Bureaucracy. Everyone’s favourite thing right? It’s fairly universally loathed for being So. Incredibly. Boring. An unnecessary time thief. A drag.
The thing is though, bureaucracy is so deadly dull because it’s so mundane. And as Steve Woolgar pointed out to me in a recent podcast episode where we discussed his book Mundane Governance, the Latin etymology of ‘mundane’ is ‘of the world’ – just the way things are. And that’s only true if you belong in the world in which you are living.
Have you ever lived, as an adult, outside your birth country? Or, as Danau Tanu suggests in her awesome ethnography Growing Up in Transit, perhaps your birth country is not what you consider your home country. Either way, if, as a grown-up, you’ve had to do any adulting in a country where you’re unfamiliar with the rules, then bureaucracy becomes anything but mundane because you are not ‘of the world’ in which you’re trying to operate. So in this post, I want to draw on an experience from my fieldwork to explore how mundane bureaucracy, when you’re away from home, can be a stark reminder that you are ‘matter out of place’.
Lo, the battlefield awaits
When my husband and I decided to leave Vietnam in 2013, after living there for 6 years, one of my colleagues warned me that I should get a police check before I left the country. He told me a few horror stories of other Australian colleagues who had left without doing so, and then tried to get jobs working with children, or working for the Australian government – jobs for which a police check or security clearance is required – but were unable to acquire these from outside of Vietnam.
I was strongly advised to undertake this process before leaving Vietnam so as to avoid a six-week waiting time, and to avoid extortionate admin fees from Australia. “When do you leave Vietnam?” a colleague asked me. “In… well, it’s 6 weeks tomorrow, actually,” I replied. “You’d better go tomorrow then,” came the rejoinder.
I emailed my employer’s HR department (as was the custom – one does not simply turn up at someone’s desk; how rude) to get advice, and to their credit, they got back to me very quickly with forms to fill out and an address at which to lodge said forms. I was able to fill these out with minimal fuss as they were in English, photocopy my passport and ‘blue book’ – the handwritten paper book filled in by landlords and stamped in red at a local police station, giving official permission for foreigners to live at their rental property – and was ready to go.
The following day, a Friday, I grabbed my precious package of documentation and caught a taxi downtown, a half hour journey that brought me to the imposing Department of Justice building around 8:30am. I had asked my boss for a half day off, and remember being pretty proud of myself for getting there so early – perhaps I wouldn’t need the whole morning off after all.
The Fashion Police
As I entered the doorway to the sterile, tiled waiting room, I was stopped by a middle-aged man who was already sweating profusely in Saigon’s morning heat – the Department of Justice was not air-conditioned. “You,” he said in English. “No.”
I asked him in Vietnamese what the problem was. He answered me in English. “You. No good. Dress no good.”
A waiting customer intervened. “He says you are not dressed well.” I must have looked offended because the kind stranger added, “He means you need business clothes.”
Ouch. Knowing that I would be a lather of sweat by the end of this experience, I had not bothered to dress for work, expecting to go home and shower before heading into the office after lunch. That said, looking around the waiting room, I didn’t feel that most people were dressed better than I was – except that instead of my knee-length shorts, they wore often ragged-hemmed jeans, and instead of my rubber thongs, they had rubber sandals. But the gatekeeper had denied me entry, and I had no choice but to retreat.
Undeterred, I found a motorbike taxi to take me to the nearest shopping mall where I was most likely to find clothes and shoes in my size – ordinarily, as a well-endowed Western woman, I got my clothes tailored, but of course, that takes time. Finding clothes off the rack was not an easy task, but an hour or so later I emerged, triumphantly garbed in a dress that was, ironically, far too big for me, and a pair of cheap, diamante covered heels that were too tight, but would have to do.
I reapproached the door to the DoJ with some trepidation. The man looked me up and down, sniffed, and gestured for me to hand over my documents. I did. “You,” he said. “No good.” Again, I asked him in Vietnamese what the problem was this time. In English: “Documents no good.” “Why not?” I asked. He didn’t reply, just shooed me away, lip curled with disdain.
Faith in humanity
Again, a waiting observer stepped in, asking in English to see my documents. I showed them to her (surreptitiously wondering why she was allowed to wear jeans and a t-shirt). After taking a quick look, she explained that the problem was that I had filled out the form in English. I was surprised – this was the form the HR department had provided for me, in English. She kindly went and retrieved a clean copy of the form, this time written in Vietnamese, and said, “I’m waiting for my father and he will take some time. Let me help you.” She took me outside to a bench beside the parking area (seeing that the gatekeeper wouldn’t let me into the waiting room proper), and patiently explained each of the sections of the form. She apologised profusely that she was not allowed to fill out the form for me, but sat and dictated each of the words, in Vietnamese, with the appropriate hand gestures to show me what the diacritical markings should look like on each letter. My spoken Vietnamese was reasonable, but my written Vietnamese was unquestionably insufficient for a task like this. It took us nearly an hour to fill out this 2-page form. I offered to pay her for her time, or buy her a coffee, or give her some kind of gift, but she wouldn’t accept. “It’s my pleasure to help you if I can,” she said.
Brimming with both gratitude and exhaustion, I again re-entered the waiting room and showed the gatekeeper my newly-filled documents. “No,” he said definitely. Again, I asked why, but he just gestured me away. My new friend asked him (using the same words I had!) what the problem was. He told her that they do not accept any new entrants one hour before lunchtime (which was at 11:30am) or one hour before closing time (after 4:30pm). It was 10:33. We had missed the cutoff by 3 minutes.
My new friend advised me to come back after lunch and siesta, at 1pm. Dejected, I went in search of caffeine and wifi, to advise my boss that I would not be in by lunchtime after all.
At 1pm, I trudged back to the Department of Justice and again dragged myself up those infernal front stairs. The gatekeeper was staring me down but I refused to be cowed. I showed him my documents. Begrudgingly, he handed me a piece of paper with a number and gestured roughly towards the plastic waiting room chairs. I had made it through the door! Almost all the chairs were occupied, and the stench of sweating humans was making my head spin like the fans making lazy loops above my head.
Nonetheless, I waited.
And I waited.
And I waited.
After an hour, my number came up. I was directed towards a counter, where I handed over all of my documentation. “No,” said the officious-looking woman behind the counter, again in English. In Vietnamese, in a tone of disbelief, I asked her what was wrong. “No,” she said again, shaking her hands at me in the Vietnamese gesture for “cannot” or “impossible”. “I speak Vietnamese!” I said to her – in Vietnamese – exasperation seeping through the cracks between the words. “Please tell me what’s wrong!” She refused, trying to gesture me away, but I was hot and tired and out of patience. “No,” I said. “Wait a minute, I’m going to stay right here, and I’m going to make a call.”
So I called my university’s HR department and asked them to speak to the woman and find out what was wrong. It turned out that my local police station when registering me on behalf of my landlord had used the wrong stamp. In order to get a police check, I would need to contact my landlord, who would need to come and pick up my blue book, go in person to my local police station, get the correct stamp, return the blue book to me, after which I would need to go through this entire process again.
None of which was possible, given that my landlord happened to be holidaying in France for the next 6 weeks.
Touché, Department of Justice. You win. No police check for me.
Chalk and cheese
When I returned to Vietnam to do fieldwork for my PhD three years later, I thought I should get in early for organising the police check. Plus, it seemed like the process of applying would appropriately illustrate my thesis topic (academics’ lived experience of international mobility), so I decided to give it another shot.
I emailed an old friend at my ex-university’s HR department to ask for guidance. She generously replied, attaching forms in both English and Vietnamese, this time with a thorough explanation of what to do with each (ie. don’t use the English one, it’s just for your own reference; fill out the Vietnamese version, in Vietnamese.) The document containing instructions also spelled out useful information such as dress code (business attire) and opening hours (including that they are open on Saturdays!).
I asked another Vietnamese friend to help me fill out the Vietnamese version of the form, amidst much discussion of cultural difference in response to the answers I was giving – why did I take my husband’s surname when I got married? (this is not customary in Vietnam). Why didn’t my mother finish high school? (my friend thought everyone from Western countries was rich and well-educated – I was the first of my extended family to go to university). We eventually got the form filled out, I photocopied the many pages of my blue book and passport as listed in the guidelines document, and I was ready – nervous, but ready.
That Saturday morning, I donned my business attire, gathered my documentation, and was out of my apartment by 6:30am to ensure I would definitely be waiting at the doors of the DoJ by the opening time of 7:30am. I only just made it – the traffic in HCMC had gotten so much worse in 3 years! As I walked towards that same imposingly modernist high rise, I realised that I was shaking, my breathing was shallow, my heart was beating like it was trying to escape my chest. What a strange reaction to filing an application form at a government department! It was this, more than anything else, that prompted me to write this story down.
When I entered the doors and the gatekeeper stopped me, I think my heart may actually have frozen, rabbit-in-the-headlights-style. But he was very nice – asked me in English for my documentation, and looked it over, smiling pleasantly while I held my breath. After a moment, he looked up at me, and smilingly told me that I was missing a page.
I broke down and cried.
The nice man didn’t know what to do with me – this highly over-sensitive foreigner, blubbering in front of his desk over a page of photocopying. “It’s no problem madam! No problem! You go, get it photocopied, come back! No problem! There is photocopy shop right there!” And he pointed across the street to a shop sign that said ‘Photocopying’.
Feeling incredibly foolish, I pulled myself together, gathered my traitorously incomplete documentation, and made my way over to the photocopy shop.
It was closed.
Tears threatened again, which, again, I found fascinating – what on earth was wrong with me? The slightest knock and I was down for the count! This was NOT how I saw myself as an international traveller, and certainly not as an anthropologist on fieldwork! Carefully and deliberately, I drew the threads of my dignity around me, wrapping them delicately around my shoulders like a gossamer armour. Then, I found myself a motorbike taxi, asked the driver to find me another photocopy shop, and away we went.
The final frontier
Approaching the DoJ AGAIN twenty minutes later, I had my nerves tightly reined in. I had the appropriate documentation now, I was sure of it (I had been sure last time, but this time I was determined to be both sure and right!). I walked up the stairs with confidence and handed my documentation over to the very kind gatekeeper, who smiled gently as he showed me which counter to go to, and told me I didn’t need a number, just to go straight up. I worried for a moment that this was white privilege in action… until I saw that everyone else was doing that too.
The sweet young woman behind the counter took my documents, stamped a few things here and there, asked for 200,000 Vietnam Dong (the equivalent of about $15AUD), stamped some other things, and then handed me another form. “Thank you,” I said, and awaited further instruction. She typed away for a little bit, then looked up at me confused. “Can I help you?” she asked me in English. “Am I finished?” I asked, dumbfounded. “Yes madam. You’re finished. Come back and pick up your documents on the date on the form,” she said, pointing at the date on the paper she had handed me.
You know in movies when the protagonist finally gets what they are after, and it is depicted, literally, by light shining from above and an angelic choir singing their congratulations? Maybe I was hallucinating by that point, but as I turned away from the counter in amazement at my success, the sun broke through the morning haze and a bright sunbeam pierced the dirty windows in a dazzle of light. I nearly cried all over again.
For the love of a good cultural translator
Bureaucracy is never easy to navigate, even when you’re ‘at home’, when you speak the national language fluently, and especially, when you have access to cultural translators – friends, family, even helpful administrators or service folk – who can help you work out what the hell it all means.
So perhaps spare a thought for the people you meet who maybe don’t feel as comfortable in a space as you do. Those who are dealing with the same bureaucracy, but are perhaps not finding it quite so mundane. Could you be a better cultural translator? Could you offer the kind of assistance that I so generously received in Vietnam? What would it take for you to help someone else avoid post-bureaucratic stress?
[Image: Photo of a police check receipt, by Jodie-Lee Trembath]