).
As is the classic Viet way, things don’t always turn out as expected.
The visit to the school wasn’t low-key, and it showed that at the heart of these endeavours is relationships or to borrow the Chinese term, guanxi. That is, relationships to gather the resources for the community building efforts; but moreover, cultivating relationships and networks to develop personal and organisational opportunities. The mixing of personal, business, charitable motives in philanthropic activities is no surprise – in Australia and in Vietnam (see Philanthropy Report in Vietnam).
One of key partner in efforts to build the school was a monthly magazine publisher with the contingent of 10 staff (mainly journalists) from three offices across Vietnam. And it took a brief conversation for my host to agree for us to join their ‘roadtrip’ that the head of the organisation had designed to kill a fair few birds: charity, team building, corporate (ie his personal) brand building and networking, and holiday touring. Meaningful and fine, why not?!
Their itinerary revolved around meeting local community leaders and counterpart newspaper outfits in Quảng Trị over big lunches and dinners, and a ‘pilgrimage’ to historical sites to pay their respects to Vietnamese veterans and war heroes on decreed commemorative days.
Both aspects challenged the worldviews and values of my upbringing. And in turn, both made me learn the hard lessons of what reconciliation means and the magnitude of the cultural change needed to achieve gender equality in Vietnam.
I am of refugee pedigree, and so I initially heard the achievements of the Communist heroes at the memorial visits as mere propaganda. But my travelling companions (and all those people, young and old at the memorials) were earnest, and almost religious, in paying their respects to people who sacrificed so much to unite a divided country. Yes, they appreciate that there is a layer of propaganda, but they saw the history of the ‘American war’ as one of cruel and indiscriminate harm to civilians by for a foreign power keeping two Vietnam’s separate. I have and remain ambivalent about the war and the roles of the South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, and US governments.
A child solder, a hero
Hiền Lương Bridge located in 17th Parallel that bisected North Vietnam and South Vietnam during the US-Vietnam war
Moreover, the fact that there were people -in these more liberal and open times in Vietnam- who were ‘true believers’ of the communist ideals of the past (not necessarily the Communist Party currently) was something I had not expected at all. And to hear it from people who I have bonded with in the hours in the van, who sang galvanising socialist war songs, was challenging and eye-opening. The pilgrimage was uncomfortable at times; I abstained from lighting the incense and bowing to the memorials, and this was obvious to my companions. I shared with them the version of the war and communism I grew up with. It was however of no consequence to them -I was after all a việt kiều, almost a foreigner. It was me who needed to do the reconciliation and get over it.
What I couldn’t get over was the extent of the overt and blatant sexism & chauvinism, particularly how personal it got in the professional context. I have witnessed and lived the dualities of Vietnamese culture – a patriarchy, with strong women behind the scenes; the prizing of personal discretion, yet the intense fusing of the private & the public, the personal with professional. At the networking lunches and dinners, women (and that includes me, the Australian-Vietnamese) were expected to wait on and serve beers and food to the male chieftains (always accompanied by their female personal assistants) at the lunches and dinners, and laugh along to their crude jokes at our expense. ‘Go on roll me a summer roll (gỏi cuốn), make it tight and firm for me, I won’t make it go soft’. Even the hotel room arrangement between adult women (me and my host) was within the purview of executive say of the male chieftain. The domestic Confucian hierarchy extending to the professional setting.
During a rare casual lunch, I asked my young journalist companions about Trump, leading to the topic of the #metoo movement and gender equality in Vietnam. It is after all a topical subject, given their journalism background. Their eyes widened, voices hushed as they cast a careful look toward their male chieftain at the other end of the table. ‘I’ll send you an email with my thoughts’ said one male journalist (he never did); ‘The ‘Tale of Kieu’ is prescient’ said another. ‘For now, it’s still grin & bear it,’ said the third guy to sum up. Silence from the 25 year old female journalist next to me.
I listened; I heard the spoken and unspoken. I observed, and not observed, the customs. Three takeaways that I now channel to a new project. 1) Relationships -personal, challenging, robust ones- take us out of our comfort zones and push us to reconcile opposing ‘truths’. 2) Time, to listen, to let confronting ideas stir, sit, and land where they land. 3) And the power of agency, personal and collective, to write a different story for ourselves. Time to end the default silence.