(Note – this post is being written at 05:45 on the floor of a dining room in a Hanoi restsaurant after a night train from Sapa. My brain isn’t working yet. Apologies…)
One of the main problems we face as teachers in Thailand is that the vast majority of students, for whatever reasons, simply do not want to learn. Thai society is very much divided by wealth, a few exceedingly rich people towering above the teeming millions with next to nothing. There’s no middle class and no such thing as social mobility. The upshot of this is that poor students often feel there’s no point studying something as exotic as English because they’re going to end up working in a bike repair shop for the rest of their lives while the kids of the upper classes are spoiled brats who’ve never had to try at anything since they’ve been born.
Obviously I’m generalising here, there are some good kids on either side of the wealth line but the above does hold true in most cases.
Imagine our surprise then when we arrive in Sapa, a sleepy town in the middle of the Vietnamese highlands, and are confronted by the girls from the local hill tribes, selling their wares using some of the best English we’ve heard since leaving the west. The villages surrounding Sapa are home to several tribes, all of whom live by working the land and crafting textiles to sell on to the steady flow of tourists coming to marvel at the scenery. From the second your feet hit the road outside your minibus from Lao Cai you’re swarmed by the women of the tribes, ages spanning all the way from six or seven up to sixty or seventy.
The initial pitch is usually just a simple variation on “You buy from me?”, “You buy this?”, “You promise to buy from me?” and that’s probably all that most tourists will hear, or at least notice. We’ve been sitting in English classrooms for the past year though, grammar and syntax run through our heads when we sleep at night, so when we start up a bit of chit-chat and start hearing perfectly formed sentences like “I’ve lived in Sapa my whole life but I want to travel to see where the tourists come from” being delivered by girls the same age as our students back home our ears prick up and we’re suddenly shifted from tourist mode back to teacher again.
After three days of talking to these girls we’ve been blown away. They speak English (and in some cases French) with such confidence and utilise such wonderful turns of phrase that you’d swear they’d been studying every day rather than just picking up what scraps they can from their customers. The following exchange is pretty typical:
“How old are you?”
“Well you should go home and get to bed, you’re too young to be out selling at this time”
“How old are you?”
“Well you’re the one who should be in bed old man, I’m young and I have energy but you’re old and weak!”
This was between Tristan and Lee, officially the number one ESL student in Southeast Asia. Lee has it pretty tough on the face of things – her father is dead, her mother is ill and her sister is pregnant at seventeen, meaning that at fourteen she has become the sole provider for the family. She spends her days selling what she can and some nights, thanks to a local good samaritan who we had the pleasure to visit briefly, she attends a basic night school of sorts teaching Vietnamese and maths, free of charge.
Note – the hill tribes have their own languages so don’t necessarily speak Vietnamese. Lee spoke H’Mong, English, French and a little Japanese. She was remarkably adept and inventive at swearing in French too 🙂
This is where one of the differences lies, unlike our students Lee’s livelihood depends on being able to shoot the breeze with dozens of new faces every single day. If her patter is up to scratch she makes a lot of money, otherwise she’ll not stand out from the other sellers, sales drop and her family go hungry. So motivation goes a long way.
That’s not all though, there’s something else essential that seems to be missing from almost every student in Thailand. That’s just plain old inquisitiveness, a sense of wonder and adventure, a thirst for knowledge. Not long ago I asked my oldest class “Which city in the world would you most like to visit and why?”. Out of eight students, four answered Bangkok. One of the reasons was “Because it’s in Thailand”. This is coming from high school kids, not babies. The lack of ambition, of curiousity and of drive in general is something that never fails to disappoint me when it comes to my job. Talking to Lee was so refreshing, reminding me that there are kids out there who really do care what’s outside their comfort zone, who want to see the world, to learn. She wants to perfect her already impressive English (“You’re English is amazing”, “No it’s not, I’m stupid, you should just put me in the rubbish bin. You’re stupid for thinking I’m clever” Seriously, she came out with that), travel the world to see at least the UK, America, Australia and France and maybe become a tour guide so she can save enough money to open a business.
All three of us have come away from Sapa feeling refreshed albeit extremely sad to be leaving. It’s pretty safe to say that we’ll all be making a return trip at some point and if there was ever a job opening for a native English teacher in town we’d be fighting tooth and nail for it (they can’t afford one right now, all English is taught by Vietnamese). Aside from the amazing scenery, the change in climate and the relaxation – this initial selling points of Sapa – I’m leaving with a renewed enthusiasm for teaching and a realisation that the old saying “There’s no such thing as a bad pupil, only a bad teacher”, isn’t strictly true. I’ll do my level best to teach but if you don’t want to learn – and I’ll also do my best to make you want to learn – you’re going to walk away from the class with nothing. Education’s a two-way deal.
Good luck to you Lee, and to your friends. Hope to see you again some day.