Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Power of Doing Nothing

I left my last job on 14th August 2019 and am still on a break. While I was backpacking in Vietnam after my transition, it was interesting to observe how so many travelers took long sabbaticals (often between 3 months to a year)  from work but Indians formed a minuscule percentage of these. What was not surprising was the reactions I received from other Indians - 

  • How did you get this much time off from work? 
  • Are you not worried about not having a job offer in hand? 
  • How did your wife allow you to travel solo on a long holiday? 
  • Why do you need three months to reflect? 
  • Why did you leave your last job if you were happy with the work?

Honestly, when I quit my job, I had no clue what I was going to do with the break. I had a sense that I had hit a learning edge. I knew my vision for my contribution to the world had evolved beyond the boundaries of my current role. I didn't know exactly what it was. I didn't even know if the break would lead to anything meaningful emerging from it. All I knew was that I wanted to just be. 

I wanted to be in the company of myself. I wanted to create experiences that helped me discover something new about the world and myself. I wanted to get back to everything that energized me - photography, writing, reading, history, meeting interesting people, generative dialogues, etc. I didn't want to have a three-month plan of action. I wanted to go with the flow. Something told me I would know when I am ready. 

Fast-forwarding to the present, I have spent the last two and a half months doing many interesting things. I have traveled across the length of Vietnam over three weeks. I have completed (almost) a foundational course on TheoryU: Leading from an Emerging Future, and in the process, found a global community of changemakers operating with empathy and openness for the world. I have learned a bit more about societal platforms.  I have explored the Social Impact Landscape in the Region, meeting many influencers and engaging in the work of some of their organizations. Most importantly, I have reconnected with friends, my students from the Fellowship and my family. In addition, I have done a bit of photography, writing, reading and supporting stray animals in distress.
The good thing about not having clear objectives is that I have operated with an open mind and heart. I have been like a sponge soaking everything in. Not having anything to do means that once you gain new experiences, ideas, and insights, you have to stay with them and let them simmer. After you do this, you sense different thoughts and feelings emerge. These become the map to your next activity. 

Eventually, patterns start forming across these thoughts and feelings, building more conviction about a particular direction. Sometimes, the emerging patterns are in conflict. Then again, the time that you have on your hands helps you discern the truth from the voices in your head. You begin to resolve the false contradictions that you are holding. 

To illustrate with an example,  I met many people to learn more about their work on my return. I left every conversation with recommendations for who else to meet, what else to read and what questions to explore. I kept sleeping over conversations and reflecting on which conversations energized me most, eventually following the recommendations that those people left me with. In the process, the direction that initially seemed vague became clearer. Sometimes this vision seemed in contradiction with my financial goals.  I again made that struggle visible in these conversations and I found the right questions (eg.What do I actually need?) and right answers (eg. offers to help). 

I think a few key principles were at play:
1) Follow what energizes you: Fundamentally, what energizes you is a reflection of your deepest values and vision. While it is often hard to nuance the values and vision, it easier to sense the energy. 
2) Outrospection and Introspection: I often sense people get lost in one of the two approaches and then are unable to move forward. Listening to the world and listening to your self is equally important to break the status quo. 
3) Delay defining a direction:  Not defining a direction in a rush and holding that tension was crucial in helping me keep an open mind and heart throughout. With constant reflection, you will see many more paths open up and eventually know when you are ready to decide and commit to one.
4) Listen to your listening: We need to move from downloading what we already know to a deeper state of connection with people where we let go of prior assumptions and biases. While I was able to do this deep listening only 10-20% of the time, this was the time when the most useful ideas were generated. Furthermore, I was at least able to consistently operate with greater empathy for people, including myself.
5) The Universe is driven to help you succeed: At any stage, it is important to assume that everyone you interact with is coming from a place of kindness and support. This assumption has been key in pushing me to be vulnerable and reach out, which in turn, has led me to the many answers that I have today that I didn't three months ago. 

To conclude, I feel this pause from everything has left me a lot richer in my awareness of my self and my interactions with the world. It has also created a force field of energy that is fueling my new-found conviction.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Through the Eye of a Needle

Had Cleo been alive today, she would have been four years old. She would have been eating a special meal of freshly cooked chicken or fish. She would have been forced to wear all kinds of fun accessories, much to her dismay. She would have had tonnes of photos clicked for the sake of our memories with her. She would have visits from people who have parented her. After all, she was the Queen kitty in our lives.

The Queen for a reason

However, Cleo is no longer with us in physical form. She passed away three months ago, after fighting courageously a battle that she could not win against lily toxicity. I will never forget the day she passed away. It is the saddest day of my life. 

It is not the saddest because of her death. Everyone dies when their time comes. It was sad because it was not her time. She was a healthy, happy, playful cat. She had never been to a vet for any illness, not even fleas. She didn't deserve the cards of death that were dealt to her. She didn't deserve the pain or suffering. However, even in her death, she taught me valuable lessons.

Here rests Cleo in peace

While we were headed to Whispering Meadows to bury her, I was thinking about all my moments with her. How she would give us 30 seconds of love when we returned from home, but then go back to grooming herself. How she would hide under the bed when we met strangers, maintaining her distance.  How she would play ferociously with ribbons, balls, sticks and sometimes, my feet. How she would forget about us after a few days in a new setting.

In the moments we were burying her, the only thoughts that stayed with me are how I could be fully present in the moment, how I could learn to let go, and how I could embrace the future that was presented in front of me. In this future, there had to be ways to keep Cleo alive. 

Yes, Cleo was a dear pet, but Cleo was many things else. I will share a few examples. 

She, like my students from Ja'fari, reminded me of the value of the unconditional love and kindness that those without a voice need. She is probably the only reason all of us who loved her have adopted other cats. I also began to observe other animals on the street, identifying and helping the ones that are in need. Pallavi and I have now helped rescue and find a home for a dog and a cat. 

Mouse lives with our friends and Cleo's moms - Akanksha and Ishita

Cleo was the reason I found a new community of friends, people who I would have otherwise barely known. Cats (and dogs) became our common ground. Through our love for animals, I built empathy for people who were very different from me. As we listened to each others' stories, we received further encouragement for doing more good to more animals, including our own.

Tuffy was abandoned by his mother, but rescued by my neighbor, Sumathi and us

Playing with Cleo taught me to put my cell phone away and be fully present in a moment, feeling attentiveness, joy and the thrill of adventure. I still make it a point to do this for some part of the day, even though my cat, Kovu doesn't play with that much enthusiasm. 
Kovu - The Calm and Friendly One

Cleo's death was like passing through the eye of the needle. At some stage, you feel like you can't move on. At another, you realize you must. In the process, you must let go of all the unnecessary baggage so that you can pass through it. For instance, it means being okay with not being able to run your fingers through her soft and smooth fur and not being able to look into her beautiful dark eyes with the yellow borders. In the process of letting go, you find greater meaning and see a field of new possibilities emerge - of love, of kindness, of friendship, of mindfulness - of being more humane. 

Cleo was not just a cat, but an inspiration

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Vietnam Diaries (Day 19 and 20): Vietnam through my Lens

It is my last day in Vietnam. I am feeling many things - content at having experienced the country and its people, slowly and holistically; accomplished now that my first long solo trip is coming to an end; excited to be back home with family, especially with my cat Kovu; relaxed having had time away from everything - both personal and professional; reconnected with my hobbies of photography and writing and through them, my self; and a bit nervous at the prospects of having to find and resume work again.

I don't have much planned for today, except seeing the sunset in the city. Instead of blogging on the day, I thought I will just rewind this whirlwind 20-day trip over the next two days. To do this, I have chosen one photograph for each day (not necessarily clicked on the same day). I will tell you the story behind these photographs through that, help you learn a little more about Vietnam. 

These photographs are in chronological order and not ranked in any other way - it'll break my heart to do that. However, I have only chosen ones that capture moments that are important in the context of Vietnam and my trip.

Through this post, I conclude my series on Vietnam and resume the adventure of every-day life in India. 

#1: A Sunset at Long Biên Bridge, Hanoi
#1: Long Bien Bridge: 
This bridge was the first one built across the Red River that connects two districts of Hanoi, carrying railway and vehicular traffic. When it was built, it was one of the largest bridges in Asia. Under it is one of Hanoi's biggest night markets as well as the residence of many poor people who live on just boats (not captured in this photograph). Above it, is the beautiful sunset, its rays piercing through its old structure. Historically, this bridge was a prime target for the American troops to disable the North Vietnamese forces during the war. It is so old and dilapidated now that four-wheelers are no longer allowed on the bridge. 

To me, the bridge symbolizes a link to the past for Hanoi as well as its resilience as a city. 

#2: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hanoi
#2: Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
This is one of the grander buildings preserved in the political center of Hanoi, located next to the Ho Chi Minh Memorial, The Assembly, The Presidential Palace, and many National Consulate Offices. Hanoi has competed with Saigon for significance over the centuries, under the Chinese, French, Communist-Vietnamese rules. While the Old World War II Allies supporting the US played a huge role in starting the war, many other allies played a key role in building international pressure on the Americans to stop it, thus, the importance of foreign affairs itself.

This guard standing in attention position to me symbolizes the deference with which the people operate for the rule, which in itself is absolute, autocratic and preferential. However, it is nowhere close compared to the Chinese State. 

#3: Christina and Carlos as we visit the Surprising Caves

#3: Christina and Carlos as we visit the 'Surprising' Caves
Tourism forms a key source of income in the Vietnamese economy, and thus, most of Vietnam treats its tourists well. Jobs are far and few outside the trade centers and most people are engaged in primary occupations like farming, animal husbandry, logging, etc, in those areas, if not tourism. 

Christina is Spanish settled in Belgium and Carlos, a Venezuelan now settled in Spain. I spent some time with them on the overnight trip to Ha Long as well as later in Hanoi when I was there for a day. Both of them became best friends while writing their Ph.D. thesis in Barcelona, but on first impressions seemed as different as chalk and cheese. Carlos now fears to return back to Venezuela given the ongoing Civil War and finds refuge in his home away from home, that is Barcelona, thanks to friends like Christina who have welcomed and embraced him.

I thought this picture not only symbolizes the importance of tourism but friendship in times of strife.

#4: The Pearl Farm in the backdrop of an incredible sight at Ha Long Bay
4) The Pearl Farm in the backdrop of an incredible sight at Ha Long Bay
Legend has it that Ha Long Bay was a result of a large mother dragon descending on Earth, spewing pearls instead of fire (yes, Chinese Dragons are much more versatile than the ones in Hollywood).  The name Ha Long itself means Descending Dragon. As you view the sight, you can imagine the dragon scales rising through the water. In reality, these islets are a UNESCO Natural Wonder of the World, formed over three-million years of work by water on the limestone cliffs.

To me, this picture symbolizes the folklore that man creates to bring people together and more importantly, make a good sale!! To put a pearl farm in the middle of the bay is an ultimate example of money being the ultimate God. 

5) The Sunrise at Ha Long
5) The Sunrise at Ha Long
This was one of the few sunrises I saw in Vietnam, willingly waking up for it. Unlike India, it happens at 5AM here and takes a lot of commitment to get out of the bed and reach a place where you can find the view. Given I was on a boat in the middle of the sea, the effort seemed minimum and the view seemed fabulous. 

Living in cities, this picture made me wonder about the lack of large, public, open spaces which are accessible to man but unspoiled by him. Even the waters in Ha Long were peppered with many junk boats carrying dozens of tourists, seen in the form of the tiny lights in the foreground. How long before Ha Long is no longer the beauty it is? 


6) A Bamboo Store in the Old Quarters

6) A Bamboo Store in the Old Quarters
In the Old Quarters, each street is named after a skill that was practiced during the previous centuries, until of course, the tourist boom replaced many of these stores with restaurants, cafes, and bars. In the mid-19th Century, Bamboo poles were sold in the Hang Tre Street to be used by craftsmen at the Hang Be Street to make rafts to wade through the shallow waters around the city. 

Luckily, I found a store that still sold Bamboo poles on the same street. It was a reminder that not all things ancient, are forgotten. The lady reading the newspaper symbolized the afternoon rest, that seemed to be a common habit in Vietnam. Till as late as 2017, museums in Hanoi and HCMC used to close between 11:00 to 1:30 PM for a siesta!! 

7) A Lady Street-Vendor in Hanoi
7) A Lady Street-Vendor in Hanoi
The women of Vietnam paid a terrible price for the family - fathers, husbands, sons - that they lost during the wars. Often many ended up with no pensions at all, or pensions as little as 700 dongs (equivalent to a penny in those times) a month. They were forced to migrate to cities where they could find work. Many joined the army to fight the war and support the troops. Some got lucky and ended up trading or being domestic works, but others were also fooled and forced into flesh trade. In the modern-day, many women still lead difficult lives, often living with 10 -12 other women in a room, sometimes earning as little as $10 a month. The Vietnamese Women's Museum as well as the book "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places" captured many such stories that symbolize the strength of these women. 

This picture captures one such story. Her dressing is a typical worker dress seen in the country. Her face is hidden by a traditional sunhat, which means she could be any woman. The burden she carries symbolizes the burden of supporting herself and the dependents on her. Despite the burden, she has to walk the difficult path, every single day, from dawn to dusk.

8) Tien Son Cave in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park

8) Tien Son Cave in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is another Natural Wonder of Vietnam, with hundreds of naturally formed caves. It lies close to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which, in CIA's own confessions, is said to be one of the most superior and resilient military logistics routes ever. Despite the intense bombings that the American forces subjected the area to, often destroying its entire vegetation using Napalm fires, they were never able to stop the Viet Cong. The locals used the elaborate network of river beds and natural caves as hospitals, stores as well as supply routes shielded from the bombing. The problem with the terrain having watery mud and rice paddies was that the bombs never hit anything hard enough to explode, and thus, they still accidentally take lives of locals in the region.  [Click here if you want to read more]

The picture shows light at the end of the tunnel, or cave in this situation. At the end is a thick cover of green protecting the mouth of the cave. It is a reminder of the protection our planet naturally offers our species. At the same time, it is also a symbol of hope for the people who have suffered the effects and after-effects of the war for many years.

9) Children enjoying a cycle ride in Phong Nha Village
9) Children enjoying a cycle ride in Phong Nha Village
On the day I cycled 23 KMs to Bong Lai Valley from Phong Nha, I saw many children enjoy a cycle ride on this road by the river. In sharp contrast to the children who were born and lived with great difficulty (if they made it so far) during the war, these young Vietnamese have the opportunity to enjoy the small joys of childhood. 

These children symbolize the hope there is for the future generations of Vietnam.  Vietnam today is one of Asia's fastest-growing economy and like these children, races ahead on the path of economic change. 

10) The Road to Bong Lai Valley
10) The Road to Bong Lai Valley

Having never cycled long distance before, I completed this journey to Bong Lai Valley from Phong Nha Centre.  Unlike the cities, rural Vietnam is incredibly clean. There was no patch with litter, no plastic waste that was visible, which left the setting uncorrupted. There was no man in sight in many stretches. The rural scenery along the path made me feel calm. 

Personally, the path in many ways reflects the road ahead for me.  I am sure it'll be full of twists and turns and ups and downs, but that is where I will grow and discover new sides of me. All it will take is courage and an open mind. 

11) The Ben Hai River Crossing
11) The Ben Hai River Crossing
Sitting on the 17th Parallel, the Ben Hai River became a convenient point for the country to be split, because it is where Vietnam is the narrowest in terms of spread. The Bridge itself was coloured differently for the part that belongs to the North and the part that belonged to the South. The flag post was built and rebuilt many times to make sure it exceeded the flag on the other side. 

This region saw some of the heaviest fightings during the war. The Americans tried their best to prevent people and goods from crossing over the border, but the Vietnamese were ingenious in their use of a sophisticated network of manmade tunnels to ensure their survival. 

Walking this bridge in those days would have meant courting sure-shot trouble, even death. However, I was able to walk it as a free man. It reflects my privilege of free movement within and across countries today that I so often take for granted. 

12) The Sunset over the Perfume River in Hue
12) The Sunset over the Perfume River in Hue
They say 'to know a city is to walk its bridges' and this, like the Long Bein Bridge, is another architectural creation that has seen a lot. This is a sunset in Hue with the Perfume River and the Truong Tien Bridge in the foreground. The name means 'mint-factory', given the bridge was built right next to one. This bridge has been destroyed and rebuilt over three different wars. However, today, it offers inspirations for artists and photographers, with many girls wearing the traditional Ao Dai taking pictures on the bridge. In my ways, the Bridge symbolizes Vietnam's costly and hard-earned peace after over a century of wars.

To me, this picture also was reflective of my return to watching sunsets and sunrises. I saw one in every single city I visited and found them to be extremely energizing. Like writing and photography, this is something I want to continue finding time for. 

13) The Royal Theatre in Imperial City
13) The Royal Theatre in Imperial City
I had so far heard the word "Imperial City" only in movies until I visited one in the town of Hue. This is a photograph of its Royal Theatre. The home of the Nguyen Dynasty that ruled Vietnam from the mid-16th Century till the arrival of the French. Like the bridge, this elaborate complex, made of palaces, great halls, temples, residences, etc was largely destroyed due to the wars of the 19th-20th Century. However, unlike in India, the Vietnamese state has spent money restoring and preserving this complex, part by part. Yes, the foreign visitor's fees are expensive, but when it is a job well done, the fees are worth paying. 

Personally, I visited this complex on a rainy day, given it was the only day I had in the town. My own travel despite the rain in many ways reflected the continuity and resilience that the subject of this picture reflects. 

14) Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation
14) Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation
Hoi An used to be an ancient trading port used from the 16th to 19th Century. Different communities of shippers and traders from across the world had made Hoi An there home. These assembly halls were where people from one community would come together to socialize and to practice some of the traditions, making it a home away from home. This one was one of the five that was built by the Chinese, by the Fujian Chinese Community. It now functions as a temple.

The picture shot as a panorama captures the architectural structure against the blue skies. Unlike most other pagodas I visited, it seemed to lack symmetry as a whole complex. The individual components (like the pink gate) of the complex were still symmetrical. Also, the choice of colors was very distinct from the ones I typically saw in Vietnam, reflecting this site's distinct roots. 

I wonder what it'll take for the modern nations to allow diversity to co-exist and heritage, with contrasts, to be preserved especially in a world where majoritarianism is taking over and the push is towards driving more singular narratives about identity and national pride. 

15) The Lanterns of Hoi An
15) The Lanterns of Hoi An
Hoi An has been preserved in its original state and layout thanks to the river that flowed in getting silted and being rendered useless for large vessels. The town is famous for its street market that is usually lit by these traditional lanterns. With its pastel yellow walls and the tungsten lighting, the town looks even prettier by the night. However, I felt that the thriving tourism here has taken away much of its old-world charm, with me finding it hard to find a moment for myself without being interrupted. 

The girl in this picture was reviewing the photographs clicked by her friend against the backdrop of these lanterns, like the many tourists finding the perfect shot. I also think the back-lit image leaves you with a sense of mystery of what lies ahead. It is similar to Hoi An where the new and old are clashing,  leaving you guessing what lies ahead for the town's identity.

16) A fisherman casting his net in the Cam Thanh Fishing Village
16) A fisherman casting his net in the Cam Thanh Fishing Village
Most of Vietnam practices primary occupations, with fishing being one of them. Anyone who has seen Vietnamese street food would know why fishing is big here, given the extremely huge variety of options available to suit your palette. 

In this picture, a fisherman wearing a sunhat is casting his net in the backwaters. However, he is not doing it to catch fish, but to demonstrate the process of casting the net to tourists like me. He repeats the action thrice in a span of 15 minutes for people to see. He even offered to let tourists try casting the net out themselves. It allowed me to capture the perfect shot, despite clicking on my phone. Each basket boat rider in return would tip him 7000-10000 dongs, a share of the rider's own profits. 

I was glad the Vietnamese were able to convert some of their traditional practices into marketable, commercial experiences. Income is not easy to come by in Vietnam. It takes a lot of localized, community-based organizing to create authentic experiences that stand out for visitors. It takes much more openness and inclusivity to ensure the profits are shared with everyone contributing to creating the experience.

17) Babies' Day Out on the Da Nang beach 
17) Babies' Day Out on the Da Nang beach 
The only other day I chose to wake up at 5 AM when I did not have a train, bus, flight to catch, was on this morning when I went to Da Nang beach.  It was the Vietnamese Independence Day holiday and the beach was more crowded than  I expected it to be at that hour. Among the many visitors were these twin babies, dressed in white one-piece suits. Their parents had brought them here for a photo-shoot. However, the babies, thanks to their cuteness and size, drew a lot of attention from passerbys, giving the parents little time to actually get the perfect shot. Amidst all the chaos, I was able to find one frame where the babies were undisturbed. 

Every time I see the sea, I am filled with a sense of insignificance. I feel like a speck against the vast expanse of the water and the long horizon. However, I wished I could see what was going on in these babies' untouched brains. Maybe, they'll feel it is just like being in their mom's uterus. Maybe, they'll feel like "It is so much pee". I will never know, but I am glad to have shared this moment with them.

18) The Clear Blues of Nha Trang Beach
18) The Clear Blues of Nha Trang Beach
I spent my last evening in Nha Trang by the beach. It didn't offer a sunset, given it faces east. However, it offered the perfect soft lighting to see the colors of the scene come alive. The blues of the water and the faces of the people enjoying it were crystal clear. Given the waves were a bit rough, I could see how they evoked different reactions in the beach-goers. Some seemed to be enjoying the challenge. Some felt a bit overwhelmed after a rough experience at the hands of a wave. Some others, like me, were just scared and chose to stand out and enjoy the view instead. 

In this picture, I have captured two people in the first two categories - a girl, who was having fun, running to her friend, who was just a bit overwhelmed with the wave that hit her. The former was inviting the later to come back into the waters. All the fun they were having made my resolve to learn swimming even stronger. In the background, you can see the islands that are home to beautiful corals, that I have saved for the next time when I have learned to swim.

19) Locals enjoying a conversation at a cafe at the Saigon book street

19) Locals enjoying a conversation at a cafe at the Saigon book street 
The Nguyễn Văn Bình street was different from the rest of Saigon. It was home to thousands of books - firsthand and secondhand, in English and Vietnamese. It was free of vehicular traffic. It was full of installations, sculptures, and beautifully-designed stores - with plenty of shade from the city's sunshine and insulation from the noise.

In this picture, I have captured a shot of a book-cafe. It shows people either solo, or in twos, threes and even large groups - engrossed in a book or a conversation. There was a quote put up in the background (not seen in the picture) - "Happiness is a cup of coffee and a really good book". I wholly agree. I wonder what it'll take for our generation to get away from our phones and gadgets and get back to real people and good books again. Personally, I want to continue reading books more diligently, like I did on this break.
20) The Morning Rush against a Landmark of History

20) The Morning Rush against a Landmark of History
This is the Hotel Continental, Saigon. It was built in the late 19th century to provide the French, a home-like experience when they visited Vietnam. The heritage hotel has seen eminent guests, like Rabindranath Tagore (an Indian Poet, Artist, Polymath), Jacques Chirac (a French President) and Graham Greene (the author of The Quiet American, who wrote the book here). It has been a rendezvous point where journalists, correspondents, politicians, businessmen came together during the First Indochina War. During the Vietnam-America Wars, the hotel became the base office for some famous magazines like Times and Newsweek. 

The picture captures the hotel in the backdrop of busy Saigon traffic. It, in many ways, reflects a city that is moving forward quickly but yet remembering, through these symbols, where it once came from. 

Personally, I wonder what my own 'Hotel Continental' is - that has stood resolute watching my history with its twist and turns and marked key points on this journey. It is definitely people - not places - that have played this role for me. I am eternally grateful to them for this. It is also my camera that has captured some of these key moments of reflection and enlightenment for me.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Vietnam Diaries (Day 19): Freedom Earned or Lost?

Based on my first impressions, I have seen Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City's Urban Districts) be a stark contrast from all the others I have visited in Vietnam. It beats all the others, including the capital, Hanoi, in terms of the pace (10x) as well as the cost of living. It is also, by far, the most Westernized of the eight cities or towns I have been to, with even your average street peddlers talking to you in broken English, people dressing up in sync with international fashion trends and many of the major global companies having a visible presence here. 

An Unbeatable Pace

All cosmetic factors aside, I have also felt the people are cool and distant, unlike all other cities where I felt welcomed and at home. This might be one of the reasons it is called the Paris of the Orient (I love Paris, but it does not have the warmest people in the world). Given my two days of immersion in local history through museums and reading a memoir of a war survivor, I am wondering why this might be the case. 

Look busy and suave, but keep the stranger at bay

Firstly, Saigon was the capital of French Indochina (including Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) for nearly four decades till 1937. Secondly, Saigon was the capital of the Republic of Vietnam from 1954-1975 after the Geneva Accords, with strong American influence. 

The sheer act of foreign presence in the region has an influence on the people. Being exposed to their ways and culture for decades increases the chances of you, under the right conditions, adopting them. I have found this to be especially true when the own history of the place is an amalgamation of many diverse people. As a corollary, despite having similar exposure to the British, Mumbai and Delhi are far more westernized than Calcutta or Chennai. 
The Erstwhile Cabinet Room, or the REAL seat of power [pre-1975]

During the war with America, many Vietnamese were caught between the Viet Cong, that required the people to demonstrate fealty to them and the American and South Vietnamese troop, who were growing increasingly concerned about Viet Cong's increasing local influence in the region. To avoid unnecessary attention, the lesser that was said and known about someone, the better. 

Le Ly Hayslip captures this beautifully in her memoir "Life in the village had gone from love and distrust of no one to fear and mistrust of everyone, including our neighbors. It was okay to visit your friends and relatives, but if you stayed too long, the cadre leaders were sure to ask you about it later. If you stopped for a ladle of water, they asked why you chose to stop at that particular house." 

You either die a hero or live long enough to become a villain: President Ngo Dinh Diem just became another autocrat replacing a foreign one [pre-1975]
What made it worse for the people of this city was that they were marked using systemic identification and discriminated against by the new Communist government, despite the fact that the reunification required unbiased and equitable rights and opportunities for everyone. For instance, to avail social benefits, the people were required to move to 're-education camps' outside the city. Following the end of the war, according to official and non-official estimates, between 200,000 and 300,000 South Vietnamese were sent to the camps, where many endured torture, starvation, and disease while being forced to perform hard labor. Of course, I explored this more after reading the book on this Wikipedia page, given no public museum will allow the narrative of those government to be tarnished. 

When the government doesn't care about you and systemically acts to take away what was rightfully yours, you'll take all precautions to not become a victim in the system. You'll operate with caution and you'll strictly separate what personal and professional is. If pragmatism requires you to be selfish, then so be it. 


Having led a team, I know that psychological safety is the founding pillar of culture in any team. There is plentiful and compelling research that talks about psychological safety as a first step (see Google Re:Work's research; Simon Sinek's TED Talk or even Patrick Lencioni's book on the Five Dysfunctions of a Team). I have seen it have compounding negating effects where trust is low and compounding positive effects where trust is high in relationships. And trust in individual relationships is built when the environment you create is conducive for it. 

While you can't scale the same research to the level of a country, you can only imagine how much more complex the problem is. You don't see and know the people in power,  unlike your boss. Not just work, but all actions of your life may be under scrutiny. Any set ways of working are reinforced in thousands of big and small ways by other factors and thus, changing them requires changes in all of these factors. To illustrate my point, freedom of speech by itself is of no use when other conditions, like free, fair and inclusive elections don't exist. 

Saigon's Central Post Office is so beautiful that it in itself is a reason to write to someone!

The evolutionary advantage of human beings was to leverage communication to form communities, based on shared symbols, myths, and ideas (like a nation, religion, etc). If we take away the ability to let these ideas evolve through constant, occasionally conflicting dialogue, then our ability to mobilize even larger communities is going to become more and more limited. However, with challenges like climate change and terrorism, it is the need of the hour for the global communities to form and rise.

Returning from my digression back to the people of Saigon, I just want to say that while you appear cool and distant, I understand your reasons. I may have done the same if I were you.

What are you thinking? I cannot read your mind. 

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Vietnam Diaries (Day 18): The Remnants of War

I arrived at my final destination - Ho Chi Minh City. The city has seen many decades of naming and renaming the city and its streets under the influence of the Chinese, French, American-backed Republicans and eventually the Communist regimes. However, despite their best efforts, I don't think it is easy for people to let go of the city's original name Saigon,  as it is more commonly and dearly called, much like Bombay over Mumbai.

I dedicated my first afternoon in the city visiting the War Remnants Museum. Despite being a largely one-sided story shared from only the Vietnamese perspective, the museum was still beautifully curated. It helped visitors experience the horrors of war and witness the loss of humanity in the face of blind aggression for political gains. After the Museum of Murder Jews of Europe in Berlin, I would probably rank this museum my second best experience in historic story-telling.

Disclaimer: Some of the images in the post are graphic and gruesome so please read ahead only if you have mentally prepared yourself for it. 

Effects of War on the Common Folks

The most powerful exhibit in the museum was the photogallery of journalists who specialize in war and combat photography. It was called "Requiem" and clearly, for a reason. Not only is it important to remember the stories captured by these photographs, but also the stories of these photographers. These are 330 photographs from 134 photographers from 11 nations. These 134 photographers were all killed while on assignment during the American-Vietnamese war. Many of the pictures on display were from their final film rolls recovered from various sources, occasionally years after their demise.


Their pictures brought out the trauma of soldiers on all sides - American, Vietnamese, and the six other nations that fought with them. They depicted the suffering of the men, women, and child, those who died and those who survived with lifelong scars the two decades of wars. Even as I was walking through the chronological exhibit, I realized the war went on for so long that journalistic media moved from black & white photography to color videography in this period. 


I think the world owes a great debt to these photographers. It was because of them the truth underlying the government propaganda was exposed to the world. Their stories showed the futility of the war and the tremendous damage it was inflicting on both sides. Their stories helped build momentum in the movement for peace, not just in the world, but even the countries guilty of the aggression. 

Even 50 years after the war, the effect of Agent Orange, a chemical used by the US Army, is visible on the survivors (has passed on for three generations now)

Having seen the dangers of war up close, one would think you would stay as far away from the battle-zone as possible. However, the obligation these journalists exhibited to the truth was exemplary. Reading their stories demonstrated to me what true courage means in the face of adversity. I am sharing an example of one such story below.

The Photograph that featured on the cover of LIFE Magazine

Larry Burrow's reflections on one of his most prominent photographs

Larry's Commitment to the Truth

If these photographers were alive today, I wonder what they would say about the current state of affairs. In the times of Fake News and Alternate Truths, when the world faces urgent, and occasionally life-threatening crises, the role of honest journalism is even more important. While statistics can impact only those who understand them, it is hard-hitting stories that catalyze change across the masses.

The resulting built-up of public pressure on the American Government
Personally, I am committed to testing every report using fact-checking services (like this) as well as supporting honest journalism with paid subscriptions or donations.  It'll be an insult to those who fought for the truth if we let our choices be driven by singular, biased, narratives. 

The Photographers who Dared: Do you have it in you to fight the good fight?