Clive Thomson's blog

Near the End

August 11th, 2012 8:00 PM

I just got back to my hotel, after going for one last walk through the centre of Ho Chi Minh City, this beautiful and seductive place that I’m very sad to leave.  I’ll be taken to the airport at 3 am by taxi, for my marathon of flights back to Toronto.

I couldn’t help thinking about the question Ngoc Ninh Vu asked me yesterday on the phone in our debriefing session. Ngoc is one of the members of the superbly efficient WUSC team in Hanoi that provided me with exactly the right kind of support.

 « So, Clive, now that your final report is in, what can you say about your experience of international development in Vietnam ? ».

I muttered something banal about how energizing it’s been for me, how generous with their time the teachers at Binh Thuan Community College were, and how much I want to be kept up to date on the developments over the next year as the college sets up its student counseling centre. And, yes, I said I’d be happy to continue my support for the project and for WUSC in the future. I finished by saying we’ll have to wait and see if my work at the college really changes anything (« Leave for Change », right ?). What I might have added is that I’m sure my experience here will help me to reflect critically on my work at home.

At the end of my « international development » experience, I can honestly say that it feels entirely positive. I do need more time, however, to ponder the lessons. I sincerely hope WUSC will be able to continue sending volunteers to Vietnam.

My sadness this evening has something to do, I suspect, with the messages I’ve been receiving this week from Guelph – administrative messages that say my department will have fewer resources next year than expected and that my colleagues and I will be expected, essentially, to find ways to do even more with even less. I was tempted to write back : « You mean - do more with less than nothing ? » - the title of Zizek’s latest book jumped to mind.

I’ve been in university administration far too long. After witnessing here in Vietnam what appears to be a very different atmosphere in the decision making process, I think I’m fed up with – among other things - the « discourse of leadership » I hear at home. It’s been really exciting and refreshing over the past three weeks to rub shoulders with a bunch of people at the college who are enthusiastic about creating something new. There was give and take in the discussions, and I didn’t notice anyone pushing his or her ideas on anyone else. It looked like a genuinely consensual process.

I didn’t hear anything here like what I heard earlier this summer in a meeting with some colleagues from Guelph who were in the early stages of a new project. One colleague said : « Who’s going to lead the project ? We need a leader, otherwise everything will be disorganized ».

My quick and somewhat blunt response surprised me : « A leader ? It’s precisely because of leaders that we’re always so disorganized ! ».

Over my many years in academia, I’ve noticed how quick we are to complain about the failure of our leaders, to talk about a « leadership vacuum », or, especially in really difficult times, to call in « expert leaders », from Atlanta or wherever, who are said to be specialists in creative downsizing, transformative practices, etc. It’s our love-hate relationship with leaders. Maybe it’s time to stop. Time to think again. Time to take notice of what’s happening in places like Vietnam and Ghana (see Jacqueline’s latest  blog where she talks about how people who pull together can get things done without - so it seems - leaders). Time to remember Margaret Mead’s famous line :

« The most important changes made throughout history have only ever been made by groups of people ».

Time to ponder a striking expression I heard here one day when I asked the teachers for suggestions about the qualities they’d like to see in the director for their new student counseling centre :

« We have to be careful », they said. « A fish rots from the head ».

As I said in my first blog :

« Very smart, the people here, with plenty of lessons to teach us ».

When the dragon flies dance close to the ground

August 7th, 2012 8:00 PM

At noon today, I noticed swarms of insects that looked as though they were performing a flying dance along the beach just outside the restaurant where I had invited the four English teachers to have lunch with me. I wanted to thank them for  taking turns as my very able translators for the past three weeks.

« What are those insects ? », I ask.

« Dragon flies. We have an expression : ‘when the dragon flies dance close to the ground, we know it’s going to rain’ », Nguyen answers.

I point to my umbrella.

« I’ll probably need it later ».

The walk from my hotel to Binh Thuan Community College where I’ve been working for the past three weeks takes ten minutes. As I leave the hotel, I have an important choice to make - cross the street and walk along the beach to the college, or not cross the street and stay on the sidewalk that leads to the college. It’s a big decision because if I take the first option, it means I have to turn myself into a ballet dancer.

On my first day when I was still in Ho Chi Minh City where most streets are a mesmerizing river of fast-moving motorbikes and scooters, I quickly adopted a totally cowardly strategy, when I needed to cross the street. I would wait till I saw a small child about to cross, and then shadow the child, assuming that no driver would hit a kid.

After observing carefully how the locals do it, I realized there’s a very specific street-crossing technique that I had to learn.

The first rule is that you step off the curb confidently and nonchanlantly, looking straight ahead, pretending that there’s no traffic at all. The second rule is that you set a regular pace and just keep walking until you reach the other side. The bike drivers, it turns out, are responsible for not hitting you. At first, it’s terrifying. After a few days, the street traffic starts to look and feel like a ballet. The bikes travel at very different speeds, performing a carefully orchestrated dance where you see the acrobatic drivers who go fast, take risks, and perform fancy manœuvres around the « corps de ballet » drivers who are more ordinary in their slower, more predictable dance movements.

Pedestrian dancers have a limited repertoire of steps. You can walk more or less quickly, remembering of course that you can’t start out slowly and then speed up. That’s a recipe for disaster. You can cross diagonally or go straight across. And there’s a fun hand motion I’ve seen. As you step off the curb, while keeping your arms at your sides and looking straight in front of you, you raise just one hand very slightly for a couple of seconds in the direction of the oncoming traffic. It’s an empowering gesture because it makes you feel like you’re the principal dancer in Stavinsky’s « Rite of Spring » ballet, standing up to the hord of animalistic biker-dancers ready to attack you with their fury.

The body language and costumes of the bike dancers are carnivalesque. I’ve seen a beautiful young woman, perched on her scooter like an elegant bird with perfect posture,  dressed to the nines, covered in bling, including her 8-inch silettos. And a father, travelling at high speed, multi-tasking as he drives the motorbike, texts on his cell phone, smokes a cigarette, holds a tiny baby in his lap, with another tiny child seated behind him, and then his wife on the very back of the bike. Bikers can also make a fashion statement by choosing from the seemingly unlimited array of colours, shapes and sizes in anti-pollution face masks.

« People wear masks here so they breath less pollution ? », I ask one of the teachers.

Minh : « Oh no ! We women wear them mostly to protect our complexions from the sun ! »

Dreaming the Absurd

August 4th, 2012 8:00 PM

« If life gives you lemons, have your maid make some lemonade ». This is just one of the many ironic lines spoken by the main character in 'Ilustrado', an absolutely brilliant novel by the Philippino writer, Miguel Syjuco. Just finished reading it. It’s the story of a conflicted writer who abandons his well-to-do family in Manila to live in the US. He reflects obsessively about what it means to be an ex-patriate. His « survivor story » made me think of my Philippino friends and family in Toronto, some of whom did have maids who could make lemonade if things got tough, but most didn’t. The novel is a meticulously crafted and cruelly judgmental portrait of Philippino society, where hard-working people learn early that life is full of unexpected trials. You better have a « Plan B » ready at all times, and you better get used to competition. As the novel’s protagonist says : « We’re all crabs pulling each other into the pot ».

The teachers and students here in Phan Thiet have told me many stories of their trials and tribulatons. One teacher, moved to tears, told me she had trouble conceiving a child but did so, with medical support, prayer, and the support of friends. Students tell me of their struggles to stay in school, while holding down part-time jobs. Some parents tell me that two salaries are an absolute must, if a family is going to make ends meet. A few teachers tell me they need to have two jobs, one at the college and another where they give private lessons to high school students who are trying to pass the competitive university or college entrance exams. I recently met some enterprising teachers who have set up a private language school, with evening English classes for elementary and secondary students. I can’t help mentioning other hard-working people, like the mostly elderly women I see cooking and selling shellfish or corn on the cob, at small stands on street corners. From early morning till late evening, in pouring rain and burning sun, they sit on the curb, often looking after small children while doing business.

In spite of the harsh realities depicted in their fictions, both Miguel Syjuco in 'Ilustrado' and Kim Thuy in 'Ru' end up, surprisingly, by emphasizing how important it is to dream. Thuy : « Je me suis avancée dans leurs pas (‘ceux qui ont marché devant moi’) comme dans un rêve éveillé où le parfun d’une pivoine éclose n’est plus une odeur, mais un épanouissment ». And Syjuco finishes his story with this : « All of life is a dream. To attain the impossible we must attempt the absurd ».

Sounds Familiar

August 1st, 2012 8:00 PM

I’m sitting under a tree in the college courtyard talking to some students. It’s a big day for these students. They’ve just successfully finished all their courses and are waiting to collect their diplomas.

Me : « What programs of study did you do ? ».

Them : «  Agriculture, Economics, English, Tourism ».

Me : « Do you have a job to go to now ? ».

Them : « It’s hard to get a job. Our courses are too theoretical, not practical enough ».

Me : « How many of you worked part-time while you studied ? What kind of part-time jobs did you have ? ».

Them : « Most students work part-time, in restaurants, as waiters, or in stores ».

Me : « Do you live in the college dormitory while you’re a student ? ».

Them : « Some do. We all rented rooms in the city ».

Me : « What does it cost ? And tuition ? ».

Them : « About 750,000 dongs ($36) a month for a room, and food is extra. Tuition is 700,000 a month. It’s very expensive to be a student ».

Students here have heavy course loads – from 8 to 11 am, and from 1 to 5 pm, Monday to Friday. Some classes, like Accounting, have over 100 students, or like English, usually with over 60 students. Each class chooses one student  to be course leader, and two other students to be the course leader’s assistants. The responsibilities of the course leader and assistants are to help the teachers keep track of attendance and report regularly about students who might be having financial or other problems. A  student who needs to be absent for a day has to get a permission form signed by the Student Affairs Department. If a student has to be away for more than three days, a different permission form has to be signed. Student leaders and teachers work together to sort out a situation when a student breaks the strict college rules of behaviour. Students caught playing cards in class are punished.

All students take a compulsory course about Marx and Lenin, given by the teachers from the Faculty of Political Education, with tests and a final exam.

« We have to memorize two thick books to pass that exam. It’s difficult and boring. We also have to take a course on military training. We learn how to fight, how to protect the country », the students tell me.

One of the student’s cell phones rings. Me : « How many of you have cell phones ? »

Them, laughing : « Every student has a cell phone. We can’t live without one ».

Where have I heard that before?

Public Lessons

July 29th, 2012 8:00 PM

The young boy, anxious to practice his English, asks me a question.

« Three weeks », I reply. The boy and his older teenage brother almost fall on the floor laughing at me.

« My brother asked how are you ? », says the older brother, in perfect English.

« Sorry, I thought he asked me how long I’m staying in Vietnam ». Not my first experience of miscommunication since I arrived. The nice thing is my ineptness invariably provokes peels of laughter.

The two brothers are waiting for their parents who are checking in at the hotel reception.

« Where did you learn to speak such good English ? », I ask.

The teenage son, with pride : « We have good English teachers at our school, a private school. They come from the US or the UK, and we’ve been learning English for a long time. And our parents pay for private lessons at home ».

The kids’ story is consistent with what several parents have told me and with an article I read in the ‘Vietnam Times’ yesterday. If they can afford it, some families send their children to private schools. Others think the public schools are better.  Whatever the choice, the parents who have the means often feel private lessons at home are essential for success.

When students go to college, there are scholarships.

« What grades do you need to get a scholarship ? », I ask the Director of Student Affairs this morning in our meeting.

« We give about 300 shcolarships each month to students whose grades are between 7.0 and 7.9. Another 150 scholarships go to students with grades between 8.0 and 8.9 », he replies.

I ask the obvious question : « How many scholarships for students who get the top marks, between 9.0 and 10 ? ».

« None. Such grades are impossible here ».

Now I think I understand the private lessons.

Dangerous Fruit

July 27th, 2012 8:00 PM

Conversation over lunch with the teachers:

 « Try this, it’s dangerous », says one teacher. The others burst into laughter.

 « She meant to say it’s delicious », says another teacher. They’re referring to the stinky durian fruit, known in some parts of Asia as the ‘king of fruits’. It turns out to be very tasty, a combination of citrus, peach, and cherries, even though the smell is pretty disgusting. Even more delicious is the dragon fruit that the students also offer me. It’s a refreshing mix of plums, oranges, and apples.

 A third student adds : « The durian fruit might affect my beauty ».

 « You mean it might make you more beautiful ? » I asked. More hysterical giggling.

 « No, Vietnamese women think the durian is bad for their complexions », she answered.

 « We don’t know anything about you. Do you have any grandchildren ? » That’s a question I’ve never been asked before. I guess it makes sense, and was bound to happen sooner or later. The question is, of course, a clever way of trying to determine my marital status. And the question fits with my sense of how discrete, modest, and respectful these teachers are, in their attitude toward me.

 The teachers then start telling me stories about themselves : how old they were when they got married (most were in their mid-twenties), how many children they have (all have at least two), who does the cooking and housework (the women), who looks after the children (the women).

 « Do you know how to cook ? », I ask one of the men. He replies: "I can cook rice with a rice cooker, and make instant noodles." The good-natured laughter continues.

 The conversation turns back to the more serious topic we spent the morning discussing – what are the most important personal and family problems that students in the college experience ?

 A teacher says : « One of my students got pregnant and her boyfriend decided he didn’t want to marry her. Her family and the boyfriend’s family didn’t want anything to do with her, but  she wanted to continue her studies. Can you tell us what a student counselor in a Canadian university would say to such a student ? »

 I reply : « We’d probably try to find some community services to support the student, and maybe help the student access financial aid through the government, and then offer the student some individual or group counseling at the counseling centre. » My comments are met with empty looks.

 It’s not the first time, since I arrived, that the conversation between me and the teachers grinds to a halt. Totally perplexing questions that I haven’t the slightest idea about how to answer.

 Another student, probably sensing my discomfort, adds : « It’s a different culture here ».

 Yes, indeed.

Lessons Learned, Learning Lessons

July 25th, 2012 8:00 PM

It took me four days to learn the lesson here. When my partner Ramon and I were in Manila in March, it took only two days before we noticed we were walking too fast. I described the way people in the street in Manila walk as the « Philippino saunter ». It’s because of the heat and humidity. Here in Phan Thiet where the climate is identical, everyone looks as though they’re walking in slow motion. I should have clued in yesterday when I kept thinking, as I walked to the market, with my usual quick step and purposeful gait – how come I never perspire like this or feel faint when I’m on the street in Toronto ? There’s a saying in French : « I learn quickly, as long as you explain things slowly ».

In my conversations since Tuesday with the psychology teachers (who already feel like good friends) at the college, there’s no need to explain things slowly. They quickly get what I say, and vice versa. We’ve covered a lot of ground in a short time. It’s both because the teachers are really smart and we have Nguyen, a very talented translator who acts as our go-between. The teachers are convinced there is a need for a student counselling service, and they have some clear ideas about what it should look like. The job ahead of us is to craft a report that will propose the centre’s mission, organizational structure, training requirements for counsellors, and, most importantly, an action plan with specific deadlines. I showed the teachers the  mission statement on the website for the University of Guelph Counselling Services. « It’s too long, too wordy, and hard to understand », according to the teachers. Yes, really smart, these teachers – with a few good lessons to teach the rest of us.

Good Listening

July 23rd, 2012 8:00 PM

I arrived in Phan Thiet City on Monday afternoon and had the pleasure yesterday of having breakfast and dinner with Dr Hung Nguyen Phan, President of Binh Thuan Community College and with Hanh Phan Thi Minh, Director of International Relations at the college. The college was created in 2008, an amalgamation of three educational institutions, and plans to attain university status by 2020. I was accompanied to Phan Thiet City by Ngoc Minh Vu who is Sector Program Officer at the Uniterra office in Hanoi. Her orientations sessions in Ho Chi Minh City were  wonderful and yesterday she played a determining role in helping to give a realistic and manageable shape to the mandate I will pursue for the next three weeks.

My first working session, yesterday afternoon, was a meeting with five psychology teachers who described their current project - to create a student counselling centre.  I listened carefully to the way the teachers talked about their students and was struck by their serious concern for the students’ academic and personal challenges. Vietnamese students were described as shy and hesitant to confide in their teachers. A first challenging question soon emerged from our conversation. How do you communicate to students that the counselling centre is a place they can trust? It was a privilege for me to be part of this conversation in which my colleagues showed they know how to listen – which means they already posses the most important skill of a good counsellor. I will continue meeting with the psychology teachers for the rest of this week.

Rain, Rain Go Away!

July 20th, 2012 8:00 PM

Both my flight from Toronto to Newark, New Jersey and from Newark to Hong Kong, where I am in transit to Ho Chi Minh City right now, were delayed because of the pouring rain in Newark. It had been raining non-stop for two days. I'm told that in Vietnam, when it rains, it's usually not for long, and then the sun comes out right away. It will be great to feel the Vietnam sun on my skin.

It's always hard to know what to read when I travel to new places. in order to prepare myself. I'm usually tempted to read nothing, in hopes that I arrive without memory or desire or preconceptions about the culture that I have never experienced before. Of course, a zero-degree state of mind is impossible, since we always have some ideas about what to expect. I made the mistake of buying the "Lonely Planet Guide" for Vietnam, but didn't get past the first few pages. It doesn't work for me when someone tells me, in predigested form, what it's important for me to see. The "Lonely Planet Guide" does that, as well as telling me how to see. What no guidebook ever seems to be able to do is tell us what to tell the people we meet when they ask us why we're there. In other words, most guidebooks assume that I, the tourist, am in charge of the looking. When you assume you're in charge of the looking, you risk missing what matters.

A more interesting choice of reading for this trip turns out to be "Ru", by Kim Thuy, who fled Vietnam at age ten in the 1970's and ended up in Montréal where she has been a restaurant owner, lawyer, and now writer. Her gripping narrative gives an account of how her family lost everything and had to start a new life, in very difficult circumstances, in Canada. She describes in detail her relationship with her mother who was the driving force behind the family's escape from Saigon. Her mother often repeated the following proverb: "La vie est un combat où la tristesse entraîne la défaite". It means: "Life is a struggle in which sadness leads to defeat". It sounds like something my mother would say. The proverb suggests a lack of tolerance or sympathy  for those who complain and moan about life, but its flip side is a solid optimism and an unshakeable conviction that defeat is not an option.

More later...

First Steps

June 21st, 2012 8:00 PM

 I've just had a first exchange of messages with my main contact in Vietnam and have received a more detailed version of my mandate. My experience and background are looking like a very good fit for the posting I've been given. Next step is to get my vaccinations and I'll be all set to go! Clive