Teaching and Learning

Who I teach:

Mothers;

Fathers;

Caretakers;

An aspiring accountant;

A bartender;

A woman who’s looking for an American husband;

University students;

A young couple who met in my class;

Someone studying to be a pharmacist;

Those who bicycle and scooter to class;

Video game lovers;

Football haters;

A tattoo artist apprentice;

Young adults seeking employment in the city when really they want to be living in their hometown;

A young woman fluent in Mandarin and another who is studying French in addition to English;

A dancer;

Many Taylor Swift fans.

Ele class

Who are they teaching?

Me.

me and student

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Success in failure

I was going to write a post about the ways in which South Korea and Vietnam are similar and different, but the lists got too long (and perhaps bordered on the stereotypical). Instead, I am going to post my thoughts about learning – more specifically, learning English. My inspiration came from this article from the NYT Magazine which addresses how to support new college students who come from lower socio-economic statuses and thus often have less support to succeed in post-secondary education.

In Saigon it’s common for a group of university students to approach you and ask if they can just talk to you — to help with their English skills. If any American walks through a park, I can almost guarantee they will be approached and asked to take some time out to have a conversation with a group of 3-7 young people. These conversations often last for 15 minutes or so; it’s up to the person’s schedule, but students will come and go as the conversation progresses (most stay), and new people join in. Look around the park and you see as many as 20 groups going on at once, while other Vietnamese scan the pedestrians looking for a willing conversationalist.

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A quiet part of the park. I need to learn to take pictures of people.

Yesterday Dave and I ended up each talking to a small group for almost two hours. Usually, the conversation runs through pretty basic stuff “How long have you been here?” “Where are you from?” – the goals of these sessions, as I understand them, are for the students to practice speaking and listening – both for content as well as for pronunciation. For example, Dave and I were asked how to pronounce “winner” vs. “winter.” We found that he and I say the latter differently, probably based on where we grew up; I was also a bit surprised that these two words are said almost identically by some (I tend to enunciate the “t” more in winter, making for a slightly better distinction between the two words; I blame Canada for this).

When I told my group I taught at an American University, they became even more engaged in the conversation. The questions got deeper: “how do I get a job?” and, strikingly, “how do you succeed? I am afraid of failure.” — they continued to express fears of failing: courses, not getting a job, not finding a partner, etc.

I think many young people feel this way, but for some reason here it is OK to talk about it. I did not witness this vulnerability among young people (or anyone) in South Korea. I am finding in Saigon, there is a culture of trying and it being OK to make mistakes. In South Korea, where they are also mandated to learn English, I found very few people trying to practice their skills. Even the Korean-native English teachers at Dave’s school were hesitant to talk to me. The few that braved to do so would apologize and say that their English wasn’t very good and they knew they were making mistakes. After a few sentences, they would stop talking. These people, too, were afraid of failure, but instead of admitting it, they just didn’t really want to try. In Vietnam (at least Saigon), there is an acceptance around being more open about struggling with something, saying it up front, and continuing on. I have encountered this with older adults who approach me and just want to have a conversation – they say their English isn’t great (note: it’s usually pretty dang good) but they still want to sit down with me, talk to me, and also teach me some basic words and customs of their own.

I could go into a litany of theories as to why this cultural difference seems to exist in terms of making mistakes. But really what this observation highlights to me is the importance of allowing young people, no matter where they are from, to be able to make mistakes: to admit “this is hard, what do I do?” — as long as there are people there to support them when they ask. This is true whether someone is trying to speak a foreign language, get a job, or find a partner. I think it’s important to hear messages like, “It’s OK to mess up. Sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t,” and, “When things don’t turn out so well, try again. It will probably go better next time. You learn from mistakes and from that learning you have a greater chance of doing better.” It’s a message that anyone can convey to another, and based on the article that inspired this post, just hearing this message can go a long way in encouraging the success of a young person – and it’s even better when a young person can reframe the message and apply it.

On a personal note, I got a D on my first midterm at college and ended up majoring in that field — but I believed enough in my ability (thanks to my own educational and family background) to go to the professor and ask for help. I wasn’t used to doing so poorly, so I went in and asked what I was doing wrong and he was really encouraging, nice and helpful (and tolerant of my tears). I have no idea what would have happened – what my educational goals would have been – if he didn’t take time for me at such a crucial juncture.

Lessons Learned: Why I still hate war, but need to understand its place in understanding people

I am not a history buff. I know it’s important to understand history for many reasons; to understand history is to better understand culture, which is to better understand people. And one of the reasons I am enjoying travel so much is because I like learning about different approaches to living – how people exist in their day-to-day.

I think one of the reasons “history” turns me off so much is because all I remember about learning the subject in school is that history is a string of wars – who was involved, what happened, how they ended. Back then, I just didn’t care. Which makes yesterday a surprise for me. I went to the War Remnants Museum here in Saigon which is all about the Vietnam War without the US perspective (the place was actually called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes at one point). I went because Dave wanted to go. My first reaction was positive because the building had air-con. I would stay there gladly as long as he wanted to, I thought:  It was that or go back outside in the 90-plus degrees with over 80% humidity.

We spent hours in there. I was completely drawn in.

I knew the Vietnam War (called the American War here) was controversial. What I saw were posters against US involvement here from  almost every country: From Sweden to Argentina.

I had no idea how many journalists lost their lives documenting the war. Most were from the US.

I knew the US used a lot of horrible weapons in its fighting efforts. What I saw were pictures of the effects of napalm and Agent Orange. Though for Agent Orange, I didn’t need to see the pictures; I see its impact every day on the streets here. The man who runs the restaurant at the end of our alleyway stands 4 feet tall, is hunched backed, his skin covered in large cyst-like lumps. A local woman begs for money as she carries her son (brother?) in a sling around her shoulders.  The man’s head is half the size of his body; his legs are missing.

I know the Vietnam War has had devastating effects on Americans as well. Lives were lost. Soldiers were captured and tortured. Many who came home suffered from mental health challenges along with alarming rates of substance use disorders and homelessness. Psychologists better understood PTSD and came up with its label and put it into the DSM because of it.

Bottom line is, war causes all to suffer. Too often we only see it from “our” perspective (which for me would be the American side). We see our loss, our pain, our suffering. And that suffering has lasting effects. Yesterday I saw it from the other side – no mentions of how Americans suffered (except for the journalists) – only how those in Vietnam did.

I wonder how people in other countries learn about this conflict. What is it called? Do they talk about the devastation on both sides,  or only one? If one, which one?

Thanks to a building with air-con, I have learned a lot from a perspective I wouldn’t see otherwise on a topic I had no desire to understand. But I did learn more about the people I see here every day. And that is one of the main reasons I am traveling. I am grateful for the experience.

First Impressions of Saigon

I landed in Saigon three nights ago. Here are my first impressions from two days here.

It’s HOT! I have not been living in humidity and heat for a really long time. I enjoy it, but understand why there are cultures where things will shut down for the afternoon. It makes no sense to move around in the heat.

So much energy. Despite the weather, there are people everywhere getting things done. Probably because of the heat, the streets are filled with people sitting outside, eating, drinking, working. Another reason for the energy…

Scooters! Tons and tons of scooters! Crossing the street requires one’s complete attention. I am in awe of the fact that these people do not crash into each other constantly, but there is a beautiful rhythm to the chaos when you see 100 scooters navigating a roundabout with taxis, buses, pedestrians, bicycles, and each other.

The internet is SLOW. I will post pictures later when I have more patience and time :-).

Facebook is censored here. So are some parts of WordPress. I need to use my VPN to log into these sites. Makes me think about censorship and appreciate how much access we have to things in the US.

It’s cheap to live here as an expat. We are paying $400 a month to rent a room with a bath/shower, refrigerator, small deck, AC, and laundry and cleaning service. We are totally getting ripped off and if we knew better and did more research, we could have found a place for at least 30% less. But after one night so far so good; we are in a great location.

It’s really cheap to eat here. Dinner for two including a couple of beers is $10 or less. A beer or other drink from a convenience store where you can sit outside and watch the rest of the world go by will run you between 50 and 75 cents.

More direct comparisons to Seoul/Cheonan when I am more settled here. Any observations or tips about being here greatly appreciated!