Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Loyal readers (have your numbers hit double digits yet, I wonder?): as many of you may by now know, my time in Ho Chi Minh City has ended a bit earlier than expected. If I have time I will devote a future post to the whole sordid mess, but for now just know that the Saigon phase of GBB is over. I would like to continue writing on here over the next month or so as I travel around South East Asia and Japan, although as I will be constantly on the move and not always within easy reach of the information superhighway, I may not post as much as you or I would like. Or who knows, maybe it will be exactly as much as you like. We'll just have to wait and see. If you're itching for some Stephen Johnson Farrell in your life and can't wait until whenever it is you will see me next in person, head on over to my "Flickr photostream internet web-site" at, I just uploaded a mess of new pics on that there thing. So thanks to everyone who's kept up with me on here, sorry I couldn't write more often, but I kept finding myself quite busy with real life. But it's been fun. I hope to see all of you soon. Oh, and have a Happy New Year! And remember to enjoy Bacardi products responsibly.

Stay up, players.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Let's stay together

Now usually I don't do this as R. Kelly says, but... here's a post that is short and to the point and isn't trying to make some convoluted sociopolitical argument. I gotta bicycle! That's right, it's what you might call a "piece of shit" and it cost me a whole $20 (350,000 dong to be more precise), and in the words of the guy trying to sell it to me, as translated from the Vietnamese by my roomate Khoi, "you get what you pay for." Although I'm only going to be here for another 2 months, I figured it would be a good idea to get a bike so I can ride to and from school instead of taking cabs (something I wouldn't normally do but it's so cheap here) and xe oms (motorbikes), which are usually driven by swarthy, sweaty, drunk ne'er do wells and each ride is basically a near death experience. So anyway, here is my bike, which I've christened Al Green, or technically the Reverend Al Green.

It seriously might be a photo finish as to which expires first, my time in Vietnam or this bike. These pics really don't do justice to its sorry state. BTW almost all bicycles here feature the low "step through" crossbar, so I don't want to hear anyone say that I bought a girls' bike.

Ryan got a bike too but it started to fall apart earlier today so he destroyed it.

Also, I cut my hair.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

There's No Place Like Home

Note: I meant to publish this earlier this month, around the time of the election, but never finished it, then got caught up in the joys of the midterm (midterm exam, not midterm election) something I never thought would be as difficult as it is--coming up with jokey incorrect multiple choice answers is fun at first, but I constantly feel like I need to top myself and eventually I'm making references to Krush Groove and Jesse "the Body" Ventura and I know it's time to call it quits for the night.

I can't say that I'm quite satisfied with the reception that the election got here. I think because I was not in the States for those few heady days in the beginning of November, I never experienced the catharsis, the apparently palpable energy, the smiling strangers, the all around good vibe that I've heard so much about. Perhaps since I am not reminded on a daily basis of our president-elect's president-elect-ness (aside from the frequent NY Times news alerts alerting me to every possible Obama admin pick), I still find myself thinking about the election a lot, to this day catch myself forming the "if Obama wins" construction in my head and keeping my hope for victory in check lest my candidate should lose. As if this were mid-October and not mid-November, as if the past three weeks never happened.

I suppose what I'm really getting at is that I was expecting more from the Vietnamese. I came here with that strange contradiction of sentiment that I think a lot of 21st century Americans find themselves having: an inflated sense of self-importance coupled with an almost pathetic (but somehow never quite humble) self-loathing--summed up simply as "my country sucks, but doesn't the rest of the world love watching our every move?" I assumed that any American presidential election would be big news internationally, and that this one in particular--the most heated, closely-watched, protracted election that anyone alive can remember--would be as captivating for the world's 5.7 billion other people as it was for us. But aside from the occasional front page picture I'd catch under unintelligible headlines or the one Obama shirt I've seen in this country--hanging in a T-shirt shop in the District One tourist area, between "Good Morning Vietnam" and Tiger Beer shirts--Obama and this election have been conspicuously absent from Vietnam's collective consciousness.

When pressed, my students have shown at least a knowledge of, if not quite an interest in, the media circus that we call representative democracy; yes, we know there's an election coming up; yes, we know who Obama is (and of course they know McCain, this is Vietnam after all); yes, we know Obama won and why that's important. But that's about it: a deadpan, emotionless repetition of facts, as if this were about as interesting and relevant to today as my subsequent lecture on the Missouri Compromise.

I didn't know how to interpret this at first. Is it apathy? Clearly, they have some idea what's going on. Would an average American be able to name 3 foreign heads of state, let alone tell you who any foreign head of state candidates are? Apathy implies a belief in the possibility (and perhaps even the moral necessity) of change combined with a disinterest or lack of concern with effecting that change. In order to be apathetic, one must at least live in a society where change is perceived as possible or healthy. Otherwise, "apathy" is just the status quo.
Upon questioning my students further, it became clear that they hold the workings of their own political process in the same disinterested regard that they hold ours; they know the facts, but they don't bother with getting excited about any of it or fooling themselves into thinking that they can make a difference.

It is easy for me to forget that for all the political upheaval here over the past 150 years, this is a very old nation. This is a nation that has never had a truly representative government, and only began talking about the pretense of one half a century ago. There's no reason for anyone here to believe that a normal government is created by, for, or of the people and more importantly, there's no reason to believe it should be. In places like this, regimes come and go like the (rainy) seasons, and yet day to day life changes very little. So why get involved? The government is just another business to these people--sometimes cruel and definitely corrupt, providing a good career for some, but not worth the effort of emotional investment. Caring about third world politics just sets you up for heartbreak, it seems.

As Americans, we believe that the guy living in that big white house actually does make a difference, but we might be alone in that belief. With each new election cycle we whip ourselves into a frenzy over the minute differences in background, hairstyle, and "positions on the issues" of the candidates, as if this has any bearing on the success or failure of our country or our own happiness. We claim to weigh the pros and cons of these people in some sort of elaborate mental tabulature, but in the end we usually just go with whoever makes us feel better.

In places like this, they don't even do that. Sure, voter turnouts are always 98% but there's never any uncertainty as to who will "win" the election. Some would say the same thing is basically true of America, that the candidates we have to choose from are so similar that the notion of political debate and choice is but an illusion, that nothing ever really changes anyway regardless of who the leader of the free world is. There is something appealing about that idea, something attractively cynical and certainly easy to believe. But no one would argue that every country has room for improvement (yes, even Vietnam). The people here, the government in particular, seem to think that the best route to change is not political reform but a wholehearted embrace of the free market. And there might be some truth to this, given the general lack of interest in politics. But our American belief in the possibility of change, as naive as it may seem, has had its successes: We've gone from being a colonial backwater to the most politically and culturally dominant nation in the history of the world in under 300 years. We've gone from slavery to a black president in half that time. There's something foolish and childlike in our unwavering devotion to the democratic cause (and it can be downright disastrous to try to force it on others, as we have seen here and countless other places around the globe). But there is also something good and healthy and right about the return to "optimism" that Reagan appealed to, the "yes we can" enthusiasm that Obama embodies.

That's all for now. Back to midterm land...

Next time: Why I am the Barack Obama of the teaching profession.

Friday, October 24, 2008

School Deez

Before coming here I had only the vaguest of notions about what schools in Vietnam would be like. Vietnam is in Asia, right? Back in the states the Asian kids were always the smart ones, or at least the booksmart ones, the ones who took five AP classes and violin lessons, and worked at their parents' restaurant and still had time to play lots of weird video games that won't come out in the U.S. for another four years. If this is what Asian-Americans are like, imagine what their overseas cousins—whose parents are presumably even more conservative, more strict, more ancestor-worshiping—must be like. I had visions of an educational Easy Street, a Big Rock Candy Mountain for teachers, a place where the students are diligent, independent, and respectful, a classroom full of self-motivated problem-solvers and critical thinkers; where everyone is always quiet and in their seats when class begins (somehow I imagined the old football coach’s “if you’re early, you’re on time, if you’re on time, you’re late…” thing would have some major currency here), give the teacher their undivided attention during lectures and then will jump out of their seats to answer a question before their fellow students can.

Maybe I'm thinking of Japan.

The students in here, on the other hand, like to talk in class, or at least they do until I ask them a question. Then they are all of a sudden at a loss for words. Except for the kid in the back bent over behind his desk where he thinks I can't see him talking on his cellphone. Oh yeah, and the other pair of kids back there who talk the whole period because apparently the other four periods of the day they have class together, not to mention the time in between class and after school isn't enough bro time, and they're clearly engaged in the most important conversation of their lives. They probably would stop talking, so as not to call attention to themselves, but they don't even realize that I asked a question because they were too engrossed in gossiping, or making fun of me, or whatever it is they're doing.

I've never been so tempted so often to tell a large group of people to shut up.

Really, though, the worst thing about it is--well, there's a couple worst things about it. For one, most of the in class chit-chat is conducted in hushed Vietnamese, making it almost always impossible for me to discern whether they are legitimately discussing the material, helping each other define words--something which is distracting, but probably doing more good than harm--or just shooting the shit. My lectures tend to involve lots of unfamiliar words, the learning of which is no doubt especially difficult for people whose native vocabulary is entirely monosyllabic. So I feel like I shouldn't stop them from engaging in discussion of the material, given that they can probably explain to each other the meaning of a word better than I can to them. The problem is, I can't tell the difference between this and good old talking in class, so I just assume the worst 90% of the time, for lack of a better way to deal with it. The other thing that sucks about it is that even the good kids, the ones who come to class on time, sit up front, and know all the answers, even they talk when they should be listening. Occasionally then, they find themselves on the receiving end of my weary "ssshh"s when it's 20 minutes to go in class and I'm hoarse from trying to talk over a constant, hushed storm of unrounded short vowels and rising-tone triphthongs (are you reading this, Ryan B?).

Maybe I need to get on the cultural relativism tip and just accept that this is something that's not going to change and not get too bent out of shape about it. This is a weird place, after all, etiquette-wise; the expulsion of all types of bodily fluids on the street seems to be quite acceptable and slurping your noodles is a sign of great appreciation.

Either that, or I just need to learn Vietnamese.

Right, like that'll happen.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Colonel vs. Uncle Ho

The longer I'm here, the more apt I realize the title of this blog is. What I have come to see (in the infinite wisdom that six whole days in Vietnam has afforded me) is that this is a country that for a long time put guns before butter, because they had to; throughout their history, the Vietnamese had to grapple with invasion attempts from the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, and...well, you know who else. But for the past thirty years or so, they've been trying to turn this around, if we take butter to represent not just food but consumer goods in general--"butter" must be understood ironically in any case, since anyone who's ever been here knows that it is not an easy thing to find in Vietnam. Is it too late to change the word order in the title of this blog?

The argument could be made that it's gone a bit too far; Pepsi seems to have a monopoly on the restaurant awning market and there are more KFCs here than in the states, no joke. Cheap Chinese plastic crap seems to be the number one import. I guess I was expecting something a little less capitalist from a place called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. But hey, universal health care, right? Right???

Friday, October 3, 2008

This is it.

Hello all and welcome. I suspect most of you probably already know me and have an interest in what I am up to over here in Vietnam, and as such you may find what I write here to be worth reading as an end in itself. On the off chance that anyone reading this far does not know me personally, I hope that my forthcoming posts will be useful and entertaining to anyone who is interested in Vietnam, or considering teaching abroad, or just has too much time on their hands.

In any case, this blog will simply be a space for me to write about my experience here and let people know what and how I am doing. I cannot say how often I will post new content as I have yet to fall into a real routine here, but I hope to write new stuff at least once a week, and hopefully more. As many of you already know, I am a bit of a perfectionist with my writing, and I don't want to bore you all with the banal details of my day to day life. With that in mind, I will make an attempt to keep posts concise and thematically consistent, and avoid making this simply an online journal.

From time to time I will post pictures on this site, particularly to illustrate my entries, but I will be taking many more pictures than I will put up here. I plan to start some sort of web-based photo sharing thing for those who are really interested in seeing all the rest. More on that to come.

I named this blog Guns Before Butter because I wouldn't have named it anything if that were possible, but it wasn't. The name comes from a Gang of Four song, and is of course a reference to the dilemma of a society being forced to choose between investing in military and civilian products, or more simply, between defending and feeding its people. I'm not sure how this is related to my experience in Vietnam, but for some reason it was the first thing to come to mind when I had to think of a clever title, and it conjures (to me at least) vague notions of postcolonial realpolitik.