On returning to Hue for research between semesters, I spoke to long-time friend Nguyen Minh Ngoc who is nearing the end of her masters in Europe. We got around to talking about her thoughts on her scholarship, internet communities and the things that made her the person she is today.
Give me the lowdown on your masters and where you are
Where I am… I feel like I have to preface it. I feel that I am very fortunate, things in life have somehow tended to fall in their place for me. This doesn’t mean that I don’t work for them or move forward, but there are internal and external factors that I do not have control over. Things just “happen” for me sometimes, and I see myself as very fortunate.
So with this master’s program, I feel like it also just “happened”, and again, I’m just very fortunate. About two or three years after I graduated from my bachelor’s degree, I had this feeling that it was time for me to go to grad school. So I started looking for a scholarship. I knew I couldn’t go study abroad if I didn’t receive external funding. Most grad school scholarships would require at least two years of work experience, and this is one that didn’t ask for that. The one I am talking about is the European commission’s Erasmus Mundus program. These programs are allegedly based on two things: academic merit, because they are all research based, and cultural exchange, which is contextualized in the multicultural European area.
The program I am in is an educational program, but it isn’t neutral: ‘International Masters in Adult Education for Social Change’. There is a clear political leaning. A progressive, liberal education to engage and emancipate and raise consciousness rather than to produce a workforce. And that’s exactly why I’m there.
There are 25 of us on the course, not too big of a number. We come from technically 20 different countries. A very international and multicultural group. You get to see things from many sets of eyes. You get to see perspectives from where those people are from.
They expect us to have at least two mobility periods. For my course there are three. I started in Glasgow, Scotland, then Malta, and now I am in Estonia. We could spend our final semester in any of the three locations we had already been based. I decided to stay in Estonia, purely to make things easier for myself. It’s good that I do also really enjoy Estonia.
Has Estonia been your favorite location during your master’s course?
Not just the place but also my personal experiences. I have had a really good time there. I guess it was a good choice to stay.
What do you think your classmates hope to achieve?
Social change, as in the name of the program. When I was looking for graduate programs that would suit me, I found two. But I just had this gut feeling that this is the one for me. Working for social change through education, grassroots and bottom up, not some top down bullshit. So this was the only one I applied for. Fortunately, I got into the program and I got the scholarship.
Are a large proportion of the people on the course funded through scholarship?
A bit more than half, I think.
What are some of the nationalities on the course?
There are two Vietnamese, as well as people from Thailand, China, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Greece, Germany, Scotland, England, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Hawaii, the USA, and Ghana. Very global.
And how does this compare to what you were doing before?
Well after a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics and finance, I did a 180. I didn’t like economics school. I don’t like mainstream economics and how the schools deliver their programs. Little diversity of thought. I didn’t really like my undergrad experience that much. Throughout and after college, I worked for a US NGO in Vietnam. ETA4 it is called.
What do ETA4 do?
We organize summer camps and facilitate activities, conversations, games, and art performances around Vietnam. The medium is in English. Our flagship programs are our five week summer camps. We bring in international volunteers to work with Vietnamese volunteers to facilitate the camp every year. I would like to say that we have a good legacy in Hue city. There were summers where we would have up to 1000 students. We would have a lot of classes for different ages and skill levels. Morning and afternoon. We tried to do some things in the evenings as well. It was 5 times a week at first, but then we downsized it to once a week. These night classes were more discussion based.
What were the age groups?
We would have children as young as 6 year olds, and then students as old as 70! So the age groups were very diverse. Whoever wanted to learn, basically.
How long did you work for them?
Technically speaking, I’m still working for them, although we are taking a break this year. I have been working for them for 10 years. I started as a student. Then I volunteered doing admin stuff on the Vietnam side. I then became a representative and eventually, the director.
Are they based only in Hue?
We’ve had some programs in the South of Vietnam but the core work is in Hue. It’s the most consistent program that we have. We’ve had a few programs elsewhere but they weren’t as consistent.
What kind of things influenced you in becoming the person you are now?
The first thing has to be my background. I come from a privileged background. Not financially, but intellectually. Both my parents are educated people. My dad works as an academic. He works at the university of sciences, with the department of chemistry. He is pretty good at what he does. My mum studied biology but didn’t end up working in that field. She was doing managerial jobs for foreign textile companies. I wouldn’t say all educated people are open-minded people, but they are both open-minded. They actually do enjoy learning and are open to learning. Growing up in that environment with books around, with their support for my learning, I feel that I have a lot of freedom to pursue what I want to pursue.
I guess when I was a kid I never thought I would go into academic work. You know how most teenagers want to go against their parents! I never wanted to follow my dad into academia. I thought I would do something more unconventional, but here I am. Or maybe the profession isn’t an unconventional one, but my approach to it is? I certainly hope so.
Anyway, my family background is important and I didn’t come to appreciate it until more recently. I now see that it has a tremendous influence on who I am.
The second thing would have to be my queer identity. Growing up feeling different forced me to think and look inwards. I guess thinking more carefully became a habit. When your identity is something unconventional and looked down upon or seen as abnormal, the process of reconciling your emotions, your desires, and social expectations requires you to be critical of things. That habit of thinking has forced me to be critical. That has definitely played an important role in shaping the way I think.
Personality is another thing as well. Being who I am and the way that I am pushed me into a place of opportunities. I think the opportunities I had when I was younger allowed me to meet a lot of people from a lot of different countries. That gave me new perspectives and allowed me to see things differently. And your perspectives affect who you are as a person.
What memories do you have with interacting with people from different countries and how far does it stem back?
I guess from Middle School (secondary school). It started with competitions with students from abroad, like in school-organized interactions, workshops and classes with students from other countries. High school was when I started going to ETA4 classes and got to interact with a lot of American volunteers. Generally speaking, different perspectives open you up.
At the beginning, I have to admit that I went through a phase. I think everyone does, given the context. I went through a phase of idolizing American culture in specific, and Western cultures in general, because of all the good things on the surface that were shown to me at the time. I am not saying there aren’t good things about American culture or the West, but I definitely didn’t see things through all the angles.
So I went through the phase of idolizing white people and predominantly white cultures in general, but then I got into politics and started learning more about feminism.
Do your first interactions with feminism coincide with your first explorations of the internet?
Yes. But it was a very specific platform. It was Tumblr. Looking back at…
Just to clarify. Tumblr was a platform where people shared videos and photos?
So the reason why I got into Tumblr. I was going through the phase of questioning my identity in high school. In many ways, I was isolating myself. The internet became my output. I don’t know how I found out about it, but when I did it was through the moody ‘emo’ part of the platform. I felt that I could relate to it. And then just through browsing, I found other niche communities that Tumblr fostered. These groups or communities were very active and relevant at the time. Feminist blogs, aesthetic blogs, comedy blogs, porn blogs. Tumblr is pretty much dead now. They lost a lot of users when they decided to take down pornography. That’s because up until recently, many people solely used it for porn blogs. But besides those, there are or were some really niche stuff. I never really publicly engaged or wrote on Tumblr. I just read and internally engage with what I read.
When did you first find Tumblr?
I think around 2011. I still use it and am on it for the comedy blogs. I started with emo stuff, then moved into feminism. Now I’m just there for the comedy.
So 2011 made you, 18? So I can relate to that and how the internet gave me access to a more global and diverse readership…
Tumblr is really global and gay. It helps that people can relatively remain there anonymously. I think in many ways, Tumblr did shape me.
Around that time I started working with ETA4, and from there, got into education. We incorporated a lot of themes on social justice. So that all tied in together. Taking Tumblr theories and putting them into practice at English summer camp. I engaged and I had the opportunity to be engaged with [these themes]. So when I graduated from college, I was certain that learning and social-justice orientated education were definitely the things I enjoyed. When I found this master program, it was just perfect. And here I am. It has definitely changed me.
How do you think you have changed over this course?
When I was working at ETA4 I was thinking, but that was being overpowered by the work. Having to be constantly productive at work, producing outcomes.
Since I have been with the program, I feel I have activated my thinking side more, and I now feel more reluctant to act because I am now in the state of being overwhelmingly aware of the consequences of my actions. I don’t have entire control over the outcomes, so I have to be cautious. Not that I didn’t know that before, but I have become hyper-sensitive to it. And I guess I have been very stimulated intellectually. I am getting into theories which was my main goal in joining the master’s program, to see things from a theoretical foundation and build an academic background. That is how I think I have changed which doesn’t sound like much, but in my mind, in my perspective, there has been a big shift in how I see things. Even the tiniest mental shift can feel… it’s like you have put on a different filter.
Filters are easy to remove though. Surely its constant development
If you are aware that a perspective is a lens then maybe you can remove it, but if you’re socialized into it and never realize that it’s there, you can’t possibly remove it.
You say you are less active now?
I don’t think I am immobile. Rather, I am more cautious about what and where and when and how and why I act. This might make me seem less active, but I am not immobile. I have the agency and ability to act, but I am more conscious and more prepared to deal with what my actions do. Hopefully.
What do you think you will be bringing back to Vietnam after the program?
I used to think of myself as an educator and a mentor, but now I see myself as a learner. Mostly. Even when I am doing the work of an educator. I guess I hope to bring back fresh perspectives, and challenges.
Challenges for yourself?
Yes, and other people. I guess I want to engage and that’s my way of going about it. I want to engage with people through challenges. Their mindset and their way of thinking. I don’t want to impose anything because it doesn’t work that way. I think the best I can do is to poke people and offer something. If I am able to poke and something comes about through that then I see it as a success and I see it as me doing something. Through that process, I believe that I myself will be poked and things will be offered to me as well. Who knows!
How about resurrecting Tumblr?
There are a lot of projects that could be done with the meme culture alone.
You have come back to Hue over this time to conduct interviews with people about the queer identity of Hue. Why did you decide to do this?
First of all, I am trying not to term it anything. I am trying to give it a description rather than a definition. I say ‘non-normative’ when talking about this. But sometimes when I’m feeling lazy, or when I feel like I don’t mind being a bit problematic, I still use ‘queer’ as an umbrella term to refer to all non-normative sexualities and gender identities.
It is a personal project. And if I have to study something, it has to be of interest to me. Otherwise it’s not going to be good.
But it’s not just that. Of course, I am interested in the aspect of sexualities and gender identities, but ultimately, I am more interested in the ways that people are, how they see things, how they connect, how they modify and morph. Interesting things come into being when identities go against the current because it is a lot for the human psyche. This state of being against the world inevitably creates such a complexity in the human mind that I find fascinating. That’s why I am interested in marginalized identities. I don’t mean to say they don’t have agency, just a disclaimer.
When looking at non-normativity, there’s a lot of aspects of human identities that you can look into, but I chose sexuality and gender because (1) I have a personal relationship with them and (2) I believe that gender and sexuality are the two most suppressed aspects of life in the context of Vietnam. Sexuality is an aspect that is suppressed globally, but even more so in the context of Vietnam. Gender comes into the picture because of our strict societal norms and expectations of gender expressions.
To me, drawing out and bringing into the light the most suppressed aspects of our identities is an extreme confrontation. In going through extreme confrontations, people go through very potentially transformative experiences, and those transformative experiences can lead to critical engagement and the raising of ‘consciousness’. I’m not sure if I like that expression, but there it is… and a conscious society… well, you can picture where we can go from there. I don’t like to direct here.
So you have come back this time to specifically speak with people in Hue. How do you feel about the general perception of Hue holding a unique identity in Vietnam?
We do dwell on the past. The feudal system was here not too long ago, up until 1945. I don’t want to essentialise it, not to generalise it to everyone either, but there is something a bit different about Hue people. People think of it as the essence and attitude of Hue people. I suspect it’s got a lot to do with our history. People still cling on to the royal identity and the royal culture. There is a strong cultural identity in Hue. A certain sense of pride to be from Hue. And because of such an attachment to our traditions and our culture, which can be really beautiful and enriching, we also tend to lean on the side of conservatism compared to Danang or Saigon. Hue is conservative and known for being conservative. Consequently, the way that people engage with and react to non-normative identities, identities that don’t conform, can be more extreme. I guess what I am saying when I say ‘extreme’ is not necessarily violence or confrontation or physical abuse. There might be such things, but what I am talking about is more about the mindset, the mentality and the attitude. It’s hard to change. Hard to shake.
What are some of the effects that Hue culture has on members of the non-normative community?
I will have to be doing a lot more digging, a more thorough analysis of the data I have collected. Even then, I couldn’t say that the data that I have is representative for all, or what I know is all there is to be known.
But the general sentiment I have gained from the interviews I have conducted is that there is a general sense that people here are conservative and the mentality here is hard to shake. Because of that, people might face more internal struggles. But I feel that there is a very interesting opposing force at play here as well, it is the fluidity in our way of thinking. I mean as we are influenced by religious philosophies/philosophical religions such as Buddhism and Taoism, people tend to think in a more fluid way, and it applies to sexuality and gender as well. This opposes the rigidity of traditions and societal norms. It opposes the relatively more rigid tradition of thought of Confucianism, and obviously opposes the tradition of thought in the West. I feel that this, in a way, helps people with their internal struggles. Feelings and emotions are let through and accepted, rather than stopped and analysed, which is interesting to me.
So that’s one thing.
Another insight I have gathered from my personal experiences and the literature I have browsed through is that Vietnamese culture is not a confrontational culture, as you know. Say in the West, the most dominant opposing force of the queer movement is the Church. In Vietnam, it is family. Socially speaking, there are not any explicit, active opponents. The movement in that context can ‘pride’ very quickly. That is why in the last decade there have been huge shifts in our mindset when it comes to sexuality and gender. But still, the problem is not gone.
Could you define it as in-house and out-house opposition?
It’s a very open atmosphere outside the family. People may make fun of you and talk behind your backs but we don’t experience as much confrontation or physical abuse. I am not saying those things don’t happen, and I am not saying that mental abuse is less detrimental than physical abuse, but it’s different.
Also in Hue…
The thing about micro-aggression and non-confrontation is that it is harder to shake, if you ask me. There is a big generation gap in Vietnam. The young generation has a lot of access to online resources, and the media is important for the dialogue. There’re all sorts of queer shows.
Have you been able to compare how the media project queer identity in foreign countries?
I haven’t looked into it extensively. It’s huge. Especially the internet. But I feel like there has been a recognizable shift. From TV programs and shows to films, websites, the news. People also get their information from Facebook and YouTube now, haha. But that in itself is a can of worms.
A broadcasting of a greater density of voices. More varied topics. Whatever you want to find. You’ll find it.
There are certainly presentations. There’s an extremely popular annual comedy show called Táo Quân which has become sort of an important part of the year end festivities and traditions for many Viet families. One of the main characters of the show, a celestial being named Bắc Đẩu, is portrayed as a cross dresser. Now, whether that presentation is a good or a detrimental one for non-normative identities, it is still an issue of debate and was the target of much critique from the queer community a few years back, but we can’t deny the fact that a queer character much loved by national audience is a big deal. And that’s not the only show with a representation of a queer person. There is an acknowledgement and acceptance of the existence of such identities in the history of Vietnam. To think about it, Vietnam has a long history of non-normative identities, from Đạo Mẫu to ‘gender bending’, stereotypically flamboyant eunuchs, and cross-dressers, etc. Troupes of drag queens have also been touring Vietnam for years, especially in the South.
Would you say that non-normative identities first appeared in comedy?
In the media? Initially, I think so. One of the most famous comedians in Vietnam is Hoai Linh, who is a male-presenting actor known for playing female roles. I would say that these identities were first represented in comedy, and perhaps were used as comedic elements most of the time. They’re portrayed as these dramatic, over the top characters, crude comedy at times, I’d say. But it has sort of leaped into entertainment and there are now a lot of non-normative celebrities who have more recently been working on educational, informative content. They still keep it entertaining, but definitely more educational. However, because of the under theorizing of sexuality and gender in Vietnam, we don’t have much queer knowledge in context. That’s why these representations are done intuitively as they go, as they feel the field. And because of that a lot of the representations still lean on stereotypes, but at least they are out there.
As said, in the West, queer theories have been around a while. Different branches of feminism have been pushing for the “gay agenda”. Queer knowledge is contextualized and widespread. There’s fertile ground for more in-depth discussions on sexuality and gender. However, things have recently become extremely fragmented, and at times, dogmatic. This can impose very damaging stereotypes on members of the community. That’s my impression of it.
Do you think the development over the previous 10 years has been a progressive one?
In the context of Vietnam, I think so. It seems the attitude is a lot more open. A big surprise caught me off guard as I was collecting my data, actually. Before the process, I expected that people would want to remain anonymous in all publications related to this project, but more than half have said they are happy to be identified by their real names. 5 out of the 8 that I have interviewed.
What did your interviewees identify in their gender and sexual identification?
That’s the tricky part. We don’t have a lot of labels to refer to differing sexual and gender identities in Vietnam. Non-normative identities in sexuality and gender people often get lumped under a lot of degrading slangs and labels. Even on the global scale, the terminologies are all new, and a lot of them are still being created as we are speaking right now.
Many of my interviewees don’t care much for labels. They feel that this is the person they are, these are the feelings they have, and this is who they love. So be it, whether I am attracted to males or females or both or none. And a lot of people believe in the fluidity of their identities, sometimes only on a theoretical level, but still, fluidity is at the core of it.
You expressed difficulty to find interviewees. Would you say there is a lack of interconnectivity in Hue? Do these people want a community?
It was difficult at first, but once I got into it, it just sort of snowballed. I was just being a whiny baby maybe, hahaha. To answer your second question, I don’t know. Not really. Some of them just don’t care. I have to say, because my participants come from certain backgrounds, they can never represent the entire community. Different people may have different sentiments in regards to the longing for a group, but it seems that some of my participants just don’t really care. I guess that has to do with how open and accepting society has become. Even in normative circles, non-normative identities don’t have to feel out of place. A lot of them are out to their friends, although not to their family. And so, they are not actively showing or representing their identities. I guess they don’t feel like they have to be in the ‘queer’ community to validate who they are, not that they need validation from anyone but themselves. There is a chapter of the community in Hue but most of the interviews I got are not through that channel. Most of them were from my own social circles.
Why haven’t you had access to the LGBTQIA chapter here?
Oh, it’s just that my gatekeeper is a very busy person, haha. But he’s helped me connect with a few people, and I’m thankful for that.
When you say gatekeeper. Is this an online community?
Yes and no. They have both online and offline presence. My gatekeeper is the leader of the chapter here and is one of their online administrators. He is quite an active advocate, and since this is the end of the lunar year, everyone is busy. He has a full-time job, and this is just his advocacy work on the side.
Anyways, within the overarching LGBT label, there are also sub communities here, just like elsewhere. The gay and trans community are the most visible out of all of them.
Do you think they are labels that are most applicable?
I can’t say that I’m comfortable answering that question, actually. Again, rather than an expression of my endorsement, these labels here are more for my ease of use in calling out structural issues. As much as we can critique structuralism, it is a useful lens and is of much relevance here. Gay males are generally more visible than gay women. If we want to talk about it, then we do have to talk about the manifestations of patriarchy in advocacy work. There’s a lot more research done on gay males than any other non-normative sexual and gender identities. The representations of the subgroups within the community are not equal because of the inequalities that exist in our society. And I have only mentioned some of the issues that arise because of the gender divide. If we bring into the picture other social aspects, such as age, ethnicity, or disability, things become much more complex.
You can have more than one identity at a time. It’s an intersection of many different aspects of you. So even though all of these individuals belong to the non-normative side of sexuality and gender, when their other aspects are considered, we can’t say they all have equal footing.
These inequalities create much tension within the community. Some examples that I can think of are the issues of bisexual erasure, the tension between lesbians and trans women. It isn’t a united front, not all pink and fluffy like it is often portrayed as. I don’t think I am against tension at all. It facilitates conversation. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge the tension and the imbalances, and renegotiate them to the best we can.
What do you see happening in the near future of Hue?
I am hopeful. But I am cautious of hope. I feel a brighter outlook than the last time I came back to Hue in the summer (2019). I have been surprised in the best way possible by the people I have met personally, young people specifically, who are actively thinking about things and are being critical and criticizing. Because of that I feel a brightness and an energy that are coming out of Hue this time. But I wouldn’t take it for granted.
Is there a correlation between a study of academia and a progressive perspective on LGBT issues?
There might be, but there’s also the whole discourse on how academia is structured: who is able to access and participate in academia, whose voice is heard and whose voice is not, whose perspective has weight and whose doesn’t. It’s very much a power play. I think academia has a huge potential to create social change, but the realisation of such potential is still to be questioned. There are issues within academia that set it back from being accessible and being part of the change, although it is not the only entity to be blamed. I can only hope that the current and coming generations of academics will help better balance the imbalance at hand.
What is left to do to complete your course and what do you plan to do after finishing it?
This dissertation is the only thing left for me to finish the program. I’m planning to go back to Viet Nam after and take a gap year. I’ll probably find some projects to work on while applying for PhDs or something, haha. And maybe some traveling, yeah.
Thanks to Ngoc for taking the time to talk to me and I apologise for taking so long to get it online. We wish her good luck on completing her dissertation and her future academic pursuit.