By: Justin Shelby
I wanted to tell you a quick story that might contextualize some of my recent actions.
Anyway, maybe a month ago I was driving back from the office. I stopped at the store to pick up some Bacardi (my favorite), and was maybe 5 minutes from my house when I hit another bike. The bike was carrying a woman and her kid, and they jumped in front of me (and stopped, frogger style), when I was glancing over my shoulder for a lane change. Glancing over your shoulder like this is a bad habit, ingrained when I was in the US and learning to drive a car. There, you do it to check for any cars/motorbikes/small children that might be in your blind spot. In Vietnam, this is a bad habit though, since bikes with correctly configured mirrors have no real blind spots, but I digress.
Even now, it is unclear to me how hard I hit them, but I can’t have been very hard. The bottle of Bacardi, which was hanging off the bike on side of the impact, was unbroken. Besides indicating the mildness of the impact, I happy about this for another reason: I’m not sure how the crowd that gathered would have reacted had they thought I was drunk. The other bike had tipped over, but had fallen inward, towardsthe force of the impact, not away from it. My undercarriage seemed to have shifted a little. The kid seemed to have stepped off the bike and was, completely uninjured, but the mother was on the ground, clutching her ankle. At this point, I’m extremely concerned about the woman, and visibly worried.
A crowd quickly gathers and helps me move the woman to the sidewalk, where she continued to cry and worry her ankle. I call Phuong, since my Vietnamese is obviously not going to be sufficient for this situation. After some examination, it doesn’t look like anything is seriously wrong with the ankle. However, the amount of pain she seems to be in completely outstripped the apparent extent of the injury, which makes me think something might be wrong internally. Maybe some sort of closed fracture. At some point, a man, apparently her brother, walks up, asks what happened, and someone points to me. He loses his temper and advances on me with a raised fist. I step in, grab his off-hand finger-in-finger, raise my fist, and push him backwards. Crowds (read: mobs) being what they are, it would be unwise to show weakness here, and I’ll be damned if this sack of shit is going to intimidate me when he should be worrying about his sister and her ankle. I think he expected me to back away, not step in, so he quickly retreated back into the street, away from the sidewalk and spent the next 5 minutes glaring at me. Maybe five minutes after that, he drove off with the kid.
My wife arrived, and after a short discussion, we agreed to take the woman to the hospital. I later learned that the woman, despite her apparent emotional distress, didn’t think she had suffered any great physical harm and just wanted to go to a pharmacy to take care of the small cut on her leg. Her “family” (maybe 5 brothers/cousins/friends who had appeared out of nowhere) insisted on going to the hospital for an x-ray. All 5 accompanied us, with a few more arriving shortly after we did. Even though everything suggested that this was not a big deal, I was extremely worried this whole time, and very willing to do what I can to help this woman out.
We arrive at the hospital and the doctor examines the leg. He says he doesn’t think that it looks broken but elects to do 2 x-rays, one of the leg and one of the chest. Once Phuong is out of the room, one of the woman’s friends asks the doctor to exaggerate the damage that has been done to the woman’s leg. The idea being, of course, that if more damage has been done we’ll be willing to pay more in restitution. These matters are pretty much always settled in cash at the hospital, since insurance isn’t really a thing (of course, it is, but not for people of this economic class for accidents of this severity). Mind you, we haven’t even established that her leg is actually ok, and this has already morphed into a shakedown. Luckily, the doctor was not interested in helping scam us and he refused to do this. He even embarrassed the man by refusing and explaining to my wife and I what he had asked the doctor to do in front of all three of us.
We get the x-ray. The technician doesn’t even bother to help the woman onto the table. After a few minutes, the doctor tells us that the leg is fine and that the injury is to the soft tissue, painful, but not remotely dangerous or disabling. After getting some medication to prevent any sort of infection the woman is carried by 3 family members to a waiting taxi. We pay her 2 or 3 million VND + all the medical expenses (not much), and away she goes.
I was conflicted. I felt bad for the woman, who might have to take a day or two off of work while her ankle healed. But I was also a bit raw that I had been physically threatened and then almost scammed by the family of someone who I was sincerely interested in helping.
Abstract away all the particulars and this incident is a little microcosm of what my experience with mistakes, even small ones, has been in Vietnam. A small mistake will very frequently balloon into something potentially much larger (with a large element of uncertainty). This could be something as trivial as minor traffic accident or a misspelled name on a visa. A single mistake on a student application will be used as a means to shift blame for perceived failure, and will later be exaggerated and used to threaten you and your organization’s good name. A parent will try to weasel out of an unambiguous contract and threaten to defame you if you make them pay, because they are unsatisfied with the result their child received, despite the fact that their student got more than 100,000 USD in scholarship money to a top 50 school. A student will find an inconsequential typo or mistranslation, something on the order of “co-manager” to “manager”, or “first” to “final” where the difference either doesn’t matter or where the meaning would have been understood from context, and then tell their friends that your staff isn’t careful with their translations. Then their friends tell their friends, etc.
I don’t know if this is a management thing or a Vietnam thing, but as my organization has grown instead of being helpful a disturbingly large minority of the people I encounter will immediately identify any weakness or fault as an opportunity to extract money, save money, or make things more difficult for me generally. Sometimes they will try to accuse or intimidate you (I get the feeling this is done as a sort of reflex to put you on the back foot) and you need to be pugnacious to avoid genuine, occasionally physical, danger. Then when you try to do the right thing, you experience what feels like a punishment, as people continue to try and take advantage of you. Whether you get screwed on any given day has everything to do with how lucky you are, how sharp your Vietnamese happens to be, the presence of an allied party that speaks the language, the reliability of second hand accounts (never very reliable) and the goodness of your counterparties. Very often your counterparties are not people of good-will, but opportunistic and occasionally criminal. It continually takes sandpaper to your idealism. The students are (usually) lovely, but as Bedrock has grown, I’ve been dealing with the lovely bits less and less and everything else more and more. Easy student/government/management situations get pushed to capable counselors and staff while I consistently deal with difficult student/government/management situations. It is easy to become a bit…reactive.
I have also thought about whether to continue to expose my staff, students, and clients to this kind of reflection on my business and cultural/emotional situation, or whether, like a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, I should alone take the water of life and neutralize the poison. Something in between is required. Students in this industry seem to make the decision over which center to work with far more than their parents do. While it’s nice that they have that small level of freedom, students, (because they’re still children), often lack the wisdom to see through the consequences of their actions and the actions of their peers. Whether they slander us, defend us against slander, promote us, give positive or negative public reviews of our service, or stay silent, their actions are impactful and affect whether I can pay my staff, feed my coming baby, and continue to make a living for myself. I think that part of our educational mission, at least as long as real-life economic decisions are being made by sheltered, thoughtless, and relatively coddled students, rather than their wiser and more restrained parents, is to show the inner workings of things that are normally hidden. It is our job to make them less sheltered, more thoughtful, and less coddled. One effective way to do this is to show them the reality of situation they’re in and in which they place others by carelessness, ignorance, or malice. This includes the emotional difficulties of management, the consequences of petty fault finding, and the large importance of things that seem small only to the young, the inexperienced, and the unwise.