Initially when I was planning this trip, I wanted to ride trains all the way from Portugal to Vietnam. It became apparent after a few clicks of internet research that this was definitely out of budget. Instead, I flew via Turkish Airlines from London to Hanoi which took a total of 21 hours, stopping over Istanbul, Turkey and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The epic train journey can wait until next time 🙂
I arrived in Hanoi and went straight to Bac Ninh to a village called Ngo Khe. There, preparations for English Camp 2017 began. The other volunteers who were still to arrive were coming from Myanmar (but originally from France), Thailand (but originally from the Netherlands), and Italy. The Dutchman and the Italian both had lived in Saigon and were fluent in Vietnamese. Everyone in the group could speak Italian except for me.
It was difficult to focus on preparing the lessons and knowing what to teach. I had a good grasp of the theory and technique of communicative language teaching from my TESOL training but I had always, always struggled with lesson planning. I was really picky, I took a long time to find resources, preferring to make things from scratch, fussing over minor things and wasting hours just to prepare one exercise which would only take up 10 minutes in a lesson. And now I was faced with the task of coming up with our camp “curriculum”. My response was to procrastinate. And what I did manage to come up with displeased me. But we had to go with something. So forward we went and my heart filled with dread at the thought of teaching the next two weeks with only the barest skeleton of a plan.
We drove to Tan Cuong which was situated further north, a village in Thai Nguyen City and watched in wonder as we approached our destination turning off the main road and driving on a dirt one; the towers of the church visible from a distance with a backdrop of mountains and waterflooded rice paddies just beyond the car.
The rest of the memories of the first few days in Tan Cuong for me were a blur. I remember thinking that two weeks was a long time and missing the feeling of familiarity in Ngo Khe. The classrooms consisted of rooms with benches and tables in rows facing the front of the room and of the three we decided to occupy, only one had a large whiteboard which in actuality was a large sheet of glass or perspex mounted on a frame against the white wall.
The first week was terrifying. 40 students showed up in the morning session and 40 or so again in the afternoon. We taught identical lessons for morning and afternoon between 8 and 10 am and then again from 3 until 5 pm. The room was packed full with only a tiny aisle down the middle for movement and it was super awkward! There were people sitting at tables right up against the front wall so they probably couldn’t see the whiteboard we managed to find providentially the day before. Every lesson to me felt like a success that I didn’t faint midway through and a failure because of how much confusion there was and I had trouble coming to terms with my then present lot in life. The critical voice inside my head brought me so low I felt physically sick, had trouble sleeping, and had me feverishly praying at siesta for grace to survive the day. It seemed to me that our poor students were coming in vain to learn English because I couldn’t effectively transmit a single piece of knowledge into their heads. I was beside myself almost with grief. But one of the volunteers who I confided my distress to kindly and patiently reassured me. She said she remembers well the day she spent a whole day trying to understand her English lesson but at the end the only thing she learned was the word “international” and that made her so happy she would never forget the feeling. Don’t worry, she told me, it’s very simple to make them happy and as long as you can give them that everything will be fine.
I felt much more at ease after that. But not so long before I felt well and truly gripped by dark thoughts which kept me from thinking of how I could teach more effectively. Such as the rainstorm weather that the students had to come to school through, some over large distances, for these two-hour sessions. The guilt I felt at not learning their names and being able to give each one one-on-one attention which was essential to my teaching method. Everything felt like a shitshow and I felt absolutely terrible despite all affirmations received. We moved our class from the tiny room in the main building to a larger, more spacious room outside which some of our afternoon students volunteered to help set up and that was very kind of them. All of a sudden there was more space to move and at the same time, a switch in my brain flicked and I also felt more free.
So I’m grateful it’s all over now. There were a lot of details and things I missed but I feel I could write an entire book purely about this experience. I grew so much in the two weeks, mostly by consistently pushing myself way beyond my comfort zone and giving my best effort. I watched the students brave some pretty bad weather conditions on motorcycle with multiple passengers seated behind the driver, arriving way before class was due to start. I watched their faces furrow in confusion but try to apply themselves in the tasks they were given. I watched them return day after day despite me feeling like I totally bombed the last lesson. WITH SMILES ON THEIR FREAKING FACES.
To any of my students who read this (I doubt it highly but will write it nevertheless): I am so sorry I was such a scatterbrained teacher who obviously lacked skill and preparation. Your efforts to learn are commendable and I am proud of you more than anything for trying. I wished I had spent extra time and energy to making everything as easy for you as possible. Keep learning English! ❤
What I will say is that there was a spirit of perseverance and determination present in our camp, from teachers and students. Theirs inspired and encouraged me to bring out elements of myself I had forgotten about. I used my singing voice to teach and had to lead a dance workshop (yes, dance, please do not be unkind). I had to use my talking voice to teach!! In other words, I couldn’t be shy when I lack confidence and tend to be timid in demeanour when I know that I have something to share or something to give of myself which may be of use or need to others. Watching everyone else’s struggle helped me to overcome myself whether it be my faults or whatever internal/external struggles I was dealing with.
Language teaching is a challenge, but an extremely rewarding one, especially with the opportunity to get up close and personal with a different culture. I’m forever grateful now for the experience I got to live in Vietnam because nothing can come even close to these two weeks in Tan Cuong. That place, those kids, Fr Tan, our ragtag gang of international volunteers who were like family to me, it was clear fate was at work and we all had our own separate reasons for being there at the same time. I already miss it. I want to learn the language, I want to listen to their stories because for two weeks I had to be content with being a teacher when I wanted more. So maybe one day I will return and things will be a little different. Probably not as intense. But what is for certain: no-one is allowed to be shy.