On the Ground 10

Just out our studio door, on the far side of the fence that bounds the TDTU campus, is a four-lane divided boulevard recently planted and staked with small trees. It leads west. From the 10th floor of Building C, where the faculty lunchroom is located, we looked down and saw that this boulevard leads toward a river. Between the campus and the river are wetlands. Last night we walked down toward the river, over what I call a canal, past many young men sitting on low red stools either fishing in the currents of the wetlands or smoking, playing games, talking or drinking coffee. The boulevard dead-ended at the river, which I think is the Rach On Lon river, although since TDTU is too new to be marked on the maps, and since this district is newly rising out of soggy fields and sloughs that change their outlines seasonally, I’m not sure.

But is definitely not the Saigon River, which is much, much bigger. This one is about the size of the American River near Sacramento, and very muddy and fast-flowing, as if the water is being sucked out by an ebb tide. It has boats on it, boats that are obviously old but still used for work, like transporting things from one place to another, or fishing. On the map this river is just a squiggly blue thing.

We turned left and walked west along the river until we came to another dead end where three men were on guard over some incomplete construction, an excavator parked in mud. There we turned around. Although the road itself wasn’t paved yet, there were street trees planted and staked along the paved sidewalks. Two or three buildings still stood out in the area under construction: one that looked like an old house, another a corrugated metal shed. A group of men seemed to be living there. Some geese and chickens strutted around.

Went home and watched “The Wrecking Crew,” the story of the studio musicians in Hollywood during the 1990s, produced by the son of the guitarist Tommy Tedesco.  I read The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh. This is a real novel about a North Vietnamese soldier trying to recover from his experience of the war. He uses writing – apparently this book – to try to control and survive his memories. Beautifully written, completely believable, gripping, truthful about the horrors of war to the extent that I know anything about it. What if this book were available to US Vietnam vets, facing the same never-ending horrors of memory? I checked the reviews on this; none of the capture the intense flow of the text; they call it “incoherent.”

This morning, Saturday, we’re doing various Power points, chapter summaries and blurbs for the simulations and exercises we’ll present later this semester. Vinh has to translate all this. I personally think it’s too much work for any one person, all this translation. I think we are giving her more to translate than they expected. Dean Hoa did bring a young man in to meet us last Wednesday, a guy named Mark who has just come back to Vietnam from Houston, who is bilingual and is going to try to work here. Joe gave him two chapter from the Si Kahn book to translate. But the heavy load still falls on Vinh. Joe and I are trying to use less words in our handouts.

Later we’ll go out and get on the bus and see where we go. I’ll remember to bring a map.

The problem of how to “teach the book” in our classes, given what these books actually say, persists. I wish it was a problem we could just face once and deal with, but every chapter presents the problem anew. My class is not so bad, although evidently it is not conventional to express criticism of a textbook here, something I consider part of trying to understand any book. But Joe’s book, Gass and Seiter’s Persuasion, explicitly says that groups lead to loss of individuality, “social loafing”, and other bad behavior, whereas the power of workers comes from numbers, which means groups. To say nothing of the whole field of sociocultural psychology, which views culture, something collectively produced, as the means by which all learning and development is created and supported, and without which we would be animals.

In the afternoon, Saturday, we went into HCMC on the bus by ourselves, got off after the bridge that crosses the Saigon River, wandered along small streets where everyone seemed to be providing motor scooter repair services or else sewing out on the sidewalk, two men to a sewing machine, sitting across from each other to push giant pieces of cloth (tents, ground cloths, maybe hot air balloons or parachutes) under the needle. Is this where REI gets its tents made? We found a little restaurant on Calmette Street that was vegan and wonderful in every way.

Calmette st restaurant

Then we walked into District One, found the Independence or Re-Unification Palace, walked down Le Duan Boulevard to a park which seems to be a kind of playground, then turned and walked back into District 1 and had a beer in a second floor café, looking out into treetops and down into traffic as it got dark. Taxi back to TDTU for 100 000 dong or about $4.50. When I checked that exchange I noted that the dong is dropping rapidly against the dollar right now; it takes more dongs to buy a dollar.

When we got back to the campus, in the dark, we heard a great noise of loudspeakers in the stadium behind our room. A crowd of students in red T-shirts with yellow stars on them was practicing spreading a huge red silk flag with a yellow star over their heads and carrying it on the run. Then in the morning, promptly at 7 am, the loudspeaker started again. Looking out our back window we saw again a crowd of students in red T-shirts being led through various formations by someone with a microphone. This went on for two hours until 9 am.

I assumed this was preparation for Independence Day, September 2, Wednesday. Turns out it was not preparation; it was the event itself. We were too tired both at night and in the  morning to go see what was going on. Vinh got me these photos off the TDTU website.

dongdienqk_9 dongdienqk_10

To summarize my state of mind at this point: the original questions that troubled me, back at the very beginning of this adventure – what exactly do we have to offer these people, how can we define it clearly enough so we can deliver it effectively, and are we really the right people to be trying to do this? – is still unanswered. But the background is filling in, bit by bit.

We are starting our third week here. Joe is sorting through all Jan Sunoo’s material (he’s a mediator, now works for the ILO, and was once a Teamster reform activist and taught at CCSF). He gave us a whole load of stuff, some of which we can use. One document has quotes from articles from the “Labour Newspaper” – no date, however – such as :

Ms. Phung Thi Thanh Nhan, Director of the Legal Advisory Centre of Hanoi VGCL, said that besides providing education on the laws and regulations to large group of workers and group consultancy, this year several resource centres will be introduced in busy business areas of the city.  These centres will be equiped with computers, internet connection, office space for consultancy meetings and will open flexible time and out of normal working hours to assist workers especially migrated workers.

This sounds like a workers’ center and I would very much like to see it.

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.

3 thoughts on “On the Ground 10

  1. If you took a picture of the Independence Day practice and posted it on this blog I would appreciate it. I always wondered how those large scale stadium presentations were rehearsed.

    1. I tried, but the photo was taken through three fences rolled up and you can’t see anything worth seeing. Also, what I thought was a rehearsal turns out to have been the thing itself.

  2. I’m really enjoying reading all your posts; a wonderful combination of the personal, educational, and political! I look forward to them!

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