It is well known that after the attempt to stop communism in South-East Asia, the Americans finally gave up on the war and left their allay (South Vietnam) to fend for itself, as a result North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam in 1975. Officially the Indochina war ended, but for the Vietnamese the (political) rift remained, and unfortunately it still continues. The coalescence of Vietnam took place only territorially, since among the people the process of reconciliation is still taking place. Difficult times came for people from both North and South Vietnam. The South didn’t get any more help from the West, and the North didn’t get any food from the socialist countries. Moreover, Vietnam had to start paying of its debt (for the weapons) The situation complicated furtherly when, aided by the Chinese People Republic, Pol Pot’s army from Cambodia kept attacking Vietnam causing heavy losses in the country, especially in the civilian community. When in 1979 Vietnam decided to fight back, by attacking Pol Pot areas as far as his territory, China decided to attack Vietnam. The USA together with some Western countries “hit Vietnam when it was down” by putting embargos and by isolating Vietnam. For a long period of time, many Vietnamese ran away from their country (casus boat people)
Against the big political hassle, on an almost empty stomach (the nationwide starvation, the government scholarships and student rations that were very scarce) with other students we continued to busily study for the exams. Now I have to mention a very important point. An ideological one.
Namely, in order to be accepted to the elite secondary school group, apart from the mathematical abilities everybody had to have a flawless past. Before the student received the University student card, his family had to be thoroughly screened and examined by a man who was specifically sent from the University to the students’ birthplaces and who tediously inspected everything.
I naively believed that since we were all good students and our families were “clean” the acceptance to the Communist League of Vietnam Youth would be just a formality, and all the student will have this “honour” and will be accepted quickly in the 8th grade.
I couldn’t be more wrong, there were those of us that were more equal than others. I assumed that one of the criteria was proficiency in mathematics and because I wasn’t the best in mathematics I had to wait. However, my close friend who was a maths genius (he won the International Mathematics Contest) should have been accepted instantly. But no, he also had to wait for a long time.
We had to actively “take part in” on the meetings, that were held ceaselessly. We had to sing well, especially some revolution songs, and write some poems for a school board newsletter praising a party or somebody in the authority, etc.
So I decided to “feel offended” at the League. If you don’t want me, I don’t have to be with you! I won’t be active at the meetings. I will wear bell-bottomed trousers. I will wear long hair etc. I will only study and get good enough grades not to be kicked out of the programme. My peers gave me a nickname of “Western Minh” it meant an European. Nobody could have realised that 15 years later in 1991 the President of Poland would give me a tangible opportunity to become a Polish citizen, thus I would become an European.
Although, there was a “slight problem”: only the members of the Communist League of Vietnam Youth could go and study abroad. So we had to work hard, stay low, and obey all the orders.
At last in the 10th grade the above mentioned friend and I became members of the League, during a ceremony in a so called “last run”. Because it would unbelievable for students from an elite group not to have the League cards? All the accomplished students had to be members of the League, and no question about that! The end report (all the years) has to be nice and tidy.
One point has stuck in my memory and I have to admit it strongly influenced major decisions in my life.
During the difficult times in Vietnam, there was some sealing, it has been a huge problem in the dormitories. Everything went missing, starting with personal items and ending with small amounts of money, since nobody had much. The additional money was for buying some soups or buns, since the meals in the canteen weren’t sufficient for anybody.
As a result of those thefts I lost, among other things new sandals „Tiền phong”, which I regretted loosing very much. After the theft I thought that I should have damaged them a little so the thief couldn’t have sold them. But it’s easy to be wise after the event… So I wore sandals and flip flops of lesser quality. I didn’t want to wear Indian rubber sandals (from used rubber), only because they were made popular by somebody else wearing them.
Student council had to work hard in order to eliminate or limit these deplorable occurrences. I remember the time when I sympathised with our literature teacher whom somebody has stolen everything from the dormitory (a radio, a thermos, some pots), where he lived with his newly wed wife.
There were various thieves caught but the saddest fact was that one day one of our classmates has been caught. He was naturally, immediately expelled and sent back to his province. I was very surprised because he has been accepted to the Communist League of Vietnam Youth very early on.
After all those events I could finally be sure that I would go to study abroad. The only thing I had to do was to successfully pass my exams. I think it was my fortune to end up in Poland.
When I was already here in Poland I have read an article in a newspaper that stated that Polish is considered to be one of the most difficult languages in the world. Maybe even the most difficult. Supposedly even R. R. Tolkien believed so. Because of that I am incredibly proud that I had the privilege to learn Polish, on the other hand I’m a little embarrassed that it took me 2 years to learn enough Polish to come to study in Poland.
Namely, after graduating the 10 years of school in Vietnam in 1979 I ended up in the Foreign Language College in Hanoi, enrolled on a pre-university course of Polish. That school wasn’t too far from the University of Hanoi so the moving out from the university dormitory to the new school was relatively easy. Together with 40 male friends we started learning Polish. I emphasise male friends because at that time, for no apparent reason, Vietnamese women couldn’t go and study in Poland.
Some years earlier some Vietnamese women used to study in Poland. Apparently, some of them didn’t finish their studies (were sent back to Vietnam), and some quickly married some Polish men. At that time among the socialistic countries, Poland was considered to be a country with “an inclination to corrupt” It meant that in Poland there was always more freedom and some liberalism, even ideological. It was believed that only good boys, that would study hard could be sent to Poland. But the reality turned out to be a bitter pill to swallow, most of those good boys has been “corrupted” – some fled to the West, others married Polish women and didn’t come back to Vietnam to serve their Motherland.
Now I live in Poland not in Vietnam, so I’m one of those “traitors”. But, I’ve paid my price. Literally. In Polish zloty! But more about that later on. Now let’s focus on the incredibly difficult Polish language.
At the school, we were taught by three Vietnamese (Mr T, Mrs O. and Mrs H.) and two Polish teachers (Mr Andrzej and Mrs Ela), who had language specialist positions. I have to emphasise that all the teachers were incredibly nice.
Honestly, I wasn’t thrilled about studying in Poland, because according to my older friends’ experiences it was more “profitable” to study in the German Democratic Republic since there you could work during summer holidays and after the studies you could bring home Simpson motorbikes or a nice bicycle. From the Soviet Union you could bring, fridges, irons, electric pots (pressure cookers) or some other house goods. From Poland you could only bring … books. A far as I remember our teacher Mr T. managed to bring a bicycle. I think it was Wilga. I accepted my “fate” since in order to change the decisions from the higher up (who would study where)you were supposed to have some strong support, particularly you had to have some connections in the Ministry of Higher Education in Vietnam, and I didn’t have those connections. In other words, I didn’t have any influence on what and where I will study. Why should I bother about trifles like that when the parties and the Vietnamese Government thought everything through and decided for us. Our only job was to study hard, nothing else.
Poland in Vietnamese is “Ba Lan”. In the Ba Lan I group there were 20 of us. We were all civilians, because in the Ba Lan II group there were only army men, who would study in Poland at Military University of Technology in Warsaw or at Gdynia Maritime University. In our Foreign Language College in Hanoi, apart from the two “Polish” groups there were: “GDR”, “Hungarian”, “Bulgarian” etc. Naturally, the most frequent groups were the “Russian” ones, because many Vietnamese students studied Russian in order to attend universities in the brotherly Soviet Union.
I knew Russian a little because throughout my secondary school we had obligatory Russian lessons, there was no choice (when it came to languages). In different secondary schools there were other languages, English, French but not many others. It is one of Vietnam’s education and maybe political systems’ problems, because too many Vietnamese knowing Russian language or having studied in the Soviet Union, now have a huge sentiment to Russia, and as follows to W. Putin, they don’t contemplate the president’s actions.
In Hanoi, apart from learning Polish we had three other faculties: math, physics and chemistry. When it comes to Polish, we generally learned grammar and when it came to speech and any accents we were pretty weak. That is why after a year of study when we arrived to Poland hardly anybody could communicate with Polish people.
Taught by my experiences in the secondary school I decided not to take part in the educational rat race, I didn’t try to be the best all the time, it resulted in some students having better results than me. I remember professor T. saying there were some students with great potential who regretfully didn’t use it.
We were supposed to learn Polish for a year more in the prestigious Foreign Language Study Centre in Lodz, it was planned in advance. However, just as we arrived in Poland the University of Curie Skłodowska in Lublin (UMCS) opened a similar Foreign Language Study Centre, as a result we ended up in Lublin. We were special, only our year.
As we arrived to Poland, there came huge changes in all our lives. 1980. The time of Solidarność (Solidarity – Polish trade union).
To be continued
By Ngo Hoang Minh
Translation Dominika Chmielewska