Saturday, May 10, 2014

Watching Uncle Ho watching us

As many of you know, I went to Vietnam two weeks ago for work. This was my second time to Vietnam, as my brother Ben and I visited the country for a few weeks back in 2011. I love Vietnam and highly recommend a visit!

I went to the Mekong Delta region--specifically, Can Tho and Soc Trang--to witness the launch of my organization's handwashing product, called the HappyTap, in partnership with the Vietnam Women's Union (let's be honest, without any Vietnamese language skills I wasn't doing much more than simply witnessing). The Women's Union has branches in every village in Vietnam, so partnering with them is a huge opportunity to raise awareness about the need for handwashing and create demand for our product in every corner of the country. It's a bit unclear to me if the Women's Union is a government institution or a wing of the Communist party or if the government and the party are one and the same, but I'm pretty sure that's how the Women's Union has access to every village.

I traveled from Phnom Penh to Can Tho, and then back to Phnom Penh from Saigon. I took buses between Vietnam and Cambodia (the distance from Phnom Penh to Can Tho is approximately the same as Washington DC to New York and to Saigon approximately the same as Philadelphia to Boston). The difference in the landscape at the border was striking. As soon as I crossed into Vietnam, the potholes in the road disappeared and I found myself surrounded by bright green rice paddies and lush banana plantations. The Mekong Delta is the most productive rice region in Vietnam, and because rice is one of Vietnam's most important exports, the government has invested a lot of money to ensure that area is irrigated and can produce rice year-round. In contrast, Cambodian farmers cannot afford to irrigate their fields and only grow rice during the rainy season, so the countryside was pretty brown. (Sound familiar?) It was incredible to me that Vietnam's economic edge over Cambodia was immediately apparent.

(To be fair, I crossed back into Cambodia at a different checkpoint, and there was pretty much no difference other than language and a bunch of casinos on the Cambodian side. [I guess gambling is illegal in Vietnam so people cross the border to play? not sure.] But that checkpoint was not in the Delta.)

A funny note about my Vietnamese coworkers (who are probably sick of foreigners thinking this is funny): they are named Ai and Quy, pronounced "I" and "We." And Ai's sister is named My, pronounced "Me." I love it. In the Phnom Penh office we have to refer to Ai as "Miss Ai" otherwise it gets too confusing and everyone thinks you are talking about yourself. Ai and Quy are wonderful people and the best part of my too-short trip to Vietnam was hanging out with them. Ai grew up in Can Tho, and she and My (who is still in high school and thus lives in Can Tho with Ai's parents) showed Quy and me around the town.

Quy and Ai eat soft tofu in jasmine water.
The rest of my Vietnamese coworkers were field staff and spoke pretty much no English, with one exception. That one exception told me that most of his family lives in San Jose, California. His father was on the wrong side of the war; he had worked as an officer of some sort in the US-backed South Vietnam government. At some point after the war, his father was sent to a Communist reeducation camp and upon his release sought asylum in the US. Since my coworker was over 18 years old at that point (he is now about 40), whether to go or stay was his decision. He chose to stay in Vietnam since he was already studying at university and wasn't confident that his English was good enough to succeed in an American college. He was the only one to stay. His younger siblings and mother joined his father in the US. My coworker hopes to one day move to California to reunite with his family and provide his children with an American university education.

I often feel like I'm running into American history that wasn't quite taught in my high school history class. And not only in Vietnam. I went to Laos during my Khmer New Year vacation in April. The US dropped more than 270 million bombs on Laos during the "secret" carpet-bombing campaign from 1964 to 1973--that's more than all bombs dropped everywhere by everyone during WWII. Laos still suffers from this everyday, as people inadvertently step on unexploded ordnance. Walking through Luang Prabang's night market, I came across several stalls of vendors selling utensils and bangles made from melted-down bombs (I bought chopsticks; the proceeds fund demining efforts and support the metal artisans). Much of the advertised tourism in northeast Laos involves trekking to "bomb villages" (I didn't go). I met several Laotian people, usually belonging to the Hmong tribe, whose relatives had fled to the US (mostly Minnesota) after the war. The CIA had financed and trained Hmong tribespeople to fight an insurgency against the Communist Party in Laos. The Hmong lost and the US granted asylum.

During the war the US rained bombs on Cambodia as well, in an attempt to oust the North Vietnamese from the bases they had established on the Cambodian side of the border. After the coup of Prince Sihanouk created the Khmer Republic and triggered the Cambodian Civil War, the US provided air support to the Khmer Republic to fight the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge insurgency.  To be honest, the American legacy is not nearly as apparent in Cambodia as it is in Laos and Vietnam (at least not to me), since the Khmer Rouge genocide following American withdrawal overshadows pretty much everything else. There might still be unexploded ordnance from the American cluster bombs, like there is in Laos, but I'm under the impression most landmines were planted by the Khmer Rouge.

Despite the brutal history of American involvement in Indochina, it seems that people don't really feel any animosity towards Americans. As Ai and Quy explained, these days Vietnamese people actually like Americans. Americans are open and friendly, and interaction with us is an opportunity to improve English language skills, which are necessary in today's globalized society. Their beef is only with the American government. People in Laos and Cambodia have told me the same thing.

While I appreciate the differentiation between people and the government, it's not totally legitimate, since in a democracy supposedly the people are choosing their government. Should American citizens not be held accountable for the actions of the American government? As an American, should I not feel some sense of responsibility and guilt for what transpired in Indochina? Does the fact that the US government actually withheld information about the carpet bombing from the public (and of course the fact that I wasn't born yet) relieve any of this responsibility? And what does it mean to be an American living in this region today, a few decades after the war?

When I mentioned to Ai and Quy that I really need to read up on the history of Indochina, especially American involvement here, Ai told me that she hated history in school. She said that schools feed children the Communist party's version of Vietnam's history and students are not allowed to question it. Even at university students could not engage in discussions and debate about various perspectives on history. Of course, in the US children are also taught certain mythologies about our history, but I do think in higher education debate is encouraged.

I found all the Communist propaganda in Vietnam amusing. I know it's not funny, but I couldn't help but laugh at it (I realize this reveals how very American I am). A bust of Ho Chi Minh, accompanied by a gold star, a hammer and sickle, and banners with Communist party slogans in Vietnamese, watched over every meeting and event we held (and in one location Marx and Lenin watched us, too). I found it a bit unsettling that "Uncle Ho" was always watching. Quy joked that, in fact, we were watching Uncle Ho watching us (especially because I kept taking photos of Uncle Ho). To me, it was particularly weird to be holding sales events--decidedly capitalist endeavors--in spaces decked-out with Communist imagery.

 A sales event, with Uncle Ho, Uncle Karl, and Uncle Vlad watching from the stage (Ho Chi Minh is the bust to the left, and Marx and Lenin are in the oval picture to the right).
Uncle Ho is a very powerful man. Physically, too. That must be why he's in a government ad to promote exercise.

It was a bit difficult to tell what my coworkers thought about all this in-your-face propaganda, but my impression is that people mostly shrug it off. It's just a part of life in Vietnam. They don't think about it any more than I might think about a US Army recruitment commercial. People seem satisfied enough with the country's economic development, and the government isn't nearly as repressive as the Chinese model of Communism. (Facebook is blocked in the country, but one of my coworkers joked that the government was helping people develop their computer skills, as everyone figures out how to circumvent the restrictions.)

Communist propaganda aside, the sales events were fascinating. We held two events, one led by my organization, and the other led by the Women's Union. The idea was to learn from each other's strategies to inform a stronger sales pitch for the future. Our presentation emphasized the negative health implications of handwashing negligence, and the Women's Union's presentation mentioned heath briefly before launching into a demonstration of how to properly wash hands using items commonly found in a rural Vietnamese home. Interestingly, their demo required two people to wash one person's hand--someone else was needed to pour the water. The convenience of our product, basically a standalone sink with an attached water tank, stood in stark contrast. Women had reacted somewhat lukewarmly to the previous day's health presentation, but they loved actually seeing the convenience of our product. Many more women were interested in the product after the second presentation (we did the presentations with different groups of women).

The Women's Union demonstrates proper handwashing technique using objects already found in the home. Using a bucket and pitcher require the help of a second person.

Our product, in comparison, does not require a second person to help and it saves water. Plus it's adorable.
It was interesting, though not surprising, that illustrating convenience makes the product more appealing than focusing on health benefits. After all, who likes to get lectured at about how they're doing everything wrong for their families' health? And it's not just handwashing. Traditional cookstoves emit pollutants that give their families respiratory diseases. Open defecation poisons their water and food and gives their children diarrhea. Not boiling or filtering their water will inflict typhoid and more diarrhea on their children. Everything women do in rural Asia seems to be bad for their health, right? While of course knowledge of health impacts is vital, during a sales pitch it makes sense to put greater focus on something else for a change. As my coworker Lindsay, our resident behavior change expert, can tell you, knowledge of healthy practices doesn't necessarily drive change. For example, everybody knows smoking is bad for you, yet millions do it anyway.

People all over the world love convenience; it's human nature to do what is easy and fast and avoid what is difficult and slow. If I did not have access to plumbing and water flowing right out of my tap, I probably wouldn't wash my hands a lot either. This lesson is not new to our organization. In fact, our product's Vietnamese name translates to "Convenience." I think it would be wise for us to integrate the Women's Union's traditional handwashing demonstration into our presentations before introducing our product. It would also be great to have the women actually try out washing their hands with both the household tools and our product. Seeing and experiencing the difference between the two handwashing methods would have a powerful impact and, hopefully, boost our sales.

After our work was done, Ai, Quy, My, and My's boyfriend Giang (...not pronounced like an English pronoun) and I visited the floating market of Cai Rang. Ben and I had visited this same market almost three years ago, and it was interesting to see how the market had changed in a fairly short time period. The market was noticeably smaller. There were fewer boats and less activity.

Ai explained that the Vietnamese government had been taking measures to move floating markets to land. Traditionally, living and working on a boat in the Delta made sense. There are hundreds if not thousands of canals and boats were the fastest way to get around. These days, though, there are roads (and trust me, those roads are beautiful, especially compared to Cambodia's roads), so there is little need to depend on rivers for transport.

The floating market communities face many difficult problems, and the government believes moving onshore can improve their quality of life. They bathe, do laundry, wash dishes, drink, poop, and pee in the same water. The mobility of a boat means they do not have an address or residence. With no address, they are denied many social services. Their children, until recently, were not allowed to attend school without a permanent residence (though they are now admitted into schools, the families might still travel the canals between villages so that their children are not in the same place everyday and cannot attend school). Teen pregnancy is also a huge issue, as people live in very close quarters and do not have access to sex education. If moving these communities off the water really would have an impact on improving their health and wealth, I can see why the government has been pushing the move. However, they'll have to do a lot more than simply beach the market to tackle water, sanitation, education, and teen pregnancy. Even landlubber communities face these challenges!

Children of floating market families who do get an education often look beyond the river for economic opportunity. Those who go to college want to become office-bound professionals rather than boat-bound produce wholesalers. They want to provide a more comfortable, healthier life for their own children. The floating market communities are shrinking even without government prodding.

All this being said, people continue to live and work on these boats today, even with the roads. So some people do care about preserving the floating market way of life (either that, or they see no other options). The floating market is just one of many worldwide examples of a traditional lifestyle struggling to survive and thrive against the mighty wave of modernization. But culture is dynamic--today's particular snapshot of their culture is not the same as a snapshot of their culture from three hundred years ago--and ultimately improved health and education are good things.

Boats in the Cai Rang floating market
Pumpkin wholesaler in the Cai Rang floating market. The giant eyes were traditionally painted on the boats to scare away crocodiles, but these days there aren't many crocodiles left in the Mekong Delta.
We took a selfie on the boat. Front to back: Giang, My, me, Ai, Quy.
Finally, I end this absurdly long post with a shout-out to my brother. Ben, I saluted Can Tho's giant Ho Chi Minh statue again for you:

June 2011
April 2014


























Ai and Quy, if you guys are reading this, I apologize if anything I said about Vietnam was mistaken. Please correct me if I'm wrong and I'll fix it!























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