Friday, October 13, 2017

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Time passes quickly.  In a less than a week I will have finished my first year in Vietnam.  One of my classes recently took me out for my birthday.  How am I 37 already?  I never really reflect on age, but it was surreal seeing that number 37 candle alight on top of the cake.  In any case, I would like to share some other memorable moments from Saigon.

Beware of Sharks

A few Sundays ago, the Brothers were supposed to be studying.  However, a number of them got in trouble after they were caught watching a documentary about sharks.  They are only allowed to watch movies on Friday nights.  I asked a Brother some questions.  How do you say “watch” in Vietnamese?  How do you say “movie”?  One day at lunch while sitting next to the Priest in charge I said, (in Vietnamese), "Tonight, I would like to invite everyone to watch a shark movie."  Based on his stern, surprised look I could see my attempt at semi-sarcastic American humor hadn’t broken the cultural barrier.

Sink or Swim

There aren't a lot of people that have the opportunity to take swimming lessons in Vietnam.  Many people grow up not knowing how to swim and drowning is a real danger for young children willing to take wild risks. Many simply jump into a river or lake without any ability.  One story that adults tell children is that if you catch a dragonfly and force it bite you on the belly button you will be able to swim, but not just once.  For boys they say it takes 7 times, for girls, 9.  Some students in my class recalled this practical joke from their childhood and most seemed to be victim of at least 1-2 dragonfly bites in their pursuit of swimming.  A couple of them boasted that they were clever and never allowed themselves to be bitten. One student sadly admitted that he had been bitten 10 times because after 7 he still couldn't swim and his older sister insisted he learn. I asked him if he had the dragonfly bite him while he was around adults.  He said he did for the first five times, but that he did the rest in private because everyone kept laughing at him.

You Can’t Handle the Truth

A 9-yr old girl in one of my classes speaks excellent English.  There have been a couple of occasions that she’s said, “I have a secret, BUT I’M NOT TELLING ANYONE!  DON’T EVEN ASK ME!”.  The rest of the class and I assure that we understand and that she doesn’t have to tell us her secret.  However, she will exclaim within seconds as if she’s been through the most intense interrogation, “OKAY, OKAY!! I’ll tell you, BUT YOU CAN’T TELL ANYONE!!”

The Candy Man Can

Most of the kids here are afraid to speak English.  At times, during my class this summer it was like pulling teeth to get them to participate.  Games and music helped, but there still wasn’t much enthusiasm.  I had given a handout of tongue twisters to practice pronunciation.  I asked one 11-year old boy to begin. 

Me: Could you please read #1?
Boy: “No, I don’t like.”
Me: “Ok, how about I read first and then you can repeat after me?”
Boy: “No, I don’t like.”
Me: “We can just do one word at a time.”
Boy: “No, I don’t like.”

Then I asked one girl in my class who is studying English at university to translate to the class in Vietnamese.  I began my passionate plea: “This class isn’t for a grade.  It’s ok if you make mistakes.  I’m not going to make fun of you.  No one is going to make fun of you here.  If someone does laugh at you because you say something incorrectly, then I will ask that student to leave the class.  We’re going to help each other, but I can’t help you if I can’t hear your pronunciation.  I just want you to feel more comfortable listening and speaking.  If you make a mistake, no problem.  I just want you to try your best.  Do you understand?” 

 I try again...

Me: Could you please try to read #1?
Boy: “No, I don’t like.”

So, it seems the speech didn’t have an effect. 
Eventually, I discovered the secret to get them speaking.  The secret was candy.  I found kids will face off in a battle-royale for candy. 

My hat’s off to you, Mr. Hershey.

Teacher of the Year? Well, maybe 2018…

One class I decided to teach the children about how to describe the food they eat.  I wrote on the board “HOW DOES IT TASTE?” and thought I had adequately explained that question.  I bought a variety of items from the supermarket and passed them around class one at time.

Potato chips:  How do they taste?  Potato chips taste salty
Black coffee:  How does it taste?  Black coffee tastes bitter.
Sugar:  How does it taste?  Sugar tastes sweet.

Over the next hour and a half, we continued with an assortment of flavors; bland, minty, sour, fruity, meaty, fishy, nutty, tangy, spicy, bittersweet, cheesy, buttery, vinegary, etc.”

When we finished, I told them during the last 15 minutes of class I would like them to stand up, tell me the name of their favorite food and try to describe how it tastes.

Me:  What is your favorite food?
1st boy:  Pho Bo. (Vietnamese beef noodle soup)
Me:  How does it taste?
1st boy:  Taste?  What is taste?  I don’t understand.
Me: *deep sigh*

From the Mouths of Babes

During the summer, I was out for coffee one afternoon with the Brother in charge of the children’s summer camp.  He heard someone at a table next to us say, "What the h#ll?!".  He asked what that meant and I said it is a swear when someone is angry or frustrated.  It means something like, "What's going on?!, Why did this happen?!, Why did you do that?!"  The next week at camp he called me on stage.  A crowd of kids was gathered on the floor.  I could feel 200 sets of small eyes staring attentively.  Then the Brother announced, "Today, Brandon is going to teach you about, “What the h#ll?!"”  I quickly cupped my hand over the microphone and said, "No, no. I'm not teaching them that! They don't need to know it.”  He replied, “It’s ok, you can just tell them why it’s bad.” “No, I’m not going to repeat it. They shouldn't even be hearing that.”, I said while walking off stage. The Brother stammered a bit before he uttered to the audience, "Uh, ok, never mind.  Let’s get up and sing a song."  It seems the damage was already done.  The rest of the camp 5-yr old boys kept coming up to me proudly proclaiming, "HELLO! WHAT THE HEY-O?!".  I guess I should be glad that some of the English is sticking.

The Cringeworthy

There are instances when you swear you can hear the squeal of tires and you begin to recoil inside because you know there's about to be a crunch of glass and metal.  I’ve had a couple of those metaphorical car crash moments.

A couple of weeks ago some new students attended my Saturday night class.  It was a family with two young boys, ages 6 and 8.  It was a bit awkward because the Saturday night class is quite advanced.  The majority of the group is made up of professionals in their 20s and 30s, university students, and high school seniors.  We talk about a wide range of topics; the environment, traffic, travel, education, and anything else that is on their minds.  During the last 5 minutes of class we choose a topic for the next week.  One girl stated that she wanted to discuss human rights.  Some students said that the topic of human rights was too broad and they wanted to narrow it down a bit.  One suggested we talk about child rap.  Child rap?, I replied confusedly.  He responded, “Yes, you know child abuse, child rap.  I think it’s called pedo-…pedo-feel-…”  At this point I turned red from embarrassment when I realized that we weren’t talking about the next Snoop Dogg.  I went into stunned silence as I locked eyes with a shocked and wide-eyed mother and her two little children from across the room.  A couple of more students chimed in, “Yes, that’s a good topic.  It’s a big problem.”  I could only stutter, “Uhh…umm…”.  Thankfully a man interjected, “Are we really going to talk about that for a whole hour?  How about we talk about healthy lifestyles instead.” “YES, YES!  Next week let’s discuss healthy living.”, I quickly replied.  The mother fervently nodded in agreement. 

Home Sweet Home

I finished the day late.  It was 9PM.  I had been teaching English since the early morning hours in a downtown district of Saigon.  After pulling into the community on the back of a motorbike taxi, I paid the driver, removed my helmet, slung the backpack over my shoulder, and began a tired trod back to my room.  Along the way I spotted a group of three young boys pointing at me, smiling and waving.  I smiled and waved in return.  Then the boy in the middle gleefully grinned and shouted a salutation, “F- you!”. 

*Ugh. Thanks, kid.  ---And a special thanks to the Hollywood movie industry for their stellar influence on our youth.  It’s good to be home.*