How's that Working Out For You? Adventures in Democracy, was Teaching Industrial Relations in Vietnam

In order to translate the core assumptions of collective bargaining for Vietnamese undergraduates, I have had to turn my attention to the way democracy is actually practiced in our own country.

Gave my Midterm in Cross-Cultural Leadership Yesterday Afternoon — October 8, 2015

Gave my Midterm in Cross-Cultural Leadership Yesterday Afternoon

  How to make coffee

Coffee making equipment

 I wrote 40 multiple choice questions which were to be divided into two tests each with 20 questions. I had to also provide the answers. The answers had to be from either the readings, the handouts, or my power point slides. The two tests with answers would then go to the Department of Evaluation for checking and approval. The D of E would also grade the tests, using the answers provided.

I was told that I had to write two tests in case something happened, like the electricity went out. However, after he put the tests into the proper TDTU format on special exam stationary, Heiu suggested that I use both tests and go one-two-one-two, alternating them down the row “because they sit so close.”

The exam was held in a different room from our regular classroom but the same kinds of desks. Three or four people sit elbow to elbow at these desks. Nhu, the class monitor, handed the exams out. There weren’t enough so she had to run go get some more, and this created a Group Two of the students who started 10 minutes later.

It was an open book test. Not just book – it was also open laptop, open phone, open notebook. Also open friend-sitting-behind-you, which pretty much defeated the purpose of one-two-one-two. To say nothing of the fact that laptops were shared – often a whole row was sharing a laptop. I noticed a couple of kids — boys — who were sitting at the ends of rows and didn’t really get a look at the common laptop. They looked a little lost.

As soon as the tests were distributed there began a constant murmur. Some of it was people reading aloud, but other parts of it were people simply having conversations, discussing the questions (but in Vietnamese, of course, so I didn’t really know).

The test was supposed to be one hour. They finished early. We struggled through some other exercises and then I let them go 10 minutes before class was supposed to be over. I hope the Department of Evaluation doesn’t hear about this.

This evening I looked up Zero De Conduite and watched it. Made me feel better.

I now have students from this class friending me on Facebook, which sounds like “futhbow” when spoken by a Vietnamese. If any of you are reading this, go watch Zero de Conduite.

Hieu saw me in the hall this evening and told me that he had graded the exams (not the Department of Evaluation  – I must have misunderstood) and that they turned out very well. Most students got nearly 10 points. The lowest was a 7. He also said that he noted that some people got the same wrong answer.

When I walked down a hall later I saw students taking an exam. they were sitting one person per bench, zig-zag so no one was behind someone else.

I am going to have to learn something about classroom discipline. I am really at a loss for what to do. I keep telling my self that I don’t care if they all get good grades, all I care is that they’re learning something.

I am also going to re-read Madame Binh’s description of the way the educational system was set up following the American War. That was only 40 years ago. This is a young educational system!  She was Minister of Education starting in 1976. In the North, education was a priority even during the war. Illiteracy had been nearly eradicated. In the South, illiteracy was high and schools existed only in the cities and in some places along the national highways. She writes:

We organized a major mobilization to send northern teachers to support the southern provinces…During 1977 and 1978, several thousand teachers from northern provinces answered the ministry’s appeal and volunteered to serve in the southern provinces.

By 1983, she says, the Ministry had a network of public schools in every southern province, district and commune. But getting enough teachers trained was another matter. They had a word for it when a teacher had students who were only one grade or less below them: “Rice dipped in rice.”  This reminds me of the literacy campaigns in Nicaragua and Cuba. She visited the Ha Noi Pedagogical Institute and says she “immediately felt uneasy. The students’ situation was impossible. They had to eat standing up, for there were no chairs. Each table had a pot of rice, a dish of salted vegetables, and a bowl of “pilotless” [meatless] soup. Each student had a bowl and a spoon. That’s how they ate!”

Teacher’s living conditions were very bad. “We were desperately poor,” she says. “People had nothing” (354). One school got permission from the local authorities to plant 10 lychee trees at an educational office. That was enough to “improve teacher’s livelihoods” (342). Other sites copied this idea.

In this midst of all this came the attacks from Pol Pot in Cambodia against southwestern Vietnam and the Border War with China and conditions got worse.

But in 1983, vocational training schools were established. “All teachers and students both studied and did manual labor.” The idea was “take productive labor into the schools: (353).  Students planted trees, built factory schools and planted experimental agricultural fields and gardens for traditional medicine. A”study and work” model of schooling had in fact been started in Vietnam back in 1974 to enable older rural youth to get some schooling. This model was followed by Cuba. Students at these schools produced things ranging from cassava to pottery to educational materials and kindergarten toys.

But in the midst of the extreme poverty shared by everyone, “anyone making even the smallest profit from a creative enterprise suffered from police watchers and became the topic of malicious gossip”(355).

Unfortunately, instead of seeing the movement’s larger meaning, some people intervened and stopped the students’ activities because these initiatives were “beyond” the very strict socio-political-economic limits enforce by the “economic police” at a time when we had an extremely rigorous model of socialism (348). 

The days when the “economic police” could shut down a school because it was supporting itself by selling vegetables are gone. Now there seem to be universities everywhere. This is in the span of time since Gabi and Jake were kids going to school in Berkeley.

But when we got our exams back, in big brown envelopes sealed with tape and with all the names of students torn off, it turns out that the Department of Evaluation doesn’t actually grade them (even though we provided answers so that they could grade them). Instead, we grade them and then the Department of Evaluation picks out one or two randomly and checks the way we grade them against the answers we previously provided, and compares them with the answers we provided, to make sure that we are not corrupt and giving good grades to students who don’t deserve them.

If they should happen to choose a paper that has an answer that we didn’t forsee, and we gave credit for it, what will they do?

High Rise and just plain highs — October 5, 2015

High Rise and just plain highs

train platform

Night train from HCMC to Nha Trang

Dinner Wednesday night Sept 30th with Shawn Shieh, pronounced “shay,” who is the Director of Development and Operations of the China Labor Bulletin,,

a regular online publication coming out of Hong Kong that covers labor in China. His background is working with civil society organizations in China, although he was a tenured prof at Maris University in New York at one point. He’s married to Betsy Shieh, who works for the US consulate in the commerce department, finding ways to sell US made products in Vietnam and thereby keep US jobs in the US. He lives in Hong Kong, she lives in Ho Chi Minh City, and they visit back and forth. Joe had made contact with Shawn via a Vietnam study group discussion list.

We met in their apartment in District 1, right along the Independence Palace Park. Up on the 6th floor, overlooking the city. It had a terrace large enough to serve dinner for 20 and a living room to match. I’m mentioning it because it was definitely a different side of our Ho Chi Minh City experience, in fact, an outlier on my spectrum of available housing options. It could have been plopped down from a brand-new, very nice condo building on Lakeshore Drive in Chicago. It’s provided by the consulate, furnished with dark wood furniture that is half-Asian half American-comfortable.

Long conversations ensued. Overall, Shieh is interested in developing labor-side collaborations among southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh. There will be more conversations.

On Thursday afternoon, after a meeting with three spokespersons from the Accounting Faculty (they want some help with their spoken English and Dean Hoa has indicated that this would be a helpful thing for us to do), I went to the Lotte Mart and bought two pairs of thong sandals, one plastic but white, the other black leather with soft, padded soles. Both were in men’s sizes. No-where in the Lotte Mart did they have a women’s shoe size 42. I spent nearly $45 on the leather ones, which felt criminally expensive, but in the US these would have cost $145.

Anyway, I was very glad to have bought them because the next thing that happened was our trip to Nha Trang and I wore them all the time.

It is not going to be possible to describe everything we did on that trip. Nghia and Vy (pronounced Vee) came to our door at 5:30 pm. We were ready. The taxi was late, though, and there was a lot of worry as we fought our way through the incredibly polluted traffic, picked up Anh who was waiting in the fumes near Lotte Mart, and headed for the train station, the Ga Sai Gon, which may be the old Gare Saigon as in Gare du Nord. Vinh came on her motorbike. This is a trip Vinh started planning back last spring and sent to us all written up in our contract which we got in July.

Getting on train

Vy, me, Anh getting on train going north to Nha Trang

How to describe this?

Nha Trang is a beach town with blue green mountains in the background and islands out in the bay. It’s very beautiful. The mist comes down between the mountains. The islands in the bay make it look as if some of the mountains just kept on marching down into the water.

We saw more “foreigners” on one block there than I’ve seen in a month here. Big blond women in bikinis, striding along the street, sometimes wrapped with a silk shawl. Nha Trang was a Soviet vacation destination and all the signage is in Vietnamese, then Russian, then maybe English. The beach is golden, the water is bathtub warm and ripples.

We stayed at the Ton Duc Thang campus dorms in Nha Trang, which were before 1975 a Catholic institution (nuns? Monks? Large, clean rooms with tile floors). The university is up high on a bluff overlooking the sea with great views. Right next to it is Nha Trang University, producing what felt more like a campustown with multiple coffee shops than anything around TDT in HCMC.

In three days we ate incredible amounts of seafood of sorts that I hardly recognized, saw tourist destinations, including the 9th century Cham towers, a giant Buddha that overlooks the whole city, and a Catholic church (Anh is Catholic) where couples were getting their wedding photos done. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Friday afternoon we rode out a long road that led uphill to a mud bath. Yes, a mud bath. Acres of gardens, pools, shower rooms, locker rooms, and then these tubs that they fill with slimy clay-y warm mud while your whole party sits in it together and you spoon mud all over each other. Incredible.

We traveled from place to place on motorbikes, rented by Vinh because they were cheaper than taxis. Three motorbikes, driven by Vy, Nghia and Anh, with Vinh and me and Joe on the back. Joe looked like a stepladder laid crosswise on Nghia’s back saddle; his knees stuck out, and since these vehicles stream through traffic like fish, anything sticking out is an accident waiting to happen. But we drove here there and everywhere, not too fast but pretty fast, and all was well. Yes, we wore helmets.

All day Saturday we spent at VinPearland, which is an amazing place, hard to describe. It is on an island in the bay. Look it up:

It used to be a prison island, according to Wikipedia. There is a Buddhist pagoda on a high point of the island, away from the amusement park.

The easiest comparison is to Disneyland. But you get there in gondolas over the bay, strung out over the longest cable car wire in the world (so I was told) and the piers or towers are lit up like Eiffel Towers when you come back in the dark at night. Once you’re there, you can go on all the rides and into all the shows, no special tickets. The only thing you’d buy is food, which is not all from one kitchen.

Huge water park with slides. Merry-go round. Roller Coaster. “Games.” Dolphin and trained seal show (Russian trainers, blond). A “European carnival” in which all the performers are “foreigners,” meaning people like me. A real beach. Shops for silks and pearls, probably for rich Russians, since I heard quite a bit of Russian being spoken. A really beautiful, well-done aquarium, light on science but really great on displaying amazing fish and reptiles, including a giant Red Iguana, and with a walk-through-under-the-water central pool with huge fish. Turtles, spiders, bearded dragon lizards. Many sharks including a whole school of white ones called “incandescent”. A whirligig that I rode on. A little girl with pigtails rode on it after my turn was up. She was about 6 years old, wore a pinafore type dress, and was almost alone on the ride. We were sitting at a café nearby and could look up and watch her. She was in seventh heaven. She was like Joe in one way — they were incredibly relaxed up there, just flying through the sky.

More things that I couldn’t keep track of.

On Sunday morning we met the Vice President (who couldn’t meet us on Friday morning because he was out sweeping the grounds with other university officers). He is a martial arts expert and looks it. A quiet, soft-spoken small man who makes James Bond look like a sissy. He asked us if we had some ideas for teaching labor classes at TDU Nha Trang and unfortunately I had more questions about the university, and we didn’t get a chance to answer him.

But the main thing that I will remember, once all this starts to blur into memory, is that when you are traveling with three students in their early 20s, and their chaperone is 26, you get up early, get going right away, eat a whole lot and stay till the place closes. You have amazing amounts of harmless fun, laughing and rushing around, talking a mile a minute, making up silly games just for the purpose of having more fun.

I am so serious!! Joe and I are so serious together!!! We work all the time. I couldn’t believe that we weren’t going to be able to do a couple of hours of computer email and writing and studying and grading papers every day when we got up in the morning! No, it was up and out and onto the motorbikes and get some breakfast and then off down a list of adventures, including things like riding out to an island in a gondola for no reason at all except to have fun. No one was getting any work done at all! Even though Nghia had two exams on Monday, and the others had exams the rest of the week.

The train going up was not so great, although Joe and I each had a full upper bunk in a 4-person cabin with only one other person in it. The bunks were long enough for Joe. There were actually two sitting-up cars, one with padded fold-back seats and one with wooden upright seats like pews. Beyond the hard-seat car was the dining car, with a full kitchen but not a lot of people eating. After you had stepped over the kids, babies and grandmothers who were spread out under the seats on the floor of the hard-seat car trying to sleep away the miles, it didn’t make you want to proceed further and order dinner.

A civil engineer who asked if he could practice his English with me said that this train was 100 years old, which made sense. The floor of the corridor was wood planks about 8 inches wide. The cabins looked as if they had been re-built many times.

Of course I stayed awake all night long looking out the window, especially because halfway up the coast we came to the region where they turn on the lights for the dragon fruit at night, to stimulate another crop. Nghia says that you can get four crops a year out of the bushes that way. It’s as if whole fields are lit up with Christmas lights. Also, we got to Nha Trang at 4 am Friday morning.

The train coming back was the national train (the one that goes back and forth between HoChiMinh City and Hanoi) and was a little fancier. It had potable water, reading lights and the mattresses had fitted sheets. Joe and I will probably take that train up to Hanoi in December. I walked the length of the train and saw the hard seat car but didn’t walk through the people to get to the dining car. Vinh had brought a whole lot of “local specialties” on board after a made dash to the market, anyway.

For dinner on Saturday night,  we went to a huge seafood open restaurant with tablecloths.  In all these seafood restaurants the creatures are swimming in basins and you choose which ones you want; they get weighed and then come to your table as a dish. Vinh, an inveterate bargaining, would always get “the best price.”

The students had paid for their own train tickets, which actually meant they were supposed to stay in the hard seat car.

At the end of the trip, coming back down into HCMC, we played a game where everyone had to make an animal noise. The rules were complicated. There may be no way to assign 6 numbers to 6 people — randomly. We couldn’t do it.

I have to say, I do not want to forget this kind of silly fun. It really is a different way of being in the world. It makes me look at a lot of the kinds of things that people do for fun differently.

Working as an adjunct in Vietnam —

Working as an adjunct in Vietnam

What is it like to be an adjunct (part time) English teacher in higher ed in Vietnam?

Jessica, (her English name) came by our office at Ton Duc Thang University this afternoon. I had sent her an email asking permission to write down some information about her working conditions and she offered to drop in and answer some questions.

She is a very tall (for a Vietnamese) young woman who dresses elegantly in business clothes and speaks very fluent correct English, although without the relaxed intonations of a native speaker.

The Office Next Door

The office next to ours, as I mentioned before, is a generic meeting room with 10 upholstered chairs, air conditioning, and some small wooden coffee tables. It serves as both the gang office for adjunct lecturers (part-time, not full-time “regular” teachers, who are also called lecturers) and for meetings for whole faculties such as the Business Administration faculty which is across the hall from us. Another use for this office, however, is for sleeping. Adjuncts push two chairs together and lie down across them and sleep. One day last week I saw five women (they seem to be all women) sleeping quietly this way. They also eat lunch here, spreading a napkin out on a table, and grade papers and talk on the phone.

Jessica was one of the sleeping lecturers once when Joe walked past that office. A few minutes later I met her in the ladies’ room and she said “Hello,” in her very good English. So we talked and I asked her to come into our office and talk some more. Joe loaned her a copy of his book, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower, which is about organizing adjuncts, and she kept it for two weeks, actually read it, and told Joe that she saw herself in it. Thus ensued a long conversation and probably more to come.

I thought it would interest some people who are reading this blog if I wrote down what her working conditions are like.

When she dropped in yesterday, she had just had observers in her pre-intermediate English class. These were new teachers, coming to learn her teaching techniques, which was fine with her except that she had had no warning and therefore had not had a chance to prepare the most appropriate lesson or inform her students.

I don’t need to explain how she felt about that, do I?

Two Jobs and Looking for a Third

She teaches at two places right now, at the TOIC Center at Ton Duc Thang and at Studylink, a private English Center. She is going to apply to the Open Minds English center, which is a separate private organization but it’s located in Building E at Ton Duc Thang.

She has been teaching English for 6 years. When she started teaching, she had only a university degree from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Pedagogy. Now she is working on her MA at the Open University in Applied LInguistics.

There are two different courses of preparation for English teachers in Vietnam – one is Applied Linguistics and the other is TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). Either one of them is OK for English teachers, Jessica said, but in TESOL they pay more attention to methodology and in Applied Linguistics they pay more attention to research. She chose Applied Linguistics because the classes were offered at times which would fit with her own schedule.

She is 28 years old and lives with her parents. She is self-supporting to a certain extent; she gives her parents money for her food and rent, but what she gives them is probably not enough to cover their actual expenses. When she was a student, she worked as a tutor for high school students.

Job security, income instability, and lack of benefits

The problem (the same problem as for all contingents) is that her income is not fixed. It depends on how many classes she has each month. Typically she makes 12 million Vietnam Dong (MVD) per month ($533) but in order to earn that much, she has to work 7 periods per day of in-class teaching, plus whatever she needs of her own time to prepare the lessons, which is about an hour a day. In order to get 7 hours a day, she has to have two or three different jobs.

Right now she doesn’t have that many classes and her salary has gone down to 9 MVD ($400) a month. (By the way, this is the amount that Ton Duc Thang is paying each of us as stipend/expense money while we’re here. We find it sufficient given that we’re getting free housing and laundry, and can eat at the dorm canteens for $1 or $2 for a nice pho or rice-and-veggies plus meat meal. We spend about as much on taxis as we do on food. If we had to really live on it — pay rent, utilities, health insurance etc. out of it –  we would not make it.) The average wage in Vietnam these days, just for comparison, is between 3.1 and 4 MVD ($130-180).

In the previous semester she had 6 classes. That was the semester she made 12 MD. This semester she has 4. She said that she was expecting some more classes, but they didn’t give her any more. This information was not given in advance. The lecturers only learned it when they came to the school to start to teach. The official who made this announcement explained that the school changed their policy and now would not give lecturers more than 4 classes per semester.

Teachers talking about the problem

Jessica has talked with other English teachers a lot. They are all in the same situation. They are all affected by the lack of job security. But when they think about what to do about this new policy, they think it is “mission impossible.”

“No one is listening to us,” Jessica said. “Even the director of the TOIC center said, ‘It came from above.’” Someone up the administrative ladder makes these decisions and then the director just does what he is told. They don’t have the right to question it.

In one meeting, Jessica and some other colleagues asked the director about getting an increase in salary and some benefits for part timers who work mostly in the TOIC center. He said he couldn’t do anything about this.

Although lecturers have talked together about this policy and the lack of job security in general, they seem to feel that is impossible to “unite and raise our voice for benefits. It seems like nobody’s listening. People feel that there’s no use doing this – it won’t work.”

If part-time teachers teach 6 classes per semester, how many classes do full-time teachers teach? Full-timers have 720 periods (8 classes) per year. Also, the full time teachers have to spend more time at school – maybe they don’t have to teach, but they have to stay in their offices in case a student has any questions, prepare tests and observe part-time teachers’ classes. If Jessica were teaching 12 classes per year it would be 1080 periods. She would make the same money, but still wouldn’t have any benefits.

Why cut class load to no more than four classes?

What was the point of this change in policy, limiting part-time lecturers to four classes? Her guess is that they want teachers to spend more time on preparation for their classes. However, she said, this was not logical because if a teacher’s income is low, they will spend less time on preparation for classes because they have to find other jobs. This way they will lose even more time because they have to travel to those classes.

In the US, because of the new healthcare act, if you work less than 30 hours a week, the employer doesn’t have to provide heath care. This does not apply in Vietnam. But another motivation for cutting load is that when a substantial number of people teach at one place for a large percent of their load (not just one or two classes), there is always the possibility that they will get together and organize. Spreading out classes over more adjuncts would reduce their ability to organize, by forcing more of them to get more jobs.

Jessica speculated that maybe the administration didn’t want them to identify too much with the university. When lecturers have so many classes here, and spend most of the time here, the administration may fear that they will ask for some benefits.


No benefits such as insurance come with the job. No office, no computer etc. There are computers in their classrooms, but lecturers can only use them when they are in class. When the class is over they have to get out.

Jessica buys her own benefits at 500,000 D for health insurance for a year. If she had to use it, she would go to the hospital near her place. It’s cheap but the quality is poor.

For lecturers who work part-time there is very little professional development. In the past, there were some workshops for part timers but this semester she didn’t hear anything related to that. They changed the director of the TOIC center and maybe the new one doesn’t want to hold those workshops.

A union?

Does she belong to a union ? No, she says, because she is not a full time teacher in any school. The union only represents full time workers. She has never heard of anything they could do for part-timers.

When I told Jessica that we have some students who work part time and are also union members, she was surprised. Jessica asked if they have any proof. In fact, this information came from our student research papers; some students who work part-time and are reporting on their own workplaces say that they think they are union members. However, Jessica has no papers that say she is a union member. You need those papers in order to get benefits. When she buys insurance they ask her if she works full-time for any company and when she says no, that affects the price. If she was a fulltime worker, the place that she works would buy the insurance for her. But she doesn’t work for any place full time so she has to buy it on her own.

The future

After the war there was a lot of migration in the country. Most of the immigration was from the Northern part of the country to the south, for work. People from the north, rural areas especially, moved to the south to new places where they would have more land to grow crops. Originally her family was from the north but moved to the south to Thu Duc District, an area where people are from everywhere. Jessica can speak with many Vietnamese accents.

When and if Jessica gets married to her boyfriend she will probably start her own private English classes. The province where they will live is remote. Most of the people who live there are farmers. It’s a very, very beautiful province but the population is quite small, so there won’t be enough students for her to open a real English Center. She would be teaching high school students. When they graduate from high school, they would probably go to big cities to study in universities.

When Jessica came by this morning to drop off her corrections to this entry she told Joe she was working on getting some people together. He has ordered more copies of his book.