Thursday, July 22, 2010

The myth of "no freedom" in Vietnam

Most of the posts on this blog revolve around the quirks and outright lunacy of Vietnam, so I think it's about time we have a post of some substantive value.

America is known as the land of freedom. It's written in our Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, even on the Statue of Liberty. Our national bird, the bald eagle, is symbolic of the individual spirit and free reign we cherish. In school, we're taught that the wars we partake in, and in many cases initiate, are quests for liberation, not conquests for power. We idolize Abraham Lincoln for "freeing" the slaves, George Washington for "freeing" the nation from the "oppressive" British, and the American military for "freeing" the Iraqis, Vietnamese, Koreans, etc.

In contrast, we're taught that Communist and Third World countries such as Vietnam abhor freedom and ensure it remains buried under dictatorial regimes. That the absence of democratic institutions deprives the people of inalienable rights and that we most certainly are happier in America because every four years we can march to the polls and "make a difference."

With employment well over 10% in America, and with many of my university-educated peers working jobs that don't require a degree, I sense a growing disillusionment among my generation. Despite our democracy and freedom of speech, our voices capable of being heard through votes, newspaper columns, and community organizing, it's proven very difficult to change a system that benefits the rich and wedges an ever-increasing gap between the haves and have-nots. If anything, the last decade has exhibited worsening conditions. Our votes and freedom of speech have done very little to counteract the growing trend of the rich getting richer.

Take, for example:

  • The housing bubble of the mid-2000s, which was nothing more than greedy banks trying to get richer at the expense of American families.
  • The recent decision of the Supreme Court to consider corporations "individuals" for purposes of campaign finance.
  • The bailing out of said banks by the federal government (our tax dollars) because of their initial plan to steal billions from American people.
  • The excessive bonuses the CEOs received after royally fucking millions of people.
  • The outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs to Third World countries (such as Vietnam). This greatly benefits those at the top of the organization but serves to hurt the middle class.
  • The increasing tuition at universities and institutions of higher-learning. Attending Harvard Law School, for example, will set one back nearly $200,000 in student loans (federal). All of this and no guarantee of a job.
  • Our society pushes the idea that higher education will lead to a comfortable middle-class life and success. Nowadays, it almost always leads to excessive debt and little to no career opportunities.
  • The Federal Government is more than happy to give nearly $40,000 a year in student loans however.
  • The fact that gambling debts, credit card debt (more difficult recently because of new legislation), and mortgage debt can be discharged in bankruptcy, but student loans cannot be.
  • Nearly half of Congress are millionaires (237 people). Difficult for the "common man" to be heard in such a system.
  • 20% interest rates on credit cards, which bogs down less-savvy consumers to a lifetime of debt.
  • The increasing privatization of the military.
  • The fact that Social Security will likely be unavailable to our generation when we're older.
  • The burgeoning debt of the American Government. China and Japan own us.
  • Financing debt with more debt.

All of these serve to limit our freedom, not enhance it. And again, despite of all of our freedoms in America, everything that is hammered into our brain when we're in middle school, it hasn't really made a lick of difference.

Partially as a result, ex-pats are flocking to countries such as Vietnam because many feel like they have no choice. I initially came here for travel and a new experience, but there is little opportunity in America, so I'm staying. And contrary to what we've been taught, I feel that Vietnam offers more freedom than America does.

It is true that freedom of speech is not available in Vietnam, but I feel like even with our this right in America, little has been accomplished in recent times. The freedom I'm talking about in Vietnam involves everyday activities -- going to the store, to school, work, etc.

In Vietnam, people are not as nearly constrained by a police force. If two people have an accident, they make sure no one needs to go to the hospital, find out who's at fault, exchange some money, and go on their way. If two people get into a fight in thẻ middle of the street, local citizens break it up and everything returns to normal. There are no speed limits, no cops waiting to bust you for a $200 ticket. In fact, it's encouraged to try and run from the police here. In America, you'd get thrown in jail for months. Here, your fine just increases. Bad traffic jam? Drive on the sidewalk. Neighbors having a loud party? Accept that they're probably having a lot of fun and deal with it. Know that when you have a loud party, they won't complain either. Attracted to a girl at work? Hit on her and don't worry about a sexual harassment lawsuit. Hate your job? Get a new one. Your family will support you until you do. Spill hot coffee on your lap while driving? Try to sue and get laughed out of the courthouse and told to quit being a dumbshit.

On foreigner street, smoke a joint without fear of getting tossed in jail. Drink beer when you're 15. Smoke cigarettes when you're 13. Sell food on the side of the street. Open up a business in your house. Stay up late, go out late. Go home during your break from school to eat lunch. There are no hall monitors or truant officers.

The burden of debt in America, perhaps the biggest contributer to the diminishing freedom in America, doesn't exist in Vietnam. To be eligible for a credit card, one must prove they have sufficient funds in the bank. This even goes for rich people. Nearly everyone buys houses in full after saving up for years. Motorbikes and cars are also paid for in full. The culture of debt in America has only grown in recent years, and has not been curtailed at all by our lawmakers. In fact, it's been worsened.

Credit card companies recently championed new legislation that makes it more difficult to get rid of the debt. Education loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Many from the older generation comment that we should stop being so stupid with our money, financing everything with money we don't have. I agree, but credit card companies come to college campuses and get many of these kids when they're 18. In high school, students are not taught about debt or money-management. Also, our culture encourages higher education financed through debt to "open doors." The recent numbers for law school enrollment have gone up markedy following hte recession. Little do most of these people realize that their career opportunities will be practically zero.

So many of us end up working service jobs, all the while racked with debt.

The everyday freedoms in Vietnam are substantial. You're free to do what you want. The funny thing is most would assume that in a system such as this, crime would be rampant. But it's much safer on the seediest street in Ho Chi Minh City than it is in an American city. Violent crime is nearly non-existent.

Because of this, chaos in many ways thrives. Traffic is chaotic, the streets are dirty, people can be rude. But these are to be expected in a country with a lot of personal freedom. I have no problem with Americans who think they might hate the chaos. Many do, and with good reason. But to describe America as a beacon and model example of freedom I think is off-base. Singapore, one of the wealthiest and cleanest and most well-run countries in the world, is chock full of rules to make sure it stays that way. But no-one would describe Singapore as "free." Hell, you get arrested for spitting out your chewing gum there. But it's not really that different than getting fined in America for littering. Freedom, in many ways, is a fallacy in America.

However, America is a beautiful country and I hope it rebounds from its hard times. I hope that the recession is a hiccup and not the dying gasp of an awesome country. There is one point I cannot argue with, however. I wouldn't even be able to write a blog like this with such pointed criticism toward a country like Vietnam. America still allows our opinions and voices to be expressed, no matter how disgruntled they be.