Oct/Nov 2003 Nonfiction

Like a Long Circle

by N.K. Napier

Photo-Art by Tara Gilbert-Brever

We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
      —Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, Vietnam, September 1945

"And so Nancy, what is all this you say about freedom?" said Lang.

Lang was one of thirty Vietnamese participants in an MBA program in Hanoi, Vietnam that I managed for Boise State University in Idaho. The students were in Boise for six weeks the summer of 1997, in courses and internships at places like Boise Cascade, Hewlett-Packard and the YMCA. On this warm, dry July evening, I had invited Lang and several others to my house, following a dinner party at the university provost's home. My husband and children were away for the evening, so the house would be quiet for a couple of hours. Lang and I took our drinks onto the deck, overlooking Boise and the valley beyond. The house sits a few hundred feet above the city, with an unobstructed view of the capitol building and Idaho's tallest high-rise, a twenty-one story building. The Hanoians joked about Boise's lack of people, tall buildings and smog, but I'd take a night like this anytime, with its outline of the Owyhee Mountains fifty miles south and blanket of stars, despite the city lights.

As we gazed downtown, I asked Lang what he meant about freedom in the US. He looked at his beer and the lights below.

"When we were in Vietnam, before we came to Boise," he said, "you told us about American history. You told us Americans have freedom. Your ambassador talked about what you can do here. Now I am in the US, and I see that's not true. You are not so free to do what you want."

"Why do you think that?" I asked.

"When I go to the after work music festival in downtown," he said, "I can buy beer, but I cannot leave the area to drink it. I can't drive a car here without a test. I can't drink my beer when I drive a car."

He pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. In his mid-30s, Lang stood about 5'10", with gray Woody Allen style glasses that emphasized his massive head. He had broad, sloping shoulders, like a child who wasn't athletic but just large. In America, men exude confidence like sweat. In Vietnam, Lang's bluster stood out, a legacy of his background. Most Vietnamese men shrank from direct conflict, especially with foreigners. Not Lang.

"I must cross the street in one place, or police tell me I break a rule," he said. "I have to be quiet in the night instead of playing music outside with my friends. I can't catch the ducks in the river in town and cook them in my room. I have to pay one price for food at the store—no bargaining. I must ride on one side of the street on my motorbike, but to have one I must do a test. Where is the freedom you talked about when we were in Hanoi?"

While most Vietnamese I knew came from northern provinces, Lang grew up in a southern coastal village. Coming from the South meant Lang's family was on the losing side of the American War. His parents went to "reeducation camps," code for training programs to teach collaborators to appreciate reunification of North and South Vietnam. Subsurface regional friction remains, and some Vietnamese say that animosities will die only when soldiers from the North and South lie in the same cemeteries.

My involvement in Vietnam started in 1994, when I joined an effort to help the National Economics University become Vietnam's standard for modern business and management higher education. Armed with Swedish funding, my university twice delivered its MBA in Hanoi and Idaho; Lang's group was the second cohort.

The first group's curiosity and fear of foreigners stemmed partly from Vietnam's isolation since 1975. The US embargo and the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union brought years of shortages in food, clothing, and equipment, and a naivete about the outside world. When I met them in 1994, men looked like thirteen year-old boys, scrawny and angled, belts flapping round their backs. No one wore wristwatches or jewelry. Most had never flown in an airplane, made a long distance phone call, used a fax machine or worn a baseball cap. None had used email, seen a credit card, or opened a bank account. A few listened to Armed Forces Radio to learn English and asked me to explain phrases like "talking through your hat."

By 1997, when Lang's group started the MBA program, the media touted Vietnam as Asia's next wonder, growing at a phenomenal ten percent annually. Lang's colleagues owned motorbikes and televisions, used the Internet, and wore jeans and baseball caps. With few direct memories of the American War, their attitudes toward America mixed admiration and skepticism. Lang had often challenged ideas in class in Hanoi, so I wasn't surprised at his questions now.

"You're right, Lang," I said. "We don't have freedom like that. But we don't think of running red lights or playing music loud on the street or bargaining for every purchase as freedoms. Those are more like rules so we can live in some harmony. That's not what I meant by freedom when we had the orientation."

Until 1996, Hanoi had no stoplights to corral bicycles, motorbikes and the few Landcruisers that cluttered its narrow streets. Jammed roads meant drivers fought for space and ignored the feeble rules that existed. The rules said motorbike drivers should be eighteen years old, licensed, wearing helmets and carrying no more than one passenger. Yet I often saw teenagers steering Honda Cubs, families of four squished onto a 125 cc Honda Dream II, and no helmets.

Daily, I dealt with Hanoi's approach to "freedom." When I lived on Trieu Viet Vuong Street, freedom meant my neighbors would say and do all of life's business on the street, any time of day, from sleeping to urinating, cooking to repairing a growling motorcycle at 2 am. People lived in bubbles, ignoring others as they went about their personal and public business in front of everyone.

Men and women flirted and joked without political correctness police hounding them. Children played soccer in the streets, where no OSHA insisted on softened surfaces or regulation balls. People phoned me late at night, ignoring my privacy once I left the office, though often out of concern—that I had arrived safely in town, was alright during bad weather and power outages, or to tell me of a colleague's death.

On a sticky May afternoon two months earlier, I'd held an orientation for the students to prepare them for their stay in the US. The concrete-walled classroom held thirty students, sitting at two-person plastic veneer-covered desks, in straight-backed wooden chairs that scraped and screeched on the cement floor. The Samsung wall air conditioner spat like it couldn't decide whether the attempt was worth it. The French style wooden doors at the room's rear opened to a balcony overlooking an open sewer that we called a river. Every few months, ladies in cone shaped hats and loose black pants scooped out Coke cans and plastic bags and slashed plant growth that choked the river, making it brown and visible again.

Chalk crumbled between my fingers as I pressed it across the warped black board, leaving wet chalk dots rather than smooth lines. I drew a US map, arching arrows from northeast to northwest.

"Ask any American you meet this summer where his family is from." I said. "You'll hear about parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts from Germany and Poland, China, Mexico and even Vietnam. We're all immigrants."

"So is Vietnam," said Nhan. "We have minority tribes. They stay in the mountains and live in the countryside. You can take a trip and see how they live."

Vietnam's more than sixty tribes are a mix of people from throughout Southeast Asia, ranging from China to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The Montanyard tribes in the central and northern highlands still live much as they did when American soldiers met them in the 1960s and 1970s. Tourists leave modern Hanoi in four-wheel drive Landcruisers and bump their way to villages near Son La or Lao Cai on the China border. They overnight as guests in the village chief's house and gnaw on a chicken that hours before squawked its way around the village's cluster of thatched huts. The Vietnamese government and museums play up the country's ethnic diversity, especially the minority tribe crafts that tourists gobble up. But many Vietnamese sneer at people who are different, especially in ethnic backgrounds.

"He's from Thai Binh province. They have very dark skin and not good manners," one colleague says about another faculty member.

"Loc comes from the north, near the border with China," says another, "that's why he looks strange. And acts strange."

"That man must come from the countryside. He does not act like someone from Hanoi," Hang said when I asked why someone had entered my house without knocking.

When I questioned the comments about their countrymen, they shushed me with a curt reminder that I was not Vietnamese and could not understand the cultural sensitivities.

During the orientation in Hanoi, I explained that immigrants came to America to practice their religions, choose their own leaders, and make their ways unhampered by background, class, or expectations from families, society, or officials. But my smugness evaporated when the session detoured.

"Can I ride a horse in Boise?" asked Dien, sitting in the back. With his bad teeth and gentle nature, Dien smiled even when I mispronounced his name for the thirtieth time. Depending upon tone, "Dien" meant his name, electric power or crazy person.

"Sure, Dien" I said. "Each of you will have a 'buddy' assigned to you. Ask that person to find a horse for you to ride."

"Can we see snow?" asked Thuc Anh.

"Well, you'll go to the mountains for a weekend," I said, "Sometimes snow is there in summer."

"Will Negros kill me on the subway in Boise?"

Ah yes, a teaching moment.

"Well," I said, "No. First, there's no subway in Boise, or in Idaho. And let's talk about words to use and not use in the US. We don't say 'negro' anymore; we say black or African American. Words give impressions that sometimes aren't correct or fair."

"Funny," said Nhan. "America is a funny country."

"Why funny, Nhan?" I asked.

"Your minority tribes tell you what to do and what names to use. How to call them. Names are not important."

"But Nhan, we don't think of them as minority tribes, and yes, names are important. They can affect how we think about people and assumptions we make, which might be wrong. So, please be careful. You could offend people and not even know it."

I was beginning to sound shrill.

Sometimes I tired of restraining my thoughts and frustrations about Lang's country and culture; the information double standard grated. The Vietnam News, the government's official English language newspaper, reported on America's school shootings, drug infestation and capital punishment, but never on overdoses or beatings or protests in Vietnam, which I knew existed from colleagues who told me—when no one else was around—about farmers in their home provinces who protested against taxes or corrupt civil servants.

So I bit my tongue and didn't remind Nhan that he was not American and couldn't understand the cultural sensitivities.

Back on the deck of my house, I shook my orientation memory and turned to Lang and the view. I looked up at Boise's clear sky, glad to be away from Hanoi's oatmeal colored haze, which blocked sun and moon for weeks.

"Lang, you've been here a month. Just like when I'm in Hanoi, and I keep peeling the layers of Vietnam's culture, you need to give it time. And remember the US ambassador in Hanoi—he told you to listen and try not to judge, just like we try not to in Hanoi."

"Yes," said Lang. "I remember him. He talked about freedom in a place where he did not have freedom before. That was interesting for me."

Before Lang's group left for Idaho, the new US Ambassador to Vietnam joined a send-off ceremony. Peter Peterson had been a US congressman from Florida following a military career that included six years in the Hanoi Hilton. The Hoa Lu Prison, built by the French, sat on a trapezoid parcel in Hanoi's center. Surrounded by a fifteen-foot beige stone wall, topped by cut glass bottles and razor wire and flecked with moss and brown stains, the prison had been used by the Vietnamese until 1994. In 1997, a Singaporean firm razed eighty percent of it to build a hotel/office complex. It feels now like a graveyard with an amusement park on it. Like the Berlin Wall, pieces of the Hanoi Hilton outer wall are collector's items.

"I'm glad to celebrate your going to the US," Peterson said. "When you are in the US, learn about business but also learn about Americans and America. Learn how America was created, what our values are, and how our country works. And if you can, try not to judge the US. Only when you know us and we know you better can we become business partners and friends."

After the ceremony, I invited Ambassador Peterson to speak at the upcoming Vietnamese graduation ceremony, a few months later.

"What's the date? Just call the office and have them put it on my calendar."

When I told him, he blanched. I learned later that was the date of his capture more than 25 years before. Along with other American prisoners of war like John McCain, Peterson suffered at the hands of the fathers and uncles of the men and women sitting in front of him.

During his years in the dank Hoa Lu prison, Peterson couldn't move about, write, speak, or worship with others. Many Americans marveled that he returned to Vietnam, but of course, he was perfect for the job. He lived and thought and felt two lives in the same place, one free and one not, where the small freedoms were the same as the big freedoms.

But for Peterson, freedom also simply meant having a future, as he made clear when asked about life as a POW.

"That's the past," he always said, "The future is what we can change. America and Vietnam need to become partners."

Like Peterson, the Vietnamese responded as if by rote whenever Americans asked if they'd lost family members during "The American War."

"Yes, my family lost many people. But that is the past. We want to talk of the future now."

By refusing to relive the past, the Vietnamese and Peterson cleared their emotional slates to focus on other challenges. By releasing the past, one becomes free to pursue the future.

I looked at Lang and tilted my head toward the kitchen. I shivered in the cooling air. It was time for more beer. Nhan and the others were leaning back in their chairs, laughing loud and hard. Lang and I were being far too serious. But he wasn't finished.

"OK," said Lang, "but I will not be in prison. I can study. I can get a job I want. How does the freedom you talk about affect you—or me?"

"I suppose one freedom means voting for politicians we want and then voting them out if we don't like their decisions," I said. "It's talking and writing about politics and government and other events without worrying that you'll get in trouble."

"You won't get into trouble in Vietnam," said Lang, "so long as you don't write about something sensitive."

Lang and I both knew that in Vietnam, some issues are off limits, especially with outsiders: the communist party system, opinions about political leaders, democracy, and human rights. Even within the university, personnel decisions were "sensitive" and out of bounds for foreigners to give opinions.

"Lang, do you know what happened when the first Vietnamese group came to Boise, in 1995, when President Clinton established diplomatic relations with Vietnam? People were excited to have the Vietnamese here, the internships were going well, and then the paper published an article about the program."

Lang munched on chips. The Vietnamese had become rabid fast food eaters. Some were thrilled to put on weight; the tortilla chips would guarantee that Kim, already heavier than his compatriots, would take home an even more American look.

"One morning the local paper's headline said, 'Boise State Brings Capitalism to Vietnam.'"

"Oh no," said Lang. "People got mad, I think."

Indeed. The headline infuriated Vietnamese students and administrators, who threatened to abort the project. To good Marxists, "Kapitalism" was a corrupt evil political system they abhorred.

"Oh yes. The Vietnamese students met with a university official and demanded that he make the paper retract the article and issue an apology."

"That's good, that's good. Did the paper do it?" Lang asked. I was surprised he asked. My talk about freedom of the press hadn't quite sunk in.

"No. The university has no power to make the paper take anything back, unless it crosses certain boundaries."

"But how could your official have no power? The university is a government authority. Why did the university not force the newspaper people to apologize for insulting our country?"

"But that's what freedom of speech is all about. It means the paper can print information that may go against what the government or the university wants. Even when the paper makes mistakes—and it does—the freedom to write is protected here. For us, that's a big thing."

"But it insults Vietnam," Lang argued. "Vietnam is a poor country, and you are powerful. It is wrong to insult my country."

Hold it, I thought. Why is it wrong for me to insult Vietnam when you can insult the US and I'm not allowed to call you on it?

"You know how some of your colleagues tell me that I'm a guest in Vietnam, and I don't have the right to criticize your policies? You're right. When I'm there, I am a guest. I don't agree with some of the things that you have to do or can't do, but I try not to say anything.

"But the same holds for you here, sort of," I said. "You are a guest in the US and can't change our policies, but you can disagree with them." I hesitated a few seconds.

"And, you can talk about them."

Lang looked at me full on. I waited. I had spoken in my own house in ways I never dared to in Vietnam. Maybe I'd pushed too far. But we both knew we could never have this conversation in Vietnam. I'd worry someone would overhear, and we'd both be in trouble. Lang turned and stared out the kitchen window. I went to check on the others.


On my first trip to Hanoi in 1994, I learned about sensitivity and careful conversations from a Vietnamese faculty member. We sat on a Naugahyde couch in the office during lunch, when none of her colleagues were around. She told me about working in Eastern Europe before doing her university studies in Vietnam. Where my perceptions of places like Rumania, Albania, and Bulgaria were gray buildings, Soviet imitation technocrats and no freedom, her image was different.

"Living there for six years taught me what freedom was," she said. "Compared to Vietnam, it was open. People talked and had information. There were newspapers and radio stations. I could go around the city and talk to people when I wanted. When I came back to Vietnam, I did not join the communist party. I had lived abroad for six years, and I knew what freedom really was."


During the orientation session in Hanoi, Canh asked if he could attend a church in Boise. Canh's triangle-shaped face with a pointed chin sat atop a semi-lithe athletic body. I'd heard he was a good swimmer, unusual in Vietnam. The edges of his eyes pushed toward their centers, making them look more round than slanted. He wore sneakers that said "NYKE" on the heels and teased me about copyright laws.

"Sure, you can go to church" I said. "No problem. Just go."

"Any church? Do I need an invitation?"

"No, just go. Any time."

Most Hanoians I knew were not religious. Some practiced ancestor worship, more for tradition than belief. Still, Vietnam rates second in the percentage of Catholics in Asia, about ten percent of the population, just behind the Philippines.

"Canh, I went to church in Hanoi. You can do that here and in Boise."

"Oh but you must be a religious person to go to church in Hanoi," Canh said.

"Not really," I said. "It was a Catholic church. I'm not Catholic, but I wanted to see what it was like."

"I too," he said. "I want to see what it is like in the US."

On Easter Sunday, 1997, two male colleagues from my home university and I slogged down Quan Thanh Street in drenching rain to a stark, French built Catholic church, one of two in Hanoi. Vinyl floor squares replaced many of the original stone tiles from the eighty year-old cathedral. Its round dome with putty colored windows, from dirt or the glass color, matched Hanoi's spring sky—ashen gray and dull. The Nguyen Bieu Street cathedral held about twenty rows of pews for about four-hundred people, split by a middle aisle. The pews were made for Vietnamese sized bodies, forcing me to sit up straight to keep my knees from jamming into the pew in front of me. We sat segregated (men on the left, women on the right), with mothers and children in the back pews. The children ran through the aisles looking for their fathers or grandmothers, crawling over laps of strangers. On the men's side sat my colleagues, both six feet tall and nearly 200 pounds. Their heads poked up like barrel cactus stubs in a coal black field.

Votive candles and a five-foot tall Easter candle flanked the communion table. The Vietnamese priest, in a white robe with a giant red cross on the front, stood underneath a four-foot-diameter clock that hung from the ceiling with a minute hand that jumped an inch at a time. Women chanted throughout the hour, without music.

At the service's close, two elderly ladies, hunched over in their velvet and sequined ao dais, the traditional Vietnamese tunic and trousers, shuffled down the center aisle with baskets, collecting donations ranging from 2000-10000 Vietnamese Dong (about $.15 to $.80). As we left the church, the rain came straight down like a scene from an old French movie and filled my shoes.

The Vietnamese government has long feared foreign influence and wrestles with how to allow new ideas into the country. On earlier visits, the Ministry of Culture required a list of the books and materials I carried with me. I left behind potentially controversial material, ranging from Newsweek to Madame Bovary. Videos were especially suspect and often confiscated by the "culture police" at customs. In the winter 1996, a "social evils campaign" raged, with posters and articles and television ads about the dangers of foreign movies and magazines and contact with outsiders. Months later, hysteria calmed, and doors opened again.

This full church on Easter Sunday in 1997 represented another (re)opening of a reluctant and squeaky door. The ceremony was simple yet captivated hundreds of people huddled in the chilly sanctuary. Their joy at being in church seemed heartfelt. As the 1990s gained steam, religious tolerance became more common, as did access to foreign movies, Internet cafes, and permissions to travel and study abroad. I had to commend the government; it took guts to risk the impact of foreign ideas, ones that sometimes challenged communism and a socialist approach to economics.

In that vein, I realized that by sending faculty members and managers to the US to study meant heartburn for Vietnamese administrators. Following the orientation I'd done, university and party members had also talked with the MBA students, warning them that Americans might be bitter about the war, that they might read information or see television news that was different from what they knew about history or politics, and that they might even be tempted to stay in the US. Several students had distant relatives in the US, and defections would be political nightmares, for both Vietnam and the US.

Remember, the officials told the participants, you represent Vietnam. You must return and do your duty here. You are the future of the country.

Doing your duty. Some Americans scoff at such corny notions, but when I first visited Hanoi, I found Vietnamese in the oddest places who still held such ideas.

I often ate in the university's canteen, where smoke spilled from coal stoves in the kitchen and dogs roamed under the tables, scrounging for scraps. Women with wispy hair and thin cotton shirts squatted over wooden planks on the floor, slicing vegetables and meat. I sat on a tiny wooden stool, my knees at chest level, at a rickety table with a red plastic tablecloth speckled with rice. As a canteen lady wiped the tablecloth, I took a gray paper napkin and began the fruitless ritual of wiping germs from the wooden chopsticks and aluminum soup spoons that sat in plastic holders on the table. I drank canned 333 Beer, famous with US soldiers in the 1970s, and bent over lunch—fried spring rolls, rice, scrambled eggs, mushy lettuce and cucumbers saturated in vinegar, and peanuts. I stayed away from the fish heads, inchworms, and pork fat.

One day, a third year student joined me.

"May I sit?" he asked. "I like to practice English."

"Of course. What are you studying?"

"I want to be a teacher. To teach accounting teacher at the university. I learn to be a teacher."

"Why not work for a company?" I asked. I knew university teachers made about $40/month. Foreign firms, hungry for well-trained English-speaking Vietnamese accounting graduates in 1994, offered $500/month.

"I want to be a teacher," he said again. "I will help students learn about market economics. That is good for my country. I can help Vietnam become part of the world if I am a teacher. If I work for a foreign firm, I help myself only."

I sat under a wobbly fan on my tiny stool, wiping my face with my handkerchief. I thought of students in Boise, who I'd rarely heard talk of pursuing careers that would help anyone beyond themselves or their families. But this young Vietnamese man had chosen a career that would pay little but have a bigger payoff.


But not all Vietnamese believed there were choices.

"Your sons are Americans with Asian faces," said my teaching partner in Hanoi as we prepared for class one day. Lan Anh sometimes braided her fuzzy, shoulder-length hair so she looked like a teenager rather than a woman in her mid-thirties.

My sons, adopted from Thailand and South Korea, were in the fourth and fifth grades at the international school in Hanoi, and many Vietnamese faculty members knew them.

"My relatives in Canada and the US say it is hard for Asians to succeed or to marry there. They say that in public it is ok, it is easy to do well. But they also say that a person from Vietnam must work two times or three times harder than someone born in the US."

"Maybe so. Hard for me to know, since I was born there," I said.

"But maybe your sons will have troubles. They are too different. If they lived in Vietnam, they could never marry. Families discourage children from marrying foreigners. Your sons are Asian, but they are really American, they are foreign. What about in America? How will they fit? What will happen to them in the future?"

"We're a country of foreigners. You saw it when you came to the US. We were built by foreigners. So the boys will be fine. They will find their own ways and marry whoever they want."

Lan Anh shook her head a bit, looking at the coffee table in front of us. We sat in the school lobby, on a wooden couch with plastic cushions. Our legs nearly touched as we sat side by side.

"Life in the US is different from what you think," I said. "People are free to make their own opportunities and their own lives. Parents can't tell young people what careers to have or who to marry."

Unconvinced, she leaned back on the plastic cushions, and air whooshed out of them.

I'd been surprised on my first visit to Vietnam when Lan Anh and her colleagues told me they called themselves the "Americans of Southeast Asia," in part because they looked at people "eye to eye," as they said. Unheard of in the rest of Asia, the Vietnamese directness felt comfortable to Americans.

That day on the couch, Lan Anh looked at me, eye to eye.

"That's where our countries are different," she said. "In America, you believe things are possible. I know many are not."


Back in Boise that warm summer evening, I listened to Lang and Nhan and thought of things that were possible, like getting to know the Vietnamese on my terms and talking about issues that made Lang a little uncomfortable. To fuel the discussion a bit, I pulled out a book of American Historical documents and opened it to the Declaration of Independence. I handed it to Ha Nguyen, a financial whiz who had been doing his internship at a local bank. Then I turned back to Lang and the others. A moment later Ha Nguyen looked up at me, his head tilted, with a question in his eyes.

"How did you get Ho Chi Minh's independence speech?"

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam's political leader and continuing guidance, made a speech in September 1945 at Hanoi's Ba Dinh Square to declare Vietnam's right to be a separate and independent country, free from the French colonialists. The speech's beginning has a familiar ring to Americans:

All men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Ho Chi Minh continued, which Ha hadn't realized, with a comment that this statement was in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776, but that it embodied the feelings of any people wanting to be unfettered from another power, including Vietnam. He also quoted sections from France's 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Man. But the American declaration statement has become part of Vietnamese historical culture and legend.

"Look at the top. Who wrote it?"

I pointed to the source of the document. Ha looked up again.

"Who's that?"

I told him that Thomas Jefferson had written the document almost two hundred years before Ho Chi Minh used it. And Jefferson had drawn from John Locke of England. Nguyen's reaction was surprise at first and then intrigue. His eyes opened wider as he made mental connections.

"Our leader Ho Chi Minh tried to be America's friend a long time before. Then for many years, our countries were enemies. Now we are friends. Like a long circle closing."

He used the word "friends" casually, like an American. Yet for the Vietnamese, as in other cultures, it means a level of intimacy beyond what Americans typically assume. It means we had worked together, learned together, and drank beer together. He and others had brought me into their group, their circle. And perhaps, our truths might in the end come together again, like a long circle.


Previous Piece Next Piece