THU THUA, Vietnam
Sometimes you see your own country more sharply from a distance. That's how I felt as I dropped in on a shack in this remote area of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
The head of the impoverished household during the week is a malnourished 14-year-old girl, Dao Ngoc Phung. She's tiny, standing just 4 feet 11 inches and weighing 97 pounds.
Yet if Phung is achingly fragile, she's also breathtakingly strong. You appreciate the challenges that America faces in global competitiveness when you learn that Phung is so obsessed with schoolwork that she sets her alarm for 3 a.m. each day.
She rises quietly so as not to wake her younger brother and sister, who both share her bed, and she then cooks rice for breakfast while reviewing her books.
The children's mother died of cancer a year ago, leaving the family with $1,500 in debts. Their father, a carpenter named Dao Van Hiep, loves his children and is desperate for them to get an education, but he has taken city jobs so that he can pay down the debt. Therefore, during the week, Phung is like a single mother who happens to be in the ninth grade.
Phung wakes her brother and sister, and then after breakfast they all trundle off to school. For Phung, that means a 90-minute bicycle ride each way. She arrives at school 20 minutes early to be sure she's not late.
After school, the three children go fishing to get something to eat for dinner. Phung reserves unpleasant chores, like cleaning the toilet, for herself, but she does not hesitate to discipline her younger brother, Tien, 9, or sister, Huong, 12. When Tien disobeyed her by hanging out with some bad boys, she thrashed him with a stick.
Most of the time, though, she's gentle, especially when Tien misses his mother. "I try to comfort him," she says, "but then all three of us end up crying."
Phung yearns to attend university and become an accountant. It's an almost impossible dream for a village girl, but across East Asia the poor often compensate for lack of money with a dazzling work ethic and gritty faith that education can change destinies. The obsession with schooling is a legacy of Confucianism — a 2,500-year-old tradition of respect for teachers, scholarship and meritocratic exams. That's one reason Confucian countries like China, South Korea and Vietnam are among the world's star performers in the war on poverty.
Phung pleads with her father to pay for extra tutoring in math and English. He explains softly that the cost — $40 a year — is unaffordable.
I wish we Americans could absorb a dollop of Phung's reverence for education. The United States, once the world leader in high school and college attendance, has lagged in both since the 1970s. Of 27 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for which we have data, the United States now ranks 23rd in high school graduation rates.
Granted, Asian schools don't nurture creativity, and Vietnamese girls are sometimes treated as second-class citizens who must drop out of school to help at home. But education is generally a top priority in East Asia, for everyone from presidents to peasants.
Teachers in America's troubled schools complain to me that parents rarely show up for meetings. In contrast, Phung's father takes a day off work and spends a day's wages for transportation to attend parent-teacher conferences.
"If I don't work, I lose a little bit of money," he said. "But if my kids miss out on school, they lose their life hopes. I want to know how they're doing in school."
For all the differences between Vietnam and America, here's a common truth: The best way to sustain a nation's competitiveness is to build human capital. I wish we Americans, especially our politicians, could learn from Phung that our long-term strength will depend less on our aircraft carriers than on the robustness of our kindergartens, less on financing spy satellites than on financing Pell grants.
Phung gets this better than our Congress. Every day, she helps her little brother and sister with their homework first and then completes her own. Sometimes she doesn't collapse into bed until 11 p.m., only to rouse herself four hours later.
On Sundays, Phung sleeps in. As she explained: "I don't get up till 5."
© 2011 New York Times News Service