Viet Nam News
By Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
A new book street opened last weekend in Hà Nội to the warm welcome of many, if not most city residents.
The site that once hosted an open wet market is now lined with book stalls, a sight to behold for hungry readers.
We went to check the place out, mingling among the people that thronged booths full of new books. It was the early days of summer, but the crowd generated heat that made people sweat. After a quick stroll, we made the last stop at a stall selling ice-cream and beverages, and sat down to leaf through a few pages.
We watched families coming together, parents leading their kids to the big books with illustrations, and students checking out English books and dictionaries, and of course, browsing through the IELTS (the International English Language Testing System) and TOEFL (the Test of English as a Foreign Language) guide books that would help them take the exams.
One of them was my daughter in her early teens. She wanted to take the exam to know her level before she could apply to colleges. She was jumping the gun a bit. In grade seven now, it would be four of five years before she would fill in any college application. I am not very supportive of her sitting too early for the English proficiency tests, which brings me to my grouse for the day.
Schools across Việt Nam have been invaded by all kinds of English language centres with all types of tests and exams. It’s like a racing game in all subjects: math, English and so on. After a child gets past the class level, she/he gets to take the school level exam, then the district level in upper classes.
Since I’m not very fond of this testing business, my kids do not get themselves tested as much as they would like to. I believe that on a Saturday or a Sunday, it’s better for kids go to roller-skating in the park or go swimming, or dance to the tune of their favourite K-pop songs than sitting for an exam in an air-conditioned room for a few hours.
The kids are close friends and hang out with each other during recess at school and invite each other over on their birthdays. But they are also competitive and want to know if they can surpass their classmates outside of the school exams.
“Here,” I said, picking up a Sherlock Holmes novel sold for a very affordable price of VNĐ60,000 each (or half of the price of a sidewalk lunch or the price of a bowl of noodle soup).
“My dear,” I told my daughter, “if you can ‘plough’ through all of these books, you can definitely get the level of English needed to pass the language test for college in the English-speaking countries.”
I thought it would do no harm to refurbish my credentials a bit: “Believe me, this is the advice of someone who passed both IELTS and TOEFL at pretty good levels more than 20 years ago.”
Now, every child and parent seems to be targeting being the best. Top score in an exam, winning a championship, the best student in class or school… these are the new aims of “driven” students and their parents. Even TOEFL and IELTS exams, which are just tests to see if you are good enough to undergo education in the English language, have become sites of intense competition. People seem to forget that all you need is to pass it with the required minimum marks. You don’t have to study day in, day out to ace these tests, and this also includes the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test).
As we rested our feet in the ice-cream shop, my daughter opened a book and started to read, sipping lemonade. I looked around. At the table next to us, another girl was reading her book as her mother looked on. Across the street, a young father read out loud a picture book to his kindergarten-aged daughter. Some kids near us were browsing through the pages of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Harry Potter.
On the last day of a long Reunification Day holiday, it was peaceful. But we were just a few people in a city of more than 7 million. This street could be a destination for just several hundred people.
So, after the city’s most beautiful and historic book street of Tràng Tiền, residents have another one to enjoy, one that would be in the fond memories of our children’s generation.
The street is a welcome continuation of the tradition of learning, discussion and debating, hallmarks of a cultured society, and we can hope that more such book streets spring up in the future.
“Mami, what does this word mean?” my daughter asked.
“Honestly, dear, I’ll have to look it up,” I said.
After a while, she asked the meaning of two more words, and my answer was the same. I still needed to look them up.
It was the first chapter of The Hound of the Baskervilles and the Valley of Fear by Sir Conan Doyle.
“Mami,” my daughter followed up, saying, “I’ve finished the first chapter, and those are the three words I don’t understand. You know what, the tests you took in the old days weren’t as difficult as today, were they?”
"Poor thing," I thought to myself, "I worked hard, but she’ll have to work harder." VNS