Tra My Nguyen
University High School (Parkville, Melbourne)
Year 12 English R. Benson (*)
Topic 2: Turning point
“Home sweet home”, Dad says to me as we step out onto the balcony. He tells me that I’ve been enrolled into Viet Duc, a renowned high school in Hanoi. I barely hear what he says next because I am distracted by the expression of joy on his face. It is clear that to my father he is home. Dad finishes talking and steps inside, still with a blissful smile on his face. I peer down at the street below, watching in fascination as hundreds of motorbikes and bikes wriggle pass each other in the morning traffic. This is my first trip back to Vietnam as a teenager. Each time I return, Vietnam itself doesn’t seem to have changed, but yet it still seems different to me. Perhaps that’s because I’ve changed. I spot a group of giggling school girls riding their bikes to school, their traditional white Vietnamese dresses fluttering beautifully in the wind. Nearby, some tourists are preparing to cross the street, though their terrified expressions make them look more like they are getting ready to enter a fighting field. I laugh, though slightly discomfited, by my closer resemblance to the foreigners than the Vietnamese girls.
That afternoon, I realize that my grandmother’s ‘live-in’ maid, Hoa, is exactly the same age as me. As I watch TV, she comes in to sweep the floor and I don’t know whether to keep watching TV or not. Do I lift my feet? Do I leave the room? Not knowing what to do, I remain seated, feeling somewhat uneasy and embarrassed. I am fifteen, my family is always with me and my part-time job pays for my mobile phone bills and lipsticks. She is fifteen, living far away from her family to work as a cleaner while her wages enable her parents to keep her three brothers in school.
Monday comes and Dad pulls me out of bed at six. Hoa has already been at work for the past hour, of course, and has finished preparing breakfast. She serves me noodle soup and as I mutter a thank-you, I catch a surprised look in her eye before she slightly lowers her head at me.
The school bell rings at exactly seven, and I step into the small classroom with the Year Ten Coordinator. “This is Tra My, she is from Australia and will be joining our class for the next few months…,” the coordinator’s voice trails off as the students begin to clap. Feeling a little less nervous, I smile and wave awkwardly hello at the class before sitting down, conscious of the fifty five pairs of curious eyes watching me. The coordinator leaves and the teacher begins the lesson. It is Literature, and she tells me not to worry if I don’t understand everything. She starts to read what sounds like an analysis of a text, while the students frantically try to write down her every word. I take the chance to look around - the walls of the classroom are brown, the seats and tables in perfect rows, also brown. Everything is neat, clean, perfect and in its place. All the heads are down, but mine.
The weeks pass and my classmates have become my friends. They are just as interested in my life as I am in theirs, if not even more. Through their stories, and my observations, I notice a stark difference between the education I have been receiving in Australia and what it is like here. I think about this as I walk home from an exhausting day at school one afternoon, eyes on the grubby grey concrete ahead of me. I am behind these students. Where in Australia, I have been studying one broad subject called ‘science,’ they have already been specializing in chemistry, physics and biology since year seven. Their use of English as a second language is impressive, making my three years study of French look particularly pathetic.
Yet despite their advance knowledge in the technical subjects, even I can see that they are overall divantaged by the system. There are no experiments conducted for science subjects, no excursions, no camps, no oval- not one blade of grass anywhere for that matter. There are never any class discussions, and no student ever disagrees with the teacher. Everything seems to be dictated here, and students are given no chance to create or express their ideas. They are not even given a choice of what subjects to study. “In this rigid system, the curriculum is set by the Government, taught in the same text books, in the same way in every school,” I remember a friend expressing her dissatisfaction. “But at the end of the day, that’s just how things are here, and to survive all we can do is study and study and do as we are told”.
All my friends share an overwhelming common dream of one day being able to study overseas. I’m the embodiment of their dreams. I find that particularly shocking, considering cute boys are the only subjects of my dreams at the moment.
I look up at the street ahead of me, hundreds of metres of cement footpath occasionally interrupted by anonymous faces of kids my age or even younger. They are booksellers, shoe-shiners or beggars. I don’t know anything about their lives, but to me, they all seem to be victims of circumstance. I feel confused. Here I am, pitying the students who, by comparison to these helpless kids, have a vast wealth of opportunity. And me, well, the opportunities I hold are so off their scale that it wouldn’t even register in their wildest dreams. My life and its infinite possibilities are incomprehensible to these kids.
As I reach closer to home, I can see Hoa in the distance, returning from the market and struggling to carry two bamboo baskets that look heavier than her. I want to cry but I don’t, perhaps I can’t. As I turn away, she slowly fades into the backdrop of grey buildings, dying brown trees, and dusty metal scaffolds.
Looking back, I didn’t realize at the time I had changed, but at some point I obviously did. It’s only in retrospect that I can pinpoint the exact moment when I recognized my comparative luxury, and began to wonder why I ever complained about my life at all. Upon my return to Australia, my priorities in life were somewhat rearranged. Of course, however, I wasn’t immediately different. But gradually, I became more focused at school and began to care less and less about the materialistic things that were once the centre of my world. It was only once the transformation was complete that I was aware of, and thankful for, the profound shift that took place in me after my three month stay in Vietnam.
(*) Teacher’s name
(Trong thời gian gần đây, “bài văn lạ” của cô học sinh giỏi văn Hà Nội Nguyễn Phi Khanh và bài văn được điểm 10 của cô học sinh Huế Nguyễn Thị Thu Trang đã được dư luận đông đảo trong ngoài nước đặc biệt quan tâm. Nhiều bài nhận xét, phê bình và những ý kiến trái ngược nhau xung quanh hai bài văn này đã được đăng trên talawas.
Để có một cái nhìn so sánh, chúng tôi xin giới thiệu bài văn sau đây của Nguyễn Trà My, sinh năm 1987, cùng tuổi với Nguyễn Phi Khanh và Nguyễn Thị Thu Trang, hiện là học sinh lớp 12 trường trung học University High School (Parkville, Melbourne, Úc). Đây là bài làm văn thuộc một trong 5 kì kiểm tra giữa năm của học sinh lớp 12. Kết quả của 5 kì kiểm tra này được tính 50%, gộp với 50% là kì thi cuối năm, làm cơ sở để xét tuyển vào đại học. Đề bài chỉ gồm hai chữ “Bước ngoặt”. Bài văn của Nguyễn Trà My đạt điểm A (điểm cao nhất), nguyên viết bằng tiếng Anh, bản dịch tiếng Việt của Hoàng Nguyễn Thục Hiền, học sinh phổ thông tại Hà nội)