Monday, July 18, 2011

Two Schools & and the Hunger for Literacy

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.

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