Saturday, December 29, 2007

Taking out the Trash

One of my strongest memories of childhood Christmases were the mountains of presents that quickly became mountains of wrapping paper that pieces to that new toys, trays of cheese and crackers, dogs, and small children would bury themselves under, sometimes never to reappear from. Crumpled paper, ribbons and bows were sorted out, those least shredded put into a bag in the half-hearted attempt to reuse the next year (although they were usually lost or, when re-examined the next year, determined to be far to shabby to put to second use), and needle-in-paperstacks hunts went on for plastic Barbie shoes and Lego men. Then all was bundled up and put into the industrial sized can and hauled to the end of the driveway along with the skeleton Christmas trees to be driven off to the heaven of Christmases past.

Obviously in Vietnam there’s no post-Christmas cleanup, although wait until Lunar New Year and something very similar will happen. But between the nostalgia for Christmases past and cold rainy evenings this week, the culture of trash pick-up has been at the front of my mind…

In America, we scramble once, perhaps twice, a week to assemble all of our unwanted goods, sorted or no, and place them in a designated container as far from our residences and as close to the public way as possible. Then, almost magically, the trash fairies flit through our neighborhoods and with a little banging and grinding noticed only by those lucky enough to be home at a working hour, voilà, our problems are swept clean for another week. About the only communal aspect of the whole process is the appearance of containers lined up like sentries guarding each suburban lawn on a magically coordinated day of the week.

For the urban Vietnamese public, trash collection is a daily routine. Each large city employs an army of street sweepers and trash collectors, each outfitted with standard overalls and rainsuits for inclement weather, touched off with the traditional cone hat of Vietnam. Almost every one of them wears a dust cloth tied over the mouth, leaving a distinct impression of an anonymous herd of former-bankrobbers-turned-streetsweepers loose on the city. Twice a day, first in the dark of early morning, and next in the early evening, the army is loosed upon the city, and each dry leaf, candy wrapper and cigarette butt is mercilessly attacked with long-handled reed brooms and collected into large rolling dumpster pushed by members of the squadron.

The evening collection is the one that is attended to by whole communities. During this time the sweeper with the dumpster is also charged with a bell, which she (yes, probably 90% of the trash collectors in this country are women, in contrast to our image of burly men driving a big stinky truck) clangs repeatedly as she moves down the street. As if summoned an ethereal force, representatives of each household make their way into the streets, bringing dustbins and plastic bags full of rubbish. As the caravan of dumpsters on wheels approaches and the clanging grows louder and more insistent, people emerge from their brightly lit houses to make their daily contributions directly or to place the bag along the curb where it will be grabbed by a passing masked agent of the trash.

It is days like this last week, during which a steady drizzle of miserable rain has fallen, that makes me note our own masters of the daily ceremonies. These masked women clump cheerfully down the muddy streets dripping from their cone crowns and trading greetings and gossip with the women and men crouching in the shelters of their small overhangs waiting to dash into the wet to deliver their offering. They drag their brooms made of bamboo and tree branches against the current of water in the gutters and somehow manage to make the wet street look scrubbed in the streetlights. Children and old people shout across the way to each other as each family emerges for the nightly routine. Even with the masks it is easy to tell when the collection women smile as if applauding you for tossing your bag bulging with an oozing mess and thanking you for your generous contribution. Your bravery in stepping out into this damp night to offer up your garbage seems reward enough for their suffering hours in the elements just to arrive at your doorstep.

Everything in Vietnam happens in a communal and ordered way. We could debate whether it is a holdover from the more stringent aspects of hardline communism, whether it is simply an attribute of narrow-streeted urban living everywhere, or whether the Vietnamese naturally tend towards such arrangements. In any way, in Vietnam even trash pick-up is a grass-roots and almost gritty experience, in striking opposition to our American disaffection from our wastes. It is similar with the water and electricity bill collectors, the mail delivery and even the shoe-shine boys here. And yet, nowhere have I encountered such cheerfulness for such little reward as in Vietnam’s anonymous army of street sweepers and trash collectors.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Holiday Greetings from Vietnam

It is 7:30 PM on Christmas Day night; I am sitting warm and dry in my candlelit living room listening to a Christmas concert on my favourite NPR station. I am finally feeling assured that the only thing I have to be concerned about at this moment is what time I should go to bed in order to get up to make an early-morning Christmas phone call to my family.

The Christmas-letter writing season was a wash for me this year; it always seems life implodes in on iteslf around this season. So, finally, on Christmas night I have found the moments of peace necessary to reconnect with all the people brought to mind by the season.

The end of 2007 is also the end of my first complete year in Vietnam. Last year at this time I was shivering in the dark and damp that was so shocking after the recent heat and long days of a Madagascar summer. This year the cold doesn’t seem nearly so shocking. It’s actually quite pleasantly warm (highs of 65-70 (15-20) degrees during the day), but far wetter than the Malagasy winters I’d grown used to. The darkness from the almost constant overcast and fog in the mountains can be depressing, but that’s what good indoor lighting is for.

I suppose the defining factor of my life in Vietnam is my work. This year has seen a lot of changes in that also, as our organization moves through a period of strategic growth and development. It’s a very fluid time – I’m calling it the organizational adolescence – and I don’t think I have worked at the same job for more than two months at a stretch this year. Officially my title has changed from “Health Coordinator for the Cao Bang projects” to “Northern Regional Manager.” It’s a big change in words and in actual responsibilities. It means that I’m less project-based, and far less technically involved in the actual projects. It also leaves a lot of room for job growth as I increasingly focus on program planning, proposal development and other aspects of organizational expansion. It also means a lot more time given to capacity building for the staff coming up behind me – they have to cover a lot more of the nuts-and-bolts of day-to-day project management that the health coordinator used to do. It’s a good thing all around, but like adolescence, it’s also suffused with growing pains.

I feel very, very lucky to have been blessed with the opportunity to work with this organization at this stage in the development. I am doubly blessed with a committed project staff who are also capable of high-quality work. It speaks volumes about both the culture and the program managers who came before me. I am the one benefiting from my predecessors’ investments. The result is a program that is in many ways (and not just in my humble opinion, but also the opinion of external evaluators) an example of how development can work. Here, in Cao Bang, Vietnam, I have every confidence in the achievability of that often unattainable goal: the opportunity to work myself out of a job.

Much of that also speaks for the culture of Vietnam. Far from being a war-ravaged backwater, Vietnam is fast becoming an economic powerhouse in Southeast Asia. Some of my colleagues in the development arena here are beginning a pool to guess when Vietnam will declare itself independent of external aid, much as Thailand has already done. Unlike in the development situation in Africa, Asian countries refuse to be eternally propped up by external money. Just as our own organization is in an adolescent phase, Vietnam itself is reaching vibrant adolescence, with all the joys and pains and questions that goes with it. Perhaps it is appropriate that one of our major projects is an adolescent education and counselling program – we could offer advice and support to the country as a whole.

That brings us to 2008. For now I look forward to the continuing (albeit exhausting) changes that will persist in the coming months. My contract is until the end of June. It is difficult for me to say what I will be doing two months from now, much less in July. I have recently moved into a new house in Cao Bang and am continuing the search for reasonable housing in Hanoi city (a large reason why I have been incommunicado for such a long period). My job requires me to spend increasingly long periods of time in Hanoi; times which are suddenly filled with meetings and conferences and fighting the endless motorbike traffic jams. I am improving my motorbike riding skills by the day – and my ability to disengage my mind from following the rules of the road.

While it seems impossible to see into the coming two or three months with any clarity, I do have a vision of myself enjoying my first American Christmas in five years at home in 2008. What or where I will go between now and then, or beyond that, will be a story for me to tell in a year’s time.

Each day I rely on the words of Jonh Lennon:

Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.

And so, unless I can retire next year, I will continue to make those plans and discover after that I am living that life already.

Best wishes to all of you at this holiday season. As I thank the Lord for the blessings of another year and for the gift of one very attentive and adventurous guardian angel, I pray that each of you may receive just such a gift in equal measure.

In loving peace,


P.S. For those of you that are more interested in the details of my daily life in Vietnam, I do continue to update my blog at fairly irregular intervals over the months. Currently I have several juicy ideas for upcoming posts – so check back regularly as I will write more very soon!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

One year in 'Nam

Somewhere buried in the pile of days and duties that was this week was my one-year anniversary of my arrival in Vietnam. This time I'm not actually very surprised that a year has passed since I landed here. It feels more of an inevitability than an achievement. I think once I passed my first year in a foreign country it became apparent that I was perfectly capable of doing it, and now it is simply by the grace of God that I continue to walk this particular path.

Still, an anniversary is an anniversary, but this week hasn't offered a lot of opportunity for reflection on the past year. In fact, it has been a week focused on looking ahead - first with a strategic planning meeting in which we outlined the future of our organization for the next 5 years, and now with a visit from a project donor in which we are busy scrutinizing the current project activities and how that is going to roll into the next years and phases of those project. So instead of spending this anniversary looking behind me, I will spend it looking ahead to the next six months of my contract.

One, other thing I haven't had much time to dedicate to looking to is Christmas. I realize it is right around the corner, and you have my sincerest apologies that for yet another year there will be no Christmas cards. Please know that I am thinking of all of you as you begin to celebrate the season in earnest - and I hope you all have very blessed holidays. I'm really hoping for a chance to come up for air on Christmas day, and I will do my best to catch up then.

For those of you looking for an opportunity to give a little this Christmas season, I would ask you to consider a small project that would be extremely grateful for your support. The name is Tu Van Tuoi Hoa - loosely translated at "Flowering Age Counseling Service" run out of Cao Bang by ADRA Vietnam and supported through private donations given to ADRA Australia. Our counseling project receives more than 120 phone calls per month (about 30 of those go to our 24 hour emergency hotline) and over 150 written inquiries from young people, their parents and friends. Three dedicated counselors work every day to personally answer each one of the questions about life, love, physical/emotional development and substance abuse received by our service, as well as organizing a weekly radio show that broadcasts in 4 languages (3 ethnic dialects and standard Vietnamese) and well as training commune health workers in adolescent-friendly health and counseling services.

If you say, "Boy, that sounds like something we could use in the US/Australia/Europe/wherever I am," you're absolutely right. And people from all over Vietnam and even Vietnamese-speaking individuals living outside of Vietnam take advantage of the service. And while it would be a good service for anybody in the world, It is invaluable in a place where young boys are still confused on the subject of wearing underwear and girls don't really understand how they can become pregnant - and reliable information sources are few and far between.

You can get more information on the project from the ADRA Vietnam projects webpage. Or if you would like to directly support a good cause and the work that I am doing during these holidays, please visit our donor's donation webpage.

Thank you for your consideration of our work and Merry Christmas to all - and to all a blessed and restful night!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Justifiable paranoia?

Here's a little story to amuse you on your Monday morning:

About one month ago we did some shifting of equipment among the ADRA offices in Vietnam, including sending a motorbike from our Cao Bang projects down to Hanoi so that when I am in Hanoi there is another motorbike available for me to use. I have been mainly using that motorbike when needing to get around town. It hasn't been the happiest thing since it arrived, but particularly on this extended trip when I've put nearly 200 km on it just from running back and forth around the city I have started having noticeable problems with it. Mainly, it would cut out completely at random times, most dangerously right as I'm trying to make a left turn in the middle of a busy intersection. I know, I know I should've had it looked at just as soon as I noticed the problems, but between the general business of my time here and the lack of language skills to be able to fully explain the problem, I put it off.

Today, however, we started our strategic planning meetings, which meant that all of the ADRA staff were gathered in one place. As I was pulling out of the lot tonight after the end of the day's meeting, my motorbike started it's old tricks. So I flagged down the one Vietnamese male member of our staff and complained to him about the problems. He took me across the street to one of those ubiquitous random repair shops and told the guys about my problem. They took it out for a test spin, then rolled it back in, propped it up and started tearing it apart.

So, sure enough, it had a problem - but I already knew that. What I didn't know (but had kinda guessed) was just how many problems it had. So to add to the most obvious problem: a completely clogged fuel injection system, this is what else was wrong with the bike:

- completely worn brakes, front and back (I had suspected that also)
- worn tires
- low tire pressure
- low battery acid (did you know that a bike either has a "wet" battery or "dry" battery, and if you have a wet battery you have to have the acid levels checked every time you wash the bike? Assuming you ever actually wash the bike.)
- oil that hadn't been changed in a coon's age

And that's what they found in just the quick check - basically, it hasn't been serviced in the recognizable past.

Now granted, I shouldn't have been so stupid as to keep driving around on a bike with obvious problems, but this is what gets me - before that bike was sent down to Hanoi, I gave my staff EXTREMELY CLEAR AND REPEATED INSTRUCTIONS to have the bike COMPLETELY SERVICED and to have any necessary repairs done BEFORE it left Cao Bang. Specifically I asked for attention to be given to the oil change and to making sure the brakes were good. I asked repeatedly for this to be done, and before the bike was sent I confirmed several times that it HAD been completed. I even signed the receipt, which I believe accounted for an oil change. There were no other problems reported (okay, granted, I also didn't take it for a test drive before it was sent, but I totally didn't have time).

So, do my staff have it in for me? They knew I'd probably be driving this bike in Hanoi (though I suppose they could just have it in for the other Hanoi staff). The fuel injection system and low tire pressure I could let by if it had only really started acting up after arriving in Hanoi, but the fact that we apparently already paid for the oil change, but the oil hadn't actually been changed before it was sent and that the brakes were bad and the worn tires and low battery acid - those are all things that should've been taken care of and would've been obvious if it had been done just a few weeks ago. Yet none of them were taken care of, even after I VERY SPECIFICALLY asked if it had. And what's up with paying for an oil change that never happened?

Well, one thing's for sure - we're going to be keeping closer tabs on actual motorbike maintenance from now on (yay, one more non-public health related item to add to my list), and I'm going to be taking a much more proactive role in caring for the motorbikes in Hanoi (the Hanoi staff are even less crazy about actually caring for the bikes than the Cao Bang staff). And I'm going to have a very serious talking-to with my Cao Bang staff about how it isn't nice to set up your boss to get killed in a road accident.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Alarm over “missing daughters” trend in Vietnam

HANOI (AFP) — Vietnam's birth ratio has become skewed toward boys, a trend that population experts are blaming on a traditional preference for male offspring and the availability of abortion and ultrasound fetal scans.

The international ratio at birth is about 105 boys for every 100 girls, but in Vietnam -- in an echo of trends in China and India -- the imbalance has grown to 110-100 and is as high as 120-100 in some provinces.

(read entire article here...)

ADRA in Vietnam takes lead in restoring Vietnam’s “missing daughters”

HANOI (ADRA Daily News) — With the arrival of Luu Cong Dinh’s new baby girl on October 30, ADRA in Vietnam has renewed leadership in ensuring the well-being of next generation of women in Vietnam.

ADRA Vietnam’s 14 national staff demonstrate personal responsibility for what is fast becoming an organizational mandate: taking action in Vietnam’s growing gender crisis by positively contributing to improving and maintaining the national male:female gender ratio. They are doing this in a unique way: by personally bringing happy, healthy and beautiful baby girls into the world.

Of eight married national staff members in ADRA in Vietnam, seven have already put this commitment into action with the birth of nine daughters, four born in the last 14 months. The organization’s overall child gender ratio 33 boys to 100 girls (normal population is 105:100). When children of staff recently returned to government posts following successful projects are included, the ratio decreases to 25:100.

“These statistics may seem drastic,” states ADRA's Regional Manager, “but ADRA is a small organization taking on a national issue. We will have to work hard to do our part.”

“The people working for our organization are driven and work hard to promote the roles and rights of women in our community. We are passionate about our role in the development of Vietnam,” said the manager.

ADRA staff also anticipate personal advantages offered by the new initiative. “I look forward to interviewing potential suitors for my own daughter when she comes of age,” announced Hoang Minh Phuong, counselor for ADRA’s CHIC project. “Perhaps I should consider holding a contest.”

The Year of the Golden Pig, traditionally considered a lucky year to give birth to a son, has not stood in the way of ADRA’s dedication to the cause of gender balance in Vietnam. Luu Cong Dinh, parent of ADRA’s most recent addition to the Vietnamese female population announces his “happiness” at the arrival of the 2.9 kg baby girl.

“ADRA staff are living proof of the value of women to assuring the fortunes of Vietnam now and for years to come,” states the Regional Manager, “Perhaps we should consider making this effort a part of our ongoing strategic planning process.”