Three years ago, over a coffee at ID Cafe, a comfortably well-decorated place for the young and hip, I met three twenty-something Vietnamese young men who had been educated abroad.
The conversation between us shifted easily from Vietnamese to English, and finally to Vietnamese when I felt a complex emotion needed to be expressed. We talked about what happened in our lives, moving back to Ho Chi Minh City, and the rapid changes in the city we observed upon our return. Through them, I learned about the pleasures, challenges, and hopes experienced by Vietnamese young professionals who get an education abroad and return home to start their professional lives.
One of them, Duc, was still on break from university and back in Saigon only for few weeks. He was a Ph.D. Anthropology student at a prestigious Ivy League University. Friendly and geeky with his glasses and gentle laughter, he reminded me a lot of my old college friends. When the discussion turned to politics and current events, he was smart and knowledgeable. Peter is a little older, more political oriented, and clever; a young man quick to joke and laugh. With a Political Science Masters degree graduate from an American school, he was returning to start his first job after graduation in a Vietnamese start-up. Anh, the youngest, was perhaps the most westernized of the group. He was on break from his university in America and was anxious to integrate well into the Vietnamese culture, and the reverse culture shock that might involve.
Young people of Vietnam internationally educated often return from their years abroad to partake in the booming economy at home, and some of them, like these friends I was conversing with, had hopes of participating in a new, flexible, creative class of young professionals in the city. Startups abound of workers in possession of fluent bilingual ability and soft skills. The city is set abuzz with their energy.
Now, three years after this initial cafe meeting, I learn that Peter is now on the leadership team of a successful startup handling logistics in the city; Duc is in the midst of completing his field work for his PhD., splitting his time between HCMC where he does his field work and America where he collates his research and writes. Anh is finishing his college education at a prestigious Vietnamese University, RMIT, while simultaneously working part time in a successful company.
For Vietnamese women educated abroad, the return home and to a booming economy seeking their talent is complicated. Having to come back on an age their parents judged suitable for marriage, it can seem like their education abroad was simply meant to be a stepping stone, preparing them for a good match.
For Linh, a twenty-something professional, with a good position in a respected international bank, coming back to Ho Chi Minh City was a severe culture shock, with a country she thought she knew so well. She had just finished two years of study in the Netherlands, had formed firm friendships with students from different cultures and countries, and expanded her perspective with varied experiences offered to young women abroad. She backpacked all over Europe on breaks during her academic year and read widely, exposing herself to the literature of all the countries she passed through.
Linh noted how, upon her return, she faced immediate pressure from her family to conform to a Vietnamese woman of her age: early marriage, a husband, and kids in the very near future. Frustrated, she finally made up a story for her parents involving a fortune teller telling her not to get married until 32. Marriage before that age, warned the imagined fortune teller, would be a deeply unhappy one ending with a painful divorce. “It worked!” Linh told me over coffee, laughing. I asked her what she’ll do when she turns 32, the age when her family thinks is safe for her to marry, and she joked: “I suppose I’ll just make up a story about meeting an even better fortune teller, telling me to wait until 35.” Convincing her family she wanted to move out and be closer to her workplace was another issue, and it broke into a full blown argument. Single Vietnamese women are typically expected to be with their family, especially if they live in the same city. “They wouldn’t speak to me for a month after I moved out.” She said. “It was really tough.” It seemed as if her years spent abroad and lived alone never existed in her parents’ eyes. Dating was further complicated by societal stereotypes of Vietnamese women. The men Linh dated, both international and local, claimed a split in her identity. They told her they were confused as to whether she was Vietnamese or European, and what her values really were as if the national affiliation formed the heart and core of who she was.
I asked Linh a hypothetical question: if she could redo her education in any way she wanted, what would she do differently? After some thought, she replied: “I wouldn’t have studied as hard. All that effort studying, memorizing, led me to the same place anyway. What I did in my professional years has been much more important, and if I had left earlier for Holland, while I was still in high school, for example… well, I don’t know if I would have come back here to Vietnam. I might have stayed there for good.”