Posts Tagged 'teaching english'

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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Because Love Letters and Get Up From the War: Cambodian Teenagers Report on Gender Inequality

“Gender disparity”

I wrote the phrase in blue felt pen on the dingy white wipe board.

“What does this mean?” I asked, underlining the phrase for emphasis. Because it felt teacherly.

I looked out on a chorus of blank eyes.

Which is not actually what I looked out on, but what I’d like to think I did. Really, it was a chorus of chatter, back-of-the-classroom text messaging, shuffling, soda drinking, and probably only a half dozen eyes actually looking at me, the teacher, in the front of the class in my button-down shirt and skinny pants that haven’t been cleaned since Oakland.

This is teaching in Cambodia.

I haven’t written about it much, since I plan to write (and sell) funny disheartening funny pieces about the whole fiasco that is applying for, interviewing for and teaching in Cambodian schools. It’s a complete and total farce. Given that neighboring countries pay double, you really get the dregs of Western society over here. Reminders at the all-staff meeting for the university where I teach evening classes for high school students included: 1) come to class on time, 2) don’t tell your students dirty jokes, and 3) don’t come smelling like alcohol.

Note: Not “don’t come to school drunk.”

“Don’t come smelling like alcohol.”

Are we beginning to get the picture?

So I teach in this rundown ramshackle-ass classroom with trash in the corners and a door that won’t close all the way, that some industrious student wedges a plastic straw in the doorframe to keep it shut. The majority of class arrive late, play on their phones and cheat on tests—all of which I’d been warned of and told was best not to fight against—it’s a losing battle.

But I can’t get myself to totally not give a shit. Especially cause there’s those five kids that sit up near the front and actually appear to somewhat give a fuck. You know, the kind of kids whose eyes light up a bit, whose voices raise timidly after the dead silence of my glaringly obvious reading comp questions.

And as it turns out, they like to write. Well, they don’t actually like to write, they bitch and moan about it, but the class goes real quiet when I make them write paragraphs and when I read them, they’re grammatical bloodbaths but at least they’re original, ie not copied.

And, as a bonus for me, I make them write about shit in Cambodia, so that I can learn a thing or two. The first assignment was to write about how Cambodians celebrate Chinese New Year (cause they do). One kid wrote: “We burn the ghost money.” And if that’s not a goddamn beautiful line, I don’t know what is.

So tomorrow’s International Women’s Day. It’s a public holiday over in these parts, which baffled the shit out of me last year when I was here. Really? In a country with a fucking 80% domestic violence rate, endemic prostitution, fainting garment-factory employees and expatriated domestic help who live like slaves in neighboring countries?

There’s not a lot of irony going on in this country, so yes, really. But, you know, okay—at least we get a day off, right?

I’m supposed to do these listening exercises with them—I read aloud and check their comprehension. If you think reading comprehension is painful in this country, try listening comprehension. It’s painful stuff, and just to make it more painful (for me), I pick stuff not in their boring-ass American textbook that they can’t relate to (ie: the lesson on the NYC subway, to which I opened by asking, “Who’s been on a train before?” No hands raised. Now how the fuck do you teach that??). Noooo, there I go giving a shit again, and I bring in one of the English-language newspapers and read that shit aloud, stopping every few words to explain terms like “gender disparity.”

The gist of the article is that Cambodia ranks lower than any other country in the Southeast Asian region when it comes to gender equality, as measured by literacy, economic participation and empowerment. Of course, the government is disputing this, because disputing stone-cold facts is something they do.

Which I’m not dumb enough to begin a debate around. It’s in my contract that I can’t teach “controversial” material, which given the aforementioned propensity to deny inconvenient facts pretty much includes anything you’d read in the English-language newspapers. So I’m already pushing the envelope. I mean, this article’s got a quote from the (female) opposition party leader. (Should I be writing this on my blog?) That, and it took fifteen minutes to drag the above summary out of them.

So we focus on access to education, since “the Kingdom’s low ranking could largely be explained by social pressures that push women out of the education system.”

“What’s a ‘social pressure’?” I ask. I write the phrase on the boar beneath “gender disparity.”

More blank looks.

We hash it out, and come up with a good little list. A lot of the expected “a woman’s place is in the home” kind of stuff, but I’m surprised by “girls can’t study at the pagoda.” Boys can become monks and study for free; girls can’t become monks. That hadn’t occurred to me.

But I’m most surprised by how quickly some of them say “because the war.”

I just leave it there, on the board beside a bullet point: “war.”

I know better than to ask.

I point to our list. I inhale, “Now, what you’re going to do—” They groan. They know what’s coming. “—is write a paragraph telling me about why you think girls don’t go to school as much as boys in Cambodia. For those of you that have been listening,” I stare not at the kids who’ve been listening but at the ones in the back, “it’ll be easy.

“Oh, and this is how I’m going to take roll today. So you’d all better write something.”

They shuffle around and pass each other sheets of paper, and pretty soon they’re writing, scribbling, and it’s not quiet in the room, but as quiet as it gets—which is kind of like a jungle-quiet, with a constant buzz of insects and the occasional strange what-the-fuck animal call. (It’s usually a ringtone.)

I should say here that these are patently not the population the article is referring to. These girls are the privileged—they have iPhones and bedazzled purses and platform wedge sandals that remind me of Boogie Nights. They’re pursuing higher education, and their families have the means to send them to what is sadly considered one of the better schools in the city.

But still.

The “social pressure.”

“Pressure’s like a hand pushing on you,” I told them, demonstrating on my arm. “It’s what you feel whens something’s pushing on you.”

After fifteen minutes I collect the papers. We review some vocab and I let them go early, their eyes are so glazed.

I read the papers later, over dinner. Some gems:

“Because Khmer old culture they thought that women can’t go to school because if the women get high education they can write love letter to men and it not good for Khmer culture.”

“They think if the girls go to study, girls can go outside and have boyfriends, that is not the culture in Cambodia.”

“I think Cambodia is the small country that get up from war in 1993 and it’s stay from colonial a lot too. Long time Cambodia have one culture that unfair for girl is the boy can go to study but the girl cannot.”

“Some women in countryside [read: poor people] have low knowledge because the parents didn’t bring them to school. And the schools are far from the house. Some students in Phnom Penh didn’t study because they are allowed the foreiner [sic] tradition.”

“They think if women get high education or not is not important because they will become a housewife and only work in chicken and look after the child.”

“They’re think that if they agree the girl go to study, the girl can meet a lot of boy can write letter love and don’t listen parents advice.”

“Because the girl is 15 year old – 18 year old they alway get marries.” [We’ve reviewed “always” like 800 times, so this especially broke my heart.]

Those were from my more stellar students, most of whom are sit-at-fronters and girls to boot. As you can see, I’ve got my work cut out for me, when it comes to correcting and editing this stuff. Guess that’s what you get for giving a shit and trying to go all Dangerous Minds on these kids.

But strangely, it was the half-assed papers that got to me the most—the ones from the boys in the back of the room, who spent the whole class dicking off and then furiously scribbled shotty sentences, or even bulleted lists (NOT sentences, minus points!).

There’s an almost haiku-like starkness to them:

“We don’t have enough schools for students.
A lot of families are poor.
We just finish the war in 1979.”

“Because:
– don’t have money for them.
– Family don’t have enough money.
– Tranditional.
– War along time in the country
– Girl can help housework.”

“Because parents don’t have money to study. Some women is the countryside have low knowledge because the parents didn’t bring them to school. Cambodia have war.”

Or this one, the worst one, in terms of effort, information and sentence structure:

“Because Cambodia just get up from the war.”

Oh, there’s a sentimental old poet still knocking around inside me.

Screw it, I’ll give him the points for it.


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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