Before coming here I had only the vaguest of notions about what schools in Vietnam would be like. Vietnam is in Asia, right? Back in the states the Asian kids were always the smart ones, or at least the booksmart ones, the ones who took five AP classes and violin lessons, and worked at their parents' restaurant and still had time to play lots of weird video games that won't come out in the U.S. for another four years. If this is what Asian-Americans are like, imagine what their overseas cousins—whose parents are presumably even more conservative, more strict, more ancestor-worshiping—must be like. I had visions of an educational Easy Street, a Big Rock Candy Mountain for teachers, a place where the students are diligent, independent, and respectful, a classroom full of self-motivated problem-solvers and critical thinkers; where everyone is always quiet and in their seats when class begins (somehow I imagined the old football coach’s “if you’re early, you’re on time, if you’re on time, you’re late…” thing would have some major currency here), give the teacher their undivided attention during lectures and then will jump out of their seats to answer a question before their fellow students can.
Maybe I'm thinking of Japan.
The students in here, on the other hand, like to talk in class, or at least they do until I ask them a question. Then they are all of a sudden at a loss for words. Except for the kid in the back bent over behind his desk where he thinks I can't see him talking on his cellphone. Oh yeah, and the other pair of kids back there who talk the whole period because apparently the other four periods of the day they have class together, not to mention the time in between class and after school isn't enough bro time, and they're clearly engaged in the most important conversation of their lives. They probably would stop talking, so as not to call attention to themselves, but they don't even realize that I asked a question because they were too engrossed in gossiping, or making fun of me, or whatever it is they're doing.
I've never been so tempted so often to tell a large group of people to shut up.
Really, though, the worst thing about it is--well, there's a couple worst things about it. For one, most of the in class chit-chat is conducted in hushed Vietnamese, making it almost always impossible for me to discern whether they are legitimately discussing the material, helping each other define words--something which is distracting, but probably doing more good than harm--or just shooting the shit. My lectures tend to involve lots of unfamiliar words, the learning of which is no doubt especially difficult for people whose native vocabulary is entirely monosyllabic. So I feel like I shouldn't stop them from engaging in discussion of the material, given that they can probably explain to each other the meaning of a word better than I can to them. The problem is, I can't tell the difference between this and good old talking in class, so I just assume the worst 90% of the time, for lack of a better way to deal with it. The other thing that sucks about it is that even the good kids, the ones who come to class on time, sit up front, and know all the answers, even they talk when they should be listening. Occasionally then, they find themselves on the receiving end of my weary "ssshh"s when it's 20 minutes to go in class and I'm hoarse from trying to talk over a constant, hushed storm of unrounded short vowels and rising-tone triphthongs (are you reading this, Ryan B?).
Maybe I need to get on the cultural relativism tip and just accept that this is something that's not going to change and not get too bent out of shape about it. This is a weird place, after all, etiquette-wise; the expulsion of all types of bodily fluids on the street seems to be quite acceptable and slurping your noodles is a sign of great appreciation.
Either that, or I just need to learn Vietnamese.
Right, like that'll happen.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
The longer I'm here, the more apt I realize the title of this blog is. What I have come to see (in the infinite wisdom that six whole days in Vietnam has afforded me) is that this is a country that for a long time put guns before butter, because they had to; throughout their history, the Vietnamese had to grapple with invasion attempts from the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, and...well, you know who else. But for the past thirty years or so, they've been trying to turn this around, if we take butter to represent not just food but consumer goods in general--"butter" must be understood ironically in any case, since anyone who's ever been here knows that it is not an easy thing to find in Vietnam. Is it too late to change the word order in the title of this blog?
The argument could be made that it's gone a bit too far; Pepsi seems to have a monopoly on the restaurant awning market and there are more KFCs here than in the states, no joke. Cheap Chinese plastic crap seems to be the number one import. I guess I was expecting something a little less capitalist from a place called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. But hey, universal health care, right? Right???
Friday, October 3, 2008
Hello all and welcome. I suspect most of you probably already know me and have an interest in what I am up to over here in Vietnam, and as such you may find what I write here to be worth reading as an end in itself. On the off chance that anyone reading this far does not know me personally, I hope that my forthcoming posts will be useful and entertaining to anyone who is interested in Vietnam, or considering teaching abroad, or just has too much time on their hands.
In any case, this blog will simply be a space for me to write about my experience here and let people know what and how I am doing. I cannot say how often I will post new content as I have yet to fall into a real routine here, but I hope to write new stuff at least once a week, and hopefully more. As many of you already know, I am a bit of a perfectionist with my writing, and I don't want to bore you all with the banal details of my day to day life. With that in mind, I will make an attempt to keep posts concise and thematically consistent, and avoid making this simply an online journal.
From time to time I will post pictures on this site, particularly to illustrate my entries, but I will be taking many more pictures than I will put up here. I plan to start some sort of web-based photo sharing thing for those who are really interested in seeing all the rest. More on that to come.
I named this blog Guns Before Butter because I wouldn't have named it anything if that were possible, but it wasn't. The name comes from a Gang of Four song, and is of course a reference to the dilemma of a society being forced to choose between investing in military and civilian products, or more simply, between defending and feeding its people. I'm not sure how this is related to my experience in Vietnam, but for some reason it was the first thing to come to mind when I had to think of a clever title, and it conjures (to me at least) vague notions of postcolonial realpolitik.