The Vietnamese Teaching Experience

by Minh T. Nguyen

In the winter of 1999, I had the opportunity to return to Vietnam as a student who grew up all his life in the western world. At that point, I have only seen Vietnam through pictures and imagined it only through the countless stories that my parents have told me. My first trip to Vietnam that I took during my college years, was a trip that has filled me with a lot of respect for my parents, my fatherland, admiration for the country, but at the same time has alienated me for I have learned to be recognized as a “Viet Kieu” and treated as such. Upon returning from Vietnam, I have come to the conclusion that despite the positive things that I have encountered in my motherland, I would not be able to live there for good, for I am too accustomed to the western mentality and luxury. However, since then I have made two additional trips to Vietnam that have changed me profoundly.

The first return to Vietnam was in the summer of 2001, when my college friend and I decided to go to Vietnam to teach English upon college graduation. We knew people in Saigon who were close to our parents, and we were lucky enough that these people were working at the pharmacy university in Saigon. Through email we have accomplished to set up a program that would teach English to pharmacy students for a period of two and a half months, several times a week.

At the same time, through contacts that we happened to have, we have also set up a separate program to teach English to high school students in Hau Nghia, a town near Long An, about two hours away from Saigon. As such, it is one small town that only has one market and two major intersections. We taught children from ages 12 and up. Most of them went to summer school during the time we were in Vietnam.

As we started the programs in both cities at the same time, we were kindly asked to teach yet another set of people in Hau Nghia in the late-afternoon. This group consisted of only Vietnamese English-teachers from all villages around Hau Nghia—some of them driving for an hour to get to Hau Nghia, even. Although we didn’t plan for this program while we were in the States, we had no problems agreeing to this program, as it just seems to be the right thing to do (we later found out that these teachers were required to attend our classes and that they did not do so voluntarily).

Let me start this essay with the group that has touched me the most. The students in Hau Nghia were very smart, attentive, very funny and extremely happy to meet foreigners like me. On the first day, when we showed up in the small classroom, about 50 students have filled the room to its maximum capacity, while other students even stood outside the classroom and peeked in through the doors and windows. With the experience that my friend and I had through various ESL programs that we taught in the States, we quickly started to get to know these wonderful children. Our lessons consisted of reading textbook articles, excerpts from children’s books, pronouncing words, games and lot of simple talking. However, the important thing about teaching these children was not necessarily English, but more importantly a different way of learning. Positive enforcement that has proven to be the best of teaching was lacking in Vietnam. We had a lot of fun with games, gave out candy whenever someone volunteers to participate in class and encouraged them to speak out and even correct us. The concept of correcting the teacher, when she or he is clearly wrong, is very new to them. Vietnamese students, as with most Asian students, are very shy. They were never encouraged to speak out in class because they were afraid of saying something wrong and think that it would be wrong to point out the teacher’s mistakes.

So, while it was a little bit hard to get to know these children at the beginning, it was just a matter of a few days, until this barrier between us fell. With the fun and easy atmosphere we have created through jokes and edutainment-style lessons, we have learned to love them as much as they loved us. They laughed, smiled and made fun of my constant incorrect spelling of the Vietnamese translations, while we had a lot of joy seeing the smile in these children and their completely happiness whenever they say something right.

At the same time, I have also experienced how Vietnamese teachers are treated in Vietnam. Students have much more respect for you and are very attentive. There is even a dress code for teachers! With the summer heat in Vietnam, I have always wanted to go to class with shorts and a shirt, but this was something I only dared in Saigon with the more elder students. Or one time, we ended our class and started packing our materials into our bags. While I was packing the stuff, I realized that all the students were just standing there looking and waiting for me. When we asked them what they were waiting for, we were told that the teachers would have to leave the classroom first, before any student can actually move. I guess it is a sign of respect, but as this was something we did not need, we asked them to forget about this rule and leave whenever class is over.

While teaching children was probably the most fun, teaching the English teachers or the pharmacy students had probably the more lasting effect, as they already had the knowledge, vocabulary and strong grammatical backgrounds. With them, we mostly emphasized on pronunciation. It is quite ironic that we were often still not able to understand what the Vietnamese English teachers were saying, although all the grammar was correct. The adults were a little bit shyer than then kids, and working with them was a little bit different.

Teaching the pharmacy students in Saigon was a good compromise between the two other groups. For one, they were all in our age and had the same inspiration and opportunity about learning as we do. It was more like a student exchange trip, where both parties wanted to learn about each other. We made really close friends with them and often went out for Vietnamese food or Karaoke after class.

So, working with these three groups was perfect in every level. Everything was in place, my friend and I had the time of our lives in Saigon, enjoying giving and learning about our own culture at the same time. However, this happiness quickly ended in the third week, when were notified by the school administrators in Hau Nghia, that we were forbidden to teach there again, due to two reasons. For one, we did not finish the paperwork required by the county to ask for permission to teach in Vietnam. Secondly, we taught two articles that were found inappropriate according Vietnam’s educational system.

This came as a total shock for my friend and myself. While it was true that we have not completely finished our paperwork in Vietnam—simply, as we did not know that we were required to ask for permission by the county as well, since we already had the 100% permission by the city and by the school administrators—it was not comprehendible for us what we could have possibly taught that was considered inappropriate. Nor did we realize that some of the teachers we taught were working for government officials. Please note, that it was not the school administrators’ fault. The administrators we worked with were really touched by us giving up money and time in our only summer after graduation to fly all the way to our roots only to teach. We were treated very well, and working with them was just perfect, as they tried to give us everything we needed to teach. They even picked us up from Saigon on a weekly basis and drove us back. It was the county’s decision to shut us off.

The two articles that were mentioned were an article on superstition from a basic ESL book and another article from the Los Angeles Times about Chelsea Clinton graduating from college. Superstition is according to the Vietnamese government apparently not allowed. However, that article was solely used as a tool to teach English and it even clearly described that superstition is an illusion that people have. The Chelsea Clinton article solely described that she was graduating from college after four years—nothing more.

Understandably so, we were extremely upset and frustrated. We knew that it was not the school’s fault, and these people were literally crying when they tried to tell us the bad news. After I have talked to several people in the city, I finally came to the root of the problem: bribery and jealousy.

Whenever you want to do something big in Vietnam (even if it is for the good of the country), you have to learn how to bribe. That’s not because we were Vietnamese Americans, but simply the fact over there. You have to give unofficial gifts to the people who are in charge in order to make things work. As you can imagine, this is a concept that is new to us. When we came to Vietnam, we brought along two laptops and one personal computer as donations for the two schools we taught at. We gave away the computers not because we had to (again, we did not know there is bribery process involved), but because we wanted to. However, I have been told later that I was “supposed” to give something to the county as well. However, I was completely not aware of this “required” step, nor would I have been willing to do so, even if I knew! Regardless, this have let to the abrupt conclusion of our fairly short program in the little town of Hau Nghia. The most frustrating thing was that we could not do something about it. Fighting for this issue would just worsen the relationship between the city and the county.

On the following day, we entered our classroom for the last time and were supposed to say good-bye to the children. Throughout my life, I have spoken a lot of times at public places, but never in my life was that such a difficult task. The moment I entered the classroom, I felt such a hard burden on my chest. Seeing the kids in tears even before I said a word, almost made me cry as well. Never before in my life, have I ever lost my voice while speaking, and I was shocked to see that I was only able to stay there, mumble a few words until my friend and school administrators took over. I’ll never forget these horrible feeling of helplessness and at the same time being extremely upset about Vietnam’s way of working.

With the cancellation of the two programs in Hau Nghia, we have devoted all our time to the pharmacy students in Vietnam. With more time, I have also started another program teaching basic computer skills with the limited access to computers we had there. As mentioned earlier, we made good friends with these students and still have a good email correspondence between each other.

In the end, we have left Vietnam with an immense new set of experiences and knowledge about our own country. Some of them are negative experience, but most of them were experiences that I will value for life.

My third and most recent trip to Vietnam was in the summer of 2002. I have joined the travel group called “Ve Nguon” whose primary goal is to show you Vietnam and the people and not only the sights and sounds of Vietnam. We have made a cross-country trip with many opportunities to meet up with local students, to mingle with them and to learn about each other. Although, this was probably the touristiest trip from all three trips I took so far, I have learned a great deal about culture and history. We also took the opportunity to meet up with the children of Hau Nghia with whom we have stayed in contact through regular mail.

In conclusion, I have learned that Vietnam is a very rich country. It is indeed a very rich country when it comes to history and culture. However, it faces current problems such as bribery and corruption that make it impossible for altruistic people to do their work. After these trips, I feel an urge in me to help in any way I can. These trips have given me spirit and inspiration to do the things that I do. This is one of the reasons why I got myself involved in the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations. The young Vietnamese Americans—as absolutely arrogant as this sounds—really have the unique opportunity to do so much, because we still have the Vietnamese culture in us, while having the positive properties of the Western culture on top of that. With the best of both worlds, there is great potential for us to not only work for a preservation of culture and history, but also for a betterment of the current system and society of Vietnam and its people, regardless of whether this work will be done in the States or in Vietnam.

When I first returned to Vietnam, I came back with the opinion that despite the positive experiences I had, I cannot see myself living there for good, because I was too used to western mentality and luxury. With my two recent trips and with the inspiration I have gained while getting involved in the strong Little Saigon youth community, I have changed my opinion. I can now see myself living in Vietnam, even if it might be for good, as long as the situation in Vietnam allows me to use my talents and knowledge to give as much as I can and want. While it is not a likely case that I will give up everything that I have built and worked for in the States, I surely think that it is a true possibility. Not only can I see myself returning to Vietnam, I actually feel that is almost an obligation as Vietnamese people to return to Vietnam when there will be a time, where corruption, bribery, inefficiency and human rights violations and business restrictions would not exist. I want to conclude this essay with an advice for the Vietnamese Americans who are about to visit Vietnam. Do not just be a tourist and meet great places without meeting great people. Vietnam is a rich country that you can only comprehend if you live with the people. I often wonder why people pay thousands of dollars to fly to Saigon to go clubbing, if you can do the same back in the States. Be open-minded and learn about your peers. Do something in Vietnam, involve yourself in volunteer work even if you face the current difficulties—only so will you sense a real experience of Vietnam.

- Minh T. Nguyen
July 2002