Decompression in the office

(No.4, Vol.2 Apr 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

If there was ever and end to understanding a strand of Vietnam I came across it about a month ago through the case of an office where a foreign expert was in the habit of going in to do a bit of work. I don’t suppose that there is an end to understanding an aspect of Vietnam, but, after eleven years in Saigon and most of that time working as an Editorial Adviser or Publishing Consultant in that city myself, I reckon I have made the discovery of my decade, for me, that is, a white, middle-aged man from Australia expanding his view of the world, of life. The reader should be advised that I am not saying there is an element of Vietnam that in any way, shape or form resembles my new and rather satisfying understanding. I am proposing part, at least, of a modus operandi for what in developing countries is called ‘co-operation’. This is a special, in word that stands for something that in cross-cultural contexts allows each side, foreign and indigenous, to achieve what it needs to achieve, irrespective of whether or not there is any common purpose.
The Vietnamese saying ‘Vắng chủ nhà, gà mọc đuôi tôm’* has long appealed to me. It says, ‘When the landlord is away, the chickens grow shrimps’ tails.’ English-speakers say, ‘When the cat is away the mice will play.’ I recall heady moments as a child when a teacher was suddenly called away and no one was in control of the class. Mischief - does it mean literally, ‘missing chief’? - was the first instinct. Sometimes one of the more responsible students would call order, or when the teacher was seen returning things would be fast returned to their allotted places and everybody would be shaking with the correctness of or slumped with the nonchalance of the way they sat. In Vietnam the same thing appears in offices, or workplaces in general, or in any institution, according to my theory, a theory that would be provable only because it worked for you, or was useful for you as a person on the foreign side of the divide. Despite the common saying, my theory is not something Vietnamese people would necessarily agree with. It is not, here, even for Vietnamese consumption. In the workplace, I propose, foreign experts need the protection of ‘authority’, another word with a special, in meaning, who, in effect, is chủ nhà, the person in charge of the house. Like me, you may have wondered at the frequency with which Tom and Jerry used to be shown to while away the time at Vietnamese airports. The foreign expert gets his or her legitimacy in his or her role from chủ nhà, who has sought ‘development’. The expert keeps in mind that he or she has been asked to deliver ‘development’ and that it would not do for him or her to try to deliver ‘development’ without this charter. But what happens when, for example, just at a crucial moment, such as the run-up to a publishing deadline, chủ nhà decides to skip off to a hill station, just because he or she has heard a car is going that way?
Out of sight and out of mind, and the structure of the office reverts to one that must prevail if authority is removed, an atavistic one, more located in the mid-brain than in the cortex. Suddenly the foreign expert becomes merely a foreigner. Above him in the pecking order - or flipping order, as it is with the case of shrimps’ tails - comes any Vietnamese staffer crucial to, for my example, the production of a magazine. This staffer may not be a member of the Communist Party but is eligible to become one, depending on his or her progress and competency in such things as ideology. No matter how much at odds it is with the advisability or feasibility of what the decompressed staff are doing, the foreigner has only the choices of trying to carry out what the temporary regime wants or walking out. Production is severely jeopardised. This is what happened recently with the publishing house. One way to recover from the pandemonium was to capitalise on it by realising that it had actually happened and applying a theory of Vắng chủ nhà, gà mọc đuôi tôm for the case, setting the theory down and taking practical steps, such as not trying to achieve production goals when chủ nhà was not in the building, and anyway staying away from the office as much as possible.
Just as in a school classroom or dormitory, a new, often jungle-like, rule takes over without a consciousness of its arrival among those participating, Vietnamese staff may not be conscious of what is happening to them. They may not be aware that they are subject to authority at the mental level, more deeply than where speech comes from. A chủ nhà who is a member of the Party, or who has some such high status, who was born into a high position in the society’s hierarchy, wears the suit, or cat’s fur, of authority without necessarily being aware of it him- or herself. A person in authority in Vietnam is often referred to as ‘Sếp’, meaning ‘Chief’, followed by their given name, not just in the workplace but in the street, by neighbours. I imagine the Vietnamese word comes from a French word for chief, ‘chef’. In the recent case, ‘Sếp’ was in a visible quandary at the thought of the vacant seat in a bus for the hill station. The foreign expert had a premonition of, ‘The removal of a containing wall may end in a flood.’ I would not be surprised if the sense of decompression was sensed by the foreign expert/mere foreigner just as surely as by the Vietnamese staff, though for them it would not be as remarkable.
Quite a few times over the preceding seven years or so with important members of this team the foreign expert had seen that little or nothing got done while chủ nhà was away. It had been better to let things lie and resume them when chủ nhà was back in the office. This applied without fail. Sometimes the foreign expert was warned by the staff actually to keep away from the office, while the authority figure wanted to flout the warning and asked the foreign expert to enter the cubicle office that belonged solely to the authority figure and was not shared territory in the building. It was proposed that the foreign expert should have a desk in the building and mysteriously this was decided against. The foreign expert detected rancour in the ranks. This showed that one authority could be challenged by another. It indicated that depending on the level and locus in the society, the unconscious sense of being ruled could descend from different directions and conflict. But in all cases, it is as if the very thought waves of the superior rule those of the inferior, just as we all sense things, even if it is just that someone we cannot see is looking at us.
The Vắng chủ nhà, gà mọc đuôi tôm effect in the office is hugely cross-cultural as well as psychological. The foreign expert may be the only one who notices it, for all that it may play out with great force and create mayhem, vis-à-vis the foreign expert’s notion of what should be happening. If something agreed before chủ nhà leaves is later flouted, the first reaction may be that the foreign expert becomes angry at the staff for turning around on what has been agreed and points out that such behaviour is not consonant with ‘development’. Many, inside and outside Vietnam, or Asia, remark on what is perceived as deceit on this side of the world, from Kipling to a philosopher I met at a ‘press club’ in Vietnam quite a few years ago. Deceit and deception could be part and parcel of breaking out of authority, and have become a skill as reflex and adroit as eating with chopsticks. Deceit and deception may be necessary in places, like Vietnam, where to this day the authority of the father is a rule of iron, which is backed up even through the agency of the eldest son, whom the society, I am reliably told, would allow to make threats of physical violence against dissent from the father, even in speech, on the part of a younger son. When I got Vietnamese advice about the present case, I was told the chủ nhà in question must be soft and he or she had to learn to instil so much fear in the staff, promising pay cuts, for example, that the staff would perform even when he or she was away. This is assuming the pay is high enough in the first place. I had seriously to ask if staff could be beaten with a rattan, and was assured that this did not happen.
Just as the Vietnamese say they don’t see the connection between two words in the Vietnamese language that to a foreigner are obviously related, the Vietnamese may deny the existence of any Vắng chủ nhà, gà mọc đuôi tôm effect in their own milieu, because, as with language, behaviour becomes habitual and useful without having to be reflected upon. In the recent case, a crucial member of staff referred to a guideline of his that if he saw anger in the office he would down tools. This meant that if the foreign expert thought the staffer had been deceitful and said so with anger, the problem would be solved: production would stop, end of story, literally, no stories, no magazine. This was a simple but unproductive solution, not to mention that it suggested that while anger was outlawed, in high Buddhist style, the behaviour and cross-cultural ineptitude that provoked it was not. In the event, chủ nhà returned, and production resumed, the edition destined to hit the streets a day later than the to-print deadline had promised and three days later than had been assured by the foreign expert given the conditions that existed before chủ nhà left. Observing this case closely, it brought home to me that if Vietnamese staff harbour any pain or resentment accumulated in working with the foreign expert it will come out full force when chủ nhà is away.

This case has considerable bearing on the philosophy of ‘development’. The foreign expert may well have been asked by the ‘authority’ to react exactly as a foreigner would, in order that Vietnam should find out what foreigner behaviour was. A common reaction is anger - for example at being lied to, or thinking one is being lied to. If the foreigner adviser is to treat the indigenous person as an equal, of course the foreign expert has every right to be angry at the perceived Vietnamese perpetrators. But if the foreign expert takes a safe and aloof distance, and thinks to him- or herself ‘They are the subjects of “development” and in their country they are entitled not yet or not always to have developed beyond lying and cheating’, things run smoothly. The foreign expert in this case promised in future to use a ‘barge pole’ policy, which was in the poetic sense derogatory, and had recourse to agricultural terminology and analogy. It is natural to express revulsion and it gets the evil of such things as lying and cheating out of the recipient’s system, and this is, I believe, essential to his or her physical health. There have been times when, as a foreign expert myself, after dealing with the Vietnamese executive I have found myself retching, almost throwing up, and reflecting that in communicating with the executive I have had the very distinct but unelaborated sense that I have been dealing with a ‘black hole’. Again, this is a cross-cultural matter and in no way a reflection on the values of the Vietnamese people. If there was ‘nothing there’ on the other side it means purely that there was nothing there for me. I would say now that I had been looking into a space a foreign expert had no right to look.
The Vietnamese tend to say that if you get angry at them it won’t make any difference. They are often not aware that the anger is entirely for the benefit of the person expressing it, though, of course, if the person accused chose to listen he or she might pick up some useful information. They can be more than just a pillow for beating on. When all the anger is gone, then business can be resumed under the new modus operandi, and there will be no need for any more anger in the future. A lot of foreigners remark that in Vietnam they have become angrier. I suspect that these are people from egalitarian backgrounds, who have tried to work alongside Vietnamese people or as pedestrians tried to share footpaths where Vietnamese drive their motorbikes. These people have thought of themselves merely as foreigners. They need to ask themselves, I propose, whether they are not de facto foreign experts who need to decide they are and become professional. Always, ‘Protection and distance, protection and distance,’ I say. And one thing I have had Vietnamese executive assurance about is that in Vietnam society is not divided laterally, like a map of the world, but vertically, like the Western financial system these days. In Vietnam you need to consider the thing I suspect is true, that ‘authority’ is ubiquitous, subtle and powerful. When I first walked into a Vietnamese enterprise to see how it worked, I was invited to ‘co-operate’ with it. This is the professional and crucial term. Hence the need for a modus operandi for the role. ‘How dare a foreigner suggest to the Vietnamese what to do?’ you may well expostulate. Quite right. ‘Development’ may be regarded as misguided. But what you would have to argue is that it is not a notion that the Vietnamese have a right to take advantage of and not something a foreigner can take advantage of to see more of the world.
*Vắng, absence; chủ nhà, landlord; gà, chicken; mọc, grow; đuôi, tail; tôm, shrimp. And this is not the only way the saying is rendered in Vietnamese.

By James Gordon
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