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.