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A Vietnam Exchange

A Little Country That Seems To Have Little, But Has It All

Journal entry: November 9, 1999.

It's 6 a.m. I was already awake when the loudspeakers on the street interrupted the roosters at 5 a.m. with the morning news and propaganda, interspersed with martial music. By that time, the streets of Cao Lanh, Vietnam are already busy with bicycles, motorbikes, and pedestrians streaming in and out of town.

Our group of 17 are members of Global Volunteers, a nonprofit humanitarian organization based in St. Paul, MN. We have traveled from all parts of the U.S. to the Mekong Delta city of Cao Lanh, 120 kilometers southwest of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We met a week earlier at Ho Chi Minh City’s Rose Hotel and drove 4½ hours in a small bus into an area where the sight of a Westerner is cause to drop everything and stare openly.

English: Key to the Future

We’re here to teach English pronunciation. Our students are doctors and nurses, English teachers, college students, and ordinary people from the villages. Many of them know some English grammar and some can write in English, but their pronunciation is impossible for us to understand. The Vietnamese government asked Global Volunteers to help. To the Vietnamese people, English is the key to an economic future.

My wife and another member of the group are teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL). The rest of us are amateurs: a real estate developer from Denver, a legal secretary, an art historian, an engineer, several retired elementary teachers, a librarian, a healthcare administrator from Alaska, and a graphic designer (me).

Yesterday we were given our teaching assignments. Along with three others, I was assigned to teach in the evening at My Tho, a nearby village, starting every evening at 5 p.m. The My Tho students, they said, would be office workers eager to learn English. We would get there on motorbikes driven by teachers from the school. Here, as in most of Vietnam, cars are a rarity.

As it turns out, I have 25 students, ranging in age from 10 to 55, most of whom rarely see offices. Outside, at the windows and at doorways, I have another 20 or so spectators. Mr. De, the Vietnamese teacher assigned to work with me, explains that there is no text. “Just teach,” he says.

So I teach. I draw a map of the U.S. on the blackboard. I tell them about Oregon, about my family, about the weather, and about our holidays. I have no idea if they understand me.

Somehow, I finish the evening and feel satisfied. In total darkness, we four teachers jump back on our motorcycles and start the return journey back to the hotel for dinner. On either side of the road people work, eat, and play by the light of candles or lanterns. Each splash of light reveals a new scene.

Why Do Americans Travel?

All the way, Mr. De asks me questions: Why do Americans travel so much? Why do they move away from their families? Do I think children should move away? Why did I join Global Volunteers? What do I think of Vietnam? Do I like the Vietnamese people? Do I know anyone with two cars?

It usually rains in the evenings in November, so we often arrive at the classrooms soaked to the bone from our motorbike ride—which is okay, because it makes the heat a bit more bearable. Each time we get to class at My Tho there are new faces. Each lesson is like a new show; we have fun just planning for the night’s performance. At the hospital and the Foreign Language Center, where we also teach, things are more structured.

My schedule starts at 4 p.m. and leaves me plenty of time for other pursuits. In the morning I keep a daily journal with drawings on each page. This, like everything else we Americans do, draws crowds. When people ask me my job, I tell them I’m an artist because my phrasebook doesn’t have the words for graphic design.

The news that I’m an artist leaks out to the Communist officials and I am invited as an honored guest to the opening of a showing of paintings by local artists. I’m interviewed and asked to write my comments on the show in a special journal. When I finish, a crowd gathers to hear the interpreter read what I had to say.Ah, the heady life of an art critic.

Near the end of the last class, two girls are chosen to come up and pin flowers on our shirts. When they step back, all of the students and Mr. De stand and clap for an embarrassingly long time. Then it’s bedlam. Hugs. Flowers. More hugs. More flowers. Autographs. Addresses. Promises to write. More hugs. Then tears.

Darkness finally forces us to leave and we move through the crowds to our motorbikes. On the long ride home in the dark with Mr. Kiat I don’t say a word because I’m too choked up to speak.

After three weeks in Dong Thap Province, we feel a part of the community. Whenever we arrive at the market on our daily shopping excursion the vendors rush to get us small stools, and we sit with a large crowd of onlookers. With a great deal of help from our phrasebooks and shared photos, we hear about them and tell them about us.

They are friendly and sincere. They are very proud of their children and their country. They are happy, yet very poor. The average annual salary in Vietnam is $280 per year. Most people work seven days a week.

With little money, the people live simply. People bathe in the canals, wash dishes, wash clothes, and even get their drinking water from them. The canals are alive with boats of all kinds and fishermen ply their trade 24 hours a day.

Everywhere we go, we find that the Vietnamese admire Americans and want to be like us. They want to be able to travel. Most of them haven’t even been as far as Ho Chi Minh City. They want cars and phones and reliable electricity. They want life to be easier. We wonder, however, if they would be happier if they had what we have. In a way, we hate to see it happen. These smiling, warm people seem, in so many ways, to have it all.

Possessed by Spirits

Vietnam is a country where nothing seems consistent. Sometimes there’s electricity, sometimes there’s not. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it fries. Perhaps to instill some constancy in their lives, the Vietnamese have rigid customs.

While we were warned in advance not to touch people’s heads (the body’s most spiritual point), not to wear shorts, and not to be affectionate with members of the opposite sex in public, we were not warned about the perils of being left-handed. At our very first meal, as Duane starts to eat a bite of food with her chopsticks the waitress removes the chopsticks from her left hand and transfers them to her right. When she first writes on the chalkboard with her left hand, the class gasps in astonishment. We learn from our government liaison that people who use their left hands are possessed by evil spirits.

DAVID FUNK is a graphic artist from Eugene, OR.