Nov 24, 2012

One-Definition-A-Day: On Leadership


It has been said that there are as many definitions of leadership as there are individuals studying leadership.

Though there is no agreed-on definition of leadership, two themes consistently emerge. 

First, leaders influence the behavior of others. Second, this influence is intentional and directed toward some desired objective such as developing a new product, achieving a sales goal, building a home for orphans, or raising student exam scores.

Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California at Berkeley, in his seminal work Greatness: Who Makes 
History and Why, defined leadership in general as “that group member whose influence on group attitudes, performance, or decision making greatly exceeds that of the average member of the group” (Simonton 1994,17). 

The Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) international research project defined effective organizational leadership as “the ability of an individual to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organizations of which they are members” (House et al. 1997, 184). 

Another definition of [global] organizational leadership states that “leadership involves people in business settings whose job or role is to influence the thoughts and actions of others to achieve some finite set of business goals…usually displayed in large, multicultural contexts; that is, not just from one nation's perspective” (Gessner & Arnold 1999, xv).

As in the case of leadership, there is no agreed upon definition of culture. 

At a broad pragmatic level, culture is defined by social scientists as a set of characteristics or descriptors that differentiate groups in a consistently identifiable and meaningful way (e.g., Hispanic, French, Hindu, Republican, Southern, Generation X). 

Prominent social psychologists Florence Kluckholn and Fred Strodtbeck described culture as a patterned way of thinking, feeling, and reacting, acquired and transmitted mainly by symbols, and constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts. 

The prominent organizational scholar Geert Hofstede defined culture as the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes one human group from another. 

Yet another scholarly definition is offered by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who defined culture as a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life. 

Common to these definitions is the notion that culture involves shared knowledge and meaning systems among its members.


Since there is no consensual agreement on the terms leadership or culture, it would seem impossible to define 
the term cross-cultural leadership. 

Yet, as discussed earlier, definitions of culture and leadership each share common themes. To the terms leadership and culture, we now add cross. The “cross” in “cross cultural leadership” refers to the leader's (the influencer) culture being different from the follower's (influence target) culture. 

By combining the thematic definitions of “leadership” and “culture” with the qualifier “cross,” we define cross-cultural leadership as “the ability of an individual (the leader) to intentionally and unequally influence and motivate members of a culturally different group toward the achievement of a valued outcome by appealing to the shared knowledge and meaning systems of that culturally different group.” 

In reviewing this definition, it becomes clear that what separates cross-cultural leadership from simple leadership are the words “culturally different.” What separates simple leadership from cross-cultural leadership is the need for leaders to consider the implications of the differences in the knowledge and meaning systems of their followers and to incorporate these differences into the influence process.

This definition provides a foundation for answering several of the questions posed in the introduction. 

Is an expatriate leader always a cross-cultural leader? The answer is yes only if there are significant differences in the knowledge and meaning systems of the leader and the followers. 

Does a person have to be managing across multiple countries to be a cross-cultural leader? The definition suggests that working across multiple countries is not required. In fact, some countries may be characterized by extensive within-country regional cultural differences. An example of this would be the substantial ethnic and cultural differences between the states of the former Soviet Union or the significant religious differences across groups in some Middle Eastern countries.

It must be acknowledged that some scholars will object to including within-border leadership as cross-cultural 

For example, Hollenbeck (2001) has argued that the key distinction between traditional international managers and the current transnationally competent managers is the cross-border nature of the tasks and skills. 

Adler and Bartholomew (1992) have defined the “global leader” as an executive who executes global strategies across, rather than within, borders of time and geography, nation, function, and product. 

Yet another author defines world-class executives as “cosmopolitans” not based on where they go but on their mindsets being attuned to world-class concepts, competencies, and connections. 

These differences in terminology (cosmopolitan, global leader, international leader, and transnational leader) are characteristic of a relatively new academic area of study such as cross-cultural leadership.

These differences in scholarly opinion may also be traced to differences in the interests of researchers and 

Strategists tend to be interested in the tasks to be done, the accountabilities accepted, and the results anticipated. 

Human resources scholars tend to be interested in determining the knowledge, skills, abilities, and attitudes required to accomplish the tasks, meet the accountabilities, and produce the expected results. 

The definition of cross-cultural leadership provided here encompasses both perspectives by recognizing that cross-cultural leadership can occur within a single set of borders and that management across multiple borders (i.e., global leadership and transnational leadership) may not be sufficient to classify as cross-cultural leadership. For example, a Korean leader based in New York managing a group of Korean employees in Seoul and a group of Korean employees in Bangkok may not be engaging in cross-cultural leadership because the leader and the led are separated by physical space and not by cognitive space.

The definition of cross-cultural leadership provided here offers an approach to, rather than a definitive rule for, 
identifying cross-cultural leadership. 

For example, someone might argue that a United States Southerner leading a group of from the northern United States would be exercising cross-cultural leadership because of regional differences in attitudes, values, or intra-state regulatory systems. What is missing from such an argument is that the shared meanings and knowledge systems are more common across U.S. regions than different. The situation where meaningful differences exist but are smaller than the shared meaning and knowledge systems is more appropriately referred to as leadership of cultural diversity.

The inability to develop an easily applied and inviolate rule to identify cross-cultural differences may be why so 
many scholars, especially organizational scholars, have relied on national boundaries as proxies for cultural differences. 

National boundaries are easily identifiable, have identifiable differences in legislative laws and processes, and are often formed along cultural differences in the citizenry. But as the Soviet example introduced earlier illustrates, these boundaries are often inexact. 

Imagine someone who was “just a leader” in the former Soviet states awakening to find that he or she is now regarded as a cross-cultural leader simply because the political boundaries have been redrawn such that Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia are politically separate nations.

With no change in the followers (targets of influence), it would be difficult to argue convincingly that the mere 
redrawing of political boundaries is the dominant factor impacting attempts to exert influence. 

The more appropriate conclusion is that the person was a cross-cultural leader (managing multiple mindsets) both before and following the redrawing of political boundaries. While the redrawing of national boundaries is consequential to the work group, the change is more appropriately characterized as a change to the task environment (problems and opportunities faced by the group) than it is a new cross-cultural leadership (influencing targets with a different worldview) challenge.


Studies of cross-cultural leadership have followed two basic approaches. One approach, called the emic 
approach, seeks to investigate one culture at a time to determine those leadership behaviors that appear to be linked to the effective attainment of group goals. For example, a study investigating leadership behavior in Austria might associate follower evaluations of leadership effectiveness with objective group outcomes such as higher profits, higher student examination scores, or the attainment of fund-raising objectives. Conclusions would then be reached about how a leader should behave to be effective in Austria.

The second approach, called the etic approach, seeks to investigate multiple cultures simultaneously to 
determine those leadership behaviors that appear to be linked to the effective attainment of group goals across most of them. For example, a study might attempt to determine if a leader lavishing praise on followers is positively linked to group outcomes in most cultures or if the public scolding of employees is negatively linked with leader effectiveness in most cultures. Conclusions would then be reached about how leaders should behave to be effective in most cultures. 

Etic studies often demonstrate differences. For example, it has shown that talking critically about an employee to that employee's peers when the employee is not present is considered to be undesirable in the United States (because of a value for open communication) and is considered to be desirable in Japan (because the employee “saves face” by not receiving the criticism directly). 

A series of emic studies can be used to make etic-like comparisons across cultures, but these comparisons are often less reliable than simple etic studies.

The obvious benefits of an emic (single culture often operationalized as single country) perspective are that it is 
more likely to reveal what leadership behaviors should be exhibited locally. Emic studies often provide very fine details about a culture that could be overlooked when designing a study to measure attributes across a number of cultures. 

The advantage of the etic approach (multiple cultures) is that it provides leaders who must migrate through multiple cultures, often in rapid succession, with information about which behaviors are likely to be well received in most cultures and which ones will typically have a negative impact. Though scholars disagree on whether the best approach is to deduce similarities and differences from etic studies or to induct similarities and differences from emic studies, the literature on cross-cultural leadership has been enhanced by both approaches. Greater confidence in what to do may be warranted when the conclusions of emic studies and etic studies agree.

The touchstone for most attempts to conduct cross-cultural leadership research has been the pioneering work of 
organizational scholar Geert Hofstede. Hofstede proposed the following four dimensions (actually continuums) of culture that can be used to explain similarities and differences in leader behaviors and follower reactions: 

(1) High Power Distance–Low Power Distance: The degree to which members of a society expect power to be shared equally; 

(2) High Uncertainty Avoidance–Low Uncertainty Avoidance: The degree to which members of a society feel uncomfortable in unstructured, ambiguous, and uncertain situations, and create beliefs and institutions intended to minimize the occurrence of such situations; 

(3) Individualism–Collectivism: The degree to which individuals function independently of one another or are integrated into groups; and 

(4) Masculinity–Femininity: The degree to which cultures look favorably on assertiveness, aggressiveness, and the striving for personal success, or to which they stress supportive behavior, nurturance, and service.


The final question posed in the introduction was whether some leadership behaviors are effective in all cultures 
or whether leadership is manifested differently in each culture. The answers to this two part question are yes and yes. 

Research has identified several leadership behaviors that are associated positively or negatively with effectiveness across most cultures (universals). 

Research has also identified some leader behaviors and attributes which are culturally dependent (contingencies). 

Representative findings of both categories are discussed in brief below, and details and additional findings can be found in comprehensive reviews of the leadership literature.

Bernard M. Bass, author of the Handbook of Leadership, provides a number of assertions based on cross-cultural research of the transformational/transactional leadership paradigm. 

First, transformational leaders are those who provide inspiration in the form of an enticing vision, give individualized consideration to followers,and intellectually stimulate followers to perceive problems in new ways and are more likely to induce followers to transcend their own interests to achieve a higher cause. 

Second, transactional leaders are those who clarify work expectations, provide rewards contingent on specific outcomes, and closely monitor employee behavior and are more likely to produce followers motivated primarily by self-interest. 

Bass explains that there is a consistent relationship between leadership style and various outcome measures (effectiveness, subordinate satisfaction, and subordinate effort).

According to Bass, transformational leaders appear to be more effective than leaders who rely on contingent 
reward, leaders practicing active management by exception, and leaders practicing laissez-faire management.

The latter, laissez-faire management, includes frequently avoiding responsibilities and shirking duties. The 
findings for laissez-faire management are etic in nature, with negative associations to leadership effectiveness across all cultures. 

Bass also states another etic conclusion, that across cultures transformational leadership augments transactional leadership in predicting important outcomes. He believes that this relationship pattern is consistent across cultures because prototypes (conceptions of model leaders) for leadership across cultures are generally transformational rather than transactional. Such findings are characteristic of the universal view of cross-cultural leadership.


Research has shown that sensitivity to norms was a more critical component of leader behavior in Mexico and 
Iran than in the United States. Managers who maintained a distance from their employees used rules and procedures more than managers who valued a closer relationship, and managers who placed a high value on interpersonal trust preferred participative and democratic leadership while leaders in countries low in trust preferred a more authoritarian style. 

There is substantial evidence for a correlation between a leader's consideration of followers and subordinate satisfaction, although the results of these studies are inconsistent.

Transformational leadership behavior had more dramatic effects in the People's Republic of China and Taiwan 
than did transactional leadership. Providing an appropriate model and demonstrating high performance expectations significantly influenced the attitudes of Chinese employees, while leader individualized support and fostering collaboration significantly influenced the job attitudes of Taiwanese employees. 

Similar differences were found for leader-contingent rewards. While several aspects of leadership were universally endorsed (i.e., charismatic and values-based leadership), researchers have found that collective value orientations are positively related to team-oriented leadership endorsement, and that the distance of a leader from a follower is negatively related to participative leadership endorsement. 

Such findings are characteristic of the contingent view of cross-cultural leadership.


Terms such as “global leader,” ‘transnational leader,” “international leader,” and “expatriate leader” have served 
as a point of departure for discussing issues related to cross-cultural leadership. This lack of precision in terminology can be traced to the lack of consensus regarding the terms “leadership” and “culture.” 

By laying semantics aside and focusing on cross-cultural leadership thematically, it can be seen that the challenge of cross-cultural leadership for leaders is to motivate members of a culturally different group toward the achievement of a valued outcome by appealing to the shared knowledge and meaning systems used by a culturally different group.

A great deal of progress has been made in recent decades toward understanding cross-cultural leadership. The 
increasing rate of globalization will undoubtedly continue to accelerate calls for more research on cross-cultural leadership (see Lowe and Gardner 2000). While a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between leadership and culture is a distant vision, an understanding of the etic or universal findings can be expected to become more multifaceted and pragmatic over time.

Cross-Cultural Confusion and Leadership Failure

One of the major hurdles in any cross-cultural leadership situation is for the members of each cultural group to 
develop a full understanding of what leadership means to the other group. The following description of British attempts to appoint effective local leaders from the Tiv ethnic group during the period of British colonial rule inNigeria indicates just how difficult a hurdle this can be.

The white man demanded the election of clan chiefs, or “district heads,” as they were called after the pattern of 
the northern emirates, and chiefs were elected. It was quite in accordance with precedent that the elders should appoint a younger man of no especial standing to carry out the administrative duties required by the white man, and not one of the men who wielded the real authority, that is to say, a senior elder, who was master of the Poor and other great akombo, and had all the power of supernatural sanction behind him. This fundamental difference in conception of the nature of chieftainship caused much misunderstanding between the Tiv and the British Administration. The men who were put forward by the elders to be the ‘white man's chief’ (tor u Butel) often were not backed by the consent even of their own group, far less of the clan over which they were supposed to rule. In consequence, they either completely failed to fulfill the function for which they were appointed by the Administration, being mere puppets in the hands of their seniors, as indeed the latter intended them to be, or else they used the power given them by us for their own ends, and defied the authority of their natural leaders, bringing down much odium upon themselves and the new régime. As Downes says, “We cannot escape our share of the responsibility for the position as it exists now, and it is, to a large extent, our fault that the Tiv authorities have remained in the background. We have seen that many of the real authorities are not capable of carrying out the duties of village head, supervising the census, collecting the taxes in the way we would like to see it done. We have not liked their arrogant claims to supernatural powers and we have ignored them, and they, not understanding, have preferred to be ignored and have elected a man of no importance to be the ‘ or koghor kpandegh’ (tax collector) and to take the kicks of a District Head who, in many cases, they consider to be inferior to them in position.

Akiga. (1939). Akiga's Story: The Tiv Tribe as Seen by One of Its Members. Edited and translated by Rupert 
East, ed. . London: Oxford University Press, pp. 367–368.

Further Readings

Adler, N. J. and Bartholomew, S. Managing globally competent people. Academy of Management Executive vol. 
6 (1992) pp. 52–65

Ayman, R. and Chemers, M. M. The relationship of supervisory behavior ratings to work group effectiveness and 
subordinate satisfaction among Iranian managers. Journal of Applied Psychology vol. 68 (1983) pp. 338–341

Barrett, G. V., ed. , & Bass, B. M. (Eds.). (1976). Cross cultural issues in industrial and organizational 
psychology. New York: John Wiley.

Bass, B. M. Does the transactional-transformational leadership paradigm transcend organizational and national 
boundaries? American Psychologist vol. 52 (1997) pp. 130–139

Chen, X. P., & Fahr, J. L. (2001). Transformational and transactional leader behaviors in Chinese organizations:

Differential effects in the People's Republic of China and Taiwan. In W. H. Mobley, ed. & M. W. McCall (Eds.),

Advances in Global Leadership, 2, 102–125 . Stamford, CT: JAI Press.

Dickson, M., den Hartog, D. N., & Mitchelson, J. Unpublished paper. Research on leadership in a cross-cultural 
context: Making progress and raising new questions.

Dickson, M., Hanges, P., & Lord, R. (2001). Trends, developments and gaps in cross cultural research on 
leadership. In W. H. Mobley, ed. & M.W. McCall (Eds.), Advances in Global Leadership, 2, 75–100 . Stamford, CT: JAI Press.

Dorfman, P. W. (1996). International and cross-cultural leadership. In J. Punnett, ed. & O. Shenkar (Eds.),

Handbook for international management research (pp. 267–349). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretations of cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Gessner, M. J., Arnold, V., & Mobley, W. H. (1999). Introduction. In W. H. Mobley, ed. , M. J. Gessner, ed. , & V.

Arnold (Eds.), Advances in Global Leadership, 1, xii–xviii . Stamford, CT: JAI Press.

Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture's consequences: International differences in work related values. London: Sage.

Hollenbeck, G. P. (2001). A serendipitous sojourn through the global leadership literature . In W. H. Mobley, ed. 
& M. W. McCall (Eds.), Advances in Global Leadership, 2, 15–47 . Stamford, CT: JAI Press.

House, R. H., Wright, N. S., & Aditya, R. N. (1997). Cross cultural leadership o organizational leadership: A 
critical analysis and a proposed theory. In P.C. Earley, ed. & M. Erez (Eds.), New perspectives in international industrial organizational psychology (pp. 535–625). San Francisco: New Lexington.

Kanter, R. M. (1995). World class: Thriving locally in the global economy. New York: Touchstone.

Kluckhohn, C. (1951). The study of culture. In D. Lerner, ed. & H. D. Laswell (Eds.), The policy sciences. 
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kluckhohn, F. R., & Strodtbeck, F. L. (1961). Variations in value orientations. New York: Harper Collins.

Lowe, K. B. and Gardner, W. L. Ten years of the Leadership Quarterly: Contributions and challenges for the 
future. Leadership Quarterly vol. 11 (2000) pp. 459–514

Simonton, D. K. (1994). Greatness: Who makes history and why. New York: Guilford Press.

Smith, P. B., Peterson, M. F., and Misumi, J. Event management and work team effectiveness in Japan, Britain 
and the USA. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology vol. 67 (1994) pp. 33–43

Entry Citation:

Akiga, , and Kevin B. Lowe. "Cross-Cultural Leadership." Encyclopedia of Leadership. Ed. . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2004. 301-07.

SAGE Reference Online. Web. 30 Jan. 2012.

© SAGE Publications, Inc.


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Jan 10, 2012

Back to Square One: Childhood memories

Original Title in English : Back to Square One 
By Author: Anh Tho Andres
Vietnamese Translation by YourVietBooks Translators

Excerpts from my book:

As far as I remember, with the help of my childhood photos, and stories from my mother, we as children were very happy. I cannot remember the house where I spent my first years, nor the nanny who took care of me, but had a vivid memory of the house where I lived until age 18 before I left for university in Saigon.

My parents were working at the Pasteur Institute, and of course my childhood stories were intimately linked to the relationship with this institution. My mother is a great Francophile (adept of French culture), being French educated herself in the most re-known school of Dong Khanh in Hue, and my father was also trained as a Mechanist with French background.

Due to the general call for the arms by Ho Chi Minh for a general upheaval against the comeback of the French in 1945, as most youth of his times did, my father – aged 17 - joined the resistance in Upper Dong Nai River, where my grandfather was leading that division of resistants. My mother was 16 at that time, and was caught into the war while visiting her father’s plantation. My great-grand mother was a pioneer woman  - one of the first in South Vietnam,  I was told, to be an entrepreneur at the time where Vietnam was still  reserving a quite Confucian view of the women’s role.  She later got the main street of the region named after her, until today.

My parents met in these circumstances. Had it not been for the war, their fate would have never crossed each other. In fact, feodal Vietnam was quite particular in the arranged marriage which was based on the principle of “mon dang ho doi” (equivalent or matching social conditions).

My mother’s social background was totally out-of-reach for my father, who was issued from another social background, the lowest class of peasantry, the peasant with no land (ban co nong). What initially was a mismatch, later on turned out to be an advantage for my family, and possibly had saved us to be the victim of what is known in the books as Marxist land reforms in Vietnam in those early post-war years.

My father was shy and never made any advances to my mother who had a very long queue of admirers, including the personal assistant of my grandfather. How he managed to get married to my mother was really due to fate. But fate does interfere in certain people or most people’s lives, doesn't it?. In any case, the result is a very happy family life, with five children, of which I came second child, but first daughter.

It is important to stress the role of the first child in an Asian society, and Vietnam did not forego this rule. In an agricultural society such as my own,  where land ownership was important to the survival of the economy, the main heir would be the first son, who inherits the majority of the land, and the rest of land was equally distributed to the rest of the siblings, which is around the average number of 12 by Vietnamese standards. Having the privilege as main heir to the family fortune, the first male child also has to bear the responsibility to take care of the worship of the ancestors, and the education and welfare of their siblings and in-laws.

In the case of my mother, as the unique heir to my great-grand mother - her own mother died shortly at her birth, the whole heritage of the land came to my mother who was the first and only child. So in theory, the xx has of land owned by my great grand mother would have been my mother’s heritage.

My mother told us how my grandfather became a revolutionary inspite of his social status as landlord. Like all other landlords, my grandfather had abandoned the property to join the resistance against the French. As landlord of the biggest plantation – the tea plantation of Di linh and Baoloc – he had influence over all the tribal ethnic villages of the Highlands. Whether he was forced or invited to join the resistance was immaterial to the story. The fact was that suddenly my mother, heiress to the plantation, found herself sucked into the movement of the upheaval, and from a nice young girl educated in the best French school of Imperial Hue, destined to a mundane life, she was overnight made nurse to tend for the soldiers and teacher to the ethnic tribal villagers.

My great grand mother, being the richest woman of the region was of course solicited by the resistance to contribute in nature and in men to support the movement. She later on got the main street baptized after her name.

It is interesting to know how she spotted my grandfather to be her son-in-law. The story is very similar to a Hollywood story of Margaret Mitchell’s time. During one of her inspection trip to the plantation, her car broke down in the middle of the night. Desperate for help, she was relieved to see a gentleman stop by to help and drive her back to the main residence in his car. By his good manners  during this short encounter, she found that this handsome and intelligent young man was worth to be a matching party to one of her two daughters. From my mother’s description and the photo on the altar, I noticed indeed that my grandfather had Indian features with a big nose, white skin and round big black eyes.  Unfortunately for my mother – and consequently for me,  my mother did not inherit of his tallness  - 1m80 which is quite exceptional to Vietnamese standards - and so this genetic features was not passed on to me (sigh!!!). 

So, to cut the story short, my grandfather,  a geomètre by profession,  got the job as plantation manager and husband of my grandmother. Once again, fate wanted that grandmother – also a beauty of her time – died very young, and left two young children to the grieving husband. Her sister, my auntie, also died shortly at a young age. Consequently, after Great-grand-mother’s death, my mother was sent to boarding school in Hue, and lived with the rest of our clan, most of whom were high ranking mandarins and later on technocrats of the French administration (Ong Tham).  My mother got a French education and the taste for French manners, so we in turn were educated in this trend, although my grandfather died in an ambush and was killed by the French.

It was really a pure caprice of fate that my mother came to visit him just at that particular time when the war broke out. Her whole world also vanished in no time. Grandfather left the plantation, led the war, and so instead of inheriting the plantation, she got a new job as a nurse and educator for the ethnic minorities who became the troops of resistance under my grandfather’s leadership.  As a nurse,  she was sent to different tribes to ‘convert’ them to the cause of the resistance. She had learnt some dialects and used to teach us songs in these dialects. Until today, I still remember some of the melodies she sang to us when we were younger. Her stories of her youth are so fascinating that we could listen for days. I think somehow I inherit part of her talent and charm, but not her physical beauty.  Oops, Mdm Modesty!!! Unfortunately, noboby is perfect!

One of the anecdotes that she used to tell us, was when she was lost during 2 days in the Jungle, had no food to eat and no means to call for help. Her instinct of survival had taught her to climb into the hollow of a big tree where she had slept soundly waiting for the rescuers sent by her unit, in search for her. Actually, half of the troops were under her charm so I guess the troops were very active in their search. In any case, they found her safe and sound.  We must remember that in 1945, there were still tigers and other beasts in the Jungle in that part of Vietnam. And my mother used to hear stories how the big shepherd dogs owned by grandfather were attacked by tigers (we call Ong Ho – meaning Sire Tiger to show respect to him). The fact that she survived after such an adventure reinforced Mother’s belief that she was protected by a supernatural power, or by the spirit of her deceased young mother. So many similar stories on how narrowly she escaped the worst incidents motivated her to start worshipping Kwan Yin Buddha, the God of Compassion some years later, and consequently, we were all raised in this faith.

Another favorite anecdote of her peripetie as a resistant was about how she was arrested by French troops and put in jail during one whole year in Phan Thiet. Thanks to her looks and her very sweet ‘Hue’ accent, one of the guards fell in love with her and wanted to keep her for himself as wife. As she spoke French fluently, she was spared of all the chores in prison. In fact, during that year in jail, she learnt how to embroider, to knit and got all the material from her protector, the prison guard. He even spared her from being abused by the French ‘Cau Hai’ (Highest title of respect in Vietnamese ranking) who would systematically ‘convoked’ one girl per night for interrogation, but actually to pass the night with her.  When it came to my mother’s turn who was last on the list, she simulated to be having her ‘monthly problem’ which prompted the ‘Cau Hai’ to dismiss her immediately. One year later, she was released from jail, together with hundreds of other young women and men, the fate of whom was not so fortunate as hers.

During that time, although my father and mother were married by order of the Party, they did not stay together. Father was sent for courses by the border of Cambodia, and it took four months to get a letter to reach him. So when the news came to him that my mother was in jail, she was almost freed by the time he came back from his course. Later they both established in Dalat, where the five of us were born and raised.

I like to listen to my parents stories and it was amazing to me the paradox in how friends turn into enemies, then former enemies turn into friends, and so on in this period of turmoil. It shows that nothing is permanent, and there is no real black-or-white situation.

For example, my grandfather was killed by the French. Yet my mother sent us to French School. She herself was French educated, and later worked for the French Pasteur Institute. But in her youth she was a resistant against the French and was put in jail by French troops.

My father as a former resistant, was anti-American, but he allowed me to go to the English evening classes taught by young GI’s. My parents were good Buddhist practicants, yet they allowed me to go to Sunday Baptist Church and sent all the 3 daughters to the Nun Catholic School. 

In the same family, we also represent this patchwork of all colours. My uncle – the half-brother of my mother died in his first battle at age 18, killed by the Vietcong in the Mau Than Tet Offensive of 1968. On the other hand, my father’s cousin – of the same age as my uncle’s -  who spent her youth together with him, joined the resistance, and some 8 years later, came back from the jungle as a communist cadre. Then another cousin of my father’s, somewhat the age of my auntie, joined the South Vietnamese Police Corps and was made Captain. But his younger brother, a rebel, joined the resistance and came back also some years later as a hero. Similar things happened on my mother’s side among her cousins.

I guess all Vietnamese families do have this kind of entertwined criss-cross of destinies. We are all the products of the historical events which shaped our country since the beginning of the nineteenth or even earlier. All our stories are the same more or less based on the same pattern, the outcome of each may be different, but all have their own role to play as witness to a part of history for the upcoming generations.

Of course as children, we were not told about all these stories. Until now, I am incapable of remembering my parents’ birthdays because they never told us the exact dates. I was even shocked to discover that officially my mother was the second wife of my father – even if it was only on paper – but somehow, I felt weird. We also do not bear my father’s family name but instead was named after my mother’s.

In fact another anecdote is worth mentioning here. My mother was telling us how she invented her parents name out of panic while being interrogated by the security police. And this was the situation of these transitional period where there was a huge migration of people in all over  Vietnam. When questioned about her identify, she answered that her father’s name was Nguyen van xxx, and her mother’s Le thi yyy. The investigator did not react further.  It was a name which millions of people could have, the Nguyen family name being the most used name – I think over 95% of the population was named after the latest Nguyen Dynasty – and the family name as ‘Le’ is the most known name from the Le Dynasty.  All males have ‘van’ as middle name, and all females have ‘thi’ as middle name. In fact, it seems that the French Administrators had imposed this rule of the male and female middle names to help them identify from the names by sex. So to make the stories short, my mother could just invent the names of her parents without raising any suspicions by the logic of Vietnamese thinking. In any case, there was no possible further investigation, and with the war, everything was in chaos. I guess it was how the title deed of Great-grand-mother’s property also vanished in the burning archives of the French administration, and that’s how the whole heritage evaporated with the smoke of the revolutionary guns.

I think my parents must have lived in fear all their lives. In fact, another anecdote which my mother did not tell, but I was mature enough to understand was when my father lost his job after being investigated – and interrogated – for his past belongings to the resistance in his youth, mainly based on denunciation by his jealous colleagues. After his release from jail,  and of course lost his promised position as General Manager of the Pasteur Institute, my mother had to sail the boat alone, to feed five children whose school fees alone cost 7 times the normal local tuition fees.  I guess it was not easy for her to manage during the war times, struggling with two jobs and a husband whose fate was marked for life.

To occupy my father, she had set up a store offering hand-knitted wool sweater which are tailor-made to rich tourists coming to Dalat, my hometown, where the climate is much cooler than the rest of the country.  So juggling between two jobs to afford the exuberant tuition fees of the French schools for the five or us, she did somehow magically managed to make the pot cooked with the result I mentioned above.  

The irony of fate was that she had learnt her knitting skills during her jail times, and later made a living from these skills. She had later created a workshop employing all her colleagues at the Pasteur Institute to take on knitting assignments, and had transformed our big house into a mini-school but also a kind of help center for battered women – mainly her colleagues. During this period, I also learnt how to knit, to embroider, to crochet all kinds of designs for the shop from age 12 or so. My father also helped and I discovered his infinite patience when all the threads were entangled because of the complicated patchwork. We later on learnt also to knit with the SINGER knitting machine imported from France through my mother’s director. Somehow it was good training, as later on, I made a living by knitting beautiful handmade bags out of fishing net threads during post-war early years while studying at the U, and even knitted and sewed my own clothes and my siblings’ with various designs.

I also have a great admiration for Vietnamese mothers, when I see how hard they work for raising their children and give them the best education they could afford. My mother was no exception to this pattern. During the war which was considered as the most violent and dreadful war of all times, as a single bread-earner of the family, she risked her life many times to support and feed us. For example, while making her multiple trips by bus to Saigon – about 8 hours from my hometown - to renew her stocks, she had to walk through barricades set up by the resistants on the main national road to collect fees. It was the practice that some of travellers would be taken away and forced to join the guerrilla. As to the threat of explosion, a confrontation between the Southern Army and these so-called terrorist guerrilla units who blow up the whole convoy. Very often, she came back home relating her adventure. Listening to her stories, I was even more thankful both for her courage and her determination to give us a good life. I guess, my mother had a very strong conviction of her being protected by a supernatural power in the person of Kwan Yin Buddha, the Goddess of Mercy, and this faith helped her go though insurmountable difficulties.

I must say that when thinking back, after having so much trouble of bringing up only two children by myself, in a safe environment such as Singapore and Switzerland, and with the help of my maids, I really admire the courage of my parents and the hardship they had gone through, raising us to get private French School and later on getting to the best Higher education available in those circumstances. In fact, it is already difficult to get one graduate in the whole family, in the situation of my parents, we were all five graduates. All that was absolutely not due to hazard, but was the result of a very strong determination,  and a high level of personal sacrifice and commitment by my parents.

Strangely, my father’s presence is only perceived through my relationship to my mother.  I know that he was always behind my mother and us but somehow, I tend to think first of my mother or talk about my mother without thinking to mention my father. It is so natural that he was there, that when he was gone, I still felt as if he was still alive. In fact,  I only learnt to know my father, about his dreams after he was gone, when years later I received the “recueil of poems” he wrote, entitled “In Memory of a Certain Past” in which he translated all his dreams into poems (Note: Read my next posting). For me, he was a real Buddha in person, good in his heart, responsible and forgiving. But as the relationship between father-daughter was restricted in our Confucian culture, all my memories of him are now confined in this little booklet as sole legacy of his generation.

ME and Books

One of the reasons I love books, mainly books on history is because of all the stories my parents used to tell us. I am not quite sure where lies the reality as there are so many contradictory versions of the same story and the interpretation of each side of the story can lead to fighting to defend one’s truth. It is also the reason why I am dedicated in promoting the book project, with the intention to get more exchange of views, plant more seeds in the rich soil of the memories of  generations to come and help them understand and value the efforts of their predecessors.

(Geneva, January 2012)

Original Title in English
Back to Square One 
By Author: Anh Tho Andres

About the Book:

YourVietBooks is a selection of books and articles on and about Vietnam. Categories include: Culture, History, Vietnam War, Politics, Biographies, Contemporary Vietnam, International Relations, Doing Business in Vietnam, Reference and Languages, Zen Buddhism, Philosophy, Art and Literature. Some articles are available only in English, French, German or Vietnamese. Our qualified and experienced translators can provide translations of e-books or articles on demand. Read more...

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