Keerthi Kilari - Teaching English & Other Subjects in Vietnam
Alhough I’m from India, I have to confess I know barely anything about my Asian neighbors. While western films, TV shows, and news items flood the media, it’s not often you hear about what’s happening in Cambodia or go to the cinema to watch a Vietnamese film. Volunteering in another Asian country was my attempt at filling that embarrassing knowledge gap but also to gain insight into the daily workings of another developing nation with a similar colonial history to my own. Why Vietnam in particular? For the simple reason that it offered visa-on-arrival at the airport! Nobody likes visa applications.
Living in Hanoi
The Projects Abroad staff did everything they could to ease me into life in Hanoi. I was received at the airport and the cultural induction introduced me to the practical nitty-gritty of survival such as crossing the road amidst hundreds of 2-wheelers zipping past, getting a taxi and speaking the local language. When I missed home too much, there was always peanut-butter in the fridge to cheer me up. Our cook made all kinds of delicious Vietnamese food and treated us to the occasional pizza when the rice got dull. I shared a tall five-story townhouse with four other wonderful volunteers and my favorite part of the day was relaxing in the evening on the common-room sofa and hearing about their adventures that day.
Adventures are not hard to come by in Hanoi. On my first day out and about, I was unnerved when men in the street motioned for me to come sit on the back seat of the motor-bikes. Later that day, I was told they were motor-bike taxis and while the concept seemed incredibly dodgy at first, I soon found this one of the best ways to cruise around the city. Bargaining can be a bit of hassle in the beginning, especially when you have to do it in sign-language. But once you become familiar with the fares, you truly feel like a Hanoi-local when you tell them the price you are going to pay before they get a word in.
Though most Vietnamese don’t speak much English, people of all ages frequently approached me on the street, in stations and the school and tried to practice conversing in English. I made many friends with the locals this way and this was almost always followed up with an invite to visit their house or be shown around Hanoi, or even attend a wedding! They were incredibly warm and friendly and proud to introduce their culture to me. They also knew the best restaurants and markets in town and when I went shopping with a local, the shop keepers always quoted a much a lower price!
My Teaching Placement
I had always toyed with the idea of choosing teaching as my profession. Though I went a different way, volunteering as a teacher was my chance to see if this is a career I should reconsider. I was posted at the Nyugen Binh Khiem School in Hanoi. When applying, I was given the choice to teach primary, middle or high school students. I chose primary school and in retrospect, this had a few perks – you can use more toys, props and games, sing more songs, have longer nap hours, and the teaching material is pretty simple if you can spell most 4 letter words. But most importantly the children will simply adore you no matter how silly you think you look doing ‘itsy-bitsy spider’. The teachers were extremely welcoming to me and never failed to express their gratitude at every opportunity even if I didn’t always feel I did much to help.
The placement did, however, come with its fair share of challenges. The six to seven teachers that I worked with fell into two types. The first type treated me more as a class room assistant. They planned their lessons and gave me very specific tasks such as checking homework, or writing things on the board. The second type just handed over the class to me and went away to do other things. In my first week, I dreaded type two teachers. It was very intimidating to keep control of a class of three dozen six year olds on my own, let alone try to make them learn anything. Very soon, I realized there are two ways to manage a classroom – scare them, or entertain them. Scaring them was not an option for me and finding ways to keep the kids entertained for 40 minute periods was incredibly daunting. I spent most of my first week panicking and staying up into the small hours of the morning trying of think of new ways to teach the kids.
By week two, I had learnt a lot from watching other teachers, online research and the teaching resources at the Projects Abroad office. I learnt that playing hangman was a good way to help them learn spelling, or Pictionary helped with vocabulary. I knew that singing was a good way to practice pronunciation and acting helped with remembering lessons. Once I learnt these basic primary school teaching techniques, I had so much fun and I knew the kids did too. The children were always eager to learn and greeted me very enthusiastically in every class. They gave me gifts of candy, chips and colorings and escorted me from class to class. This really boosted my confidence and before long, I got bored just being a classroom assistant. Taking my own classes was much more fun and rewarding.
At the end of my month-long placement, saying good bye was very difficult even though it was filled with hugs, parting presents and photographs. A month felt too short but it was enough for me to realize how rewarding and valuable the role of a teacher can be. To be a good teacher you have to be a good speaker, singer, actor, artist, stand-up comedian, judge, inventor and more all rolled into one. Now that’s a difficult job.
Hanoi is a major tourist destination and offers a lot to see and do from museums to pagodas (places of worship), narrow bazaar streets in the old quarter to broad, tree-lined avenues in the French quarter, wide-open lakes to densely packed residential neighborhoods with quintessential Vietnamese houses in bright colors. Though English was not common, streets and roads were clearly sign-posted and it was easy to find my way around.
Some of my favorite experiences were walking around Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old quarter, taking Vietnamese cooking and pottery classes, visiting the Museum of Ethnology and the Hoa Lo prison. Projects Abroad also organized weekly outings which included a movie night, trying Vietnamese ice-cream, a traditional music performance and painting at the Acupuncture hospital.
My placement was only a month so I had to use my weekends wisely to see as much of Vietnam as I could. There were always other volunteers eager to team up for travel and together we went cruising in Halong Bay, mountain trekking in Sapa and bicycling and boat-riding in Tam Coc. In my last weekend, we flew to Cambodia to visit the temples of Angkor – an experience not to be missed if possible. There were so many places in central and South Vietnam that I did not have time to visit but even volunteers on three month placements would struggle to cover everything in this beautiful country. All of this made my month in Vietnam a fantastic, life-time experience and I wish everyone could have the chance to experience something like this.