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Generation (Hard) Y(akka)

7 Jul

When I applied for the overseas volunteering opportunity, I was struggling to find employment as a recent double-degree graduate. I completed my studies at the end of 2008. Just after the GFC unleashed itself on the world.

It’s tough being a Gen Y graduate. There are more university graduates in the jobmarket than ever before. Competition is fierce. It was particularly so after the GFC. No one was hiring.

An article written by a member of Gen Y, or, as I would call it, Gen Hard Yakka, struck me. I’ve reproduced some of it below:

Young people have simply never known what proper job security is. We are so acutely aware of how difficult it is to find a job that when we eventually get one, we work incredibly hard to protect it and remain wary of how fleeting it may be.

We entered the workforce when a job was a rare privilege.

Some of us work with the fear of being fired and accept that as legitimate because, well, that’s just the way things are these days. If you’re not the best at your job then employers are entitled to get someone who is.

This attitude shocks baby boomers who entered the workforce before unionism went out of fashion along with bell-bottomed jeans. To baby boomers, the casualisation of the workforce is a one-fingered salute to workers’ rights. To generation Y, it is an entirely acceptable and pragmatic reality of our uncertain financial times.

Influenced by an endless conveyor belt of strikes and memories of glorious unionists during the 1960s and ’70s, boomers have always believed their job is their right and no one would dare sack them for having a few off days and a sickie or two. They never experienced the distress of being a qualified, ambitious, industrious graduate desperately looking for a job in a threadbare market.

Generation Y aren’t just harder-working and more enjoyable to work with because they’re young and fresh. We have an appreciation for a job that our parents [baby boomers] simply don’t.”

I agree in large part with the above views. I hope this post didn’t come across as a huge whinge, especially as I feel very privileged to have steady and interesting employment right now.

I’m merely pointing out, as this young lady has, that a young university-educated person in Australia has a precarious short-term future.

University graduates in Vietnam have better prospects of gaining employment (corresponding to their profession) than in Australia. The competition is far too high in Australia.

However, new occupations are emerging, such as social media analysts and consultants, which did not exist 30 or even 10 years ago.

Hopefully, positions in the developing labour market will be filled with bright young minds which will bring about transformations of existing structures, systems and the status quo.

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a sanitised depiction

7 Jul

Merely watching the first 2 minutes of Luke Nguyen’s show persuades the viewer of the beauty of Vietnam.

I wish I could be as laid back and relaxed as Luke Nguyen is in Vietnam.

His exuberance, enthusiasm and the way he fully embraces and expresses his love for Vietnam seems genuine and is very believable. It’s probably because he is genuine. However, despite him jumping right into local food culture, the show depicts quite a sanitised version of Vietnam. Even the introductory montage (around 2 minutes into the above youtube video) has a pearly white glow.

Whereas, when one is aware and confronted by the social and political climate in Vietnam, it’s difficult to let go, relax and be enchanted by ‘charming’ Vietnam. It is difficult to be creative in your work and be proactive and positive in your outlook every day.

A friend recommended a recently published book to me. Vietnam, Rising Dragon, explores the complex and fascinating period in which Vietnam is developing in, and goes beyond the deceptive tourism campaign. I read the excerpt and was sold.

It is exactly the book I need to read upon returning to Australia after being living and volunteering in Vietnam for a year. It will undoubtedly help me make sense of what I experienced.

In Vietnam, whenever I found the answer to one question, ten more would pop up in my head. This book will help me find the answers that have been floating in my head ever since.

Maybe then, I could return to Vietnam and be as laid back as Luke Nguyen.

Cheers to fond memories!

26 Jun

7pm. Bar. Melbourne Airport.

I had flown into Melbourne with my team from work to attend a conference we had organised over the preceding few months.

There was half an hour before the flight back to Canberra.

We decided to celebrate the success of the conference with a drink.

 

Jake said he’d get the first round. Tracy ordered a G&T. When I heard “G&T”, my eyes lit up and I told him that I wanted one too. The weather had been particularly cool for autumn, and a gin and tonic was far from what one should drink in colder weather. However, when Tracy said those words, I was hit with nostalgia.

 

Back in Hanoi, after a hard day’s work at the NGO, I would come home. And my housemate and fellow volunteer would fix me an ice cold G&T, with a slice of lime. He concocted them so well. We would then sprawl on the couch talking about our respective days, the challenges, the quirks, the triumphs, the small wins, the things we loved. It was great downtime, chatting to someone who knows what I’m going through, despite both of us working in quite different working environments. Also, he was a white male and I’m Viet kieu, so they treated us differently.

Nevertheless, those chats in the cool, tiled house in Hanoi, away from the humidity, heat and dust, with a G&T in our hands, are moments I cherish.

So hearing someone in Australia say “G&T” brought fond memories to my mind.

And when I had it in my hand, sipping on it in Melbourne Airport, I mentioned to my workmates that G&Ts now remind me of Hanoi.

Tracy said it reminded her of her travels through South America.

Bec shared about how the beer she was drinking reminded her of backpacking in London.

 

All three of us held our drinks – the links to places and unique experiences.

 

Cheers to fond memories!

 

* Names have been changed to protect identities.

Stay in school, kids!

26 Jun

LANGUAGE WARNING. Proceed with caution.

One in the air for the people that ain’t here,
Two in the air for the father that’s there,
Three in the air for the kids in the ghetto,
Four for the kids who don’t wanna be there,
None for the n-ggas trying to hold them back,
Five in the air for the teacher not scared,

To tell those kids that living in the ghetto (that the n-ggas holdin back) that the world is theirs’!”

In Vietnam, a large proportion of parents cannot send their children to secondary and tertiary schools – particularly in the rural areas. Males are generally prioritised over females. Thus, not many girls go past Year 9.

My relatives are of that demographic.

They struggle as farmers in land that is sometimes infertile, hardly managing to put their children through school, and girls marry early to gain some level of security.

In Vietnam, many of the university students see the USA as the promised land- for the perfect lifestyle, for the perfect education.

Yet kids in the USA have to fight their own battles to stay in school.

They need positive role models like rapper Lupe Fiasco to encourage them to value their education.

So no matter what you been through,
No matter what you into,
No matter what you see when you look outside your window,
Brown grass or green grass,
Picket fence or barbed wire,

Never ever put them down,
You just lift your arms higher,
Raise em till’ your arms tired,
Let em’ know you’re there,
That you struggling and survivin’ that you gonna persevere.”

Above all, children need a sense of hope – whatever the circumstances they are in.

Complacency and apathy are our defence mechanisms

26 Jun

Above: The BBC news piece that caused a stir across the globe in 1985.

Beware: Diatribe below. Proceed with caution.

We, in the first world, choose not to care.

That way, when we hear about bad things happening in the world, we can still live our lives in comfort and enjoyment. By choosing not to care, we insure ourselves against disappointment, frustration, anger, and other uncomfortable feelings when things go wrong. So if we don’t care about immigration issues, if the sex slave trade sky rockets in Australia, we can successfully disengage and categorise it as someone else’s problem.

How do we so successfully achieve this state of uncaringness (I just invented that word)?

This is achieved by becoming complacent with the state of mayhem of the world, resulting in apathy, which paralyses us from taking steps to do anything about it. I’m not surprised by this. There are two key reasons I would like to point out as to why we, in particular the young people of the first world, are complacent and apathetic.

1. Aid doesn’t work. Giving money and volunteering in foreign countries doesn’t solve the world’s complex problems. Well, more accurately, aid hasn’t accomplished the transformations that many people hoped it would. Look at Africa, for example. I read an article while in university, that decades of aid has not lifted Africa out of poverty. It supports the structures that continue to entrench Africa in a cycle of poverty. I don’t know where that article is, but I’ve found a useful article written in 2009  I’ve also found a blog site that illuminates on the subject.

Above: A short glimpse at the “Dead Aid” in Africa issue in 2009.

The old marketing strategy of guilt-tripping people into giving aid money by broadcasting ads containing starving, sad-looking Africans on TV, especially during mealtimes – no longer works. Live Aid of the 1980s and Live 8 more recently, revived by Bono, as part of the “Make Poverty History” campaign has likewise not brought about transformative changes.

The makers of the Oscar-winning film, Slumdog Millionnaire, donated £500,000 to charities in India, prompting others to do likewise. The recent TV documentary mini-series, Go back to where you came from, has found a new type of story-telling which speaks to people and has ignited renewed dialogue on this global issue. The twittersphere and other online spheres continue to buzz about this issue. Despite these glimmers of hope that those in the first world are engaging in these issues, there is still the general population who have disengaged with these global issues.

The second key reason why we’ve become complacent and apathetic toward global issues is:

2. We have not been brought up to care about global issues.

I read a fantastic book by John Raulston Saul, called The Unconscious Civilization. It discusses how the institutions in society are geared toward encouraging passivity, mindless and continually increasing consumption and unconscious living.

One of the solutions that he poses to unconscious living is to take back our governments. This means that those of us who live in democracies need to become active democratic citizens in order for our government to truly represent us, instead of whingeing about and putting up with the government of the day.

Those of us in Australia who have gone through the formal educational institutions were never taught how to be democratic citizens, to express civic duties and responsibilities, and in turn, receive civic benefits. High school education is focused on ticking the boxes set out by the curriculum. University readies us to be worker bees.

In amongst all of that education, you don’t learn how to be a good citizen. To engage in community work, to protect and preserve the surrounding natural environment, to support the disadvantaged in the local area. We haven’t grown up being encouraged to do community work, like regenerating native bushland where it has come under attack by foreign species; or helping out at the local disability centre; or volunteering for the community fundraiser concert.

Thus, we don’t know how to be actively democratic.

If we grew up with a greater appreciation of civic duties we would be able to care and take greater ownership of our lives and our democratic nation. In turn, we would also care about and engage in global issues which concern each and every Australian. By actively engaging, we would have no need for defence mechanisms to protect us from feeling upset about Africans dying from treatable diseases. We would be OK with such feelings. We would also most likely take steps to engage with such issues.

11 things I learnt as an overseas volunteer:

20 Jun
  1. Stopping a meeting midway to go eat ice cream is perfectly normal.
  2. So is stopping to go and sing karaoke.
  3. The definition of being ‘professional’ is highly subjective.
  4. Work plan? What work plan?
  5. Many of my workmates were more technologically-literate than I was.
  6. It’s all about relationships and how you connect with others. Using a distant, formal, business-like manner won’t get you anywhere. Whereas, being warm and familiar will.
  7. Rubber-band or elastic-band time is the time that everyone abides by. Thus, a 9am start can mean 11am.
  8. Also, a 7.30am start is normal. Get used to it.
  9. You feel like a hypocrite compared to the local volunteers, who give up so much more than you do.
  10. You don’t make as big a difference as you thought you would initially. The complexities and dynamics of the world of aid and the development industry can quickly overcome any individual efforts.
  11. Letting loose at karaoke with a good bunch of friends is a great way to get over the fact that you’re not making that much of a difference.

Humans in an ant heap

20 Jun

One of the main projects I was working on during my year volunteering was to build up the network of environmental clubs and movements around Vietnam together. This seemed like not too much of an ask considering that the Internet connection is faster there than in Australia.

Young Vietnamese are commonly on Facebook, Yahoo Messenger and on their mobile phones texting. I’m talking about young Vietnamese who are educated and have access to computers, not those who live in the rural regions.

So I thought that connecting the enviro clubs in the major cities was fairly easy if I set up some blogs, online forums, a central portal website and a Facebook page.

Wrong.

Face-to-face interaction is key to building up strong, active networks. Thus, the organisation arranged many workshops and a large forum with international NGO funding to gather forty key enviro youth from around Vietnam to network and share ideas.

Online communication can only supplement relationships which are grounded in face-to-face contact.

And so it is here in Australia as well. Meetings are important, and emails can assist to distribute meeting minutes. Email exchanges can’t replace physically meeting in the same room to thrash out ideas, discussions and make decisions together.

Tertiary education by distance is simply not the way to go. Getting the on-campus university experience is still the common and preferred manner of going about one’s tertiary education. By merely sitting amongst one’s contemporaries and mixing with other bright young minds is critical. It also involves debating, challenging each other, getting your ideas put to the test and testing others’.

Lectures, tutorials, group work.

All face-to-face interaction which is conducive to rigorous learning. We all know that there’s increasing use of online learning tools.

”But a few decades of high technology can’t trump millions of years of evolution,” Glaeser says. ”Our species learns primarily from the aural, visual and olfactory clues given off by our fellow humans. The internet is a wonderful tool, but it works best when combined with knowledge gained face to face, as the concentrations of internet entrepreneurs in Bangalore and Silicon Valley would attest.”

That was taken from an article written recently by an eminent Australian economist, Ross Gittins, who explores the allure of cities and how they make sense economically for many people. He reviews the urban economist, Edward Glaeser’s new book.

“”Cities enable collaboration, especially the joint production of knowledge that is mankind’s most important creation. Ideas flow readily from person to person in the dense corridors of Bangalore or London, and people are willing to put up with high urban prices just to be around talented people, some of whose knowledge will rub off.”

Cities magnify humanity’s strengths. Because humans learn so much from other humans, we learn more when there are more people around us. Urban density creates a constant flow of new information that comes from observing others’ successes and failures. Cities make it easier to watch, listen and learn.”

In Vietnam, the urban-rural divide is very clear and the wealth is ultra-concentrated in cities. Apart from the greater focus by governmental funds, foreign aid and commercial hubs, people live live like sardines side by side and top of each other. The dynamics and rapidity of the flows of information, business and trade is incredible.

The rural communities are literally left in the dust.

Pop quiz time!

30 May

Q. What do you do when you return from your volunteering experience overseas?

A. Bore your friends and family with endless stories of your wild adventures and amazing interactions with the locals.

B. Go back to your office job and muse over that hazy, distant dream.

C. Reflect on your amazing experiences and use them as a launch pad for your journeys back home.

D. Become disillusioned and promptly leave the country, bound for more traveling adventures.

I did all of the above, and permutations of combinations in between as well.

As a ‘returned volunteer’, you’re a piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit. You generally have to find a spot to fit in, or carve your own spot. I prefer the latter.

Thinking about different worlds, and how people live in such different worlds sometimes does my head in. Sometimes I see the cleaners in my office block, and I remember the maid I had in Vietnam and the wonderful relationship I developed with her.

Some of you out there are understandably thinking, ‘You exploitative pig!’, in response to the fact I had a maid. Sure, I initially was against it. However, it’s a legitimate and respectable occupation, and if I can pay her rather generously for her services, and help her put her daughter through tertiary education (very rare for girls in Vietnam), then I’ll happily do it.

There’s a guy who comes around and waters the many plants in my office block, and tends to them, by wiping them of dust etc. He comes around once every fortnight. I have a bit of a chat with him whenever he’s around. He’s really nice and I’d like to do that job or something like that at one stage in my life. Or a window cleaner of buildings. It’ll be like rock climbing each day. How fun! These individuals have jobs which are a bit out of the ordinary (as compared to office workers).

It reminds me of being a jigsaw piece that doesn’t quite fit.

I recently moved to a new division, new branch, new team in my organisation. Everyone is nice, but I can tell they find it a bit difficult to suss me out. They aren’t sure where or how I fit in the work environment. I need to carve out my own space.

For me, I’m comfortable being an unfitting jigsaw piece. It’s liberating. I have the freedom to dream, to be creative, to determine my own journey. I attribute my older brother and sister as key shapers of this ‘philosophy’.

At the beginning of my final year in high school, they painted a painting for me for my birthday in February. It depicted a hand pushing aside long grass to reveal the sandy shores of a beach with blue, blue sky extending upwards. The words “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail” were stretched across the top of the painting.


It was such a strong message of encouragement from both of them, particularly as I was being pressured to embark on certain paths at that point in time. I wasn’t very confident at that point in time either. So that gift was such a force in my final year of high school. I ended up choosing a path in university that I’m very happy with. That message still resonates with me, and was definitely pivotal in my decision to leave Sydney (and family and friends) to volunteer in Vietnam for a year. To leave physical comfort and lack of fulfilment, for physical discomfort and much-needed life-changing and self-shaping experiences and wonderful challenges and opportunities along the way.

Being an unfitting jigsaw piece suits me fine. It’s much more interesting for me that way.

An elephant of a story

22 May

I came across The Story of Stuff shortly before arriving in Hanoi to kick-off volunteering with youth on climate change education. It came as a surprise that the first Youth and Sustainability workshop I attended screened The Story of Stuff and had breakout discussions about it afterward.

The story is a frank and scathing description of the natural and human exploitation and waste that results from a linear system of production and consumption of goods. Plundering of the developing world to feed the bloated appetites of the developed world is one key component. The author of the Story calls for a cyclical system of production and consumption which supports the natural environment as well as societies.

This Story is undoubtedly educational, thought-provoking and a great eye-opener, especially for young people who are prone to increasing their consumption. However, I kept on wondering, do these teenagers and young adults blame the developed countries for disproportionate consumption of resources and exploitation of the developing world? How do the youth of Vietnam think about Nike factories in their country? They must be angry at the West, right?

During the breakout discussions, they talked about reducing their own consumption and living greener. However, the bigger issues weren’t discussed. I still don’t know if that was intentional or not.

For me, the elephant is still in the room.

Oh, home! Let me come hooooome!

15 May

I moved to Canberra a few months back to start a new job. I’ve been riding my bike to work, and I ride my bike until I get home.

I really enjoy riding my bike. Back in Hanoi, I was seen as strange and backward because I preferred to ride my bike to riding a motorbike/motoped/scooter. I did eventually contributed to another motoped on the congested roads of Hanoi. And it was awesome. But I still maintained that riding a bike was also very awesome. In Hanoi, a motorbike is a status symbol. Riding a bike denoted poverty/being a student/being a street seller. I told my workmates (who were environmentally aware) that I chose to ride a bicycle to lower my carbon emissions. They still gave me confused looks.

Here in Canberra one morning, I was riding on my way to work and caught a bit of the song, Home, when passing by a cafe that was playing music out of its speakers. I really like that song. I especially like how passionate and in-the-moment the artists are when they perform that song. It’s evident they truly enjoy making the music and their words come from within.

So while I was riding and humming to that song, I thought about where home for me is, now that I’m living in Canberra. Is it home? Or is Sydney still home, considering I grew up there, and my family and old friends are there? Then I thought about the saying, “Home is where the heart is”. Where is my heart? Part of it is in Hanoi, where I volunteered for 12 months. Part of it is in Puku Cafe.

The friend I mentioned in my last post asked if I were to come back to visit Hanoi after I returned to Australia. I said that I really wanted to, depending on my finances and my circumstances. He said that one way to ensure I return to Hanoi was to leave something there with a friend. That’s what he did. He left some of his books and possessions with a friend in Sydney, to ensure he would return someday to visit.

It’s a nice thought.

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