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Vietnamese excuses: Five things at once

Vietnamese excuses: Five things at once

Saturday, May 21, 2016, 13:49 GMT+7

Getting my students to remember and hand in homework is like trying to find an empty road in Vietnam. A noble ambition with little chance of success, yet when it happens, it’s like a dream.

The reason is a 50/50 combination of lousy time management skills, never checking their emails for homework and the education system’s love of exams; endless, pointless, impractical exams.

There’s also the problem of Vietnam’s cultural demands on its people too. “Gotta do something for my mum, have to attend a funeral, my best friend’s cousin’s aunt’s sister who is my great-grandmother is getting married” – it’s no wonder that coffee, the black energy booster that delivers nightmares at 2:00 am, makes such good money in such a perpetually exhausted population, that also runs on Mayan time!

Money, of course, doesn’t help either. Everyone tears around the streets on the way to make a dollar, in-between school, family obligations and next week’s rent payment. “Teacher, I can’t come to class today, I have to help my mum sell flowers” – of course, you’re the daughter – you’re cheaper to hire than giving a job to some poor, undeserving slob!

It’s the idea of NOT doing things properly that gets me. Raised in the strict educational code of Australia, my expectations of ‘on time’, ‘prepared’ and ‘what I asked for’ are as meaningless here as a garbage bin on a Vung Tau beach on a summer long weekend. 

My foolishly misguided and wildly ambitious projects to get the Vietnamese organized become an endless series of schemes based on my rules and deadlines. Homework arrives five minutes before students trundle into class and the internet shark gets the blame for everything – “Oh, I didn’t get that email.” Well, if you got off the phone long enough at 11:00 pm while exchanging selfies, you’d find it marked under “Stivi: subject: homework from two weeks ago.”

In a way, it often seems like an analogy: what happens in my classroom goes on in real life as well. “Check your homework for mistakes before you hand it in to me” becomes ‘Teacher – I had no time! I have to prepare for a test tomorrow!”  Now that’s usually horribly true but why, oh why can’t they take five minutes to check?

You see this everywhere in Vietnam – roads built at breakneck speed with no-one checking the quality of the work. There are a thousand deadly hazards on the roads with no warning signs or a cover plate – or the local make-do, a tree branch sticking up out of a pothole. How about the English textbooks where every fifth page contains a basic grammar mistake? 

If I ask for 300 words, double spaced, typed in Microsoft word and sent via email for an IELTS essay practice, I’m as likely to receive a crumpled A4 page with writing that I have to read under a microscope with no paragraphs and a chain of thought that’s worse than a traffic roundabout in Ho Chi Minh City. Excuse? “My dad took the laptop to work.” Really? I thought you had three laptops in the house or does your dad borrow that Range Rover to drive to work?

Again, the analogy. They know what should be done but somehow expect me to accept a poorer alternative. Ever ordered at a restaurant but received something not quite what you expect? It becomes a habitual breaking of rules and standards that spreads across the culture like a bad summer flu. 

I explain to my students the consequences. What if a pilot didn’t learn his skills properly? What if a doctor failed to give a full report? What if an engineer changed the standard to something he fancies – just because he can? Blank faces stare at me because the penalties are so light it doesn’t matter much – unless your parents are involved – then you’re in trouble!

You can find the same scenarios played out across the country as people escape serious punishment for traffic accidents or putting others lives at risks. People using airplane exit doors comes to mind...  or jumping from a burning ship without life jackets or instructions.

It’s terrible, right? However it does get better... even if it is as slowly as an old lady pushing her street cart across three lanes of traffic. The hope does rest with the young – they are getting the idea. Mind you, I am losing my mind and drinking too much Larue at 9:00 pm from the strain of installing practical common sense and an ability to think out cause and effect.

Occasionally my brightest and most sensible students hand in work that matches my teachers bucket list and I’m in seventh heaven, saluting the stars with a cold beer in the late evening and believing that I’m changing the world. In the real world, progress happens too, for example they’ve just placed new traffic barriers near my school. Now I don’t have to wince every time I’m heading back to Hoi An in the evening.

In the real world, disaster, tragedy and plain stupidity seem to rule. In my classroom we plan for the future and struggle to get it all right. Somewhere between reality and education there is improvement and that’s what I believe in. To keep asking for better, to highlight the wrongs and offer solutions to those who need to learn. 

Although there will always be someone who cheats or is lazy, the goal should always be to create greater numbers of people who DO care and work hard to get things right.

And somewhere, the homework handed in correctly becomes the person who thinks and cares enough to make Vietnam a better place for all of us.

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Stivi Cooke


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