Friday, August 9, 2013

Taxis in HCM Airport are evil, but why?

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
― Marcel Proust

Okay, when you think of Vietnam, you think of the food, the sites and the people. I was looking forward to documenting things like a skyscraper that was not completed by the time I first visited VN. I got the shot, but the process of arriving is well, problematic. Well, the people issue is hit and miss. I was hoping to relax, but I'm in a state of perpetual pissyness of the uber atomic nature. Been trying to meditate real hard now, but it's not easy. The result is some hard thoughts on causation and a more sociological analysis of the experience.
All vacations essentially start the same way. You plan; you think; you feel anticipation. I got on an airplane from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City/ Saigon. On the plane, I try to plan out what I think would be a pleasant trip. I'm thinking about revisiting some of the places I saw in 2010 during my Fulbright Hays Grant. Yippie Skippy. Right? Wrong mother F (blank blank) RER! Wrong. Actually, I will say it now. FUCKER. Wow, that feels good, especially when you write it down. I'm a dumb MOTHER FUCKER.
I land, and all seems to be well. My visa is in order. I sail through the immigration line, sail through the baggage and sail through customs. Then it is a matter of getting to my hotel. Taxi. The taxi problem. I try to flag a white taxi, and it doesn't work. For some reason, they seemed intimidated. They don't come up to the Taxi cue. None of them would take me. I was told to take a taxi by friends. So, I go to the Taxi Cue. Some woman books me AT THE TAXI CUE, and it's Saigon Tourist Taxi. There's a sign there. Remember the term Saigon. It should be equivalent to Saigon wiil Shit UPON YOU Taxi. While just about to leave the airport, my girlfriend texts me to ride Vinasun as they are the only reliable one. Right off the bat, SLAM. The doors lock. The guy demands 500,000 Dong. Fuck I think. Okay, I don't know if he is going to do anything like sell me to some White guys for evil pleasures, so I go along with it. He demands more money from me when I finally get to my destination. This is pissy, as I haven't adjusted to the conversion rate yet. He doesn't drop me off close to where I need to go. He's clueless. He throws my bag out of the trunk, and before I could do anything grabs out of my wallet 500,000. That is 1 Million Dong out the door. It's called 45 dollars. Now in context, that is what you would get pulled in New York City. But, it was clearly a scam, and it was clearly potentially dangerous. I'm not a native, and I sure as hell don't want a beat down by his compadres. To be sure, it could get worse. But not for me if I can help it.
I knew it was going to be bad 5 minutes into the ride, and it was. 5 minutes in and I knew, this was going to be expensive. I had thought about the entire scam. I had read about it, but I didn't think it would be so blatant.
There were several errors that enabled this. The first error was before I flew out of the USA. I realized my anti-theft measures for my wallet were actually all wrong. The problem is this front pocket wallet configuration.
They are thinner, but they use a money clip configuration. Often recommended for travel because front pocket wallets are less prone to pickpockets. The problem is that when you take it out, they immediately see what you got. The fact that I just got money out of the ATM meant that I had only large bills. Being a thief, the guy sees it and does a grab and dash. I'm going back to a chain wallet, but I have to figure out a way to configure it so I can get on an airplane. Chain wallets are not looked kindly upon by TSA, and although not listed, it often creates a hassle. This is why I was using the front pocket wallet in the first place. I still don't get TSA sometimes.
Ultimately, I know I am not alone, but I am still PISSED. It's become personalized. It's not personal. The cabbie was a crook. This sort of reminds me of a crooked cab in Las Vegas once.
Second of all, research better and trust your research. Have little faith in people being inherently good. They aren't. If you Google the key words, taxi and Vietnam, you get a lot of garbage. I realized that the most frequently cited scam taxis was the one I was locked into. In 2010, Thanh Nien News reported an Aussie who killed a taxi driver from the same company--Saigon Tourist. He killed the dude for a lesser cheat. Now Mai Linh is supposed to be good, but there are reports of 4 million Dong fares. has also reported that basically, Noi Bai Airport really sucks too. That's Hanoi by the way. Basically, I thought that sometimes you had to be worried about Bangkok, but HCM/Saigon got nothing on Bangkok. It totally SUCKS.
Third of all, trust your gut. I had a weird sense that there was something amiss, but I didn't think an entire Taxi Cue was corrupt. Also, try to remember which color is good. Green is good. All others bad. I forgot about that thing, and I got a big fat dildo shoved up my wallet's ass.
What now?
I've started my stay in Vietnam with a sour note. Even eating good pho, and some good photo shots have not quelled my underlying pissed off mood. It has also colored my perception of Vietnam. Upon further contemplation, it did feel like a gangster style racket going on at the airport. Now, Vietnam Travel and Living Guide recommends Mai Linh or Vinasun Taxis. But with a negative article on Mai Linh, it really only leaves Vinasun. Vinasun by the way is the one the hotel calls. So, lately, I've been walking away from anyone trying to get me into their cages. There are times in which I could rent a motorbike, but apparently that's not really technically allowed. Once bitten, twice as cautious.
What bothers me is that this scam messed up my frame of mind. When I get hawkers trying to sell me stuff, I view it as a threat not a game. The good thing is my radar is on high alert. The bad this is my radar is on high alert.

Advice for Airports:
1. If you can, try to get someone to pick you up.
2. If the hotel can pick you up, do it.
3. Go with a Vietnamese you trust. They will not guide you the wrong way. I was in Vietnam, specifically Hanoi, 3 times prior. No problems.
4. Vinasun ONLY. And even then, be cautious. Make sure the meter goes on. Watch that meter. They list the rates right there. If all else fails, go back to WATCH THAT METER.
5. Use a regular wallet. Use nothing that allows people to see what you got.
6. Bring a pit bull. Of course, customs may not like Pettie the Pittie.

Advice for Traveing around:
1. Radar on high.
2. Trust your gut.
3. Don't carry items that scream, steal me.
Ultimately, the taxi shit has shitted on my parade. It colored my visit in darker colors like the storm clouds that drop rain in liquid light. Usually, I'm pretty good about letting go of some things, but the fact that I TOTALLY WAS HOSED! Well, you know. It's hard. Now, the logic might be that this dude was just a douche. I'm not entirely certain. It's been two days essentially, and I have been trying to let go. I've returned to the fact that this is a Communist country, and I reviewed in my head, my old Marxism class at UCLA. Ultimately, the means of production controls the means of existence. It's ironic, but Marx can say alot about what happened.
"In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production [or “means of production] of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness." (note: this is Existential)
-- A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Karl Marx.
This has forced me to further think about the reason for the problem. Why? Is it just shaddy taxis? Is it a lack of governmental control of scams? What is it? It is probably how the economy is set up. It's sort of hood mentality--get in the game and play or be sidelined. The means of production is affecting the means of existence. Perhaps not in a positive way. The means of existence demands cutthroat behavior. The income disparity is also something to study. There is income disparity in Thailand, but how people adapt differ.
What I am left with is a sense of sadness. Sadness in that I got caught. Sadness in that I should have lived with my gut feeling, but my fear left me down. I should have had more cohones, but then I always know that if you are in a foreign country, you are not always going to be able to read the pitfalls. What is probably more of a problem is what it will do for Vietnam. Vietnam wants to become a tourist hub, but if tourists have visits like this, then it's game over before the game starts. It also taints the sense of it being a vacation destination. So from the personal, we go to the global analysis.
The personal goes first. I can't let this stuff instill fear. As Yoda says:
From the personal level, I travel quite a bit now, but I am not always sure. If you want to be safe, stay at home. To travel, you must be more sure of yourself and sometimes you need to be aggressive. I suck at being agressive. What I have been also doing lately is researching Buddhism and ASEAN and doing my informal cultural comparison studies. It was intended to lay some groundwork for my future retirement. i have designs to retire out here. This incident made me look for a proper Zen Koan to review. To reassure myself in the notion of impermanence. This is the one I selected.
77. No Attachment to Dust
Zengetsu, a Chinese master of the T'ang dynasty, wrote the following advice for his pupils:
Living in the world yet not forming attachments to the dust of the world is the way of a true Zen student.
When witnessing the good action of another encourage yourself to follow his example. Hearing of the mistaken action of another, advise yourself not to emulate it.
Even though alone in a dark room, be as if you were facing a noble guest. Express your feelings, but become no more expressive than your true nature.
Poverty is your teasure. Never exchange it for an easy life.
A person may appear a fool and yet not be one. He may only be guarding his wisdom carefully.
Virtues are the fruit of self-discipline and do not drop from heaven of themselves as does rain or snow.
Modesty is the foundation of all virtues. Let your neighbors discover you before you make yourself known to them.
A noble heart never forces itself forward. Its words are as rare gems, seldom displayed and of great value.
To a sincere student, every day is a fortunate day. Time passes but he never lags behind. Neither glory nor shame can move him.
Censure yourself, never another. Do not discuss right and wrong.
Some things, though right, were considered wrong for generations. Since the value of righteousness may be recognized after centuries, there is no need to crave an immediate appreciation.
Live with cause and leave results to the great law of the universe. Pass each day in peaceful contemplation.
I have here discussed right and wrong, so obviously I am nowhere close to Nirvana. Everyday is a fortunate day. Money is dust. It is what stains our relationships with others. It is what corrupts our soul. I must let go. I can let go, but what other implications are there?
What about ASEAN? What are the cultural implications? What is clear is that nothing occurs without a cause. The means of production affects the means of existence. Life for Vietnamese must be a hard scrabble life. You notice beggars on the sidewalks. People constantly asking if you want a ride on the motorcycle. Sellers trying to grab you to sell things. Underneath the veneer of Halong Bay and the other tourist traps, are lives on the edge. There is an income divide here. It is different than Thailand. Thailand seems to have a spiritual life jacket. Materialism exists, but they maintain the spirit houses. They wrap trees thought to be spiritual hubs. They try to take care of stray dogs and cats. Homeless are fed by neighbors. That overall feeling doesn't exist here in Vietnam. It is a clear cultural difference. Vietnam is not dominated by Theravada Buddhism. Although we look at the region as one block, they are different nations with different issues and cultures. The common issue is conspicuous consumption, an income divide, and for those at the bottom, a hard scrabble life that can undermine the future of the tourist industry here. How the new ASEAN Economic formula will be affected is uncertain. What Vietnam doesn't need is for other members of ASEAN to get pissed. I wonder about Singaporeans. They are investors, and a bad experience with one key Singaporean may affect their decision making on investment.
Regardless, I'm going to change my wallet.
Now to find a person who can stamp the same words and attach a chain to it. Or just let go and try to have fun for a change. Maybe just enjoy the ride. Besides, I got some writing out of the experience.
Must let go. Let go of fear. Let go of negative thoughts. Let go.
Irony. I just watched an Aussie girl get her entire purse snatched by a motorcycle. I guess it could be worse. I feel better now.
“To be wronged is nothing, unless you continue to remember it.”
― Confucius

Monday, August 5, 2013

ASEAN, English and Higher Education

ASEAN Member Thailand Bangkok Traffic Jam
The Association of South East Asian Nations, otherwise known as ASEAN, is going through a significant amount of changes. Member countries are as follows: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines and Brunei. For the most part, they are moving towards an economic free trade zone akin to the European Union, but without the hangup of the single currency which has saddled Europe with some austerity programs and general discontent. One of the most interesting aspects of this trade zone is the integration of English into the backbone. English is the official language of ASEAN. It is described as the ASEAN Economic Community here:

ASEAN Economic Community

The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) shall be the goal of regional economic integration by 2015. AEC envisages the following key characteristics: (a) a single market and production base, (b) a highly competitive economic region, (c) a region of equitable economic development, and (d) a region fully integrated into the global economy.
The AEC areas of cooperation include human resources development and capacity building; recognition of professional qualifications; closer consultation on macroeconomic and financial policies; trade financing measures; enhanced infrastructure and communications connectivity; development of electronic transactions through e-ASEAN; integrating industries across the region to promote regional sourcing; and enhancing private sector involvement for the building of the AEC. In short, the AEC will transform ASEAN into a region with free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labour, and freer flow of capital.
ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) Blueprint
The ASEAN Leaders adopted the ASEAN Economic Blueprint at the 13th ASEAN Summit on 20 November 2007 in Singapore to serve as a coherent master plan guiding the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community 2015.
Please click here for the ASEAN Economic Community Blueprint
There are obvious logical reasons for the standard language for ASEAN being English. In today's economic universe, the common language is English. Because the USA has been a dominant economic power in the world since 1945, it is English that must be spoken. Not French or Russian or Chinese. At least, not for now. In fact, the Japanese businessmen often speak English anyways. With English becoming the common language of ASEAN, the higher educational institutions need to standardize language skills across the region in order to allow for better integration. The TOEFL exams and other English proficiency tests will become much more important for job security and job placement in the member states.
Thailand is moving in this direction. To get a job at a Starbucks, you need a certain score with the TOEFL. To get a job at a McD, you have to have a certain TOEFL score. Basically to get any job related to tourism, you need some sort of evidence in English proficiency.
ASEAN's Economic Community will allow for citizens of member nations to move around easily in terms of work permits. How the English proficiency tests will play in this is still being defined, but Thailand's increase in the use of testing scores is a good indicator. The proliferation of English focused tutoring programs and testing centers is growing rapidly, and of course this brings up the problem of the "native speaker" teacher. Hopefully, it will eliminate one of the biggest issues in SE Asia, the uneducated "native speaker" who gets hired just because they are Western. I've taught in classes in the USA in which I've failed students for grammar and other problems. Not to mention the disease of text language into the written language has degraded the English language in America. Unfortunately for various reasons, English has not been well integrated into Thailand's system. In fact, they can read and write, but they are horrible with speaking. The other problem is cultural. Thai students rarely challenge their teachers.
Problems. Thailand is actually one of the lowest in terms of English proficiency. According to University World News, only Malaysia is ranked anywhere near proficiency. Singapore's official language is English, which might explain how they seem to be such major players despite being one of the smallest in ASEAN. I am hoping that they not only get the English improved, but also the general knowledge of a global economy. Amazingly enough, I often have it easier in Vietnam as many speak a basic form of English.
Things are not entirely rosy in America either. With all the accreditation issues in America like the potential demise of City College of San Francisco, you may wonder how things fair in SE Asia's higher education systems. Well, it is hit and miss, which may make this entire Economic Community project also hit and miss. There are wide disparities between the countries in terms of rigor and staffing. The public colleges in Cambodia are not often well supported in terms of competitive salaries for professors. Vietnam's higher education system is largely a hybrid of more American style systems in the South, and more Soviet style specialization structures in the North. Highly specialized majors often create gaps in terms of handling globalized relationships. Thailand's system is not bad, but if you monitor how well the students understand general knowledge, world history and other essentials for globalized commerce, it is lacking. It was most evident when Chulalongkorn University had a major meltdown with a mural featuring Adolf Hitler as a hero. Chula, as they call it here, is considered the top tier university of the country, so this isn't the most positive publicity. Just informal talks with Thai students here show some problems. Many don't know anything about the Holocaust. Nothing. This shocked me.
Although English is important, the need for proper globalized levels of knowledge would be key for ASEAN. Nothing is clearly just local anymore. Everything has a globalized context.
Coinciding with the construction boom in Thailand and other parts of SE Asia, there is a growing need for educational expansion as well. As the Economic block becomes more of a global player, the need for intellectual capital and resources grows. Singapore is the key lion in all of this, and it is a country that realized that education was the pathway towards national success. It is multicultural in its population, but English is the common language for all. Channel NewsAsia, the news station of Singapore, broadcasts in English, and it actually does news versus partisan BS. English is a part of it all, but a more globalized general education may be necessary for an ability to deal with a globalized economy with various cultural differences to navigate.
ASEAN has a bright future, but it has much to do to make things better in the educational arena. This is especially true in terms of general knowledge in a globalized environment.