Thoughts from a Novice Teacher in Vietnam

Many people have asked me to write a little bit about what teaching is like abroad, and how I like working with students here in Vietnam. To be perfectly honest, I waver from day to day on how much I enjoy it and how confident I feel in my ability to effectively teach, but I have always felt that my students are by far the best part of my job.

A little background – I am a teacher at private English center here in Can Tho. This means that I only teach speaking and listening, and that I am not asked to grade my students on their work. They are here purely in an extra curricular or supplemental capacity. And while not having to grade papers is pretty awesome, I think my favorite part of this is that I can interact with my students in a much less formal way, and I don’t feel guilty for going out for coffee with students, or agreeing to spend time with them outside of class.

Participating in an English club at the university
Participating in an English club at the university

My students also tend to be close to me in age, and many of them are relatively good at speaking and understanding English – none of my students are absolute beginners. So, put simply, I can relate to these people, and I can be understood more often than not. Sometimes this makes me uncomfortable, when I my students are significantly older than me, or if they are majoring in English education, I wonder what qualifications I could possibly have to lead their class. But even those who might otherwise criticize my methods or experience seem to feel satisfied that they are able to speak with a native speaker, and after all, that’s why I’m here. This feeling of inadequacy, while uncomfortable, does push me to improve my teaching techniques and work to earn the respect of both the class and my peers.

But what exactly are my classes like? Well, for the most part my center asks that I teach to their prepared materials. This means I lead a lot of discussions, listening exercises, and role-plays. When time allows, or when I’m feeling particularly unimpressed by the materials, I will substitute or pad my classes with games and original activities. As I grow more and more comfortable in the classroom, I find myself planning more original lessons and stepping away from the books, which are often amazingly dull. Honestly, no student wants to do six role-play exercises in a row where they practice how to invite someone to a party….

A fun activity from one of my higher level classes - the advantages and disadvantages of different accommodations. Their answers were pretty great...
A fun activity from one of my higher level classes – the advantages and disadvantages of different accommodations. Their answers were pretty great…

Now, some days my lesson plans are more successful than others. Last month I had two classes that were a perfect example of this. Halloween was that week, so naturally I thought this would be a great chance to have some fun and introduce a bit of American culture to the class. For my first class of the week I made a rough plan to talk about Halloween history, go over related vocabulary, and have students write their own 2-sentence horror stories to read aloud. Have you heard of those? They go something like: “The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door.” The concept it fairly simple, and it sounded fun on paper, but the whole thing was a bit lackluster in practice. I was kind of bummed, but was able to bring the class back around at the end with a few tongue twisters, which they LOVE. I introduced them a few weeks back and offered a candy reward for saying them correctly, and now they request a new one every week.

A typical afternoon of lesson planning. Coffee or smoothies are absolutely necessary, of course
A typical afternoon of lesson planning. Coffee or smoothies are absolutely necessary, of course

So yes, Monday’s Halloween lesson was a bit of a bust. But on Wednesday I had my highest level class, and I thought I’d tweak my lesson and give it another shot – the text for this course has only 10 lessons for 12 weeks, so it seemed like as good a time as any to introduce new material and strike out on my own. It started out a bit slow. We discussed the history of Halloween, and I had them describe a costume they would want to wear (this concept was pretty weird to them, and they ended up just describing the character or monster rather than the actual costume, but oh well). I had planned on trying 2-sentence scary stories again, but decided during the class that it wasn’t enough. Instead, I asked the students to write and read aloud their own horror movie scripts. And holy cow, did they go for it! They spent the better part of an hour writing and rehearsing, asking for the necessary vocab and practicing their scary voices. One group improvised their own props, and decided on their own to make it a skit, rather than popcorn reading as I had originally intended.

When it was time for them to perform, they insisted we dim the lights to create the proper setting, and then went all out. They did voices, props, seriously cheesy acting, and one group even found a sound bite on his phone of a beating heart to play when the scene was getting tense. And all this from a class who, just weeks ago, I could barely get to answer any questions. Their stories were creative and their English was pretty solid, and it was amazing to see them so excited to do anything class-related.

The whole class
The whole class

At the end of class I gave out candy and turned to leave, but everyone insisted that we take photos to celebrate. Now, this is not particularly unusual – students ask to take photos with me waaaaaay more often than is warranted, and I usually feel weird about it. But that day I gave in, and we took our share of silly photos. I even asked them to get a few on my camera, and you can see them below. It was an awesome class, and a great motivator for me to step up my lesson planning.

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Each group wanted their own photo
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Scary faces!
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More scary faces

Since then I’ve had a few good classes, a few not so great ones, and I continue to learn from my experiences. I’m lucky to have a group of friends here who are also teachers, and we spend a lot of time comparing lesson plans and helping each other improve. Overall, teaching is more fun than I would have thought, and I’m glad to be in an environment where I can experiment and learn, and hopefully help others do the same.

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A Weekend in Chau Doc

If you remember way back to August, you may recall that a chance encounter lead me to meet Rob (a doctor in Seattle), who in turn connected me to Mr. Quang (the director of Gia Viet Center), and that’s how I ended up here in Vietnam. Well, last week Rob made his semi-annual trip to Can Tho with his Medical Education Exchange Team – a group of doctors from the united states and other Western countries who come to Vietnam for a week to lead classes at the local medical university. I had planned on getting dinner with Rob and our mutual friend Trang on Tuesday, before he left Can Tho, but at the last minute he invited me to go with him and a few others on a trip to An Giang province. Having no plans for the weekend and a nose for travel, I said yes.

After teaching my university class on Saturday morning, I met up with the doctors at their hotel and set out on a chartered van for Chau Doc – a city on the border of Cambodia. I actually had only a vague idea where we were going when I agreed to the trip, and was a little surprised to find, once solidly en route, that the trip would be two nights rather than one. This worked out fine, since I didn’t have class until Monday night, but it was a bit of a funny surprise. Thank god for my flexible teaching schedule and my instinct to over-pack!

Arriving in Chau Doc
Arriving in Chau Doc

The ride to Chau Doc was pleasant, and the doctors were all very friendly. I haven’t spent much time with non-teachers in a while, so it was interesting to hear a very different perspective on traveling and working in Can Tho. Many of the doctors have been coming to Vietnam for several years, and it sounds like the area has changed greatly in the past decade. Listening to everyone talk also gave me a serious appreciation for my own situation. Being able to live and work in the same place for an extended time has allowed me to peek a little beyond what is usually shown to passing foreigners. Many of the doctors were amazed by my observations of students and daily life, which seemed very obvious to me. While these people have been traveling to Can Tho off and on for the past several years, spending a week in a place still limits your perception, as does being so obviously foreign, and staying in the “touristy” area of town. While I have by no means “figured out” life here, I’m glad that I’ve been given an opportunity to get to know this place and the people here a little better, and sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that this is not the norm.

Anyway, after several hours in the van we made it to Chau Doc as the sun was setting. Our hotel was on top of a mountain (well, more like a foothill) and even in fading light, we could tell the view was going to be spectacular. We ate dinner in the hotel, and afterward we said our goodbyes to several of the doctors who would be leaving for Cambodia in the morning.

Sunrise over Chau Doc
Sunrise over Chau Doc

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The next day I had a lovely breakfast and took in the spectacular views of Chau Doc. While I’m definitely not a morning person, it was worth waking up to take in the sights, and also to have a western-style breakfast. They had croissants! And omelets! Add to that my usual coffee with condensed milk and I was in heaven.

A Cham Mosque
A Cham Mosque
The whole gang. From left - our hosts at the mosque, Cyrus, Anh, me, Rob, Trang
The whole gang. From left – our hosts at the mosque, Cyrus, Anh, me, Rob, Trang

After breakfast our group headed out on a tour of the area, starting with a trip to a local mosque. The Mekong Delta has a wide variety of people of varying ethnicities and religions, and in Chau Doc there happens to be a large Cham population, who are predominantly Muslim. According to the man who gave us a tour, the mosque was sponsored by a group in Saudi Arabia, and had recently been rebuilt, since the original building was badly damaged during the rule of the Khmer Rouge in nearby Cambodia. The building was beautiful, and after being shown around we hopped on a boat for a tour of the lake.

Our boat for the morning
Our boat for the morning
We were given neon orange hats from the tour group.
We were given neon orange hats from the tour group.

The boat ride was very nice, and extremely sunny. We passed by many floating houses, duck farms, and a few other boats. We came within one kilometer of Cambodia, then turned around and headed back towards the mosque. Once securely on dry land we walked a local home for a “homestay” meal. The whole concept of this confused me a bit. The family prepared a feast of Vietnamese dishes and served us, while they stayed in the kitchen and said little more than two words to the group. Don’t get me wrong, the food was fantastic, and it was interesting seeing a local home, but it felt strange being served in someone’s home. The food wasn’t Cham food either, just what the tour company had decided we would like (and we did – it was delicious). But I walked away feeling like I had just walked into the museum version of someone’s house. It was… odd, to say the least.

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But moving on, after lunch we drove into the mountains to visit the “Happy Buddha.” I’m still not exactly sure what the religious significance of this particular site was, but there was indeed a very large Happy Buddha, and several pagodas. It was all very beautiful, and driving up and down the mountains was lovely.

You can see the Happy Buddha from quite a distance...
You can see the Happy Buddha from quite a distance…

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Pagodas on the lake
Pagodas on the lake

To end the day we stopped by a bird sanctuary at dusk, and took in a boat ride through the mangroves. It was a pretty surreal experience.

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The next day we all returned to Can Tho by bus, and I made it home in time to eat lunch with my friends and lesson plan for my evening class. All in all, a very interesting weekend. I had a lovely time getting to know Rob and his friends Cyrus and Anh, and I’m glad I had a chance to see another part of Vietnam.

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Details from a pagoda
Details from a pagoda
Passing by a statue of Guan Am
Passing by a statue of Guan Am
Bags and bags of rice - we arrived during harvesting season
Bags and bags of rice – we arrived during harvesting season

Tra Vinh, Part 2!

You may recall a few weeks ago I did a post about my trip to Tra Vinh. While I was there, I met Lâm, a friend of Peter’s, who invited me to go to his wedding. At first I thought he was just being polite because he was asking several people around me at the time, but that’s the thing about Vietnam – invitations here tend to be sincere. I’ve had students offer to host me in their hometowns or take me out for coffee, and while at first I just went, “yeah, that sounds great! Maybe sometime…” I soon began to realize that they all really meant it, and have since tried to be more sparring in my acceptance of offers.

But anyway, the wedding! Peter and Marc were going as well, and since my only weekend class is on Saturday morning, I thought it would be fun. Lâm is a really nice guy (according to the 1 time I met him, and also what my friends have told me), and I figured this wasn’t an opportunity I’d get again. I haven’t been to many weddings, even in the US, so I was very curious to see what they were like in Vietnam. We also learned that that weekend was the Ok Om Bok festival, a Khmer holiday celebrated with boat races. The timing was great, and we decided to stay an extra night to see the races, and return to Can Tho on Monday in time to teach in the evening.

Happy Halloween! I'm "Lorde of the Flies" and my friend Gabi is a "French Kiss."
Happy Halloween! I’m “Lorde of the Flies” and my friend Gabi is a “French Kiss.”

The date of the wedding was fast approaching, but first we had to celebrate Halloween! A friend threw a Halloween/birthday party on that Friday. I’m a little ashamed to say my costume was most definitely born out of laziness, although I was pretty pleased with the result. You can take a look at the picture above – I dressed as “Lorde of the Flies” (a double pun on the book and the pop star), and my friend, Gabi, is dressed as a “French Kiss,” as she is French.

The Can Tho "family" all together to celebrate Sarah's birthday (next to me) and Halloween, of course
The Can Tho “family” all together to celebrate Sarah’s birthday (center) and Halloween, of course

Anyway, while I had planned on being mature and responsible, I ended up having a bit more fun than I had anticipated, and before I knew it it was 1am. I left the party with Peter, my housemate, and a friend who was out too late to return to her house, as her parents were already asleep. Fun fact – most Vietnamese women live with their parents until they are married. Many of them express frustration at this, but it’s generally an accepted reality. But our friend’s family was a bit less strict, and so she decided to spend the night on our extra mattress. We spent some time chatting on our balcony, and once again I was shocked by the time. I think I finally got to bed around 3am.

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So this is a very long way of saying that I was not exactly thrilled to wake up early and teach on Saturday, or to spend 3 hours on a bus. In the end, it was all fine. My class was planned enough that it worked well, and I was feeling almost myself again by the time we headed out to the bus. We arrived in Tra Vinh that afternoon without much trouble, and headed to our friends’ guest house to get ready for the wedding. It wasn’t exactly a long-awaited reunion, since our friends had come to Can Tho the weekend before, but it’s always fun to see Selina and Caroline. We dressed up and called a cab, and then waited for almost 40 minutes.

The bride and goom entering the wedding hall
The bride and groom entering the wedding hall

We arrived at the wedding late, and ran into the bride and groom taking pictures outside the hotel. Oops! But they were just excited to see us, and we got pulled into a few photos, which was fun. Once inside we quickly realized that our tardiness meant we would not be able to sit together. Whoops! Selina, Marc and I ended up at a table with a group of Vietnamese people sipping sodas, while pretty much every other table was drinking beer like it was a competition. Beers were swiftly delivered to the table, and it appeared we were meant to take part. But before that, it was time for the wedding to start. The bride and groom entered the room and took a short procession around the tables and onto the stage, where they were met with a confetti/sparkle bomb. A few things were said in Vietnamese, there was a short ceremony where the parents drank something out of a plastic champagne flute, and the bride and groom poured wine over a tower of wine glasses, some of which were filled with dry ice. And then it was over, and it was time to eat.I was shocked by how quickly it all happened, but it was nice.Everyone appeared to be having a good time, and we began “cheers-ing” like nobody’s business. The bride and groom came back to the room after a few courses (the bride wearing a new dress) and stopped by each table to cheers and take photos.

Pouring wine into a pyramid of smoking glasses. Not sure what this was for, but it looked cool.
Pouring wine into a pyramid of smoking glasses. Not sure what this was for, but it looked cool.

Now, while this was happening, my friend Marc had brought along a wedding “gift” – a large bottle of banana wine, or chuối hột. Now, you might be asking – what on earth is banana wine? Well, it’s basically rice wine, like sake or soju, with a banana flavor. I have no idea how it’s made, but I do know that it is STRONG, and that it’s also pretty tasty, or at least it’s smooth. It’s also ridiculously cheap. A liter of banana wine will run you about 25,000 Dong, or a little over a dollar.

From left: Caroline, Selina, Lam (the groom) and me
From left: Caroline, Selina, Lam (the groom) and me

In any case, Marc had a lot of it, and he began sharing it with anyone and everyone he could convince to drink with him. At the same time, we kept getting more and more food, and Selina and I were determined to eat our fill in order to offset the banana wine. The food was tasty, served family-style (as is pretty much everything here), and when it came time for desert we were all given grapes, no wedding cake to be found. This makes sense, since bakeries are the only places in Vietnam that have ovens, and cake isn’t exactly traditional here.

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So with dinner winding down, it was time for the party to start. I was pulled over to several tables to make friends with a group of Vietnamese girls studying English at the university. I’d pick a partner and we would drink “50/50” – one glass of beer, each person has to drink half. This is the culturally accepted way to drink beer in the south, and it was a funny way to meet a bunch of new people.  Add to this a few shots of banana wine, and we had a real party on our hands.

Mot, hai, ba, YO!
Mot, hai, ba, YO!

Now, as soon as the couple finished the ceremony a tv was set up on stage, and people began singing karaoke. This was happening all through dinner, as the couple was making the rounds, and as dinner was cleared. The only ones singing were older men, and they clearly knew all the words by heart – I never once saw them look at the screen.

Karaoke on a glitter-covered stage
Karaoke on a glitter-covered stage

Everyone was getting ready to leave and go to an actual karaoke place, but a few friends took over the TV (hooked up to a computer) and began looking up English songs. It was so much fun – I got up on stage and sang a Hilary Duff song with Selina and Caroline (check out the video below), and at one point all of the English students were calling out for Ke$ha songs, which was awesome. Several songs and a bottle of banana wine later, we were told we had to leave the hotel, and so we walked down the road to find more karaoke.

As I understand it, this is pretty much the go-to activity in Tra Vinh, and people here LOVE to sing. One guy spent probably 10 minutes telling me how much he loved singing, and he was hilariously passionate when he performed.

The bride and groom share a song
The bride and groom share a song

After maybe an hour of karaoke we decided to call it quits. Thankfully this taxi arrived without too much of a wait, and we made it home without incident. Selina and I hung out in her room watching Breaking Dawn Part 2 (it was on HBO) which was hilarious. A great end to a very fun night.

4 hours of musical nostalgia with Marc, Selina and Caroline
4 hours of musical nostalgia with Marc, Selina and Caroline

The next day was pretty quiet. As it turns out, the boat races were actually on Wednesday, not Sunday, and we wouldn’t be able to see them. But that was perfectly fine by us. We all nursed our hangovers in the morning with a bit of pho, and we spent the afternoon having a sing-along while Marc played guitar. I think we actually spent 4 hours just playing music, and it was all hilariously emo songs we liked in high school. An awesome bonding moment. The night came to a close with seafood dinner and a few rounds of pool, and we returned to Can Tho early Monday morning. All-in-all, it was a very fun weekend.

Until next time, Tra Vinh!

But I Swear I’m Healthy! Health Checks in Vietnam

Now that I’ve been living here for over two months, the time has come to begin preparations to renew my visa, which is set to expire at the end of November. Since the new visa will be a full year rather than three months it is quite a bit more complicated to get than the one I arrived with, so I was thrilled when my colleagues told me the center would handle it. I handed over all documents, signed a few papers, and was told that I would have to get a health check. Or, rather, one day I went into work and was told that I should show up early the next day (my day off) to go to the hospital. Luckily for me, I had heard from Peter that this was something that often happened here, and that I could expect a whole day of fun going from department to department at the local hospital. So, I had at least a little context for what was going to happen.

I showed up to the center at 7:30am the next day, as requested, and then spent maybe 40 minutes hanging out in the office as they called a TA to take me over to the hospital. I was sleepy and a bit grumpy, and we arrived at the hospital to find a huge crowd of people waiting to be seen. We gathered the necessary forms and joined the masses. Half an hour later we squeezed our way into a doctor’s office, where I learned that I had made a rookie mistake by eating breakfast, and they could do nothing for me, so please come back another day. The realization that I had woken up early for nothing did not particularly improve my mood, but I was escorted back to the office, where I rode my bicycle home and promptly went back to sleep. We were going to try again on Monday, after I returned from my trip to Tra Vinh.

I had a great time in Tra Vinh (check out my last post for details), and returned from the weekend a little tired, and with the beginnings of a cold. So when Monday morning rolled around, I was once again not thrilled to wake up early. This time I had decided to eliminate the middle man, and had the TA, Phuc, come pick me up from my house, rather than biking to work to meet him. We made it to the hospital, found our forms, and he asked me if I had a visa photo with me. Nope, no visa photos, no passport. Time to get back on his motorbike and go to the office, where I had dropped off all of my important documents to be processed for my visa, and naturally it had not occurred to anyone (myself included) that these might be good to bring with me.

Visa photos in hand, passport information recorded, we once again returned to the hospital. We talked to the doctor and found out that I had made a mistake on the form, which had asked for both my age and birth date. While I’m pretty clear on the answers to both these questions normally, I had forgotten that in Vietnam, age is counted by year, not date. So while I’m technically still 23 and will be for the next month, in Vietnam they would count my age as 24. So, naturally, we had to go get a new form and fill it out again.

Armed with the proper forms, it was time for the real fun to begin. Over the next several hours Phuc lead me from room to room, floor to floor, to have all manner of tests and examinations performed. This included blood work, an x-ray, ultrasound, pregnancy test, and some strange exam that involved me stripping and having suction cups placed all over my chest. We spent a lot of time waiting to see each doctor, and I found myself wondering what the point of each examination was. If we had to wait more than 5 minutes I found myself nodding off, which was probably frustrating for my poor TA.

By noon we had completed all but four of the required examinations, and we were excited to be so close to finished. Phuc explained that he had an afternoon class and really needed to be done by 1:30, and I had an evening class to plan, not to mention a nap I desperately wanted to take.

But the universe was not on our side. Vietnamese hospitals, like most other businesses, shut down between roughly noon and 2 for lunch, since most people return home to eat with their families. We decided it made no sense to sit and wait, and besides, neither of us had eaten anything yet. Phuc took me out for hủ tiếu (a type of noodle soup), and dropped me back at my house. We would return to the hospital at 2:30 and hope for the best.

Naturally, once we returned to the hospital we found that the doctors leave after 3pm, so we were once again asked to come back another day. Both of us were exhausted and more than a little frustrated, but what can you do? We returned early Tuesday morning for the final tests, and after another three hours of going from department to department, I received my full medical form, and was told I could keep the x-ray of my chest. Lucky me.

Now that I’ve had a bit of distance from the event, I can look back and laugh at the absurdity of it. I mean, this was probably the most extensive health check I’ve ever had, and I have no idea what the results were. Fingers crossed they’re good enough to get me a new visa, haha! And I’m glad I had Phuc there with me to translate and help me figure out what was going on, even if he was a bit traumatized by having to buy a pregnancy test.

In the end it really wasn’t all that bad, and if this is what it takes to stay in Vietnam, I’ll gladly pay the price.