First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.
– Bertrand Russell

Work work work work work. -Rihanna


If I were to do a breakdown of where my allotted cash for my sabbatical gets spent this year, the bulk of it went to leisure drinking: coffees and cocktails. I suspect that besides my rent, iced Vietnamese coffees, happy hour visits to cocktail bars and hipster craft beer bars, “…for malt does more than Milton can, to justify God’s ways to man” all drain the coffers much more than food or other necessities.

Cost for transportation is negligible now that I have a motorbike. Parking drains 75c/day; gas to fuel my Yamaha Nuovo speed demon sets me back another 30c/day – I know this because I put around two dollars into the tank once a week. We’ll say then that it takes me about a dollar to move around the city, to get me from a café to write, then to a bar, and back home.

Food doesn’t drain much cash because I’ve been eating on the cheap, in the street vendors and banh mi places of my street, Nguyen Khoai.

Nguyen Khoai is full of little img_0104restaurants opened by residents of the area. You can find pork chop with broken rice, banh mi, vermicelli, Pho, fried or grilled fish, fried chicken leg with rice, shaking beef tossed on rice or mixed with instant noodles, pork and liver on instant noodles. Various other cheap cuisines are there, all within a hundred meters of my apartment complex.

With all the construction going on in district 4, I find these “com binh dan” places are swamped with workers during meal or break time. Most of the workers carry their hard hats and set them to the side as they straddle red plastic stools for com ga or mi xao bo. The heat of the day being such, they arrive sweat drenched, young men in their twenties, some looking like they’re still in high school, wearing the dust coated uniforms of their labor, eating and bantering, or chewing their foods quietly and sipping their iced teas in brief respite.

And I, with my macbook out, or iphone nesting in a pocket of my cargo shorts, am the imposter in their midst, white collar interloper in a blue collar world of cement and steel. There is momentary curiosity at my presence from the workers, then I am quickly disregarded and left to my own devices. I take note, with some unearned pride, that I am usually the only one from my apartment complex eating here – the perhaps models, minor celebrities, and reasonably well to do that live in my high rise eat elsewhere.

Whenever I get frustrated by petty squabbles over what seems to be minute quantities of money here in Vietnam, I try to remind myself how far that little bit of money stretches here, and concurrently, how much that little bit means to most folks. It’s beginning to mean much more to me, now that I no longer make the sums I made as a teacher and Head of Year in Hong Kong. All things are relative, of course. HK has a significantly higher cost of living, and of course, we worked sometimes long and intense hours.

My roommate tells me that basic office workers here, young professionals with degrees, are lucky to earn 6k usd a year. Basic construction workers, the ones I sit down with at lunch and dinner, earn typically 8 to 9 USD a day, the price of three or four iced coffees from the posh work space and café in the Bitexco building where I use as my writing office.

We Vietnamese are stereotyped as a calculating lot, a bit too business savvy, always wanting to make a quick buck over the long term development of a mutually beneficial relationship. We think about money and we talk money, because it takes hustle to make it here. And a little extra hustle can sometimes get you that little bit more ahead. It’s a little like how drivers here treat traffic lights – they’ll turn red, but cars and motorbikes will push through for a few more seconds, stretching the law a little bit if it gets us there a little faster. In the meantime, those on the cross street start a few seconds earlier. What happens usually is a jam in the middle as both sides are running their red lights.

In this, my year off from labor, I am reminded of poems whose focus on “work” have always moved me. In Philip Levine’s “What Work Is”, the narrator talks of the guilt he feels in having never shown love or tenderness towards his brother, a man who waits in futility for work during Depression era Detroit, Michigan: “We stand in the rain in a long line/waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.” The waiting is treated as a part of the labor. The exhaustion at being told there would be nothing that day for them to do, after that helpless waiting, that too, is work. It’s a tribute to the laboring machine of that era, to the blue collar past of Levine’s family. The poem was in the first poetry book I ever owned, won in a poetry contest for a poem I wrote in high school about my mother’s work as a doctor.

And who can forget Robert Hayden’s lines devoted to his silent, sullen father: “Sundays too my father got up early/and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,/then with cracked hands that ached/from labor in the weekday weather made/banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.” Hayden’s staccato, harsh rhythm reflects the rickety, beaten limbs of his father starting the day and beginning his labor, and the silence that greeted his sacrifice.

I find defining work challenging now that much of what we manipulate is in the realm of the digital, of aesthetics and design. We move figures and numbers; we shape font types, letterings, images. We brand and we rebrand. We market and showcase our product. What we make can’t be touched and felt; these tangible effects of these hours of labor plugging away at a laptop or tablet equate to lines of light beaming from an LCD screen. Most work seems only virtual.

I am also sometimes distrustful of returning Vietnamese like me who come back wanting to “improve” or who states plainly that they “wish to disrupt Vietnam” (the latter is a direct phrase used from a Viet Kieu entrepreneur in a Bloomberg article). There’s promise in finding inefficiencies in the system, hacking them, and make cash in the meanwhile. The assumption is that technology and an education abroad can somehow act as a cure-all to what ails the state. The unstated assumption in such a statement, too, is that it takes an outsider’s hand to speed this country along.

The construction boom in this country won’t last forever. These workers wearing Cotecons work gear, who eat on Nguyen Khoai will not be working in high rises constructions forever. And even as they do work, the labor doesn’t yield them much. They can’t participate in the boon they provide; they can’t be home owners themselves. The refrain I hear from motorbike drivers and manual laborers is that wealth comes to the land but not to its common people. Disruptive technology makes a city better in sudden, joltingly novel ways, but it doesn’t always mean all rise along with its improvements. Some are left behind, struggling to keep up. Traffic is still horrendous and wages still low, no matter how many new uber passengers one gets.

The counterargument to these voices on labor and growth, is that Saigon is a creature that always needs continual “disruption”, that needs to change, shift and move. It’s an ant whose limbs needs continual motion to spread oxygen, and live. Growth comes first, consideration for its symptoms later.

I complained about my perception of this helter skelter push towards the future, and the ease at forgetting the past to a group of friends at dinner once, and a Saigonese born and bred man who went abroad for his education and his graduate degree, asked me in return, testily, whether or not I thought the country going back to the years immediately after the war, when everything was in stasis and people were poor and had aspirations only to survive would be better. Would that be a return to a more authentic time for Saigon, you think? He asked me. Why on earth, he added, would we want to relive those years?

He tells me that the spirit of this city is its “continuous movement, its healthy disregard of tradition, its generous spirit, its willingness to adapt and be flexible.” And, no matter how much the physical surrounding of HCMC changes, if this essence is preserved, Saigon’s soul and spirit will continue to exist, albeit in a different physical form.

Perhaps he is right. Let us meet again in five years, and see the shape of this metropolis and judge its authenticity then. For now, what a strange, privileged position, to be able to observe, and record its changes and deign to call my recording these changing times, “working”.