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Charmed to Teach You


After eight months as an English teacher in Taiwan, I’d saved my money and had begun tramping around Asia. Five countries later, and a lifetime of wishing to brave VietNam, I found myself in Saigon where, for 50,000 dong ($1=8,000VND) per night, I found a clean, dilapidated character room. A real fixer-upper. The desk lady spoke decent English.

“Do you know where I can teach English?” I asked her.

“Mister Glenn, he from Canada, he live same floor you, room 405, he teacher.”

“Is he in?”

“He no here.”

“If I leave him a note, can you give it to him?”

“No problem.”

Big smile. Rotten teeth. Dentistry is THE growth industry in this part of the world.

“Mr. Glenn,” a Canadian named Glenn Loewen, left a note to meet in the lobby the next day at 1.

Right on time, Mr. Glenn, a generous-in-spirit, middle-aged man, provided the address for his school, and marked its location on the city map in my guidebook.

“Ask for a lady named Kim-Le. She’ll smile the chrome off a bumper,” was the only advice he offered.

During my interview with Miss Kim-Le, I blazed with all my guns: previous teaching experience in a “rich” country, rudimentary Mandarin skills, and rusty French. She offered nine dollars (US) an hour, one more than their usual starting rate.

“I will call you at your hotel when I have a class.”

We shook hands, used up the world’s quota in thank you’s until there was no chrome left on my bumper, and I walked home. The desk girl handed me a piece of paper along with my key.

“You school call. Miss Kim-Le. You have class two days later. Congratulations, Mr. Jim.”

I ran into Mr. Glenn later that night in a bar, and bought him a beer in thanks. An American named Don, law school graduate, concert violinist, and pompous as hell joined our discussion. He had been in VietNam for a year or so, uncommitted to chasing the American Dream. He informed me of his school, and how to find it. The next day I tracked it down, chatted with the school’s director, another American more self-important than Don, and decided to work for Kim-Le.

And so it goes when teaching in Asia. The ostensible required teaching qualifications total two: proof of a degree, which I had but never pulled out of my bag, and to be a native English speaker, which never stopped all the Western Europeans who spoke English so well. Anything extra can get you an extra buck an hour. The unspoken rule is: Caucasians need only apply, however the stance on ABC’s (American Born Chinese, also known as ‘bananas,’ yellow on the outside, white on the inside) has softened.

Teaching in Asia was a challenge and it wasn’t a challenge. Nor was it necessarily about education. The school used a textbook but few teachers, myself included, made lesson plans or engaged in outside the classroom preparation. To be pedantic was the kiss of death. Discussing grammar and structure was lip service.

The greatest challenge was to be entertaining. The students reported that they liked you, which allowed more hours, and dollars, to become available.

The students, who paid to be near foreigners and glean exposure to the other side, spent the majority of each night’s two hours speaking VietNamese unless called upon because “it’s too hard to say it in English.” “But isn’t that why we are here and why you spend all this money?” produced a smile and not much else.

On the first day of a new class, if enrolment was eighteen students, then maybe, if lucky, three showed up with an English/VietNamese dictionary. I would lay out my usual script persuading everyone to either bring his or hers or buy one. Decent Oxford dictionaries were abundant for a few dollars. Excuses alternated from “You’re our dictionary” to “I forgot.”

As I established my existence around the school, I was asked to substitute for one class, a Friday evening. Twenty or so expressionless faces asked the same stock questions: Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married? How long have you been in VietNam? Can you speak VietNamese? Where do you stay? How much salary do you get?

I escaped to the teacher’s room after the protracted two hours expecting to see gallows erected. Before leaving the building however, I was appointed their new teacher by Miss Kim-Le, freshly informed by her paying customer’s report. I shook my head all the way home, changed out of the obligatory shirt and tie, and met Mr. Glenn.

“I know, Mr. Jim,” he said soothingly while ordering two beers, “It happens all the time … and the other way around, too. Don’t forget, there’s a teacher who has suddenly lost a class.”

Two nights later, Sunday evening, three students from the class, with a present in hand, were waiting at my hotel for me to arrive, and would I like to come around by motorcycle for the evening? They politely requested that I change to trousers from shorts and then we could go. Over some wonderful soup that I wasn’t permitted to help pay for, they asked the most intimate, personal questions about past love lives and future plans.

Then, sure enough, just when I felt other classes were going loftily, I’d be replaced. The administration would be sticky sweet with good news, and colder than frozen carbon dioxide with bad tidings.

Over time, I honed my teaching strategy into doing whatever I did in class and let whoever was going to get whatever they were going to get out of it. I didn’t know the most effective way to reach and teach the students. I established a faith that somewhere, somehow, someone in that sea of blank faces was getting something out of the lesson.

Mr. Glenn and I became good friends. We dissected our jobs (like all teachers seem to do) and the English language ad nauseam. One of our favourite philosophical confrontations stemmed from how to speak to our students. Mr. Glenn debated that if the teacher sanitized and watered down the conversation, the students would inevitably fail in a real-life, on-the-street conversation. If the teacher spoke baby talk, then the students wouldn’t be prepared.

I viewed the classroom as a laboratory and a sanctuary. A language is learned one concept, formula, phrase, or word at a time, spinning an interconnecting web as slowly or quickly as the student’s talents and desires dictated. If the teacher skipped stages and leapt to the top of the ability mountain, students became confused, then dizzy, until finally lost.

The Confucian philosophy doesn’t lend itself to training its protégés to learn in concepts, instead preferring a slavish devotion to the teacher and rote learning. An all-too-typical conversation went like this:

Mr.Glenn (to his friend): Hello, Mr. Nguyen, how are you?

Mr. Nguyen: Fine thank you, and you?

Mr. Glenn: I’m well, thank you. This is my friend, Mr. Jim.

Mr. Nguyen: Hello (extending a hand). What’s your name?

The first thought was “He didn’t understand the English word ‘Jim’.” However, VietNamese understand “Mister” because every male was referred to as “Mister (insert name here).” Females were “Miss (insert name here).” The stock response, “Hello. What’s your name?” was robotic, learned by rote through regular school, then night school, summer school, and tutors. Teaching problem-solving, comprehension, and instruction on how to find answers through books and other resources works much more efficiently.

To be fair, English contains more words than any other language. Comprehending by listening for vocabulary is crucial. Sometimes, listening for context is required when, for example, homophones are used. Homophones are words that sound the same, have different spellings, and different meanings. The words know and no confuse. If the teacher asks, “Do you know what day is today?” the student may understand, “Do you ‘no’ what day is today?” The student, not listening for context, thinks the “know” means “no”, as in not. The student misunderstands the entire sentence and responds with a preposterous answer from left field. Then, a confused teacher says, “No” because the exercise is already off its rails.

VietNamese has simpler grammar rules, therefore the student may think the teacher is saying, “Know” as in, “Yes, I know.” The two parties eye each other, waiting for the next move. Nothing happens, the teacher is flustered, the student loses face, momentum is lost, the lesson stalls.

Another scenario has the teacher saying “I know you like English” that may come across to a student as, “I no like you(r) English.” A major misunderstanding looms because the student will clam up in fear of continuing to disappoint the teacher.

Another great conversation:

Foreigner (on the telephone): Is so and so there?

Non-speaker: He not here.

Foreigner: Oh, he’s not there?

Non-speaker: Yes. (As in agreement, “Yes, he’s not here.” In English, to agree, the response is, “No” as in “No, he’s not here.”)

Foreigner: Oh, he is there?

Non-speaker: No.

Foreigner: Oh, he’s not there.

Non-speaker: Yes.

Foreigner: Oh, he is there?

Non-speaker: No.

Foreigner: Wait a second, is he there or not?

Non-speaker: No.

Foreigner: I thought you said he was there.

Non-speaker: Yes, he’s not here.

Foreigner: Oh, forget it.

One of the greatest sins within Oriental cultures is losing face. Teachers wondered “Why don’t they just say ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know’?” Students contended with suffocating pressure that their English will be not just acceptable nor alright nor adequate or even exceptional; only perfection would satisfy. The safer route was to say nothing rather than risk the ridicule of peers ruthless in their scorn. Childish memories were short as the loudest laughers turned into instant bowls of quivering jelly when asked to answer better.

The anniversary celebrating the fall of Saigon was dubbed “Liberation Day.” As this holiday approached, I used the opportunity to initiate conversations in class and, for my own curiosity, investigate how the Saigonese felt about losing the war.

“What will you do for the holiday?” I asked a twentysomething lady.

“I will be happy for Liberation Day.”

“Why do you call it ‘Liberation’ Day?”

“Because this day is when we are not a colony of America.”

“Are you glad the North won the war?”

“No, I don’t like the Communists.”

“Do you wish the Americans won the war?”

“If America won we are not communist country.”

“But the communists ‘liberated’ South VietNam.”

Smiles and giggles broke out. I tried shaking the tree by branching off into a discussion between the differences of democracy and communism but it never took root. One teacher apparently sprouted the same discussion, which resulted in a special teachers’ meeting. A mysterious crossed-armed, sober-faced jasper whose tie was far too big for his suit attended, where the administration ordered, with canyonesque grins, to abstain from such lessons.

A good teacher affects eternity – Chinese Proverb

Balancing out the personal swings in disappointment and puzzlement were the students to whose lives a difference was made. Of the hundreds taught, only four or five became true friends. The pupils who opened up and made themselves available to friendship with “the foreigner” became very close very quickly. Every teacher had her/his own devoted, warm relationships that were true and from the heart. The special students were known because it was their motorcycle the teacher rode when the group went out, or the chat took longer with them in the stairwell while the class remained in waiting.

The look on their faces in class said the message was finding its way in, not in a gooey, star-struck manner, but in the meta-awareness way we know we’re on to something when we’re on to something. It was true, pure, and undiluted, not to be forgotten in a lifetime.

Their loyalty was unparalleled. They would walk through walls of fire in friendship, always a guaranteed “yes” because of a genuine desire to please, harnessing all their might and fury to try and make your life better. Such as waiting to drive you home, collecting their allies in class to take you out, all expenses paid, or seek out what your needs happened to be at the moment and how could they help. Making that difference in just one person’s life makes the whole escapade worthwhile.

A bar with extra nice staff adopted me as their teacher.

“How you say this in English?”

“Napkin.”

“And this?”

“Coaster.”

“What this in English?”

“Bottle.”

“What this?”

“Peanuts.”

Many Vietnamese sounds differ from English, therefore pronunciation was always an adventure. After each new word, the staff would parrot my repeats until my “yes” signaled their successful enunciation. Not a soul could hit the “t” sound in peanuts. To illustrate the circumstance, articulate the word “peanuts” with heartfelt clarity, and omit the “t” sound. Imagine a full bar of foreigners looking over their shoulders wondering what could be going on while a circle of five or six VietNamese young men and women reproduced their new word loudly, over and over, nodding approvingly at their classmates’ apparent success.

And what comes around goes around. Many languages in Asia are tonal. Adding a different inflection, or tone, to the same sound changes the meaning. Mandarin has four tones, VietNamese seven. A favourite student attempted to teach me, “No MSG please” in VietNamese. He held his tact as long as possible, then howled in laughter. The vocabulary was easy enough but apparently my English mouth was programmed to hit the tone to request “No boils on my ass, please.”

Judgement day approached; I’d had enough and wanted to continue travelling. My week’s notice startled the school and jump-started a leak that a second building of classrooms full of shiny, eager faces was to open within the month, putting teachers in short supply. Kim-Le used all her available charm to convince me to stay, then she finally resigned to my imminent departure.

A small farewell of lunch and pastries with the staff and a sweet note that read “A nightingale won’t sing while it’s in a cage” cut the cord. Students held parties and I carried present after present home. Unfortunately, everything except a notebook was useless to my travelling needs. Mr. Glenn relished in his windfall of ties, dress shirts, and ornaments.

A couple of days later, Saigon was done, and disappearing out the back window of a northbound bus.

Being born a native English speaker is equivalent to winning a lottery before you’ve bought a ticket. You carry, without lifting a finger, a portable skill that millions kill themselves to gain and for some, quite literally, their lives depend upon getting. Although venturing to another country to work is a big dare, see it as an extraordinary opportunity, with the broadest definition of extraordinary. In time, after your travelling afar is over, and you have suddenly found yourself back on home turf, you’ll miss the new worlds you discovered, even when you conclude that your unremarkable little hometown had been one of the world’s best-kept secrets.

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