In 2011, a fortune-teller in a smoky, incense-scented room in Vietnam predicted that I would be the only student in my study abroad group to return to Vietnam. At the end of the five months, I also knew that I wanted to return to this complex Southeast Asian country. Assistant English teaching through the Fulbright English Teaching Assistants Program seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn more about Vietnamese culture and Vietnam’s relationship with the United States and give back to communities who had welcomed me. I don’t generally believe in the supernatural, but a little over three years later, it turns out the fortune-teller was right.
As I wrote my application, I focused on how to express that I was the right person for this role – a meld of teacher, cultural ambassador, mentor, and friend. My grandparents and parents have all lived and worked internationally. Their openness to and interest in meeting people from all over the world inspired me to move far outside my comfort zone. I’ve learned that when I consciously and positively engage with the world, my connections deepen, and a global community is strengthened. Fulbright has given me the opportunity to do this by connecting and learning from the brightest students and teachers in Vietnam.
As I prepared to spend ten months away from family and friends, I wondered what holidays would be like abroad? For many years, my small family has hosted an eclectic Thanksgiving meal, with guests from Washington, D.C.; China; Canada; and more. Would I find a community to celebrate with in Vietnam, and how would I share American traditions?
Now, I am working at a gifted high school in Vietnam – a warm, welcoming community with students who generally have fairly similar backgrounds and are eager to learn about American traditions. My first major holiday in Vietnam was Halloween, which lined up nicely with the first event of the school’s revived English Club. I spent weeks preparing for the event with two other teachers, the administration, and student emcees. Our hard work paid off when over one hundred students arrived the afternoon of the event, bearing decorations, wearing costumes, and ready to bob for apples, create their own monsters, and discuss how Halloween compares to Vietnam’s Hungry Ghost Festival.
In his introduction, one student emcee asked the crowd, “What can help Vietnam connect to the world?” and the students shouted back “English!” Music to my ears! The emcee went on to perfectly summarize one of the reasons why I deeply valued my work in Vietnam: English opens up information and economic opportunities previously unavailable. I was impressed by my students’ enthusiasm, creativity, and strong speaking skills. During the “Make Your Own Monster” activity, my environmentally aware students eloquently explained their new “Forest Monster,” who cries when we harm forests and smiles when we protect them. Their enthusiasm for English, and interest in how to solve the world’s problems, inspires me to improve my activities and discussion topics.
I shared about Thanksgiving with my students, asked what they are thankful for, and compared the foods and traditions of Thanksgiving and Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. For Vietnamese Teacher’s Day, I was showered with the traditional flowers and gifts. My students said they were both shocked to discover there is no big celebration for Teacher’s Day in the United States, and thankful to attend a high quality school with high achieving teachers. So, it seems, I have found a community to share the holidays, which have provided common ground on which to start conversations about our respective cultures and build mutual understanding. I can’t wait to see what my students will accomplish and discover since I left Vietnam, and for many years afterwards.