Letter to Vietnam360°ANALYSIS
An English mathematician's letter to his Vietnamese counterparts after spending a month teaching in their country.
Dear Hung and Dung,
I have just arrived safely back home in Davis. It feels very strange to be back.
Hung, you asked me to write a few words about my experiences of the past month, and Dung you put it slightly differently saying that I might let you know my feelings about leaving Vietnam, at least for now. I wrote the following while I was on the plane. I apologize if my English is a little complicated in places.
I feel very sad to be leaving Thai Nguyen. I think I have grown to like Vietnam and Thai Nguyen in particular, more and more; and perhaps because I always leave my packing to the last minute (many many thanks for the help with that!). It is always a jolt to be living, one minute, the life I was beginning to feel quite settled in, and the next minute be traveling around the world to a different life, the one I know so well. I think Thai Nguyen has a very, very bright future ahead of it over the coming decades. I have seen this before in other countries, that when a university has the fundamentals right there is almost no limit to how quickly it can move from being an unknown university to a world class center of excellence. For example, Stanford was founded a little over 100 years ago. Warwick, in the UK, was founded in the 1960s. UC Davis was for many years the agricultural annex of Berkeley, and only became a university in its own right again in the 1960s. I see parallels between Thai Nguyen and all of these places, and think that Thai Nguyen has the potential to be a real center of renown not just for Vietnam but the entire region.
Here is why I think this:
1) Location: In my experience, having lived in London and spent much time in other big cities, they are not very good for the kind of creative thought that is required for a great place of learning and study. There is all together too much noise and distraction, and I think it can be very hard for people to keep focus. Also, it is hard for academics living on academic salaries to be surrounded by the higher cost of living associated with being at a center for business. In such places, the temptation to move away from scholarship and teaching to the world of money-making can be hard to resist. That is possibly why many of the best examples of world class universities in big cities focus on technology, such as Imperial College London and UC San Francisco, where fields like biotechnology are more closely tied to industry. In contrast, Thai Nguyen seems to be a similar distance to Hanoi to the distance Princeton is from New York, Oxford and Cambridge are from London, and Stanford is from San Francisco: about an hour's travel (with the new road that will be completed soon). Close enough for there to be the buzz of the wider world audible in the distance, but far enough away that people can maintain a sense of scholarly peace.
2) Leadership: One thing that has struck me about my stay in Thai Nguyen is the very high quality of the leadership. It is very clear from talking to both of you, and other people, that you care deeply about the future of the students you teach and the future of the University and the Advanced Education Program. This manifests itself as an energy and attention to detail, to which I aspire. To find that kind of great leadership, combined with humility, general lack of ego and willingness to learn is very rare. Having spent many years at Oxford, a rather old and stuffy place in many ways, it has been a great joy to spend time at a university which unquestionably has its best years ahead of it. It would have been a pleasure to see, even simply as an idle observer; but to be part of such a wonderful program as Thai Nguyen’s advanced one, contributing to this new chapter in Vietnamese education at such an early stage, is a real privilege, and I look forward to what I hope will be a long a fruitful relationship and friendship between myself and you all at the university.
3) Culture: I do not know very much about Vietnamese culture or politics except that which I have learned in four weeks. However, it seems to me that Vietnam is one of the more open and well-run countries in the region. India, though very open and free, labors under a dark shroud of corruption which makes any great achievement almost impossible. China on the other hand is very controlled in terms of exchanging ideas. Japan is very modern, but somewhat inward- looking and business focused. I do not know the region very well, so I should not expose my prejudices at too much length; however, it seems to me that Vietnam has many great qualities that put it in a good position to be a center of learning. People are very hard-working. People also seem interested in the wider world and ideas. Also, crucially, there is an embracement of diversity that is quite admirable. The way the ethnic minorities are regarded in Vietnam is a lesson to many other parts of the world. Look at how bad things got in the Balkans, Northern Ireland and many other places, where peoples' diversity is seen as an excuse to slaughter each other with terrifying zeal rather than something to be celebrated.
I do not simply raise this point regarding diversity because I find it aesthetically agreeable. I raise it because I see it as crucial to the development of Vietnam as a modern economy and center for research and study. As Vietnam becomes more developed, to really become a country where people have the best opportunities, it needs to become a country which is attractive for people around the world to come to work and study. The experience Vietnam has in making the indigenous ethnic minorities a symbol of national pride will mean that, in the future, Vietnamese will have no difficulty in accepting and welcoming ethnic minorities from further afield. I saw this in the way the Vietnamese students interacted with those from the Philippines, and in the way I was treated personally. This is in contrast to China, for example. I had a long conversation the other day with a very close Indian friend who has moved to Hong Kong, who told me about the daily racism they encounter as Indians in China. It is also in contrast to India, where the caste system is as grave a national shame as slavery is in America.
I have written far more in this category than I had intended. I have a deep fear of being another arrogant white man, of which there have been and continue to be too many, who come to a new part of the world and think they understand everything. So I am hesitant about putting my views forward about how I view Vietnam historically, and I want to stress that I am well aware that my observations and thinking may be more a reflection of my own cultural heritage and baggage than anything else. I am simply expressing my views as they come to me, and as a scientist they remain hypotheses until they are dispelled (as they almost surely will be), at which point they will be modified into the deeper understanding I hope to form with time.
Having said all that, I tend to view history in broad strokes, and am very mindful of my own place in it. I feel that, in many ways, I was born too late as an Englishman, that I would have been much happier 100 or 200 years ago, in the age of discovery when people were inventing railways and electricity, and sailing the high seas in search of adventure and fortune. Living in England now is like watching Romans completing the transition into Italians, as someone recently told me. It is very hard to be young at heart in England, excited about the future. This sense of future that Englishmen have so much difficulty accessing is manifest in programs like the advanced one at Thai Nguyen.
As I see it, Vietnam is developing very rapidly, imperceptibly day to day, like a child growing up, so that if one looks away for ten or twenty years, one will be astounded by the transformation. Yet alongside rapid development comes the question: what kind of development should one strive to manifest? As someone who has spent much time in the UK, Austria, America and Australia, with close family in all of these places, I can testify that not all development looks the same. With development comes the question of “What next?” and “Now what?”.
In Germany, people focus primarily on cultural development: music, art, architecture, food, the environment, travel, learning about other cultures, with emphasis on family and friends. As people’s needs are increasingly met, there is more time to focus on nurturing these cultural staples. I think Germans are generally quite happy and fulfilled, educated and tolerant, with strong families; however, it is in many ways a rather unexciting place to live, where one feels removed from the cusp of life and death, success and failure.
America is altogether different. There seems to be no limit to peoples' propensity for consumption. People are driven to become more and more wealthy and successful, which leads to incredible achievements like the invention of the iPhone and Google. Unfortunately, this also means that many people are very worried about money and their place in society, insecurities which seem to place strain on family life.
Both the German and American approaches to development have their merits and demerits. On the other hand, I find that Australia and the UK struggle with their developed state. Having achieved development, people are unsure of what else to strive for, and this causes all kinds of social problems that are hard to imagine in Vietnam now. In Australia gambling is a national scourge, with casinos in every town where people literally throw their lives away in front of slot machines for no other reason I can see but boredom. In the UK, low level crime and anti-social behavior is an issue in many parts, such as the suburb of London where I grew up where young people hang around on street corners being generally unruly.
Right now, Vietnam is still a developing country and many of the problems of modernity are far from ones' mind when there is so much excitement about the future. However, the beginnings of problems typical of developed nations are worryingly manifest. For example, there seem to be a great number of video game shops where young people go to pass their hours away in front of a computer screen. There is no other explanation for this hobby than that these young people are bored and do not know what they should be struggling for in their lives. I deeply hope that Vietnam will somehow avoid these problems of idleness and apathy towards the future and that the Vietnamese people will make an informed and deliberate choice about what to do with the extra time they will have once their basic needs are met with increasing ease.
Yet, whether they choose to invest in cultural and social pursuits, like in Germany, or a deep drive for greater and greater invention and achievement, like in America, I anticipate a crisis of generational division about where to go next. This is a crisis that is already showing signs, and to avoid it there will need to be new generation of ideas, both technological and cultural, from Vietnam's best and brightest. Those ideas are only going to come from one place: a world class university set somewhere away from the hurly burly of the big city, a university that recognizes the importance of both the arts and sciences in forging a meaningful future, and engages actively with the wider world. I think Thai Nguyen should be that university. The young people of the advanced education program and elsewhere in Vietnam have a great burden of responsibility on their shoulders (that they themselves do not yet understand or appreciate) in figuring out the answers to these fundamental questions about what type of first-world country Vietnam should be. What they choose will have consequences that I think will be felt in Vietnam and the wider region for many generations to come. We as teachers must make sure they are well prepared for this responsibility.
Please forgive any white-man arrogance that undoubtedly creeps through into my writing. If there is any then my only excuse is that being an arrogant white-man is part of my culture and it is difficult for me to fight. Often I write and keep my thoughts private, but I think you are people who will forgive me for sharing these personal reflections. If you would like to publish this note then please feel free to do so. Also feel free to forward it to my students or other teachers and professors.
With all best wishes,