In Praise of Bình Dân

I’m not really sure how to translate “bình dân” into English. I’ve heard some people translate it as “popular,” but it also implies affordable for the working class. Food and drink for the common man. In my head, “bình” is part of “bình thường”; regular or normal, and “dân” literally means person or people. I like my coffee bình dân, I like my breakfast bình dân, I like my lunch bình dân and I like to drink beer in a place that can be described as bình dân. Why? No bullshit. There are no menus, no stupid ordering flow, no discretely signalling waiters if you need something. It is food and drink done right for people who don’t have time for all the other crap.

When you go to a bình dân place, you sit down at the first available seat you can find. Most bình dân places are out on the street, so if you’re lucky there will be some protection from the sun and/or rain, and maybe a fan. You want aircon? Go downtown and waste your money on a place completely overstaffed and with a badly translated English menu.

Sit down and someone will ask you what you want. If they don’t, tell someone what you want. If they’re busy, start shouting what you want until you’re acknowledged. There is no coming over to politely present a menu for you to look over and then standing idly around while you make a decision. These people are trying to make money, damnit, and the faster they can get you served, the faster another customer can take your place.

So you’ve got your food but need some chili or fish sauce? Start asking immediately. No one is there? Start shouting again. You aren’t expected to eat unless your food is exactly the way you want it. Is there a manager that needs consulted? Nope. They just get things out to you fast and with no bullshit.

Same with the bill. If you’ve had a few things to eat when you’re out for some beers with friends, you may get someone’s messy arithmetic scribbled on a scrap of paper. For breakfast, lunch and coffee though, the staff will just remember what you had, how much everything is and do the addition in their head. Usually the people telling you the bill will hold the money too, so there’s no waiting for your change either. You pay and you’re out.

This is the beauty of bình dân and why it appeals to me. There is no pretentiousness and everyone knows it. You get your beer, or your coffee or your food quick and efficiently and the business owners don’t waste money on overhead. It’s one of the greatest things about Vietnam.

Pictures from the Saigon Tweetup on November 25th, 2014

Just a few pictures from our merry little Tweetup last night at Game On in downtown Saigon.

2014-11-25 21.03.12
The Saigon Tweetup!
B3SP69hCIAAs-J8
@layered, @LeHaTu, @jon7b, @ericburdette and @ChristophK2003 (more active on @evecoo). Thanks to @CotterVN for snapping this pic!
2014-11-25 20.03.22
@layered, @LeHaTu, @sapuche, @dfgvietnam and @lienh.

 

On Being a Millennial in America

I am subscribed to Harper’s Magazine and enjoy reading it every month. One of my favorite sections of the publication, and the item that drew me to the magazine when I was a teenager, is the Harper’s Index. In the Harper’s Index, they list off a number of statistics in a manner that usually come off as surprising and humorous. For example, here are two statistics from their January 2013 issue:

Average salary earned by a full-time-employed male college graduate one year after graduation: $42,918
By a full-time-employed female graduate: $35,296

What they’re doing here is highlighting the difference pay for men and women and how women still aren’t treated as equals in the workplace.

But then I started thinking about my own situation as a member of the millennial generation, and here are some of my own statistics, presented in the Harper’s Index style:

Number of years since I’ve graduated from college: 8
Number of masters degrees I’ve obtained: 1
Highest hourly wage that I’ve earned in the U.S.: $11
Average annual salary amount this translates to: $22,000
Percent lower than the average female salary one year after graduation from college: 38
Percent lower than the average male salary one year after graduation from college: 49
Number of months that I’ve had health insurance in the U.S. since graduating from college: 3

As a person born in the early 1980s, I consider myself to be of the so-called “millennial” generation. Like many of my generation, I did everything I was supposed to do: I went to college, I got my degree, I volunteered abroad for several years, I got my MBA, I worked in a field I enjoyed, etc. Then in September 2012, I found myself looking for a job in Oregon. And I couldn’t find any full-time, stable employment. And I still can’t find any.

So what’s going on, America? I did exactly what I was supposed to do. Where is this well-paying job that I should have, according to Harper’s Index? Well, the same Index also has this item:

Rank of “attire” among the leading reasons “millennials” are unsuccessful in job interviews: 1

To which my response, in Index style, is:

Number of tailored suits I own: 2
Approximate number of ties in my closet: 20
Approximate number of tie knot styles I have memorized: 3

My qualifications are sound, I know how to dress and present myself, so what’s going on, America? Why can’t I find a job? Is it because nepotism, cronyism and corruption are just as prevalent here in the land of the free as they are in third-world countries? Is it because that, no matter what the job reports and economic forecasts say, the American economy is dying a slow death?

For such a large nation, an incredible amount of the U.S. economy is based on personal debt. You want a college degree? Here’s your debt. You want a car? Gotta take out a loan to pay for it. Want a house? Gotta get a mortgage and pay back your debt for 30 years or so. Well America, you tricked me into the college loan debt, but not the other stuff. Here, let me present it in the Harper’s Index style:

Number of cars I’ve owned in the U.S.: 0
Amount of real estate I own in the U.S.: 0
Number of cars I intend to buy in the U.S.: 0
Amount of real estate I intend to buy in the U.S.: 0

And it looks like I’m not the only one. Increasing numbers of my generation are not buying cars and owning a home is becoming a more unattainable dream. Good for us! If the American economy is suddenly faced with a generation of people who refuse to buy into these lifelong debt schemes, change might actually occur.

Allen Ginsberg wrote: “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.” I’d like to amend that quote for many people of my generation: “American I’ve given you all and you’ve taken more.”

As this year of 2012 draws to a close, here’s my favorite statistic, presented in Index style:

Number of years until I will go back to Vietnam: 1

Yes Vietnam, where jobs are plentiful, rents are low and you don’t need a car.

Tics of Twitter

I never really used Twitter much before moving to Saigon in 2010. Before that, Twitter was mainly my medium for updating my Facebook status from my old (and decidedly un-smart) phone via text message. Over a couple years in Saigon, however, I came to rely on Twitter as a place to get recommendations on where to find things and how to get stuff done. One specific example is this: In the midst of one workday, I felt like a turkey sandwich. Don’t know why, but I just felt like one. I posted that thought on Twitter, and a few people got back to me about where they’d found decent turkey sandwiches in Saigon, and that evening I had a turkey sandwich for dinner.

Being in another country and culture, Twitter was a way for us expatriates in the city and the nation converse with each other about our ups and downs and where to find a decent hamburger too. It was pretty nice tool for a place with no large online resources and a culture where a substantial amount of getting things done relies on who you know.

With an above average number of intelligent and tactful users, Twitter for expatriates in Vietnam was great. And when we learned that we would be moving to the U.S., I was hoping to find a place in the Twitter community in Eugene, Oregon too. I started out by following a few folks I found through searching, including a few local companies too, but there is a completely different attitude regarding Twitter in the liberal Northwest in the Land of the Free.

My takeaways so far have been this: There are a lot of people who call themselves “social media experts” and seriously just flood Twitter with posts, retweets and links so that it just clogs up my flow and I can’t stand it. Being in a university town, there are lots of college students on Twitter too. Let’s just say that I’m glad I didn’t have Twitter when I was in college, otherwise my silly moodiness would’ve been captured forever by the Library of Congress. The local companies that I tried following just further flood Twitter with links and stupid questions in the lame attempt to “engage” people through this medium.

What was a very helpful tool in a foreign land is exactly the opposite in the land where it was invented. There seems to be a purposeful effort to not engage with others on Twitter without ulterior motives and I have yet to find a community of users even slightly like what I experienced in Vietnam. Oddly enough, I now use Twitter to keep up with people in Vietnam more that I use it to find out what is happening around me locally.

So there you have it. A common online service which became immensely helpful as I explored the largest city in Indochina has become basically a tool for keeping up with those awesome users back there who initially drew me to Twitter in the first place.

Plans for the Fall

Many of you who know my wife and I are aware of the big change that is coming up in our lives. But for those who don’t know what’s up, or are a bit fuzzy on the particulars, I thought I’d lay out some details to set the record straight, so to speak.

My wife, Ngân, has received a scholarship from the Fulbright Program and will study her master’s degree in international studies at the University of Oregon starting in September. I have decided to go with her while she studies and find a job in Oregon during this time. We are both excited about this big change in our lives, but also a bit stressed with the moving aspect of it.

Ngân, who has never been to the U.S., will be experiencing some culture shock, for sure. And I will likely experience the same. However, we are tough, smart and tenacious people and are looking forward to this challenge.

To all of my friends in Vietnam, I will miss you terribly.

To all of my friends who might be along our travel route, I hope we can meet up.

As one final note, we will not be immigrating to the U.S. The Fulbright Program is administered by the U.S. Department of State, and Ngân has signed an agreement that she will return to Vietnam after her studies are completed.

Lots of changes, lots of excitement and lots of great things lie in wait for our future.

Travel plans are as follows:
-Ngân will travel to Massachusetts in early August for a month of intensive English training and orientation.
-I will fly into Virginia in mid August.
-We will be in Ohio in late August / early September.
-We will take a road trip / move to Eugene, Oregon in early September and arrive there before classes start.

Chinese Wedding Party

The other weekend, Ngan and I were invited to a Chinese wedding party by one of the elevator attendants at our apartment building. Receiving the invitation was a surprise, but we were honored to have been invited. The elevator attendant, his wife and their daughter (the bride) all speak Chinese (I believe it’s Cantonese) with each other, but they are also bilingual and speak Vietnamese with others.

Now, if you’ve spent any time in Vietnam, you’ve been to a wedding party, and I was expecting something similar as we drove through the ever-narrowing streets towards our destination in Chinatown. The facade of the restaurant was very low key, and upon arrival I realized I’d driven past in numerous times without noticing it. As the party progressed, there were a few key differences between Vietnamese and Chinese weddings:

1. Punctuality

Vietnamese people are known for being less than punctual, and this has it’s pros and cons. However, this wedding party was something else. The time on the invitation said 6, and we arrived about 6:15. However, the party (i.e. the serving of the food) didn’t start until after 7:30! I was very hungry and grateful for the food when it finally came.

2. Language

Normally at a Vietnamese wedding party, there is an MC who talks for a bit at the beginning. The MC at this Chinese wedding party just had to read everything in two languages.

3. Music

All of the songs were in Chinese. Singers would come and go and guests would run to the stage and give them cash tips, which were usually passed back to the three-person band. After their set, the singers would leave the party (and maybe head to another wedding party?).

4. Dress

Not one single person at the wedding wore an ao dai. For those who aren’t aware, the ao dai is considered traditional Vietnamese dress, especially for women, and it always makes an appearance at weddings, either being worn by the bride and/or groom and also by plenty of guests. At this particular wedding party, it was like the people wanted to make the statement: “We are not Vietnamese.”

5. Food

One distinctly Chinese dish that we were served during the party featured abalone. I have only seen dishes with abalone at Chinese restaurants before and had never tasted it. It was very rich.

6. Lucky money during the party

At a Vietnamese wedding, when the MC is finished, there is usually loud music and it is not interrupted until the party is over. However, at this Chinese wedding the band stopped, chairs were set up on stage and the bridge emerged wearing some traditional Chinese garb. Older people sat in the chairs and the bride and groom would offer them cups of tea. After the older people sipped the tea, they handed the bride and groom red envelopes of lucky money (for Vietnamese people, lucky money only makes an appearance during Tet, the lunar new year).

We couldn’t stick around til the end of the party, but it was a very unique experience and I’m glad we were able to attend.

Obligatory April Post

Just realized that I haven’t posted anything this month. I attribute this to the fact that Ngan and I have been traveling quite a bit. Tomorrow will mark the third weekend in a row that we will not be in Saigon. Here’s what we’ve been up to lately:

-April 14-15: Singapore. Yep, I’d never been there and wanted to visit to see what it was like. And I did. Clean and expensive city.

-April 21-23: Nha Trang. Ngan had never been there, and they last time I was there was Christmas, 2006 (when my youngest niece was born). It was a nice visit and I introduced Ngan to sunbathing and the basics of floating (she can’t swim).

-April 27-May 2: Long Xuyen. It’s a long weekend due to two holidays and it’s time for a visit. Looking forward to it.

This traveling stuff takes a lot of time, but I like it. Hopefully this summer we’ll hit a couple more destinations in the country and region.