Lose To Win is a series of inspiring success stories that arose from life-changing sacrifices.
I remember when attending school, getting a perfect 10 in Literature was a dream that I and most of my friends could not reach. It became harder to reach when I was finishing university - getting a perfect score for my thesis was almost impossible to attain.
Yet for Etienne Mahler, a German national living in Vietnam for nearly seven years, achieving these scores has become sort of natural - like he was destined to be a “real” Vietnamese. Maybe it was because Etienne truly loved being in Vietnam. To know more about his new home, Etienne proceeded to take up Vietnamese Studies - which he undoubtedly excelled at. His thesis of more than 700 pages (127 pages of main essay and more than 600 pages of appendices), written in straight Vietnamese, has earned him not just a perfect score but a profound respect from his friends and professors who saw his incredible fondness for the Southeast Asian country.
Etienne is a language enthusiast, passionate about discovering human culture and beauty. Letting his curiosity and inquisitive nature guide him, he walked on paths he never thought he’d take. During this trip, what did Etienne have to leave behind?
Why did you choose to study and live in Vietnam?
This is purely a coincidence. In 2014, thanks to the student exchange program between the University of Göttingen and the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, VNU Hanoi, I had the opportunity to interact with Vietnamese culture and people. I had fallen in love with Vietnam ever since. Then I decided to leave everything in Germany to come to and stay in Vietnam.
Actually, before that time, I didn’t have any specific visualization about Vietnam.
I just found my life at that time was operating in a rather boring process, so I wanted to do something different. When I came here, I also had a little culture shock, because I was used to arranging everything in order, so that the daily tasks operated like a system. The Vietnamese way of life is the opposite, extremely comfortable and flexible, and it has somewhat influenced me.
Vietnamese people often believe in the word “duyên” (predestined), that all encounters in our lives are already arranged. Do you believe that coming and staying here is also a predestined thing?
I will “say yes” to this. I am quite fortunate to be accepted and loved by so many people. I found my lover, made many new friends, and I also learned to appreciate cultural differences.
There is this story that I found very lovely. Not long after I came here, I visited a friend’s house and talked with my friend’s mother. I told her about my aspiration to stay in Vietnam to study and work. After listening to it, she went to talk to the building manager, then came back with a sad face and said: “They won’t let me adopt you.” It turned out that she loved me so much that she wanted to adopt me as her child.
As a foreigner, do you have any certain advantages when studying in Vietnam?
I think I have a little advantage when studying Philosophy. In Germany, I had access to subjects related to Philosophy from a very early age.
However, there are still differences in the curriculum of both countries. Philosophy in Vietnam often tends to offer a specific solution. Meanwhile, philosophy in Germany does not aim at finding out the right and wrong of the problem, but the journey of analysis and finding the answer.
When faced with a “philosophical” question, we have to analyze all aspects of the problem, discuss with many people, and accept different streams of thought. In the end, the answer may still be open, but I am no longer looking at the original problem as a cold question on paper, but looking at a big picture of society and people.
Let’s talk about your thesis that got a perfect score. What was it about?
At first, I chose the topic “The difficulties of the Vietnamese Government in the prevention of COVID-19”, but I could not get a clear goal and direction to write that thesis. Moreover, at that time, Vietnam had already well implemented measures to prevent the pandemic.
When I switched to the topic “Digital Education at USSH-VNU: Current state of expectations and development orientation,” I saw more clearly the practicality and potential of what I was writing and researching. Online education is not only a matter of pure technology, but also the matter of teaching, how to acquire and apply knowledge after attending online lectures.
Online education has long been a trend in the world, there are also many documents available on digital education, but distilling and applying it to the Vietnamese context is a very different story.
In addition to Vietnamese, you also know a little Chinese, Italian, and French. What opportunities has learning multiple languages opened up?
When I first learned about philosophy, I began to question the way people think, like a problem that is viewed differently when placed in different social contexts. Then I chose to learn languages as the first step to learn about the world.
Learning a language, to me, is like opening the door to new cultures, to understand how indigenous people think, and to enrich my inner soul. That is also the reason why I chose to go to Vietnam instead of France or England, since these two countries have similar cultures to Germany.
If not English or Vietnamese, I would choose to learn Japanese or Spanish.
Is leaving Germany to live in Vietnam the most difficult thing that you have to leave behind?
Absolutely not. I consider leaving my hometown and moving to Vietnam the easiest thing to do. The most difficult thing is to leave behind negative emotions with family and relatives.
I have lived with my father since I was a child. My father was a baker, but he spent most of his day at the bakery. I think due to the influence of the breakup with my mother, my father often vented his hateful emotions on himself and his child. Because of the high walls we’ve built between us, I could barely connect and speak to my father. There was a time when I turned to addictive substances to temporarily relieve myself from sadness.
After I moved out at the age 18, the opportunity for a father and son to talk and correct mistakes was almost gone. When my father passed away, I took care of the funeral. His side of the family at that time also had many disputes related to my father’s inheritance. I was so tired and could not stand that, so I decided to stay out of that “war” and leave everything behind.
The biggest difficulty so far is to untie the ropes that have tied my inner self up in my younger years. When I finally did it, I gained the independence and freedom that I always wanted.
Is there anything that you regret giving up?
My ex and I had been with each other for eight months, but from the very beginning, I already vaguely felt the difficulty for us both to connect. Even when our problem grew, I was still determined to hold on and thought that everything had a way out, partly because I personally hated to give up.
I do not regret that this love story did not come to a happy ending. I only regret that I did not say goodbye sooner.
Of course, I don’t let this mistake affect the way I love. Even if I meet other people in the future, I will still take care and try to hold on to them, just like how I learned to love this land.
Being in love with Vietnam like this, if you are “forced” to return to Germany and can only bring back two things from Vietnam, which will you choose to bring?
First is my current lover, and the second is a cup of Vietnamese coffee.
Which color will you choose to describe Germany and Vietnam, except for the flag colors?
Germany is my home, but Germany also reminds me of my loss, so I will choose gray or silver. Of course, it’s also a country worth living in, and magic is everywhere. Looking at its positivity, perhaps the seven colors of the rainbow are enough to describe Germany.
Vietnam is a dynamic, young country with great potential for development. The most suitable color is green. I liken it to a fresh, blooming tree that protects all living things living in it.
If you could change one thing in Vietnam, what would it be?
Please let me choose two. One change for Vietnam, and one for myself.
In my eyes, the gap between rich and poor in Vietnam is clearly shown. Some people are too rich to buy a few apartments in the city center, but some are so poor that they can’t pay their own rent, and always have to worry about what to eat the next day. I hope the social security policies are improved, and the health system in Vietnam is guaranteed to provide enough for everyone.
After World War II, Germany also fell into a terrible disparity between rich and poor, but gradually the government succeeded in improving people’s lives. Looking at what the Vietnamese government is doing, I believe things will get better in the not too distant future.
And the second, small thing, is that I hope my immigration documents and procedures go smoothly, so that I can continue to study and live in Vietnam.
Adapted by Thao Van