This is the third of a series of posts running throughout 2015 about living, teaching and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry mentions my students and the two institutions I taught at in Saigon.
In previous entries I’ve talked a bit about my apartment, the Marketing University of Ho Chi Minh City and some of my neighbours from when I lived in Saigon in 2008. But what was I actually doing for the semester that I was there – apart from rambling around and enjoying myself? Well, I was teaching Business English to undergraduate marketing students.
I had seven classes, each of which had two one-hour periods per week. So my contact hours were low, but of course there was some preparation to do outside of those hours. I also taught a couple of general English classes, which had a flexible syllabus that was significantly less dry than the Business English content.
Crucial to my enjoyment of Vietnam is the fact that nearly all of my students at the University were young women, aged 18-21 (an average class size was forty, with say five dudes). The women ranged in personality of course, but generally speaking they all gave me a lot of attention. I was kind of adopted by a few groups of friends for socialising with outside of class, which was nice, and I found myself dispensing a lot of (solicited!) relationship advice for some reason.
The guys in my classes were ironically usually the shy ones. They would sit at the back of the class in a group and only rarely volunteer for activities. I remember one guy in particular who came up to me after a class to show me his pictures of city skylines. He was an avid amateur photographer with a fetish for urban landscapes; he had photos of hundreds of cities at sunset, including my own. He believed that one day Saigon would have a great urban skyline too. I agreed, but of course didn’t mention that I preferred heritage buildings, trees and parks to skyscrapers in general.
The asset of working with University students from an English teaching perspective is that they already have a decent command of the language. Most of my students had been studying English for a number of years throughout school and had elected to continue learning it into University. Written English was still a huge problem but most students could string impressive sentences together verbally. It’s no surprise that the more confident, proficient speakers were the ones who I developed the best friendships with outside of class, but I tried my best to teach everyone equally.
The classes I conducted on Australian culture remain strong in my memory. We listened to and sang Waltzing Matilda, with lyrics displayed on the blackboard. I went through and explained the peculiar cultural terms in the song (jumbuck, swagman) and talked about the Australian invasion and settlement by the United Kingdom. I also played them the national anthem but placed less stress on that, awful as it is.
I remember dressing up in a Hawaiian shirt and apron for one class and discussing international and national foods. I remember dawdling on the merits of deep-fried pizzas for a while. That was a good lesson, if a little slack. But then I wasn’t exactly a hard-ass teacher, it wasn’t about that for me.
There is a lot of karaoke in Vietnam and my students would regularly demand I sing to them. The problem with this was that most classes were set up like concert venues – I spoke through a roving microphone on a stage in front of the students. So it was all set up for a performance, I could hardly say no for long. I can remember singing Queen’s “Headlong” and The Cranberries’ “Linger” to the class, with requisite lyrics interpretation at song’s end. “Headlong” was hilarious to discuss as it’s all euphemisms.
I mentioned that I was adopted by several groups of girls who would ferry me around town to different restaurants. It was great fun motorcycling with these women, weaving in and around the busy traffic to some far-flung hot pot destination. I came to appreciate the female form (not necessarily my students’!) when sat on a motorcycle. I guess it’s similar to how people in Australia are queued to take notice of a pretty face in the car behind them when they look in the rear vision mirror. In Vietnam I was queued to recognise a beautiful woman in front of me on her motorcycle.
Twice a week I had to go all the way down to District 7 to teach at another campus. Although still in the city, this campus had a very different feel. Most of the roads were dirt, there were less businesses around, and everything was dusty. RMIT’s much-lauded Ho Chi Minh City campus was nearby, but I never went there.
To get to District 7 I was obliged to ride on the back of a neighbour’s motorbike – the University refused to allow me to ride my own motorcycle when on University business. Too dangerous. So they hired a guy I had only ever seen squatting on the street corner playing cards – always in the same clothes – to ferry me there each time. He was a nice chap of course and I did grow to appreciate his insanely cautious riding style. But still, it felt like being babysitted.
Because I only had fourteen contact hours a week at the University I had plenty of time to take other jobs. The University was my primary employer for the semester I taught there – they were providing me with accommodation – but I earned far more money from the private school that I taught at in the evenings. This school was known as the Elite English School and had more campuses than I could count; the more campuses you were willing to teach at, the more hours of teaching you received. Because I actually enjoyed the hectic Saigon commutes I took on a decent teaching load with them.
They ran a professional operation in retrospect, but I found the strict monthly paycheque annoying at the time (if I could have chosen to be paid at the end of each lesson back then, I would have!). I also taught quite a few children classes with the Elite School – which was not what I had signed up for. There’s nothing wrong with teaching kids, I just did not find it as rewarding. I think this was because I was only in the country for a short time; I wasn’t going to be following these kids as they grew up and I was not going to see them benefit from my input into their lives. I got less short-term gratification teaching them than I got from adults – who could tell me when I was helping them – and felt like wasted half their lesson time on classroom control.
In the next entry in this series I will talk about bia hoi in Vietnam.