Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Metaphors from Vietnam

I’ve been organizing my pictures from Vietnam and can’t believe how many images I took of the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City – motorbikes upon motorbikes, plus some cars and a few trucks, all kind of moving the way fish swim. The whole experience of arriving in a place with a different language and different rules and unfamiliar surroundings puts me back in the shoes of a first-time community college student. The roaring motorbikes, the street vendors in all shapes and sizes, the bunched electrical lines, the sights, sounds and smells are all so much to take in for someone experiencing them for the first time. Similarly, finding the right office in Rome or Utica, hearing the words “matriculation”, “registrar”, “bursar”, and “FAFSA” for the first time can be disorienting to the new student who must take a placement test. However, it was amazing how much of my discomfort with the surroundings in Vietnam was quickly eased by a warm smile, a helping hand, or a sense of humor from those around me. I imagine these same three things might make a good remedy to ease the minds of new students in their new surroundings at MVCC as well.

A new student coming to MVCC probably sees a number of contrasts as well: we’re big in some ways and small in others; we’re fast in some ways and slow in others; we’re easy on some things and tough on others and so on. As a first-time visitor to Vietnam, I found many contrasts that made me think in new ways about our evolving organizational culture at MVCC.

Organized Ambiguity
Once again, the traffic is my starting point – the best way I can describe it is organized ambiguity. Walking through the streets, you can see that, yes, there are traffic lights (sometimes), but it seems like there are a number of unwritten rules and everything seems ambiguous. Yet, traffic moves – it’s always moving – in a very organized fashion. An overarching notion of merging exists that creates room for everyone to do what they need to do. At one point, we were traveling in a van on a fairly busy road and suddenly a cab driver in front of us just decided to make a left turn (no light) by inching out into a sea of oncoming motorbikes. Gentle beeps were coming in all tones and rhythms forming a language of acknowledgement and recognition. I saw more smiles than frowns in the oncoming traffic and I couldn’t help thinking, “Everyone was just helping him make a left turn.” How many times do we find ourselves working in ways hidden behind fabricated positions so entrenched they don’t allow for much interpersonal cooperation or interdepartmental merging, let alone managing the ambiguities many of our new students experience during their first days here?

Entrepreneurial and Bureaucratic
If there was one thing I wish I could have packaged in Vietnam, and brought home through customs duty-free, it was the incredible entrepreneurial spirit I found in most every conversation. It seemed like most of the people I met were willing to try anything new and work hard to be successful. I never once got a sense that anyone felt entitled to anything. You only got something if you worked hard for it and there was no guarantee that you would get it. In light of this sense of entrepreneurship and exploration of the possibilities, everything is done in the context of existing institutions, most of which were formed during an entrepreneurial-inhibiting, Soviet-influenced period prior to the current socialist republic, one with a market economy that intends to be a developed nation by 2020. We have our own institutions – New York State, SUNY, Department of Education, Oneida County, Board policies, procedures – and have many reasons to employ a “bureaucratic response” when something less so might prove more effective. Imagine what MVCC would be like, and how far we could go in fulfilling our mission, if we were inspired by an entrepreneurial spirit and driven by an exploration of the possibilities.

The Same but Different
As I started with the traffic, I must end with the food. The culinary contrast for me can be summed up in the phrase, “the same but different.” Food is everywhere in the markets with fresh fruit, vegetables, spices and seafood overflowing with sights and smells I’d never encountered: pyramids of dragonfruit and many other fruits I could not identify; slabs of raw, uncovered meat, and cobras or scorpions in bottles of rice wine (this last intended as an aphrodisiac). The food is always a base of rice, noodles and soup, but the sauces, spices and vegetables make every meal an adventure for the palate. Each meal also had a choice of fish, pork or sometimes shrimp. After a day or two of three meals a day with this routine, I had a flash of “Again?…REALLY?” But then we had fried fish. I thought, “HEY, I love fried fish!” – thinking of a tasty Friday fish fry somewhere back home. Well, a real fried fish came on the plate – I mean, there’s a no doubt very recently alive complete fish looking at me like, “Hey, who dropped me in the deep fryer?” When I got past the visual, the fish was delicious all the way to the point that someone told me to break off the tailfin and eat it - seriously. It tasted like a potato chip and I ate more fin than most of my dining companions! What if, organizationally, we could take our daily routine – the same ingredients of what we do – and find ways to regularly alter and reinvent it for students without changing the core? We tell ourselves that we travel to experience other cultures. But on our return these trips make it possible for us to see our own culture with new eyes and, thus, benefit in ways we had not expected.

My recent experience in Vietnam was both enriching and informative. I have returned to MVCC with an expanded spirit of hope and expectation, and an excitement about the potential to be found in the accommodation of others’ needs combined with entrepreneurial endeavor. If we are willing, MVCC, with its “commitment to excellence and a spirit of service” can live out that potential for every one of the new students who will be starting on the quest to reach their academic and career goals next month!

If you have any thoughts on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.