A shorter version of this article is published and can be read at Bliss Saigon. Real names have been changed.
hree years ago, over coffee at ID cafe, a comfortably decorated place for the young and hip, I met three twenty-something Vietnamese young men who had been educated abroad.
Conversation between us shifted easily from Vietnamese to English, with Vietnamese used when a complex emotion needed to be expressed. We talked about what’s happening in our lives, moving back to Ho Chi Minh City, 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 a few weeks. He was a PhD 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 politic, and clever; a young man quick to joke and laugh. A political science masters degree graduate from a school in the states, he was returning to start his first job after graduation at 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 had some anxieties about having to integrate back into Vietnamese culture, and the reverse culture shock that might involve.
The young, internationally educated of Vietnam often return from their years abroad to partake in a booming economy at home, and others, 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, populated by 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 would find that Peter is on the leadership team of a successful startup that handles 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 to a booming economy that seeks their talent is complicated by a still relatively conservative treatment of professional women. Having come back at an age when their parents judged to be most suitable for marriage, it can seem like their education abroad was simply meant to make them a catch for an ambitious marriage.
For Linh, a twenty something professional with a good position at a respected international bank, coming back to Ho Chi Minh city gave her severe culture shock to 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 of 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 the life of Vietnamese women her age: early marriage, a husband, kids in the near future. Frustrated, she finally made up a story for her parents involving a fortune teller who told her to not get married until 32. A marriage before that age, warned this imagined fortune teller, would be a deeply unhappy one ending in 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, who will tell me to wait until 35.”
Convincing her family that she wanted to move out and be closer to her work place 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 living 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 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, it would have led me to the same place anyway. What I do 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 for good.”
But perhaps Linh, and other young returning Vietnamese professionals, are starting to discover ways to negotiate the gaps between their hopes for life and profession, and the dreams and desires of their parents. Linh recently left her job in her prestigious bank for a smaller company just started by her friend, for the opportunities to grow and learn more in her job. She was concerned about telling her parents, but was pleasantly surprised when she finally did:
“They took it surprisingly well… There were questions, some concern, and it was a difficult conversation, but it turned out ok.”
For all the young academics and professionals of Vietnam that I’ve met in Saigon, their time living abroad has allowed them to see their country in a wider, richer context, offering them perspective and a sense of possibility. The question then becomes: can they now redefine what it means to be successful, to have a rich life, for them and their peers in this rapidly developing country?