Coming of Age

Published in the Fall 2010 issue of SSA Magazine

Being a teen in Vietnam isn’t what it used to be—or at least what it seemed to be

In the last 30 years Vietnam has gone from a communist, largely agrarian society ravaged by decades of war to one of the fastest growing economies in the world. In a generation, almost everything has changed, including society’s view of adolescence and of teenagers.

“In 1975, adolescence was conceptualized as a stage that marks a specific level of political maturation of an individual, and the discourse about adolescence explicitly used political jargon,” says Huong Nguyen, A.M. ‘06, Ph.D. ‘10, who studied the issue for her doctoral dissertation and is one of the first people in Vietnam to receive a Ph.D. in social work. In contrast, she says that by 2005, the Vietnamese view of adolescence had been “stripped of its political dimension and modeled after a Western conceptualization.”

The basic American perception of adolescence is a time of searching for one’s identity, of social and sexual maturation, and of “problem” behavior and rebelliousness. now a research assistant professor of social work at San Jose State University, Nguyen says that with the adoption of a market economy and globalization, Vietnam has imported these ideas, as well, although she adds, “each culture will have its own definitions and boundaries regarding what `problem behavior’ is.”

Starting adolescence in America also marks the entry into a vast and lucrative consumer market, and here too, Vietnamese youth are becoming more like their Western counterparts. In Vietnam, Nguyen found that markers of teen interest evolved from Ho Chi minh and other revolutionary icons to figures like Britney spears, David Beckham and Korean movie stars.

Nguyen believes that these kinds of “cultural and societal change really matters when it comes to social work.” Although Americans’ underlying notion of adolescence hasn’t changed much over the last decades, it can differ in subtle but important ways among different socioeconomic and cultural populations— and it certainly is changing in many developing countries such as Vietnam. “When we work with clients who have come of age at different times,” Nguyen says, “we need to take into consideration those perspectives.”

--by David Argentar