Every month, Fulbridge interviews an ETA from around the world to get a glimpse of what life is like in different placements. This month, Zoë Gioja, 2014-15 ETA in South Korea and Fulbridge’s Founder, talked with Jwyanza Hobson, current ETA in Vietnam. Indonesiaful has republished the piece through a partnership with Fulbridge.
Q: Why did you choose your host country?
A: This is actually my second time living in Vietnam. I was here first in 2015 for a study abroad program doing a research project about contemporary artists in Hue. It was particularly about the ways in which they transform the memory of war through their work. I studied under the guidance of University of California Riverside Professor David Biggs. I had a few reasons for choosing Vietnam then. Firstly, as the son of a Vietnam vet, I have always had an interest and fascination with the war and that period of history in general. I realized that if I wanted to get a more balanced view of what had transpired during what is called in Vietnam “The American War”, I should study it from the Vietnamese perspective. As a practicing Buddhist, I also had always wanted to spend time living in a country where Buddhism was one of the primary religions. I really fell in love with Vietnam, its culture and people and couldn’t wait to find a way back again. As soon as I returned home from my study abroad program, I applied to be a Fulbright ETA.
Q: Where are you located and what school/university do you teach at?
A: I have been living in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam in Mỹ Tho City. Mỹ Tho City is in Tien Giang Province and I teach at a public university there called Tien Giang University (or Đại học Tiền Giang in Vietnamese).
Q: Since every country ETA program has different requirements, what all does your grant entail?
A: My grant requires that I teach for a full academic year at a school in Vietnam. In my particular case, I have been entrusted with four to five speaking and listening classes per semester, of which there are two per academic year. I am responsible for teaching, testing and grading my students. Along with the English classes for which I am in charge, I also host a few English Clubs, which are informal gatherings where we practice English-speaking through exercises, playing games, and having informal conversations on various topics. My students include English majors and non-English majors from TGU, the faculty of the science departments at TGU, and the Department of Foreign Affairs of the province of Tien Giang.
Q: What does a normal weekday look like for you?
A: I wake up at 5:30 just about every morning to the sounds of roosters crowing and public announcements emanating from a loudspeaker located somewhere in the center of the city. I travel from my guest house on the main campus of Tien Giang University to their new facility about 10km away. After my morning classes I have a break for a few hours. I have gotten used to taking this time to rest. A midday siesta is a part of the everyday life in Vietnam and I’ve come to appreciate having this time to recharge.
I typically have my English Clubs during the afternoon. During these sessions I come up with fun games and exercises to help build my students’ proficiency, but most of all their confidence in speaking English. I teach English majors, science majors, the faculty of the science department, and the staff of Tien Giang’s Department of Foreign affairs. I have to cater each of the lessons to the needs of each group, so the planning can keep me a bit busy in my off-time. The club’s are usually fun, which is the point. I use the clubs to show that language-learning can be enjoyable and not merely a chore or obligation!
Q: If you have, how have you gotten more involved with the university outside of the classroom? How have you gotten involved with the community?
A: I have gotten involved with the local music community in My Tho. It started when I befriended the local guitar legend and was soon invited to perform with his band on stage every Friday at a local coffee shop. Mr Do Hai is one of the most phenomenal musicians I’ve had the opportunity to play with and his knowledge of both Vietnamese and Western music never ceases to astound me. He’s got a huge repertoire of classic rock songs that he plays with his band already. When I perform with the group, we play songs from more obscure Western groups. I have introduced the local music loving community to artists such as Prince, Iggy and the Stooges, the Misfits, and Sade through these performances. It’s sonic cultural exchange! I brought my electric guitar to Vietnam and have also performed with students at school events, learning Vietnamese songs on guitar and backing my students up while they sing! Sometimes I perform for young English learners at the English center that they attend. I’ve also gotten involved with a local charity, bringing large supplies of food and donations to impoverished people in rural areas of the delta, some elderly and some afflicted with physical disabilities as a result of the American War.
Q: What has your experience been like using or learning the language in the host country? Any challenges? Funny moments?
A: I would love to be able to say that I’ve become fluent during my time here, but learning Vietnamese is challenging. (You would think that a musician would pick up a tonal language easily.) I spent a few months trying to speak to people in Vietnamese and being met with blank stares. After repeating myself a few times they usually eventually get it, repeating back to me what I thought I had just said over and over again, but apparently didn’t. That said, my Vietnamese has actually been getting a lot better in the past two months!
Q: What have been some challenges?
A: After the elections in November I went through a gamut of emotions, from overwhelming sadness, to utter outrage sometimes in the matter of a single day. This went on for a few days. On one of the days following the election when I had been feeling particularly despondent, I found myself wandering around in a local Buddhist temple. A monk approached me while I was there (which is unusual) and we had a lengthy conversation during which he gave me some excellent advice about how to proceed with managing my emotions during this tumultuous time.
Another challenge in my particular situation is that of being perpetually stared at my locals! It was really off-putting at first, and I would sometimes feel either really objectified or even rejected, depending on how I would read the stares I was being given. I would try to ignore it, but it didn’t do any good as it would seem to happen so often. As I thought about it more and more I started to realize that I was probably the only black person that most of the people in my province had ever seen that wasn’t on a movie or television screen. I then started to feel responsible for being a representative not only for Americans, but for black people in general in these situations. Thoughts like, “This person might not ever meet another black person in their lives so you had better REPRESENT” persisted! In the end, I learned that a polite wave and a friendly smile usually break the spell of a long stare, as people are often not aware that they’re staring to begin with! I learned to stop projecting my own negative ideas as to why someone might be staring. People probably stare at me most at the gym and I just tell myself that they have never seen the way that sweat glistens off of a well-toned black body before!
Q: What have been some highlights?
A: Watching my students’ improvement in English proficiency and seeing them become more and more confident has been a big highlight. When I hear from my students’ other English professors that some of my students who have previously been very shy about speaking English have now been volunteering in their other classes I am delighted. My university even offered me a position in their staff if I want to stay in Vietnam when the program ends!
I have also enjoyed opportunities to travel quite a bit in my off time. I have been able to not only explore the southern region of Vietnam, I have also been able to visit Thailand and Cambodia. I’ve rediscovered my love of photography and have been able to take some really breathtaking photos, especially of temples, wats, and pagodas, traditional places of Buddhist worship. During my travels I have been able to speak with other lay-Buddhists and monks who have all shared wisdom from their paths towards enlightenment. These travels during time off have been as enriching as the Fulbright program itself.
Q: What was your best lesson plan?
A: I delivered my most memorable and best lesson plan on Halloween. I prepared by wearing all black (which isn’t completely out of character for me anyway). As the classroom filled up I was hidden behind a desk with a scary skull mask on. As the students got comfortable I started playing some scary music that I had prepared. When the atmosphere was nice and creepy I jumped out and frightened them. Then I pulled out my electric guitar and played the song Black Sabbath by the band of the same name with the lyrics to the song scrolling on a screen behind me and the accompanying music playing on the classroom’s loudspeakers. Some of my students were entertainingly horrified. (I almost felt bad, but it was Halloween so…) After the song ended, I pulled the mask off, much to the relief of some of my students. I then proceeded to tell them a scary story, providing definitions of what I thought would be new vocabulary to them. After putting them into small groups I assigned each group to memorize a part of the story well enough to share it in their own words. After the memorization was done, new groups were formed comprised of individuals that could tell each part of the story. The groups then recanted the story, each member telling his or her own part. Afterwards there was a discussion about Halloween and superstition in general where I found out that most of my students believed in ghosts!
Q: What will you miss the most?
A: It’s kind of hard to say ahead of time, but I’m sure that I’ll miss the connections that I’ve made in Vietnam. The human ability to forge bonds beyond borders of culture and language never ceases to amaze me. I have connections like no others with my friends and loved ones in Vietnam. I’ll also miss being able to jump on a motorbike and go on spontaneous adventures in the Mekong Delta. Some of those moments were the most free that I’ve felt in my entire life.
Also, the COFFEE!
Q: Why should prospective grantees apply to your host country?
A: Vietnam is a beautiful country with a proud and rich history. The food here is amazing, and for the most part people are kind and willing to engage. (The kindness of strangers in Vietnam is something that I’ve been able to count on. Without it, I’d have faced hardship on more than one occasion.) There’s natural beauty as well as amazing remnants from ancient cultures, if you know where to look. The day to day life is full of simple pleasures.
Vietnam feels like it’s on the verge of a serious growth spurt. Saigon for example seems to have changed between the time that I came here last and this time. The Vietnamese culture seems to me to be one that perpetually seeks to learn from its history for the sake of progress. There have been many times in Vietnam where I felt like I could clearly see the merging of the country’s past, present, and future expressed in a single moment.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share about your experience as an ETA?
A: There was one time I was late for an appointment in Saigon and called for a motorbike taxi. It was an important appointment so I was a bit stressed out about it. The motorbike taxi arrived late, which compounded my frustration. To make matters worse, one he started to drive us, he was doing so at a snail’s pace. I asked him to speed up a little, which he did, but not by much. When I saw a motorbike with three passengers pass us on the highway (a man driving with a woman on the back nursing a baby) I decided to say something. I facetiously asked, “Would it be better if I drove?” He says, “OK!” and immediately got off the bike. He didn’t even pull over! He just got off of the bike and proceeded to climb on the back of it. This was an opportunity to great to pass up, so I drove us at a quicker pace to my appointment with the driver giving me instructions from the back on how to get there! “Ben trai!” (Left!) “Ben phai!” (Right!) Other people on motorbikes in traffic couldn’t help but notice that we were a strange pair of people riding through traffic, an obvious foreigner with a moto driver in tow. We would laughed with them at the stop lights. I eventually arrived at my appointment with a few minutes to spare. After paying the moto driver I told him, “You’re a little bit crazy, you know that right?” to which he replied with a big toothless grin, “Yeah! Yeah!” Vietnam is random like that!