Monday, June 28, 2010

Out of the Comfort Zone

After six years of various activity and exchanges, MVCC signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Kien Giang Community College in Rach Gia, Vietnam last year. Dr. Sandy Engel, Director of International Education, began the relationship with her Fulbright experience at KGCC in 2003. Since then, we've slowly expanded the relationship between our schools that ultimately led to the MOU. Their former and current rectors (college presidents) have visited MVCC along with administrators from some of the ten other community colleges in Vietnam. We have sent two business faculty to KGCC, one as part of a USAID grant a few years ago and, more recently, MVCC hosted Mr. Khang for five weeks in the spring of 2009 and Ms. Khanh for nine weeks this past semester. To cement the MOU and get a feel for KGCC myself, I joined Dr. Engel and ESL faculty member Alison Doughtie for a ten day visit. Having never been west of San Francisco, the title of this post captures my experience thus far.

It started by getting off the plane at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) with Dr. Engel saying, “We need to get a cab to the hotel before we go outside – trust me.” I wasn’t sure why she was so focused on this until the doors opened for us to go to the curb. After walking through a wall of heat and humidity that I’ve rarely experienced a few times in Florida and Texas, I felt like one of the Beatles getting off the plane in ’64 – hundreds, if not a thousand or more people packed waiting for their loved ones…an amazing welcome to Vietnam! As I sat in the front seat of the cab, a Toyota Innova van (never heard of it), I remembered the YouTube video on traffic in Vietnam – not a lot of street signs and everybody seems to know the rules…95% of the traffic is on motorbikes (little 50 or 100cc bikes) and everyone merges and honks and it all just flows somehow - it took me about 4-5 days to get over my fascination with the traffic.

It was most certainly a very worthwhile visit filled with perspective-expanding experiences. We met with the Director of an MBA program that Harvard University runs in partnership with the Economics University in Ho Chi Minh City and benefitted from a meeting, that felt like a personal seminar on the economics of Vietnam over the past 30 years, to ground us in the culture. We met with the Executive Board of KGCC to review our partnership. We met with the President of the Vietnam Association of Community Colleges – the country equivalent of the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington D.C. We toured a rural hospital and saw their CT Scanner two doors down from their herbal medicine laboratory. The tour of a water hyacinth company that takes the reeds from the canals and turns them into furniture before they end up in Pier 1 stores in New Hartford and elsewhere was a surprising global supply chain example; we also visited a fish processing port to see the international fishing industry up close and personal. Dr. Engel and I presented to a group of about 20 professionals on how community colleges in the U.S. work with small businesses to help them grow and also provided an overview of how to apply and study at MVCC to about 50 KGCC students. In addition, Professor Doughtie conducted an ESL assessment for about 30 English majors at KGCC. On our last stop in Ho Chi Minh City, we met with the U.S. Consulate to continue the relationship that Dr. Engel has developed to reflect on what we learned and to confirm to the State Department our relationship with KGCC and our interest in Vietnam.

Despite the productive schedule of meetings and perspective altering side trips, I had some initial concerns about “flying halfway around the world.” After paying the equivalent of $6.80 for dinner one night (for three people!) and $15 hotel rooms in Rach Gia, I realized that ten days in Vietnam is actually cheaper than the cost of a 4-day conference in California (flight, hotel, food and conference fee). The value of the opportunity to “get outside my comfort zone” is really hard to define or measure – I guess that will come with time.

What was out of my comfort zone? To be overwhelmed by the sounds, sights, and scents; to learn phrases in a difficult and unfamiliar language; to see what you know about the collectivist culture take shape in so many ways; to find yourself in a place where everything seems to amplify one contrast after another (the list of contrasts and associated metaphorical applications to our organization will comprise another post); to walk through The War Remnants Museum and see “The American War” (what we call the “Vietnam War”) through their eyes – 2 million of the 3 million killed were civilians; to see a country of 85 million where 60% are younger than 30 years old and the place is changing so fast; to walk into a coffee shop and hear Steve Winwood singing or Beatles muzak playing on the radio; to eat everything they put in front of you – if only to try it; to know that each day will not likely go as planned; to be in relentless, sweltering heat and humidity; and to let yourself be okay with it all…yeah, the notion of being in the comfort zone was not on my mind much.

And yet, experiencing the “flatness” of our world at a time when we continually need to readjust our lenses on our own place and purpose is probably never more important than now. The perspective I’ve gained in making the 29 hour door-to-door journey will probably continue to come to me in waves. I’ve already captured a number of analogies and metaphors that have re-centered my focus and renewed my purpose for the important work that we do every day halfway around the world in the Mohawk Valley. If you have any thoughts on this post, please contact me directly at presblog@mvcc.edu.