We were ripped off, as usual, as the three of us stepped out of the taxi and into a steamy, puddle-filled section of Hanoi. Adam, a towering Beta from Long Island, wasn’t too happy. “Fifty five thousand fucking dong! Fuck that’s like four dollars. I knew we shouldn’t have taken this piece of shit taxi.” He was right. There are two legitimate taxi companies in Hanoi and about a hundred bogus ones. Ours was a rickety specimen that didn’t inspire confidence. The door displayed the company logo, or what could be called the company magnet, a metal strip that could easily be removed if the police ever came to shake down the driver.
Tim was ready to let it go. “Whatever bro, lets just go inside. Van’s probably waiting for us,” he said with an authority befitting an RCA shot-putter. Doors slammed, the taxi splashed away and we wandered in to a small café. As we came to the second floor of the café, eight eager faces turned to us and politely introduced themselves. I did not catch many names. Vietnam lies twelve time zones away from our own and its six tone language is equally distant. Some words sound like pebbles dropping into a pool while others approximate the noise one would expect Pterodactyls to release.
Without matching names to faces, we sat down awkwardly, exchanging pleasantries, wondering how we were going to get through two hours of chit chat with these students. But before long their intense desire to learn about the outside world burned through any natural shyness and they opened up.
As we quickly learned, they were all dutiful students in subjects like physics, economics or finance. Everyone wanted to study abroad, especially in America. What, they wondered, were the best graduate schools in America? How does one go about applying? What does it cost? One timid girl explained that she majored in physics but had a great passion for astrophysics, which is not taught in Vietnam. With wide eyes and a strained neck, she asked me what American universities boasted the best astrophysics graduate programs. Having rarely thought about graduate school for myself, I was utterly unequipped to answer their questions. I replied with broad answers—there are hundreds of graduate schools in my country and their rankings and applications can be found online.
All through these interrogations about graduate school, I couldn’t help wondering how many would actually succeed. Sure, they were all fiercely disciplined, hard working students in the hard sciences, but could a group of top Vietnamese students really make it to a place like Princeton? Most spoke comprehensible English, but their phrases were awkward and I had to speak slowly and simply to get my points across. They had a long way to go before they could hope to do graduate work in America. But they were full of hope and stared at me intensely, as if I was a door into a fantastic dream world and my irregular, unpronounceable language was its key.
I suddenly felt acutely aware of the vast divide that separated us from these ambitious contemporaries. I was overwhelmed by the crushing burden of countless privileges and the realization that but for the vulgarities of circumstance and birth, our roles might just as well be reversed. Why did I grow up knowing English reflexively, mastering the intricacies of its written and spoken form while these Vietnamese were left struggling to understand the difference between “hidden” and “secret”. I’m studying at a university where tuition is 200 times greater than theirs and where the endowment is larger than their entire government budget. I can study interesting, but impractical subjects and still be primed for rewarding jobs in the field of my choice. And I have the time to socialize, act, participate in athletics, and help run a social club, while their academic load is so great that these things are considered irresponsible frivolities.
As new generations of Vietnamese become increasingly outward looking, they pick up on these disparities and are inevitably attracted to the wealthier parts of the world. The intensity of the sixteen eyes that watched me ineptly explain American graduate education was born out of a constant exposure to Western life via the internet and television, both of which were unavailable in Vietnam until just a few years ago. The irony is that these past few years have been pretty good for Vietnam. In a country where Stalinist economics induced regular famines in the early 1980s, newspapers are now filled with accounts of foreign IT investment rather than food shortages. Economists are labeling Vietnam an “economic miracle” or the new “Asian Tiger”.
One of the Vietnamese students asked me what I liked most about Vietnam and I told him that in addition to the food, I was struck by how good the economy was. I was met by puzzled faces and someone politely asked me what I was getting at. “Well you know,” I stammered, “there are so many towers going up and everyone has a motor bike and…I mean GDP growth is SOOOO high…”
I shut up when I saw that I wasn’t getting through to them, and I asked what they thought of their country’s economic prospects. As it turned out, they weren’t so impressed by 9% annual growth or by the shiny buildings rising every day. In their minds, economic strength meant one thing—jobs—and there weren’t nearly enough of them. In fact the reason they had time to meet us in the first place was because summer internships are unheard of in Vietnam. Instead, when class gets out the government typically ships university students to rural labor camps, which were conceived in an era when Khrushchev pounded his shoes at the U.N.
Most of these students could easily land stable jobs in the government bureaucracy and look forward to a middle class life and a new motor bike. But as American movies and music videos become a staple of youth culture in Vietnam, what suited their parents doesn’t cut it anymore. These students don’t want motorbikes. They want cars. And they want high powered careers in finance, academia and law. They have first-world expectations, even as their country is still struggling to pull itself out of the third-world.
For a class of youth profoundly dissatisfied with the options laid before it, America has been transformed into a true land of opportunity, at least in their imaginations. It helps explain why after Albania, Vietnam is the most pro-American country on earth today. American is a veritable El Dorado, a mystical land that is all things to all Vietnamese.
I meekly attempted to dissuade them of this—that American has its own problems, that not all universities are good, that we have our own under classes. But it didn’t seem to faze them and I just as often found myself indulging their wildest fantasies.
The aspiring astrophysicist asked me what Princeton’s campus is like physically. Before I could stop myself, I described it as a large wooded park with old majestic buildings sprawled out across the trimmed grass. Her faced lit up, as my description stoked her stubborn hope, hope that is probably little more than dream.