Friday, April 13, 2007

Underpants, Decision-making and the Sovereignty of God

Thanks to everyone who's tried to help with the dirty-linen-in-public problem, including all the FedEx/DHL-ing offers, the Google-for-Pants suggestions with great potential, the Scare-The-Hotel-Laundry-Service advice and the smug one who tsked and said it was all in Footloose that decent underwear cannot be found in Ho Chi Minh City. Fortunately, a lack of efficiency in backpack-clearing has yielded, to my delight, 2 separate stashes of disposable underwear. Yay, personal hygiene!

Gucci - the new Cu Chi in Ho Chi Minh City
Footloose is increasingly wrong about the decency of Saigon undies, though, thanks to Đổi mới (renovation) reforms - the new perestroika or more closely, 具有中国特色的社会主义 (err...Chinese-style socialism (like a dish on the English menu in a small Chinese restaurant)).

Need the United States of America have lost 58,000 men in its longest war under cover of its commie Domino Theory? Would the greed-filled delights of capitalism have been more effective?

The Quiet American
Re-reading an off-street copy of Graham Greene's The Quiet American: Fowler (a dyed-in-the-beard British journalist) says to Alden Pyle (a shoo-in for the dangerously ignorant but fanatically activist America willing to kill women and children for lofty ivory-tower ideas of Democracy and Liberty):
"You and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren't interested." "They don't want Communism." "They want enough rice," I said. "They don't want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don't want our white skins around telling them what they want." "If Indo-China goes..." "I know the record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does 'go' mean?...." "They'll be forced to believe what they're told, they won't be allowed to think for themselves." "Thought's a luxury. Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?" "You talk as if the whole country were peasant. What about the educated? Are they going to be happy?" "Oh no," I said, "we've brought them up in our ideas. We've taught them dangerous games, and that's why we're waiting here, hoping we don't get our throats cut. We deserve to have them cut..."
Easter Sunday at Notre Dame Cathedral, HCMC
Easter Sunday: the Catholic and touristy Notre Dame Cathedral is filled with Caucasians in sun dresses, and locals fanning themselves with conical straw hats, and children in their Sunday best chasing each other up and down the aisles, and tourists murmuring simultaneous translations in various tongues, and beggars seated at the foot of pillars, and people hawking holy water and statues of Mary and candles, and the gospel not being preached.

Reunification Palace
Down the street from the cathedral, across from where in 1975 the North Vietnamese tanks rolled down to smash the gates of the Presidential Palace (now renamed, of course, Reunification Palace) and "liberate" South Vietnam with communism, the nouveau riche sit at Crêperie & Café in their sunglasses, bright polos and chinos, scoff crepes and sip their lattes and watch the latest sports cars cruise past.

They are born of exports of coffee that rival Brazil's (market rumour is that most of Starbuck's terrible robusta supplies come from Vietnam) and rice that rival Thailand's. They are riding to easy prosperity on the vast back of a rapidly emerging market (no animal analogies please) where the government is actively encouraging the privatisation of state-owned enterprises. They are enjoying the bullishness (argh! Animal analogy!) of the local stock market. They are the beneficiaries of prodigal Việt Kiềus who have returned to little hostility (although word-on-the-street is that of the progeny of former South Vietnamese leaders being tailed) and the reported influx of U$2.5 billion a year. They have the fortune of being in a country where there is no poofy-haired personality cult and attendant elite to suck dry the nation's resources.

The Quiet American contrasts the ignorant idealistic involvement of Pyle and the realistic disassociation of Fowler. But in the end, faced with the opportunity to prevent any future senseless killings of innocents, Fowler facilitated in the murder of Pyle. Was he right to abet the murder of another? Was America right to intervene in Vietnamese politics?

Saigon Times
And in the present, from the viewpoint of the Vietnamese government: if one of its goals is the preservation of its own power, was it right to initiate the doi moi reforms? On one hand, renovating the home keeps the occupants busy and out of one's hair, but will glasnost necessary follow perestroika, political reform nipping at the heels of economic reform (though nothing of the sort has happened in neighbouring China)? And will it be a matter of time before the income inequality between urban rich and rural poor explodes into civil strife and becomes a catalyst for political upheaval - just how the dissatisfaction of the masses overthrew the French colonial masters in favour of the present communist regime?

There were discussions, over meals, of dilemmas in constructing policies and navigating decision-making processes. The government of people and making of political decisions is a great exercise in humility. Even if the sole aim of your government is, altruistically, the good of the people, no number of advisors, consultants, analysts, economists or futurists can tell the future with such 20/20 foresight as to allow you to make an informed decision in the present.

In the end, with a great Gallic shrug, you can only do what you guess is for the best, knowing that future generations with 20/20 hindsight might well sneer at such an incompetent, unenlightened decision.

In a more ignorantly idealistic time, when the phrase most associated with Vietnam was Nike, the world was black and white: a totalitarian government was pure evil and its people, oppressed and in need of salvation by activists on white horses. Yet now, all the Vietnamese I've spoken with are happy with the current regime: their bellies are full, they have a roof over their heads and their immediate concern is finding love and keeping a spouse. Disruptions by Western human rights movements to their daily life are viewed as arrogant: Western colonialists in different guises dictating how they should live their lives.
"They want enough rice. They don't want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don't want our white skins around telling them what they want."
Alas, the best laid plans of mice and men...

Where the decisions of men will prove erroneous with time and where the wisdom of men (whether couched in terms of capitalism, communism, sustainability, human rights, democracy or developmentalism) will fail and pass away, there is one thing certain in life: the gospel, the good news, the apparent foolishness of Jesus dying on the cross to save us from our sins, will endure till the end of time.

And in serving others in DGs and the wider church, where the goal (that is, the building up and encouragement of brothers and sisters) may be obvious but the lack of perfect knowledge sometimes obscures the right godly practical steps to be taken in a given situation, our comfort is that we shall only be concerned with what we do know - planting and sowing and building on the right foundation (1 Corinthians). For we know that our God is mindblowingly sovereign and powerful over all things and he will cause growth and the building up of his church as he wishes, according to his will. Far from being an abdication of personal responsibility, it'd be arrogant to claim the power to mould outcomes and determine the future as ours in the first place.

*If you read The Book of Ecclesiastes with T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, the unfortunate Mr. Eliot comes off terribly infantile. April is the cruellest month.

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At April 14, 2007 1:55 am , Anonymous cupboard space fodder said...

come back soon!
(thanks for letting us know underwear is no longer in dire need of replacement)

At April 18, 2007 11:52 am , Anonymous tsk tsk said...

dearie, did no-one point out that you could have washed them in the sink for nothing?!!!

At April 20, 2007 10:43 am , Anonymous tsk tsk tsk said...

young ppl nowsadays ah.....


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