What Season Is This Anyway?

It’s that time of year when the women of Vietnam bundle up with hats, scarves, face masks, opera-length gloves, heavy socks, slacks and denim jackets. Colorful Christmas lights festoon the thatched-roofed bars and medleys of traditional Christmas songs waft along behind the pedal-powered vending carts. Is Christmas approaching? Sorry, no. If it were, the fifty-foot tall Christmas tree constructed entirely of dark green Heineken beer bottles would still be standing in front of the supermarket on Le Duan Street in Da Nang and Santa would still be flying in a reindeer-drawn Heineken bottle over the streets of Hanoi. If it were New Year’s, we would still have an orange tree standing in the middle of our living room, next to the motorbike. It isn’t Halloween either, although the sight of gangs of Vietnamese women dressed up like gunslingers from the American Wild West might give you that impression.
 Summer has arrived in Vietnam. And all prudent women who care about preserving their pale good looks will stop at nothing to protect their skin against the intensified rays of the tropical sun as they travel about on their motorbikes. Ironically, many of these same women balk at wearing a motorbike helmet to protect themselves against possible death and disability from head injury because they think helmets look too strange!

Speaking As An American

I’ve just read the most wonderful article in CommonDreams.org, entitled, BEING HOPE, by Kathy Kelly, in which she talks about an address she gave at the request of the American Friends Service Committee at the conclusion of the recent Chicago display of the AFSC’s EYES WIDE OPEN exhibit. After finishing Kathy’s article, I read the comments that various readers had posted. One, in particular, caught my eye, and I felt led to respond. Here’s the text of the response I posted on CommonDreams.org:

Virginia, June 1st, 2007, 9:02 AM

I love this article. In the parlance of my Quaker tradition, “It speaks to my condition.” Kathy Kelly is certainly someone with her “Eyes Wide Open.” How fortunate for us that she is also so gifted in expressing the truth as she sees it.

In reading through the comments that followed the article, however, I came across this statement:

I always lie about my nationality when abroad for the purpose of safety, and I encourage others to do so as well.
I could not disagree more strongly with this position. I am an American, living in Vietnam, engaged in humanitarian work. People here are emerging from a bleak and isolated period of history and–what is the light that they see at the end of this tunnel?

Capitalism and American style consumerism!

And what is the ultimate dream for many Vietnamese?

Moving to America and finding work as an acrylic nail technician.

SUVs have been popping up in Vietnam like mushrooms this year. Frozen American chicken is sold in the new supermarkets. You need to buy health insurance or be rich to ensure your access to adequate medical care—in the SOCIALIST Republic of Vietnam. People with credibility— Progressive AMERICANS—need to stand up and say, “Hey, wait a minute! Let me tell you some of the downsides of capitalism and the American way of life.” You can’t do that if you deny your nationality and, believe me, these things need to be said. Books about Bill Gates and Lee Iaccoca fill the bookstores. Cable TV has arrived, with all the capitalist propaganda that involves. There’s nobody to counter the seductive siren of American-style consumerism if you don’t raise your voice—or at least turn a thumbs down when a Vietnamese taxi driver shouts, “George Bush, Number One!”

When I am invited to speak at college English classes–they like my clear American pronunciation—I make a point of talking about the hopeful changes that I see in Vietnam and of the diminished expectations we now have in America.

Here’s a telling quote from Vietnam Investment Review:
GE could exploit opportunities in infrastructure, health care, finance and human resources.

American corporations are pushing their version of reality with all the slickness that Hollywood and Madison Avenue can muster. Can you imagine how powerful and seductive their visions are to people just emerging from decades of poverty and cultural isolation? We, as concerned individuals, need to counter that. And, in the more intimately personal social encounters that are common in countries where people are not cocooned in cars and suburban fortresses—we can have an enormous impact. But our credibility arises from the fact that we are American—and we know whereof we speak.

By the way, I suppose that I have more credibility than most because I let go of my American life. It totally blows Vietnamese minds when I say that I have no intention of going back to the US. And then I tell them why . . .