In the last 6 six weeks since arriving in Hanoi, Vietnam; I have realised something:
I have never committed myself to do something that I had no idea how to do.
When I arrived my 20-25 year old, mostly male college students, could say ‘Hello’ (they like this one and use it frequently as I walk down the halls), ‘How are you?’ (with the echo of ‘I’m fine, thanks’) and ‘Goodbye teacher!’
I could say less in Vietnamese.
Put those two facts in together in the class room and say ‘TEACH!’ and you’ve got yourself a challenge.
Being a westerner at a university or school in Vietnam is like being famous. You walk out of your room and the students lean out of the four story high yellow building to wave to you with their friendly ‘hel-lo! Hel-lo! He-lo!’. I will never forget the first time I walked into a classroom by myself; the look of excitement as it dawned on them they would have me as their teacher.
Coming to Vietnam and taking this on is truly one of the hardest things I have ever done, just this morning I had a class who looked at me as though I was teaching ancient hieroglyphics rather than ‘How much is this?’. You have your great days and your hard days, and then you have those hilarious moments that make it all worth it.
Like the moment when a class of 20 year old boys get so into a game of English naughts and crosses, that they are pushing and screaming at each other to get out the way. Or the point where they realise instead of saying ‘I’m wearing a shirt’ one of their (male) classmates has declared he ‘likes to wear skirts’ and they roll around like hyenas as you demonstrate, and the joke breaks the language barrier.
But better than that, is the feeling of when they finally understand, and just smile and wait expectantly for more.
I’m not the only one teaching though. Vietnam has taught me some crazy life lessons.
I’ve learnt to cross the road Vietnam style – basically shut your eyes, ignore the traffic and keep walking. I’ve learnt to say ‘No thank-you’ in Vietnamese to the street sellers (and to run away when they don’t give up!). I’ve learnt to navigate the tiny streets of the old quarters and to stop and just look when I see a building or something curious that interests me, not just rush past to the next destination.
I’ve learnt that I’m not a local yet and I don’t understand the culture, but that I want to.
Yesterday when I walked into class tired and, not going to lie, a little grumpy, my students all stood and presented me with a huge bouquet of pink lillies for Vietnamese Women’s Day.
Me to Vietnamese teacher: Did you organise this?
Teacher: No. I don’t know about this.
Almost six weeks in I realise that even though I’m not a local yet, and I’m still pretty lost – I have become part of their lives.
Submitted by: Cath Shelley