Go get a life: or My Butterfly’s dream

By Nguyen Khoa Thai Anh

There is a Daoist story about a man named Zhuanzhou who dreamed of turning into a butterfly fluttering about. When he awoke, he did not know whether he was that butterfly dreaming he was the man or the other way around. My life would be happier if I ever could reach the Daoist philosophy of integration, where it is not important to differentiate between dream and reality.

In that tradition, am I not a man dreaming he is a butterfly, watching VN shedding its ugly Stalinist caterpillar past to put on the bright, multi colored coat of a market economy?  Or should my Vietnamese lot remind me of my fellow countrymen and like them, I’ve become a chrysalis shrinking inside this dark and gloomy cocoon of a socialist orientation?  Poor me, I cannot cut off my “thousand miles” innards (1) tie to my homeland – like a butterfly that had shed its past – to share with my fellowmen the dream of liberty, democracy and pluralism of an attractive Americanized society.

Yet for many Vietnamese, “khúc ruột ngàn dặm,” this umbilical chord tie to the homeland could not be severed in light of recent inhumane treatment of these human rights dissidents.  And I am not just talking about democracy activists such as attorneys Nguyễn văn Đài, Lê thị Công Nhân and father Nguyễn văn Lý — whose infamous video and photo of him being gagged in front of the court has been our Vietnamese national shame.  I am talking about attorney and business leader Nguyễn Bắc Truyền who was arrested and found guilty along with physician Lê Nguyên Sang, writer Huỳnh Nguyên Đạo and Trần Quốc Hiền.  He received a four-year jail sentence for doing the right thing.

Nguyễn Bắc Truyền, born in 1968, resides in district 1 Saigon is a President and CEO of Việt Thịnh Phú Limited Liabilities.  His company is being shut down by the government following his arrest, which is not business as usual in any normal civil society, but in a country where political beliefs become a crime, one is punished and his business is ruined, his family and loved ones would become financially strapped and blacklisted.  No one is safe if they are associated with such element, considered by the Party as public enemy number one.

Under this communist mentality of one-party rule, where the dictatorship of the red-capitalists is absolute (it is no longer the dictatorship of the proletariat) when soccer bets run to the 7 million US dollar tune (PMU 18) — any talk of pluralism and democracy would threaten the leadership status quo and makes anyone who supports these ideals a criminal according to the Party’s interpretation of Article 88 of the Constitution that defines crime as spreading propaganda against the State.

It was a surprise for friends of Truyen to learn after his conviction that he belongs to the People Democracy Party, Đảng Dân Chủ Nhân Dân, a party that advocates multi-party and democratic reforms for Vietnam. Yet to me, it is no surprise that the motive that pushes this man of conscience toward becoming an agent for change.

In this past New Year eve of the Dog, when friends asked why he was late in coming home, he told them that after attending prayers at the Pagoda, he had to make rounds on his motorcycle in downtown Saigon.  In his words: “During these evening hours, anyone who is seen trying to make a living in Saigon must be truly poor.  Just a little gift, a small ‘lixi’ envelope to lighten them up, to bring a little warmth into the hard life of these people before the New Year.  After a round, I caught up with a street urchin who picks up bottles and cans for a living; an old and feeble woman who curled up on the porch-steps on the sidewalk, huddling against the wind; a pedi-cap (cyclo) driver who still waiting for his fare; a youngster selling lottery tickets, all of them add up the heavy weight in my heart. After my round of charity, I sat there motionless, my head burdened with thoughts.  Around me, people rushed to get home to their families.”

This is not just one singular event, Truyen has been known to commit himself to help those less fortunate than himself, doing his deeds regularly.  He belongs to the 30-to-40 year-old generation, was praised as an active social person, and one who has become a successful entrepreneur.  VieTex (Viet Thinh Phu) has been built from the ground up.  His business up to the time of his arrest has employed more than 40 people.  His friends are familiar with its quarters, often serving as a center where charity and rescue campaigns for victims of natural disasters such as flood relief originated.

For him, business has become not just as a mean to financial gain, but also as a mean to facilitate his social endeavors, to help orphanages, buying school supplies for needy children.  His company is the first in the country to give maternal leave with pay for both wife and husband workers.  Thanh Nien, the government organ newspaper, praises him:

While quality in the workplace is still being discussed among various government agencies and proposed legislation is still in the work for the National Assembly; Vie Tex, a limited liabilities company in Ho chi Minh City, although not privy to the discussion, has already put in practice for over a year their own work ethics: ‘when a wife gives birth, both she and her husband can take maternity leave with pay.’ This is perhaps the only company in the country that has this policy.”

From being cynical with all the empty rhetoric, lip service that the government gives to social injustice to being a democracy activist, it’s natural for Truyen to follow his heart, as more people like him, who will continually to be punished for their conscience as Hanoi is determined to brutally crush the peaceful movement.

What are we, Truyen’s long overseas entrails, (1) supposed to do?  Watch from afar, hang our head and feel a collective angst and shame?  Or would we be happier taking the admonition of the Party to go get a life, to dream butterfly dreams, to enjoy our travels to Vietnam and doing business as usual?


(1) After the not-so-kind “American lackeys and reactionaries” appellation by the Hanoi government, this moniker ““khúc ruột ngàn dặm” originally appeared in official communiqués, is given to overseas Vietnamese to denote appreciation for the billion of dollars in remittances that Vietnamericans send home every year.

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