from the president

Postcard from Hanoi

I never imagined, not in my wildest dreams, I would be in Hanoi listening to Bing Crosby. Bing must have been dreaming, as his voice played over the sound system, wishing for a white Christmas in 80-degree Hanoi heat. Still, it was rather comforting, and just as strange to see a huge Christmas tree right there in the Hotel Metropole courtyard, decorated with big, red balls and twinkling white lights. Boughs of holly all around, even. And mistletoe. Here we were: Christmas in Hanoi, the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Who would have thought it?

I was waiting for 30 Puget Sound Pac Rim students, alumni, faculty, and staff to arrive for a farewell dinner after having spent a few days with them here and in China. On the Hanoi itinerary were a number of Buddhist temples and pagodas, St. Joseph's Cathedral, several museums, the Temple of Literature (Vietnam’s oldest school), and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. We were lucky: Uncle Ho had just returned from his annual restoration, which happens every November in Russia. We saw the city’s famous Long Bien Bridge, too, designed by French architect Gustave Eiffel to resemble the mythical “ascending dragon” that legend says came out of the sea to found the city—yup, the same Eiffel who designed the Eiffel Tower for the Paris World Exhibition in 1889. In 1902, the year after the Hotel Metropole was built, Hanoi had come to be known as “the Paris of the Orient,” and the French sponsored another world’s fair, this time in Hanoi, to celebrate: L’Exposition d’Hanoi.

What an exciting city Hanoi was then and is now, with its mixture of French colonial architecture and distinctly Vietnamese-style houses (tall and narrow because land is so precious), fabulous food, the night market in the Old Quarter, the swarming torrent of motorbikes that make crossing any street a harrowing adventure, and the spectacular speed of economic growth everywhere evident. The country has been shaped by a unique set of cultural dynamics, from the paradox of its historic and sustained religious devotion to Buddhism, to its vehement nationalism, its political loyalty to one-party communist rule, and its enthusiastic economic embrace of a booming market capitalism. Overlay on top of  that this tiny country’s dazzling physical beauty, the charm of its people, and their stubborn two-millennium resistance to Chinese invasion and then French and American colonialism. Fascinating place.

All this, and Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.” As I waited for our students and our last evening together, there really was no place in the world I preferred to be.

It made me think of another December, back when I was a junior in college, just like most of the Pac Rimmers. Back then, in 1969, Hanoi was the last place I wanted to be, even though I had the opportunity to go.

On December 1, I was in Chicago with about 200 others in our student union, watching a live television broadcast of the first military draft lottery since 1942. We waited anxiously for our birthdays to be drawn out of a large, glass container, where all 366 days of the year were inscribed on small blue balls. If my birthday was among the first 195 drawn, I would very likely be drafted right out of college and sent to Vietnam to fight in that controversial and unpopular war.

September 14 was drawn first. A few groans went up from the crowd. A girlfriend stifled a sob. Someone ran out of the room. The pattern continued as each date was read. April 24 was next. Then December 30. February 14, St. Valentine’s Day. So far, I was safe. October 18. September 6. Eight hundred fifty thousand young Americans became draft-eligible that night and classified 1-A. As it turned out, they didn’t draw the little blue ball with January 29 on it until late in the evening, number 349, when the student union had almost emptied out.

I wasn’t going to Hanoi. Had I been born a few hours earlier, on January 28, my draft number would have been 77, and I would almost surely have been in-country along with many of my friends. Some of those friends were sent on bombing missions that hit Hanoi hard. Half of the dragon bridge designed by Eiffel was destroyed in those raids, as you can plainly see today. Other friends were shot down and did not survive; still others bravely endured years of captivity in a different Hanoi “hotel” just down the street from the one with the big, white tree. Senator John McCain heroically endured five torturous Christmases there in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, a year longer than the time I was in college. So did Puget Sound alumnus John Dramesi ’66, who was shot down over Ba Don in 1967.

But now, 40 years later, here I am in Hanoi, right where I want to be. Not a college student, but a college president, surrounded by another generation of college students who inspire me with their curiosity and resourcefulness and commitments as they engage the challenges and opportunities of this year-long immersion in Asian cultures we call “Pac Rim.” I couldn’t help but wonder where these young people would be in 40 years time, when they are my age. Maybe one will be in Baghdad with a group of college students. Or Kabul. Or Darfur. Some may be living in Beijing, like the 10 impressive alumni we met there a week earlier. Or in Cape Town, Tokyo, or Mumbai. Or Tacoma. Some will be in the place of their dreams; others in a place they can’t yet imagine.

One thing is clear as I reflect on my one-week version of the amazing Pac Rim program and take another look at these travelers and the lives that stretch out before them: We are inside of history. The world changes. And people change because of the ideas they believe in, the values they cultivate, the actions they take—and don’t take.

And then, there is the invisible influence of luck, fortune, karma, providence, the dark forces of history, faith, grace—call it what you will—that will offer unexpected opportunities and contingencies. We are, all of us, deeply embedded in history, participants in its unimaginable transformations. And that’s what we’re getting them ready for, here in Tacoma and there in Hanoi.

Tonight I’m dreaming of white Christmases, right along with Bing, but the ones I’m dreaming of are nothing like the ones we used to know.