“Don’t believe it all; Find out for yourself; Check before you spread; News of the world”
To be clear, I don’t include any of my own output in the following statement, but the right piece of writing, read at the right time, can change everything.
I came to Vietnam shortly after Christmas 2011. By way of a present, both festive and leaving, some friends bought me the book, Vietnam: Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton. Bill Hayton was the BBC’s Correspondent here in 2006-2007, before the government declined to renew his Visa. I couldn’t tell you what came first, his criticism of the government, or his ejection from the country. I imagine that each fed the other. Things are rarely as simple as A, following B. Inevitably, A is followed by B, C, D , E and the inexplicable presence of the occasional T.
In any event, Hayton’s book offers a detailed, and critical, breakdown of life here; social, political and economic. I won’t lie to you, if you haven’t a vested interest in Vietnam, it’s probably not for you. It can be as hard going as it is thorough, which doesn’t exactly make for a light read. However, literary reviews aside, my overriding reaction was one of confusion and not a little hostility. The thing was that, after some four months here, I didn’t really recognise most of the Vietnam Hayton’s book detailed. That’s to say, I didn’t have a context in which to place his argument. Put simply, I didn’t get it.
English Teachers have a high standard of living here. For the majority, straight out of university, it’s a standard of living they’re not going to experience on returning home for some considerable time. For most, probably never. While their counterparts in the UK are counting the pennies ’till rent day, eking out a living in yet one more soul destroying call centre job after another, graduates here are swapping gossip about the best masseurs or planning their next trip to the islands.
If I sound curmudgeonly about this, it’s because I probably am. Unlike Moscow, teaching here is largely the preserve of the Middle and Upper Middle Class. Maybe it’s just my own petty minded sense of inverted snobbery, maybe it’s just a surfeit of home county vowels, I don’t know, but – en masse – teachers here are proving an unlovable breed.
I know I’ve mentioned it before, but there’s a yawning gulf that exists between the Ex Pat community and the rest of the country. For me, this is none more noticeable than amongst those I mix with the most, teachers. Part of this is down to nothing more complicated or sinister than language. Vietnamese is a tonal language. A word can have an entirely different meaning depending upon what pitch you say it in. Similarly, Vietnamese spelling bears little relation to pronunciation. To be fair, viewed the other way round, English is just as intractable and it’s hard to blame either party for a lack of communication with the other. However, this limited ability to communicate, plus the still developing nature of the country, means that those wishing to explore Vietnam, generally find themselves doing so in the managed and controlled environment provided for them by the government owned Saigon Tourist company.
Another aspect of this lack of interaction is that the vast majority of Vietnamese encountered by the English speaking community here are usually – for simple economic reasons – in positions subservient to them. This is as true for the English Teacher as it is for the CEO of a foreign investment company. Irrespective of the individual dynamics, the reality’s still not pretty.
I’m told we always resent that which is closest to us, and that’s probably the fairest and most accurate explanation for my mistrust of the Ex pat community. I’m enjoying a standard of living here I’d never have considered possible before. I live in a fairly luxurious flat overlooking the city centre, one with a view that – coming home to each night – is like walking in halfway through an IMAX showing. Relatively major purchases, digital cameras and the like, can be done without the prior need for budgeting or hardship. Short breaks are undertaken on a whim and, at the end of the day, sometimes it’s just easier to eat out every night. Maybe it’s guilt, maybe it’s just the vestigial tail of my Catholic upbringing, but this much, for this little, doesn’t sit right.
Which takes me back to Bill Hayton.
You see, I’m struggling to reconcile the reality as set out in Rising Dragon with my own experience here. In his book, Hayton outlines the working of a one party state which, while hardly omnipotent, makes sure to have at least one tendril in every aspect of everyday life. Rising Dragon describes in detail the systems of censorship and control the Communist Party use to ensure its place at the very centre of Vietnamese life. It’s a forbidding prospect and, reading it, one that
colours the way you come to see life here.
However – and this is key – it’s an outlook that jars with my own fairly gilded experience of life here. Which means, I either have to dismiss Hayton or question my own experience. Given the forgoing then, it’s hardly a surprise that it’s the second option that’s looking the more likely. I’ve now lived here six months and I still feel like I’ve just got off the boat.
The point I’m trying to make is about experience. If yours won’t stand up to scrutiny, then it’s probably time you changed it. For that reason , and no other, I’ve started work as a stringer for one of the English language dailies here. I’m going to talk about expectations in a bit, but to avoid creating any false ones right now, let me state; I have no intention of holding Bill Hayton’s ideas up to scrutiny, neither do I want to expose or lift the lid on anything. Similarly, I have no ambition at all to be a working journalist. Instead, what I want, what this is all about, is getting access. By working as a writer, I can broaden and build upon my experience of life in Vietnam. I might never ‘get’ it, I probably won’t, but if I’m going to try, I think this is the way forward.
I’m not too sure how clear I’m being, but I’ll give you a for instance. In a couple of weeks I’m doing a piece on traditional fishing. The idea is to head out with a fisherman and follow him through his day. Frankly, I’d do that tomorrow and I’d do it for free. However, as you
can imagine, most people are suspicious of approaches from total strangers asking to follow them around for the day. However, if you preface the same request by stating your credentials as a writer, automatically your reasons become clear, if, in this case, a little disingenuous.
It’s not about answering Hayton. It’s not about accepting or refuting his arguments, it’s about shading in the background of the frame in which he’s painting.
Living here; in this part of the world, with this lifestyle, I sometimes struggle to recognise myself. I spent thirty five years living one way. I now find myself living in daily contradiction of that and it’s not always easy to reconcile the then and the now.
For instance, I wonder if the ease with which I reached the conclusion that finding work with a newspaper would be the best way forward would have been the same in previous incarnations. I’m guessing probably not.
It’s tempting to define my life and character in terms of before and after the accident which cost my sight, but that’s to miss the real point. In terms of character, losing my sight changed nothing. What changed everything was the period immediately after losing my sight. For nearly three years, the only pressure or expectation on me was that I recover. Suddenly, all those burdens we work so hard to saddle ourselves with; career, money,
security was gone. If my character was changed during this period – and I’m still not sure it was – it wasn’t the accident that changed it, it was the absolute absence of these pressures that led to me to reassess my priorities.
Similarly, our closeness to our home and our friends also helps to mould our character. For instance, your friends think you’re funny. Every time you meet them, they come to the table with the expectation that you’re going to make them laugh and, of course, that’s what you do. Similarly, their own expectations of life, either negative or positive bleed into your own. Eventually, without conscious discussion, a mutual consensus is reached on the patterns life is expected to take. That can be a great impetus for growth, both personal and artistic. It can be equally toxic. It is what it is. It’s an inevitable part of human relationships. To greater and lesser degrees, we each work to fulfill the expectations and prejudices of others.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dismissing the value of friendship. If anything, I firmly believe the opposite to be true. I’m simply working through my own thoughts on how our circumstances come to define us when, in reality, it should be us defining circumstances. To be realistic, I think answering that particular quandary’s going to be the work of a lifetime, rather than a single entry into a single blog. For now, I need to deal with what’s in front of me and that’s nothing more complicated than taking the next step forward.
Maybe I’m wrong. God knows it’s happened before. Maybe I really am lost at sea without an anchor to keep me rooted and within sight of the landmarks of home. Alternatively, perhaps I’m sailing into new waters. I may never answer Bill Hayton, but I think I want to get to a place where an answer’s possible. Not because Hayton’s book marked some kind of epiphany in my life, but because I think it’s important to get to that place.
Basically, I have an itch and, like all itches, it needs scratching.