Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Little Genius, Vietnamese Style

Roger Cohen
The American dream may be battered at home but it is alive and well in this city that fell to the Communist North Vietnamese Army almost four decades ago, evident in the upscale Phu My Hung neighborhood where a house, a yard, a state-of-the-art barbecue, a jeep and a Domino’s Pizza at the corner fulfill the aspirations of a burgeoning upper middle class. Perhaps this is what is meant by losing the war and winning the peace. 

Or perhaps not, seeing that Vietnam is a one-party Communist state along Chinese lines where the very notion of checks and balances dear to the framers of the United States Constitution is alien, and things function the way they do in the absence of such competing institutions, that is to say with little transparency and plenty of greasing the wheels. But then again, perhaps any attempt to categorize systems makes little sense in a post-ideological world dominated by invisible networks.

Stroll around Phu My Hung in District 7 and what is most striking — aside from the proliferation of coffee shops serving iced lattes — is the number of schools with names like “Little Genius” or “Homework Center” or “Cornerstone Institute” promising to give the offspring of the upwardly mobile the foundations of success, including excellent English, perfect SAT scores and habits of hard work that will take them to the summit.

American students scratching their heads about why college entrance has become so arduous, with ever smaller percentages of applicants admitted to the best schools, could do worse than take a look at this little corner of Vietnam.

A 13-year-old Vietnamese boy managing the reception at the Homework Center told me in perfect English (he started learning it at age two) that children attend after school between the hours of 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., bringing their daily studies to around 12 hours. He spoke with earnest precision and eerie assurance. And where, I asked, would he like to go to college? “M.I.T.” he shot back without hesitation.

At Little Genius — motto “Kids want to fly!” — the push for academic excellence begins at an early age with a computer room designed for three-year-olds and filled with state-of-the-art equipment. Mastering English and technology is a sine qua non for such global wunderkinds growing up in a Communist state with a fiercely capitalist system, and imbued with the Asian values that put the success of the young generation first.

The brochure of Little Genius, an international kindergarten, lists among its objectives: “To creatively integrate technology through the curriculum, thereby earning access to the learning tools of the 21st century. With a growing world of technology it is important to give children early access to tools and equipment they will learn in their future.”

For wealthy Vietnamese, the goal at the end of this educational push is access for their children to American colleges or, failing that, schools in Australia or Canada or Britain or, failing that, perhaps state-funded scholarships to the best universities in Moscow (one vestige of what Communism once was is the close ties between Vietnam and Russia; Vietnamese entrepreneurs have made fortunes selling instant noodles for the Russian poor.)

This then is the way the world works: Autocratic hypercapitalism without American checks and balances produces new Asian elites, often party-connected, whose dream is an American lifestyle and education for their children; and whose other goal, knowing how their own capricious system really functions, is to buy into the rule of law and property guarantees by acquiring real estate in North America or perhaps Britain, so driving up prices in prime urban markets to the point where the middle classes of those countries, whose incomes are often stagnant or falling, are pushed aside. This symbiotic system at the level of individuals is mirrored at the national level, where the invisible bargain is that American debt is bought by Asian governments, notably the Chinese, and Asians make money through access to credit-fueled U.S. markets and consumers.

None of this is particularly pretty, nor is it particularly just, but it beats the war that ended almost 40 years ago, on April 30, 1975, a military defeat for the United States now being celebrated with the red flags of Vietnam’s Independence Day.

After so much war it is natural that this generation of Vietnamese should nurse its own version of the American dream. Only a few have access to it; the streets of Phu My Hung are full of women on bicycles sifting through the garbage of the rich for some saleable item, their bicycles freighted with their finds. But any assessment of the likelihood of American decline would be wrong if it failed to factor in the evidence of American magnetism in the land of its erstwhile Communist enemy. Soft power may not interest Vladimir Putin but it is persuasive.



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