“Helping” to push all my buttons

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

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.

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I'm a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Peru. I'm exploring the world and you can come too!

8 thoughts on ““Helping” to push all my buttons”

  1. Beth – there were no photos of you, but I could see your face every moment you were fending off “the guard”. You’re a great storyteller – I feel like was there with you. It’s also great to learn about another culture from your experiences. It’s something I would never be exposed to as a tourist and I appreciate you sharing all this. I’ll be back…

  2. Absolutely love reading your blogs, Beth! You are truly living the dream and I get to live them through your blogs! Keep writing! Happy New Year!

  3. Oh Beth, LOVED reading this! I smiled so big when the ladies all gathered around to read your notebook. I would love it there, but would be absolutely lost with the language. Can only play Charades for so long. It must be so tiring. Are you getting better in the language? Just to think my dad was in Bien Hoa for a year makes me want to visit there as well. Your blogs are the closest I’ll get! Keep writing! 🙂

    1. I am getting better with the language, but will be lucky to even get to the “functional” level in a year. It’s tough and I play charades every day! But the folks are kind-spirited and love Americans, though I’ve no idea why.

  4. I feel for you, but I also laughed out loud several times. I find the comments about the teaching process very interesting.

  5. I’m exhausted reading this entry, LOL! I could not make it there, I am kind of anti-social and hate being touched. I would be the “ugly American” 🙁

  6. Loved this, thanks for a great read. Makes me want to go experience what you are (but maybe only for a day or two, not sure I would have the patience to do that long term)

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