Thursday, July 21, 2011
Memo to self: In order to preserve last shreds of human kindness for afternoon teaching, avoid having lunch with food-refusing, non-stop talking young person.
The students’ favorite game at the school at Sapa O’Chau is called “guns.” My initial horror at this spectacle has cooled a bit since my first day, so I’m glad I waited to write about it. I still really hate it, but I’m trying to think about it in the larger context of pedagogy. Trying, I said, trying. Here’s how the game works: Students form a circle and make two-finger guns; the teacher stands in the center and fires at a single student. Either he says one word and is seeking the antonym, or he says a letter of the alphabet and is asking for the sound it makes. Up, down, P, puh, and so on (and on and on). The student who is fired upon has to duck and the two on either side of her fire their guns on each other as they answer. You can be dead either for not ducking fast enough or by getting shot by the other student if you are too slow to answer or answer incorrectly (teacher makes head exploding gesture and sound). My fellow volunteer teachers are in their twenties and thirties, and the oldest student in the room is probably twenty-eight, so none of them have any recollection of war in this country. But, I do, and I am damn sure not about to aim finger guns at any Vietnamese person, even if it has pedagogical value. The peace I am trying to get to with this game is that I won’t say anything about it, but I refuse to play. But I’m not sure whether it’s just the game I object to or the way the lead teacher, P, did it.
If I know one thing from 30 years of teaching – and today I’m not at all sure I even know one thing – is that you teach the way you teach; you can watch another teacher at her best and say to yourself, I need to be that good, but you can’t say, I need to be like her. P is a cult of personality teacher; he is the center of attention, the great white male god of literacy, and demands absolute obedience and compliance with his rules. I don’t want to be this kind of teacher, and I worry that it may be what’s required here. I get more worried about what’s driving P’s cargo cult pedagogy when I learn that he has a local H’mong girlfriend who barely speaks English. Maybe I just am a crazy judgmental old woman, but I do not understand this. Was she a student? How are other students supposed to regard her now? How can he not only maintain, but flaunt his authority under those circumstances. How can he look into a room full of students and see potential lovers? What do they talk about? Does he teach her everything?
I also wonder how he can sustain the level of energy that his version of teaching requires. It’s not that I’m jealous of it, exactly, but I am suspicious of it. This may be something like the way it feels for career teachers to have an impossible perky Teach-for-America volunteer come into their school for a limited time, utterly convinced of her ability to change the world one child and one elite liberal arts degree at a time. It may be that I’m lazy and old, but I think of real teaching as a sustained and mutually respectful engagement. But, to be fair, this kind of teaching is different, and he’s been at it much longer than I have. They love him, and it seems to work. Su loves him too with his great white Dead Poets’ Society standing-on-a-chair routines, but it’s not me. When I was a new teacher, I also wanted to be loved and worshiped, but I never cared – and do not care about – obedience like that. I also used to think I would just naturally be loved and worshiped; I never thought I had to inspire or cultivate those things. I was wrong of course. Both because being loved and worshiped has nothing to do with good teaching and because they did not naturally love me.
There’s a lot less shouting with P gone this week, on holiday in Bangkok with his girlfriend, but that doesn’t mean that other peoples’ pedagogies aren’t something to be negotiated, which I am definitely not used to. Where I work, I teach my way and my colleagues teach their ways, and there is almost never and meeting of the twains. This experience at Sapa O’Chau gives me a glimpse of how complex a personal and professional interaction collaborative teaching is. Today I got scolded by J, who has taken over the lead teaching role in P’s absence. She is every inch the school-teacher, and also probably much better at her job than I am, but, man, as we used to say in 6th grade, she is strict. And, apparently missing the human gene for humor. And possibly, also, good sense. When class convenes in the mornings and afternoons, there is a song and an interminable calling of the roll. She, like P. insists on absolute silence and demand that students put pens down. She wants me to take the pens away from students who are writing when they should be listening to the roll, but I won’t do it. Is this not a literacy project? I will never take a pen out of the hand of a young person denied formal schooling straining after the magic of writing. When she allows them to pick-up their pens again, it is to write down all the words to Old MacDonald or the Hokey-Pokey, because, really, it’s very important to know how to spell ee-i-ee-i-o, apparently, and to be absolutely silent when you do so. I’m probably wrong again, and there is a pedagogical purpose to this, but I can’t see it.
The afternoon session today began a little raggedy because it had just started to rain and people were straggling in and contending with raincoats and umbrellas. The room is impossibly crowded and stuffy and hot, and – oh, dear god, no, are those coals in the fireplace that I have to stand in front of to teach? Is it possible to drown in your own sweat? Will I actually make a puddle on the floor? I’m a little prickly about all of this, and try to have a quick chat with my two assistant teachers, one of whom is on her first day, about the afternoon’s lesson plan, when I suddenly realize that J is standing there with the roster in her hand, giving me that unmistakable fake-smile teacher-glare that says, “when you’re finished talking with your neighbor, the rest of us can resume this very important business of roll-calling and transcribing Old MacDonald lyrics.” “Oh, sorry,” I blurt, and she actually says, “we’ll wait.” Part of me wanted to take her at her word and just keep talking, but instead I swore under my breath and went outside in the rain, fuming like a 6th grader. I regrouped, and the lesson went well, but the students are clearly both tired and fidgety, and by the day’s closing convocation, Miss J has met her match with students shrieking and poking at each other and running around like crazy. It’s the end of the day, and I would have just told them “good job” and sent them home. But, no: She insists they form the circle the exact way she wants it and demands complete silence for that silly game of guns. She doesn’t get it, however, and an ominous rumble persists, like the temblors that portend an earthquake. Sure enough, all hell breaks loose, and children are running for the door. Then she calls on me to go “watch” the door. In all seriousness, I ask her what does she mean by that? Make sure no one gets hurt in the crush? No, she means bar the door and prevent students from leaving, this despite the fact that the punishment for talking is always having to go outside, via the door. Maybe I should challenge them to a recitation of Old Macdonald before they can leave. Seriously, we all have to wait while she stands in the middle of the room with her hands in the air until everyone shuts up, which takes about 30 seconds short of head-exploding intolerable. Then all she says is “see you tomorrow.” For real? I don’t have children of my own, and I don’t usually work with children, but even I could catch the vibe in the room, and knew that imposing that kind of order without compromise was an exercise in control and not pedagogy. But, again, I’m probably wrong. I’m sure she’s pissed at me. Having written this and vented, I pledge just to keep my mouth shut tomorrow and do my job the best way I know how.
And, if I know a second thing about teaching after all these years, it’s that literacy learning at any level is messy and noisy and non-linear and, at its best, always deeply social. It needs talk.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
After the visit to the school, 0ur little party of visiting dignitaries prepares to leave Son Hai and repair to Pho Lu for lunch, and the children walk back down the hill to their home, from which Tuyen had fetched them up, picking her way through the mud and dung in her tight skirt and heels. We’ve left the huge bag of candy at the village center, but I remember I have my stash of Kind Bars, so we hand one to each child, and the oldest one asks if she can get one for her younger brother who is one month old. Good try. I don’t know if I like myself for doing this, but I do it anyway. It wasn’t my idea, and at least they’re nutritious.
I am so hungry at this point that my eyes are crossing and I forget that on these kinds of occasions I will have almost no control over what food is put in front of me. Food in these small villages can range from homey and very good, to weird, to downright septic in my experience. I know this will be a high-stakes lunch, but still I am unprepared for what is to come. The obligatory meeting in the village center earlier that morning is a preview. I’ve screwed this part up before, first by disappointing with my female-ness and then by failing utterly to charm the grumpy and resentful local chairman. I need and want things to go better this time, and I know Le will be a better and more sympathetic diplomat and translator. And I will need all her help. We convene in the village center, with its U-shaped tables covered with blue acetate cloth that sticks to sweaty arms like napalm, under the watchful eyes not just the ubiquitous Uncle Ho, but Uncles Karl and Vladimir as well. Awkward conversation made much more awkward by this arrangement, it’s just minutes before the awkward foods arrive. First, huge and beautiful grapes with a pronounced pesticide flavor to the skin and enormous pits that I don’t know how to get out of my mouth. I swallow them. Next, very appealing warm peanuts. Great, I know how to eat these. But, no, the shells resist all my ballgame and barroom skills and refuse to give up their nuts. Tuyen eagerly cracks them for me and delivers a little pile of pale, larval, unsalted, and I guess, raw nuts that taste awful. The warmth is from the sun of the road on which they were probably drying. I eat. Next, bowls of the legendary Bac Ha plums, little round ones in Impressionist shades of green and magenta. They are trying to trick me, I know, but I have to bite and praise. The first note is chemical again, followed by astringency so powerful that makes your tongue feel like it’s been dry-cleaned and your face draw up in a cartoonish pucker. The finish is sweet and lovely and welcome, but by now you have a slippery magenta pit in your fingers and juice on your chin and nothing but a sad little Kleenex to help you. Thank god you don’t have to swallow the pit. Later, I discover purple dots far down on my arm, and I say aside to Le, “how did I get this all the way there,” and she says, “I think that’s from me; I squirted juice onto you,” and I feel better. I tell her I will always remember her and this day every time I put on this shirt and see the stain. The final course is watermelon, which is delicious, but comes with yet another pit problem. I swallow some more before I notice everyone else is extracting the seeds with toothpicks before they eat the fruit. Still, the meeting goes well, and there are warm handshakes and photographs of me presenting notebooks and pens.
Lunch will be like this, except I will have to be even more alert to secret codes and, ha, pitfalls. Be the open-minded and grateful eater you say you want to be, I counsel myself in the car. Not “adventurous,” because other peoples’ food isn’t a theme park or an test of strength; it’s food, and it is meant to be shared – and appreciated. We pull into the restaurant in dusty Pho Lu to find that behind the usual craptacular façade is a stunning old beamed Chinese-style house. Promising. Let the impenetrable tea rituals begin. And they do. Somewhere among the pouring and the rinsing and more pouring, Le says to me, “you don’t mind dog, do you?” I’m mortified to report that my actual, thoughtful response was, “Well, I don’t much care for it, but I don’t mind if other people eat it.” Much to her infinite credit she does not say, “You don’t ‘mind’? What kind of fucking answer is that, and who the fuck do you think you are?” Just gives me the Vietnamese smile and nod.
We move to a semi-air-conditioned chamber for lunch and the plates start arriving, the first a plate of sliced roast something. “Is that duck?” I ask Le, and we get so confused with the similarities between the words that I ask “quack quack or ruff ruff?” “Yes, ruff ruff,” she confirms. Nothing to do but have the smallest bite possible and hope other foods come soon so I can distract attention by eating them instead of the dog, which is, in fact, not vile, And what a spread it is: another dog dish, and three goat dishes. The curried goat is pretty good, but since no rice has arrived yet, it’s not very easy to eat. One of the other goats is okay, so I decide to try the third, and my luck runs out. Halfway through a chewing marathon, which was, regrettably, beginning to yield up some flavor, Le says, “it’s tasty.” No, it most certainly is not. Oh, no, I realize, she didn’t say “tasty,” it was either “testes,” or “intestines.” It hardly matters which at this point, and dear reader, I had swallowed the fruit pits, the sour plum, several shots of grain alcohol, and the slice of dog, but I did not swallow that bite of goat unmentionable. I really tried, but I knew if I did it would come up with everything else in a rainbow of plum and curry and watermelon and pumpkin vine. I almost pulled a Seinfeld and put the Kleenex of goat-whatever in my bag, but, alas, I just dropped on the floor behind me, and raised another toast in my half-assed Vietnamese, downed it in a single shot, and charmed the living shit out of the robustly drinking female teachers and male local leaders. You gotta play to your strengths.
Monday, July 18, 2011
I would say Sunday was a long day, but it’s hard to say when one day ended and another began. I’m sure meth-heads and emergency surgeons and bipolar people on the ragged edge of a manic binge know the feeling of going days without sleep. I know I used to dabble in it when I was younger for schoolwork and partying, and more usually my inability to balance the two. But when you add the elements of physical travel through space, language barriers, and encounters with unfamiliar and troubling food, you find yourself in a strange psychological state, one that’s not entirely unpleasant. Clumsy, unable to keep track of my belongings (I lost and found my sunglasses three times, and my readers and my camera once each, in the space of twenty-four hours), I crawl into my bed at 8:30 on Sunday night, the first bed I’d slept in since Wednesday in Austin, Texas. Woke up at 1:00, took a Lunesta and slept until 5:30.
So, it is with a marginally clearer head that I start the real work of this trip this morning: teaching English classes at Sapa O’Chau to H’Mong girls who have had to drop out of school to make money for their families in the villages by coming to town and selling handicrafts to tourists on the street. It turns out that about a third of the students are boys and young men, some well into their twenties. Those who learn to speak English and Vietnamese move up to jobs as tour guides, which is better than street-selling, but since many of those cannot read and write in H’Mong, English, or Vietnamese, the next rung on the career ladder, slippery and rickety at best, is just too far a reach. According to Tan Shi Su, Sapa O’Chau’s indomitable 25-yr old 4’6” creator and director, there are 88 students currently enrolled, with ages ranging from 10-30. Thirty of the girls sleep at the Center, some as many as 10 to a room so that they can continue to study, and work on the street, without having to walk miles a day through the mountains to their home villages each day. I suspect those who work as tour guides and walk as much as 30-40k a day are especially grateful. On the drizzly Sunday afternoon when Le and I visited to center, Su led us to the top floor classroom, and we sat and talked about curriculum and logistics (me, quietly panicking) while three small girls with waist-length silken hair wearing a motley mix of modern and traditional H’mong clothing tended a huge pot of rice they were cooking for their dinner in the open fireplace in the corner. They talked and giggled and occasionally poked at another girl curled up asleep on the sofa. On the front steps when we came in, we had passed another three girls, at work on exquisite pieces of traditional embroidery. I’ll write more details about Su and Sapa O’Chau, H’mong, Sa Pa, tourism, education, and the complex nexus of them all in future posts. For now, I just want to add that I’ve never felt more humbled by what people – children, mostly -- will do to get an education. I’ll be teaching from 8:30-11:00 and 2-4 Monday through Friday.
Earlier on that longest of Sundays we visited another classroom, empty of students for the summer save for the three little emissaries summoned from their home down the road. This is the school that Phil Deering and I raised the money to build, and I’ve come to see if everything is as it should be and to meet with the local officials and teachers. We crouched in the classroom on the kindergarten in Son Hai, its wall decorated with a combination of the universal semiotics of early childhood education (talking animals, letters, numbers, etc) and communist dogma (picture of Ho, pledges of obedience), tiny chairs with imprints of cat faces on the backs lined up along the walls, heat and humidity kicking the ass of the ceiling fan, talking to three tiny local girls. In my case, talking is a huge exaggeration because both they and I can barely speak Vietnamese, and share few if any vocabulary words. They were barefoot, small even for their ages, bright-eyed and curious, but deeply skeptical of me. And they were filthy. Dirty faces, visible boogers, matted hair, torn and mud-crusted clothing. Does that matter, I wonder? Is cleanliness an indicator of quality of life? If one of your jobs in your family is tending water buffalo, then I reckon you’re going to be pretty dirty, and you’re going to stay that way in a house without running water. In our world, we would read these children’s appearance as an indicator of neglect, if not abuse, but I don’t know if that’s true. Of course, I think the runny noses and bare feet and skin conditions are signs of health issues that should be addressed, but there’s no way to say they aren’t loved and cherished even if their childhood contains much more hard work and much more primitive conditions than we would find acceptable. I don’t know. Shoes, though, I’m drawing the line on shoes. I’m sending a box of those cheap, ugly Chinese sandals.
Saturday, May 29, 2010
This appeared earlier on Dog Canyon (dogcanyon.org), but I'm reposting here.
Travel broadens the mind, but it also narrows it, especially when you are traveling alone as an invisible person, otherwise known as a middle-aged woman. In truth, it’s not really my mind that’s narrowing; it’s my patience and tolerance, and those two strands of my character are winnowing into a frayed spitty end of a short rope. Not my patience with and tolerance for the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable, and even the frightening, necessarily. I’ve been studying and trying to use a new and difficult language, weathering regular power outages, rats and roaches, and have even survived being hit by a motorcycle while riding my bike. What I can’t stand is the other travelers. Not every single one of them of course; far be it for me to make such broad and unfair generalizations.
I hate the fake raggedyness of the backpacker crowd, wearing their collection of tattered bracelets and “I went tubing in Laos,” t-shirts, but who never leave the safety of their movable cliques. I hate those stupid Hammer-Harem hybrid pants the women wear, imagining they’re dressing like some lost tribe (I’ve never seen a local person anywhere in Vietnam or Cambodia where those things), the gesture of conspicuous authenticity illuminating their western privilege like white phosphorus. I hate the shirtless men with their dumb-ass tattoos and stupid hats and sunglasses (yes -- precisely the kind of folks who should be given cheap beer and motorcycles!). I hate how rude they are to the Vietnamese people in cafes and hotels. I hate also their callowness and ignorance. The rudest of a pack of insufferable English women in Sapa, sat reading a Judy Blume novel in the lobby of the hotel while her friend occupied every other square inch of the place with her gear and yelled loudly into her cell phone to some hapless Vietnamese driver. If you’re old enough to travel in Southeast Asia, you are too old for Judy Blume: go home. And I hate myself because I can’t help but envy their youth and beauty and unfettered fucking fun and their easy ignorance of the responsibility to think more deeply and complexly about the world and their places in it.
You know who else I hate? The older richer tourists in search of some Asian Resortiana, some unholy spawn of Orlando-Vegas-Waikiki-Cancun, Canlandowaicun, if you will, with “such cheap prices” and “nice people.” A very angry woman from California with whom I shared a cab from the train station to the airport in Hanoi, yelled at a Vietnamese man (who was actually trying to rip us off, but not by much) to fuck off. Then she launched into her critique of the whole country: “Vietnam is too scammy. We’re going back to Thailand!” Because the combination of low-wage service workers, tourism, and wealthy business interests appears to be going quite well there, doesn’t it?.Here in Hoi An, the men have their suits made for them and while the women get spa treatments, then they eat steaks and sea bass with knives and forks in fancy restaurants. Soon the central coast will be lousy with these people, although the actual residents of Hoi An town need hardly worry that they’ll spend more than a few hours here in its hot dusty streets filled with actual Vietnamese people. The road from Danang that runs south along the coast, past the beach now named for an American television show, past the beach where decades ago American helicopter pilots sometimes dipped the bellies of their machines low enough in the shallow waves to wash out the blood and mud and body parts, that road now blocks the view of the beach and is lined on both sides by enormous walled golf resorts where people can experience the exotic world of Vietnam without getting any of it on them. When these places are all open, beautiful Vietnamese women will wear ao dai and serve tea and cocktails, and small, wiry men will carry huge bags of clubs over what used to be sand dunes, descendents of the men who carried artillery piece by piece up and down mountain paths more than 35 years ago. On the day I came in from the airport, I saw an old woman in a conical hat stooped over with a short handled broom sweeping the sand and dust from a small patch of St. Augustine grass outside the wall.
And finally, I hate that the Vietnamese government – or someone – can’t or won’t do anything about this kind of crap. I shouldn’t blame them: They simply need the money. But these are the people who expelled the Chinese, the Portuguese (very briefly), French, Japanese, French again, and then the Americans. They fought off the Mongols, for crying out loud. I wouldn’t think bad-back Greg Norman and that little ill-tempered turd Colin Montgomerie could put up much of a fight. But of course, they’ve probably never been here.