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.