Socialism? Seriously? I take my cue from my years in Vietnam.

I’m sorry, but I can’t take socialism seriously. Blame it on my ten years living in Vietnam when I received a first-hand lesson of what socialism really is and what it really does.

And what it doesn’t do.

The political left in America is giddy with idealistic hope that the dawn of the Democratic Socialist United States of America is right around the corner.

I have to laugh. Poor JFK must be doing some serious flips in his grave. Same with FDR. They might have to rename his hometown to Hide Park instead of Hyde Park by the fact he would hide in embarrassment from these people espousing the death of capitalism, mostly from his own party! It’s ironic that I point out FDR because he was the most socialist president – in terms of nationalizing the state’s economy – America ever had. But he was, thankfully, no Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Cortez, the new poster child for the Bernie Sander’s democratic socialist bandwagon, says that capitalism will not always exist.

Let’s hope that isn’t true.

Let me backpedal just a moment in case you think I’m trying to be political here. I am not. I have my personal political beliefs, of course, but I greatly respect other points of view. I am a strong proponent of rigorous debate between both sides of the political aisle. One of the greatest features of America is its pluralism, which pushes us to consider new ideas while defending our own points of view.  No one party has the exclusive claim on truth or good ideas. I hope any two Americans could easily agree with that statement.

Furthermore, every country uses socialism to one degree or another.  FDR, of course, introduced social security in the 1930s as a means of taking care of the nation’s elderly. It was the state mandating people to pay a portion of their earnings to the government so that the government would manage it and distribute it back to retirees. We don’t need to get into a debate about how well it works, but it has been functioning successfully for 80 years. My parents have been using social security benefits as a key means of income during their retirement. In addition, the U.S. has long used Public Utilities as a means to expand access to electricity and water systems throughout the US. Public Utilities continue to be a bedrock of American energy management.

Government control of certain parts of society is good. Needed. Even desirable at times. Governments, when well-managed, can achieve things that private citizens mainly cannot. (Now this wasn’t always the case. If you need a historical case study, look up J.P. Morgan or JD Rockefeller.) There’s a small community about 25 miles north of New York City where the local government decided to create a gorgeous park around a lake. It has a raised walking path which creates a stunning setting and a terrific place for the entire community to come together and enjoy the outdoors. This is an example of government at its best. Seeing a need and creating something for the community, through tax dollars, that gives citizens tangible benefits. Every government will take at least a part of the nation’s economy and manage it directly.  How much control should the government have? It’s clearly a debatable point.

I say all of this to clarify that I not hear to bash the need for a functioning government. We all need governance, but there should be a healthy, on-going debate about its role and how much of the economy, and what part of the economy, it should have control over.  After all, it will never be zero, nor should it be.

But what I’m hearing from the far-left is a departure of the America of the past. The death of capitalism? Really? You sure you want to go there? What would take its place? Government control over the entire economy? (As a side note, look into Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act. A proposal for the government to have direct input (control?) over companies worth over a billion dollars.)

And this brings me back to Vietnam.

I arrived in Vietnam to teach English in August of 1994, just a few months after the US lifted the trade embargo against Hanoi. That was 19 years after the fall of Saigon. Thirty years after LBJ ramped up US involvement in the Vietnam War. In 1994, Vietnam was dirt poor. A GDP of barely a $1000 per capita. I arrived in Haiphong, a city near the coast due east of the capital, and everyone I met worked hard to make ends meet. There were very few foreign products — no Coca-Cola besides an occasional flat bottle brought in from China. Westerners were still referred to as “Lien Xo” – Soviets, because since 1979 nearly any expat in the country was Russian. I was apprehensive about being there, not completely sure how a young American man would be viewed. But I can’t tell you how many times I saw the faces of the Vietnamese I met light up when they heard I was a “Nguoi My” – an American. They would smile from ear to ear and put their finger in the air and say “America number 1.” I was shocked, actually. And so very welcomed into their community.

Why was America number 1 in their eyes? I came from a country, after all, that spent billions of dollars and many years fighting against the communists in Vietnam. (And remember, I was living in the communist north – no sympathetic Saigonese there.) But America was number 1? Why?

Simple. An enviable economy. America had built themselves into a superpower through decades of innovation and economic achievement. That’s what the Vietnamese people I met those years wanted. They wanted opportunities to work for a better future. They wanted opportunities to have “luxury” items they could never afford. A bicycle. A washing machine. Dare they dream- a motorbike? A reliable food supply. Consumer products like toothpaste and soap and laundry detergent. In 1994, when I arrived, Vietnam was just beginning to awaken from nearly twenty years of a post war economy driven by what? Socialism.

If you visited Vietnam today, you’d hardly recognize it. The country is engulfed by commercialism, entrepreneurship, and dare I say it? Capitalism.

What happened?

Over the first several years of living in Vietnam, I came to learn a phrase which was frequently used, “thoi bao cap.” A literal translation is something like “the time period when the government supplied everything.” That sounds kind of frightening, doesn’t it? This phrase was always, and I mean always, followed by another phrase “ghe lam,” which means “truly miserable.”

As I lived there and delved into their history and listened to their stories, I began to understand how miserable that time really was. Here are a few examples:

  • During “thoi bao cap,” if you happened to be rich enough to own a bicycle, you might be stopped and harassed by the police. Why? Because they would want to know how you had enough money to own a bicycle.  It was that rare. Poverty was the expectation.
  • During “thoi bao cap,” Vietnam did not grow enough rice to feed its own people. There were bouts of famine in the countryside. The government imported low quality grain from eastern Europe to try and make up the difference. Can you imagine a Vietnamese meal without rice? My friends and neighbors didn’t have to imagine. They lived through it, telling me how truly insufferable this grain was. But they had no choice to eat it because there wasn’t enough rice. (My first thought was how in the world could there not be enough rice ? Have you been to Vietnam? Have you seen the expansive rice fields? Hello, what about the Mekong Delta? What’s going on?)
  • During “thoi bao cap” each family would line up and wait for hours to receive their monthly rations from the state run stores. It was referred to as “the brick years” named for the people who would write their names on a brick and place it on the ground to reserve their spot in line at the state stores so they wouldn’t have to stand for hours on end. Of course the stores had no supplies and the amount of food and goods received was extremely paltry. There were no other options. No corner stores. No “pho” stalls on the evening streets. No shops or markets. They lived on the basics of basics.
  • During “thoi bao cap: if a family was lucky enough to raise a few chickens, and if they were lucky enough to slaughter one in order to have a luxurious chicken dinner, they would shut their house up as tight as possible and eat in the back, hoping no one would smell it and then question where the meat came from.

There are many more examples, but I think this illustrates the point of how poor Vietnam was throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.

What changed? Cause this is not the Vietnam you will experience today if you travel there. (And you should.)

The answer is simple. Vietnam slowly allowed elements of capitalism to creep into their economy. Once it starts, good luck stopping it.

Wait a minute. A communist government that allows capitalism? (Have you ever wondered what has made China rich today? It wasn’t their unyielding grasp on Maxist-Leninism.)

Famed North Vietnamese General Nguyen Vo Giap even said that a socialistic society needs capitalism (he said for a time) in order to build its economy. Hmmm, I wonder if the Vietnamese themselves have had enough time. It’s 2018 now. Are they ready to go back to “thoi bao cap?”

And here, to me, is the proof in the pudding. Or the water in the rice paddy.

Both Vietnam and China have followed the same model. Renovation. And when it came to economics, that meant giving the individual more control over their own personal economic activity. Allowing the citizens to innovate and create things which previously didn’t exist. It’s called capitalism, and it has pulled millions of people out of desperate poverty in a relatively short amount of time.

Remember the years when Vietnam couldn’t grow enough rice to feed its citizens? Well, in the 1980s, the government changed their policies. For the first time under their communist government, farmers could keep their own products once they had fulfilled their yearly government quotas. Well, can you guess what happened? The farmers suddenly had incentive to grow more rice and more vegetables and more everything. The surplus could be used to sell in the local markets, to feed local families, to help increase their monthly income. An increased income meant they had money to spend on consumer products which in turn created a market for yet more consumer products. This is capitalism 101. Even working under the strict economic constraints of a socialist government, capitalism proved to be an amazing force to combat poverty.

Capitalism isn’t a cure-all. It has its weaknesses. It has its excesses.  But of all economic systems and theories, what’s better at giving people freedom to achieve their goals and reach their potential? As Milton Friedman said long ago on the Phil Donahue Show:

” … the record of history is absolutely crystal clear, that there is no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by the free-enterprise system.”

So, I’m sorry. I can’t take this thought of “killing capitalism” seriously because the results would be catastrophic.

And that’s my opinion based on my years living in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

What are your thoughts?

 

 

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Did you know this? Happy Fourth of July

Independence day is one of America’s most celebrated and enjoyable days. From picnics to fire works to family fame, it’s hard to beat for summer fun. Here are a few fun facts which you may not have known about July 4.

Did you know?

Our Founding Fathers didn’t declare independence on July 4, 1776.  They declared independence on July 2, 1776.

Then what happened on July 4? The text of the declaration was finally approved by Congress that day.  It wasn’t actually signed until August 2, 1776.

Did you know?

Two of our founding father’s died exactly 50 years to the day of our first independence day – that being July 4, 1826. Do you know who they were? Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. I don’t know who planned that, but that’s pretty cool.

Did you know?

On September 2, 1945, when Ho Chi Minh read Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence from the French, he quoted Jefferson’s America’s declaration “all men are created equal endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights …” as a means of pleasing a group of American observers who were in the crowd that day in Hanoi. As a strange note in history, an American reconnaissance plane was flying over Hanoi during the declaration and swooped down to take a closer look at what was happening. Many in the crowd saw the American plane and cheered, taking it as a show of support for their independence. But no, it was just a coincidence, and after another week, American ships were ferrying French soldiers back into Indochina so they could retake their pre-WWII possessions. But that’s a story of independence for another day.

Did you know?

Thomas Jefferson did not write every single word of the declaration. Certain parts were slightly edited by other founders who wanted to tweak it this way or that. An example of this is the phrase “endowed by their Creator,” a phrase not in the original text but added anyways much to the chagrin of Jefferson.

Did you know?

The Statue of Liberty was gifted to the United States by France in 1876 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of our independence.

Have you read the declaration lately? You should. It’s a clear indication of what our Founding Father’s thought our new country should be all about.

Enjoy the freedom and independence we enjoy because these brave men and many other brave men and women through the years who fought to preserve it. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Reagan quotes:

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

Happy Independence Day everyone!

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Living Without Reeses, Corn Chex, and Swedish Fish (no more)

When I lived in Vietnam, back in the meager years after the U.S. lifted its embargo in 1994, I would, on occasion, have my neck snap while doing a double-take as I noticed an orange-colored package at a small shop. It was the Halloween orange, possibly better known as the Reeses’ orange, the type of orange that makes one’s mouth water with chocolate and peanut butter forlorn dreams for the luscious treats I missed so much. Every time, I mean every time, the turn of my neck meant nothing. It was a pumpkin-colored red herring – nothing more than a local treat which included no chocolate and no peanut butter.

I lived in Vietnam for ten years and NEVER once saw a Reeses product, forced to stock up on summer break.

And it wasn’t confined to Reeses. When I arrived in Vietnam is was still B.C. — before Coke. When we had our mid-year trip to Thailand, we would gorge on all the treats we couldn’t get there — McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen, and the like of which my insides will never forgive me.

When we moved to Malaysia, it all felt so easy. All the fast food that wasn’t in Vietnam was readily available. The amount of available western products rose exponentially, except for those particular items like Reeses, Corn Chex, and Swedish Fish.

In the last couple years of my time in Malaysia, Reeses started showing up in stores on occasion. I remember seeing the orange package one day but scoffed at the idea, not willing to be fooled into believing the impossible. But as I came closer, sure enough, Reeses Peanut Butter cups. I inconspicuously swatted the entire stack into my cart. I had them all! And that became the problem. I think other expats would buy out the stack every time a small shipment would arrive. Of course, the store wouldn’t buy more. Who are they to want to make a bigger profit.

But in all my years in Malaysia, they still never had Corn Chex or Swedish Fish.

Well, now I live in Saudia Arabia, among the Reeses, Corn Chex, and Swedish Fish. All the simple pleasures. All the forgotten delicacies are forgotten no longer. I’m living in the land of milk and honey. The land of plenty. The land of too much. Long gone are the days of scrounging the shelves for any special treats from my childhood.

Now that I can have them, anytime I want, I find that I don’t buy them.  I find the old wisdom to be true: the less you have of something, the more you will appreciate it.

Ohhhh, the good old days, when Reeses, Corn Chex, and Swedish fish guarded the lore-ridden gate of the mythical Xanadu. Now they live on my grocer’s shelves. How mundane!

Are you prepared to go unexpected places?

You know how it goes: “If someone told me 10 years ago that I would be such and such, I wouldn’t have believed them in a million years.”

I know the feeling. Very well. This notion of unexpected outcomes came to the forefront of my mind this week because I found myself saying that above line nearly verbatim. Mine goes like this:

“In 2002, if someone told me that in fifteen years that I would be a drama teacher in Saudi Arabia, I wouldn’t have believed them in a million years. I would have thought they were experiencing severe mental delusions.”

You see, in 2002, I was living in Vietnam, teaching English at the college level to Vietnamese students studying to be English teachers. I was a frustrated, wannabee, writer who never wrote. I was immersed in Vietnamese culture and language, and I had even contemplated (for a few seconds) going on for a PHD in Vietnamese history. I had never acted in my life. I had never been involved in any drama productions. The extent of my dramatic experiences involved writing a play which I read to my mother when I was twelve, and writing a couple small skits which were performed in some low-key settings. Oh, I did act as Forrest Gump in a skit, so I take that acting bit back.

But I had nothing in my background that would have indicated that I was destined to be a drama teacher.

And I had nothing in my background that indicated that I would ever end up in Saudi Arabia.

So therefore, the combination of those two–teaching drama in Saudi Arabia–would have seemed too implausible to even ponder.

However, as I sit in Jeddah on the heels of my first week of teaching theatre at the American school, I am quite taken back at the loops and rabbit-chasing trails my life has gone down in the past fifteen years in order to arrive at this point. And to think it all happened because that frustrated writer sitting in Vietnam became inspired by a group of students in Malaysia.

I’ve told this story before, but I still like it. I moved to Malaysia in 2006 to teach history. (Yes, that’s a whole different story of how I suddenly switched from English to history!) As the drama director at the school was leaving, I volunteered to start a drama-writing group where I would collaborate with a group of students and we would write and produce a play for the next school year.

That was the genesis of it all. The interesting point in my mind is this: what was the impetus for me wanting to write and produce a drama with students? I don’t actually know the answer to this. It’s something that just popped in my mind, and instead of dismissing it, which I can’t believe I didn’t, I embraced and proposed it to the school. That was the crucial moment. For some reason, I stepped in to try something that I had never tried before. If I had not jumped in at that moment, I am fairly certain I wouldn’t be teaching drama in Saudi Arabia. If I had not jumped in, someone else would have eventually filled the drama void at our school and I would have sat in the audience enjoying the shows, never fully understanding how much I loved theatre.

I know now that I wasn’t meant to observe theatre. I was meant to create it, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

The only advice I have as I look back on my journey is that if you get an itch or an urge that you should jump in and try something, don’t delay. You never know where it might lead you. It could make you change careers in mid-stream and send you to far off lands to do things you never would have imagined but now couldn’t ever live without.

Where might you be in 15 years? I hope the answer surprises you.

Great Hanoi (& Haiphong) Rat Massacre

I ran across this fascinating article a while back which I wanted to share. It’s about the great Hanoi rat massacre during the time of French colonialism. I don’t want to spoil the entire article because it’s a great read, but the crux of it gets to the amazing entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese people. The French colonial administration wanted to address the growing rat population within the underground sewer systems of Hanoi. The modern sewer system was meant to civilize things in the capital of Tonkin, their crown jewel of a colony. But the idea of increasing sanitation backfired when the rats soon discovered that the drains and sewers were perfect places to live, thrive, and have baby rats. The rat infestation became unbearable until the French administration came up with a brilliant idea: pay Hanoi residents for dead rats. This sent a rash of rat hunters into the sewers in search of the critters. They only had to turn in the rat tails. The French had no desire to have to deal with actual rat bodies. So each tail turned in would yield a monetary reward. But the clever Vietnamese saw an opportunity. Killing the rats would actually diminish their ability to make money off of killing rats. So what was the solution? Simple and brilliant. Cut off the tails, turn them in, but don’t kill the rats. Soon the city was infested with tail-less rats who could still reproduce to have more rats. This was French planning at its worse. Read the entire article at the link:

Great Hanoi Rat Massacre

I can’t think about rats in Vietnam without remembering what our team-teaching colleague did for us during our third year teaching in Haiphong in 1997. My second daughter was just born in a hospital in Thailand. We spent six weeks there preparing for the baby’s arrival. We lived in a small shared apartment at the Maritime University with our teammate, Joe. The living quarters were Spartan, to say the least. Actually, they were not very nice in accordance with western standards, but we did our best to make it a home for us. Joe also had been in Thailand for a conference, and he headed home first before our return with our newborn child. When he arrived and entered the kitchen, it was as if a war zone had manifested itself in our living space. Trash and chewed-up food stuff was scattered all over. Tupperware and storage containers had been chewed through. Rat poop was all over the place. The citadel had fallen. The rats had taken over.

But Joe, being the incredible guy that he was, wasn’t going to allow the place to be infested with rodents with our newborn baby on the way. He got to work. He set traps. He laid down poison. He physically beat rats, chasing them with a stick. All in all, he killed nine of them in our kitchen, if my memory serves me correctly. He threw out all infested items and bleached and cleaned the dingy tile until it was about as clean as it was ever going to get. We arrived home to a spic-n-span apartment. A sterile and safe place for our child. When he told the tale of what had happened, we knew that the great rat massacre of 1997 had occurred, and we were blessed to have such a caring teammate to live with.

Thank you, Joe. And thanks also for not saving the tails for me.

What’s the Future of Complication Like?

I’ve been thinking about my recent blog post The Good Old Less Complicated Days and started wondering about my kids: will they look back upon the 2010s as the “Good Old Less Complicated Days?”

The premise of my post was this: our modern world has become so complicated that I sometimes wonder if life before gadgets and computers was actually better. At the very least, I wish we could visit the past every once in a while, but honestly, I’m too addicted to my technology. Grrrr. At least I admit it.

What prompted such nostalgia was a weekend of doing taxes, college admission documents, Obamacare health issues, and documents for my new job. It was all overwhelmingly complicated and I started to think if this is the kind of society we really wanted to create.

But what really got my noggin exploding was the possible thought that my kids, some thirty years in the future, might look back at the 2010s and wish for “The Good Old Less Complicated Days?”

Will they wish for the tax code of 2017?  Will they long for the student loan and FAFSA processes of today?  Will they wax fondling about Obamacare’s easy navigation compared to what President 2047 institutes?  Will they harbor longings of love and fond feelings for the bureaucratic red tape of the Obama and Trump years?

Seriously. Computers and gadgets are supposed to make our lives easier, but I’m not sure it’s working out so well.

My solace is that my kids have actually experienced simple life at its finest. They all grew up for a good part of their childhood in Vietnam.  This is the Vietnam before shopping malls and cell phones and Internet. My kids road bikes, played rubber band games with their neighbor friends, played Vietnamese hopscotch, and walked out into the evening street to eat snails with their classmates. They didn’t once post a snail picture for Instagram. The Vietnam they grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s was indeed analogous to my own childhood. Not that anything between the two were remotely alike, but they were simple. And my kids are better for it. I’m sure of it.

But one day I might have grand kids. Oh my, those poor people.

I’ll leave you with a couple photos of my kids in Vietnam. And yes, I get the irony of this post.

neighborhood-kids

My kids with their adorable friends. Life was simpler then.

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Need further proof? Our street had water buffalo!  Yes, actual water buffalo! Life was simple. (That was our house on the left.)

My Life is Marked by Lychee Season

It strikes me every year. And I’m always surprised at how fast it comes and how it doesn’t feel like another year has passed. Without warning, one day, I see this.

lychee

Lychees are in season once a year, starting in mid-May and running through early June. They are grown in sub-tropical climates. I became accustomed to lychees when living in Northern Vietnam. Hai Duong, halfway between Hanoi and the coastal city of Haiphong, if famous for their lychee orchards. Each late spring, on our trips to Hanoi, we would stop in Hai Duong and buy the delectable fruit.

They have a hard outer, colorful shell that pops off with a little prying with the fingernail. The white fleshy inside is sweet and wonderful, with a large pit in the middle. We used to play the game of who can find the lychee with the smallest pit. We would eat huge quantities sometimes finding very tiny pits. A special variety of the lychee, highly sought after, are known for their small pits. That means more wonderfully sweet fruit flesh to enjoy.

Fresh lychee is up pretty high on my list of favorite fruits. But I only get them once a year, so they are special, and they mark the year in pronounced ways.

Lychees mean the school year is closing and summer is around the corner. It’s also a sobering reminder of how fast one year really goes.

Lychees, thanks for the reminders and the good eats. I’ll miss you when I’m no longer in Asia.