“Helping” to push all my buttons

Boo Boo tea house lights up at dusk.
Boo Boo tea house lights up at dusk.

12/27/14
Note to self: Never face a 7:45a class without at least 2 cups of coffee. And possibly body armor.

Sometimes you think you are learning about another culture, when you are really learning about your own, in contrast. Or worse, you are learning about yourself.

OK, mostly, you learn about yourself—your assumptions, your fears, how much personal space you require, and your level of paranoia.

It’s not always pretty.

The Vietnamese are a very helpful people. They think less about individual needs and more about the needs of family or friends. You never hear, “I want to learn English so I can get a good job and make a lot of money to buy nice things for myself.” If you ask someone why they want to learn English, the most common response is “To make my family proud,” or “So I can support my parents when they are old.” They don’t have the same concept of “winning” or “individual freedom” or “competition” that we do in The States. It’s really beautiful.

And maddening.

When you break a class into teams, it’s entirely possible that they won’t understand “team” in the same way that an American child would. They don’t understand us-against-them. In a competition, they will blurt out the answer for the other side. Constantly! Nothing I say will stop them. Partially they are excited about knowing the answer and partially they want to “help.” With the youngest students, I can only get them to understand “boys against girls.” While they are wildly ecstatic when their team wins, they are almost as happy if they don’t.

I should celebrate that kind of attitude in children! So why does my American upbringing push me to explain the importance of competition and winning? I don’t consider myself competitive, yet this is a problem I’ve had to face. I’ve almost had to cover my mouth so I wouldn’t say, “You idiot, you just gave the other team the answer! You lose!” AS IF WINNING (rather than learning) WAS THE IMPORTANT PART! What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with America? Should we really be “educating” these kind folks when we need so much help ourselves? I’ve had to take a strong look at all my teaching activities to downplay the competition aspect and foster the “working together” part.

BUT “Helping” gets to be a real problem during a test. While students understand that cheating is bad, they do not see it as cheating if they tell a classmate the answer to a question on the test. To them, this is helping. It’s clear that they don’t see it as wrong because they don’t even try to hide what they are doing. I have to have VERY clear instructions, both written and verbal. I even model it for them: no talking, no looking at someone else’s paper (and there are so many in a class that I can’t spread them out enough), no copying. Then I have to say, “This is a test. A test is different than any other class. Telling someone the answer on a test is cheating. Showing them your paper so they can see the answer is cheating. Copying from someone’s paper on a test is cheating…..Cheating is bad. Cheating is wrong. I will take away your paper and give you a zero if you cheat.”

They understand “zero.”

And it isn’t just the kids. I have to be just as clear with the adults.

Sometimes the “helping” aspect of this culture hits every button I have. It’s all I can do to remain calm and not start screaming.

Like this morning.

The courtyard at school is loaded with scooters and parents, waiting for their children.
The courtyard at school is loaded with scooters and parents, waiting for their children.

I had a 7:45a class—not my best time to face a dozen restless 7 year olds. I’d had a (much too) light breakfast of yogurt and one cup of coffee before rushing to school, white-knuckled on my scooter in traffic that has no discernible pattern. I’m there by 7am when they open. As always I deal with the constant crisis of my library materials which are NEVER ready, and then run to my classroom, set up and start. By the time class was over, I just wanted to get home, get food and get to a quiet room to recover.

But it’s not that easy. First you have to return library materials, class rosters, keys and the projector remote—all to different locations. Then run the gauntlet of 8 flights of stairs and a courtyard, covered in happy, screaming children–each wanting your undivided attention. They grab you, pet you, hug you and endlessly yell “hello” and “how are you?” Even if you’ve just answered them. These are greetings they are taught from the youngest age and it seems wrong not to smile broadly and answer each one of them, individually, which I do. Usually, I don’t mind much, but morning is not my best time, particularly with an empty belly, low blood sugar and caffeine withdrawal.

But I made it out with my scooter–a false grin still plastered to my face–just in time to face Saturday morning traffic. Does NO ONE sleep in on Saturday morning? It’s a nightmare on wheels. When I got to the new MTea Tea Shop that just opened (Tra Sua—milk tea, it is 4 blocks from my apartment), I decided to stop for portable caffeine and sugar. The guard there is a little too attentive for my tastes. I know he wants to help, but he won’t let me park my own scooter (something everyone does). He makes me stop and give him the bike, even taking my helmet off for me, as though I’m a child. Then he follows me into the shop and helps me into the very high stool—touching me in ways I’m not comfortable with. I don’t want a push from behind, thank you very much! But I look into his eyes and can see he is genuinely trying to protect this clueless foreigner. I try to be polite, but he is glued to me. He starts suggesting teas, which is pretty tough because he speaks no English. I simply agree to Combo #2, so he will go away.

He does not go away.

The girl behind the counter speaks decent English and asks if this is “to-go,” a phrase everyone in the restaurant business understands. Mr. Guard answers that I will stay here. “NO!” I say, a little too stridently. I take a breath. “No, thank you.” (I say to him in Vietnamese. “Khong, Cam on.”) And mime that I must go. Then I smile and repeat to the girl behind the counter that I will take it “to-go.” Mr. Guard is dejected. I’m handed my bill and pull out my wallet. Before I can stop him, Mr. Guard has his hands in my wallet! Honestly, he is just trying to get the correct money for me, but I have a gut reaction. I can’t stop myself from pulling the wallet away and saying, “NO!” a little too loudly. There is a look of absolute shock on his face and I can see he was not trying to steal my money. I breathe to calm myself. I put on a smile and say in Vietnamese, “I learn.” I point to the bill and repeat the amount in Vietnamese (28,000vnd, hai muoi tam). Then I pull out correct change and count it for him. He beams at me as though there just might be a small amount of hope for this clueless foreigner.

Mtea is newly opened, clean, and all the staff (except the guard) speaks English. The guard, BTW, is for your scooter, parked outside on the street.
Mtea is newly opened, clean, and all the staff (except the guard) speaks English. The guard, BTW, is for your scooter, parked outside on the street.

While I wait for my milk tea, I pull out a notebook and start to write down something I want to remember. Suddenly FOUR female faces appear—uninvited—to look at what I’m writing. Two are behind the counter and have stopped making my order so they can look. One woman is so close that I can’t see the paper because her head is blocking my view. She had been sitting to my left at the counter and is now sitting on top of the counter to get a better look at my book. She points to a word she knows and is ecstatic. She says the word out loud several times (mispronouncing it each time) to the woman standing one quarter inch to my right. The second woman is holding a baby and also peering into my notebook. The woman suddenly hands me the baby so she is free to point out and mispronounce a word she recognizes in my notebook. She is thrilled by this exercise. She stares into my eyes lovingly and strokes my hair (something I  hate, but have come to expect, it happens so often here). I try to smile and repeat the words (correctly) while shaking my head up and down to indicate that, yes, they are very smart. “Good!” I say and applaud—a trick that always works, because they applaud, too. Applause signals that an activity is over, distracting them enough that I can grab my notebook, put it back into my pocket, and—most importantly–hand back the baby. Let me stress: I do not know these women. I have not spoken to them. I did not ask them to look at my notebook. And they are fondling my personal property–and me–after forcing on me a child I did not want (who needs a diaper change, I might add).

And I still need caffeine and sugar–now more than ever!

In short: It can be a struggle to remain calm.

Combo #1, which I had on my first visit.
Combo #1, which I had on my first visit.

I am relieved when my drink arrives “to-go” and I can make my escape. Mr. Guard wants to help me off my seat. I anticipate this and wave him off, but he stands so close I can barely slide to the floor without bumping into him. Thank God for good balance.

He walks me out the door and pulls out my scooter for me. Then he pulls out his wallet and points to a 1,000 note. I think he wants money for parking my scooter, which seems unfair, but, right now, I’d pay ten times that much just to get out of here. I don’t have a bill that small and ask him to make change. He is mystified. He pulls out the bill from his wallet along with others and hands them to me. Now I see—one is Chinese currency, another Korean and a third Cambodian. All are small bills. He wants American money to add to his collection! I do my best to mime that I have none with me (I don’t carry it), but will bring him some. And I will.

But not until lie down and recover.

Mtea menu--the milk tea is served with cubes of "jelly" that are in various flavors. It's good, tho it takes some getting used to. They also have "bubbles," rather tapioca balls.
Mtea menu–the milk tea is served with cubes of “jelly” that are in various flavors. It’s good, tho it takes some getting used to. They also have “bubbles,” rather tapioca balls.
Mtea menu. Notice spaghetti is a breakfast food.
Mtea menu. Notice spaghetti is a breakfast food. No idea what a beef rattle is.

What it’s like to be a teacher:  This morning was an Our Discover Island 3 class (which means it is their third English book in the Our Discovery Island series). The kids are only 7 years old. They are strong on memorization so they learn vocabulary fast. Basically, you pull out a flash card and they scream the word—pronunciation might be questionable, but they know that this picture means you should say the sound “scarf.” Sometimes they don’t understand that “scarf” is a thing, not a flash card drawing. When I take off my scarf and ask “what is this?” only half the students figure out that it is the same thing that is on the flash card. I actually see light bulbs going on in the eyes of at least two others. Another 3 don’t get it at all. They are performing a memorization trick: See flash card, say sounds.

Sentence structure is almost a complete mystery. I give them structures (What is he wearing? He has a baseball cap.) and they repeat, but it’s still mostly memorization. When I change the sentence to include new vocabulary words (What is she wearing? She has a blouse.), the difference between baseball cap and blouse, she and he, may not sink in.

So just TRY giving directions to do something new. I dare you. You have to write out simple instructions. You have to model EVERYTHING. Twice. You have to ask confirmation questions. You have to do two practice runs. THEN you can start the activity, knowing that most don’t completely get it until the activity is half over. The bottom 20% of the class may not get it at all, this first time. Or the second.

And after all that effort, you will still get some angelic child gazing into your eyes and saying, “Teecha, Gaaaaame?”

I admit it. I resort to bribery. I make a list on the board of what we have to do and count off each item. I say, “If you work hard and we do all these things, THEN we can have music.” They are in rapture with music videos. I make no attempt to teach them anything, except the occasional word of the lyrics. For this age, music is a reward for the last 5-8 minutes of class, IF they get everything done. And because their attention span is so short, every time we finish something, I erase it from the board and count, “Look! ONLY 1, 2, 3… more. Then music! But we MUST do 1,2,3…FIRST.” Mostly, it works.

This morning was a struggle, but I made it through. I had to lie down for the rest of the morning and half the afternoon, though.

Passion fruit juice.
Passion fruit juice.

Random thoughts from a foreign land

The construction is constant! There's always a new business opening up (and closing), new home construction or improvement. No idea what's going on here, but they are hard at work on Christmas day.
The construction is constant! There’s always a new business opening up (and closing), new home construction or improvement. No idea what’s going on here, but they are hard at work on Christmas day.

Some of the funny things I’ve seen lately:

  • Sports jersey with “Death” printed on the back, worn by tiny, young teenaged girl. She had a big smile and a pink, flowery headband. Can you say incongruous?
  • T-shirt with Obama picture and slogan “Yes, we San!” Suspect typos are sold here since no one knows.
  • Tiny, Vietnamese man, singing “All About The Base”, an octave too high.
I tried a new pizza parlor near my apartment. Well.....it looked like pizza, but it wasn't quite pizza. It will do in a pinch, but somehow I've turned into a pizza snob and want the real thing. Not going to find it here. And as much as that looks like bacon, it isn't. It's pork belly, but not cured. No idea why there is mayo on this and the cheese is tasteless. The toppings were cold, but the pizza hot. It was served with catchup and hot sauce.
I tried a new pizza parlor near my apartment. Well…..it looked like pizza, but it wasn’t quite pizza. It will do in a pinch, but somehow I’ve turned into a pizza snob and want the real thing. Not going to find it here. And as much as that looks like bacon, it isn’t. It’s pork belly, but not cured. No idea why there is mayo on this and the cheese is tasteless. The toppings were cold, but the pizza hot. It was served with catchup and hot sauce.

Have been seeing far more rats than I’d like–and during the daytime. There’s lots of garbage for them to eat and cover for them to hide in. Not surprised, but not enjoying it. either.

Selling jackfruit. The aroma is distinctive--overly sweet, like pears that are just a touch too ripe.
Selling jackfruit. The aroma is distinctive–overly sweet, like pears that are just a touch too ripe.

Had almost forgotten about that silly baggy pants fashion back in The States. Saw a teenager wearing his pants low and showing most of his boxers today. It really looked out of place here.

Vietnam is a comunist country, so there's no official religion. Bien Hoa is mostly Catholic, but the rest of the area is Buddhist. This is a Buddhist nun and the first one I've seen here. They must beg for their food and can eat two meals a day. I gave her enough for lunch.
Vietnam is a Communist country, so there’s no official religion. Bien Hoa is mostly Catholic, but the rest of the country is mostly Buddhist. This is a Buddhist nun, the first one I’ve seen here. They must beg for their food and can eat two meals a day. I gave her enough for lunch.

Spent most of my holiday working on English lessons–mostly English music. It’s a good way to explain expressions, practice listening, learn vocabulary in context and the kids love it. I ask discussion questions and they work in in small groups to practice talking. Less “sure” students are more likely to talk in a small group than raise their hand in class and risk making a fool of themselves. I also worked up three reading comprehension exercises on varied topics that I think will interest students and teach vocabulary. I try to pick short, unusual topics. One of my readings is about a woman who fell from a plane and survived!

Flowers everywhere.
Flowers everywhere.

An evening stroll on Christmas Eve in Bien Hoa, Viet Nam

The streets were all lite up.
I was surprised at all the lights. This is a very long street and there were lights like this for at least a couple kilometers.
The staff of a newly opened bar. They were posing under a fake snowfall, but it didn't show up in the photo.
The staff of a newly opened bar. They were posing under a fake snowfall, but it didn’t show up in the photo.

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AH! my favorite meal: stuff-on-a-stick. It was served with a lot of vegetables, including some pickled veggies that reminded me of kimchi.
Ah! my favorite meal: stuff-on-a-stick. It was served with a lot of vegetables, including some pickled veggies that reminded me of Korean kim chi. There are few westerners in Bien Hoa, so if you sit down to eat, you can expect people to come up to you to talk, practice their English. Often, they only know “hello” and “how are you?” But the smiles are genuine.
And this is the woman who deep fried my stuff on a stick.
And this is the woman who deep fried my stuff on a stick. You grab a plate and fill it with whatever she has that you want to eat. Then hand it back to her to fry.
This gentleman made me a fresh nouc mia--sugar cane juice drink.
This young gentleman made me a fresh nouc mia–sugar cane juice drink. The contraption squeezes out the juice from the cane. It’s not very sweet and has a pleasant “green” taste to it.
Clearly the love of white skin and light hair is learned. This young child was very wary of me and finally decided not to sit near me.
Clearly the love of white skin and light hair is learned. This young child was very wary of me and finally decided not to sit near me. She didn’t cry, but some very small children do. I may be the first western foreigner they have ever seen and it’s a shock.
The night market. I thought it might be bigger for Christmas Eve, but it was about the same. It was very busy, though.
The night market. I thought it might be bigger for Christmas Eve, but it was about the same. It was very busy, though.

Christmas program at KTV school

As the sun goes down, the KTV Christmas program warms up. I had not been given any information about the party--in fact I had not even been told about it until 3 days before--so I did not know what to expect.
As the sun goes down, the KTV Christmas program warms up. I had not been given any information about the party–in fact I had not even been told about it until 3 days before–so I did not know what to expect.

A cautionary tale about working in another country.

Last night was the children’s Christmas program at the school. It was not listed on the calendar and no one had mentioned it to me, so the program came as a surprise.  My contract states that I will attend school events, but I simply didn’t know about this one. I was told that I had misunderstood the 2 line email saying that “all classes on the 23rd were canceled” and that I had “three days off.” I had made arrangements for a trip to Da Lat with others from the school (only the native English speaking teachers were required to attend the party, not the bilingual Vietnamese teacher). Da Lat is located high up in the cool mountains, a 5 hour bus ride away. I was looking forward to cool breezes and new sites. After I had bought my non-refundable ticket, the school informed me of this event. There was no remorse about their lack of communication as I “should have known” and I “should have asked.”

Clearly my mind-reading skills need work.

This is one of the issues with working in a foreign country. You don’t know the customs. You don’t understand the culture. You don’t know the conversations and planning going on around you if spoken in another language. And, if organization and communication is poor, you will only figure out what’s expected of you when you make a mistake and are suddenly accused of breach of contract. At least, this has been my experience here. And it’s not like the contract really protects YOU, anyway. It protects the school. In a foreign country, you aren’t going to be able to access the legal system.

...and always, the V sign.
…and always, the V sign, even from Santa.

So, I didn’t get to take my Christmas trip, I didn’t have a three day holiday, and I lost the money I had put down on the vacation. Ba Humbug! Not a nice start to my holiday. And it certainly didn’t help me get a good attitude for the Christmas program. But I screwed on my smile and did my best–it wasn’t the children’s fault, after all. I did not understand much of what was going on, but from the outside, the entire holiday seems a surreal example of Western influence on Asian sensibilities. At least the kids seemed to enjoy it all. I’m trying do the same, without understanding much. I hope you can, too.

So many children, all dressed up for the evening.
So many adorable children, all dressed up for the evening.
Even Santa and Mrs. Claus were there!
Even Santa and Mrs. Claus were there!
Most of the evening's entertainment was a bit of a mystery, since I had no information and it was all in Vietnamese. My part in the program seemed to be smiling, waving and (at the end) handing out presents to the kids as they left.
Most of the evening’s entertainment was a bit of a mystery for me, since I had no information and it was all in Vietnamese. My part in the program seemed to be smiling, waving and (at the end) handing out presents to the kids as they left.
My roomie, Bob, makes merry. That's Marcus behind him. The new teacher Mike also made a brief appearance.
My roomie, Bob, makes merry. That’s Marcus behind him. The new teacher Mike also made a brief appearance.
I never really figured out what the Tarzan group had to do with Christmas, but kids are adorable, whatever you dress them in. It would have been nice if the school had given ANY interpretation or explanation of the event for non-Vietnamese speakers.
I never figured out what the Tarzan kids had to do with Christmas, but kids are adorable, whatever you dress them in. It would have been nice if I’d had even a little interpretation or explanation of the event for non-Vietnamese speakers, but I’ve come to understand that I won’t get that here. I’m simply learning to enjoy things in a clueless state.
A full house. It started with fireworks--and the whole cast (including the native English speakers) ran up on stage and waved for a solid minute while music played. The music is really, really blaring loud. Most was in English. There was a version of Jingle Bells played over and over. It reminded me of a Hip Hop style, but played by a polka band. Surreal.
A full house. The event was held outdoors under a canopy in the school’s courtyard entrance. It started with fireworks–and the whole cast (including the native English speakers) ran up on stage and waved for a solid minute while music played. The music was really, really blaring loud. Much of the music was in English, with a driving beat. There was a version of Jingle Bells played over and over. It reminded me of a Hip Hop style, but played by a polka band. Surreal.
Santa keeps the troops moving before the show. This is on the sidewalk, just outside the school entrance. The music was so loud I simply could not be inside the courtyard.
Santa keeps the troops moving before the show. This is on the sidewalk, just outside the school entrance/courtyard, where the program was held. The music was so loud I simply could not be inside the courtyard for long.
Don't you love Santa in sandals? And the fu manchu mustache is an interesting touch.
Don’t you love Santa in sandals? And the fu manchu mustaches are an interesting touch.
I felt really, really sorry for the monkey. His trainer was quite cruel and the act made me sad. He was on a very short leash with a choker collar.
I felt really, really sorry for the monkey. His trainer was quite cruel and the act made me sad. He was on a very short leash with a choker collar, here.
Poor monkey. His life must be terrible.
Poor monkey. His life must be terrible. That’s his cage in the corner. After the show I saw the trainer load all of it precariously onto his scooter and drive off.
This cutie sang during the program. Not sure about the pink cowboy boots, but she was so adorable.
This cutie sang during the program. Not sure about the pink cowboy boots, but she was so adorable.
The roll of the NES (native English speakers) seemed to be waving, smiling and handing out presents at the end of the program. Since it was too loud to be in the audience and we weren't needed during the program, Marcus, Bob and I went across the street where we could monitor the action and still hear the music. Mike went off for a beer and I never saw him again. I had a VERY fresh coconut water. This man chopped a hole in a coconut for me and gave me a straw.
The roll of the NES (native English speakers) seemed to be waving, smiling and handing out presents at the end of the program. Since it was too loud to be in the audience and we weren’t needed during the program, Marcus, Bob and I went across the street where we could monitor the action and still hear when the program was over. Mike went off for a beer and I never saw him again. I had a VERY fresh coconut water. This man chopped a hole in a coconut for me and gave me a straw.

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After the event, Bob has fun on stage.
After the event, Bob has fun on stage. The kids begged for the balloons and Bob was tall enough to reach some of them and hand them out. Balloons make everything better.

Merry Christmas from Viet Nam

Many of my friends have asked if they celebrate Christmas here. They do! I didn’t expect some much Western and Christian influence in a Communist country. This is a brief walk around my neighborhood to view decorations. Of course, they are prettier at night with all the lights, but my photographs wouldn’t be. All of these were taken this morning, in an hour’s stroll.

Most of the decorations went up in the last couple days, but this one has been up for at least 10. Santa with a sax, the Holy Family, a red Christmas tree, bows and black plastic representing.....what?
Most of the decorations went up in the last couple days, but this one has been up for at least 10. Santa with a sax, the Holy Family, a red Christmas tree, bows and black plastic representing…..what?

A friend from the interwebs suggested this article as explanation for the Santa with a sax.

“In China, Christmas is associated with Santa Claus as a saxophone player. This tradition stems from the popularity of a jazz-playing animatronic Santa doll mass-produced a few years ago.”

Interesting! I also found this:

“The saxophone is seen as a very Western thing, and Santa Claus is seen as a very Western thing, so it’s almost natural that they go together.”

A hotel lobby. There are several small hotels/guest houses nearby.
A hotel lobby. There are several small hotels/guest houses nearby.

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Interesting combination: A Japanese restaurant with Christmas decorations in Viet Nam.
Interesting combination: A Japanese restaurant with Christmas decorations in Viet Nam.

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A surprising number of Santas with saxophones. Who knew?
A surprising number of Santas with saxophones. Who knew?
It's mostly businesses decorated, not private homes.
It’s mostly businesses decorated, not private homes.
...and all the Santas are white with Western features.
…and all the Santas are white with Western features.
There are huge sheets of foil to represent snow--something few of them have ever seen.
There are huge sheets of foil to represent snow–something few of them have ever seen.
The decorations work better in some places than others....
The decorations work better in some places than others….
No idea what's going on with the decorations here, but it's not working for me.
No idea what’s going on with the decorations here, but it’s not working for me.
Since they have not seen snow, I'm not sure if they know that these are snowflakes.
Since they have not seen snow, I’m not sure if they know that these are snowflakes.
All the Christmas trees are fake. There are no pines here, at least none like we see in the states.
All the Christmas trees are fake. There are no pines here, at least none like we see in the states.
This is a paper mache tree with a Jesus/Mary/Joseph scene in the middle.
This is a paper mache tree with a Jesus/Mary/Joseph scene in the middle.
One of the few trees in a private home that I've seen.
One of the few trees in a private home that I’ve seen.

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