Monday, May 30, 2011

Life is a Series of Compromises

Or is it? The answer is: yes. Of course it is, and the sooner we realize this, the more likely we will all find peace and happiness. But compromise doesn’t always mean sacrifice.


Within minutes of walking into Marilynn and Jack’s home, Marilynn and I are sitting on my loaned bed, chatting. We almost forget that we had planned to go to dinner. Their apartment is chic and comfortable, yet simple and rightly Vietnamese. There are fresh flowers on the table, pictures of family and books abound, and a guitar rests gently against the wall near the entrance. I’m comforted by the familiarities, never mind the incredible friendliness and warmth with which Marilynn greeted me. I’m thrilled to have been invited into their home for the week. Marilynn tells me many stories: about how she and Jack met as kids, went on to live separate lives, and then found each other again and have been happily together for the last twelve years, about the place to find the best pearls in Saigon, about the International Ladies of Vietnam group to which she belongs, and about what it’s like to split her life between Saigon and Seattle.

“Life is a series of compromises,” she says to me. It strikes me. What does that mean to her? What does it mean to me? What does it mean to others?


Our time with EMWF is both full and fulfilling. Each morning I’m greeted with a latte from Jack before I make the short walk to the office. I start the week wearing flats and carrying my dress shoes, timidly scurrying through the sea of motorbikes, but by the end I feel at ease, heals and all. The weather is a strange juxtaposition to the energy in Saigon. We’re almost into the “hot” season, so the sun is relentless, and the air thick and moist. After just minutes outside I feel sluggish, languid, but business buzzes all around me. In fact, Vietnam seems to be teeming with entrepreneurs.

The Lunch Lady, made famous by Anthony Bourdain, serves ambrosial
homemade soups to the masses just a short walk from our office.

A burgeoning entrepreneur hawks bananas and cold drinks at a floating market on the Mekong.

We have the fortunate opportunity to meet with executives from various multinational companies to hear their perspectives, pitfalls and progress in the field of CSR. I’m down right enthralled by the initiatives that some companies have championed; programs to encourage a love of reading for orphans, sex education for victims of human trafficking, HIV/AIDS treatments, education and support networks, to name a few. One of our interviewees tells us that he doesn’t like the term CSR.

“It’s just something you’re supposed to do,” he says, matter-of-factly.

Some companies have intertwined their CSR initiatives into their business strategy—a great success, in my (humble) opinion. Others still keep it peripheral. One company fully impressed me when they said they didn’t yet have a developed CSR program, but that they were open and ready to learn. They even asked for a copy of our findings. Their honesty and interest was inspiring.

I can’t yet boil down what I’ve learned in these unbelievably rich few weeks, but what continues to impress me is Marilynn’s wisdom. “Life is a series of compromises.” Compromise: an agreement reached by reciprocal modification of demands. Not necessarily a sacrifice. So, in business, maybe we need to modify our demands to truly achieve success. Or maybe we need to redefine success. In any case, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that good business can mean both profitability and responsibility. It should mean both. One need not be sacrificed for the other.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Stare

I think it’s the beard. It’s definitely the glasses. She’s never done this before. You must remind her of someone. She’s in love with you. She’s skeptical. Pensive. Confused maybe? Intrigued….possibly. I’ll never know.

I wave. Nothing. I blow up my cheeks and cross my eyes. Nothing. Just the stare. I smile and reach for her hand. Nothing. I touch her leg. Nothing. Hello! She can’t hear me. She can’t hear anything. I reach for the police car she’s been rolling around on the floor. She pulls it behind her back and glances around the room full of cribs and then refocuses on me. I scoot over and get attacked by an alligator in the hands of another four year old. I return to her after some time, and she just stares. “While you were gone she was laughing and smiling!” With me, she just stares.

I can’t even remember the young orphan's name. I doesn’t matter. I hope it was love. I hope I reminded her of something good and wonderful, but I doubt it. I hope she remembers me, but I doubt she will. I won't soon forget her.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


“You can still see Agent Orange here,” Huy tells us. He gestures toward a shirtless man with a concave chest. Agent Orange, as if the man were a James Bond character and this was his alias. We’re sitting on tiny pink and blue Playskool stools on a side street in Saigon. The local time is about 2am.

“I want to eat street food!”

This is what I told Huy and Michael when they asked if we wanted to go out for a bite. Now, as I sit there on my plastic stool, I feel uneasy. I clench my bag and wrap my long skirt around my ankles. I intensify my grip as Agent Orange meanders by. Rats outnumber us across the way.

Huy orders for us: huo tui, cơm chiên, and mì xào – a light soup of southern style cured ham, baby napa cabbage and rice noodle, fried rice with pork and egg, and fried ramen noodle with pork and greens, respectively. And a round of Tiger beers.

“It’s delicious,” I tell him as I awkwardly hold my chopsticks in one hand and my spoon in the other. This is what Lonely Planet told me to do. I’m worldly.

It honestly was delicious. I probably would have just said that, partially to be polite and mostly to sound like I was as adventurous an eater as I had claimed to be, but I really meant it. I tried to ignore the rats.

* * *

We’ve been in Saigon for three days now. Three days? That’s all? It feels like so much more. Thanks to jetlag, I’m a morning person here. I went for an early run yesterday to relieve my poor limbs of their sedentary requirements, which also gave me some time to think:

Are people looking at me? Should my shoulders be covered? But it’s ungodly hot! What is that meat? I want to buy those fake Ray Bans. Is that ridiculous? But I want them. What day is it? I don’t want that woman with the deformed foot to touch me. I think I’m scared of her. Does she know Agent Orange?

This morning was our first day at the East Meets West Foundation office. We spent the early part of the day finalizing our interview questions and notes, and then had a conference call with Van in Da Nang. In the afternoon we compiled deeper research on the companies we would meet with tomorrow, ordered bánh mì and cà phê đá—baguette sandwich and sweet iced coffee—for lunch, and later took a visit to the War Remnants Museum.

* * *
U.S. Army tanks and planes line the entrance.

God, it’s hot in here. How did they get these planes? Did we give them to the museum as a charitable gift?

I find that I’m most intrigued by photos of people. I walk carefully and methodically through each room: Requiem. Historical Truths. Agent Orange Aftermath.

Though the photos are graphic, they seem unreal. Black and white images of broken bodies and landscapes ripped apart by conflicts of interest look like film sets. Then there are clearer photos. Recent photos. Depictions of disfigured, awful, scary looking people. My diligent scrutiny of each image gradually fades to a brisk scan across the walls. I don’t know if I can look anymore. I don’t want to look anymore. The photos are newer and newer. There is a letter on the wall written by a victim of Agent Orange. She writes to President Obama. The year was 2009. I think about the man from the alley and the woman from my run.

* * *

“You can still see Agent Orange here.”

It's interesting, the wandering and convenient definitions of history.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Anxious Thoughts

As I sit anxiously awaiting my morning departure to Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, depending on with whom you’re speaking) many thoughts and questions race through my mind. I’ll get to those. We are preparing to embark on an adventure that has is a unique blend of academia and big business, social mission and profit maximization, and finally, Eastern and Western cultures.

We have been given this opportunity partially as a result of PSU’s interesting and forward thinking Capstone Project, which allows students to gain real World experience in various fields of business, while still having the resources and support that come along with clutching to the final months of time in business school. Many doors that never would have been opened to me, have been cracked ajar, as a result of presenting myself under the guise of being a student, none however, have been as fortuitous as this opportunity. A chance to travel to Southeast Asia and meet with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) leaders from a dozen Multi-National Companies? Never in my wildest dreams did I envision this as my experience, just two years ago, as I mulled over the Portland State University catalogues and various websites while deciding on where I wanted to write the next chapter of my life. The Capstone Project was one of the more attractive aspects of the program to me…little did I know.

Let’s be clear. This project was not handed to us. The idea came a result of the networking skills of our friend and colleague Mike Nguyen when he traveled to Vietnam last summer to visit family. Mike attended a social event and struck up a conversation with a lovely young woman named Van. This conversation has evolved into a partnership between the East Meets West Foundation and Portland State University as a result of the hard work and innovative thinking that has gone into our project. My point of all this being that, opportunities present themselves in all forms. Being able to recognize them is a skill that can rarely be taught. I give a great deal of credit to Mike for being able to envision the potential of this relationship.

Quick Thoughts
  • Every time I picture Saigon, I picture a chaotic atmosphere. Why is this? I am concentrating on this in order to allow myself to take in the city for what it is, not to be surprised or disappointed because it is not what I had envisioned.
  • I eat like a six year old. I also don’t eat any seafood. I have a feeling both of these things are about to change.
  • After reading dozens of CSR reports about the work MNC’s are doing in Vietnam, I must keep in mind that Vietnam has recently emerged from being a third world country, and keep my expectations in line.
  • A wise person recently told me to remember to be constantly be aware of your surroundings. This was not meant as cautionary advise, but rather advise as how to best enjoy and take in the experience. Often times you become overwhelmed by your surroundings and forget to remember that this is part of the journey.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

This is Not Advice

"Hello, readers," I say (to myself), knowing well and good that this statement is optimistic at best, quixotic on some levels, and most likely just plain unnecessary. Maybe someday, with the helpful nudge of Portland State University, others will be interested in our experiences. Future students will look to us for advice before they embark on their own maiden voyages. Businesses will use our research and findings to develop frameworks for responsible practices. Or at least, we will have "readers."

But for now, as the title denotes, this is not advice. We are not experts, executives, or exemplars. We are students, and we find this to be an enviable position, indeed.

To follow will be a chronicled exercise in collaboration: between students and experts, didactics and experiences, business and charity, and east and west.

The story will be told from the perspective of four MBA students, who will travel to Saigon to work with a Vietnamese foundation and meet with business executives to assess the state of corporate social responsibility in Vietnam.
To demonstrate our commitment to transparency (as the corporates say), we created this blog, in an attempt to convey our message with as much honesty and as few preconceptions as possible.

Please enjoy.