Man. I really wanted this to be an encouraging post. My goal is certainly not to bring anyone down, but instead to expose some truths – before emphasizing the silver lining
Vietnam’s government has one party. And let’s just say that the Communist Party of Vietnam is not as directly interested in our goals as we are. Kendall and I have faced several hindrances in our first month. We arrived in Vietnam on January 12th. A month and a week later, we still have not, effectively, taught a class. In fact, we did not even set foot in a classroom until January 25th. We were waiting government clearance to allow us to sit in the classroom. Two weeks may seem like a short period, but when there are only 4 months until summer vacation, and teaching is the activity that led you to a country, the wait seemed ridiculous.
The curriculum presents an even bigger challenge. Classes are 35 minutes short, follow a rigid curriculum of memorization and sentence structure, and teach to a single nation-wide standardized test. The students at the school where I spend most of the time fail the test every year. Not just a few students; every single student.
That is because they are ethnic minorities and, much like in the United States, race largely determines your future. These students speak tribal languages, but are taught in Vietnamese. They are taught English by a Vietnamese Instructor. That’s like asking a low-income classroom in the United States to learn French from a teacher who speaks only German. These students are 8 and 9 years old.
This past week was Tet. Tet is the biggest holiday of the year in Vietnam, celebrating the Lunar New Year. Everything pauses. Families reunite, restaurants close, traffic stops. What ensues, however, is disheartening. For 10 straight days, the men drink alcohol, the women cook and clean for the men, and the children watch.
This is certainly not the case for every family, and perhaps does not even represent the majority of Vietnam. But I can say with confidence that I did not meet a single man over the age of 40 in Khe Sanh that did not smoke a pack of cigarettes, and consume 10 or more drinks, every single day of Tet.
Further, the anecdotes I was able to gather during Tet broke my heart. I vividly remember a father holding his newborn son on his lap, blowing through cigarette after cigarette, filling his child’s lungs with smoke. I remember sitting in a small room with 6 men, each discernably drunk, then watching them straddle their motorbikes and weave their way back to their beds. I remember wife after wife cooking enough food to feed their drunken husbands, then quietly cleaning up the beer cans and food remnants scattered across the floor.
And what I have learned, perhaps above all else over the past month, is that these anecdotes are quantifiable. Vietnam consumes more alcohol than any other country in Southeast Asia. Alcohol consumption has increased over 200 percent over the past 10 years. Drunk driving is the cause of 70 percent of traffic accidents in Vietnam. This is especially fascinating considering it is culturally inappropriate for women in Vietnam to have even one glass of beer.
There is a lot of trash. Worse, there is a tangible apathy towards taking care of the environment. Plastic water bottles and beer cans line the streets and fill the rivers.
The images below are unedited and astoundingly representative of what I see everyday:
I threw together a video which I like because it shows 3 things: A pile of trash on the side of the road in the beginning, the proportion of motorcycles to cars (this is highway – many more motorcycles in less urban areas) and the remarkable juxtaposition to such natural beauty (the sun setting over the rice patties).
The Silver Lining. Kids are kids are kids. No matter where you go in the world, kids still smile. They still shout joyfully and maintain an intense curiosity to learn. They still love to sing and dance and run from the girls at recess. And kids can make a serious difference.
There is a generational change brewing in Vietnam. It is felt in the selfless passion of many English teachers, each younger than 32 years old, and in the dreams of young girls, aspiring to be business leaders and doctors.
Two students I have been working with, My and Quyen, both want to be teachers when they grow up. At 13 and 14 years old, they have the best English in their respective classes and are inspired to change the cultural attitude towards the environment.
In one month I have met so many inspirational individuals, each youthful and energetic, that have been dreaming of widespread and dramatic change for years before I arrived. They will still be here making it happen years after I leave. I am learning that I am here to support the actual change makers, and to help magnify their voices and capitalize their impact, so that like-minded change makers around the world can find inspiration from a community in rural Vietnam.