National Teachers’ Day in Vietnam

Yesterday was National Teachers’ Day in Vietnam, a day on which Vietnamese college students return to their high schools & high school students to their elementary schools taking gifts to their former teachers. The night before last I was invited to a big party & singing competition at the International School of Hanoi National University. It was a lovely, typically Vietnamese affair, which is to say wonderfully welcoming & relentlessly cheerful. The International School is a success story during a difficult period for Vietnamese education.

The singing acts–all composed of students, faculty, or staff–varied in quality, from barely passable to semi-pro, & they went on for far too long. A lot of the songs advanced commonplace sentiments about the value of education & the importance of teachers, but by far the most popular combined such sentiments with a strongly patriotic, even martial, strain. This feels distinctly odd to liberal, Western ways of thinking about education, but it makes sense here given the strong Confucian & revolutionary / communist traditions of contemporary Vietnam. Indeed, the choreography & musical arrangements retained a hint of the Soviet aesthetic.

The Confucianism of Confucius is, as David Hinton notes,1 quite different from the Confucianism of that philosophy’s subsequent evolution:

The brand of Confucianism wielded throughout the centuries as power’s ideology of choice focused on select ideas involving selfless submission to authority: parental, political, masculine, historic, textual. And the “sacred” Ritual dimensions of these hierarchical relationships only made them that much more oppressive. It is this aspect of the Confucian tradition that has become so problematic in modern times, for intellectuals came to recognize it as the force that was preventing . . . modernization.

At the same time, and much in evidence on Teacher’s Day, were the Confucian virtues of filial piety & ritual. There was a great deal of sentimental celebration of teachers & parents–teachers being seen as auxiliary parents due virtually the same respect as one’s mother & father. The event, held in a hotel conference room, was in every sense a deployment of ritual, with many formulaic exchanges between teachers & administrators & between teachers & students. David Hinton, in his introduction to his translation of The Analects, writes:

It was in this context that Confucius extended the use of Ritual to include all the caring acts by which we fulfill our responsibilities to others in the community – hence the entire weave of everyday social life takes on the numinous aspect of the sacred.

The ritual mode is clearly evident in Vietnam in a way that surprises Western visitors, if they notice it at all. This can be as simple as the way one hands an object like a key or the change from a purchase to another person–with both hands & a slight bow. It is one of the things that draws me back again & again, despite the fact that I find some of the actual, formal rituals–like the singing contest–hard to throw myself into with the complete abandon of the Vietnamese. Even the retired Rector of the International School was still going strong after three hours. Which is about when I slipped out. There were a couple of other Americans in attendance & it was clear that we were unable to make the leap into sincere participation. Some of this is language, but not all. All cultures make use of ritual, some more consciously than others. Americans have plenty of rituals, but we generally don’t call them by that name and we do not cultivate them in the same way as the Vietnamese.


Why Vietnam?

Every time I take a trip to Vietnam–averaging every couple of years since the mid-1990s–I’m asked what it is about Vietnam that draws me back again & again. It’s a reasonable question & one to which I have a set answer, but it’s an answer that doesn’t fully satisfy me. I usually say that, given my age, I have an inescapable historical connection to Vietnam. But that doesn’t explain, really, why I’m sitting in Logan International waiting for a 1:30 a.m. flight to Hong Kong, jumping then to Hanoi. And it doesn’t explain why I’ve now made twelve (I think) extended trips to Vietnam since 1996, including a Fulbright year in 2000 – 2001. It must be love.

I feel comfortable in Vietnam, especially Hanoi, which is less frenetic & less Westernized than HCMC. It’s not as if Hanoi is like home–I don’t feel “at home”–but I am attracted to the particular kinds of difference I experience there. And it certainly is different–the interpersonal expectations can take some getting used to. Social life is based on relationships of hierarchy, but also of trust, however paradoxical that may seem. Then there is that long sweep of history that gives weight to both social interactions and the arts, though much of this historical weight is being eroded by the forces of globalization.

Why Vietnam? What is it about going far from home that feels so lively & rewarding? Over the next few weeks I’m going to keep coming back to these questions, though I know in advance that whatever sort of answer(s) I come up with will be protean, shifting, unstable.

This Poem Seems Appropriate Today

Che Fece . . . Il Gran Rifiuto

For certain people there comes a day
when they are called upon to say the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has
the Yes within him at the ready, which he will say

as he advances in honor, in greater self-belief.
He who refuses has no second thoughts. Asked
again, he would repeat the No. And nonetheless
that No–so right–defeats him all his life.

–C.P. Cavafy [Trans. Daniel Mendelsohn]


The decency censors at the NY Times will never print my response to Ross Douthat’s utterly mendacious column, so I’m posting it here. Not that anyone will notice:

Mr. Douthat: Used to read you occasionally even while disagreeing with your positions because you seemed like a reasonable human being, but in this column you prove yourself a hack. As others have already pointed out, the president’s opponents in your party have relentlessly lied, distorted, dog-whistled, and obstructed. And now you — and they — are complaining that the president is being too negative. As Arlo Guthrie once put it, “You got a lot of damn gall.” This morning, your preferred presidential candidate is keeping things positive by distributing an outright lie about the Obama administration’s attempt to roll back GOP voter suppression efforts in Ohio. Man, how do you sleep at night?