A little over two weeks ago, I completed my one-month, in-country orientation in Hà Nội. I bid farewell to the amazing friends I’ve made in my cohort, all of whom are the most inspiring, humorous people I’ve ever met (love y’all). After a month of being with each other, we were finally leaving, spreading across the country and moving into provinces we’ve never been to and/or heard about before.
For me, I was moving to Tây Ninh, a south-western province in Việt Nam. I’d be living about a few hours away from Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh (Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC), where I still had plenty of my dad’s side of the family residing. And knowing that I was only one 2-hour bus ride away from them was reassuring for me.
I arrived in Tây Ninh Monday evening. Heavy rain and thunderclouds welcomed me. As our driver pulled into the driveway of the school, my host informed me that I would be the only one living on the school’s newly built campus. None of the students had moved in yet, though classes started about a month ago. They actually wouldn’t be moving in until the following semester because their dorms were not yet fully built or furnished. I was taken aback. Am I living on this campus all by myself, surrounded by bugs, bats, and a freaking forest? Anyone who knows me knows that I am the furthest thing away from being a fan of nature or wildlife. I can appreciate them from afar—that’s about it. I generally do not hike trails, climb mountains, go fishing, or take part in any other nature-y adventures. I’m a city boy, and I thrive in concrete jungles, not forests. Everyone knows that. But I reminded myself of the few expectations I had prepared prior to moving 9000 miles away: patience, flexibility, and having little to no expectations are going to make the next nine months manageable.
Unfortunately, my first week in Tây Ninh ended up being saturated with many moments of frustration, dread, and loneliness. I was actually quite miserable. I faced a number of different problems related to my living space: my bathroom window did not have shutters or a screen, so I ended up showering and brushing my teeth with unwelcomed crickets, mosquitos, and moths; my air conditioner malfunctioned the first night, so I slept in humidity and periodically woke up in a pile of my own sweat; my room (still) does not have WiFi (yet), so I frequently exhaust the daily limit of my phone’s 2 GB of data in order to stay entertained and connected with the outside world. As a foreigner, I did not know anyone, and as an introvert who doesn’t speak the native language, I also struggled to make friends. I felt both alone and lonely.
My host and a few other teachers rotated to pick me up and drop me off at different cafes across the city; I told them I drank 2-3 cups of cà phê sữa đá and wouldn’t mind spending a few hours alone at a cafe that had indoor seating, air conditioner, and WiFi. They also alternated to offer and take me out for meals throughout the day, all of which they generously paid for. Each night, a different teacher also slept on a cot in the empty room across the hall from me, just in case something were to happen during the wee hours of the night. Every day I get asked whether or not I am scared of ghosts and what I would do if one came to “visit” me…yikes.
I was so used to being independent that I forgot how burdensome it can be to rely on other people to do (basic) things (i.e. getting from point A to point B, sleeping and living alone, feeding myself, etc.). These teachers were taking time out of their day to be away from their families to essentially babysit me. I couldn’t help but feel tremendous guilt.
After voicing my concerns, my school worked to quickly address and meet my needs: screens were put up, a new air conditioner was installed, a WiFi dongle was purchased, a motorbike and helmet were given, and more. Despite the language barrier, my school was extremely patient and supportive of my needs. They’ve resolved most of the issues I’ve brought up, nonetheless, and I am also extremely grateful. However, I wonder if there are underlying questions of entitlement versus gratitude in this context. Am I allowed to feel or be entitled to these amenities that were guaranteed? Is it possible to feel simultaneously entitlement and gratitude?
Moreover, this past week, I also got to meet the students I’ll be teaching for the next nine months; I will be covering five classes that collectively hold a little over 160 students! I spent this week introducing myself and sharing tidbits about my upbringings, my family and friends, and my motivation and goals not only for being in Việt Nam but also as an educator. They welcomed me with open arms. I also took the liberty to ask my students about their goals and some topics they’d be interested in learning (more) about. Their responses ranged from climate change, to education reform, to philosophy, to politics, to corruption in politics, to LGBTQ+ rights, and many more.
I was swept away. I was inspired. I’ve been presented with a unique opportunity to engage critically with intellectually curious young adults and to broaden their understanding of issues that are not only important but also relevant. This is an opportunity too great not to take advantage of. My students are charismatic and engaging, and after meeting them, I am reminded of why I decided to move thousands of miles away. I’ve said this before, but I know there will be many days of confusion, loneliness, and insecurities. (I’ve already felt this in the last two weeks!) But I am confident that my students will be worth the challenges and struggles—they are unbelievably inspiring. Given my lack of formal teaching experiences, I’ve been questioning my capabilities and wondering whether or not I will be able to connect with my students both within and outside of the classroom.
I suppose only time will tell. That, and the amount of effort I put into educating and inspiring my students.
Also, I gave my students an opportunity to ask me any questions they had about me. Surprisingly, this prompted a few students to inquire about my romantic and dating life and comment on my dimples and “handsomeness.” Oof. (Those were awkward 10-second moments.)
Tây Ninh City, taken from the rooftop lounge of Sunrise Hotel | Photo Credit: David Thai (2018)