“Even after doi moi, the Party still says a capitalist can’t be a member. But informally in reality, it’s okay. Some friends I know want to set up a small business, but according to the Party, that’s exploitation. The Party’s challenge is to offer reform and development without losing ideology. If it doesn’t, young people won’t believe in it. Those who join don’t come seeking ideology. So yes, I think the Party’s trying to be more practical. I think communism is still a good system for Vietnam and I think it will lead to the peaceful evolution of a more democratic Vietnam. It’s just that after all the suffering of the war, people don’t want anything to happen that will disturb us. They don’t want fast changes. They just want to live with the peace.”
I asked Tien if it were okay for me to quote him by name in a story I was writing for the Los Angeles Times. I heard nothing in his comments except an expression of hope that Vietnam would develop and prosper equitably. He was upbeat about his country’s future. But I knew how sen¬sitive the Party was regarding anything not read from a policy statement, and I didn’t want to create problems for him. Tien said, sure, use his name. Not until several months later did I learn from other friends that the Party had raised holy hell over his comments and made him undergo self-criticism sessions. Tien himself never mentioned to me that my story had caused him problems.
EVERY YEAR I MILLION NEW STUDENTS enter Vietnam’s school sys¬tem. They are taught—even at university level—to memorize, not think; to listen, not question. I can remember once getting a mediocre grade (I actually got a lot of them) on a history essay at prep school. I complained to the teacher: “But that’s exactly what you said!” Mr. Broderick replied: “That why I gave you a C-minus. I don’t want you to just repeat what I say. I want you to interpret what you hear.” I was baffled. But it dawns on me now that I would have made a terrific student in Vietnam’s system. Students are expected to listen politely, write down exactly what the teacher says, and leave class quietly when the bell rings. In an exam, they score well by reciting, as if by rote, what they have been told. Debating the merits of a teacher’s view of the world, challenging him, even asking questions is considered the height of disrespectfulness. History was what the teacher said—or more precisely, what the Communist Party said—it was. It was not open to interpretation.
So you can imagine my surprise when I heard twenty-six-year-old Le Nguyen Hung tell his architectural students at Van Lang University in Ho Chi Minh City: “In this class, I want you to learn to think for your¬selves. I want you to examine the actions of others and make your own decisions. Don’t just listen to me. Decide if what I say is honest, if it makes sense.” I looked at the students to gauge their reaction. They seemed confused. But no one raised a question.
After class I caught up with Hung, an accomplished artist, architect, and composer, for coffee. He said he thought young Vietnamese had to break away from the government-encouraged think-alike mind-set if they were to realize their potential. The Vietnamese were good at accept¬ing instructions but were generally afraid to take the initiative. Solving unexpected problems gave them difficulty. They didn’t think well on their feet. Following was safer than leading. Conformity was an admirable goal that got no one in trouble.
“If you are a nonconformist, if you’re different, it is very hard to survive in this society,” Hung said. “You are a cut above. In a job, if you have ideas, if you talk about different things than your colleagues, they say you are hard to get along with. To survive, you must conform, and that stifles creativity and keeps us from advancing.”
He told me a joke the Vietnamese recite with a hundred variations. An American and a Vietnamese were fishing and each caught a large bucket of crabs. The American covered his bucket with a lid because the crabs were climbing its sides trying to escape, and one or two did manage to scale the top and scurry away. The Vietnamese left his bucket uncovered, and the American asked why he wasn’t concerned about losing some crabs. “These are Vietnamese crabs,” his friend said. “As soon as one gets to the top, the others will pull him back down.”
Not long after my visit to Hung’s class, the government decided to make an important break with the past. It chose English over French and Russian as the favored foreign language for students and said all bureau¬crats under the age of fifty were expected to learn English. More impor¬tant, it began to reform the education system under a new curriculum de¬signed to move Vietnam away from its traditional methodology in which students were expected, in the words of one educator, “to sit down, shut up, and listen.” The decision raised a few eyebrows because the program’s goal—learning to think on one’s feet, questioning authority, searching for independent, creative solutions—didn’t exactly square with the Party’s belief that decisions should be reached by consensus and that independ¬ent minds were dangerous.
One of the first steps was to start phasing out the English-language textbooks written by Russian advisers in the mid-1980s. They trumpeted Sputnik and the World Festival of Youth in Moscow and were full of “misspeak,” such as “I am having a temperature” and “my car is running away.” The books helped explain why many of Vietnam’s 35,000 English instructors didn’t speak understandable English themselves. The new textbooks were developed by American and Vietnamese educators in partnership with Vietnam’s Ministry of Education. Right off the bat the ministry ordered a batch of the first printings destroyed so a reference to the South China Sea could be changed to the East Sea. The East Sea did not exist, except in the minds of Vietnamese officials who refused to use the proper name because Vietnam and China each claimed the Spratly Islands, located in the South China Sea.