by Nguyen Thu Hien
Studying abroad is a dream for many Vietnamese children. It means wearing stylish uniforms, studying in palace-like schools without reprimands from teachers or parents, speaking English as if it was the mother-tongue – and having angel-like foreign classmates.
This was also my dream when I was a secondary student. I felt I suffered too much pressure and control and admired the wonderful student life in the United States or Britain as shown in teenage films.
At that time, my parents refused to oblige. They said I was too small and should wait until I was 18 to study overseas. More than 10 years passed. Things have changed. The internet connects everything and shrinks all the gaps.
Vietnamese parents have also changed. They now think about sending their children to study abroad when they're at secondary-school or even when they have just stepped into the first year of high-school.
Statistics from the Ministry of Education and Training show there are currently 100,000 Vietnamese students studying in 49 countries and territories, 10 times more than 10 years ago. More and more secondary and high-school students are now sent abroad to study in the United States, Britain, Japan, Singapore, Australia or China. Many are aged between 16 and 18. However, life for these children in foreign countries is not always a dream. Many end up falling into difficult, even depraved situations.
Nguyen Ngoc Quang, 21, recalls his five-years overseas. "Except for studying English at school, I imprisoned myself in my room at the host family's house to play online games and listen to music during the first months in Manchester."
Quang could not speak any English so he could not adapt to his new life. "I was scared of everything and everybody and considered my room the safest place," he said. Yet in Viet Nam, he used to be the centre of sports events and social activities.
Quang received little attention from the host family, who had no experience with youngsters. "Their meals did not suit my taste and I was often hungry. My mother sometimes called me, but I said nothing to her because she would not understand. Nothing could be changed."
Quang started drinking beer and wine. "Being drunk made me afraid of nothing. I love that feeling." He now drinks alcohol whenever he is sad.
Vuong Thu Anh, 20, also had bitter memories of Britain four years ago. She stayed in a school hostel, but it was difficult to integrate into the new world. At home, her mother took care of everything, including clothes and meals. Living in the hostel forced her to do everything herself – without guidance.
"I felt uncomfortable and lonely," she said. "I just wanted to go home. My English was not good enough to communicate with mates who had different cultures and lifestyles."
When she was 18, she moved to a rental room with other Vietnamese friends. However, she was influenced by their habit of going to bars overnight. "I am naughtier than when I lived in Viet Nam with my parents."
However, Quang and Anh said they were much better off than others because they clearly acknowledged their situation. "No heroin, gambling or illegal activities. And also avoiding sexual relations," they said.
They spend just £600 a month (US$942) instead of thousands of pounds like their friends.
Nguyen Minh Duc, a psychologist from a Ha Noi-based centre, said Vietnamese children became used to total care from their parents when they were very small. When suddenly exposed to an independent life in a completely strange environment, they feel empty and abandoned.
Moreover, he said that at the age of 16-17, their character was still being formed so they needed their parents' supervision to adjust and give guidance.
Le Thanh Ha, another psychologist said traditional education by parents and teachers, usually left Vietnamese children without the necessary life skills. This made it difficult for many to deal with living alone in other countries alone. She said they easily fell into a state of panic.
However, Quang's mother said she wanted him to be independent, study in a modern environment and be equipped with English skills so he could run the family business in the future.
Anh's main reason for studying abroad early was that she wanted to escape university entrance exams.
However, many psychologists disagree with this trend of sending children to study abroad when they are so young.
Psychologist Ha said: "It is just like a bet. If you win, you can save time and nurture independence, knowledge and capabilities for your children. If you are lost, no matter how much time and money you spend, you cannot restart your children's life." She said negative impacts could never be erased.
After two years, Quang failed English examinations. He returned Viet Nam, where, he could not adapt at school. He was also alone at home because his mother was too busy and he maintained no close relations with other family members.
"I found no place in this world. After one year of making a lot of efforts to integrate into life back home, I wanted to study abroad again."
The boy was then sent to New Zealand where some of his cousins were living. "This time, my goal was to study well."
Quang started studying management last year at a university when his English met entrance requirements. However, he is still interested in drinking alcohol and is not close to anyone.
Meanwhile, Anh finds it difficult to talk with her parents due to differences in lifestyles and culture or being living far from them too long. However, she is fluent in English and has studied design. "I have learned more lessons from life than school."
Quang and Anh agreed if parents had plans to send their children to study abroad at secondary or high-school level, they should make sure they had enough English and life skills such as cooking, communicating and dealing with basic situations. They said parents should nurture independence in their children when they were young.
Anh said it was a mistake for parents to assume that sending kids to study abroad was a magic formula for turning naughty children into good ones.
"Don't drive us into a strange world without any preparation." — VNS