On Thursday afternoon we do community service. Half took a bus to the Friendship Village, a compound built for victims of Agent Orange, while the rest of us headed to the equally grandly named Cultural Palace to teach English. The building has been described as “Stalinist”, a large block building supported by immense concrete pillars. Through the building’s side lattice we could hear the shrill chants of a classroom… TWOOOO!!...THREEEE!!!!....FOOOOO!!!!....FIIIIIIIYYY!!!
We were greeted by a succession of smiling faces, including the director, vice director, and all the top brass of the Cultural Palace. They led us into a conference room with high ceilings and a huge, lively painting produced by “3000 children”. On the polished table lay six bouquets of flowers, which they distributed to each of us, and we were invited to sit. They entreated us to eat lychee, tropical berries which they told us were once reserved for the Vietnamese emperor. The director of the Cultural Palace introduced the English program through an interpreter. There are 12,000 students at the Palace, and over 3,000 students receiving special English instruction this summer.
I was impressed. The Vietnamese government was clearly putting serious resources into this tremendous English factory. I asked the director when the Palace began teaching English and he replied 1985. It made sense. In that year the Vietnamese government decided to abandon the socialist experiment, orient toward global markets and begin a rapprochement with the United States. Learning English became a high national priority and remains so. With exports to United States booming and President Triet visiting Washington, Vietnamese believe that improving relations with America will bring prosperity. English is seen as the way forward and that is why each of us was holding bouquets of flowers.
Mrs. Hoan, a businesslike English teacher, lead me to a small classroom, where I was startled to find that the kids were only about six or seven. Hellooo!! I said enthusiastically. Tien, their young teacher spouted off some instruction and they all shouted back HELLOOOOO!!! Tien handed me a level one workbook and told me to teach. A little bit shocked at how quickly I’d been given that responsibility, I began pointing at drawings and asking questions about them. Sometimes I’d point to a student who seemed especially with-it and ask them to answer a question. But they didn’t really understand. Apparently they had just started learning English and only knew a few phrases and nouns according to the beginner’s workbook. Trien saw that I wasn’t getting through to them and whispered to me, “Do the exercises”. So flipped down a few pages and came to a page that had a cartoon of a boy asking a girl what something is. Below there were pictures of classroom objects. “What is this?!” I yelled. A few yelled back hesitantly, “THIS IS A PENCIL”, although the kid in front of me continued to color in the previous page with a crayon. “Very good!...Is this a chair?!”. “NO IT ISN’T, THIS IS A DESK.”
I went on like that until they knew everything there was to know about pencils, erasers, and desks. I glanced at Tien for guidance and she flipped to a page with a teacher’s propaganda song.
“Listen listen listen
Listen listen carefully
Listen very carefully
Please be quiet, sshhhh
Please stand up
Please sit down
Close your book…”
Before long, I had them standing up and cupping their ears in their hands.
Finally, Tien asked me to teach them a song and all I could think of was “Head, shoulders, knees and toes”, which was a big hit. Who knew that touching your toes could be such a riot?
Although I detected a tiny bit of progress when I was with them, I could hardly imaging how they’d ever become proficient. But I sense that when Vietnam wants something it’ll spare nothing to achieve it. After all, the country spent 20 years fighting the Americans, 100 years fighting the French and 1,000 years resisting the Chinese. Now the Vietnamese wants to learn English and I see no reason to doubt them.