Passions and the power of serendipity

Lan Anh was introduced to me as an experienced consultant who could help me understand the Vietnamese landscape. And we hit it off! It was our shared passion to make a difference to people’s experience of life, work, and the many dimensions of life that makes life fulfilling.

Our shared passions are combined in our latest seminar series for founders and CEOs of enterprises, small and large, on wise leadership in action. It’s a culmination of a year of development, research, and collaboration between us. And we are excited to launch this Vietnamese series in Hanoi for our network of supporters.

Kickstart your Future – Guest blog by Ms Huong Nguyen

It has been an absolute blast over the last few months with our two projects in full swing: our inaugural ‘Kickstart Your Future’ women’s empowerment program; and our first ‘Our Words Our Worlds’ Pirate Kim bilingual book.

And so I invited a special guest blogger, Ms Huong Nguyen, part of the Kita Delta team here in Nha Trang to share her experience with the ‘Kickstart Your Future’ program.

In her words in English below (and in Vietnamese here):

On the occasion of Vietnamese Women’s Day on October 20 – the day honoring the value of Vietnamese women, Ms. Tran Thi Thu Trang from the Australian social enterprise Kita Delta – in collaboration with Sheraton Nha Trang & Alana Hotel Nha Trang, together with volunteers from Nha Trang, convened the inaugural ‘Kickstart Your Future’ women’s empowerment program in Nha Trang. And it was an honour for me to be a part of the program.

The program was designed for young women 20-25 years wishing to develop their confidence as they start their career (eg students or graduates in colleges/universities). This is a program that Ms. Trang has devoted so much effort and time to in order to equip young women with basic ‘soft’ skills to get a head start in building a career through workshops and mentoring relationships with experienced professionals. At the end of the program, she hoped participants would take away a sense of empowerment to shape their future, for themselves and their community.

After only a short time, the program attracted more than 20 participants. I myself did not hesitate to share this program throughout the Facebook pages and many of my friends enthusiastically enrolled in the program. What made me pleased is that they expressed that they had a wonderful experience over the course of the 4 workshops.

Although each workshop lasted only an hour and a half on every Saturday morning at the Sheraton Hotel, the participants took away many useful insights from guest speakers who shared their experiences, and from participating in interactive activities to develop their skills. The participants also had a chance to take up an internship with Alana Hotel which for me, as a senior student of foreign language department, is very desirable!

The 4 workshops would not have been possible without the contribution of the special guests who did not hesitate sharing their personal and professional journeys (of their success and failures). Every guest speaker had their own story. The guest speakers were:

Ms. Catherine Racsko – General Manager of Sheraton Nha Trang Hotel, Ms. Anya Dinh – Executive Assistant of Alana Hotel, and Ms. Nguyen Thi Thoa – Researcher at Department of Biotechnology and Aquatic Vaccines.

The guest speakers, volunteer organizing team members and volunteer mentors came to the program with the desire to share their life’s lessons based on their experiences with the participants. Each workshop was especially designed to focus on various insights about the experience of women and their livelihoods in society, namely:

  1. Your strengths – Finding your place in this world: Saturday 20 October
  2. ‘Think outside of the box’ – Building up your own business: Saturday 27 October
  3. ‘View from the inside’ – Landing and holding a job: Saturday 3 November
  4. Over to you – Meet the mentors: Saturday 10 November

The 4 workshops proved successful. The young women openly shared their stories and life’s circumstances, and shared their current dilemmas with their cohort to gather feedback and advice. The workshops were held in a cozy atmosphere – an informal meeting among friends to get to know each other better – rather than a classroom environment (that participants would typically encounter in Vietnamese culture). There were no barriers or gaps between the mentors and the participants. It was their inspirational stories that helped to connect everyone together.

The last workshop was the most memorable for me. I still remember Le’s touching story about her motivations and her dreams in her life, how she overcame difficult circumstances and barriers to pursue her passion for sports. Her story tugged at the hearts and drew tears from the participants that day, and left many valuable lessons for us about not giving up on one’s dreams. After summarizing all the lessons in the 4 workshops, Ms. Trang and the mentors awarded certificates and souvenirs to the participants. At the end of the workshops, participants were assigned a mentor that they meet once/month for four months. When Ms. Trang called the names of each participant and their mentors to receive their certificates, they seemed very happy, excited and a little bit overwhelmed with emotion as the workshop phase wrapped up and transitioned to a mentoring phase. The program was not coming to an end – the next phase of mentoring relationships opens up new beginnings for all participants. The participants took away tools and insights to start on planning their future, setting goals and pursuing their own dreams and passions.

By being a member of the organizing team, and I got to witness the team’s professional working style and attentive attitude of Ms Trang and the volunteer mentors. I hope in the coming months, the program would be continued and expanded through further sponsorship, allowing for with a greater reach and connection with other young women throughout Vietnam.

 

Being an outsider-insider – Part 2: Listening tour

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.

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A child solder, a hero 

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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.

Being an outsider-insider – Part 1

I received an invitation from my collaborator Ms Thanh Binh Ton Nu to join in the ‘handover’ celebrations at Ka Sen school, that is, handing over the funds raised and goods received to the kids and the teachers in the school. The school is located in the northern mountains that border Laos. And she opened up her family home for me to stay with her extended family for the time we make the trip to the school.

It was seven days of jam-packed travelling and learning –with a good measure of fun. It was also seven days of being an outsider-insider observing and learning a version of Vietnam that I typically saw from their other side. The other side, my side, is that of being an Australian and also a Vietnamese refugee.

Ka Sen school was about 3 hours drive from the Dong Hoi, the capital city of the province Quang Binh. It was a beautiful drive through the mountains and villages. That beauty was witnessed with the full awareness of the poverty and hardship of the people in the homes I passed, and concern for motorbike riders in their thin plastic raincoats as they go about their day on the slippery roads with the water rising fast from the downpour. The school is in a region denoted as border territory next to Laos, with indigenous communities living in the mountains.

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The children and their mothers, the local teachers, and over 40 volunteers made up the crowd at the school as we arrived. It was a flurry of activity, dressing the kids in their new uniform and hand-knitted woollen vests, handing over gift bags of treats, seeing the build of the new kitchen, new day sleep room and beds (which had to be high up and be wood of sufficient quality to withstand any water damage from flood waters and humid air), and some speeches and photo ops. I had not expected such formality, and was initially taken aback when I was called to handover the cheque for the photo-op. But this was Vietnam, and I decided to go with the grain. (By the evening, that photo became the featured photo for the leading article on the home page of a Vietnamese news outlet. The news outlet, ‘Nguoi Lam Bao’ were the leading instigators of the campaign to upgrade the school facilities).

Once the formality finished mid-morning, the mothers were quick to usher their children out to climb back up the mountains, as the grey clouds build up and rain looked like it would set in fast. Most days, the kids, aged 5-8, make their walk back home together as a group, with the older kids stewarding the younger ones. On wet days, the teachers chaperone the kids back on their motorbikes in multiple round-trips. Some days, to keep the kids in school (in cases where inclement weather would prevent the kids coming back to school), the teachers provide lunch (mainly rice) for the kids in class, funded from the teachers’ private money. Teachers are not paid well in Vietnam.

Co Minh, one of three teachers at the school, proudly told me that all the kids were ‘children of Uncle Ho’, that is, their surnames were ‘Ho’. I smiled politely. This was my first encounter with such spirited praise of ‘Uncle Ho’ since I landed in Vietnam six months ago. I was to encounter much more of this on what I coined ‘the communist pilgrimage’ through the war torn province of Quang Binh. More on this in my next post.

In good company

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

Kita Delta is proud to announce a fortuitous start as a social enterprise.

Kita Delta is founded by Thu-Trang Tran, whilst in Nha Trang, Vietnam in 2018 on her year of capturing wisdom.

Thu-Trang took a sabbatical from her work to complete her doctoral thesis on wisdom in public administration in Australia and China. In the process, she found herself in good company with incredible Vietnamese social change-makers. She decided to extend her break from her senior position in government to continue her social change work in Vietnam with her newfound collaborators (using our own personal funds).

‘While I was born in Vietnam, I grew up in Australia and established my professional identity and social change expertise there. In Vietnam, it was important for me to first listen, witness, and roll-up my sleeves and get involved to understand the lay of the land before establishing long-term relationships with local change-makers. Of the many experiences that came from months of engagement, I decided to establish Kita Delta to marshall all my expertise and that of my peers and apply it to our work and development activities. The listening and learning is continuous, and is key to growing Kita Delta.’