Monday, February 13, 2012

Some Thoughts on Filters

Some of you have written to tell me that my blog is all fucked up. That would be the design and layout of the blog, not the writing of the blog itself, I hope. If so, I am already aware of this problem. And the reason for it has to do with being in Vietnam.


Actually, it has to do with being at the perfect intersection between Idiotic Capitalism and Fuck-It Communism. Having succumbed to a wave of Narcissistic Consumerism last spring, what many of you out there know as that lowest run on the long long ladder that comprises Idiotic Capitalism, I bought an I-Pad. Then I moved up a rung and began to purchase and download all the many applications that would make said I-Pad a useful and functioning computing device, something, er, equivalent to a cheap-ass laptop. One of these applications was Blogsy, an application that appears to be run by a very conscientious, very cheerful, and yet somewhat shortsighted team of people, as each update to the application brings with it more, not fewer, bugs. One of these bugs is incredibly complicated to explain, but it is basically why my whole blog design got screwed up, and can now only be fixed by abandoning the I-Pad, finding an actual computer on which anything besides Safari has been installed, going onto Blogger and tinkering with the design setup.



Enter Fuck-It Communism.

Let me start by saying that it's easy to forget you are in a Communist country when living in Vietnam. First of all, the whole country seems to be obsessed with making money, as much of it and as fast as possible, and there seem to be few restrictions or scruples as to how this might happen, as not only is every square inch of Hanoi covered with something to buy, sell, eat, rent or fix, but there are also the same kinds of massive Walmart-style stores as in America dotting the outskirts of the city, in which you can buy everything from stereo equipment to a baby crib to a live lobster.

There are few police wandering the streets, you can pretty much drive in any direction, on any surface, through any kind of street light that you want, and it's easy to find CNN, HBO, StarWorld, the BBC, and many French, German and Australian news channels on a lot of t.v.s. There are, yes, those cheerful, pink propaganda posters slapped up all over town and of course the daily Cocktail Hour of Social Hectoring each afternoon, but a lot of the (theoretic or too literal) ways I would have imagined Communism to work seem to be absent. Health care is paid for but only up to a point, as is education, so Vietnam really seems to be, on the surface, kind of the worst of both worlds: the rapaciousness of first-world capitalism mixed in with the occasional dictatorial streak of Communism, with far fewer of the first-world social amenities that normally accompany other progressive capitalist nations and less useful socialist public health programs and policies supposedly attached to communism.



But what does this have to do with the damn blog? Well, where Vietnam's Communism really kicks in is in the monitoring of certain types of social media and publishing. For instance, there aren't a lot of journals to be found here. There's the Vietnamese Cosmo, and several other types of fashion rags, some travel journals in English and a few teenie bopper type magazines but there are no political journals that I've found, and a dearth of printed material in general, though there are tons of bookstores around the city. The writing community--from what little I've learned about it--seems to be attached to a kind of Writers Union you have to join to get certain benefits, including--it seems--being published in certain magazines or with certain presses. But things like Facebook and Blogger are the truly forbidden outlets, "verboten" in the sense that their servers are blocked by the government so that these sites can't be accessed on the internet. Also, very occasionally, sometimes when you are watching the t.v. the channel you are watching goes to the "Emergency Broadcasting" bandwidth as if the station itself had shut off, then kicks on again in a couple of hours, presumably when the program that the government official didn't want you to watch has ended.

(Aside: What's really sad is that it seems every Nicholas Cage movie shot in the past five years is perpetually available on t.v., which makes you wonder--if the censors don't want to save us all from the true cultural evils of "Season of the Witch," what the hell ARE they protecting us from?)


Overall, the ban on the servers for FB and Blogger are hardly strict. Tons of young people (and this is a SUPER young country: did I mention how many people under thirty seem to live here? How many women seem to be pregnant? How many babies you can see propped between their parents on the motorbikes scooting around the city?) have FB accounts on their I-phones, almost every ex-pat I meet here has a blogger account, and the only thing stopping anyone from attaining the life of relentless self-publicity that characterizes that of most Americans is a decent, easily downloadable VPN program.

Which I now need to find again for my other computer.

This is why I call it "Fuck-It" Communism. There seems to be little consistency as to why certain things are filtered here, and the ability to get around the filters is laughably easy, if time-consuming. It's an irritant; less a social control than the attempt to keep up political appearances. I like to think of it as a weak social "herder", like a half-blind, thirteen year-old border collie trying to keep the sheep in line while at the same time not getting trampled.



Interestingly, I've been thinking about filters a lot these days. I'm back taking French classes here in Hanoi which, I know, sounds insane but there is some method to this madness.

I want to keep practicing the language, and

It's a good way to meet Vietnamese students.

I mean, think about it: if I take Vietnamese, all I meet are other foreigners. If I take French, I meet Vietnamese people. With the added bonus that we now have a language in common to speak in.

I am, of course, taking Vietnamese as well: there are some free group discussion nights/language lessons at a café near my place, so I go to those Wednesday nights after my French class, drink some fresh watermelon juice, and hang out with a bunch of friendly folks from around the world, learning how to butcher another whole new series of verbs.



What's funny about all this is how often the language classes themselves become filters. In class, we're always being asked to discuss topics pre-arranged by our class workbooks in order to build up specific vocabulary sets, which means we end up talking about things not a single one of us wants to discuss, such as whether it would be cool if Thuy suddenly got pink hair, or whether Hanh thinks having a butterfly tattoo is stupid or not, and what do we think of this HSBC ad, and what does each of us want to do for Saint Valentine's Day. And of course, each of us responds in the highly filtered ways that our limited grammar and vocabulary gives us, which of course makes us sound even more like the ham-strung, moronic stereotypes of our national selves. So it's no surprise that Thuy looks like she'd rather get shot in the face than get pink hair, and Hanh says the butterfly is only a good idea if it's hidden way down under your clothes and no one is surprised when the big dumb blinking American (yes, that would be me) admits she has several tattoos and no aversion to pink hair but couldn't care less about the HSBC ad. And it gets even funnier and sadder when we have to listen to the class CD to determine whether the person speaking is being ironic or not, and because the person speaking is French, and because Vietnamese is the most extraordinarily complex tonal language I've ever come across (there are, like, nearly a dozen different ways to make an "a" sound here, depending on the accent markings and which other syllables accompany it. A DOZEN DIFFERENT WAYS, PEOPLE) of course they are both good and terrible at detecting irony, being immediately able to detect that something has changed but not being able to say whether that that change is in itself irony or, as it would be in Vietnamese, A TOTALLY DIFFERENT FREAKING WORD.

As for me, the American, perhaps it is the stereotypical defect of my national character which determines that I can't detect irony, as to me the French speaker on the language lesson CD seemed able only to express herself in the sweet spot between sincerity and sneering, thus even when the teacher played us all the CD not once but THREE TIMES, I still couldn't determine which one of the "Oh, but my dear that sweater suits you so well!" was the snarky version.

Overall, as this year limps on, it strikes me that filtering is a pretty apt metaphor for travel. Your language is filtered, your clothes aren't the ones you'd normally wear (or are, in my case, becoming so worn through with overuse they are literally unraveling in places off my body), your apartments aren't the kinds of places you'd normally choose, your ability to judge the mental faculties of others around you becomes a touch distorted, you begin eating animal products you'd otherwise avoid, you have people stick long things in your ears, you can't call your family at the times you most want to, your internet connections are too slow, the streets are too crowded, your t.v. shuts off the news channel so you have little to watch but endless reruns of "How I Met Your Mother." It's like your life at home, but with some sort of consistent, low-level distraction distorting it. You're almost yourself, and almost someone else entirely. You're always, just almost, coming through.

So. Here is my blog entry for the week: hopefully corrected, hopefully readable. Stuck somewhere between Fuck It and Radical. Which is, overall, a pretty interesting place to be.









  1. One of the nicer little ironies I love teaching my students when we start talking about Vietnam is the very real position Ho Chi Minh took regarding politics. While he was an avowed marxist/socialist, a full believer in the temporary state of communism to make the change from capitalism to socialism, and that socialism was the best route for the people of Vietnam, while he was president, there was a real constitution and other political parties were allowed to participate in government. A very different creature than the one we (or at least I) learned in 1970's elementary school.

  2. Hey Justin: What books would you recommend that I read (books that I hope I can download easily, that is)? There are a ton of titles I've been browsing, but would love your opinion before purchasing some.

    1. I assume you are talking about the history of U.S. & Vietnam War.

      The Primary text I used when taking the class, U.S. And Vietnam, way back when, was "Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam, 1945-1995."

      I would also consider William Cobb's "The American Foundation Myth in Vietnam: Reigning Paradigms and Raining Bombs."

      Unfortunately, I don't think either of those are on Kindle.

      For a download, though I have read neither, are these:

      "Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost" by Joe Allen;

      and McNamara's

      "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam" (on audible).

      If you are looking for fiction, Of course there is always "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien, though I am certain you have read him.

      If you have not, already read it, go ahead and get Howard Zinn's "A People's History of America." It's a Key history text no matter what you want to study.

      If you are looking for something altogether inflammatory and visual, I would say the documentary, "Hearts and Minds"(1975, 1975?) is something to see.

      I will try to find more for you.

    2. Thanks so much for this list, Justin! And have you seen Noam Chomsky's recent article on America's decline in the Guardian? I posted it on FB. It has a lot of interesting info and facts about the Vietnam War, and America's very particular economic interests in "bombing the country back to the stone age." I thought, with your interests, you might find this article a useful one to share with your students as well.

  3. Hooray, comments are back! The discussion of the Vietnam War reminded me of one of the works in the Singapore Art Museum display of contestants for this year's Signature Art Prize: nine photographs and a moving 21 minute video Bomb Ponds about the results of US bombing in Cambodia. The museum director writes, "this work also argues that the act of remembering is something active, not passive -- it is a form of bearing witness; an act against historical amnesia."

    Another artwork that made me feel embarrassed for my country was a video about Taiwanese woman categorically denied US visas, despite education, business travel, etc., simply for being single. Other pieces feel like standard modern art fare: a clanky guillotine with bells, piles of steel powder that move subtly as people walk by, and sticks -- sorry -- "cruelty inflicted on wood." The best was an incredible 5 minute video of a man doing Tai Chi with impressive and well-used special effects; I watched it over and over. There's a shorter "bootleg" version on YouTube:

    The installation closes 4 March, of course, but the Singapore Art Museum is worth a visit in any case. Here's a link to the director's notes about the Signature exhibit.

  4. Hey Brian! We're you to come to Vietnam, you'd see some fascinating artwork to do with the US war here, one of which is a massive heap of US and French aircraft parts form planes that had been shot down by Vietnamese troops. The scraps have been reassembled into this utterly massive heap of wartime destruction that is propped in the middle of one of the courtyards of the Military Museum here. It's an amazing, horrifying, awe- inspiring and, yes, propagandistic piece of art. It's a must- see for anyone. I'll check out your links now. Glad you can comment again! I think I've got the kinks ironed out, but I've had to go back in and play around a bit with blogger.