Those Crazy Kids

One day I brought my camera to school and spent a good chunk of educationally unproductive time just letting some of my students do whatever they wanted. Some were camera shy, some were indifferent and some took the opportunity to take center stage.

When you’re not trying to teach them about gerunds, agreement or proper usage of prepositions, the kids are generally receptive, mostly happy, a little crazy, usually curious, surprisingly smart, mostly shy and secretly yearning for things they can’t even describe — or don’t even know exist. General early education in Vietnam is in its infancy, with the idea of public schooling being so new that most students haven’t even been taught the fundamentals of how to learn. Getting them to repeat simple vocabulary words is a small victory; getting them to repeat multiple sentences (or, miraculously, come up with their own) is a major coup. The worst part? Many students are taught English by non-native “English teachers” who can’t even form correct sentences themselves (thus making them even more grossly overpaid than I). Such is today’s sadly desperate state of English education in Vietnam.

Oddly enough (having been taught the fundamentals by their Vietnamese teachers), many students’ grasp on basic grammar is eerily on point (and some of the young kids are pretty precocious), leaving pronunciation and fluency as the most difficult challenges. This is due in large part to the fact that the English and Vietnamese languages are, in my mind, almost polar opposites of each other. For example: in Vietnamese, descriptors typically come after nouns (“dog black”), whereas in English they typically come before (“black dog”); English tends to emphasize the pronunciation of word endings, Vietnamese tends to drop them; Vietnamese has no plural nouns and no articles before nouns (or most any of those other pesky little words), whereas English has a grip. These are just a few of the big differences, and for many students they are unnatural and confounding obstacles.

Still, the rewards come steadily enough — when they “get it” it’s magical — and the whole experience of teaching has made me look at English (and language in general) in a whole new light.

I’m less ambitious than I was at the beginning — having set aside all my grand plans that seven months in seem totally ridiculous — and I’ve begun to resign myself to the simple (though sometimes still vexing) pleasure of just teaching what I love. It is, as with most things in life, a work in progress.


View With a Room

From the fifth-floor roof of my apartment building one can see in every direction, though downtown Saigon is not quite visible through the distance and the haze of pollution. After the sun goes down, the neighborhood becomes lively for a few hours — chatter from the street, shouting from the soccer match down the block, motorbikes coming in from the day and going out for the night, planes landing and taking off at the nearby airport, the erratic crackle of the neighbor’s bug zapper — and then it goes quiet. The tranquility that drifts up to the roof after 10 p.m. is both soothing and dissonant — dissonant that somewhere in this cacophonous city of millions one can still find some peace and quiet.


Where do you live?

I live in Go Vap, a suburb of Saigon, north of the city proper and about 10 minutes from the airport. Across the alley from my building is a restaurant that serves better-than-average pho for about $1. Along said alley there are sundry shops, laundry services, hair salons, cafes, and motorbike repair shops. On the main road, just a quick jaunt down the alley, there are grocery stores; more cafes; great restaurants; banks; banh mi and bun bo carts; fruit stalls; cell phone, stereo, and laptop shops; fashion boutiques; and plenty of local flavor. A public swimming pool is visible from the roof just a few blocks away, but due to the maze-like nature of the surrounding alleys and sub-alleys, no one in the house knows how to get there.

Who do you live with?

I live with 16 other expats, plus the owner of the house and his Vietnamese wife. The nationalities of the expats include Irish, English, Belgians, French, Americans, Australians and Canadians — and everyone is an English teacher. The house is called the Saigon Workers Resort and it acts as a staging base for foreigners trying to make a go at living in Vietnam.

What’s the weather like?

Slightly muggy, a bit breezy, 75 to 90 degrees (F) during the day, cool at night. The sky is clear some days, but for the most part there is a constant overcast of smog. There has been only the occasional rain storm so far, but the wet season will be gearing up in a couple of months, at which point I’m told the whole city simply resigns to being in a constant state of damp-to-drenched.

What’s it like teaching English?

Not like what I expected. I work for an agency that contracts me out to private schools around the city. Right now I teach at a primary school, working with first through fourth graders, and I will soon be picking up two high school classes. My schedule is set, but it’s not 9-to-5, and I work about 17 hours a week (most teachers don’t push more than 25 hours a week). The commutes can be challenging, depending on the time of day, but being stuck in traffic provides more than enough eye candy to break up the monotony of being stuck in traffic. I am probably grossly overpaid considering my qualifications, but Saigon is desperate for English teachers and because I’m a native speaker a premium is paid merely for my classroom presence (more on teaching later).

What’s your favorite day-off activity?

Getting lost. There is nothing more exciting than jumping on my motorbike, picking a direction, and heading out into the streets of Saigon to discover new neighborhoods and the ever-elusive better cup of cafe sua da. Of course, without a smartphone equipped with GPS and Google Maps, this undertaking would be madness, so perhaps the phrase “getting lost” is a bit of an exaggeration.