I wake up early here, sometimes really early, but I doze in the canopy bed of mosquito netting and look out my open windows at the mountains and the mist, lately mostly at the fog and rain. If I fall back asleep I am sometimes awakened at about 7:30 by the soft voices of the Hmong girls talking to each other and sweeping the terrace outside my window. Where Vietnamese is clangorous and sharp elbowed, and always sounds urgent and impatient, Hmong is rounded, patient, and well-worn, its syllabic repetitions as comforting and they are mysterious. The other day one of the girls was sweeping under the table right outside my window and singing. I like to think it was an ancient traditional tune, but more likely it was a pop song that I didn’t recognize. When I look up from my bed, we exchange smiles and good mornings, which I should learn how to say in Hmong and surprise her one day.
Downstairs at breakfast I check the email and Facebook posts that have come through from the American day while I was sleeping. Sometimes I chat with other guests, but mostly I just like to observe them. Every morning busses from Lao Cai disgorge tourists into the hotel lobby fresh off the (often literally) nauseating ride from the night train from Hanoi. Often they are tired and cranky, and lately the weather has been so rainy that this has made them worse. Today, I watched a woman put on a world-class pouty-face performance so dramatic that I couldn’t turn away. I think she saw me watching her, but since her own friends refused to notice her, my attention was probably better than no one’s. I couldn’t tell her nationality since her disdain was as mute as it was theatrical. She stared at her bowl of fruit and yogurt like it was road kill, and nibbled resentfully on a corner of dry toast. Then she picked up her mug of tea laboriously with both hands and bent her whole body over it like it was the hemlock she’d been hoping for all along. Occasionally, she lowered her face into both hands. I wonder if she went trekking today, and her companions and guides just left her in a village by the way somewhere.
After wolfing down my perfect vibrant orange-yolked local free-range runny eggs with French bread and butter, I usually write and read on the terrace all morning and head up to the SOC café and offices after lunch. Today I had an early meeting and walked out into the rain and up the hills shortly after 9:00.
Arriving at the café, I first see Colin, whose skinny pitifulness is exacerbated by the stripes of hickey-like marks on his neck, a sign that he’s sought out local folk healing methods for some malady. He tells me he’s had food poisoning for several days. When I ask what from, he says, of all things, “sushi.” Let me remind you that we are far from the ocean in a mountain with intermittent electricity, which is a night train from Hanoi and does not have an airport. When he swears that he’ll “never eat sushi again,” I get the feeling that the lessons of rehab may actually stick when it comes to raw fish.
My meeting with Jaya goes okay, but I am baffled by her assertion that I should go back and teach the ABCs to my fledgling adult ELLs. She says they need to learn the letters for their sounds so they can learn to pronounce English better. I then suggest that I put the words “though,” “through,” and “tough” up on the board and see how that goes.
It is deafening out on the front porch of the café, with the trucks and motorbikes, and inexplicable morning karaoke sounds, but it’s ear-splitting inside the café with the tile-cutters working on the new bathroom. I’m glad I stay out on the porch, however, so I can overhear the much more absurd and acrimonious meeting that Ann has with Jaya. The conversation they’re having has a history, as Ann has told me, but hearing it live still surprises me. What Jaya wants Ann to do is create a lesson-by-lesson record of everything she teaches in the classroom. She’s concerned, deeply concerned, as she says, that as a teacher, Ann isn’t accountable to anyone else in the organization. Naturally, she thinks it’s herself that Ann (and her successors), should be accountable to. She tries every way she knows how to get Ann to see things from her, self-described management point of view. “Why don’t you write a log entry for every day of teaching,” she suggests. Ann says, that’s absurd, that’s not a reasonable request of a teacher, and concedes that she might be persuaded to write weekly progress reports, but adds that since she’s not the paid volunteer coordinator she can’t exactly be responsible for who succeeds her. Score. Not good enough, says Jaya, “Then why don’t you just send me your lesson plans for everyday?” To this, Ann snorts, “Lesson plans? I just come up with an idea and a theme at breakfast or in the shower,” which makes Jaya’s hair stand on end.” Jaya makes one last futile pass at it, asking Ann to at least write out the grammar lessons she teaches. Ann’s response that that’s impossible because she doesn’t teach grammar lessons leaves Jaya fuming, and she finally goes meta and pleads, “why are you so difficult to talk to?”
It gives me no small amount of satisfaction that all the while this is going on, I’m dutifully drafting the handbook for adult ELL learners that Jaya has asked me to write, and going on at some length about Whole Language theory and zones of proximal development and the demonstrated pointlessness of atomized grammar lessons as a way of acquiring basic speaking ability in another language. I completely share Ann’s belief that a professional educator – and a volunteer one at that – should not have to report someone with no experience in or knowledge of educational theory and method, but in a small way, I understand Jaya’s frustration, too, because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. At the end of her rope, Jaya asks, “how will I know what’s happening in the classroom?” to which I almost interject, “I guess you just won’t.”
They each holster their dueling pistols and walk away. For now.