Rubber Time

Westerners and ExPats in Hanoi love to comment on the Vietnamese concept of punctuality, and have dubbed it “rubber time.”  This was immediately apparent when we first visited Vietnam, and we have encountered it many times since.

The first conductor we met for the National Symphony Orchestra in 2006, who was British, once told us that was one of the many challenges he faced when he took the job: getting musicians to the rehearsal on time. (The second challenge? Getting them to stop playing during rehearsals. Under some circumstances, Vietnamese are not the most disciplined people in the world.)

Anyone who has played in even an amateur music group knows that these are courtesies you don’t mess with lightly: rehearsal time is sacred, and to not honor it does a disservice to everyone. But Vietnamese aren’t used to operating within the confines of something so whimsical as time, and in fact it’s pretty low on their list of priorities. This flies in the face of many things we Westerners hold dear, and it takes some getting used to.

But, could it be a healthier way of traversing life? Americans are so stressed out about time, that it makes them cranky, and sometimes downright angry. The Vietnamese model seems to include a fairly spiritual component: if we’re supposed to meet at this time and place, it will happen. Otherwise, let nature take its course, even if it means someone is kept waiting. Maybe that person will have to leave for some reason, and maybe that means the meeting shouldn’t have taken place after all. Or maybe there’s a better time, place, way, etc. What we have noticed, pretty consistently, is that when something is “supposed” to happen, it does, and pretty spectacularly.

The difference? I think it’s that Vietnamese don’t get all attached to an outcome. Whatever is supposed to happen could happen in a gazillion different ways. Who are we to interfere with that by forcing our fixed ideas onto the proceedings?

And even though I’ve mentioned that, from my observations, Vietnamese are hard working, they will accuse each other of being lazy. I wonder what they’re referring to? As we go about our day on our motorbike, it’s not unusual to see person after person in front of their small home or shop staring off into space, watching the world go by. That’s a lot of human ingenuity not being used as effectively as it might be, so maybe that’s part of what my friends mean. But, I think mostly they mean “untimely”, or “procrastinators”. Deadlines often get shelved until the very last possible minute.

This way of thinking about time also is reflected in the way projects come together. There have been many times in Vietnam when we thought a project we had been planning for months was going to be completely impossible to complete for one reason or another, and yet, something would happen that would again make it possible. Usually it was solved by networking; Vietnamese are astonishing networkers. If one person couldn’t handle the task, call in the reserves!

Larry did a joint photography exhibit in 2008 with a Vietnamese photographer named Trang Quoc Khanh (“kang”) at the National Museum of Art in Hanoi. (This was the first time ordinary street scenes were permitted in a public setting. To get permission to hang the show, Larry and Khanh had to meet with the National Ministry of Culture and convince them that the photos wouldn’t embarrass the country.) Khanh needed his work edited before printing, and didn’t know how to use an editing program, so Larry spent hours completing it for him. Then after the work was printed and framed, the seventy-five combined works had to be hung. Khanh and a close friend of his insisted that they would do the hanging (Larry being the venerable older guy), but despite Larry’s constant questioning, didn’t start on it until two days before the show opened, a cliff-hanging amount of time for such an ambitious undertaking. So, these cultural challenges (not knowing or having the technology available to get the job done, and not allowing a “Bac” or uncle, to work on something) can take one completely by surprise at the last minute.

As with many behavioral differences between us and our Viet friends, we need to go back to village life to understand everyday tendencies. As farmers, there may have been times due to weather or time of year that people were inactive because there wasn’t much to do. So, they disappeared for awhile, waiting until they’re skills are needed again by Mother Earth. And the country’s economic structure probably held little reward for timely delivery, something so important in Western culture.

There have been many instances for us where we are depending on someone to complete a task, and they “disappear” at a crucial moment: calls, texts and emails aren’t returned, and trying to nail down where they are physically becomes hair-raisingly impossible. Then at long last, they suddenly show up, wondering what all the fuss is about, and the crisis that existed in only your Western mind evaporates.

I also think this way of doing things has come about partially because, as I’ve mentioned before, Vietnamese have to circumvent their own rule of culture and government to get things done. So it takes a lot of cleverness to accomplish anything, but also a sense that whatever you’re trying to do may not ever happen. Here’s an example.

During our first trip to Vietnam, we heard about a performance that two artists, an American and a Vietnamese, were putting together. Both their fathers had fought in the American War, so their idea was to make a life-size model of an airplane out of papier-mâché, with one half being an American fighter and one half being Vietnamese. Then, on the grounds of a well-known Vietnamese artist, they planned to burn it during a ceremony, symbolic of the current strong ties between America and Vietnam, a burying of the hatchet, and that would include music and performance art.

Artist Dao Anh Khanh creating an improvisational dance for the dual Vietnamese-American airplane. Photo by Lawrence D’Attilio, from “The Soul of Vietnam” photography book.

The government got wind of this, and on the afternoon of the evening performance, put a stop to it, citing safety because of the fire. They were probably right, but it was disappointing to the planners and the attendees. So, what they did instead was to surround the airplane with hundreds of candles placed on the ground, and the artist owner of the property improvised a dance around it, complete with piped-in improvised music. The result actually was pretty amazing, and drew a massive and jubilant crowd.

Many of our American friends who have tried to accomplish something economic or philanthropic in Vietnam have sometimes given up and gone home, not really understanding where the cultural non-sequiturs are coming from. And that has certainly happened the other way round as well, where Vietnamese get weary of dealing with demanding people from the West. What we don’t realize, is that any time something new is proposed to Vietnamese citizens, they have to go through a litany in their own minds of how that’s going to fly in their country. Everyone is into everyone else’s business, for one thing, and there is also government oversight to consider. If we start this new organization, for instance, who in the government do we have to consult/bribe/make a partner we’d rather not have to make it possible? It’s exhausting to hear about, so I’m sure much more so to put into execution.


Author: Pamela Foard

Teaching and playing professionally since the age of 19, Pamela Foard was appointed a teaching assistant position at her alma mater, Indiana University, while earning a Master’s Degree in Violin Performance. Once graduated, she further honed her teaching skills at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee, and opened her private violin and viola studio in 1978 in Brookfield, Wisconsin, which was active until her move to Los Angeles in 2014. While at IU, Pamela studied with Italian violinist Franco Gulli and Polish violinist Tadeusz Wronski. She has also studied with Gerald Horner of The Fine Arts Quartet, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Dr. Gerald Fischbach, Edward Mumm, former Concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Piotr Janowski of the New Arts Trio in Milwaukee, and Vartan Menoogian of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A transplant from the East coast to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Pamela was barely out of her teens, when her talents as a freelance musician led rapidly to positions as assistant-concertmaster of the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, the Wisconsin Philharmonic, and concertmaster of the Green Lake Festival Orchestra (Sir David Willcocks conducting), violinist with Skylight Opera Theater, and under Music Directors Kenneth Schermerhorn and Lukas Foss, the number one substitute violinist and violist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra from 1970 to 1986. Pamela founded an all string, unconducted orchestra, Sinfonia Concertante, in Milwaukee in 1979, and was the Artistic Director and Administrative Director for four years, where she also served on the board of directors. She was also the Managing Director for Milwaukee’s contemporary music ensemble, Present Music, from 1996-99. In 2006, she and her husband were invited to be artists-in-residence in Hanoi, Vietnam for a three month program, where they collaborated with Vietnamese artists. She commissioned a tuba concerto for her son Aubrey (currently a professional musician in the Charlotte Symphony and head of the low brass department at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music) in 2008 from Wisconsin composer Mark Petering. In a series of fundraisers for various levels of sponsorship of the concerto, she solicited from donors over $20,000. Pamela has published two books: "Wedding Music Essentials" and " In Concert: The Freelance Musician's Keys to Financial Success”. Presently, Pamela continues to freelance and resides in Marina del Rey, California with her husband, the fine art photographer Lawrence D’Attilio, and their cat Dasher.

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