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I can't wait to leave
Thinh Le is ambitious, hopeful and smart -- typical of the relatively small number of Vietnamese who make it to college. He finds most of his peers, born after the war, less interested in ideology than they are in living a better life. Here is what he says.
My name is Thinh Le. I am 22 -- I was born a few months after the Vietnam war ended so I have no memory of it. To me it's just history.
There was a poll taken recently in Saigon -- 80 percent of the youths between 12 and 22 years old did not know the meanings of the streets named after revolutionaries who fought against the French and the Americans. On the other hand, around 80 percent recognized Madonna and Michael Jackson.
I just graduated from the school of business management and am ready to go to America for my masters.
America will be very expensive, but my mother will support me. Tuition for foreign students, not including room and board, is around $17,500 a year but she promises to pay for two years at least. After that, if she can't continue I'll have to work under the table.
Going to America is important for me in many ways. I lost my father, two older brothers and one sister in 1984 when they tried to escape as boat people. I was only nine and I didn't understand why they had to leave. For a year after that, my mother went mad with regret and guilt and sadness -- I thought at one point she'd commit suicide. But she picked herself up and went to work in three different jobs and did business on the side. When the government decided to open up, she built a lumber mill, and now she also has a furniture store.
She told me my job was just to study as much as I can. I studied English and business management and graduated this year top of my class.
It used to be that you had to be connected to those in the government to find a good position but not any more. All my classmates have found work with international companies and I could easily find a job because of my English skills. If you have talent and will power you can make it in Saigon.
I am one of a small minority -- only 6 percent of Vietnamese youths in this city graduate from college. In Saigon, there are now lots of kids whose parents have struck it rich -- they ride around on new $4,000 motorbikes, go to night clubs and bars, and are more interested in clothes and parties than an education. But they are few compared to those struggling to survive and those with a mind to create a better life for themselves.
Vietnamese youths these days are complex. We are not defined by one thing -- one ideology or one religion or a sense of nationalism. Before, during the war, politics was overwhelming -- you were either for or against the Communists, for or against colonial power. But now we've become individualized and in a way very passive -- like the generation X in America. We can only see economic gains or life styles as important. We barely pay attention to politics and politicians.
Most of us feel that we cannot say anything important without risking arrest so we just clam up -- but we don't so much fear the state, we consider it a nuisance, something to avoid, to make fun of.
A small group of students, 2 percent maybe, still want to engage the government in conversation about democracy and freedom of expression and so on, but most young people are not interested and frankly neither is the government. Things won't change because many youth equate personal freedom -- you can do anything you want in Vietnam if you have money -- with being politically free.
I can't say whether Vietnam would improve under American style democracy, but I think it would be very good for government to be held accountable for its actions. The problem of corruption is deep here.
I think things will change for the better but it's slow -- most people are too busy making money to work collectively to demand rights and such things. In the meantime, I see a lot of young people coming into the city by the busloads from rural areas to find a better life.
I myself can only think of leaving. I'll really miss Vietnam, and my family and friends. Maybe someday I will be part of the group that runs the country. I think Vietnam seriously needs us. But in the near future I will be in another country. I will come back, I 'm sure of it, but not for a very long time.