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How Vietnamese International Schools Are Failing Millennial Teens

The tension between the traditional attitudes of Asian parents and the reality faced by today’s Asian teens has always been a tightrope international schools in the region have had to walk – and never more so than now.

Now there is a real and widening generation gap on a huge range of issues, from smoking, drinking, underage sex, teen pregnancy, LGBT students, teen relationships, porn-watching and the Internet.

Here in Vietnam, a country I have called home for the best part of 17 years, my job as an English teacher puts me on the frontline in the battle between the generations that is currently being waged in homes and schools across Southeast Asia.

Middle-class Asian parents, brought up during the austerities of post-Cold War poverty, have worked hard to give their children a better life. Convinced by traditional Confucian ideas on the importance of education, they have encouraged their children to study hard, take extra classes, complete mounds of homework and get good grades, while equipping them with iPhones, laptops and all the latest mod cons, in an effort to give their children what they themselves could never have or afford when they were younger.

However, all this comes at a cost. Long hours spent running businesses selling knocked-off Chinese-made T-shirts in sweatshop premises located on busy streets seething with motorbike traffic has led to today’s modern Vietnamese teens being brought up by the rented housekeeper, who cooks and cleans for them while Mum and Dad are out earning money.

So while middle-class parents can now afford to send their kids to mid-budget “international” schools that offer a mix of the Vietnamese National Curriculum and a hastily slapped-together, devoid-of-all-credit-points English program of English, Maths and Science taught by expat foreign teachers, their children have grown up surrounded by modern millennial attitudes towards issues that would have been shocking in their parents’ day.

Allowed out in the evening with no adult supervision, alone in dealing with the stresses of upcoming exams, these teens are now frequenting shisha lounges, smoking weed, indulging in casual, no-strings-attached underage sex, getting pregnant at weekend parties at friends’ houses, watching Mia Khalifa on Pornhub and drinking vodka Cruisers during homework time, among more normal things, such as listening to K-Pop, learning to dance hip-hop and playing basketball.

What have these international schools done about this? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. On a quest to gain accreditation with international bodies such as the Council for International Schools (CIS), there has been a tightening-up of school rules, where students are punished more often for minor infractions, while, at the same time, schools endeavour to look the best they can externally, making cosmetic changes to curriculum design by putting foreign teachers into “head of subject” positions without any increase in remuneration and an expectation to put in more and more hours of free time in a drive to attain “international standards”.

However, more serious for the students is the way the schools ride roughshod over the individual rights of teens. Schools in this budget range are way more expensive than Vietnamese state schools, while at the same time being far lower in quality than the ultra-exclusive, “American high school in Vietnam” experience offered by IB World Schools to the Vietnamese super-rich, where a year’s tuition runs upwards of $20,000 per annum. Such mid-market schools as the one I worked in are terrified of modern teen issues, gossip and scandal, as these risk alienating the existing customer base of older-generation Vietnamese parents. Internal scenes of occasionally unruly classrooms lead to student mobile phones being snatched away by Vietnamese teaching staff, “officially” because carrying mobile phones to school is against the rules but actually because the school is terrified that the students will upload the photos to Facebook for parents and the whole world to see.

Perhaps the most serious threat yet to student safety in the school where I worked came in January 2016, when, after one schoolboy attempted suicide the month prior after splitting up with his girlfriend, the school announced to students that from now on, all their Facebook accounts will be stalked and if there is any sign that they have boyfriends or girlfriends, the school will telephone their parents, claiming that their grades are suffering. This has since led to a number of students receiving physical and verbal abuse from parents. Of particular concern is the student LGBT community, since such a policy is likely to force LGBT students to “come out” to their parents before they are ready, possibly putting them at risk of serious domestic violence and abuse.

Tension is nearing breaking point as the traditions of the older generation come face-to-face with a new generation who have no major hang-ups on casual sex, Internet dating, porn-viewing, recreational substance use and hanging out with their LGBT friends in the classroom.

SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER? As a teacher on the front line, a life coach and qualified youth counsellor, my contribution is in giving timely and sometimes straight-down-the-line accurate advice on teen self-esteem, personal development, health, wealth, sex, dating and relationships, while at the same time advocating and supporting my teens in every way I can, sometimes in the face of hostile reactions from school management and other teaching staff.

I NOW HAVE A PLAN to establish an afterschool activity centre close to the school where I worked, where my teens can learn life skills and the knowledge they need to turn their lives around, give up their more negative habits and choose new ones that lead them to taking the necessary steps to lead the life they have always wanted and achieve their personal goals. Based on the American 4-H youth organisation but “Vietnamized” and more focused on personal development and learning marketable skills that will be valuable in the online marketplace in the future, my vision is to create a values-driven and exciting centre of informal education that allows my teens to believe in themselves and make their dreams come true.

To do this, I intend to crowdfund the setting-up of the centre via the IndieGogo crowdfunding platform but to do that, I need a crowd of fans, followers and supporters willing to donate. To that end, I have become an author and I will soon publish my first novel about the issues my teen face. The novel is called “Shisha Girl” and the book cover is the picture at the top of this article. Published soon as a serial on Wattpad and as a print book and Kindle on Amazon, I hope the book will give me the fans I need to run a successful IndieGogo campaign.

Check out the Slideshare presentation below for a brief overview of my work to improve the lives of my teens. It’s time to make a difference. It’s time to change things around, to shake things up and start something new. Let’s have a new generation of young Asian millennials who embrace the realities of life in the 21st. Century, while giving them the inspiration and courage they need to achieve levels of success their parents could only dream of. LET’S START NOW!