Office Girls

(originally published in Word HCMC, April 2013)

Over casual Friday beers, Ed Weinberg learns what career girls really want.

Photo by Alexandre Garel

We’re sitting at a street stall — this good little bap bo place on Ham Nghi — and the girls are licking their workweek wounds. “One thing for me,” Hien says after dishing quite liberally on her work, “like before, I was so believing in the job, so whatever my boss say, I would swallow word by word. You know what I mean, I believed everything.”

“When did it happen that you stopped believing?” Phuong asks.

“Actually, after one year,” Hien says.

“So, two years you lived in disbelief?”

These are all lapsed career girls, their belief lost somewhere on the path between dedicated student and entry-level cog. They have good jobs — Phuong, Hien and Tram at a PR firm, Thao in a bank — but the smell of success has worn off. They’ve taken the red pill. They might be capitalism dissenters, the ones who point out that money is just a piece of paper that’s captured the popular imagination, in another life.

Or perhaps in this one.


The Dark Humour of Disappointment

I have a theory: the routine sacrifice of young working life is made even tougher for women in Vietnam, as a legion of family members ask about nonexistent boyfriends and employers exercise their power with a lack of restraint bordering on the sociopathic.

The girls do a good job dispelling this, somewhat. “We are in the lucky group,” Phuong says. “It’s a little different from the common perception. I know these things exist, I listen to these stories when I do consumer research, with these people.”

I bang on with my marriage-pressure angle, and get a little response. “In Vietnam,” Tram says, “all the women get married at 25, and now —” Phuong interrupts her, “We’re 26.”

Tram says, “Actually, I’m 25.”

Phuong says, “Actually, I’m 25 too.” All the girls laugh at this. None expect to get married in the next year.

Phuong and Thao met on a weekend trip to Nha Trang — not having any collaborators on their spur-of-the-moment plans, they were both going up on their own. Unlike the majority in this still-developing country, these girls have opportunities like this on a regular basis, traveling for work or just to get away.

“That story never dies,” Phuong says as soon as I mention it. It’s a bit of an inside joke, this solitary adventure they’re on.

But still, the lame parts of their luckiness only cause them groans. “The depressing thing,” Phuong makes clear, “is we got pushed into this job and we’re not happy about it.

“The question you should ask is — ‘Are you happy with what you’re doing with your life?’ And the answer we will give is we’re not.”

“It’s an elaborate hoax. The job makes you feel like what you’re doing is important, and you pride yourself for working so hard, and you go out with each other and say, ‘I’m so busy!’

“You’re doing really nothing good. You sell stuff. You move things from one corner to another.”

The Problem with Longing

One of Phuong’s great disappointments came in an Italian film festival she organised for Peroni. It was supposed to be an intersection between her work and her passions, proof the two could coexist and even benefit from one another. She showed Fellini’s La Dolce Vita — a comedy-drama that Roger Ebert lists in his overall Top 10, and the inspiration for Lost in Translation — Vittorio de Sica’s Oscar-winning Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, three others. No one came.

This was a step on the way to realising the hollowness of her daytimes. “It’s an elaborate hoax,” Phuong says. “[The job] makes you feel like what you’re doing is important, and you pride yourself for working so hard, and you go out with each other and say, ‘I’m so busy!’

“You’re doing really nothing good. You sell stuff. You move things from one corner to another.”

Thao took her bank job on graduating university three years ago, and has been trying to get out of it ever since. She’s kept still by likeable colleagues and a tolerable atmosphere, rather than anything that fulfills her. “In the Vietnamese working environment, people are just fighting each other,” she says, explaining her inaction. “People envy each other.”

What would she do if she had the choice? “Maybe do something crazy, don’t make money.” A pause. “I want to be a farmer,” she shines on, “all my life I want to be a farmer.”

Spurred on by our smiles, Thao continues, “I want to think. I want to go around the world. I want to do something precious on the way.”

It’s a good environment for dreaming, and Phuong tells us her idea. “Make some tofu,” she tags on to Thao’s yearning. “You have to try — it’s good!”

When the giggles subside, Phuong becomes serious again. “The thing is,” she says, “we always want something by ourselves, we want to do something, create something real, as opposed to all the sh*t we say at work.”


The One Who Got Away

Hien is leaving next month, to travel Korea, Myanmar and Japan. She’s quitting her job to take this three-month trip. While she’s reciting this plan, Phuong interjects — “Indochina by bike!” Her journey seems to stand for them all, as an example of what could be, of what’s waiting out there.

I ask why she’s leaving her job.

“Why?” she repeats, pondering. “I’m kind of, like, heading off.” Another pause. “It’s just like [Phuong] says, f*ck that sh*t.”

She takes a moment to articulate this deep, long-forming impulse, and when she resumes talking she has her reason. “I think everyone here has to-do lists. I have a few things I would like to do, but I was scared to do before.

“Maybe it’s like you say, it’s a job, you have to get it now.” I had been saying that, and I’ve been there myself. Sometimes a paying job can seem like the best thing in the world — even if it’s not. Hien gets at the source of this desperation in saying, “Otherwise you never know whether you’ll get a job as good.”

Lip service paid, she tells us what’s compelling her to leave a promising career for the unknown. “I’ve been dreaming,” she says, in this unhurried, full-sentence way that makes the others laugh, then continues, “to visit Japan — so that’s the reason.”

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