Call for Entrepreneurs

 

Since first arriving in Vietnam in 2005, I’ve been fortunate to meet so many interesting and talented people.  Most of these meetings have been through friends who’ve connected us through mutual interests, and a few were quite serendipitous.  Now, to build a vibrant entrepreneur ecosystem in Vietnam, I am actively seeking aspiring entrepreneurs who fit the descriptions below to join The START Network Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) Program (NOTE: This program is intended for people who reside in HCMC, but in the future, we will be expanding to Silicon Valley).

Who are START Entrepreneurs in Residence?

  • They are the seed of great companies.  They combine an intense drive with a “beginner’s mind” to create the necessary condition for the formation and development of a new high-impact venture.
  • They are not afraid to try something new and fail, because failure represents opportunities to learn, and learning is the only true path to success.
  • They are the heart of the entrepreneur community, committed to building their own teams and ventures as well as helping others in the community to make the community stronger.
  • They are self-motivated learners and strive for excellence in everything they do, and work best with others who are equally motivated and passionate.  If they don’t know about something that seems important to their future goals, they will quickly learn about it.
  • They are consistent and action-oriented; they spend more time doing than talking.  They actively strive to help others to adopt this mindset.
  • They are socially intelligent; they understand the fundamentals of healthy Human dynamics.  They are great leaders, followers, and collaborators, and are flexible so they can tailor their style to fit with any type of situation.
  • They are goal-oriented, but also collaborative and adaptive, building mutually beneficial relationships with key stakeholders to “co-create” new ventures.
  • When starting a new venture, they have a strong focus on creating value for users and customers.

If the description above fits with who you are (or who you want to be), then this program is for you.

How to Apply:

  1. Go to http://bit.ly/STARTEIR to complete and submit the application form
  2. Send your CV/resume to chrisz@thestartnetwork.org
  3. You will receive confirmation and next steps via e-mail.

What you get:

  • Connections – EIRs are plugged into The START Network’s Mentors who are experienced entrepreneurs and angel investors.
  • Space – EIRs are granted free space in the quiet co-working area, and have access to the other facilities at The START Center.
  • Time – EIRs are given 3 months to find a team and an opportunity to create something.  If they’re successful, they may graduate to our Start-up Accelerator Program.  If not, they’re welcome to stay on, but without the benefits of Connections and Space.  This time limitation is designed to encourage EIRs to make the most of their window of opportunity in the EIR program.

What is expected from you:

  • EIRs are expected to become fluent in the language, art, and practice of high-impact entrepreneurship.  They are expected to be both students and teachers to pass their knowledge and experiences on to others.
  • EIRs are already or will become domain experts in at least one of three disciplines: business, technology, or design.  They must also be industry experts in at least one industry vertical where they can draw relevant examples from based on their domain expertise.
  • EIRs commit their time and energy to supporting the entrepreneurial programs sponsored by The START Network both during and after their term of residence.  They form a strong alumni base that can actively support the development of the entrepreneur community and ecosystem, both locally and globally.

If you or someone you know would like to participate in, or help support the development of this program, please get in touch with me here or via e-mail at chrisz@thestartnetwork.org.

 

The Oak Creek Massacre and its Connection to Southeast Asians

From diaCRITICS comes this piece by editor Viet Thanh Nguyen on the mass murder of six Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and its connection to the violence done to, and by, Southeast Asians. diaCRITICS is the leading blog on Vietnamese diasporic arts and culture, published by the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network. DVAN promotes the work of Vietnamese artists everywhere, and both DVAN and diaCRITICS are always looking for writers, contributors, and helpers.

 

This is my rifle, this is my gun, this is for fighting, this is for fun.

This is an article about the recent massacre of six Sikh Americans by a white supremacist US Army veteran, but I begin with this, a United States Marine Corps chant to remind new recruits in boot camp that their weapon was not just a GUN, but more importantly a RIFLE. Military types and weapons specialists care about these distinctions. Stanley Kubrick satirized the unconscious psychosexual energies behind wielding a gun in Full Metal Jacket, when Marine recruits parade with their weapons doing this chant of “This is my rifle, this is my gun, this is for fighting, this is for fun.” They seize their crotches at “gun” and “fun.” When I showed it to my students, some were puzzled at how to interpret this moment that seems so clear to me. The rifle is a phallus, an extension of the rock-hard cock, and in Kubrick’s film, the narrative is completed in the battle for Hue, when a female sniper castrates the Marine squad by killing a few. She herself is surrounded and killed by the surviving Marines in a moment that the critic Susan Jeffords, in The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War, calls a symbolic gang rape.  The fact that the killing and the rape are not just about gender and sexuality but race and nation is fairly obvious.

Why am I thinking of this? Because just when I thought I had gotten some anger out of myself,  there are now more things to get me angry. The Batman massacre in Aurora, Colorado, which happened the night before I saw The Dark Knight Rises (my tickets bought in advance). Then the massacre of Sikh people in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, yesterday of the day I am writing this, when an Army veteran and white supremacist invaded a temple and killed six before being killed himself. This is not a post about gun control, as I am sure my position on gun control is evident, and nothing I say will change any minds. This is instead about pointing to the direct line from the core of American culture and history to the Viet Nam War to the Oak Creek massacre and a couple of other massacres many of us have already forgotten about…

Continue reading here.

Will Vietnam Legalize Gay Marriage–Or Only Divert Attention From Bigger Issues?

Recent news that Vietnam might consider legalizing gay marriage, a move that would make Vietnam the first Asian country to do so, stirred up quite a bit of debate among the diaspora of Vietnamese people in many countries, as well as in the gay community. Although the discussion of whether to legalize same-sex marriage won’t take place by the National Assembly Congress until Spring 2013, gay weddings have been happening in Vietnam’s capital and other cities.

In fact, a gay-pride parade–the first of its kind–is being planned in Hanoi for August 5. 

Nguyen Qui Duc is a Vietnamese American author, artist, translator and radio broadcaster, who has worked with NPR and the BBC and written for many newspapers in the United States. He returned to his Hanoi in 2006, and opened a popular bar and restaurant called Tadioto. New America Media (NAM) editor, Andrew Lam conducted an interview by e-mail with Nguyen for his point of view on Vietnam’s latest cultural trend.

Question: The news that Vietnam might legalize gay marriage came from left field for many of us in the West and many who think of Vietnam as a conservative, police state. How did this come about? Do you think it might actually happen? Or is it blown out of proportion?

Nguyen: The news came out of left field here, too, but it seems it’s Western foreign media that’s focusing on this. I am not sure how this came about, but there had been incidents within the last weeks where there were a couple of ceremonial weddings, including among university students.

I don’t think it will happen. Local people feel it may be a diversion from economic issues. People don’t seem to be talking about it too much, except within the rarified urban elite using social networks like Facebook and private blogs. This news came as people are very concerned about economic downturn, price hikes and government reactions against people protesting China’s advances in the East [South China] Sea.

Question: How are gays and gay couples being treated in Vietnam in your opinion? How are they portrayed in the media–are they still being frowned on in general?

Nguyen: People are generally tolerant, but in several occasions I’ve seen rather unsophisticated attitudes toward homosexuals. As I mentioned, in the media they’re odd balls, farcical, criminals and prostitutes. A few stories I have seen have shown them in better light but it’s a long way toward full acceptance.

I feel that many still keep themselves pretty hidden. In big cities, such as Hanoi, Saigon and Danang, there are gay clubs and cafes, but beyond that, there’s really little presence. Comments on social sites, blogs, etc., show discrimination, sometimes harsh.

Children use the word PD [short for pederast] in derogatory fashion. In many areas, the Vietnamese are still very conformist due to Confucian and Communist pressure, but at the same time–in a society in transition, fast changing, overcrowded and in the rush towards development–there’s also a “live and let live” attitude.

Question: You’ve been in Vietnam for over six years now and opened a bar called Tadioto in Hanoi. With your eyes on the social scene, can you comment on shifting social mores toward homosexuality?

Nguyen: I see more and more openness, especially in urban areas. There are more openly gay men and women, there are cafes and clubs for them, and it seems to not bother people in general. The mainstream media sometimes report on their activities. There are no celebrity cases, however, and in private, attitudes are still rather discriminatory.

I have also found that there’s a community of lesbian women. Some tell me they don’t like the sexist and disrespectful attitudes of Vietnamese men, so they turn to women for love. A couple of years ago, there was a trend in which women experimented with same-sex sexual relations. It was described as a fashion. Sexual activities in general seem to be unlimited for many. People say they want more independence, break-ups and divorces are frequent, and men and women have affairs fairly easily; it’s just accepted. This has a bearing on homosexual life as well.

In my bar, homosexual clients come and go openly, express themselves through attitudes, clothes, stories and normal affectionate behavior without anyone raising an eyebrow. I’ve seen this at other clubs and bars, but these are rare places where anyone is welcome. I don’t know that other establishments are the same.

But there are many gay blogs and website. The media have reported on parks and public spaces where older, more established men, presumably married, go to have gay sex.

Question: The cultural scene is changing fast in Vietnam with hip-hop dance crews, rap artists and independent films being made, such as “Hot Boy Noi Loan“–a first sympathetic film about the gay life in Vietnam, with main characters who are gay. What do young people think of the movie?

Nguyen: I have not heard a lot about “Hot Boy Noi Loan.” I have helped on several movie scripts in which gay men and women are portrayed as alienated, poor, on the fringe of society, and are criminals and prostitutes.

Question: China hasn’t moved on this issue, but Vietnam is making waves. Why do you think Vietnam is advancing in this area of human rights when it’s behind in so many other areas?

Nguyen: The opinion here is that this is a diversion, a measure to block criticism on repression of bloggers, or on urban protesters of government, party policies and corruption. It is also a sensitive time in regards to conflict with China. Cynical views of the government and of the ruling party are rampant, so this issue naturally falls into a category of “one more thing to doubt the government.”

In reality, I think it’s just normal in a fast developing society. People travel to many countries in Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia, Thailand, Korea and Japan where attitudes are different. As for the government, sometimes it’s trial balloons being floated around, or some high-ranking person in the government or party, who happen to have said something. Then it just balloons out to something bigger, more official. I don’t know that anything will happen.

Question: In the form of freedom of speech, it seems on the cultural ground there ‘s been some major shift. There are YouTube videos being produced showing gay weddings in Vietnam.

Nguyen: Urban Vietnamese now have access to social media, to new technology, to things like YouTube. And they use them. Even in a place like Hanoi, there are few things for young people to do but hang out in cafes and karaoke. So people turn to the Internet. But one must be aware that such videos or expression of alternative lifestyle only happen with a small segment of the population. They are novelties, and they are noticed. But in general, most people I know don’t even think about such issues.

Question: Vietnam is now having the first gay pride parade ever in Hanoi. August 5th. Somehow this is permissible when religious events are still tightly controlled. What to make of this?

Nguyen: It is surprising. I think it’s one of those cases where things are allowed to relieve pressure, to let people let off steam. But if it grows too big, takes on a political tone or becomes a “dangerous” precedent, or example, cracking down is not too hard [for authorities], and stopping further expressions will happen easily enough. I don’t think too many people are aware of this parade. It remains to be seen whether it will actually happen, draw a real crowd of people wishing to express themselves, or more curious on-lookers.

Having said all the above, I feel that the attention to this issue, both by foreign and local media, will bring out the issue, get things in the open, and slowly.

Note: This article originally appeared on New America Media. To view the original post, click here

Andrew Lam is author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. His next book, Birds of Paradise Lost, is due out in 2013.

Cover image is a still from Vietnamese film “Lost in Paradise.”

How Innovative is Vietnam?

The following blog originally appeared on VNHELP‘s blog. To see the original post, click here. VNHELP is nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian and development assistance to Vietnam, focusing on individual and community building by tackling the key education and health needs of Vietnam’s poor.

 

How innovative is Vietnam? This is a simple question that can be difficult to answer.

On the one hand, Vietnamese people can be incredibly resourceful. How often do you see parts of a presumably out-of-commission truck strapped to an ox to create a new mobile contraption? (The efficiency of this invention, though, seems questionable.)

On the other hand, Vietnam has lax intellectual property right laws that end up promoting brand imitation rather than innovation. Case in point: Google-branded toilet paper. Probably not what the tech giant had in mind when it wanted to expand to new markets.

One way we can try to measure Vietnam’s innovation is through looking at the number of patents that are filed and granted in Vietnam. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), there were 9047 patents granted in Vietnam between 1995 and 2010. 1326 were filed by foreigners and just 294 of those patents were filed by Vietnamese nationals, which seems a paltry sum. But 7426 of the patents were also filed by people of “unknown” origins, and we might assume that at least some of those unknowns were actually Vietnamese nationals. Worldwide, in the same fifteen year span, Vietnamese nationals were also granted 1 patent in France, 2 in New Zealand, 2 in Romania, 1 in Thailand and 7 in the U.S.

But patents alone may not be able to capture the espirit d’innovation of a country because in today’s world innovation isn’t necessarily about inventing the next big thing. It can be about finding new uses for old resources, or connecting the dots between products or services that didn’t seem related at first. So another way we can try to measure Vietnam’s innovation is by looking at the Global Innovation Index, a joint production of WIPO and INSEAD Business School.

The Innovation Index looks not just at the number of patents or new products coming out of a country, but also at innovation ecosystems. It examines a country’s innovation input, which is built on the strength of  its institutions, human capital and research, infrastructure, market sophistication and business sophistication. It also assesses a country’s innovation output, built around the pillars of creative outputs and knowledge and technology outputs.

Image extracted from the Global Innovation Index’s site

Unfortunately, by these metrics too, Vietnam doesn’t fare too well. Out of 141 countries, Vietnam ranks 76th. This is a drop from last year’s ranking, where Vietnam stood at 51 of 125 countries. Before that, it was 71st in 2010 and 64th in 2009. This year’s top spots went to Switzerland (a country of less than 8 million people, or less than a tenth of Vietnam), Sweden (population size 9 million), and Singapore (with a little over 5 million people). The U.S. ranked 10th and China ranked 34th. Japan, once known as the land of gadget and trinket innovation, came in at 25th.

Within the South East Asia and Oceania region, Vietnam is 12th of 17 countries. Among lower middle income countries, Vietnam looks a little better at 7th of 36 countries.

According to the Index’s country profile of Vietnam, some of Vietnam’s greatest weaknesses are its institutions and its ease of protecting investors. Underdeveloped human capital and research, especially in tertiary education, are problematic. Areas it’s doing well in include PCT patent filing with foreign inventors, creative goods exports, and microfinance gross loans. For the complete country profile, check out this link and select Vietnam under the first appendix.

We’re pleased to see Vietnam doing well with microfinance, and we will continue to work to expand our own microfinance projects to reach more borrowers. In the mean time, we do hope that Vietnam can develop a greater spirit of innovation. And we don’t necessarily need to see new high end products that revolutionize an industry coming out of Vietnam. We believe that innovation is not just an exercise in profit maximization and producing commodities, but also a pursuit of intellectualism, sustainability and optimizing positive social impact. We’re interested in seeing how innovation can introduce existing technologies that help uplift marginalize communities from poverty. There is so much potential for innovation in business, nonprofit sector, and public sector.

Day, Night, Week, Month – a memoir from Hoangmai Pham and diaCRITICS

Hoangmai Pham

From diaCRITICS comes this memoir essay by Hoangmai Pham, who escaped from Saigon to the U.S. with her family in 1975, at age seven. Keeper of Stories is a work-in-progress that interweaves her family’s history in Vietnam and America, and her own psychological journey surviving and understanding that history. Only recently has Mai learned that her strategy for coping with her traumas was what is referred to as a dissociative disorder, in which she compartmentalized pieces of her personality to keep them safe. The memoir traces how she unearthed her family’s history, and explains how that helped her integrate her different parts. “Running Saigon” is the fourth “chapterlet” in the memoir. On her blog, you can find preceding chapters about her naming and how her self-exploration began. She posts drafts of chapterlets for readers to comment on. Go here for the chapterlet preceding this.

DAY, NIGHT, WEEK, MONTH

Blue told me that most people experience a singular life stream, a narrative that may skid forwards and backwards, but generally hews to one line with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The sections are connected and even if a few hours, days, or months get skipped or are faded, there at least aren’t skeins of film shaved off the top and bottom, coiling off on their own, discarded on the floor. It’s just one long story. That was in response to my request for him to give me a few bread crumbs, something to lead me back to normal…continue reading here.

 

diaCRITICS is the leading blog on Vietnamese diasporic arts and culture, published by the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network. DVAN promotes the work of Vietnamese artists everywhere, and both DVAN and diaCRITICS are always looking for writers, contributors, and helpers.

Vietnam May Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

Some truly surprising news about Vietnam broke over the weekend: Once a country that condemned homosexuality as a “social evil” alongside drugs and prostitution, Vietnam is now considering legalizing same-sex marriage. The Wall Street Journal also reports that Vietnam will hold its first gay pride parade in Hanoi on August 5.

The announcement that Vietnam may amend its current definition of marriage came as a shock to many, including long-time gay rights advocates. Vietnam has a less than stellar human rights record, and is constantly criticized by the international community for its muffling of dissident opinions. In a recent visit to the country, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned, “If Vietnam is going to continue developing and transition to an innovative, entrepreneurial economy … there will have to be more space created for the free exchange of ideas, to strengthen the rule of law and respect the universal rights of all workers, including the right to unionize.” So, for a country that Freedom House persistently rates as being “not free” to suddenly declare that it could legalize gay marriage is, understandably, unexpected. If the new legislation goes through, Vietnam would be the first Asian country to break from the conventional definiton of marriage as a union between a man and woman.

Whether the new amendment will actually become reality is still uncertain, however. The amendment to recognize same sex marriage has yet to be formally drafted, and state officials have announced that they will be still conducting public opinion polls before the drafting process. Even if passed, the amendment probably won’t come into effect for many years to come, but it should clarify disputes on same-sex couples living together, owning property, inheriting assets and adopting children.

Like many other Asian countries, Vietnam has been traditionally resistant to same-sex relationships. The LGBTQ community has largely remained underground, and prejudice against same-sex relationships is still common. But Vietnamese have also gradually become more tolerant of differences in sexual orientation over the years. Earlier this year, the first Vietnamese film to positively depict homosexuality was released.

Cover image is a still from aforementioned film “Lost in Paradise.”

Running Saigon – a memoir from Hoangmai Pham and diaCRITICS

Hoangmai Pham

From diaCRITICS comes this memoir essay by Hoangmai Pham, who escaped from Saigon to the U.S. with her family in 1975, at age seven. Keeper of Stories is a work-in-progress that interweaves her family’s history in Vietnam and America, and her own psychological journey surviving and understanding that history. Only recently has Mai learned that her strategy for coping with her traumas was what is referred to as a dissociative disorder, in which she compartmentalized pieces of her personality to keep them safe. The memoir traces how she unearthed her family’s history, and explains how that helped her integrate her different parts. “Running Saigon” is the third “chapterlet” in the memoir. On her blog, you can find preceding chapters about her naming and how her self-exploration began. She posts drafts of chapterlets for readers to comment on.

Running Saigon

In Vietnam I was too busy to care what I wore. In one photograph on the banks of a waterway, I am three and sit with my brother Chuong on a bench, my feet in the air. I am nearly falling off with laughter. In New Year’s pictures from each year of my toddler-hood I am posed in my Tet outfit, custom sewn to match those of one set of girl cousins or another – red polyester with blue polka-dotted patch pockets and sleeves one year, yellow pantsuit another year with large white daisy appliques. But I am turning my head this way or that, looking at something besides the camera, smiling or laughing…continue reading here.

 

 

diaCRITICS is the leading blog on Vietnamese diasporic arts and culture, published by the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network. DVAN promotes the work of Vietnamese artists everywhere, and both DVAN and diaCRITICS are always looking for writers, contributors, and helpers.

Developing the Entrepreneurship Ecosystem in Vietnam

When meeting someone for the first time, one is often asked, “So what do you do?”

Lately, I’ve had a difficult time answering this question.  In the last two years, I’ve taken on many different roles in many different organizations.  Most of these roles pay little to nothing.  Fortunately, I earn passive income from my other businesses, so I can afford the luxury of not needing to work for a salary.

Here’s my running list of activities and roles:

–       Deputy Director of the John von Neumann Institute’s Innovation, Leadership, and Entrepreneurship Programs (ile.jvn.edu.vn)

–       Founder and President of SAVVi Investors Forum, an Early-Stage Investors Group focused on US and VN (sif-vn.com)

–       Lecturer of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Vietnam National University (hcmiu.edu.vn and apcs.hcmus.edu.vn)

–       Certified Incubation Management Trainer for The World Bank (Infodev) and Asia Pacific Incubation Network (infodev.org)

–       Founder and CEO of The START Center for Entrepreneurs (thestartnetwork.org)

All of these roles have one common theme, and that is to help entrepreneurs in Vietnam to be successful.

I recently made a mind-map of all of these activities:

http://prezi.com/jh-ijf0_wm5y/entrepreneur-ecosystem-development-in-vietnam/

Despite all of this, I am still at a loss as to how to answer the question, “What do I do?”  I’d welcome any suggestions.

If you’d like to get involved or learn more about these activities, please feel free to contact me.  We need all the help we can get. 🙂

Obesity in Asia: American Fast Food is Fare for the Rich

Each time I visit my homeland, Vietnam, I find that many of my relatives have gotten wealthier and progressively fatter, especially their overly pampered children. One cousin in Saigon in particular is raising an obese child. When asked why she was feeding him so much she simply shrugged and said, “Well, we barely had enough to eat during the Cold War. Now that I have money, I just let my son eat what he wants.”

Unfortunately what that entails for her boy is access to an array of American owned chains like KFC, Pizza Hut, Carl Jr.’s, and most recently, Burger King. His favorite meal? “Pizza and Coke,” the boy answered with glee.

Besides the tasty draw of fatty foods and sweet sodas, there’s another reason why such establishments are making inroads in countries that are otherwise known for their excellent culinary traditions. Unlike in the U.S., where fast food is perceived as time saving and cheap and often the preferred meal of the working poor, in Asia places like Burger King and Pizza Hut are the fare of choice for those with dispensable incomes. For a regular factory worker in Vietnam who makes a few dollars a day, eating at KFC is completely out of the question. For those who can afford to eat at one of Pizza Hut’s air-conditioned restaurants in a chic sparkling shopping mall in Hanoi or Saigon, however, eating is only part of the experience. The other part is equally, if not more, important: Consuming American fast food is the proof of one’s economic status in the world.

The writer Ha Jin captured this modern tendency in a hilarious short story called “After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town.” It’s about a family of nouveau riche who book their wedding at a brand new fast food chain called “Cowboy Chicken” — never mind that the Chinese know 150 better ways to cook the bird — to celebrate their new wealth in capitalistic China. If the story is hilarious, it is also a sad statement as to how quickly a thousand years of culinary expertise is thrown out for the new – which in this case, is deep- fried chicken and steamed corncobs served up in a paper box.

And if common sense and taste are often the first casualties in a world where western fast food and brand name sodas proliferate at an alarming rate, the ultimate casualty is health itself. According to the World Health Organization, one billion people are malnourished in the world and another billion – many in developing countries—are overweight. At least 300 million of them are clinically obese, and the economic costs of related illnesses are staggering.

While the overall obesity rate in China is somewhere around 5 percent, that number jumps dramatically to around 20 percent in the big cities. Despite the relative small ratio of obese people when compared to that of the U.S., given the size of China’s population (1.35 billion), that 5 percent accounts for about 70 million overweight Chinese.

It would seem that not only are the Chinese catching up with the American economy, but with the American size as well. According to the Chinese Health Ministry, Chinese city boys age 6 are 2.5 inches taller and 6.6 pounds heavier on average than their counterparts 3 decades ago. “China has entered the era of obesity,” Ji Chengye, a leading child health researcher told USA Today. “The speed of growth is shocking.” Almost 100 million Chinese now suffer from diabetes.

In this regard, Vietnam too is catching up with China. While 28 percent of rural children suffer from malnutrition, according to the National Institute of Nutrition, 20 percent from urban areas suffer from the opposite: obesity. “The number of overweight and obese kids is increasing at a fast pace in Ho Chi Minh City [formerly known as Saigon] where the highest ratio of children with the problem is recorded,” Do Diep, deputy direct of the HCMC Nutrition Center, told Tien Phong newspaper two years ago.

For many Vietnamese, the irony is all too obvious. Previous generations known as boat people fled out to sea on rickety boats to escape starvation and extreme austerity under communism during the cold war. But they are quickly being replaced by a new generation, one that needs to go to the gym or a fat farm to drop excess weight — or if they can afford it, “flee” abroad to shop for the latest brand name items like Hermes belts and Louis Vuitton Bags.

Years of struggle against imperialism resulted in an odd defeat: Anything western is automatically deemed superior, no questions asked. It is a situation that one intellectual in Vietnam coined as, “Selling the entire forest to buy a stack of paper.” A case in point: When asked what he wanted from the USA, a cousin in Hanoi didn’t hesitate: “Starbucks coffee.” Yes, he’s quite aware that Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world, second only to Brazil; and yes, on practically every block in the city there’s a coffee shop. “But no one has tasted Starbucks coffee in Vietnam,” the cousin explained. “Everyone wants to know what it tastes like.”

These days one reads quite a few articles about the decline of the American empire and the rise of Asia, and in the same breath, how the Chinese are gaining the upper hand in the global economy. But one wonders if that’s true. Because even if declining, America still manages to sell its “superior” lifestyles to the rest of the world in ingenious ways, from food to movies, from music to fashion — and in the area of food, as least, our obesity problems as well.

Bonus media: In Hong Kong, McDonald’s also provides wedding services now. Would you like fries with that?

 

NAM editor, Andrew Lam, is author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. His next book, Birds of Paradise Lost, a collection of short story, is due out in 2013. See the original post here.

What Do You Do? Identity vs. Work, East vs. West

As we slowly move away from the field and the farm, what will our Vietnamese identities be based on?

A while back, when I was visiting my mother’s ancestral village in Thai Binh province in northern Vietnam, it occurred to me that, after a barrage of questions from distant relatives, not once did anyone ask that common question in America: “So, what do you do?” Instead the questions were familial and personal: “How is your mother?” “Do you own a car?” “Are you married?”

When I volunteered my profession — “I am a journalist” — I was met with polite nods and smiles. A guaranteed conversation-starter back in the United States went nowhere among my mother’s distant kin, who were mostly farmers. “You know, for magazine and newspapers,” I added, muttering. “I get to travel to many places and everything.”

One old woman with blackened enamel teeth (an old practice considered to be beautiful) patted my cheek and said, “You know, don’t travel so much. You should marry and settle down.” Then at her insistence I went and lit incense at the graves of my great-grandparents and mumbled a silent prayer while half of the village watched in approval.

The idea of work as an identity and vocation is still new in many parts of the world. Vietnam, for one, is a country where, despite recent changes toward modernity, 80 percent of the population still lives in rural areas. Work for them is arduous and repetitive, really nothing to talk about. In fact, the Vietnamese colloquial word for work is “keo cay,” which literally means “to pull the yoke.”

“What do you do?” is a meaningless question in a region when everyone has his feet in the mud, his back bent, his skin scorched by an unforgiving sun.

Yet as an immigrant to America, I am all too aware how a strong work ethic ultimately helps newcomers succeed. In America, where mobility weakens blood ties, work is still a highly honorable thing, a point around which strangers can connect. Hard work was a vehicle that took my family out of poverty and deposited us in that much-coveted, five-bedroom suburban home with a pool in the back yard. And ambition transformed my cousins, siblings and me into engineers, businessmen, doctors and journalist — successful American professionals. What we do has become an enormous source of pride, not only for ourselves, but for our family and clan.

Immigrants’ strong work ethic built the American dream, which in turn merges with the old Protestant work ethic, which built America. To have vision is to move forward: He sees in the boarded-up store a sparkling new restaurant; she looks at the pile of shirts to be sewn in the sweatshop and sees her children going to Harvard. For those who want to do, and do well, America is still the place to be.

A cliche to the native-born, the American dream nevertheless seduces the sedentary Vietnamese, among countless others, to travel halfway around the world. America kisses her hard, and in the morning she awakes to find, to her own amazement, that she can readily pronounce mortgage, escrow, aerobic, tax shelter, GPA, MBA, MD, BMW, Porsche, overtime and stock options.

Gone is the cyclical nature of her provincial thinking, and lost is her land-bound mentality. She can envision the future.

There is a price to pay for having ambition, however. Already, second-generation Vietnamese in America are feeling that deterioration of clanship, the loss of the insularity that their parents’ generation valued and upheld. Indeed, somewhere along our highly mobile and cosmopolitan lifestyles, that close network that held the first generation together is thinning out a generation later. So much so that, increasingly, we take our identity from what we do and less from who we know or who we are related to.

Back in my mother’s ancestral village, however, as I sat and watched my kinfolk gather their crops and sing, I found enviable their sense of communal love and insularity. It’s back-breaking work, but you live and die by the land, and you are never left alone — someone is guaranteed to take care of you, for such is the collective ethos of that world.

Yet despite my claim of kinship, despite the fact that my ancestors are buried there, I felt myself essentially a stranger in the village.

One young woman came and sat down with me near the end of the visit. She was a good student, she told me. She dreamed of life in the big city. There was nothing in the village for her. She imagined herself doing well in Hanoi. And then perhaps, if she did well, who knows, she might even go abroad.

“To America,” she said in a dreamy voice.

Listening to her, I was struck by the enormous gap between hard work and ambition. An immigrant with a cosmopolitan vision dancing in his or her head can move away from a rural past quickly and fiercely.

From the far end of the road that led out of that village, I wanted to warn her of loneliness, of the journey’s unrequited longings, of my yearnings for a more connected, insular world.

But I mentioned none of that. Instead, I felt a different kind of kinship with the young woman, one not based on blood ties.”So,” I asked her, “What do you plan to do when you get there?”


Andrew Lam is an editor of New America Media and the author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. His book of short stories, Birds of Paradise, is due out in 2013.

Image by Wandering the World (lostmanproject.com) via Flickr (Creative Commons)