Exploring the relationship between female sex workers in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and the patriarchal masculinities constructed by the shifting global economy

Social and Cultural Anthropology, Extended Essay (a 4000-word independent paper required for all students pursuing the International Baccalaureate Diploma)
Supervisor Maria Tsvetkova, United World College Costa Rica
Mark (externally graded): A
Maria's feedback in the first review session on October 12th 2018: "This is a very impressive, college-level, work."
This was uploaded at 00:00 July 7th 2019, after Khoi checked his IB final results. 

INTRODUCTION

In this Extended Essay, my research question is created with concerns about how and why female sex workers were motivated and able to act upon and shape the unequal structure in Vietnam’s ever-changing context: “How do female sex workers in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam actively take advantage of the patriarchal masculinities constructed by the shifting global economy?” 

Ethnographic framework

The analysis of this Extended Essay is based on the ethnographic materials offered in “Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work,” conducted and written by Kimberly Hoang, a Vietnam-origin sociologist. In the five-year fieldwork in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), the author conducted participant observation, supported with semistructured interviews with 276 persons. The ethnography delivers a different lense of Vietnam, its people, and how they position themselves in the changing global order, which is completely opposite to Vietnam’s stereotypical image usually associated with the Vietnam War. 

Justification

The sex workers in “Dealing in Desire” were highly aware of their expected images and behaviors in the industry. They consciously acknowledged that Asian elite businessmen used intimate bars as “where they can engage in deal-making practices crucial for organizing business ventures” besides “leisure and consumption” (Hoang 12) and Viet Kieus (i.e., the overseas Vietnamese men) and Western men, including both businessmen and backpackers, utilized the spaces that didn’t exclude them due to their then limited economic transactions “to displace their status anxieties onto women’s bodies” (Hoang 13). Four niche markets then were constructed, catering to four types of customers with specific needs and expectations.

Such complex and dynamic interactions between the stakeholders in this intimate labor market led to my interest in the female sex workers’ agency in actively taking control of their identity and categorizing themselves into different niche markets. They were, from my reading and analysis, critical of how power is socially practiced, associated closely with the capital flows in Asia and in Vietnam particularly, and how flexible identity is. As a result, they made use of the existing patriarchy, a deeply-rooted oppression on women including the sex workers. My analysis here is established through a feminist theoretical lense, examining the relationship between women and the patriarchy, with support from Michel Foucault’s theory of power regarding the prostitutes’ purpose of actions. 

Context

Less than three decades after Đổi Mới—Vietnam’s remarkable economic, social, and political reform in the 80s—the country has experienced “rapid economic growth and development and transformed Vietnam from one of the world’s poorest nations to a lower middle-income country” (The World Bank). A free market was established, which eventually raised certain related social issues that had never existed before in the context of war and social reform, including the involvement of prostitution in business. The underground sex industry gradually became critical in reflecting what men expect in women, how men perform their masculine superiority, and how women adapt into the structure.

Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2007, not long before the 2008 global financial crisis, striking the most developed and influential economies such as the United States’ and European countries’. Yet, the crisis did not affect many developing nations, mostly located in Asia, as negatively as the West. In other words, “[…] while the advanced economies still remained mired in stagnation and uncertainty, developing countries have largely shrugged off the effects of the crisis and are recovering with a healthy dose of certainty and momentum” (Park et al. 103). This shift resulted in a new hierarchy, in which Western global domination started to be threatened by Asian countries, many of which successfully maintained stable growth during the crisis, becoming more economically independent and capable. 

The interactions between Vietnam and other Asian economies also got stronger. By 2010, according to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, foreign direct investment (FDI) to Vietnam came mostly from Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, respectively. This created new opportunities for cultural and social exchange via negotiation of investment and trade, where Asian businessmen presented and strengthened Asian-oriented values and lifestyles; some of which were patriarchal and stereotypical. The Western and also the Viet Kieus were seemingly left behind as dollars started losing its once significant worth in international monetary flows. As a result, female sex workers, who play an important role in Vietnam’s economy, catered themselves to a specific group of male customers of each niche market, satisfying the men’s needs of practicing masculinity by either embracing their rising capital power or denying their potential capital powerlessness.

Hypothesis

Prostitutes in HCMC utilized male’s expressions of masculinity, determined by economic and social changes, by actively adapting their performative identities into the patriarchy and keeping themselves aware of social changes and consumers’ behaviors. Furthermore, they successfully exploited the system financially with full acknowledgement of their capability while embracing the expected staged femininity. Therefore, the female sex workers not only survived but also defied within the structure of male domination and the hierarchy of power.

ANALYSIS

Financial Benefit and Gained Autonomy 

There were four niche markets within HCMC’s sex work, including “(a) local Vietnamese business elites working to attract foreign direct investments from their Asian business partners, (b) Viet Kieu men tied to nostalgic remittances, (c) Western men investing in small-scale businesses through benevolent remittances, and (d) Western budget travelers who still view Vietnam as […] in need of aid or charity through benevolent remittances” (Hoang 39) from the most luxurious to the least regarded, respectively. In this mutual and dynamic process, each group participated with their own interests in mind. While the male customers had the incentive to exhibit or protect their power and masculinity, the prostitutes benefited from the industry with a new, significant source of income and a sense of autonomy by actively sensing the international economic shifts and catering themselves accordingly. Feminist theory can be used to analyze this phenomena as the female sex workers and the male clients consumed, behaved, and negotiated around the frame of patriarchy.

Financial Benefit

“Patriarchy has no gender” (Hooks 142) because it is exercised by everyone. While this toxic order of gender roles could cause harm to certain groups explicitly and implicitly, those willing and able to take advantage of the system, including women, could to an extent benefit from it. Particularly, the income brought by sex work could be very appealing for the underprivileged, especially women from rural areas or hadn’t had access to general education. The Vietnamese female prostitutes, mostly coming from low-income or working-class background, could earn “roughly U.S.$2,000 per month in tips for joining men at their tables and U.S.$150–$200 for each sexual encounter” (Hoang 42) in the niche market targeting Vietnamese and Asian elite businessmen. The situation was quite similar in other niche markets, in spite of the relative variation in income depending on the specific group of customers and alcohol purchased. Furthermore, due to the preexisting wage gap, highly educated women working in leadership positions in the legal job market were underpaid. This also explains the motivation for some women, who were socially intelligent and were capable of leading business, to turn to this underground industry and work as mommies (female pimps): “The mommies earned U.S.$3,000–$4,000 per month in tips (in comparison, women with master’s degrees in managerial positions made roughly U.S.$2,000 per month in HCMC)” (Hoang 42). Sex workers, therefore, could make ends meet and may have exceeding savings. Their first and most directly important goal was to survive, financially, in one of the fastest growing cities in Asia.

Even though patriarchy was initially and mostly beneficial to men, regardless of each’s privilege and background, women could still benefit from it as long as they were conscious of the tacit expectations on them. It took critical observation and awareness to possess such knowledge, as women were likely to become extremely passive if they started to institutionalize and normalize one’s inferiority or superiority. The women participating in Ho Chi Minh City’s sex work, as noted by Kimberly Hoang, were young female mostly coming from rural areas and not obtaining higher education. With the undeniable lack of educational and vocational preparation due to a variety of reasons, they could have tremendously struggled in Vietnam’s legal and semi-capitalist job market, mainly consisting of vacancies requiring at least a vocational degree. Furthermore, gender inequality was still profound in Vietnam’s workplace, shown by the wage gap and the unequal distribution of labor between male and female in certain fields such as STEM and the heavy industry. Therefore, joining the legal job market didn’t make much of a difference—economically speaking—from joining the underground sex industry. For some, especially those working in the higher end of the market, they not only made ends meet but also had a quite well-off life.

Female sex workers, through the process of interacting with men from different financial, racial and ethnic, and social backgrounds, acknowledged what were happening and what they could do to make the most out of such an unpredictable setting. Feminist theory, besides investigating the patriarchy and its oppressive system of degrading women and minorities, also focuses on how women possess an agency to benefit from the structured inequality. In this case, the prostitutes were aware of the systematic shifts, influenced by global economic changes and influencing the local social order, and were then purposefully shaping the industry and exploiting the market as soon and as much as possible.

Gained Autonomy

Although maintaining financial stability was one of the priorities, it was not the sole reason motivating the sex workers’ consciousness of their role and benefits. It was the freedom that mattered, creating a myriad of benefits that went beyond the financial ones. An intertwined relationship was established through which one’s agency strengthening their autonomy and vice versa. The sex workers provided themselves with the autonomy they had never had as poor uneducated women in a fairly conservative context since “their involvement in commercial sex work shapes their own personal trajectories of economic and social mobility” (Hoang 79) For example, they, according to the ethnography, had complete access to safe sex if needed and total right to negotiate in their sex work. They, therefore, possessed not only spending power but also freedom that allowed them to make their own decisions such as giving consent (e.g: they could refuse to involve in sexual intercourse) and observe and understand not only their but also the clients’ capital worth on the market. This was surely dehumanizing, in which human beings were viewed as objects based on one’s monetary value, but it was necessary, even important, for the sex workers to get out of the passive role of victims by gradually equalizing both sides’ influences on each other in the industry.

Still, the female sex workers could not entirely escape the structure because, as Conrad Kottak once stated, patriarchy is a political and social system that maintains women’s inferiority in status and access to human rights. Patriarchy, unfortunately, was everywhere, including but not limited to the city’s sex work, and had profound impacts on every individual. This situation was also noted by Hoang herself: “But while women were able to capitalize on Vietnam’s rapid development, it is important to situate their mobility as constrained within structures of patriarchy” (Hoang 17-18). As a part of a larger industry interrelated with many other societal aspects with an assigned role, the prostitutes could neither freely express their knowledge via actions nor create any immediate impact on their lives. Therefore, it can be reasoned that they were still much constrained in agency. This, however, further indicates how thoughtful the sex workers’ agency and autonomy were, fully aware of their being underprivileged while slowly but firmly enhancing their power and exploring new limits. What they could do were limited, in contrast with what they could understand, because “women in lower-class and poor groups, particularly those who are non-white, would not have defined women’s liberation as women gaining social equality with men, since they are continually reminded in their everyday lives that all women do not share a common social status” (Hooks 19). Nevertheless, they still weren’t hesitant to shape the sex work industry into different niche markets and maintain their relative freedom to make decisions and execute negotiation. Such a tacit method of empowering oneself and regaining power was prominent. The autonomy they gained was crucial, enabling them to be more independent, empowered, and aware. 

As a result, the female sex workers in HCMC, in spite of numerous challenges and restrictions, were determined to take advantage of the patriarchal system of global masculinities via making ends meet and developing a gradual sense of freedom. From the feminist theoretical lense, their agency and actions were feminist, even though they did not, and could not, explicitly disobey as it may have caused them to bear financial and social hardships. They refused to remain passive in a prejudiced structure that had long assumed women, specifically sex workers, to be inferior and powerless. Their courses of work and agency might be objected by many due to their prior preconceptions (that prostitution is destructive and anti-feminist) and its negative systematic effects, but it is undeniable how female sex workers, at least in Hoang’s ethnography, possessed critical knowledge about and made the most out of the patriarchy was applaudable, especially for feminists supporting women’s rights in being able to afford their lives and protect their endangered autonomy.

Knowledge as Power

Although the prostitutes could not obtain full independence to defy the structure, resist the powerful patriarchy, or simply refuse to enter the sex industry in the first place, they still had certain autonomy. It was executed with full awareness, directly affecting the sex work in general (e.g: how they formed the niche markets and objectified and regarded their customers differently). This phenomena can be observed through Foucault’s Theory of Power, through which every exercise of power is taken into account and power is perceived as an interrelated and inseparable part of any society. In this case, the lense focuses on how the sex workers perceived themselves and their clients in the global hierarchy and its local manifestation and, in turn, exercised power themselves. The allocation of power was generated in the presence of the niche markets and the performances within them, “as male clients and female sex workers negotiate their changing status—either by embracing the shifts in global capital flows that bolstered Asia’s ascendancy or by reproducing old regimes of global power that hinge on Western dominance” (Hoang 13). Such a constant interaction required the knowledge base from both sides, which determines to what extent the prostitutes could act and benefit, depending on the niche market they belong to. The sex workers here took advantage of the shifting system implicitly, obtaining knowledge that helped enhance their activeness and power.

 Knowledge held a profound role in the construction of power because knowledge, and how it is presented and utilized, represents the flows of power between different groups in a society. One of the most influential supporters of this phenomena is Michel Foucault: “For Foucault, power and knowledge are not seen as independent entities but are inextricably related—knowledge is always an exercise of power and power always a function of knowledge” (“Power/Knowledge”). In this situation, the prostitutes understood not only their social status but also their clients’ in an ever-changing global economy. Female sex workers in Vietnam held the position of inferiority as women participating in the field were significantly associated with stigma, but they were not completely powerless or unaware of how to function in the hierarchy. Their acknowledgement of to what extent individual and social capacity allowed them to critically interact with customers played an incredible role in determining their power in the industry. The importance of knowledge in the notions of power is explicitly shown in Hoang’s book’s ethnographic materials. 

One of the examples is how the sex workers purposefully categorized themselves into four separate niche markets and catered their bodies and personalities to the particular demand of each general group of male customers, characterized by the changing economy, signified not only their willingness to take advantage of the patriarchy imposed on them but also their capacity, motivated by their knowledge, to do so: “In order to entice clients, sex workers who cater to wealthy local Vietnamese men and other Asian businessmen construct themselves as distinctly pan-Asian modern subjects, while workers who cater to Viet Kieus construct themselves as nostalgic cosmopolitan subjects, and women who cater to Western men construct themselves as Third World subjects dependent on Western support, to satisfy their clients’ racialized desires” (Hoang 16). By utilizing their knowledge, made by careful observations of the world affairs, the prostitutes stayed in demand and in the market, making impacts on their capacity, though implicitly, and on the structure in general: “Through these performances, sex workers effectively work together with clients to contest and actively reshape global race-, nation-, and class-based hierarchies” (Hoang 16). 

The investigation of the agency of the oppressed requires an acknowledgement of the existence of marginalization. Despite the changing and unstable state of the economy, which in turn impacted the underground sex work, and the sex workers’ profound understanding of how to take advantage of such changes, they were still positioned in the inferior rank in the patriarchy as women and as prostitutes. However, their act of tacit resistance towards oppression, enhanced by their shared knowledge of the then social affairs, needs to be recognized as motivated from the position of inferiority but not from the position of passiveness; in other words, “to operate within the matrix of power is not the same as to replicate uncritically relations of domination” (Butler 42). Although they were situated in the oppressive system and were undeniably oppressed by being categorized as a highly taboo group, they were able to act within and upon their capacity, being in charge of the structure of the niche markets that many would believe to be oppressive instead of empowering. 

Viewed from the theoretical lense of Foucault, their mindsets and actions can be seen as the epitome of critically exercising power, the pervasive and fluid feature of social relations, in the form of knowledge. They fully understood that the capital flows, business activity, and economic domination were considerably shifting from the West to the East, which caused the gradual collapse of Western hierarchical power imposed on Asia’s investment scene and HCMC’s sex industry. Since the patriarchy is a system of power and everyone, according to Foucault, practices power regardless of their social status, the prostitutes could not entirely escape the structure or resist to follow it. Therefore, by catering themselves to four niche markets directly targeting a specific type of male customers based on their wealth, economic potential, and race and ethnicity, the female sex workers, constrained within the patriarchal frame, found a way to most utilize their knowledge to implicitly equalize their capacity with that of men in this intimate labor market. The nature of power relations, especially of and in this market, should not and cannot be separated from forms of resistance, knowledge in this case, and their complex set of purposes, to benefit from the system while also weakening it in this case, whose complexity is in turn acknowledged by Foucault himself, “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.” In the intertwined matrix of power, the female sex workers in the ethnography defied the oppression by preparing themselves with knowledge, a significant factor in determining and maintaining one’s position of power and the society’s structural power relations, and by applying it consciously at work. They didn’t just exploit the system, whose unequal hierarchy had long degraded and marginalized them, but they also acknowledged and took full advantage of the new-found inequality within their male customers in terms of economic potential and social influence. This phenomena has long been issued by various thinkers interested in how women, regardless of their status, think and act within the intersectional and complex social structure: “Since men are not equals in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure, which men do women want to be equal to?” (Hooks 19). Knowledge in this case, therefore, became incredibly crucial in shaping how the sex workers regarded both themselves and their customers, which in the end shaped their explicit performative identity according to one’s niche market and implicit awareness of the relationship between the market, and the individuals within it, and the economy in a much bigger scale.

It can be concluded that the female sex workers in HCMC benefited from the systematic oppression imposed on them, which was analyzed above based on Hoang’s ethnographic materials and feminist theory. Nevertheless, it is also important to take into account how such bold thoughts were applied and critical actions were motivated. Knowledge, undeniably, was the main reason for the remarkable accomplishments, although most of them were tacit and perhaps more structure-oriented, of the sex workers in empowering themselves and being involved in the economic and social changes. The niche markets and the sex industry in general, despite being established to satisfy men first and foremost and being explicitly oppressive to women, appeared to be the engines for the sex workers to exercise their capacity of power, grounded by their profound knowledge. Their minds were unsettling and their knowledge was powerful.

CONCLUSION

From the ethnographic account provided in “Dealing in Desire,” we can reason that the female sex workers in HCMC were able to actively, consciously take advantage of the patriarchal masculinities by exploiting the system for personal benefits, empowering themselves with new-found autonomy, and advancing their knowledge about the world’s economic changes that significantly affected people involving in this intimate labor market. This phenomena, in my Extended Essay, has been analyzed through the lenses of feminist theory and Foucault’s theory of power. I believe that, being positioned in and constrained by the patriarchy, both the female prostitutes and male customers could not do much to exercise and act outside of their limited capacity. However, the sex workers, through my analysis, went beyond their systematic constraints to manifest their agency, with very clear interests to become more active in manipulating the industry, gaining more capital power, and making personal decisions. 

Some may perceive the prostitutes’ mindsets and actions in the ethnography as toxic and negative when they, instead of resisting the patriarchy and the unequal hierarchy of power, supported and fully adapted into it and could further worsen gender inequality and class stereotypes in the long run. However, such a problem doesn’t fit into the scope of this Extended Essay and also is not specifically targeted in Hoang’s ethnography, so I, to not make any assumption or conclusion that is not evidently supported by ethnographic accounts and theoretical argument, would neither agree nor disagree with the above perception. Nevertheless, it is crucial to acknowledge that the interactions between the prostitutes and the clients were placed in a highly complicated and constantly changing social and economic setting, and the formed niche markets and the relationships within those can be viewed as initiatives, actions, and networks that were not motivated to create any long-term structure change but were to expand the sex workers’ limited space and capacity that helped them benefit from the oppressive patriarchy and male-dominated economy. 

The prostitutes’ relationship with the masculine exercises of economic power  and patriarchal expectations granted them with expansive agency, performative identities, and empowered control over their own lives and the closest system that affected them. Through the niche markets, they successfully not only exploited the system but also defied it by subversively establishing an intertwined connections of power rather than an imposed hierarchy. They were, in short, anything but powerless.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York, Routledge, 1999. 

Hoang, Kimberly Kay. Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work. Oakland, University of California Press, 2015. 

Hooks, Bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Second ed., pdf. ed., London, Pluto Press.

—. Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. New York, Routledge, 2010.

Kottak, Conrad Phillip. Mirror for Humanity: A Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. Seventh ed., pdf. ed., New York, McGraw-Hill.

Park, Donghyun, et al. “Why Did Asian Countries Fare Better during the Global Financial Crisis than during the Asian Financial Crisis.” Responding to Financial Crisis: Lessons from Asia Then, the United States and Europe Now, by Changyong Rhee and Adam Simon Posen, PDF ed., Washington, Asian Development Bank, Oct. 2013, pp. 103-39.

“Power/Knowledge.” Social Theory Rewired, routledgesoc.com/category/profile-tags/powerknowledge. Accessed 13 Aug. 2018.

“Sources of Foreign Direct Investments in 2010.” Foreign Direct Investments, General Statistics Office of Vietnam, 2011. Accessed 29 July 2018.

The World Bank. “Vietnam Overview.” The World Bank, 19 Apr. 2018, http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/vietnam/overview. Accessed 25 July 2018.

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Tiền ảo Libra: bỏ đi lý tưởng “phi tập trung” để tiếp nối nền tài chính hiện tại

It is my absolute honor to share that I will be working as Assistant to Vu Chau (Châu Thanh Vũ), and having this fascinating piece of writing about Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency as our first collaboration is an out-of-this-world experience.

Vu Chau is a PhD Candidate in Economics at Harvard University, while also dedicating his time to the UWC Vietnam National Committee as its Head of Finance and Student Affairs. This is a precious opportunity for me to get first-hand experience in editing and networking, while having a glimpse of what it is like to be an academic so that I can make the right decision later on.

I look forward to seeing what I can make out of this incredible working and learning experience!

The article below, in Vietnamese, was written by Vu Chau and edited by me. 

Châu Thanh Vũ

Châu Thanh Vũ

Dàn trang & Edit: Ngô Xuân Khôi
Để bài viết tinh giản, nhiều nội dung được viết ở phần chú thích. Xin đọc thêm nếu quan tâm.

Facebook vừa công bố đồng tiền ảo của mình, đồng Libra, và ngay lập tức nhận được nhiều ý kiến trái chiều. Các phản hồi tích cực cho rằng đồng Lira là một lựa chọn tốt hơn Bitcoin, không những vì thiết kế giúp ổn định giá trị đồng tiền (stablecoin), mà còn vì Libra có thể tận dụng lợi thế “mạng xã hội” sẵn có của Facebook. Ngược lại, các chính phủ và ngân hàng trung ương lần đầu tiên buộc phải suy nghĩ nghiêm túc hơn về vai trò của tiền ảo trong nền kinh tế và ra chính sách tương xứng.

Sự xuất hiện của Libra mang lại nhiều câu hỏi: Libra khác với các tiền ảo…

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On Being Queer and Vocal, again

The University of Chicago Admissions
Supplementary Essays

Author Note: This essay blog was created to embrace my imperfect writing and, thus, imperfect self (“I have this space for my intellectual and personal reflection, from which I strive for the better of myself.”) On this website, I—without hesitation—want to share that I was rejected by the University of Chicago when applying to college. I approached the admissions process in a very experimentative way, despite the cutthroat nature of admissions to elite universities and the added-up challenge for a disadvantaged person. Hence, the two essays below may surprise you at first, as they don’t conform to what usual essays should be like. This also may partly be why I wasn’t accepted to UChicago and another Ivy League institution, and no one really knows. However, I don’t regret having my essays unconventional—these two specifically—because they allow me to explore this exciting sphere of creative writing and reflect on my earlier life in my own words, without the boring do’s and don’ts.


UnCommon Essay Prompt: Lost your keys? Alohomora. Noisy roommate? Quietus. Feel the need to shatter windows for some reason? Finestra. Create your own spell, charm, jinx, or other means for magical mayhem. How is it enacted? Is there an incantation? Does it involve a potion or other magical object? If so, what’s in it or what is it? What does it do? [Inspired by Emma Sorkin, Class of 2021]

“Why are you on their side? Are you a faggot too?”

I was at dinner with my family when an interview with Huong Giang, a popular transgender singer, had just begun to play on the television. My aunt had complained, “Why does the TV these days have to show corrupted content like this?” and I had protested, “I’m sure that these individuals are not corrupted. They are just being themselves.” The vitriol of her response shocked me.

I found myself sitting, silent, not sticking up for what I believed was right. I had the answer —“Why does it matter if I am gay?”— on the tip of my tongue. But staying silent was easier than being rejected by my own family or coming into conflict with people I loved. I let the awkward silence fill the room until my grandmother got up and started offering us seconds.

Since then I’ve noticed silence creeping into my conversations as I struggle to confront those I love with words that they do not want to hear. When I heard my childhood friends straight-washing Xuan Dieu’s sensual queer poetry, they turned to me for confirmation of their interpretation. I knew that if I told them they were right, I would betray my identity, but if I corrected them, I would betray my secret. As they realized I was holding back, the silence dragged on. Months later, I went on a first date with a closeted, sexually frustrated teenager who was a member of the school gang. I was silent, speechless, when he, struggling to reconcile his gay self with the homophobia his gang imposed on him, sighed, “Why do I happen to be like you?”. To hear you said with such distaste was worse than any discriminatory label, but I held back, knowing that any response would make things worse for both of us. In both situations, the answers were at the tip of my tongue, just like they had been in that dinner with my aunt, but I stayed silent to protect myself from being ridiculed and transformed into nothing more than a disgusting item, labelled “faggot.”

Time and time again I have found myself wondering why it was so hard to speak up in those conversations. Why had I disappeared into silence? I was usually willing to correct others when I thought they were wrong, even if the people in question were adults. I was able to speak out in class. But somehow, surrounded by those I loved most, talking about subjects that I cared about more than anything, I found myself unable to speak.

Awkward silences in my experience aren’t awkward because nobody has anything to say. They are awkward because everyone knows someone does have something to say, and isn’t saying it. Awkward silences slip in when everyone knows who is in denial of a secret, or who is burning with rebellious desire. In that dinner with my aunt, in that moment when she asked if I was “a faggot” too, everyone realized what was happening. The answer was “yes,” but I could not say it for fear of hurting both myself and my family. Her response would’ve been of disgust, but she couldn’t say it either, because I was still her nephew.

“Speakaboo” changes that.

“Speakaboo” is the spell to break awkward silences. It is a non-verbal spell, so the caster is safe from having to shout the spell out in the middle of a dying conversation. But when the caster uses it, it gives them the ability to be heard, to be proud and unapologetic, and to not feel ashamed of who they are. The spell doesn’t magically change the subject. It doesn’t give its caster sudden creativity. It doesn’t take away one’s ability to judge what is and is not tactful. It isn’t veritaserum. It instead provides us with the courage to say what we know we ought to but are too afraid to voice.

“Speakaboo” can be beneficial for those whose thoughts are systematically silenced, for transgender and non-binary folks receiving insensitive questions, for orphans dealing with tacit discrimination, and for minorities being interrupted in any discussion by those who “know better.” It lets everyone realize how powerful they are vocally no matter how little power they have outside their voices. “Speakaboo” is the magic of an individual, transforming individuals. For me, “Speakaboo” is my #LovesWin.


Why UChicago prompt: How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

The Communist Youth Union training was mandatory for all secondary school students. At every session, we were forced to regurgitate what each speaker told us without space to question or discussion of what was said. I remember one specific period, though, where the presenter was passionately lecturing us about Vietnam’s post-war efforts to reconstruct its political identity in Đổi Mới in the 80s, but his enthusiasm was lost on the class. Suppressed anger at our lack of agency had grown into helpless acceptance that in turn became clueless defiance. Students walked into the room convinced that their ideas would be rejected by those in authority. So they in turn rejected every idea presented.

Suddenly, the presenter caught my attention: “Although the government did make a few, tremendous, mistakes…”. He quickly shifted the focus solely to the positive, but he had slipped for a moment. He had acknowledged the flaws in the system. Tentatively, I put my hand in the air and said, “Weren’t the people made to sacrifice their private sentiment for the sake of the government’s fragile superiority?”

The classroom went silent. Nobody knew how the presenter would respond to being challenged. His eyes grew wide, surprised and, strangely, excited, “But let’s consider Vietnam’s situation then, being economically isolated by the United States and neglected by China.” he said. “Wasn’t establishing a solid foundation for future advancement a much better political and social focus?” This was the same official view we had been dismissing for years. The speaker argued that individualism was surely important, but it wouldn’t mean anything if people starved. For the first time, a figure in power didn’t tell us to be quiet. He challenged the strawmen we had created out of the imposed ideology, giving us details that weren’t in our textbooks.

My classmates and I had become far too used to rejecting every thought that resembled the government ideology. How could a group that systematically denied us the right to object be correct about anything? Every statement was suspect, clearly a pretense for propaganda. But we had forgotten that we too could be wrong.

The situation in that classroom should never have occured. No authority should suppress the ideas and thoughts of its members as my teachers in Vietnam had. On the other hand, our decision to exercise resistance by ignoring every oppositional argument out of hand was harmful both to society and to ourselves. We had neglected an opportunity to establish an equal and respectful monologue and to expand the knowledge base of both sides.

I want to study in an environment that encourages its individuals to freely exchange ideas and critically question them.

Many colleges promise freedom of speech, but Chicago goes beyond that and promises that we will be rigorously challenged and asked to revise our opinions. I want to study in the university that prepared Gloria Raheja and Ann Gold to co-author an ethnography on women’s polyvocality in North India, deconstructing false Western assumptions of their “ideological abasement.” I want to study at the university where Professor Kimberly Hoang, when asked whether she involved sexual intercourse in her fieldwork, answered “And why is this question, and others like it, used to scrutinize particular scholars, often scholars of color?” defying the gendered and racialized trends in academia that devalue minority scholars. I want to be surrounded by thinkers for whom no intellectual construct is too strong to be questioned and no idea is left out of the dialogue for the sake of comfortability. At the University of Chicago, I will find my place.

Addressing a Social Issue

New York University Abu Dhabi Finalist Admissions
Status: Accepted (awarded: full-ride scholarship package of $300,000)

Write a formal, academic essay in which you imagine that you are in a position of leadership in your country or your local community (note that while many leaders who effect change are politicians, they can also be scholars, activists, scientists, artists, etc.). Choose an issue about which you, as this leader, feel passionately and describe it in detail, giving your informed reader a sense of the arguments and counterarguments associated with the issue. Tell us where you stand and why, using description and analysis of real-world evidence as well as your unique perspective as an influential member of your community. Hypothetically, how would you address this issue and what would your community or country look like as a result of your actions? (750 words max.)

The epigraph of Chapter 4 of Philippe Bourgois’ “In Search Of Respect”—an ethnography examining the drug and violence scarred street culture of East Harlem from mid 80s to mid 90s—is a quote from one of the anthropologist’s interview subjects: “I really wanna work legal.” This encapsulates the struggles faced by many communities that are driven out of their jobs by new developments in the market. Desperate to make ends meet and survive, people become vulnerable because of the lack of opportunities available for them and their families.

In East Harlem this happened when New York City transitioned from an industrial economy to a service-focused economy. Factory workers from East Harlem became systematically unemployed as they had never been trained in the skills necessary to compete for the new jobs. Many turned to underground alternatives. Bourgois suggests that part of the problem is that governments often mistake the symptoms of the problem (e.g., the increase in illegal activity) for the problem itself. This leads to a failure to address structural poverty.

We can see the same issues in Vietnam. During the global financial crisis in 2008, Vietnam underwent a major economic shift. Vietnam had just joined the World Trade Organization in 2007 and become an attraction for foreign investment. This changed how people did business and brought a growing demand for a new market: sex work. According to sociologist Kimberly Hoang, in her book Dealing in Desire, this industry quickly became a crucial part in business negotiation, contract signing, and the rise of the Pan-Asian system. The problem was that Vietnam’s growth was non-inclusive leading to a major wage gap for women. For many underprivileged women (especially women from rural areas or those who didn’t have access to education), the income from sex work was irresistible. According to Hoang, sex workers received 3,000 to 4,000 US dollars per month in tips whereas women with master’s degrees in managerial positions made roughly 2,000 US dollars per month. And so the sex work industry and the shadow economy boomed.

Vietnam’s government attempted to fight this market, rather than the people’s poverty and suffering. Prostitution is illegal in Vietnam. It was depicted as a “social evil” in early 2000’s government publications. Many policy-makers tended to forget to ask beyond “Are they doing something illegal?” They never asked “Why would they put themselves and their families at risk?” or “Is there a system that is causing the suffering of some demographic groups?” This leads to policies that didn’t account for the reason people were turning to sex work. It made their only means of gaining a livelihood illegal and, in punishing them for it, drove them deeper into poverty and worsened the underlying issue.

Some may argue that the above framework puts too much blame on the policy makers. Oscar Lewis, a 20th century anthropologist studying cross-generational poverty, proposed a theory of the culture of poverty saying that poverty is maintained by an individual’s culturally constructed acceptance of and adaptation to inferiority and powerlessness. In other words, people have been socially conditioned to be poor and they don’t know how to be any other way. This way of thinking has some merit. Bourgois’ ethnography, for instance, highlights that the crack dealers of East Harlem’s destructive courses of thought and action were the result of societal pressures around them telling them this was the only way to live their lives. Yet even on Lewis’s theory of cultural poverty, the societal conditioning affecting the individuals in question is often the result of legal and economic discrimination against whole classes of individuals that robs them of the privilege to make a choice. Therefore, it still comes back to discriminatory policy.

To solve the problems that the Vietnamese government is currently struggling with regarding the underground economy, we need to turn first to the anthropology of development. In particular, as a policy-oriented anthropologist I recommend that policy makers incorporate recent research in collective development. This will aid lawmakers in passing regulations not based on symptom level problems but rather on the underlying forces that affect those symptoms. Moreover, I would recommend that the government adopt demand-side macroeconomic policies, focusing on investing heavily in education, social welfare, and support to directly tackle structural unemployment rather than burning funds to combat symptoms. Last but not least, I would recommend decriminalizing certain symptom level behaviors where possible, so that they do not lead to further cycles in which the punishment for the symptoms exacerbate the problems.

Why New York University Abu Dhabi?

New York University Admissions
Supplementary Essay
Status: Accepted (awarded: full-ride scholarship package of $300,000)

We would like to know more about your interest in NYU. We are particularly interested in knowing what motivated you to apply to NYU and more specifically, why you have applied or expressed interest in a particular campus, school, college, program, and/or area of study? If you have applied to more than one, please tell us why you are interested in each of the campuses, schools, colleges, or programs to which you have applied. You may be focused or undecided, or simply open to the options within NYU’s global network; regardless, we want to understand – Why NYU? (400 words max.)

I grew up with stories of women, minorities, and children of the working-class dropping out of school for financial reasons in my neighborhood. I remember hearing my mother reminisce about a time when she had another vision for her future: “I did have dreams, but dreams were luxuries!” As an anthropology and policy enthusiast aiming to improve my nation’s education system, I want to study at NYU Abu Dhabi in the Social Research and Public Policy major because I believe it would give me the tools to tackle this problem head-on.

I have always challenged myself to look at the ways that the intersection of social factors, including gender, sexuality, and class, can limit people’s opportunities. I’ve turned to anthropology to better understand the communities that are most affected. In Economics classes, for example, I considered the policy recommendations of anthropologist Philippe Bourgois—based on years studying the crack dealers in East Harlem—that called for government attention to the structurally vulnerable at a time when policy-makers were more focused on GDP growth than on social safety nets and mobility. I want to continue that experience of questioning prevailing notions of what is necessary and advocating for what is right through the Social Research and Public Policy major, with an eye to eventually returning to Vietnam to work for educational equity. This interdisciplinary major would allow me to explore these subjects from a policy perspective. NYU Abu Dhabi also has pre-professional courses in education, and taking classes like “Education and Society” will help me better apply what I learn in my own major to understand contemporary education inequality.

Outside class, I am interested in taking part in NYU Abu Dhabi’s extensive research opportunities where undergraduates like me are encouraged and funded to get valuable firsthand experience and go on to design ambitious Capstone Projects. I would want to focus mine on education policy. I am also eager to attend conferences from the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute that introduce undergraduates to locally based researchers and allow them to converse with professionals from around the world who can teach me how to do responsible work in the field of policy.

NYU Abu Dhabi is a place where future leaders can grow, intellectually, professionally, and personally. I want to be a part of this forward-thinking community of intellects and learn how to ensure that everyone in Vietnam one day can receive the education they deserve.

Hide and Seek: A Game of A Bullied, Queer, Working-Class Childhood

Common Essay, Common Application (Admissions to US universities)
Prompt 1
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. (650 words max.)

“I will count to 90. Go hide and I will find you! 1 2 3…”

The counting stopped at 30, and I started to panic. I hid on the floor of the wardrobe in our only bedroom with the door locked, silently fearing the worst. What if it wasn’t my grandmother who opened that door and found me? It didn’t matter if it was the police or the mafia; both scenarios were equally horrifying. I could have been coldly informed of the “recent tragedy” or cruelly confronted with violence. Countless “What ifs?” gradually drowned me.

The people downstairs came for my parents. Father had failed in business; mother reluctantly gave him all her money; they borrowed more money. Time after time, my father turned to gambling and its promise of easy money to solve our problems fast, and, time after time, he failed, leaving us in tremendous debt to the mafia. I moved to live with my grandparents, visiting parents only twice a week, and “They are busy making ends meet!” was the only explanation I received. But they never made ends meet. Eventually, my parents went into hiding, leaving me with my grandparents in the city. Just days later, the mafia came to negotiate. My grandmother told me to go play hide and seek.

As I grew up, that act of hiding became a habit. I found myself hiding, not only from the world around me, but from myself, terrified of the consequences of opening the closet door. I went to school in fear of the bullies who broke my glasses, ripped my notebooks, and hurled discriminatory insults after me: “You should have killed yourself for being poor and a faggot at the same time!” As a kid from a working-class family in the district, I was expected to not stand out, to keep my head down and be ordinary. But I was not ordinary. I refused to follow the traditional masculine roles played by the other boys in my class who made sexist jokes, dehumanized minorities, and bottled up their empathy. Yet, unlike the rich gay men most had seen on television, I couldn’t purchase fancy makeup products and “fabulous” clothes, failing to meet their expectation of gayness. I didn’t want to deny my sexuality, but “being queer” was a commodity I couldn’t afford. So, once again, I hid and hoped that the right people would find me.

The game hide and seek my grandparents had me play was meant to comfort me in the worst of situations. As I grew older, I learned to find refuge in the outside world that were better than the wardrobe in my grandparents’ bedroom. I started reading books that I bought in kilograms every time I had spare change, including Ho Xuan Huong’s 18th-century feminist poems and Nawal El Saadawi’s “Woman at Point Zero”. I cried with the protagonists, the poor, and the forgotten, recognizing the cycle of poverty and inequality in their lives and in mine. Some of them hid, as I did. But some of them understood that hiding is a helpless option, not a solution, and successfully shattered the ceilings that were holding them back. Through reading about heroes and heroines who had been disregarded, I learned to question the act of hiding itself and the passiveness I had become accustomed to.

I made it my mission to ensure that nobody else had to hide as I had hidden. I read more, raised my voice, waved the pride flag, founded the first sex-ed NGO in the city, and established spaces for dialogue. Change will come from those brave enough to overcome their setbacks and embrace their differences. I want to be a part of that change, being an anthropologist, one who represents the left behind and marginalized and who advocates public recognition for all. I will ensure that no one will have to hide anymore.

Challenging the Authority

English Language and Literature, Paper 2
Trimester 3, Year 1
Teacher Alyssa Goldfarb, United World College Costa Rica
Mark: 7 (out of 7)

How are challenges to authority presented in at least two of the works you have studied, and what impact have such challenges had on readers or audiences?

Literature plays a significant role in representing the challenge of the marginalized to the powerful. Texts that share the same purpose include “Persepolis” (2000) and “Medea” (431 BC). “Persepolis” is a graphic novel, written by Marjane Satrapi, about her observation of the people’s struggles under the Iranian Islamic government; the novel is the author’s memoir, reflecting her childhood and teenage life. Also having a female protagonist, “Medea,” a play written by Euripides and set in ancient Greece, presents an exaggerated female figure that violates the system of rules created by the king and the patriarchal society regarding moralities. Both works, conveying highly progressive values, show clear defiance to the authority, including dictatorial political institutions and social hierarchy, and cause strong reactions from the audiences.

The resistance to the authority presented in “Persepolis” is demonstrated in Satrapi’s language, which results in the readers’ incredible impression on her disobedience. Satrapi’s growth in her critical view of the capacity of the self is focused throughout the whole graphic novel. Such development is illustrated mostly by the use of language; for instance, her personality shifts from a nonchalant and innocent girl, who “really didn’t know what to think about the veil,” to an idealistic and expressive teenage girl, who isn’t hesitant to explicitly show rebellion because she “had learned that you should shout louder than your aggressor.” Although similar statements don’t directly cause negative effects to the structural dictatorship, they significantly challenge the nearest authority including the government’s supporters, the police, and the conservative. Satrapi, wisely acknowledging of her limited individual autonomy and social position, effectively uses language as the alternative of the ordinary ideal of resistance, including public demonstrations and violence, which  her family constantly uses during the Revolution. She challenges not only the monopoly government but also the hierarchy in which people are forced to behave in a certain ways. Satrapi’s difference can be explained by her undeniably privileged background, as she grows up in an upper-middle class family that embraces liberal values and political sensitivity. The family-scale political discussions, which undoubtedly shape Satrapi’s political judgments and future disobedient behavior, can also be understood as a form of liberality and defiance. The huge role of language in the novel, associated with the first-person narrative, intensively provides the audience with Satrapi’s personal reflections and emotions, creating a well-rounded and empathetic understanding towards her motive of rebellion. Therefore, in “Persepolis”, Satrapi’s and her family’s challenges to the powerful are mainly expressed vocally, which has considerably positive impacts on the readers.

Another considerable work besides “Persepolis” concerning how powerless people defy the system of authority is “Medea,” in which defiance is demonstrated in the form of a feminist viewpoint and therefore causes controversy. As a play, “Medea” displays various layers, containing unexpectedly progressive meanings, for the audience to peel and interpret. Medea challenges the authority, both in the play and in real life, through monologues and conversations that clearly indicate her motive of revenge and resistance. Besides her psychopathic mindset and actions, she appears to be incredibly feminist, which is extremely rare in Ancient Greece, and manipulative even while confronting the king, who holds the most superior power in the Greek context. Medea, during her monologues, strongly showcases her disobedience and unique perspective regarding the hierarchy of power. She acknowledges her inferior position, both in the family scale and in the society, because “of all things with life and understanding, we women are the most unfortunate.” For someone living in Ancient Greece to consciously understand how the systematic authority, exercising by men, enforces inequality requires significant bravery and critical observation. Although this is rather an interrogation of the self than a direct action that causes harm to the structure, she challenges the authority by refusing to be silent. The moment she fearlessly says “How stupid they are! I’d rather stand there three times in battle holding up my shield than give birth once” shatters the boundaries that limit her and Greek women in general; the monologue is a starting point, from which she becomes more self-centered and actively seeks for revenge. Because of its progressive meaning, “Medea” caused significant controversy in the Greek society, where sexism was internalized and power was institutionalized. Therefore, the play was clearly unacceptable in the eye of the public at the time because the audience’s comfort zone, in which women don’t play the main role, was threatened. In conclusion, the challenges to authority, including the patriarchy, presented in “Medea” confront the prejudices not only in the fictional storyline but also in real life, resulting in strong negative response.

Overall, it can be seen that resistances in both literary works are established mostly through vocal expressions, allowing the characters’ mindsets and actions to have profound impacts on the audience. However, another noticeable feature of “Persepolis” and “Medea” is that both protagonists are female, which reserves the typical gender roles in literature constructed by the patriarchy. Satrapi’s and Medea’s self-esteems are unexpectedly incredible, which stand in sharp contrast with the authority’s stereotypical vision of how women should behave. In “Persepolis,” despite restrictions regarding appearances and accessible education for women, Satrapi appears to be highly ambitious and self-conscious. At the age of six, she declares “I am the last prophet” while standing confidently in front of well-known spiritual figures. Such thought can be considered as an act of violating the religious system in Iran in which a woman cannot be perceived and respected as a prophet. For Medea, she possesses a similar characteristics with Satrapi, acknowledging her potential that stays unrecognized for most people. Her stating “I’m a knowledgeable woman” leaves a remarkable impression on the audience since the public image of women back then mostly consists of submissive behavior and the generally passive role. Medea and Satrapi are both rebellious and resistant, whose expressions and actions are not limited by the dictatorial authority and patriarchy.

Although the challenges to authority presented in both works are relatively similar, they are not identical; different from Medea’s perspective and actions remaining constantly aggressive and unique, Satrapi’s experiences a significant transformation in which she becomes clearer about her identity and observation. Satrapi develops from an innocent and carefree girl who nonchalantly accepted that she “was born in religion” to a stubborn yet liberal teenage girl who “had learned that you should always shout louder than your aggressor.” The emotional and critical growth of Satrapi, with its gradual pace, helps the readers adapt to the storyline and the character’s personality. Therefore, the audiences’ reactions to “Persepolis,” although they still vary and are certainly controversial, are less strong than of “Medea.” For “Medea,” there is no explicit expression of development in its protagonist; throughout the whole play, Medea always appears to be violently and aggressively resistant. To follow her love, she kills her brother. To revenge, she kills her own children and Jason’s bride. While Satrapi marks her complete change from childhood to adulthood by saying “With this first cigarette, I kissed childhood goodbye,” Medea doesn’t show any remarkable or understandable development, which can partly explain why “Medea” was tremendously objected in Ancient Greece. The audience is constantly imposed with an unfamiliar and untraditional female figure; therefore, it is likely for the people to have strong responses towards the play and Medea’s challenges to authority. “Persepolis” and “Medea” differ in not only how their protagonists grow, mentally and intellectually, but also how the public reacts to their defiant behavior and actions.

Both literary works share certain similarities in how resistance is expressed vocally and gender roles are completely reversed, yet they are different in the development of both the characters’ personalities and challenges to authority. Thus, public responses towards “Persepolis” and “Medea” can significantly vary depending on how the authors create the characters’ approach to defiance. Yet, without ambiguity, the two texts still play an undeniably profound role in literature, in which the powerless and the marginalized are given a platform to challenge the structures and boundaries that restrain women from exercising their fundamental rights, empowering vulnerable groups while potentially causing different controversies in the audiences.