Saturday, October 10, 2009
Want to Teach English In Vietnam? Prepare to SWEAT!
By Kelly Fitzgerald
Can Tho city. You probably think you’ve pronounced it correctly, right? CAN-TOE? Well, turns out, you probably didn’t. As is the case with so many other words in Vietnamese, nothing is pronounced the way your American mind thinks it should be.
Can Tho (pronounced CUN-TA) is my current place of residence. Located about 180km south of Ho Chi Minh city, it is the most commercial and profitable province in all of southern Vietnam. What am I doing here, you ask? What many other college graduates are doing this fall: teaching English abroad. In other words: hiding from the anticipated rejection letters of potential business employers in the States. And I couldn’t have picked a more interesting country in which to take cover.
Daily life for an English teacher in Can Tho: Wake up. Sweat. Wash my face. Put on my work clothes. Sweat. Flag a motorbike taxi to Campus Two of Can Tho University. Pay the man 10,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong), roughly equivalent to forty-five cents in the U.S. Sweat some more. Teach for three hours. SWEAT. Come home and go to dinner with my roommate (which costs only fifty cents, by the way.) Get eaten alive by mosquitoes. Repeat.
Although communism is way less apparent in the southern provinces of Vietnam, it is still evident in the country’s educational system. My students, though sweet and friendly, are very shy. They never raise their hand and look begrudged to come speak in front of the class when I call on them. They are not free-thinkers. They are taught how to think at an early age, and that means two things: acceptance and subordination.
Part of the mission of Teachers for Vietnam (www.teachersforvietnam.org) is to bring native, American speakers, usually recent college graduates like myself, to the English department of Can Tho University. We are supposed to share our culture, customs and linguistic knowledge with our students. They love English class – are surprisingly but refreshingly enthusiastic about it here, even though they are reluctant to actually speak it! I even have students who aren’t enrolled in the course who come sit down just to watch me teach.
“Okay, class,” I say, preparing to teach them how to pronounce "sheep."
“Repeat after me: ship-sheep.”
Evidently, we have a way to go, but we’re getting there. And it’s impossible to get frustrated with my students for long, as the ear-to-ear grin I get from every single one of them upon entering class every day is so humbling that I almost feel I’m not worth it. They invite me to dinner with their families, they offer me rides home on their motorbikes when it’s raining and they always tell me that I’m pretty, no matter how awful I might be looking that day. They are undoubtedly the best pupils that a first-year teacher could ever ask for.
There are touristy things to do in Can Tho, of course. The floating markets are the most popular attraction. To see them at their busiest, be prepared to rise at 4 a.m. I have yet to get there myself, but according to my roommate and co-worker, it is quite the site to see: little Vietnamese women in their conical hats, squatting on their long canoes, trying to sell you fresh fish, vegetables and fruit in the heart of the Mekong delta. (I still have yet to develop a taste for seafood that early, though!)
I’ve also grown accustomed to my noisy yet invisible neighbors. The sounds of the frogs and the geckoes (yes, they make noises) are rhythms that I’ve grown quite accustomed to. It’s never a dull night in my front or backyard – I’m just never invited to the party.
Besides its surplus of amphibian life, southern Vietnam is also well-known for its food. Specifically, their sweet-n-sour soup and their “pancakes.” In the traditional American frame of mind, pancakes are thick, lovely slices of carbohydrate heaven. In Can Tho, they are very thin, very crispy flakes of fried rice noodle, jam-packed with a plethora of goodies in between: bean sprouts, carrots, string beans, shrimp, chicken, beef, pineapple, peas, etc. Anything you want in there (except maple syrup) you got it.
All these fabulous things aside, it’s important to note that Vietnam was not my first choice. I originally intended on teaching English in Europe after graduating in May. Preferably Italy, as I had studied the language for seven years. Those plans, however, fell through. Now I can’t imagine having lived in a place where the cost of living would have exceeded my salary almost two to one.
Here, I live like royalty. The food is incredible and the people, so hospitable. Everyone is always smiling at me. And the only reason for that is just my appearance: there are few if any “foreigners” in Can Tho, so I stick out like a sore thumb. Nonetheless, it’s strange but exhilarating to be looking from the outside in, and this country has certainly taken my breath away.
Writer Kelly Fitzgerald is a May, 2009 graduate of the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her blog capturing her adventures in Vietnam appears at http://kelefitz.blogspot.com