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Why Idaho should welcome foreigners like these Vietnamese

Students from the VinSchool join members of a visiting delegation from Boise State University last week in Hanoi.
Students from the VinSchool join members of a visiting delegation from Boise State University last week in Hanoi. Boise State University

Four of us from Boise State University went to Hanoi, Vietnam, last week. We went to formalize a new collaborative program between our university and the National Economics University, one of Vietnam’s best and our longtime partner.

We visited two local schools to learn about potential students who might join the program. VinSchool is a 2-year-old school built in a complex of housing, hospitals and stores. Its 9,000 students have a music room, chemistry and physics labs, and after-school discussions on internet protection. The classrooms are plastered with inspirational drawings and quotes of Einstein, Picasso and Darwin.

As we rounded a corner, a 10-year old boy stepped out of a classroom, cocked his head and said in a manner that made me think he was Lauren Bacall incarnate:

“Well, hello there.”

Confident, happy to see visitors, but in no hurry to impress, since he knew he was impressive enough.

This is not your father’s Vietnam.

Our few days in Hanoi confirmed that we’d better get cracking in the U.S. My Boise State students’ competition is not from Seattle, it’s from the rest of the world, especially places like Vietnam. The number of Vietnamese students studying in the U.S. (let alone in other countries) is 19,000 at last count. They starting with a strong education and language skills and build on that. They just get better when they study in the U.S. We hope to attract some of them to Boise State.

After our signing ceremony — attended by top university leaders and U.S. embassy representatives — the Boise State alumni association, of some 70 graduates, hosted a dinner. Many alums brought their children. As part of the “entertainment,” the children (ranging from 10 to 23 years old) sang. They started with a simple rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and moved to a rap song I was hoping their parents might not fully follow. But the crowning event was a heart-gripping talk by the 18-year old daughter of one of the university professors.

Lien, with henna-dyed hair, hip black glasses and braces on her teeth, looked every bit like the teenagers I see around town at home. But she’s lived half of her life outside of Vietnam. When I first met her as an 11-year old, she already had American slang down. Now after a few years in Singapore, she has the slight clipped accent so common with Singaporean English.

For at least 10 minutes, she talked about her experience as a foreigner living abroad, most recently in Singapore. Poised yet speaking with a palpable rawness, she talked of being an outsider, with a different language, hair, clothes and thinking. She tried hard to fit in as best she could, by never speaking Vietnamese in Singapore, by coloring her hair, and by trying to become someone else (and you can imagine, her parents were not pleased).

Eventually, she realized she needed to be herself, find a way that fit what she had been and what she is becoming, to stay solid in her values and flexible in her living.

For the record, she didn’t say “um,” she didn’t use “like” as punctuation, and she made eye contact with us. She was calm but energetic, engaging, and enlightening. What more could you ask for in any speaker? And this was a young woman speaking to strangers, in English, about a very personal topic.

Rather than keeping such young people or their families from coming to the U.S., we should continue to welcome them as we have for hundreds of years. I’d be thrilled if Boise State and Idaho could lead the way.