It is a long trip to Southeast Asia from Boston, 20 hours of flying time, but surprisingly, the time passes quickly. I alternate between sleeping and reading a history of Vietnamese culture in anticipation of the four weeks when I will be teaching in the Global Leadership program within our Northeastern partnership with Vietnam International University. The Vietnam Airlines flight attendants are dressed in stunning, elegant long Asian gowns over wide silk pants. The outfit is called Ao Dai, and after one week in Ho Chi Minh City, I will enlist an expert seamstress to custom make for me this traditional Vietnamese dress in all of one day.
I have pursued a transnational teaching assignment because after 30 years, my field of higher education management and leadership has become global. I view it as a professional need for me to experience what that really means. Like many of our students, I will leave the familiar comforts of home to open myself to a new learning experience. I realize the importance of being comfortable with discomfort. Being global becomes my new mantra.
My first impressions of Ho Chi Minh City are of chaos, pollution and still-present pockets of poverty. The contrast on each street is so jarring: the trendy new versus the decrepit old. People in the street are wearing masks to protect themselves from the smog and the blistering sun.
Along the avenues, small shacks lean next to glittering hotels. There are more developed areas in the city’s District One, and a strong French influence gives the city an edgy charm. Some times I hear this area called “Little Paris,” built before the French left in 1945— ornate, flamboyant and colorful facades of the Colonial design period. The Opera House and Notre Dame Cathedral resemble frosted and decorated cakes standing next to the glass and steel towers that have now emerged, symbols of a movement toward a new market economy called Doi Moi, initiated in the 1986 economic reforms. The presence of the classical monuments and promenades is a reminder of rich, cultural collisions. That is a theme in the literature I have read of ongoing cultural conflict around the old and the new, the colonists and the natives, since ancient times, even more evident since the 1930s. Over all, though, this is a picture of the New Asia one with heavy influences from cultures around the world, but uniquely its own.
Millions of scooters swarm the city streets without any traffic coherence. At first, I don’t notice many traffic lanes, lights or crosswalks. Eventually I find them, but only on the busiest roadways. I have to learn how to cross the street, fearlessly with my arm outstretched like a native, and trust that the scooters will not run me over. I have a regular taxi driver named Mr. Phuong. He becomes a trusted companion, taking me back and forth to class each evening. He teaches me Vietnamese phrases and I help him with his English skills.
I can’t help calling this place “Saigon,” which is what it will always be to people in my generation. It’s jarring to be here after the history, after a childhood of living with the Vietnam War, a monumental event in my growing up years. The war started the year I was born and ended the year I finished college and was first married. I think about all the American soldiers who died here, kids I went to high school with, and other people I know who came here and survived. The war is so controversial, then and now. Thus is the value of this kind of journey. Understanding in a much deeper way, not just intellectually; it is more kinesthetic.
The students are hardworking professionals, some running their own businesses, some are government workers; others work in small start-up companies or large multi-national corporations. I have come to know them already as they have studied for several weeks online before my arrival. They are warm, personable and welcoming. At the end of our first class meeting, they applaud and say “Welcome to Vietnam, Dr. Nancy.” They take photographs constantly with their iPhones even during class, although I am entirely unaware of it until they share them later on. My goal is to foster an understanding of theoretical frameworks for ethical decision-making, and apply those frameworks to their daily work and also to team projects. In those projects, we explore ethical issues within topics of media, genetics and the Ebola crisis, topics that transcend their daily understandings of business life. Teaching a topic like ethics is a challenging proposition in a Communist country. Confrontation of ideas and norms is not as common as it is in American higher education. In short time, these students become endearing companions in an exploration of personal meaning. How we choose to live our lives within environments of constraint; how we approach universal ethical concerns about the human experience—these are concepts that transcend time and place. We become part of a new world of global connections and friendships. At the end of our last class, they take me out to dinner to celebrate. Our second course in Organizational Culture continues into the late Fall. I meet with them on Blackboard Collaborate. It is the wee hours of dawn for me and evening for them in the Indochina time zone, but I am happy to see them. They gather after work often in pairs in small rooms in small villages where they live outside the district of the campus. Technology enables us to continue our good work together. We complete our courses by New Year’s. We stay in touch on Facebook now. In May, some of the students in this class will graduate and make the long journey to Boston to attend graduation to be awarded their Master’s degree. I will have them over for dinner.