Stickman Readers' Submissions July 16th, 2003

The Education Dilemna For The Little Ones

Oh how your article in your latest weekly – on international versus Thai education – perfectly matched up with the needs of this reader. Although I'm in Hanoi, I'm sure my feedback is relevant. (I've noticed that the mindset, attitudes, and cultural practices of the Thais, Vietnamese and other South East Asians are incredibly similar, and often absolutely the same, and the expats in these places share the same frustrations, problems, and advantages in living in this region.) I know what you wrote was quite relevant to me. I'd been seeing no solution for our young daughter, and have been hiding from the issue, hoping she wouldn't grow up and the decision wouldn't have to be made. Well it happened – she did, of course, start growing up and reached that age for education.

(In a spin-off note, when I was a translation editor for "Vietnam Economic News," I titled an article, "International v Vietnamese Education," and the principal (maybe in British English it's headmaster) of the International School here, an Australian and apparently a defensive type and also apparently the author of the article, gets all bent out of shape at my title, and had the mag print a retort of his. He objected to the "versus" in the title. It all really pissed me off, and I almost gave him a call or visit, especially since with the Vietnamese being of a culture where they are cowed by types of the hierarchy, let him have his retort in the mag but not me like it would normally be done. There are two definitions of "versus," and I was using the one where it's merely saying there are two alternatives available – international and Vietnamese. He was defensive and interpreting versus as international against Vietnamese education.) (I received some satisfaction later when another principal noted that the International School had a reputation of bad management but good teachers.)

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I really saw no option for our daughter. Her Vietnamese mother had a dream of her being fluent in English by going to one of the two international English language schools here – one run by the UN that costs about $11,000/year and the other, the just-mentioned International School, at about $600/month. That's just too much money to be charging in a place where the cost of living is cheap. And I told the wife any time they are charging for tuition more than she earns, then it's a rip-off and she can't afford it. (What gets me too is that International School which wants $600 a month coming in for them only wanted to pay $150 a month for a local national secretary, a position for which they had all these high-powered qualification factors. Talk about their wanting to have it both ways.)

I responded to the wife I just wasn't paying out that kind of money for an international education. But I definitely didn't want the daughter studying with the local nationals, with half of them being so rude. To my daughter's benefit, she does take no shit off anyone (and is also intelligent, beautiful, very fluent in Vietnamese, and can have a mean streak in her). So she might be the type who wouldn't be pushed around in the local schools. Plus, like you documented, the Viets offer an education of no creative thinking and some propaganda – an inferior education I hear. So considering there were no options for the daughter, I just hid from the issue and hoped (in that context) she wouldn't grow up.

I have an intellectual expat friend out here, and to my dilemma, he recommended a different solution (and one you didn't address): hiring your own private teacher for the little one. But I didn't like this option either. I mean the daughter would be missing out on the real school experience and the social aspects of it. With the price of labor being what it is here, the cost of your own teacher would be very affordable.

Of course My Le did reach the age of going to school. Thankfully we did arrive at what we think is a good solution although my wife was down in the dumps about it at first. Thankfully another US expat mentioned to me that the Hanoi French School here was good and cheap, cheap, it turns out, because the French government subsidizes it. Then we learned that the curriculum included four hours of English a week, not that far from their six hours of French. Of course all the non-language classes are given in French.

When my wife took our 3 year old to enroll her in the French School, my wife came out feeling all in the dumps again because there would be no English instruction during the initial 2-year kindergarten phase and English wouldn't kick in until primary school started. So she had me run her over to the International School, and she came out of there with their brochure. And yes it would cost $600/month. I wasn't paying that, and responded that if she's earning the big money after she graduates with her University of Hawaii Executive MBA, then she could afford it. I also responded we had the ideal solution in the $2,000/year French School (increasing to $3,100 for the primary grades) and that starting English study at five years old rather than three wasn't a problem, and that her problem was she was a young mother, and those two years therefore just seemed liked eternity, and that actually starting studying English at five was young. My wife bought off on my explanation, and we both became excited about the French School, and the daughter starts study there in September at the age of three years old. It'll turn out great – she'll end up very fluent in French, Vietnamese and English.

It was nice for me to learn from a young author I met at a Swiss Ambassador's party and who has been in Vietnam for years that presently the French School is the best of the three international schools. But he warned that that changes because of staff turnover. He explained that two years ago, the UN school was the best, and now it was the French School, but that could also change.

Another aspect of The Decision you didn't mention was when the local national parents (who live in the same house, downstairs from us) start thinking about this decision of their granddaughter going to an international school, they become dismayed at the thought of the little one's lack of learning Vietnamese. Expats and their Thai wives undoubtedly run into that in Bangkok. But the French School does offer electives in Vietnamese.

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So to the issue of no solution and one I just hid from, we came up with what I think is an ideal solution – fairly cheap and a real good education.

You mentioned tea money in your article. When my wife took our daughter to the French School the first time, she came out saying she hated the secretary (a Vietnamese) she was dealing with, and that she was so rude to all the Vietnamese. She said she felt like reaching over and poking her. I'd never heard my wife talk like that. Later she learned the secretary was married to a French teacher there, and that was probably her arrogance problem. But then she learned this secretary has a huge house, and other Vietnamese working for the French think she is receiving tea money. The situation is ideal for that because with French and Vietnamese citizens receiving a one-third discount, Vietnamese citizens enrolling are limited, meaning the secretary was intimidating the Viets so they would give her tea money. (We'd opted at birth, thankfully, for our daughter to have both Viet and US citizenship.) (Little did Ms Secretary Asshole know, my wife had connections in the French community too, made sure our daughter would be absolutely accepted, and when my wife showed up the subsequent time to pay, secretary realized that (my wife had used her connection) and showed my wife some polite deference (although she had continued being rude over the phone). But my wife heard her still giving the other Viets a bad time.)

I really took note of your conclusion where you'd, based on your notable experience, felt the international schooling just isn't worth all that extra money, and I'm not surprised. Just this past Saturday, I was pondering the same while I was teaching English to a huge class (about 60) of young Vietnamese of 7-12 years old. Since this was my first time with them, their teachers had them in teams going up in front of the class and performing skits and singing songs in English. They were doing quite well, and I was impressed, and found myself thinking that the locals' schools might be just fine. And I'd, like you, noted that some of the products of this routine local education turn out as being outstanding.

Stickman says:

Great stuff. It may be written about Vietnam but what you have written is just as applicable in Thailand.

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