by Hang Nguyen
To love and be loved is a basic human instinct. That is why in some ancient tales - and in some newer stories - revelations about the joys, mysteries and even physicality of love are often so frank.
I well remember when I was in the 11th grade, my teacher began a lecture with a story about Chi Pheo. Written in the middle of the 20th century by Nam Cao, one of Viet Nam's best writers, it says that every person, good or bad, old or young, male or female, needs to be loved.
Chi Pheo, the main character of the story, lives in a village called Vu Dai. At first, he is a strong and kind farmer. However, after being wrongly jailed for seven years, he becomes a very different person - one who is cruel and often drunk.
He lives a wicked life until one day he sees Thi No, a silly and ugly woman, in a banana garden and falls in love with her. A long love scene between Chi Pheo and Thi No establishes his instinctual desire for love as a human, but wicked person, says literary critic Lai Nguyen An.
The original story helps create a profound, human character for the wicked Chi Pheo. However, the version of the story published in the present Literary Book for 11th-grade students condenses all this love and desire into a prudish, 100-word paragraph.
Professor Tran Dinh Su, chief editor of the book, says that the modifications were done about 20 years ago and that although the original version has been trimmed extensively, students can still understand the meaning of the story. "If they want to study more, they can find and read a full version of the story," he says.
One of the reasons he gave for, in effect, censoring the original was to "avoid stirring the curiosity of students with sensitive issues". The professor says a limited programme for teaching literature in schools contributed to the changes.
However, many others say that the trimming lessens the human value of the literary work. It also raises questions about how to give sex education to teenagers if the subject is avoided in literary classes.
An, a literary critic, says that cutting the scene is similar to avoiding sex education in schools. "The important thing is that literature teachers have to impart the meaning of the story – the human value, to their students in the right way. If not, it might be misunderstood," he says.
Nguyen Minh Duc, head of the Viet Nam Institute of Child Education Research, says that 11th-grade students are mature enough to approach sex education. He says that providing this knowledge for teenagers is an effective way of helping them avoiding sexually transmitted diseases and unexpected pregnancies.
"In foreign countries, teenagers can actively prevent these diseases or unexpected pregnancies because condoms are freely available," he says. "Vietnamese teenagers can now easily access sex-related information through books, films and video clips via the internet, but helping them select this information and learning ways to protect themselves needs deeper attention from domestic sex educators."
A week ago, an 18-year-old student from central Nghe An Province's Dien Chau Secondary School was taken to hospital after she began her labour in class. This stunned herself, her teacher and friends and she was rushed to hospital where she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. The simple fact is that the rather portly girl didn't know she was pregnant and claims to have gained only a little weight.
Another student, Duong Thuy Linh, 17, from Ha Noi, told me she only learned about sex education from friends and the internet. "I did not now know how to calculate my menstrual cycle length until I, by chance, read the information on an internet forum," says Linh. She adds that she does an internet search if she needs information about sex education. "I hardly ever question my mother," she says because her mother always tells her she is not mature enough to ask about such things. Linh admits that she does not know exactly how condoms should be used when having sex.
Only few reproductive healthcare services and sex-education programmes for teens exist in Viet Nam. But statistics from the Viet Nam Family Planning Association prove that Viet Nam has one of the world's highest adolescent abortion rates. It is estimated that about 300,000 abortions are performed on under-age girls in Viet Nam every year.
So, it's about time both educators and parents moved on from censoring sex and paid more attention to fully and frankly introducing sex education in schools. — VNS