Vietnamese Oxford valedictorian gives up dream life to be ‘blissful warbler’

'They would say I’m crazy and isolated, but what’s wrong if I keep on singing?'

Nguyen Chi Hieu is applauded by his classmates at the graduation ceremony of his MBA class at Oxford University in England in 2016.

Declining a prospective teaching job at Oxford University in England to pursue his vision of renovating Vietnam’s education, one Vietnamese scholar is unapologetically defiant of social norms.

Nguyen Chi Hieu, 33, made local headlines five years ago when he opted to return home after earning a PhD in economics at Stanford University in the U.S. at the age of 27, leaving behind a six-figure salary on foreign soil despite fierce objection from family members.

“If I had stayed in the U.S., I would have been able to envision clearly how my future would be,” Hieu said in an exclusive interview with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper. “Vietnam promised much more uncertainty, and I have always had a thing for unknown risks and challenges. That’s why I came back.”

In 2015, not long after his return, Hieu made another surprising decision – opting to take an MBA course at Oxford University in the UK just shortly after having secured a comfortable job with a decent salary in his home country.

“I was sort of reaching my mid-life crisis at the time: I was the center of media attention; parents were familiar with my name; and I was quite popular among my colleagues in the field of education,” Hieu admitted. “Going abroad for study, in a way, was my way out of those pressures.”

But Hieu said the predominant reason for his departure was a quest for answers - “Is what I’m doing what I truly love? If I stay, will it make a difference for future generations?”

Prior to attending Oxford, Hieu said he worried that he would grow jealous of his friends’ success and wealth while he was still pursuing his education. He feared that envy would somehow change him.

“Since coming back from Oxford, I haven’t felt such self-pity, since my outlook on happiness and success and my measurement of life values has changed,” Hieu explained. “I no longer think fame and social status are synonymous with success and happiness.”

The Binh Dinh Province-born man attributed his shift in life perception to the times he spent digesting countless books on psychology, history, education, business, and start-ups in the Oxford library, where he always felt more at home than inside lecture halls listening to CEOs from giant corporations giving inspirational speeches.

“I don’t find myself in their image,” Hieu said. “I felt alienated and uncomfortable among fancy suits and luxurious cars.”

When he was left with his books, the same questions kept springing up in his head: “Why can’t the people of my country write books of such significance? Why can’t Vietnamese students enjoy such education?”

It was those unanswered questions that prompted Hieu to return to Vietnam against objections from family members and a barrage of questions from his colleagues.

Their objection and curiosity were just, for returning to Vietnam would mean declining the job as a professor of economics at Oxford, which was offered to Hieu after he graduated top of his class in 2016.

Since establishing an education institute in Hanoi that specializes in teaching science, art, and English to Vietnamese children, Hieu said he had been touched many times by the improvement in his students' way of thinking, which he believes is more important than pure knowledge.

Hieu considers himself a warbler, a interesting analogy made by a colleague who compared his life choices to a lonesome warbler singing in a quiet corner at a sold-out concert.

“They would say I’m crazy and isolated, but what’s wrong if I keep on singing?” Hieu said. “Those who don’t like you may never like you, but if you don’t sing, how will people that like your music know about you and connect with you?”

“What I do is exiguous, like placing a few bricks in the foundation of a house,” Hieu added. “But I believe they are the crucial bricks. The conquest of any journey begins with taking the very first steps. And I believe that I’m a blissful warbler.”

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