What English Teachers in Vietnam Make (2011)
(for Taylor Mali)
He says the problem with English teachers in Vietnam is
“What’s a Vietnamese kid going to learn from someone who decided their best option in life was to become an English teacher?”
He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true what they say about English teachers:
“Those who can, stay in their home country; those who can’t, just teach English in Vietnam”
I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the other dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about bankers nowadays.
Because we’re eating at a French restaurant, after all, and this is polite company.
“I mean, you’re an English teacher, Jimmy,” he says.
“You’re not planning on doing this your whole life. Be honest, What do you make?”
And I wish he hadn’t done that
(asked me to be honest)
because, you see, I have a policy
about honesty and ass-kicking:
if you ask for it, I have to let you have it.
You know what I make?
I make Vietnamese students work harder than they ever thought they could
I make correct pronunciation feel like they won the World Cup for Vietnam
and an incorrect word feel like a motorbike collision
How dare you waste my time with anything less than your very best
I make students from small towns feel like they are ready to run the UN
I make high school students sit through 40 minutes of TED talks in absolute silence.
No, you may not use your electronic dictionary.
Yes, you have permission to criticize me.
Why, won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you want to check your girlfriend’s text message, that’s why.
I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
I hope I haven’t called you at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something Thuy said today.
Thuy said, “I think Vietnam is the most beautiful country in the world and I never want to leave.”
And it was the best thing I’ve heard since my mother assured me she trusts me.
I make parents see their children for who they are and whatever they want to be
You want to know what I make?
I make students imagine,
I make them question.
I make them respect tradition and invent the future with what they’ve got.
I make them read and write a 1-page essay on what they’ve just read
I make them realize America is not as cool as the movies
I make them speak, speak, speak
And then I make them understand that to become fluent in English, to become fluent in life, you have to sing your answers, paint your plans, live to dream
I make them show all their work in complete sentences.
And hide their incomplete ideas in poetry.
I make them pronounce the words “Thank You” with punched sarcasm in the case they ever talk to a Wall Street banker
I make them assemble the vocabulary needed to talk us out of this mess we’re in
I make them realize dignity is not found in numbers
It is found in words and living by them
I make them understand that if you got this (brains)
then you follow this (heart) and if someone ever tries to judge you
for being just an English teacher, you give them this (the finger)
Let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
I make a goddamn difference! What about you?