Viet Nam is a quickly changing nation; one employee at the U.S. Consulate told my class that the assessment of the country she was giving us was completely different than the assessment she had given to another group six months earlier. I intend my comments here, then, to be a snapshot of the nation, limited not only to the early months of 2009 but also limited by my experience as a monolingual American student. I intend what I write here to be merely descriptions of my experiences rather than positive or negative judgments (unless explicitly stated).
Last summer I visited Holocaust/WWII memorials in four European countries and compared them in a six-part series here at The Melon. The fundamental question I asked (and could not answer to my satisfaction) was “What is the value of remembering, particularly collectively remembering, this crime against humanity?” Recently, during my studies in Viet Nam, I decided to tackle the question again when I visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. Its concern is to remember and represent the crimes and everyday occurrences of the American War.
Opening on September 4, 1975, the museum now has eight permanent exhibits and is in the process of being renovated. When it opened the museum was originally called the (American) War Crimes Museum, but the name was changed after relations were normalized in order to prevent U.S. visitors from feeling uncomfortable. The captions and descriptions were in Vietnamese and English, with a few in French, Chinese, or Japanese. Additionally I observed several tours of the museum for French speakers.
The first stop on the tour, “Historical Truths,” is a room filled with pictures, quotes, and graphs, presenting so called “objective” information. Indeed, the facts contained were about as objective as you can be – tonnage of bombs dropped per year, U.S. budget allocations, locations of important military units, etc. The quotes were mostly from U.S. officials highlighting their attitudes toward Viet Nam, the people here, war in general, and to a lesser extent communism. The presentation of the factual information was where the bias came in, but there was nothing particularly interesting in that. In fact, visiting certain parts of this museum was the most stereotypically “insert state ideology here” experience I’ve had in this country. Exception: a brochure of the Reunification Palace that badly photoshopped the top of it to emphasize the Vietnamese flag. That, however, is just funny.
The second room I liked the best. Titled “Requiem,” was a collection of the photos of 134 war journalists from 11 countries killed in action. Most of the photos were in black and white, with short descriptions of the photographers and/or the circumstance described in the photo. The photo I remember the most was one of the first I saw: a field of rice or grass with U.S. troops a few yards from the camera, moving through it. It was probably the last shot on the last roll of film that particular photographer took before he was killed that day.
Unfortunately, the exhibit was small. It could have been a museum unto itself. Several iconic images of the war, such as a mother and her children swimming across a river, were featured. The captions were minimally political, probably because this was one of the more updated parts of the museum and because funding for it was provided by a French agency. As far as I could tell there did not seem to be censorship or overt bias affecting the display of the photos. By examining the contemporary work of people who were documenting the war at all stages and from all perspectives, remembering took on a new twist. It was fundamentally different from the primary sources displayed in the Holocaust memorials, which were mostly written sources or photographs of victims taken before the war or without their consent. Covering the war was work for the photographers who died, and it was done voluntarily. Their own personal experiences were not the purpose of what they did and how they represented with their cameras.
In about two weeks I will take my first flight across the Pacific and begin a semester abroad in Viet Nam.* I am very new to world traveling – only this past summer did I take my first unchaperoned trip abroad, to the not at all threatening continent of Europe. Culture shock only took vague form when interacting with occasionally rude Poles.
Here are a few things I’m looking forward to and a few things I am nervous about.
Reasons for an anticipated excellent experience:
-The food. With a delicious abundance of regional and ethnic styles, I anticipate regretting no meal. As a coastal country, the seafood will be superb. I’m also a fan of street vendors, so much so that waiting the recommended six weeks until my stomach gets used to local bacteria may be a challenge.
-This year’s Lunar New Year (Tet) celebration occurs in February, when I will be in Da Lat. The celebrations include, of course, specialty food, fireworks, and general revelry. However, this is also a family holiday, and I look forward to getting to know my homestay family as well as the other students in my program in a cozy family dinner.
-The environment. Viet Nam is incredibly diverse, with ocean habitats, tropical forests, mountains, temperate forests, the Red and the Mekong river deltas, and much more. Like most of the rest of the world, many of these areas are threatened by development, but there remains much to see. Viet Nam is a biodiversity hotspot, with several new species discovered last year.
-The people. From what I’ve read thus far Vietnamese culture is relatively friendly and relaxed. It is nearly impossible to have business relationships within the country without first making friends with one’s Vietnamese partners, because of the culture of personal connection. There’s less of a division between personal and professional life than there is here, and I am excited to get to know people.
-Learning about Vietnamese perspectives. Non-Vietnamese writers are anxious to paint the Vietnamese people as totally friendly and open-minded (if socially conservative), with many admirable qualities, and minimal communist tendencies. But these writers are clearly reacting to the negative images of Vietnamese that we in the U.S. gained during the war; the image of them as enemies has not been erased from a lot of peoples’ minds. I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk to actual Vietnamese people directly and hear their thoughts on their own country, on mine, on what they care about, on the social trends and developments that are happening right now. On world events. On feminism. On, well, anything. I love learning about why people think the way they do, and I am quite excited to be immersed in a culture I have very little knowledge of.
-Learning about communism. In high school I studied the epic pissing contest that was the Cold War fairly extensively, but I don’t think I learned much about communism, and certainly not communism from a non-Soviet perspective. For one thing, the historians and politicians who wrote about communism clearly believed that to take any position other than a polarized one was equivalent to de-manning themselves. For another, we discussed only the big events, not the minutia of day-to-day existence (except where it “proved” that capitalism is better). Well, my personal identity does not depend upon my unrelenting defense (or attack) of capitalism, so I feel like I will be able to examine Vietnamese communism with a relatively fresh gaze. And what “communism” is now is very different than what “communism” is at any other point in history. I’d like to see what’s going on with that.
-Studying disease prevention. During my program I will write an independent paper on whatever I wish. I have chosen to examine epidemic diseases and the way that healthcare workers educate people in rural communities about prevention. Particularly, I want to compare knowledge and education about HIV/AIDS to another epidemic that has little to do with human sexuality – malaria, say, or Japanese encephalitis.
-Tea. I’m a fan, and in the U.S. it’s just not as ubiquitous as it is in Asian countries. I love that tea is going to be a drink option no matter where I go.
Things I’m not looking so forward to:
-Struggling with the language. Vietnamese has six tones and is notoriously difficult. My passion as a student does not lie with the study of language, so I anticipate difficulty.
-Talking about sexuality for my research paper. Everything I’ve read so far just advises that I never even bring up sexuality with any Vietnamese person. Yet I must do so in order to evaluate knowledge of HIV/AIDS and its prevention. The cultural barrier + awkwardness about sex + people not trusting a stranger (me) + the language barrier + etc. = extreme potential for failure after it’s way, way too late to fix it.
-The almost certain bout of traveler’s diarrhea I will experience.
-Mild psychotic nightmares from taking the anti-malaria medication. Also the possibility of contracting rabies, worms, or any other gross tropical disease.
-Being regarded as a boorish, loud, uninformed, slutty, rude, insensitive American. In defense of people who may regard me as American and therefore uninformed, it is extremely difficult outside of an academic library to find anything on Viet Nam (not the war). There’s only travel books and war books, and the war books are 100% dominated by the U.S. perspective. Come on, America. We frickin’ doused the country in Napalm and bombed people and set up an embargo until the 1990s and we struggle with homeless PTSD veterans. We seriously can’t stock even one book in public libraries or bookstores from the Vietnamese perspective? In any genre? Come on.
Check out my travel blog for semi-regular updates.
*In Vietnamese, “Viet” and “Nam” are actually two different words. Like Chinese, most of the words are monosyllabic. “Viet” is the primary ethnic group in the nation, while “Nam” means south, which refers to the country’s position as south of China, its occasionally invading and always pushy neighbor. In English the words were pushed together in newspaper headlines by editors who didn’t know/care that the words were separate. This reflects a time when journalistic integrity apparently only applied to people of one’s own culture; should someone nowadays attempt to display such cultural ignorance, that person would rightly be called a dumbass.
photo credits http://flickr.com/photos/andrewhuxtable/