On The Ground 1

On the Ground 1

Sunday morning, August 16

All our luggage came through OK.

In the crowd at the airport we were the only white poeple in sight. I noticed a little girl, maybe 12 years old, staring at Joe as if he was some kind of giant tall pale monster.

Vinh and Dean Hoa met us outside on the sidewalk. A whole crowd of people was waiting too, and there were neat rows of red folding chairs set up for these people to sit in while they were waiting. We loaded up our suitcases, mostly heavy with books, into a van marked TDTU and went through streets that remind me of Mexico City: wide grand avenues, many two or three story white stucco buildings, flocks of people riding motor scooters in a steady flow of traffic. The trees on the streets are tall and leafy – this is not an arid country. On the upper floors of some apartment buildings are balconies overflowing with flowers – this is not earthquake country. They brought us to our room, which is indeed in a row of rooms constructed under the bleachers of the soccer stadium: clean, two double beds, a TV and shower, air conditioning. Note: his is a country where you drink bottled water and put toilet paper in the wastebasket.

Then to lunch, trying to talk despite jet lag and cultural overload. Dean Hoa is a young guy in his forties, very seriously committed to his work and the goals of his program. He came from the Business school; they saw that he was “multi-skilled,” he said, and assigned him here. Vinh, whose English is quite good, looks fifteen but is twenty six and a force to reckon with.

They let us nap for four hours. Vinh picked us up for dinner at 6:30 and introduced us to Nghia, pronounced “nee”, a student who will be in our classes and who spoke some English. Like Vinh, he looked incredibly young. I’ve got to find another word to describe these people other than “beautiful.” We walk through the campus. By now it’s getting dark. The buildings are all new in the last three to five years, and combine being modern (lots of angles, indoor and outdoor spaces connecting, white stucco and concrete) with small size, not the gigantism of new universities that you see in the US. Lots of overhanging things that Joe has to duck to get under, lots of small steps and curbs that I have to watch out for. The canteen is right around the corner from us, in the same building with recreational facilities, and overlooking on one side the soccer stadium and, on the other, a really appealing swimming pool that is apparently available to people like me from 5 to 7 pm. The whole campus is gated and guarded.

We walk down an inner street to the class and administration buildings. A canal, a bridge, fountains with colored lights. In the central building is a lobby full of displays: one is for the architecture students, who did final projects proposing tourist resorts; the other is fashion design, everything from gorgeous wedding gowns to some pretty weird high-fashion men’s designs. We see the Labor Program offices: clean, open, in Building B. Vinh tells us that there are 4 lecturers, that is, full-time members of the faculty. They are in the union. Then there are about 10 adjuncts who are not in the union. They are mostly union staff who teach one course here and other courses elsewhere.

We see Ms. La’s desk. She was head of the program here, perhaps the founder of the program, and head of the Ho Chi Minh City Federation of Labor. She is now retired but still teaching.

Upstairs is the classroom Joe will teach in tomorrow. It’s a regular classroom with long desks and chairs, not an amphitheater. Joe was warned that he would have 70 students, but since registration was just last Friday, they don’t really know, so the classroom looks as if it will seat 45. They will move the class if there are more signed up. They have not got the class listed as being taught by a foreigner.

There is a long glass window on one side of the classroom and Vinh says that observers will come and stand there and see what is going on in the class.

There is also a blackboard or a whiteboard, apparently. Richard said there wasn’t – I’m glad that there is, because I like to draw a lot of diagrams.

Then we walk out to the guarded entrance to the campus, the guard calls us a taxi, and we go to District 7 where there are lots of restaurants. We stop in a phone and computer store, get new SIM cards, and have dinner. It’s hot but there’s a steady breeze.

The main conversation happens after dinner, when Vinh, Joe and I really dig a bit into the issue of the assigned books. Joe has not been able to create a course that applies to labor out of the textbooks that he has been assigned. Now we find out what has been going on.

The President of TDT has approved a new curriculum. This is the second curriculum that we got via email. It includes the book that I am going to teach from, Northouse, and the books that Joe is going to teach from. There is no way to argue about this. Period. We not only have to really teach these books, we have to look as if we’re teaching them. I can do that, because the Northouse book follows a very fixed pattern, same every chapter. I can do a set of powerpoints that will march through the book, because it is set up that way. I believe I can even add Billy Henderson’s “positive reinforcement,” Wagner Dodge’s failure to make his men trust him, leading to the deaths of 15 out of 17 of them, King Lear and Machiavelli. I can also explain what a theory or a model is. I think I can fit those in.

Also, next year the entire curriculum is going to be taught in English. I am not clear on who’s going to be teaching it in English.

Joe’s books are much more inappropriate and he is having a much harder time trying to see how to use them. They are not written to be use as textbooks, in a chapter-by-chapter kind of way, with a pattern that can be repeated week after week He has never gone into a class unprepared like this, lacking a syllabus that gives an overview of the whole class..

We’ll see. Vinh is prepared for this first class to be a bit loose. Joe will do a self-introduction, ask the students to fill in the questionnaire that he always gives students in the US, then talk about the two kinds of communication, using Fred’s chart of the contrast between union communication and sales communication. At least that’s the plan for now.

Today, Monday, I’m up by 5 after a good night’s sleep. Make coffee in the teapot; it’s intense, sweet, strong stuff. Nghia comes by at 7:30 and we go to breakfast in the canteen where the three of us have good, fresh food – two eggs, cucumber and herbs, a big fresh French roll, another sweet iced coffee. Total for three comes to about $2.70 US, 62,000 Viet dong. A soft breeze flows through the open air, roofed canteen seating area. To one side the swim team, in uniforms, are doing their warmup exercises. Many girls wear pink or really lilac ao dai, the long-sleeved simple dress with slits up the side, over white trousers. Apparently on Mondays and Thursdays, if you have a class, the girls wear these and the boys wear white shirts and black pants. I ask Nghia if I should refer to him as a boy and he laughs and says yes; a man is someone over 25, time to have a job and get married.

I ask Nghia what he wants to do when he graduates and he says he wants to be president of a union. As president, he will make sure that workers get all the benefits they are eligible for.

One of the things I read when I woke up was a couple of chapters from Kent Wong’ and An Le’s book, Organizing on Separate Shores, published by the ULCA Labor Center in 2009, which are interviews with Vietnamese labor organizers in both the US and in Vietnam. I wish I had read this book first, way back last spring. One chapter in particular is about a Vietnamese organizer who works for the VGCL, Nguyen Tam Duong. In this chapter, we get to see what an organizer actually does in that organization. Other chapters are emotionally wrenching. All the stories begin in the war; some of the chapters about US based organizers begin with stories of fleeing the fall of Saigon. History is present in this book in a way that has to be made explicit in our classes.

Joe’s class starts in a bout 3 hours. Staying calm is the top priority for now

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

One thought on “On The Ground 1

  1. Congratulations on getting settled in so quickly and then jumping into the fire right away. I can imagine that they haven’t see someone of Joe’s size and stature before so he may be a curiosity for a while. You’ll do great there as you did in teaching me back here. What an opportunity!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: