HCMC Dining Guide

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Hyperactive Germ Factory

It's 7:30 on a Monday evening. You cross the fetid canal separating District 3 from Binh Thanh District and drive down a crowded, pockmarked street. After taking a right you enter a warren of narrow streets and dark alleys, where you come across a shabby complex of three monochromatic concrete apartment blocks. As you approach Tower B you hear the piercing screams of small children. You enter the building, and new sounds await: the muted thud of bodies slamming into walls and floors and the unmistakable sound of objects being hurled against the ceiling. As you approach the door to the room where the horrible sounds are radiating out from, you wonder: what is behind that door? Some sort of child abuse? A sweat shop? You cautiously open the door and...

It's the pre-school class I began teaching recently. The eight little monsters sure are a hyper bunch, even at night, when I think they should be tired. Last week I found myself trying to avoid getting pegged in the face with a ball while simultaneously parrying away a boy who was trying desperately to punch me in the nuts. About halfway through class one of the boys decided to gather up every crayon in the room and hurl them into the air like Lebron James does with chalk before his games, creating a brief rain of all sorts of colors. The boys don't mind playing rough: they tackle each other into walls and wrestle on the floor, they climb on my back and generally abuse almost everyone in the room. The girls are calmer, but at this age they all still cry at the drop of a pin. If one kid screams in another's face, expect waterworks. Overall, though, they are hilarious. I really didn't want to teach pre-schoolers, but I decided to go ahead since I'm desperate for hours at the moment. I'm glad I took the job. I haven't really interacted with small children since my youngest sister was that age, and she's now 13. It's amazing how quickly they get attached to you if you're willing to play around with them. By the time we started watching Finding Nemo towards the end of class I had one sitting on my lap and another wrapped around an arm, while my Vietnamese TA told me that they were all saying they loved me. I was a little floored by that, but I guess I'll get used to it as I work with them for a longer time period.

The textbook used for the class is pretty humorous as well. The protagonist is a cat named Sammy, who is supported by a cast of children, as well as some monsters that look they were drawn by the Teletubbies creators during an especially wicked acid trip.
Sammy the kitty

This is your brain on drugs.
My Monday nights should definitely be more fun from here on out.

Oh and I should explain the "germ factory" part of the title. These kids have no idea what covering their nose or mouth means. They sneeze everywhere and cough right into your face. They use your pens and crayons after picking boogers out of their nose. By the end of class there's enough bacteria in the room to warrant a quarantine. If I don't get sick from these kids I'll be amazed. Even if I do it will be impossible to be mad at them.

The rest of my teaching is going pretty well. Now that I have the pre-school class I teach students from a range of ages between 4 and 35, which certainly keeps me on my toes. I need to adjust how quickly or slowly I should speak each class, and at times the lessons seem to run together. I have to say that I enjoy most of my classes, and I'm constantly learning interesting things about Vietnamese students. For example, I played Jeopardy with most of my classes this week and got some very curious responses. Most of the categories dealt with things we had gone over in class, but I added a "random" category as well, just to throw in some more real-world questions. One of them was simply "How many people live in Vietnam?" This generated many surprising answers. One team guessed 7 million, which isn't even enough people to cover Saigon. On the opposite end of the spectrum one team guessed 9 billion, which would be difficult considering the population of the entire world is only about 6.7 billion. The former team was amazed that the actual answer is 86 milllion, while the latter group was embarrassed by how far over they guessed.

I asked my more advanced classes to "Name the town in northern Vietnam where the Vietnamese military beat the French army in 1954 to end France's time in Vietnam." I even gave the hint that the answer, Dien Bien Phu, is a major street here in Saigon. No one got the answer. I was shocked by this, considering the fact that Dien Bien Phu is one of the most important victories in the history of the country. That would be the equivalent of Americans not being able to name D-Day or the Battle of Midway or some other crucial battle of a recent war.

These answers - or lack thereof - made me wonder what exactly students learn in their Vietnamese schools. They seem to be good at math and science, but the emphasis on social sciences must be seriously lacking. I realize that politics aren't something that will be discussed in school here, but history and basic geography are important subjects. I think people should at least be able to guess the population of their own country with reasonable closeness. (Of course, given the oft-proven ignorance of many Americans, I probably don't have much room to criticize Vietnamese students. By the way, the population of the U.S. is about 310 million.) Outside of the issues with Jeopardy, my students are consistently very sharp. Classes are often very rewarding and I've established a pretty good rapport with many of my students. Sure, many of the younger ones can be very loud, but they won't disrespect you and they always treat you well. I'm sure teachers at inner-city American schools would be shocked by the lack of serious behavioral problems in my classrooms.

This post is getting lenghty but I'd like to comment on one more thing. All of the students in my 7-13 year old classes store all of their school supplies in little plastic pencil cases that they always keep on their desks. Once they get their books and papers out and spread them out, the pencil cases end up sitting precariously on the edge of the desk until the inevitable bump sends them crashing to the floor in a silence-shattering roar, the contents of the case exploding out like a grenade packed with pens, erasers, paper clips, markers and whatever else you may need in class. After attracting the attention of everyone in the class, the student whose case just fell dutifully stands up, collects the school-related shrapnel, and packs it back into the case. These distracting explosions occur several times a class, and I've started to just laugh whenever I see colored pencils and highlighters screaming across the room. I'm not sure why these cases can't just be left in backpacks. It would sure make for a more quiet class.

So, there's a bit of an update on how teaching has been going, since I haven't really talked about school lately. I'm trying to work as much as possible before the Christmas break begins on December 24th, since between that day and February 9th I'm going on a Southeast Asia travel blitz, visiting eight cities in four different countries. Until then, I hope to continue to enjoy my classes.

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