Xin Chào from Hồ Chí Minh City,
Yesterday I had the misfortune of overhearing a tawdry conversation between two American businessmen. It was downstairs in the café, to which the dear reader was partially introduced in the last epistle. It just so happens that I was at that moment reading an autobiography by an English writer, Neville Cardus.
an evolutionary change
On the subject of cricket, the peerless Neville Cardus was and is sui generis. He was a writer for whom the word ‘doyen’ is as apt as is possible, no hackneyed cliché in this case. In his entertaining autobiography, penned in his Autumn years, he bemoans an subtle change in English society. He does this whilst simultaneously tracking the standards and etiquette of the sport with the society in general – a simple proposition in the hands of such a skilled wordsmith.
Decency and integrity
Cardus bemoaned the loss of decency and integrity, linking the change to the growth of individualism. “The romantic flourish vanished as much from cricket as from theatre and the arts,” he wrote. (He was an accomplished critic of music and theatre as well.) He went on: “A cricketer like anybody else is what his period and environment make him, and he acts and plays accordingly”.
the same decline
If all capitalist societies suffer the same decline, perhaps we are seeing Việt Nam in the nascent stage. The residual decency of Buddhism and the order and harmony of Confucianism might hold sway here for a few generations yet. But then the inexorable cold steel rail of market economics will force the change on an unsuspecting populace. It will happen in a gradual accretion. It could be said that when Việt Nam opened up to foreign investment with Đổi Mới in 1986, they were giving vent to the national desire for development. But they were simultaneously unleashing a werewolf which smiles by day and savages by night.
a host-visitor relationship
Which brings me to that disturbing confab in the café yesterday. The juxtaposition between the two loathsome protagonists and the homely setting was startling enough. Apart from the banalities which typically pepper such dialogue, one of the two was squeamishly disrespectful. In fact, he was willfully ignorant of the usual decorum displayed in a host/visitor relationship.
First, he ordered the lovely staff around as if he was a slave owner. Then he loudly cajoled his less voluble companion to treat the local women like chattels (with vulgarities not fit for repetition). Then it was casting forth on the virtues of Mr. Trump (“best one I’ve seen in 30 years”). Unfortunately, this boorish oaf could well represent the future.
At one stage, he admonished a waitress with, “Don’t carry it like that. Are you stupid?” Then, to anyone who was listening, “These people are so stupid. I’ve learnt something about these people in 32 years. They’ve become so undependable.”
This ignorant individual has been living and doing business here for more than three decades. You have to wonder just how much opprobrium he’s spread in that time if I overheard just a few minutes of the filth.
an aspirational culture
In an aspirational culture, many of the worst elements of society will be encouraged by such behaviour. “In business, this is the way it’s done”, you can imagine this racist telling his opposite number in the process of sealing a deal. And you can just imagine that there will be some gullible locals who accept that dogma. And these people – some of whom have returned to the country after years abroad – are helping to guide the nation through its transition. It’s a terrifying thought.
the good with the bad
Thankfully, the Việtnamese government has a reasonably firm hold on the reins here. As a consequence, most anti-social excesses in the market are usually constrained to accommodate decency and the common good. Witness the brilliant response to the pandemic. If the exigencies of a market society – which Việt Nam has assuredly become – mean you have to take the good with the bad, I’m hoping they take more of the good. Otherwise, like England in the days of Neville Cardus, they lose something which is impossible to retrieve. That would be a colossal tragedy.
Tam biêt from Việt Nam