Thursday, July 12, 2007

Hopes and Dreams

Adam and Tim met Van at the 4th of July party and she invited a few of us to a small café in a new part of town. We had a vague idea that we were going to meet some of her friends, but otherwise didn’t know what to expect. As we came to the second floor of the café, eight eager faces turned to us and politely introduced themselves. Names sounded like alien whispers and went in one ear and came out the other. We sat down awkwardly, exchanging pleasantries, but before long their intense desire to learn about the outside world burned through any natural shyness.

They were dutiful students in subjects like physics, economics or finance. They all 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 interest in astrophysics, which is not taught in Vietnam. What did I consider the best astrophysics program in America? 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 wondered how many would actually make it. 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 with a vague sense that I was a window into a world that they wanted to enter and that my irregular, unpronounceable language was its key.

I suddenly felt obscenely privileged. I grew up knowing English reflexively, mastering the intricacies of its written and spoken form while they are 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 who’s 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 there’s little time for any of that.

As these students learn about higher education in America and elsewhere, they inevitably become deeply dissatisfied with their own situation. They explained that their universities are overcrowded, under funded and that the instruction is poor. These glaring deficiencies were to be blamed on the government, which has more money than before, but has failed to improve things. On top of things, they’re very nervous about the job market. Yes, they acknowledged, towers and hotels are going up everywhere, but the growth is not reaching most people, and jobs are not being created fast enough. I asked them if they though the government could meet its goal of creating one million jobs each year and they were not optimistic. None of these skilled, intelligent students worked during the summer and good-post graduate jobs are at a premium. The finance major had landed a job at a Vietnamese investment firm but the others were still looking. Van, a girl with unusual spunk and advanced English, explained that she was going to switch from international trade to finance in the hope of finding better employment.

If I had asked them the flat question, “How is the Vietnamese economy”, they would have said that it was weak. This shocks me because I know that trade, income and consumption are growing so quickly. Their parents and grandparents rode bicycles. Now everyone rides motorbikes. In relative terms, Vietnam is far better than it was ten years ago.

The problem is that the new generation of educated Vietnamese doesn’t want to ride motorbikes—they want to drive cars. They don’t want to be shopkeepers or bureaucrats, but hope to become investment brokers and lawyers. They have first-world ambitions, but their country is still struggling to leave the third world.

Naturally, the void between expectations and reality is producing latent political tension. I pried a bit, and uncovered it. They resent the government for not improving the universities. The economy is growing, but not enough to catch up with the rest of the world as quickly as they’d like. They know that corruption is a problem and that their elections are a sham. I explained that in America, the people directly pressure the government to pay attention to their interests because voters can change the leadership. They liked the sound of that.

I was curious about their views of America and what they knew about our political situation. “So what do you think of George Bush?”, I asked. They looked at each other timidly, following the Vietnamese tradition of not rocking the boat. A silent consensus was reached and one guy declared, “I like President Bush.” They explained that Bush earned their support by helping Vietnam enter the WTO and inviting President Triet on a much celebrated visit to Washington. Vietnam is one of the only places in the world, save Kurdish regions, where a group of educated college students would have nice things to say about George W. Bush.

Van interjected with an outspoken statement. She said she though Bill Clinton was better for Vietnam because he had made bigger efforts to allow Vietnamese students to study in America. By appealing to her consummate dream, Bill Clinton and the Democrats had cemented her devotion. Van hoped that Hillary Clinton or another Democratic candidate becomes president. I pointed out that the Democrats have traditionally been more susceptible to protectionism, which would hurt Vietnam. It didn’t shake Van.

Tim told everyone that no matter who gets elected, relations between our two countries will probably remain very strong, and everyone agreed with that. Even if Congress slaps tariffs on Vietnam or if the State Department makes it harder for Vietnamese to study in America, these students will always have a very high regard for the United States. Their frustrations will be aimed at the undemocratic government, while the America will remain an outlet for their expectations.

The aspiring astrophysicist asked me what Princeton’s campus is like and I described it as a large park with old majestic buildings sprawled out across the grass. Her eyes widened, and I think the image reinforced her conception of America—an idyllic utopia where dreams are made.