Studying in a convenience store

As I nonchalantly walk into the local Family Mart or Circle K to get a quick beer or snacks, I witness a scene that is normally reserved for coffee shops:

Dozens of young Vietnamese are studying, chatting, hanging out. In a convenience store. Under neon lights, at bland, round, and basic tables. Sometimes the tables are occupied by a mother and her two young kids, all of them engrossed in a game on their tablet.

Some of them do this because they can’t afford a 75 cents coffee at the local coffee shop. They do this because their family house is so small, they don’t have a living room or it’s crowded. They probably share their bedroom with their brother, sister, or parents. They probably don’t have the internet.

They are studying, both to better their life and to avoid being recruited in the army. Men in Vietnam have a 2-year mandatory military service to complete before the age of 27, but apparently, if you’re in school (or if you have the money) “they” leave you alone.

I might have mentioned this in the past, but this youth is making me feel extremely lazy and having regrets about my past. I mean, I was born in Canada, certainly not a third-world country (if you’re not living on a reserve ignored by the government), my parents had money, and I’m not that dumb. With a better goal in mind or more determination, I could have done something else with my time than drink and skateboard and play video games (and work meaningless jobs).

But hey. Everything that has happened has made me into the person I am today, and there’s no point in reminiscing too much. I’m now an English teacher in a language center. I teach young adults, usually aged between 18 to 25 (but sometimes as young as 15 or a little bit older, 40 years old) who are taking classes to better their life.

It is a question I ask my students in the first class of our two-months course: “Why do you want to learn to speak English?”. I want to have a better job with a bigger salary. I want to study abroad. I want to move to another country. I want to travel. I want to speak to foreigners. I want to watch movies. Just for fun.

I respect them a lot for trying and putting in the work. I’m studying Vietnamese at the moment, but not half as hard as they are towards English.

We had a house-warming party a few weeks ago. As we’re sipping Scotch on our rooftop, over-looking the area, one of our guests starts to feel emotional.

“Don’t you feel like this country is on the verge of exploding, on the verge of greatness?”

I keep silent. It’s dark, so she doesn’t see the skeptical look on my face.

On the verge of exploding? Yes. On the verge of greatness? I’m not sure. I’d need to write an actual essay to express my thoughts, but to make it short… If critical thinking is still discouraged as heavily in school, if men stay as lazy and macho as they are now if everyone keeps arriving late or blatantly lie to each other, if the people’s main concern in life is to get quick money and new designer jeans rather than what is happening with their lumber industry or the rising pollution, then no, I don’t think Vietnam is destined for greatness.

However, the youth seems more and more aware of how they are perceived by the eldest and by the rest of the world. They are increasingly curious and conscious about it all. Things like social status and schools of thought might change, and they might change fast.

Or they might stay the way they are, for a few more generations.

I wish thee good luck, Vietnam.

It is quite something, to be living at a time like this.

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