Vietnamese Youth: A pathetic or Exemplary?

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Anxieties about youth and their alienation from history, coupled with a perceived fixation on commodities (exemplified in Thang’s comment about fashion being more important than the war) have been reinforced in the mass media through reports of gendered acts of conspicuous consumption (see also Leshkowich 2008). In the summer of 2007, for example, the Vietnamese press reported that women in Hanoi were frivolously spending an average of 500,000 Vietnamese dong (approximately $30) per month on brand name beauty products and services, while the average monthly salary of workers and civil servants hovered around 1,000,000 dong ($60). Moreover, youth have been increasingly identified in media and government discourse as presenting a moral and cultural problem for society; they have been associated with a growth in “foreign” capitalist practices thought to undermine “traditional” and revolutionary values, leading, for example, to an increase in drug use and premarital sex. Such claims of conspicuous consumption and hedonism, however, reveal more about growing disparities in wealth, privilege, and power under market reforms than point to a deliberate rejection of cultural norms. In fact, looking more closely, the reverse may also be true: youth are not necessarily more apathetic about national traditions and revolutionary history, but have embraced new global market opportunities to carry out their familial and national duties more effectively.

While young people may not be concerned with “boring old history,” they are highly motivated to build and “modernize” the country, just as the museum director and war photographer had envisioned. In this way, youth are indeed following and embodying national ideals and principles as conveyed through stories of hardship and sacrifice in museums, photography, and family histories. When I asked a focus group of university students from the province of Viet Tri what they most desired for their futures, they expressed the hope of betterment for their families and for the nation: good jobs, enough to eat, and a reduction in the national poverty rate. The students also expressed a belief in education as key to social and economic progress, but not just any education would do in their view. One must choose a field with skills that can be applied to the global economy (thus, one student gave up Russian to study English). Competition to gain acceptance into universities and departments of trade, economics, banking, and finance is high. Wealthier students increasingly take advantage of new opportunities to study overseas or to enroll in expensive international MBA programs in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. The role of the past seems almost inconsequential to these students’ lives and their efforts to attain prosperity for their families and wider society.

 

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