First impressions of Vietnam, part II

Football and food are universal.

My favorite classes to teach so far are ones where we talk about the verbs “like” or “love” or “hate” in present tense. These are simple concepts, don’t have a ton of exceptions to their rules, and have infinite examples. Often, sports and food are brought up. We talk a lot about football (soccer for the Yanks), and the largely Manchester United fan base in Vietnam is appalled to hear my support of Liverpool.  All the classes require students to select an English name to go by in addition to their Vietnamese name (otherwise, almost everybody would be named Nguyen, Hien, Tra, or some variation of those three). Always, always, always – there is a “Messi” in my class. In fact, one class had “Messi”, “Persie”, “Kaka”, “Ronaldo”, and “Rooney” sitting together in the front row of my General English for Teenagers class. I could field an entire team of football stars with these students!

A couple of my favorite teaching moments include teaching “like” or “love”. Students get a kick out of me telling them that “I like pizza but I LOVE phở gà (a kind of Asian chicken noodle soup)”. I think an American being interested in their culture seems pretty cool to them – they consume as much, if not more, American cultural outlets like music and media than Americans do. Also, my Vietnamese pronunciation is awful and it’s cool to see the teacher struggle with language too, especially when talking about a difficult concept.


One really touching story was at the end of one of these classes discussing “like” and “love”. One of my adult classes and I had spent the better half of thirty minutes practicing conversations asking what people liked or didn’t like – mainly food, beer, and wine – but were interrupted by the end of class bell. While they filed out, I offered a couple more examples of “like” – and one of the oldest guys in my class, who seems extraordinarily frustrated by his late start to learning English, came up to me at the end and said in just the worst English I’ve ever heard “I love class with new teacher” and hugged me. I literally almost cried but I all of my body’s moisture is sweat now so crying may not actually be possible.

Most people are just curious.

I’m one of probably two dozen Westerners in this city of more than 435,000 people. Almost no foreign tourists end up in this town, unless you count a couple from Laos. Nationalism runs high in Asia – communist street banners frame almost every road in the city, and there is absolutely a sense of disregard for those from other countries (especially China). Other than teaching English, there is no industry in this city where having an English speaker – without native Vietnamese fluency, that is – would be worthwhile. I have never been in such an incredible minority.

This manifests most evidently traveling throughout the city. People turn and stare. I mean, burn holes through my sweaty shirt. There isn’t really a sense of “political correctness” like there is in America, and it is obvious when I ride past on my bike or walk by a shop. Many people will be friendly, even eager to practice what little English they know. They greet me with a “Hello!” and maybe “How old are you?” but little beyond that. Others stare in disbelief as I walk by. Some are brave enough to ask to take a selfie with me to post on their Facebook (Facebook is still huge here, it’s like America in 2009). Goodness knows what their Vietnamese subtitles are on those photos.

One day I had arrived back from work and after locking up my bike, went into the elevator of my apartment building to go to the 6th floor where I live. Some other resident, an older man, who lives in the same building saw me get in the elevator and pressed the “6” button before I could even tell him to – he, like almost everybody in the building, already knows that the white kid lives on the 6th floor. He said something in Vietnamese, and I responded “xin chào” (hello). He made to grab my arm, compared its size to his (I bought a shirt at the store and had to get an XXL even though in America I usually buy a Medium). He touched my hair and even though I was a bit weirded out and pretty thankful once I got onto my floor and into my apartment, I realized that guy may have just encountered one of the first foreigners in his life. If he had talked to another in his life, it may have been in another novelty kind of an interaction just like this one. Or, maybe he was a child during the war and is part of the homage to how far we can come in 50 years. But really, I think he was just curious – my hair, arm, clothes, mannerisms, and probably smell, height, weight, language, and entire backstory are so different than all that he may have known in his whole life.

I think it’s important to remember that these people exist. Not in a pity-the-poor-Vietnamese-who-have-never-seen-another-part-of-the-world-and-may-never-see-it kind of a way, but in a personal growth, perspective, and purpose kind of a way. His ability to breathe, grow, sweat mercilessly, learn, and live are every bit as valid and important as mine. His capacity and value as a person should not be determined by his place of birth or lack of monetary worth. In fact, his curiosity is the very quality that spurred me to come to this country, and is the driving force of much of what is worth celebration among the human race. Being curious, observant, and brave like this guy are the same qualities of my student who told me he liked my class, or the teenagers who try so desperately to soak up every word from my mouth in hopes of a brighter, larger, more exciting future. They are the qualities that inspire education, outreach, and spirituality. So, yeah, cultural differences were kind of on full display there, but I count it among the most important moments of clarity in my time here.


I miss burgers.

Lucas McCamon is teaching abroad with API in Vietnam

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