Ways In Which Subbing At a Vietnamese High School Is Similar To and Different From Attending American High School: A Compare and Contrast

Bang a gong

1. Different: Instead of a bell, they bang a gong.

2. Similar: The alarm goes off at 6am. I’ve picked up a couple days subbing for a friend of a friend at an elite Vietnamese secondary school, teaching literature classes.

I’d seen the job posting a few weeks ago and had considered applying – the pay was great and I was beyond qualified and I loved the idea of teaching literature, but the hours were long and the commute longer.

I’m out of the house by 7:30. Why does high school always involve such early mornings? No wonder I was depressed.

3. Different: Forty-five minutes sucking smog on the back of a motorbike and twenty minutes in a van provided by the school, shuttling me to a further campus that the one I ventured to.

So I’m bleary and hot and already covered in that thin layer of pollution Hanoi coats you in and it’s not even 9am. The van bounces down a bumpy road as the school rises before me: a new structure in a new part of town, surrounded by lotus fields and shanties and, in the distance, the outline of half-constructed highrises.

The school is massive and stark: six stories of cement-block austerity locked inside a tall metal fence. There’s nothing but gray – no trees, no lawns, no hand-drawn banners for homecoming or Glee Club or whatever the fuck it is high school kids are supposed to do.

It looks like a prison to me. (Similar)

5. Different: I wander around the halls for a while, unsure of where I’m supposed to go. I default to the stand-there-and-look-foreign tactic and eventually someone who works at the school comes over and shows to me to my classroom.

When I walk in, all the students stand up. “Hello teacher,” they say in unison. But they say it like something they’re forced to say, with that particular adolescent drone of boredom and annoyance (similar).

They stand there, staring at me. I stare back. They’re wearing white button-up shirts and these little red sashes tied around their necks, sailor style (different).

Finally I figure out that I’m supposed to tell them to sit. So I blush and motion my hand, “sit, sit,” feeling an embarrassed grin stretch across my face (similar).

6. Similar: The morning goes by in a blur, reading off the hand-written lesson plan notes: comparing and contrasting fables. I ask questions; they shift in their seats and mostly look bored. But there’s a few kids that keep raising their hands, that know the answers and even make little leaps, little connections that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. For a moment I wish I’d taken the job.

They’re an upper-class demographic; you can tell by the sneakers they wear and the watches they have and the iPhones I confiscate. You can tell by the references to films they make, by the fluency of their English, but most of all by the easiness with which they carry themselves – a confidence that verges on entitlement, the universal marker of privileged youth.

Maybe that’s what starts bringing up the thoughts of my first high school, what starts sending these little slivers of electric memories through my tired brain. I rarely think about that school, usually remember (or disremember) high school as a weed-induced blur in the back of a portable, a town an hour and a half bus ride form Oakland where I don’t remember doing any homework but was still on the honor roll. That’s where I spent three of my four high school years – zonked out on pills and water-bottle vodka, making zines and only skimming the surface of consciousness when I needed to. I forget about the other year, the other place.

The pangs of it keep coming back all morning and I keep pushing them away, until it’s lunch and I’m sitting in the cafeteria alone (similar), apart from all the other teachers (similar) who are Vietnamese (different) and smile at me (different) but don’t seem particularly interested in engaging (similar). I hunch over a metal tray of rice and duck and pickled greens (different), nothing to listen to but my own damn brain babbling (similar) and I’ve got no defense for the flood of it coming back.

Not my pic but pretty fitting, eh?

Bishop O’Dowd: I hated that school. I only spent one year there but it was the worst goddamn year of my life. My first time at a private school, my first time at a Catholic school (exposed to any organized religion, really), my first venture into middle-class white society. Though really, now you could change “first” to “only.” Fucking hell, no wonder it went horribly.

I remember thinking it was like a movie, just like one of those goddamn movies about the big suburban high school, which someone somewhere must think captures a universal adolescent experience but really only captures one version, one narrow sliver of the experience. And even though the school was in the East Oakland hills, it was still all there: the football players, the cheerleaders, the mean girls, the token scholarship kids, the Asian math geeks, the queer Drama kids – like a stereotype of a stereotype, like a movie set and everyone was pretending and no one was saying how fucking fake and soul-sucking the whole thing was.

My fourth day, one of the Alternative Rebellion kids was sitting behind me in class. She had spikey hair and a dog collar and the smooth glowing skin only access to quality health care and a lifetime of good nutrition afford. She leaned forward and hissed in my ear, “You think you’re so cool with your dyed hair, but me and my friends think you’re lame.”

She kept on all period – “Loser, poseur, wanna-be, fake” – and I lowered my head and felt my cheeks burning red as I tried not to cry, every single zit on that flush of acne I had ignited with the searing shame of it. I didn’t understand – where I came from, kids didn’t talk shit so carelessly; there were real-world consequences for that. Hadn’t someone ever jumped her? Well, no.

I wanted so much to not care; I wanted so much for this girl to think I was cool. I’d always wanted to fit in and never had, the weird white kid at the Oakland public schools. I’d always wanted, I thought, to escape into a world of suburban comfort, where everything was nice and easy and manicured and clean and everyone looked like me. Because the people on TV and the people in the movies, they all looked like me and they were happy and life was easy, aside from easily solvable comedic exploits.

But this wasn’t an easily solvable comedic exploit; this was my life. My shitty, shameful, desperately yearning, 13-year-old life. I was relegated to the Untouchable class after that day; for the rest of the year, I had three friends who would talk to me, three girls that would throw trash at me in those gleaming hallways, and a whole school full of kids who ignored me.

I hadn’t thought about any of it in a long-ass time. The incidents, maybe, but not the feeling, the real burning shame of it. The hungry awfulness. It was my last year of relative sobriety before I switched schools and the Pandora’s box of addiction opened. In a lot of ways, that was better than that freshman year I spent at O’Dowd, depressed and isolated and miserable with no way to escape it. Trapped in a landscaped prison.

The bell gongs (different) and I go back out, to wander the hallway and find my next class.

But now that the gate has been opened, I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t keep the memories neatly compartmentalized. They flood and tangle, the rest of the afternoon – when I see the ugly awkward girl hunched in the back of the classroom (similar); when the cool girls in front roll their eyes and giggle (similar); when the bell gongs (different) and the kids stand up and chime “Goodbye teacher,” and watched me walk out (different). When I go to the next room and I stand in front of more kids in sailor uniforms (different), who guess I’m American because I “talk loud” (different), and I keep talking loud (similar) and I look up and see the day outside – a day that looks sweeter and gentler and clearer than it really is – cut into the size of a classroom window (similar) and I have that trapped feeling (similar) rise in my gut all over again (not similar: same) – memories of shit I thought I’d gotten over, wasn’t angry about anymore, suddenly rearing back up like raving stallions, and I’m still angry (same) and I’m still awkward (same) and I’m still ashamed (same).

I should have punched her, I think.

I’m glad I didn’t take the job, I think.

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15 Responses to “Ways In Which Subbing At a Vietnamese High School Is Similar To and Different From Attending American High School: A Compare and Contrast”


  1. 1 mrsbr August 5, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    I think this is something a lot of people can relate to. Every school across the globe has the bullies etc. I wasn’t bullied in school but I definitely wasn’t one of the “cool kids”. Whenever I go home and bump into any of them I get a small sense of satisfaction as their cruel nature seems to have caught up with them and while they thrived in school, they haven’t done so well in coping in the real world, I’ll bet it’s the same with the people from your school.

  2. 2 randy August 5, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    your first line made me think T Rex runs yr school.
    i then thought, you know school would be about 1000 X better for all if marc bolan and the like ran schools.

  3. 3 ghost of nothing August 5, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    i went to a private school for 12 years. this brings up some unpleasant memories. in a good way. to remember, i am not ‘of that world’ anymore. and theres no need to go back. no need to go back. that, in fact, the entire world did not operate in the same fashion. and outside those walls there are universes and universes of universes. oh how i look forward to a cup of tea.

  4. 4 Ekua August 6, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    As the black girl (and Ghanaian-American to boot) growing up in a pretty white neighborhood, I definitely had my peers saying some pretty nasty things when I first arrived in the neighborhood. I struggled with fitting in… and eventually found my place in not fitting in. My nastier peers relaxed and I found my niches. So now that I’ve worked with teens living in SF’s worst projects and teens from the city’s most privileged neighborhoods, I’ve found that having survived grade school (while hating several years of it) is a handy tool to use in relating to almost all of them…

  5. 5 Sky Fisher (@skyvsworld) August 7, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    Thanks for sharing this! I can definitely relate – I ended up leaving public school for cyber school my freshman year because I was tired of the crap. Funny how the feelings never really go away!

  6. 6 bani.amor August 8, 2012 at 11:13 am

    awesome read. whenever i find myself on some campus or school somewhere it brings me back; i dropped out of high school so all of that seems so far away.

  7. 7 tryingtoslowtherain August 8, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    Great writing!
    I didn’t experience bullying in high school, but it was definitely something I put up with in elementary. No one deserves to be bullied. I hope we can study more about it and influence people to put a stop to it.

  8. 8 clarar0se August 9, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    Hi! Strangely, my friend who is working in Indonesia sent me a link to your blog which she came across somehow, because she knew I was also teaching in Hanoi. Turns out I teach at that school and I met you when you were trying to print things out your first morning. I just thought it was a strange coincidence. I enjoyed your post! It is indeed a bizarre school. Or maybe not so bizarre, as you point out.

  9. 10 Sure Am August 19, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    Haha. Great post. Thanks.

  10. 11 liza August 23, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    so bloody dramatic! get over high school, you probably have gray hair already but still it haunts you. dont you think its pathetic?

    • 12 laurenquinn August 23, 2012 at 10:54 pm

      Totally. You know what I also think is pathetic? Wasting time reading and commenting on a random blog post you clearly don’t like when there’s 800 million better things on the internet to read.

      • 13 laurenquinn August 23, 2012 at 10:55 pm

        Also, I have wrinkles not gray hair.

      • 14 liza August 28, 2012 at 7:06 pm

        I did enjoy your blogpost, its funny and entertaining. Just like seeing someone trip and fall. No, more like seeing someone be a ridiculous, oversized sweaty foreigner, not their fault but I cant help smirking.
        Keep it up!


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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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