The Stupid Go Volunteer. The Smart Sit Criticizing.

Please do me a favor, before we proceed with this post, by looking at the following picture and delaying your political interpretation. For I promise you that it’s not meant to be politics, that I’m writing here for diacritics and that there will be actually media texts you artists may (dis)like.

Labor is glory

This was an ad I came up with for my Visual Language class. Asked to do a hypothetical print ad campaign, I thought of introducing something about Vietnam. I started with the image of the country’s national flag, which was finally completed by an association with Uncle Ho, one of the most famous Vietnamese and also the person I’d acquainted myself with for the entire eighteen years.

As for that specific yellow component, one in a series of seven pictures whose colors ranged from violet to red, I named it “Labor is glory.” Applying all the basic visual principles—plus a bit of eagerness—I tried to say Uncle Ho and agriculture were not the past; instead, they, with special love for manual work, laid the foundation for and thus rightful transition to Vietnam’s current industry.

Which was decoded in an interestingly different way by my teacher, who wrote the following:

Message decoded

I still find it amusing to read those comments. While I meant “Labor is glory” and that it was something more than survival, he coupled it with “Labor is free” and that it embodied murder. This is understandable though, for my teacher is a real old American and I am a fine young Vietnamese.

I recently saw two, or maybe more, stories in a music video, which is not a result of being Vietnamese and American as such, but of a cohesive whole—me. For a five-minute break, let’s watch it (and pay attention to the rap if you would).

I guess my teacher, if seeing this video, would say that it contains an awful lot of symbolic images, especially the one in which young Vietnamese, all dressed in blue shirts, raise the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union’s flag and another one that represents the Green Summer Campaign, under which students from Vietnamese universities reach out to remote communities and help local people with agricultural work or teach them ABC lessons. The highlight to me, however, is the section where a member of the campaign parodies the famous song We Will Rock You, proudly identifying themselves, “We are we are Green team.”

It’s so postmodern you know.

Or it’s “the cultural logic of late capitalism” you know.

And if you still know, it’s interesting to see how the Youth Union’s members master such an American cultural logic.

I read a while ago that Vietnamese today tend to ignore the weird marriage between capitalism and communism. More explicitly,

Thái độ của tuổi trẻ đối với kinh tế thị trường gắn chặt với mong chờ rằng nhà nước sẽ ra quyết định đúng. Rằng vai trò của giới trẻ là đi theo chứ không phải lãnh đạo, là làm giàu từ kinh tế thị trường nhưng đừng tra vấn các quyết định của lãnh đạo đảng.

[The youth’s attitude towards market economy is closely tied to the hope that the state will make proper decisions. The role of young people is to follow, not to lead, and they’d better find ways to benefit from the market economy instead of questioning the leading party’s decisions.]

(If you speak Vietnamese, please read the full article by Le Si Long on BBC Vietnamese).

Such an attitude doesn’t make much sense, given that at all Vietnamese universities, students have to devote 12% of their study hours to gaining good command of Marxist sciences and Ho Chi Minh thought. In fact, those young men and women won’t bother to discuss the socialist aspects of the music video just mentioned above. Only people like me, those that struggle to understand what their political education (or “moral education” as many teachers would tell us) means, may feel surreal and bitter watching thousands of students get immersed in the Green Summer Campaign.

I’m aware the music video, an excerpt from a film depicting Vietnamese students in rare and beautiful moments of their lives, is a product of the media and thus mediated. Unfortunately, I also know it’s based upon the fact that every year, countless houses, roads and bridges are built by those enthusiastic volunteers. And many more language lessons are distributed, I should add.

They look exactly like my friends, candid young faces, who sneak into the hamlets of the Mekong Delta, every summer.

And what is more, they are the image, just two or so years ago, I thought I would become. I find it very difficult to feel disillusioned altogether with socialism or something of this sort, in which many Vietnamese have succeeded doing once gaining a full understanding of democracy or something of that kind. It’s thus always a mix of love and hate, or better still—nostalgia, when I see those contemporary Vietnamese, yes I mean real Vietnamese, rush into campaigns like the Green Summer one.

I never had formal political education, so I’m not talking about politics. The need to make sense of what my friends are doing and to feel being in touch with them has resulted in several overheard ideas, such as that Marx thinks capitalism is totally irrational to leave everything in the hands of markets. In order to be rational, he would say, we’ve got to plan not only our life but also others’, which non-Marxists have no support for. Thus, if you wish to spare yourself from Marxism, please worry less about Vietnam. If they choose to be stupid, volunteer for the Green Summer Campaign, and hold the Youth Union’s flag, please let them do so. I, however sadly, have chosen to write this post for the smart, the intellectual, and more importantly, the diacritics.

I’m perhaps spoiled or simply naive. Either way, it’s hard to denounce such values as “humble, truthful, and brave,” which is the last (and also my favorite) of the five articles taught by Uncle Ho—the thing I learned from moral education in primary school.

So dear readers, I know most of you are academics, formally or informally, and here I’ll end with a quote originally found on the first diacritic’s facebook profile:

It doesn’t matter which (academic) discipline you are in, just as long as you are ashamed of it.

– Bernard Cohn

(It’s sad the Harvard/APA referencing guide doesn’t teach us how to refer to facebook statuses.)


Vu Thi Quynh Giao is a third-year undergraduate at RMIT Vietnam, studying Public Relations and Advertising on a full scholarship. Her life-time goal is to run an open-education program where everyone can learn from each other and decide on the best way to live. Besides that, she wishes to connect thinkers and doers to help tackle climate change, especially in Vietnam, before it is too late.


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  1. I know Giao through a post-modern message posted on facebook a few years ago. Although I have never taught her (my discipline area is too far from social studies), we exchanged a few books in the past and had some thought-provoking conversations. She is a hard-working girl with a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of discombobulation like many thinking young people. Those who have peace of mind at the age of 20s are the most ignorant minds of the society as they are blind to the problems of the world and they don’t even try to understand what is going around them. At least she has the heart to fight albeit her article reflects all her confusion (not only hers, it is the confusion of Vietnam) and also her fears of being wrong.

    Giao: There is nothing wrong in talking politics and what you wrote it very political. Denying it in the same article won’t work. In fact, being apolitical is another way of pursuing politics by being a conformist so be firm and stand still. Your teacher and some other commentators seem very immature by mixing up Auschwitz with Ho Chi Minh’s reeducation camps. My advice to you is simple. Keep reading wide range of books, articles and keep doing things that can help you have a voice of your own. There is nothing more noble than dreaming a just world for all people. Seeing all the injustice in the world and not feeling obliged to do something is the worst thing for a young person to do. Your teacher should visit the garment factories run by Taiwanese or Korean businessmen just outside HCMC and see how the terrible conditions (I am not talking about low salaries, I am talking about beating, threatening etc…) are ruling the majority of this country. I once heard that workers in Binh Duong had a strike for increasing the cost of their lunch from 5,000 VND to 6,000 VND and they have failed. Your teacher is perhaps living in the bubble of an international university, drinking beer in the lightful district 1 restaurants, walking safely in the pavements of Phu My Hung, may not be aware of the workers who don’t even have a right to strike which is usually a “sine qua non” in many western nations.



  2. Giao:

    I find your article to be very authentic but also quite analytical and intellectually complex, perhaps because it reflects your experience in dealing and resolving with conflicting ideas.

    I always think about what I might be doing right now in Vietnam, if my family hadn’t escape in 1982. I probably would not have the outlook and perspectives that I have now. If I did, it would be in part due to my parents’ teaching and external influences that challenge the things I learned had I went to school in Vietnam. With external influences, there are personal possibilites but there would also be limits to those possibilities.

    Yet in reading your article, I am optimistic that if “youth is the future,” Vietnamese youth in Vietnam such as yourself who has an international education can create a “place” that you’ll find value in being a part of and engaging in.

    I don’t know Bernard Cohn but I do believe that only with “shame” in one’s family, group, class, community, and nation will there be a willingness to examine and deliberate on what is “humble, truthful, and brave.”

    Long Le

  3. I agree that such glory means learned helplessness in many circumstances. Yet I also feel helpless writing papers, throwing parts of myself at a question asked by some random academic and not doing anything for the people who used to be of my great concern. And I don’t allow myself to do “whatever the people in charge say needs to be worked on,” either. I thus always find myself in a state of inaction or hesitation. Although I enjoy listening to different perspectives, reading and writing, there are times when I wake up and ask myself, “Can it be that I’ll show eagerness for Western democracy, write a paper that satisfies my teacher and everyone will be better-off in the long run?” Part of the helplessness I’ve been taught is that being (or showing) intellectual equals being good. It appears to me that all schools, and perhaps institutions we belong to, regardless of them being Eastern or Western and no matter if it’s intentional or not, provide us with some sort of helplessness to hold on to.

    As for your curiosity about how moral education works in Vietnam, it takes the forms of character and personality building, citizenship, and Marxist sciences and Ho Chi Minh thought in primary, secondary and higher educations respectively. The paradox is, as you can guess, those subjects are made so paradigmatic that the students would either ignore or take them whole.

    It’s self-evident to say that it’s enjoyable to work according to each individual’s interest, but it’s hard for many people, me included, to follow an inspiration that others don’t need or find wasteful. Inclinations and duties – they exist too separately.

    Thanks for getting the post’s ambivalence. I hope you least commented out of tự phát.

  4. I had to re-read this post to better understand your perspective. It’s hard to defer an immediate opinion on the image at the top–critical readers are going to suspicious of simple slogans. Slogans that praise manual labor have been used by coercive regimes of all kinds–as your teacher and a commenter noted “Arbeit macht frei.”
    “Lao động là vinh quang” – what is glory / vinh quang? I suppose it’s a spiritual achievement and a way of for a individuals to elevate themselves. But it’s sometimes also a slogan used as a form of physical or social coercion. Seeing Hồ Chí Minh pitching in may demonstrate the importance of the work, but in the West we call this a photo-op or a staged event. Hồ Chí Minh had more productive things to do with his time than to pick up a hoe–but he was an effective politician. But why is the emphasis on glory – why not on a common interest (lợi chung) or to help the weaker and the less powerful among us? There is nothing stupid about energetic young people doing good works for society. I think you highlight a key problem when you quote Lê Sĩ Long – “The role of young people is to follow, not to lead…” (vai trò của giới trẻ là đi theo chứ không phải lãnh đạo). I think a problem with the “lao động là vinh quang” paradigm is that it implies a kind of “dấn thân”–throwing waves of young people at a problem — “ở đâu có giặc là ta cứ đi.” Wherever there’s an enemy we’ll go (in other words, whatever the people in charge say needs to be worked on we’ll do). The nomenclature for these acts used to be “thanh niên xung phong” or assault youth. I fear that glory may be a synonym for learned helplessness. I see your ambivalence about this whole business as well. We want to see people doing good works for each other. I’m curious how Marxism and moral education work in reality in Vietnam–you say that it comprises an eighth of a university education? I prefer moral education to arise through family and neighbors, and perhaps more indirectly through literature, art and philosophy. And not to come in a pre-fabricated form. The image of labor and its glory would be easier to take if the impetus for the labor came from personal inspiration and understanding, if it was “tự phát.” Thank you for the thought-provoking essay and I hope you’ll continue to ponder these issues.

  5. I’m not sure how I’d like to respond here. I’m discomforted by the undertone of hostility towards the author of this article. Here is a young student attempting come to terms with her education and share with a larger community her observations about the media environment with some criticality. There is certainly room for improvement in the articulation of her ideas and I suppose the best folks to engage her would be us.

    For some background, Giao was instrumental in organizing Saigon’s first TEDx conference earlier this year and has been involved in a several community projects. She’s young and has good intentions. She is neither arrogant nor naive and certainly not spoiled, having moved to Saigon with a single parent from the Mekong and earned everything through determination.

    For the record, I am not the teacher cited in the article, though Giao has come to my space many times to borrow books. And the quote from Bernard Cohn was taken from one of my twits. And sadly, it feels more truthful now than ever with most of us largely based in academia.

    I know many of you personally, and I know it’s not in our character (or the intent of this blog) to crucify contributors. Let’s remain critical, yes. Let’s keep this small space a public sphere in the true sense, but let us also help nurture a new generation, both among the diaspora and within Vietnam. Hey, for some of us, she’s more than half our age.

    We shouldn’t assume what she was or wasn’t taught. We should, however, be concerned for how she is processing and discovering who she, and who she will come to be, by reflecting on her education.

    • I’m used to these kinds of comments. I’m just again disappointed that wherever we go, we’ll have to bend ourselves towards the majority’s view. We say diversity is good and critical thinking is necessary, but we won’t listen to any contemplation about anything that we’ve labeled as bad. Because the divide is already there, all we need is some language, not necessarily content, to reinforce it .

      I accept the fact that differences in time, place, education, etc. create problems that we are not able to resolve yet. And for those witnessing the many failures of the past few decades, there is perhaps more history than future. But I wish we wouldn’t be so selfish that we must make our history others’ future.

      As for the academia, despite the great effort we put into it just as we would when joining other fields, it seems all the talking we’re doing is just talking. I like criticisms, such as the ones given under this entry actually, as they give me something to talk back, yet they at the same time make me feel we’re too proud and playing it too safe.

      People of my age are going through a hard time given the mixed education and influences. As quoted in my essay, we can’t lead – according to the formal authorities inside Vietnam. And we can’t talk – according to the informal authorities outside this country – unless we speak their language or make criticizing history our fashion.

    • Comments on Ho Chi Minh and stuff about Vietnam easily lead to ideological food fights, which I don’t like but may be better than your short comment. It’s too short. I don’t get it.

  6. Not sure what the thesis of this article is and I’ve read it a few times. Marxism is bad? Viet youth making music videos don’t get rap? Consumerist tension exists when societies are given a little Communism and little Capitalism? I gotta go with the Professor: more clarity please; strengthen your thesis; link the topics. Oh and look up postmodern, too.

    • I just thought I put the thesis in the title already. As an attempt for more clarity, I would say No to the three questions above, if they are actually Yes/No questions.

      I probably haven’t spent as much time reading about postmodern as you have, and yet I don’t deny the possibility of me being a product of the postmodern.

  7. This post isn’t about art or media. It’s simply a diatribe of an arrogant (along with spoiled and naive) student in response to her teacher’s advice.

    I suppose your “moral education” and the need to be right are more important than being mindful of the way your messages affect others. Do you know what happened at Auschwitz? How about the re-education camps (trại cải tạo)? Try and convince those survivors that their labor was for glory. But of course, I doubt that you were taught things of that kind.

    I would be naive myself if I didn’t think this is exactly the kind of message that the current Vietnamese government wants to have their “fine young Vietnamese” students promote. But this blog is supposed to be international in scope and, out there in the rest of the world, many people will find this message to be ill-placed, to put it nicely.

    • I didn’t, and still don’t, solely mean “manual work” by “labor.”

      Even when I take “labor” as “manual work” only, the message cannot be wrong in itself. I hadn’t read about Auschwitz before, but did so on being suggested by my teacher. Still, I find arguing from the consequences quite problematic. What happened at Auschwitz and the olden concentration camps doesn’t make manual work categorically wrong.

      I was asked by no one to write here and thus don’t have anything to promote. I understand the international character of this blog, which to me means more than gathering all Vietnamese living outside Vietnam and agreeing on one single voice; it’s diaCRITICS that I find interesting, not targeting one subject and make all criticisms possible about it. My ideas would be ill-placed unless I were not human, for as long as I’m human, I’ll continue to be just that – a Vietnamese, and I don’t think “international” means “everything except Vietnamese.”


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