In 2004, Vietnam was listed in the Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) for systematic violations of religious freedom by the United States. Since the official establishment as a communist state in 1976, Vietnam practiced one of the core ideologies of Karl Marx and Lenin on the abolition of religion. The government actively repressed many forms of religious activities and practices, including Vietnam’s traditional Buddhism and the popular minority’s Catholic Christianity. Later, recognized the repression of religion as an obstacle to world wide trading, Vietnam government made efforts to increase the rights to religious freedom. In 2006, the United States removed Vietnam from the list of Countries of Particular Concern. Perceiving Vietnam’s efforts in increasing religion freedom and trading, in 2007, World Trade Organization (WTO) inducted Vietnam as its 150th member.
Everyone was interested in the news about how Vietnam was going to be a member of WTO. Even the people in my Southern city who were stereotypically not often interested in politics, followed the news like hawks. Every negotiation, every discussion, every meeting regarding this issue was broadcast on national television. Every class at school had some sort of assignments relating to this. I was a 14 years old who was forced to learn the news. My Ethnics teacher, who ironically looked like a lanky cocaine addict, made a speech about how this deal would finally put Vietnam out of the economic isolation that our old enemy – the U.S. placed upon us for beating them at the war. And he assigned us an essay about the significance of this deal to our life and our families.
I had no idea. I was 14. So I asked everyone in my family instead.
My aunt told me stories about the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. How the lady was a descendant of our last Emperor. How she was talented and firm in a country that valued men’s opinions. How she was an excellent diplomat that did all the negotiations to make Vietnam desirable as a potential member. I remembered watching her on TV. Everyone knew her name. I knew her name. And I didn’t even know the name of our then current prime minister. My aunt also kept telling these stories to my uncle every time he fed their two-year old daughter. He stopped complaining about how all his children were girls for a while.
My uncle was relieved about the religious restrictions that were being loosened up. Marrying into my family, he was the only Catholic. He was what we called an “original Christian”. That was a person who was baptized as an infant, grew up learning and practicing all Catholic ideologies and ceremonies, and living within a Catholic Christian community. My aunt converted when marrying him, but she would never be an “original”. He always believed that he was the only one in the family that truly believed in the teachings of Catholicism. And he wasn’t wrong. Our family never cared much for religion. So when the WTO deal was hitting the news, he checked on his Christian relatives, his old Christian neighborhood neighbors to see if they were able to go to church freely every Sunday. He was wondering whether this WTO membership would allow Christianity to expand and missionaries from other country could come to Vietnam to enlighten everyone on the grace of God. More ceremonies and Catholic celebrations would happen across the country. I was not a Christian and never really cared for organized religion so I figured I would not be able to truly understand his enthusiasm. I noted down his opinions without asking many questions. Though I wondered what would be the change for him then. He married my aunt in a church. He has always been going to church freely on Sundays. And it wasn’t like he was participating in any dramatic Catholic ceremony besides Sunday masses.
My mother was an economist. She worked in banks her whole life. Her point of view was purely economics. She said this would open Vietnam up for more trading opportunities all over the world. We would be able to export our valuable agricultural products to many places further than our little South East Asian corner of the world. There would be more import on products we couldn’t make. The deal would attract foreign investors into a raising young economy. All those big economic words that people said during a discussion on TV. I noted down all the technical words she said to make my essay sounded smart later. In the end, she also said who knew, this might be a chance to increase in education access as well. That when I was a bit older, I might have more choices for studying abroad than just Russia and the ex Soviet Union countries. May be more of a Western experience. Doors were opened, for everyone.
I recalled struggling to put together all those ideas into my essay. The essay was informative but probably one of the worst essays I have ever written. The paragraphs had no transition from one to another. The only things those notes I took shared in common was the coming WTO deal and nothing else. I finally gave up and wrote those notes down as if they were stand alone paragraphs that were put together into an essay.