Sickness and the City in Vietnam
Time & LocationSession 5
Thu 09:00–10:30 Room 1.403
- Sara Ann Swenson Syracuse University
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- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Post-Reform Ho Chi Minh City Allen Tran Bucknell University
This paper examines the role of writing technologies and literacy practices in the construction of emerging forms of subjectivity and affect in psychological counseling centers in post-reform Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Popular interest in affective life and the psy-disciplines in Vietnam has increased dramatically since marketizing reforms were implemented in 1986. The earliest psychotherapeutic services in Ho Chi Minh City provided concrete and instrumental advice and encouraged proper morality according to established work and family roles. However, the growing influence of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has made counseling centers the site of a reconfiguration of the interior self. While many clients prefer CBT’s customizable focus on problematic behaviors over psychoanalysis’ more comprehensive approach, the very work of self-compartmentalization requires a broader questioning of personal and cultural identity as counselors negotiate the cultural forms that assist and resist the application and internalization of CBT principles. I argue that psychotherapeutic knowledge is made intimate through writing highly formatted and scripted accounts of people’s anxieties.
- Displacing Disease: Political Economies of Blame in Hanoi Martha Lincoln
In Vietnam, as elsewhere in the world, disease is a potently significant ideological resource: grounds for the construction of political imaginaries, a vehicle for the expression of nationalist interests, a means for the state to project a particularly constituted body politic, and a venue for the expression of social deservingness and desireability. For individuals and families that experience disease, however, the situation is more complex. The illness narratives told by patients to explain the origins and phenomenology of ill health often express political perspectives; at the same time, the lived experience of illness entails suffering, stigma, economic burden, and other forms of social disadvantage. This paper draws on outbreak narratives (Wald 2007) and illness narratives (Kleinman 1988) that I gathered in Hanoi during a cholera outbreak, arguing that struggles over the origins of cholera and other diseases expressed a complex and contested politics around economic and cultural inclusion in contemporary Vietnam. I contrast perspectives of state and other official agencies with the commentary of affected individuals, showing how members of both the state and urban households made moral claims with their efforts to displace culpability for disease.
- “Equanimity and Resilience”: Emotional Health, Urban Buddhism, and Middle-Class Aspirations in Ho Chi Minh City Dat Nguyen Boston University
In recent years, emotional health and well-being have come to the fore of public attention in Vietnam. As various health and educational institutes in Vietnam begin to reveal statistics and openly discuss about emotional health, youth between the age of 15 and 29 emerge as one of the populations most susceptible to depression, anxiety, stress, and other emotional issues. The rise of public attention to the emotional realm, particularly that of youth, give rise to the proliferation of life-skill courses and mindfulness meditation programs that help youth better navigate their social and emotional lives. These educational programs draw on a growing repertoire that combine Western psychological discourses and Buddhist teachings, and they take place at both Buddhist temples and more “secular” educational centers. Drawing on fifteen months of fieldwork at these educational programs for urban youth, I explore how emotional health and well-being serve as a nexus to investigate the contentious intersection between political economy, religion, and public ethics in late-socialist Vietnam. In comparing how Buddhist monastics and “therapeutic life-skill” educators recast emotional issues as issues of an unstable heart-mind (tâm) and of ethical virtues, I show how these programs propagate a new middle-class ethics of self-realization and social responsibility that promotes both the recognition and the effacement of socio-economic differences. In examining these educational programs, I investigate how the realm of emotion has become a site where religious actors and educators in Ho Chi Minh City craft and negotiate new forms of urban religiosity and late-socialist bio-politics.
- Micro-Charity and the Ethics of Cancer in Ho Chi Minh City Sara Ann Swenson Syracuse University
Ho Chi Minh City’s Oncology Hospital is a popular site for charity services in Vietnam. While charity projects may include a range of activities – including sponsoring medicine or subsidizing treatment for individual patients – the projects I observed during eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork were focused on small food and gift donations. Examples of donations included home-cooked meals and envelopes of lucky money before the Lunar New Year. In conversations with volunteers about their motivations for making these micro-scale donations of time, food, or money on a semi-weekly or monthly basis, many volunteers mentioned the desire to create blessings (tao phuoc duc) in order to protect their own health or the health of family members. Causes of cancer were often framed as ethical failings. Greed, anger, or selfishness are said to manifest themselves in bodily sickness. These manifestations of what JuIia Cassaniti calls “moral emotions” occur not only on an individual plane, but as reflections of global politics. Cancer rates in Vietnam are often credited to corruption in food quality oversight, or greed among Chinese farmers growing exports. This paper explores perceptions of personal ethics, the state, and global affairs at the point of exchange between charity volunteers and cancer patients.
- Social Work and the Construction of Precarious Selfhoods in Ho Chi Minh City Ann Marie Leshkowich College of the Holy Cross
Over the past several decades, Vietnam’s development of a market economy has generated class-specific patterns of anxiety in Ho Chi Minh City. An urban precariat is besieged by “social problems”: homelessness, substance abuse, human trafficking, and family breakdown. Meanwhile, newly prosperous middle and upper classes strive to develop the human capital and psychological fortitude to realize their own potential and contribute to national development. This context provides fertile terrain for the emerging field of social work in Vietnam. Social workers seek to empower the urban precariat to become the kinds of selves who are able to engage in self-scrutiny and self-improvement in order to achieve desired outcomes. But these interactions also establish the social worker’s own privileged personhood as therapeutic expert who applies scientific knowledge through interpersonal and affective acts of care.
Drawing on participant observation, interviews, and archival research conducted from 2010 to the present in university and professional educational settings in southern Vietnam, this paper considers how social work both acts across and works to naturalize class divides by inculcating ways of thinking, feeling, and perceiving. Social work in Vietnam is simultaneously part of a global rise in therapeutic technologies of the self and a particularly situated project to craft appropriately Vietnamese personhoods. While social work’s shaping of selves resembles neoliberal dynamics of medicalized subjectivation, this paper also traces genealogies of change and continuity in Vietnamese notions of self, status, and precarity across several eras: French colonialism, the Republic of Vietnam (1954-1975), postwar socialism, and market socialism.
This panel compares contemporary responses to physical and mental illness in urban Vietnam. Panelists will explore how residents of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City navigate personal, communal, and institutional responsibilities around medical diagnoses. Papers examine how factors like the state, religion, urban development, import products, and changing family structures contribute to public perceptions of health. What causes mental and physical illness? Who is responsible for healing and preventing illnesses, from depression to cancer?
Papers are based on ethnographic research projects including social workers, hospital employees, psychologists, religious leaders, charity volunteers, medical patients, and their familial or hired caretakers.