Comic book written by French expat disparages Vietnamese ethnic minorities, critics say
A strip from the comic 50 semaines passeés a `la tête du bureau (50 weeks at the head of the office) written by Olivier Garro, Vietnam country director for the Association of Francophone Universities (AUF), which has attracted controversy over allegedly racist and insulting remarks.
The comic was meant to be a humorous celebration that poked fun at entrenched attitudes lurking behind political correctness, but it has raised hackles and attracted accusation of being racist and insulting to the people of Vietnam.
The comic book was written by the Vietnam country director of the Association of Francophone Universities (AUF), Olivier Garro, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the organization.
Responding to Vietweek's questions to Garro, AUF said the criticism they have heard of the book, 50 semaines passeÌes aÌ€ la tête du bureau (50 weeks at the head of the office), written under the pseudonym of Za Legras, arise from "unfortunate translations, or cultural misunderstandings or an intention to misunderstand."
The 114-page comic features conversations among "the Director" of the office, a male assistant and a female secretary.
In one conversation, the assistant informs the director about "an intern for the dairy cooperative of Kaikai" and when the director asks, "what is he going to do there?" the assistant replies, "make cheese and milk the cows and when he has had enough he can milk the village girls "¦"
In another conversation, the secretary quotes a study in Australia as saying that office life would double the risk of colon cancer and advises consumption of vegetables like carrots, zucchini and cucumbers. Then the male assistant chimes in: "in suppository is more effective."
But the conversation that got the goat of many had to do with 54 communities in Vietnam [53 ethnic minorities and the majority Kinh].
The director asks, "What is an ethnic minority?" and gets an answer: "Those people [who are] backward, limited, lazy, dirty, stupid, etc."
They also add that the ethnic minorities are respected mainly because they attract tourists and bringing in dollars.
Many people, both French and Vietnamese, have criticized the book as being devoid of humor and containing loaded comments about Vietnamese people.
Marie Hélène Lavallard, a member of the French -Vietnamese Friendship Association, said she was "absolutely shocked" by the book.
"I can understand humor and I like it, more so when it is disrespectful, but this is not humor, it just being unpleasant both to Vietnam and to France," she said.
A professor in Toulouse University, who wished to remain anonymous, said he could not believe that Olivier Garro wrote the book.
"I receive the AUF Newsletter and have not heard of this stupid way to celebrate the 50th anniversary," he said.
Le Quang Binh, director of the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE), a non-profit organization working for the rights of ethnic minority communities in Vietnam, said that "cultural sensitivity is an important topic to discuss.
"In this comic book, he mentions 54 ethnic minorities - but in Vietnam, according to the government - there are 53 ethnic minorities and Kinh as the majority community. Is it that the author considers the Kinh an ethnic minority group?"
According to the Vietnam country director of the Association of Francophone Universities (AUF), the Vietnam General Confeferation of Labor, which manages the Labor Publishing House, issued a decision on April 27 on revoking the book to re-assess its content.
A lecturer who teaches French in HCMC said that Garro has insulted the diversity of people in Vietnam and that it was against AUF's mission of "contributing to solidarity between the French academic institutions"¦ while respecting the diversity of cultures and languages."
A retired French teacher in Vietnam said one would receive a slap in the face as the most lenient punishment if he even jokingly tells his friend, "˜tu es sale, mais tu es respecté, parce que tu rapportes des dollars' (You are dirty but you are respected because you bring dollars.)
"So what if a person understands nothing about a community with 54 people jokes about them using insulting words?" he said.
Many people even called for the author to be expeled from Vietnam.
The French Embassy in Vietnam and French Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City, however, refused to comment on the issue.
"I suggest you contact the AUF directly. I am afraid that there is nothing more to say," said Marie Christine Delpech, First Secretary of the French Embassy in Vietnam.
The French Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City also declined to comment, saying, "We are not aware of this book at all."
Meanwhile, in a statement sent to Vietweek Tuesday (May 8), AUF said only 300 copies of the book were printed for internal circulation and intended mainly for the staff and close partners of the French-speaking university to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2011.
The book was never intended for wide circulation, and 50 copies were given to its employees in Vietnam, it said, adding that publication of the book was authorized by the Lao Dong (Labor) Publishing House in Hanoi.
"This book uses the classic French-Belgian style called "gros nez" ("Big nose"). It is based on absurdist humor and self-parody and intended to make people laugh about their work place, about their administration which may be sometimes a bit absurd, and about confronting different cultural realities," the statement said.
"The book not only tells stories about Vietnam but also about others countries like Cambodia, Thailand, China and several Pacific Rim countries.
"Elements should not be taken out of their context. When in a strip it is said that "˜ethnic minorities are backward,' the author immediately adds that the office directors in France are also a special type of backward ethnic minority. In another strip, it's the French officials who are called "˜backward ethnic communities'.
"Thus, if the author is accused of insulting ethnic minorities, then he should be accused of insulting office directors and French officials as well," it said.
AUF said based on the number of copies published, the purpose of the publication, the type of language and style of humor in this book, "the criticisms, in our view, are exaggerated."
"Although the stories and jokes in this book may not be viewed as funny by some readers, or may not suit readers who are not familiar with the style of humor frequently used in French and Belgian comic books, the author did not intend in anyway to insult any group or institution and he regrets that this work may have cause misunderstandings or hurt anybody sensibilities."