I was travelling in Vietnam recently and towards the end of the third week in the country, reached the amazing city of Da Lat. It was here that I met Mandy and she told me the English tuition center that she worked for was looking for foreign teachers. I knew about such jobs but I also knew that they usually required a certification in TEFL (or TESOL) or for a nativity of the language. I had neither but I asked her anyway, would I be eligible for the job? She was familiar enough with my grasp on English since we had been speaking for the last three days and she said it could be possible for me. This was something so unexpected that I needed time to decide whether I would take her up on the offer. The minimum time of commitment was a month and I had plans to travel further to Cambodia and Laos. If I did take up the teaching job then it would mean having to alter my travel plans considerably. But the longer I thought about it, the more I was convinced that I should do it. I had always been interested in teaching, having done it amateurishly since I was a young boy helping out in Papa’s tuition classes or teaching a few kids to earn some pocket money in college. And since I started considering travelling seriously, I had looked up the websites for TEFL certification many times, always thinking that I could use this as a means to earn and stay on the road longer. And here I was, without a certification and a non-native English speaker with the chance to find out what that experience would be like. I was definitely not going to pass on it just because of some silly travel plans that I had made.
My visa was about to expire and I felt somewhat stupid at not having taken the 3 month visa to begin with. It was not costing me extra but I had reasoned that I was not really going to use it, so why take it? Now I know better than being so meticulous in my planning but the expiring visa meant that I needed to exit the country and return with another visa before I could start teaching. I had a Cambodian visa ready and the country was the closest exit. So I shelved my further travel plans in Vietnam and went to Cambodia. I had some trouble getting another Vietnamese visa (3 month long this time) in Phnom Penh and then spent a couple of weeks travelling in south Cambodia before heading back to Vietnam. I got in touch with Mandy once I was back in Saigon and she helped me with the details to get to her center. It was in a small highway town not very far from HCMC. I reached on a Monday and Mandy told me I needed to give a demo class before the job would be confirmed. I did it that very evening and since everything went well, I stayed on to teach for the one month that I had committed to.
This one's for the kids!
I am honestly at a loss as to where I should begin talking about all I have experienced in the last month. There were the kids, the staff at the centers and the various Vietnamese people I met during the time I taught. I had a few reasons for doing this stint. The first, as I have already mentioned, was that I was always interested in teaching English as a travel job. I saw it as a means to do extensive travelling. I have been exploring options for nomadic lifestyle and have been making some rude discoveries into the nature of digital nomadism, as they call it. But language teaching is a profession that has successfully been around for a long time and would continue to stay around for some time to come. I had always thought that with my love for the language and penchant for teaching, I might somehow fit into the job. But I had no reason to believe that would necessarily be the case. This was the perfect opportunity to find out whether it was.
Another compelling reason to take up such a work was the interaction with Vietnamese people. As a tourist or traveller, even if you put in a lot of effort into it, you barely manage to soak and understand the culture of a country that you are visiting. And it is even more difficult when you do not speak the local language. There had been so many times when I met some people who I thought might be interesting to explore but I could never manage to understand them because we did not speak a common tongue. There are platforms like Couchsurfing which, if done right, give a better exposure to the culture but your experience still remains limited to the point of view of people associated with the travel community in the country. Teaching students who came from all strides of life and all age groups was definitely a big improvement in terms of the kinds of experiences I would have.
Third, and a rather silly, reason was that I wanted to do it as a personal accomplishment. When I had quit my job last year, I had done so with the idea that I needed to understand what else I could do other than make softwares. That was all I had trained for professionally and the only trade I knew. It paid well and I had no complains as such but there was a sense of handicap that I felt whenever I contemplated long enough. I wanted to know if I was even capable of doing something else. The entire travels had been about proving it to myself that I was more as a person than just a software developer. So this opportunity would alleviate a self doubt that had been plaguing me for a while. You never know whether you can till you actually do.
Not All Fun and Games
Let me tell you how my first (demo) class went. I was standing in front of a class full of twenty odd kids ranging from the ages of ten to fifteen. They were not very good at English, something that I had somehow now really comprehended by the time I first started speaking to the class. Even I could not understand them completely because they had just begun learning English and I for sure could not understand Vietnamese. Sure there was a Vietnamese teacher to assist me but the entire route suddenly feels so much more cumbersome and you simply become and extraneous part of the equation. There was confusion and chaos all around me. The kids were doing what they do best - being kids. They were talking incessantly with each other and I did not get a single word of it. They were shouting and playing, fighting with each other and giggling at some joke or the other. And somewhere in the midst of it all I stood helplessly trying to draw their attention at something I wanted to tell or ask them! It was confusing, frustrating and at times I felt helpless. I had expected something different; a class full of students who eagerly wanted to learn and would listen to me with all concentration. That was the setup that I had always had the few times I taught in India. But that was a far cry from what I got out here. Suddenly I was wondering how my mother dealt with so many first graders on a daily basis! Suddenly I realised that it was not all fun and games.
I learnt the tricks of the trade slowly and the experience only got better from there on. I was helped out by the staff or teachers when the classes were very new to English, other times I managed by myself somehow. At first I thought that maybe I was too lax with the classes; that maybe I needed to be stricter with them and keep all the chaos under check. Thankfully, the language barrier made it an impossibility. They would simply not understand what I was ranting about and the problem would only worsen with the confusion. So I learnt ways to work around it. As they say, you learn more when you teach. And I learnt some amazing things. I learnt to be one with the chaos around me and enjoy all the confusion. I used to laugh with the kids without understanding their jokes. I used to help them phrase sentences when they had the inclination to talk to me. I learnt how to grab their attention rather than forcing them to be attentive. The students ran the show in the classes and I just facilitated them with whatever they wanted to do. We played games if they wanted to play. We studied when they felt like doing something from the book. We listened to songs or watched cartoons at times. Somewhere in the middle of all this I was teaching them a few things; adding a few new words to their vocabulary or correcting pronunciations. I learnt how to teach. I learnt how to be less uptight as a person. I learnt how it can be fun even when you are not in control of things.
Playing tag on a field trip with the kids
Centers & Classes
I taught at 4 of the 5 centers that TBD has. I used to stay in the center to keep things simple. It was not too big of a hassle and it was much more convenient since I was shifting on a weekly basis anyway. I took two 1.5 hour classes every evening from Monday to Saturday and additional morning classes of similar length on Saturday and Sunday. The batches were divided by age groups and the level of expertise in English. Every age group category that I describe below had various levels, ranging from 1 (starters) to 4 (experts).
The youngest batches that I interacted with were the Bees. Some teachers that I met did not like these batches because its children of age groups 3-5 jumping around and creating a ruckus. I used to love them. We did nursery rhymes and I played with them; picked them up and swung them around. There were some who curiously touched my beard or pulled on my hair. Others hi-fived me with a big smile on their face. The first time I had to take the Bees class I was rather unsure. I did not know what I was supposed to do and mornings are not the best time for me. But over the month I came to look forward to seeing all those children running about. There was one little girl in one of the centers who used to come hug me while I was waiting for the classes to begin. It was a lovely experience; truly lovely. It became a weekend ritual for me and I would end up humming random rhymes for the rest of the day.
The brilliant Bee
The next batch, age wise was that of Kids. These were slightly older than the Bees and ranged from 7-10 year olds usually. I was not restricted to nursery rhymes though these guys loved it as well. We sang rhymes and danced some funny dances. At times I would let them run about the class or draw on the board, trying to make a game out of anything that they felt like doing. Sometimes we watched Charlie Chaplin movies or Doraemon as well; or I introduced them to animals from around the world and showed then videos of kangaroos boxing. Once again, the ones who liked me would feel little inhibition in clinging to me and expressing themselves. I loved how they cheered up and shouted a loud Hello! whenever I came into the class or started waving when they saw me outside. They were curious about me and asked me for my age and country through their Vietnamese teachers. The resident teachers were always a big help with the Kids and I used to enjoy my classes more when they were around.
Kids love Doraemon!
The next two were the Teens and Leaders. Teens had age groups 10-15 and Leaders were anyone above that age group. At times the Leaders had men and women in their 30’s or 40’s who were learning English with an enviable enthusiasm. These were the batches where students were more receptive to being taught English rather than just interacting and running about. The younger ones still liked to create a ruckus though while the older batches were comparatively quieter. I used to play word games with them or talk to them if they were the advanced batches. Sometimes we picked up some random topic like adventure sports, or something from my travels, or maybe different cultures and then talked about it for a while. I got to learn so many things from these students - trending songs in K-Pop, comic books, movies, places they want to travel to, the Vietnamese culture and what not. The beginner batches were more about playing games and having fun with whatever little understanding we could get to. The advanced batches were fun because the interaction was more of a dialogue.
Teens and Leaders
I had an amazing month that words will fall short to describe. It was an emotional roller coaster and something that has given me memories to cherish. In the beginning, nothing came to me naturally though. It was my first time teaching with a big language barrier and there were so many things that I had to do that were outside my comfort zone. These are the things that have made the most lasting impact on me. I can see a clear change in myself from what I was before the month to what I am now.
My classes were never fixed. I used to teach new batches every time. Since I was also shifting from one center to another, opting to go wherever they needed me, I barely repeated batches. I repeated one of the Kids batches thrice and that was the maximum frequency I had gotten with any group of students. I usually met them just once or twice. This was barely enough time to either get to know them or build a rapport with them. In the 1.5 hour class I had to break ice with everyone and do the job that I was there for. This was quite a huge task for me since I am not a social person to begin with and my interpersonal skills, to put it mildly, suck. But this was something that I had to learn quickly in order to do any kind of justice to my work. I could not afford to stand quietly in a corner and smile like I usually do when I am in a room full of people. I had to learn how to be forward and draw out students into conversations. I learnt how to make a fool of myself in order to makes the students more comfortable. I learnt how to talk at length about personal experiences when that was what they wanted me to do. I learnt how to be more than what I had ever felt the need to be in 29 years of my life.
Way out of my comfort zone
It was the end of session when I joined and busier than usual time. In the 5 weeks that I taught here, I got just two Mondays off. Of course I could have asked for more but I wanted to help them out and I was somewhat enjoying myself with the students. This too took a little adjustment for me. From the 2 day weekend person that I had been while working in India I had just recently adapted to the no weekday or weekend concept of life on the road. Now I had just crashed to the other extreme of working throughout the week. My time off was hours instead of days. I got ample time everyday to pursue other interests like reading, writing and sketching. But the hours were not ample enough to head out to a city or beach nearby to enjoy a short weekend travelling.
Then there was constant need for energy and enthusiasm. I could not afford to go into a class without energy and be boring. The shortness of my interaction with the students meant that I had no opportunities to screw up the little time we had together. My morning grumpy self had to wait till the month ended. The younger the kids were, the more energy and enthusiasm I needed because in the lack of a common language, that was what they picked up on. But the kids helped me out themselves most of the time. They were always full of energy and all I needed to do was put in enough to get through the first five minutes. Then they took care of it themselves. Enthusiasm is, fortunately, infectious. One will find it extremely difficult to stay unaffected when surrounded by so much overflowing energy. I learnt how to keep my enthusiasm about me and it is amazing how everything became so much more beautiful and enjoyable when I joined the kids in their madness. Something as silly as singing rhymes or dancing about doing funny steps did not feel as silly as I had thought it would.
Outside the Classrooms
My need for cultural exchange was satisfied outside the classroom as well. The staff and managers at every center were caring to the extreme. They used to babysit me at times, worrying how I might run into trouble or lose my way if I tried going to the nearby mall alone! Their concern was a general one for all foreign teachers. I did not need the hand-holding because I was a traveller to begin with but I could understand how some of the foreign teachers might have needed all this helping out. I think my lack of fuss made them love me all the more. I used to happily share the meals with them and expressed interest in learning about their language and culture. My favourite people in the entire episode were Mr. Bao and his wife Miss Doh (every woman is mysteriously called Miss in Vietnam). They were the caretakers of one of the centers that I had taught in and I shared meals with them and the center’s staff everyday. They spoke very little English, just a “Hello” or a “Thank You” or a “Bye”. But they loved to joke around with me and I sometimes shared a beer with Mr. Bao to end the day. They taught me how to pronounce different vegetables and meats by pointing and calling their names. Mr. Bao used to make fun of my chopstick skills and heaped up my bowl with extra rice whenever I asked him for a refill. It was little things like these that made me so happy to be around them. I did try learning Vietnamese but it is extremely tough to do so. I cannot form sentences yet but my pronunciation has improved. Vietnamese being a phonetic language, the pronunciation matters a lot.
With Mr. Bao
The Vietnamese teachers were also very interesting. Every batch had a regular Vietnamese teacher who sometimes attended my classes, either out of curiosity or to help me out with the beginner batches. I met quite a few of them but barely had a chance to interact with them outside the class. Most of them lived nearby with their families so they returned to their homes after the classes. There was one, Vincent (that’s his English nickname), with whom I shared a couple of beers and coffees and talked at length about world politics, a subject that he was deeply interested in. I got to know many things about India’s position in the world, how the relations between India and Vietnam were strengthening of recent and how India’s military technology was at a level where we are now exporting it. I also came to learn about how the socialist government of Vietnam was doing and what the people were happy and unhappy about. Then there were the cultural values that I was curious about; whether drinking was socially acceptable, the treatment of women and how generations contrasted when it came to love and religion.
I met a few foreign teachers and it helped me understand a bit of their perspective as well. It was something radically different from what I had been expecting. I had been hoping to find travellers taking a break to replenish their savings before continuing on with their journey, but there were few of that kind. There were ones who were doing it as a long term profession and had been teaching in Vietnam for a while or planned to do so. It interested me to know about their reasons for favouring Vietnam over their own country. At times it was as simple as the weather or the better opportunity. At times it was the warmth of the people of Vietnam and the love that they found here. Sometimes it was the cost efficiency with the high income to expense ratio and at times it was some saddening blow that they had been dealt by life back home.
I do not think I can sum up all my experiences in a post and I would be doing injustice to the ones that I leave out if I mentioned some selectively. I have met some amazing people and seen talents in so many unexpected places; from the security guard who could play some wicked tunes on the harmonica to a student whose notebook was lined with exceptional anime doodling. There were students of all age who sometimes surprised me at being extraordinarily good at some difficult word games and there was the three year old who could recognise words by their spellings at his early age. I was pleasantly surprised so many times that I find the experience at par with travelling. I was experiencing people rather than sceneries but these were so much more beautiful and interesting to explore.
To wrap up the long rant, the experience of teaching was much more than I had thought it would be. I was extremely excited about the job when I had landed it. However, within the first few days I had developed serious apprehensions and doubts about what I had committed to. Then I recovered and learnt how to be better and more enthusiastic about things and soak in all the energy and love around me. The transformation might sound spiritual and it probably was but I do not want to categorise it. All I can say for certain is that I learnt many things. A lot about the world and the people around me and much more about myself. Many of the kids liked me and I loved them all (yes, even the brats!). Whether I will do something like this again or not is an open question, but I loved every moment of it thus far.
Here is an album from my time at TBD in Vietnam. Some of the photos were taken from my phone due to the unavailability of my camera at the moment. Apologies for the same. 💩