Perhaps unsurprisingly my first four days in Vietnam have been marked by my complete inability to understand Vietnamese. I can’t remember how to say “please” or “hello,” and I have the hardest time pronouncing thank you. Insofar as I can tell, “cam uh,” with the slightest hint of a (g) at the end of the “uh,” means thank you, but all I get in response to my attempts at courtesy are blank stares; even when I think I’ve done a good job of enunciating “cam uh(g)” my students (who at this point teach me) tell me to keep trying. Worst, and probably most important, is that I find myself incapable of remembering and understanding the names of people I meet because the intonations and sounds I hear simply don’t register. Of the names I have picked up, I’ve already met no fewer than 5 Phu’s, discovered that I have a male boss named Phuong and a female boss named Phuong (they work in the same office), and learned that two of my other bosses are named Tam (one works in RIRO (the Office of International Affairs) and the other works in the English Department).
So as a teacher I find myself in a bit of a quandary: I think learning my students’ names is absolutely fundamental to building a sense of community and trust in our classroom, but there is just no chance that I’ll be able to learn the names of at least 125 different Vietnamese students in a reasonable period of time. As a possible solution to this problem I’ve considered asking my students to choose English names for themselves. There isn’t anything wrong with trying to get my students to simulate English-speaking situations by learning some English names, right?
Well maybe, but also maybe wrong. Can I really justify asking my students to change their names so that I, a foreigner from a country with a massive track-record for cultural ignorance, can understand them? Asking my students to change their names because I am incapable of understanding them feels so ignorant, so awful, and just so American. What do I even mean by English names? Do I mean American names? Who gets to decide what an American or an English name is anyway? WHY CAN’T I JUST REMEMBER AND UNDERSTAND MY STUDENTS’ NAMES??? Is it because I’m American, or could Vietnamese names just be particularly hard for English-speakers to comprehend?
Yesterday all of this thinking came to a head as I was walking with a group of students to an area near campus where we had agreed to go on a jog together. We’d just met up after the end of a class and having not yet been formally introduced to them I asked them to tell me their names. Stumped, I decided to test my “choosing American names for yourselves” theory. “If I asked you guys to choose English names for the purposes of our class, would you be OK with that?” I asked. “Aw,” responded one of my female students whose name I did not catch. “I really like my Vietnamese name. Why do I have to choose a different one?”
“Uh,” I stammered. ”The thing is that I think that there might be some value in spending time thinking about the names people use in different cultures. I mean… how do you feel about how different American names are from Vietnamese names? Do you feel like your identity would change at all when you assume a name with different cultural connotations?”
While this answer wasn’t exactly the reason behind my ‘English-name-choosing’ activity, I did sincerely mean what I said: why might we be loath to give up our names? That is, what is it about our names that we attach ourselves to, and what can we learn from the process of choosing names for ourselves that come from a different culture?
Yet despite being able to intellectually justify my English name idea I know that the intellectual reason is not the real reason I want my students to pick English names for themselves: the real reason is that I cannot understand or remember my students’ names; the real reason is that I am the only American in a city of 300,000 people, and I came here without speaking a lick of Vietnamese and knowing very little, if anything, about the culture. The real truth is that I am incredibly out of place in Vietnam. Might the real truth also be that I am fulfilling part of the American stereotype that I dread?
My general discomfort with my role as an English teacher in Vietnam epitomizes this “what the heck am I doing here” tension found in my struggles with the Vietnamese language. The very act of coming halfway across the world to teach English (or, more specifically, to help my students learn English so that they can improve their economic prospects) means that I, the foreigner, the American, the 22-year-old who just graduated from college, am looked upon as a sort of hero by my students and colleagues. Almost every student and administrator I meet thanks me for coming, and I’ve been offered numerous opportunities to make some money by tutoring kids outside of the university. Yesterday a student of mine, Phu (I’m not totally sure about the spelling), told me that I was the first foreigner he’d ever talked to in his life. When I asked him what he thought of foreigners he responded, “You’re very kind and generous.”
But I didn’t come here out of altruism or because I felt obligated to impact the lives of Vietnamese students at An Giang University in Long Xuyen, I came here because I was looking for something. I wanted to experience the world in a different way than what I’d been exposed to thus far in my life; I wanted to try to alter my ways of thinking by exposing myself to people who live very differently from how I live. I’m so obviously not a hero, and yet my own spiritual adventure means so much to those I’ve encountered so far in Vietnam. While I think that learning how to balance this will be one of my central tasks while here, for now I will continue to do my best to be respectful, thoughtful, and culturally sensitive. Given the circumstances I think that’s all I can do, and I also think that this is what is best for my Vietnamese students.
“Well, you all can choose a Vietnamese name for me if you want!” I said out of a spirit of consistency to the girl who didn’t want to choose an English name for herself. She agreed, and decided to name me Nam (in Vietnamese Nam means south (Vietnam means the Viet people of the south), but it also, apparently, is a name). I’m now Nam, and my students, or at least the students who went jogging with me, have agreed to take on American names. Woo!
Post by our teacher in Long Xuyen, Nick Schcolnik.
Original blog post from http://nicksexcellentadventures.wordpress.com/