Instead of writing solely about my English Speaking or American Studies classes at AGU, I have decided to write about my students as a whole: my students at AGU, my adult students at the Rural Center for Community Development (RCCD) and my students at Pacific Links’ Open House.
It is difficult for me to say what I have contributed to my students at AGU, other than the inherent benefits of working with a native English speaker. I hope I have showed them that the best way to learn English does not come from a book, and that there are worlds outside of their own that are weird, exciting and entirely different; I hope I have conveyed that Americans do not all look like me, and that everyone faces difficulties no matter where they are from. I know I have become more than just a teacher to them, and I hope they know that they are more than just students to me—they are my peers, and I hope to remain friends with them even after I leave Long Xuyen.
It is much easier for me to say what my students have taught me, and I do not know whether this is a good or bad thing. I suppose I believe it is good, because I know without a doubt what they have taught me, but I can only make assumptions about what I have taught them.
My university and adult students have taught me that, should I pursue teaching after the end of this school year, I want to work in an elementary or middle school to try and combat the abysmal English standards in the lower levels of education; my adult students have taught me that I want to learn more about, and help in the improvement of, the economy of Vietnam, so that grown, well-educated adults do not see English as their only means of success. But it is, perhaps predictably, my students at Pacific Links that have taught me the most important lesson: these girls have showed me the true strength of the human spirit, the incredible and awesome power of female perseverance, and have given me a pathway to pursue my life’s dream.
Working with the young women at Pacific Link’s Open House is at once the best and worst part of my day—I eat the best meals I’ve had in Vietnam, I laugh across language barriers, and am able to spend time with the most incredible human beings I have ever met. But, once I am home, nestled into my bed reading or writing in my journal, my thoughts inevitably turn to the particular horrors through which they have lived. I hate remembering who these girls are, and why I know them. I hate imagining them being bought and sold, treated as cargo instead of human beings. I hate everything they have gone through, and everyone that has made their experiences possible.
This act of remembering is specifically painful in a way I can only compare to remembering that a loved one is gone: it comes on suddenly and overwhelmingly, shaking my core until I feel so broken and helpless that the world appears to be a hopelessly cold and apathetic place. But once this feeling lessens, I am able to remember that it is not hopeless, because we are not all apathetic. There are incredible women (and men) who work to get at the roots of trafficking, who encourage families not to sell their daughters, but to send them to school instead; organizations that are able to educate communities about the perils of trafficking, and the absolute necessity of caring for its daughters as it cares for its sons. I remember these general signs of human goodness, and am able to remember the small things as well. I remember that, on Wednesday, Rath volunteered to answer a question for the first time, and that she called me sister instead of aunt. I remember the way the girls laughed when, after cajoling me into eating a piece of bitter-melon, I made a face of horror and my eyes watered with distaste. It is this act of remembering that gives me pride and joy both in the work that I do, and in the people I do it with. It’s the silver lining in the thunderstorm.
So, although these girls are not my students at AGU, and not only do I spend the least amount of time with them out of any single group of my students, but they are also the group with which I can communicate the least, they have taught me more than I could have ever imagined. Once my treatment this summer is finished, I will be moving back to Vietnam to live in Saigon, and plan to continue to support Pacific Links in any and every way possible. I have found what I want to do, and I have found the group I want to do it with—this would never, ever have been possible without Teachers for Vietnam. It is because I was able to teach at AGU that I found Pacific Links, and through my students both at AGU and at the RCCD that I know I want to work with younger children in the future, both as a traditional and non-traditional educator.
John and Elena Robertson