The Fence, and How to Get Over It In Certain Places

Last May when Richard Fincher came though Berkeley while attending a conference of arbitrators in San Francisco, we had dinner and he talked about what teaching in Vietnam was like. I can check that blog posting and confirm what he said.

I remember him saying that he taught classes of 75 or more, that the students were all seated elbow to elbow on benches, that the benches could not be moved around to enable students to work in groups, that you use a microphone to talk to the back of the room, and that Vinh does sequential translation. The classes are taught on a once-a-week basis in 2.5 hour sessions, even social sciences classes that require discussion and thinking in between teaching points. He didn’t write the exam his students took, didn’t know what was on it, didn’t grade it and didn’t know how the students did. He mentioned that the boys sit in the back and talk, and don’t participate unless you make them.

So we were warned.

A lot of this is still basically true for us, too. I am calling this, and various other elements of the educational system here, “the fence.” Another piece of the fence: we can’t communicate with students directly. They have email addresses with the domain and our gmail emails won’t connect with them. So we go through Vinh, who has the email addresses for Joe’s classes and my class, and her classes. For my Cross Cultural Leadership class, I communicated through Nhu, the class monitor.

Can the students learn under these conditions?

I think they can. I would say that students somehow figure out how to learn in spite of the fence. They learn over the fence, or through the fence, or around the fence. Again and again when I meet the students and talk with them, to the extent that I can – and many of them can speak sufficient English, if you listen patiently – I find that they are ahead of me. They see the fence, can comment on it, are critical of it, and manage to learn in spite of it.

Some things have changed since Richard’s experience. For our Community Mobilization and Leadership classes in the Labor Relations and Trade Unions Faculty we more or less wrote our own exams, with modifications by others (Vinh and Dean Hoa). I was allowed complete freedom to write a final exam for my special short course, Cross-Cultural Leadership, taught in the International Business Program faculty. It consisted of one question, “What did you learn in this class?” And I am grading it myself. I have read half of the exams by now and am going to treat this experiment as a success. I can read these exams and they do in fact tell me what they learned. They definitely learned something. In fact, I could not have written a multiple choice exam that would have collected better information about whether they learned anything. Plus, the exams are easy to read and have some personal information in them.

(A note written a month later, in November: Vinh graded all the exams for my Art of Leadership and Joe’s Community Mobilization classes. It turns out that we cannot find out how our students did. We may be able to get a general overview of how they did, but nothing specific for a given student.)

I will write a separate post about the progress in the student reports for the Art of Leadership class (group research reports looking at workplaces, especially youth employment) that are now in their second round of presentations. The presentation are taking too much time relative to the value of the points toward their grade, so this is sending a mixed message to the students. On the one hand, they put a lot of work into these research projects!! On the other hand, the whole project only counts a small percent of their grade. We will have to find out how to compensate for that. However, we are getting great information from them. Will the students benefit from this information? We have to make sure they do.

And now here is another example of getting over the fence.

This afternoon, Wednesday the 21, we went to the English Zone. Leanna and Hollis came too, and went off to join different groups. I sat with Tom (Tuan), Ngoc, Heiu, one more whose name I can’t write down, and another girl named Ngoc. One of the girls had lived for 2 years in Los Angeles and had an awful time – it was seventh grade and apparently a whole gang of kids decided to make life miserable for her.

Her story is another story that I can’t report fully in my blog. I would say that by now, I’ve got five or six stories that I can’t write about. I’m not just talking about the English zone students. I’m talking about other Vietnamese we have met in other situations who have told us their life stories, including the stories of their parents, and I cannot write about them.

There is a link here. The link is politics. I believe that the reason I can’t write about these stories is the same reason there is so little talk about politics.

We keep wondering why there is no talk about politics – not bulletin boards posting about meetings, no political clubs, no T-shirts promoting campaigns, no public debates about current issues, no movies about Vietnam in the last 40 years, or even 60 years. Instead, talent shows and food competitions. I’m starting to understand. Here’s a generalization about why that is the case at TDTU.

The students here all have parents who had extremely divergent experiences during and after the American war. Many people here in the South worked for the French or for the Americans. If we’re talking about the grandparents of these kids, we’re talking about working for the French. If we’re talking about parents and some grandparents, we’re talking about working for the Americans. That means they experienced profound changes in their life trajectory after the French left – in 1945 or really 1955- or, in the next generation, after the Americans left, in 1975. Then there are people whose parents were on the other side in the war, supporting the National Liberation Front and the PRG, the Provisional Revolutionary Government.

Then there are people who actually came south from the North after the war (meaning the American war), in many cases, to re-unify with their families. These were people who had relocated to the north in 1954 after the Geneva Accords, for what they expected would be a short time, since they were promised an election that would re-unify the country within the next 24 months. The elections never happened, and it was 20 years before they could return. By then they had kids, too. According to Madame Binh (who was one of these people), for example, a wave of teachers came south after the war to staff the schools that were being built all over the place.

The people who are alive today, and their children and grandchildren, are the survivors of a half-century of war that killed 3.8 million (or 5% of the population) between 1955 and 2002 (according to wikipedia, Vietnam war casualties).  They were fighting the French and the Americans, but they were also fighting each other. The sharply different experiences of this generation’s parents and families are still undigested, un-normalized, un-reconciled and raw. There may have been some kind of effort at a public national reconciliation movement, like in South Africa, but I have not heard about it. (Not that it was the total fix in South Africa, either. And we haven’t exactly done a fix on our Civil War, either.) The re-education camps clearly did not serve this purpose.

So the way this raw memory has been handled is that political speech has been simply suppressed, both officially and by culture and custom. Students tell us that they study Vietnamese history from 500 years ago, but nothing in the last 50 years. That makes sense. Recent history here, like in the United States can be a way to open wounds that are not yet healed and may never be healed, not within the lifetime of people who were hurt, winners or losers. Joe tried to teach a class at CCSF on the Vietnam War and got shut down right away – and that was in the US!

But today, sitting with five or six students, we started innocently enough with talk about who speaks what languages. Soon we were talking about what language their parents speak. Three of them speak Russian. Russian?? This is the first time anyone has mentioned Russian, at least in this group.

But sure enough. One has a father who went to study in Russia. Two have fathers who speak Russian. One has a grandmother who speaks Russian. She studied in Russia. She doesn’t speak it any more. Now she rides her bicycle all over Ho Chi Minh City and organizes groups to sing old songs. But she also speaks Chinese and French. One has a mother who used to speak Russian. Someone else has a father who speaks Russian.

Do they speak Russian now? No. Do they want their kids to learn Russian? No. They want their kids to learn English.

This is good luck for me. Thirty years ago, my English would have had no value at all. Today, I can come to Vietnam and just because I speak English, I have value. I am useful to these kids. But maybe I can also be useful by giving them a little research assignment. Here is the question: Why isn’t Russian the language of choice any more? What happened?

So we actually assigned this as question to be investigated by the kids in the English zone (and yes, at a certain point I am going to stop calling them kids). We said, “For next week, go and find out what happened to make English the language of the market, not Russian. Why do your parents speak Russian, but now they want you to speak English. What happened?”

Some blank looks. I give them a hint – “Try 1989, 1990. What happened in 1989, 1990?” One of them writes it down.

They don’t know. But they accept the assignment.

Tune in next Wednesday.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

3 thoughts on “The Fence, and How to Get Over It In Certain Places

  1. I have been reading your blog and feel like I am getting a feel for Vietnam today through your eyes. The Fence is fascinating. Once I read your blog it seemed logical that people deal with all these contradictions and pain by not talking about it. But also very sad that there is no political discussion after the years of struggle. It occurs to me that this apolitical approach is attractive to the government today.

    1. Paula, hello! We were just talking about you and Brian and the Seattle Fight for $15 and other things, related to the minimum wage issue here in Vietnam.

      I am reading a book right now, by Denise Chong, called “The Girl in the Picture: the Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the vietnam War” which is giving me a much deeper, more three-dimensional view of why there is so much that doesn’t get said. I’ll write more about this book soon. For now, I’m reading it as fast as I can, but it’s emotional and I keep putting it down.

  2. Those who are eager to learn usually sit up front while those who take up space will sit in the back. This is not an absolute as those who become more interested will move forward both physically and educationally while the reverse is also true. It takes quite a number of efforts for these students to get a spot in the class let alone stay there so could it be said that the students are desperate to learn? How about intensely curious as a description? The looking through the fence comment really sparked my imagination and curiosity. I would imagine the analogy of making hay while the sun shines may be applicable.

    I hope that my next question and remarks don’t make it difficult for you but are there any “subversive writers” there? It took Seth Rosenfeld over 30 years, $600K and hundreds of hurdles to write his book “Subversives” and I don’t think for a moment that he is the only one and that there are no more of him anywhere else. Shutting down free speech and free thought never truly happens as what some see as truth will also feel the need to set it free by many means.

    While it is good to remember the past, it is better to have a fair and balanced accounting so that the reader/student can make a decision (if one needs to be made at all) for themselves. It may be difficult in Vietnam as they are trying to prepare for the comping capitalist M.O. but I can see where the reigns must be managed. I think that my mouth would have gotten me into trouble by now.

    Carry on.

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