Sunday, December 10, 2006

What is happening to the neighborhood?

I recently watched an episode of The Sopranos in which two of Tony’s “employees” try to shake the manager at a Starbucks-implied coffee shop into paying monthly “dues” for protection. After approaching two more of the new businesses in town, they realize that they are not the typical mom-and-pop shops, and, thus, “corporate” won’t respond to their attempts to extort money from them. Asking what has happened to the neighborhood (actually, they asked, “what the &*(! is happening to the neighborhood”), they imply that globalization is definitely putting a cramp on traditional mafia ways and that it’s over for the little guy.

Perhaps the same can be said here in Vietnam, although the local police are not giving up as easily as Tony’s guys. Without getting into too much detail, the NGO where I was working just moved into its own independent office space…unintentionally next to the ward (neighborhood) police station. And when I say local, I mean, bumbling, bored, Barney Fife kind of local. During the first two weeks of our being the news kids on the block, the police visited seven times—sometimes in plainclothes, sometimes in uniform—but their demands have slowly softened, as they realize that we are a non-profit that operates on a bare-bones budget. To give you an idea of how bare-bones, I used to pick up paper clips off the floor and add to them to my collection because we had no budget for office supplies. And for post-it notes, I would cut up the back of used printer paper and staple a booklet together for writing notes. Oh, and the used printing paper was from another office—I was strongly and frequently encouraged not to print anything. So, while the obnoxious local (and Ministry police, I might add) police have slowly become bored, that still hasn’t stopped them from going into the computers and erasing emails and other important documents from them.

My point is that when I took the job in the education sector, I thought I would be more shielded from corruption, but, sadly, it is one of the most corrupt sectors, particularly when it comes to international education. New scandals crop up every week, like the one involving the Minister of EDUCATION, who gave himself a highly competitive scholarship to study in England. And while the newspapers report some of the scandals, everyone knows there are many more stories that the government does not allow to be printed. The Party fully subscribes to the “peaceful evolution/transformation” theory the John Foster Dulles put forth during the height of the Cold War. “Peaceful evolution,” as the Vietnamese government explains, is how the Americans defeated the Soviets. Through cultural and educational exchange programs, the Americans surreptitiously and single-handedly made the entire Soviet Empire and Eastern Bloc collapse, subjugating them to the evils of consumerism, Wheel of Fortune, and morbid obesity. Never mind the fact that the Soviet Union was facing imperial overstretch alongside internal rot and collapse, and had a leader who advocated political reforms before economic changes. Let’s not even get into the arms race, the Pope, or as the Repubs like to point out, Reagan. In fact, the Vietnamese government regards the Fulbright program as one of the most suspicious things to happen since the country opened its doors to foreign governments. Fortunately, they haven’t found out yet that several alumni have already returned with the newly developed Raymond Shaw computer chip in them. Sadly, operating a business here faces less harassment and annoyance than working for an NGO. That’s not to say there is less corruption in business, but to say the corruption is more straightforward, with less suspicion involved. And golf. Lots and lots of golf. And Jack Daniels.

Ultimately, I gave up that job with the NGO. The glitz and glamour were simply too much.

I was prepared to mention all of this to Jorge when he came to visit two weeks ago, but there simply wasn’t time. Jorge and Dr. Rice kindly made time for a meet and greet with the Consulate folks on their 19-hour visit to Ho Chi Minh City. Knights of Columbus, does he ever look fit, that president. I knew he wouldn’t have, oh, to be kind, let’s use the word “time” instead of a reference to his intelligence, for a deconstruction of the Peaceful Evolution theory, so instead of shaking the president’s hand, I thought of something else instead. My five readers, it always comes down to South Park, doesn’t it? Okay, so, there is a South Park episode about Jennifer Lopez. Cartman does a hand puppet version of Jennifer Lopez where she sings “Taco-flavored kisses for my Ben (as in Ben Affleck).” Actually, it’s “Taco-flavored kisses for my Beh-en.” I came upon the brilliant idea of replacing, “It’s a great pleasure to meet you, Mr. President,” with imitating a hand-puppet version of J.Lo and saying “Springroll (eh, fish sauce also works)-flavored kisses for my Jorge.” I decided against it, though. Duke’s short career flashed through my head, so I decided to stick with the vanilla phrase instead.

A few days later, Brangelina rolled into town, those crazy bastards. They went all around the city centre on their motorbikes and ate at one of my favorite restaurants in town. Where were we? Stupidly, we were at the beach a few hours outside of Saigon (recently dubbed the “Hamptons” of Vietnam, in a recent NYT article, but I beg to differ), drinking mojitos by the resort’s new Infinity pool. We were also working on the next move after Pakistan—it’s complicated, but so far, we’re only a few connect-the-dots away from completing a bird’s eye view of Tom DeLay’s profile in our moves around the world. I was cursing myself for letting Tom DeLay and mojitos lure me away from the possibility of seeing Brad Pitt in my city, but alcoholism can have that effect.

That’s the skinny on us for now. You stay classy, United States.


At 6:35 PM, Blogger kelly said...

good to hear what you are up too! happy new year! too bad you missed angie and the fam - i now pretty much only read which slows me down at work but you can get your american pop-culture fix :)


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