I woke up that Monday, not greeted by the friend that I had had for the last six weeks at the center. It left me with a bitter feeling inside. It was around seven, time for me to brush my teeth and go get breakfast from my brothers at the bakery. "You look tired, here's some bread" one of them told me. "Yep, I woke up too many times the night before" I replied, going over to the bread rack and taking along two baguettes. I walked back to my room, hungry and ready to start the day.
Today was the first day of the school year for the primary and junior high level students. leaving me with no designated class for the morning. During that morning, I did some research into teaching in Vietnam, reading the news like crazy to understand the current situation. And I cannot believe how much I learned, how responsible I have to be to solve many of the difficult issues in the Vietnamese education system and ultimately the divide between the Vietnamese Americans and the Vietnamese. I thought long and hard that morning, not writing anything down, but just thinking, carefully thinking over all the possibilities...
At around eight thirty, I decided to go and tutor Ron, one of my first friends at the center and a junior at the Hue University of Economics. He wants to go into auditing, but is fearful for his job, as he needs to better his English skills tremendously to impress employers to hire him. He's worked hard over this past month, reading English, listening to music in English, and talking to me in English, asking me questions whenever he had them. He was the prime example of what someone needed to do to work at their English skills in Vietnam, as there are so few opportunities outside paying large sums of money (for the Vietnamese at least) to learn English, especially when many of the language centers methods are slow and not as effective as they should be (which I will address in another entry). I worked with him that morning, going over pronunciation from the alphabet, to vowels, and vowel combinations, knowing that he had been top improper pronunciation his whole life. He learned quick, memorizing my lesson and using it to help him read out sentences to me. We also talked about the center, talking about the next two weeks for me, and our plans to see each other again. "You know Ben, in three years I will be gone from the center, because when we graduate, we have to leave and find a job" he told me. "No worries, I'll find you, and I have your Facebook and phone number" I replied. He smiled, "oh right, sure!"
Shortly after, the time being about nine forty-five or so, I went to go check in with my brothers at the Thanh Truc house, saying that I would be rejoining them like old times for lunch and dinner. They were delighted, joking to me that I had to pay a fee or do something ridiculous for them to allow me in. I'm going to miss all the jokes, all the play fighting, and all the camaraderie with all of them. They asked me to come back in an hour, and so I went back to my room to relax for a short while, getting up before lunch to think over some more ideas for the center for the coming two weeks.
This house by far had the best food, everyone in the center even agreeing. And so there we were, having another fine meal like the first two weeks of eating with one another. They gave me a large bowl to eat in, knowing that I ate more that way. They tested their English when they could, asking me how to pronounce their foods in Vietnamese. I knew they trusted me, all the children, all the mothers, everyone, especially since I knew Vietnamese well enough to understand the situation of the center beneath the surface (which I will talk about in the later half of this entry). I stuck around for a bit, talking to the older brothers in English about their time so far, their boredom about waiting until the next month for classes, and what not. "It's boring, we need more freedom" said Than, a sophomore at the Hue University of Agriculture and Forestry. Ly and Yen, two of the older sisters from the nearby house came around the garden, peering in from the window at us. We joked with them a bit, figuring out what they were up to. "One of the sisters, Hong, is sick at the hospital and has been for the last three days," said Yen, "we are both going to visit her today." Hong had recently came back to Hue to find work, she had left the center a while ago after finishing her training for work. I actually did see her the day before, but didn't know who she exactly was. I told them all good bye for the time being, tired and in dire need to sleep.
I napped for quite a while, about an hour and a half, though still felt a little tired waking up. My next class had to be canceled as well, the children either at school or busy. I found Bac Hung, the gardener and repairman of the center, waiting down at the steps of the little childrens' houses. I talked to him about my plan to donate to the center, to which he told me to talk to each of the houses and have them all come up with a decision. He also requested that I buy two bike pumps for the children, as the one currently is broken. I agreed with him, but also learned a little more about the issue between the workers of the center and Ms. Hong, knowing already that there was tension. "Don't tell her I said this, but there has been a lot of issues over the past years, and no one wants to talk about them" he told me, which to me meant people were fearing for their jobs. He told me some examples of some misdeeds in the past, which prompted me to think more and more about my own witnessing of anything out of line. I thanked him for the talk, and visited the houses of the younger children, playing with the new child, Bin, named after me. He was so cute, two years of age and now just starting to learn Vietnamese. He integrated into the center nicely, all the children loving him, and he loving the children and his mother, Ms. Nga, the newest mother at the moment.
I decided I could not linger and play, and so I went up to my room to write and think for the next three hours. At dinner with my brothers, I talked about my travels thus far, telling them how sad I would be when I would leave them on the 27th. "You could just not go home" said Duy, the usual jester of the house. "Yeah, sure I'll do that" I told him, laughing. They were happy to have me back, giving me some special fruit treats after the main meal. I stuck around for a bit more, wanting to catch up on old times and greet Trieu, one of the older brothers who had just returned after a two week project with his geology professor at his university. He looked tired, but happy to be back with his brothers. He also brought his girlfriend back for a little bit, all the brothers teasing him. He told me he wanted to marry her after he graduated, both of them going to the same university and meeting each other freshman year. He asked me for advise, to which I said, "do what you feel is right for both of you." Vietnamese nowadays, I was told, among the poorer people, such as villagers, the normal marriage age was between eighteen and twenty, while for the working class is pushed up to about twenty six or twenty seven. I decided to head back, working on my laptop some more.
About an hour in, a swarm of about twelve children ran into my room, the power going out. I had a lantern in my room that kept it lit, attracting them over to play and hang out. They wanted to watch a film, but I was busy typing away at my blog. Anh Dao called me that time, asking me to come down at seven fifteen for an important discussion.
After about thirty minutes, Chinh came up, telling the whole group that they were in trouble and that Mrs. Hong was demanding that they all run down. "Oh no, we're in trouble now!" said the children, all of them frantically running down. "No more visits!" said Chinh, running down with them. That was odd to me, as I had told Mrs. Hong about the children playing in my room before, her not saying that there was any problem the other day... I decided to keep writing, missing my meeting scheduled with Anh Dao, and writing until about eight fifteen. I called her and she said I should come down to talk.
There definitely was an issue going on, Anh Dao looking sad and unfocused, as if something was seriously bothering her. The other children were quiet, which prompted me to ask them what happened. Mrs. Hong had recently come down, yelling at all of the children about visiting my room, and also yelling at Anh Dao, and telling all the mothers to do so as well. I heard it all finally, the situation with the children and Mrs. Hong, the fear and misunderstanding, the lack of trust and understanding. What had happened is that today, during the meeting with all the mothers and other employees of the center, Mrs. Hong told them that Anh Dao had begged me to buy for her the battery for her laptop (of which was not true at all), and asked all of them to yell at her. I understand the issue of safety, as the center doesn't want the children asking foreigners like myself for anything superficial that they do not need. However, my request to give Anh Dao the battery was not out of wanting to give anything superficial. On the contrary, it was essentially an investment of good will into her future, which at the moment to pursue a Doctorate Degree right after the first four years of college, an amazing feat in Vietnam. However, it seemed that Mrs. Hong saw it incorrectly and lied to all the mothers, creating a rather uncomfortable and stressful situation for Anh Dao, who was unable to study and work on her thesis outline for the whole day. "Ben, you can understand where I am coming from right?" she asked me, "it has been like this for years, the children know it, but no one is going to go and talk to Mrs. Hong about it." She told me not to talk about this issue with Mrs. Hong, saying that it would only make her problem worse. I disagreed.
Being here for the last six weeks, I did notice there were some internal issues, as there are with any establishment with people. But this of course wasn't just about the children having issues with those with power and authority, but the whole center, the mothers, the gardener, even those working next to the director. "This is something much greater than it may seem and I need to fix it" I told her, "a problem of the center is a problem of mine." I explained to her my reasons, telling her that it was my responsibility to make things right when no one else will take the opportunity. I do understand that I've only been here for six weeks, not nearly the duration that these children have and not having endured and fully understood all the nuances of living here, but I feel I know enough from the children and employees to know that this is a problem that has lasted for a while and is creating a negative environment for everyone. "I will find a solution, just give me time," I told her, the children also listening in on our conversation. Some of them told me to forget about it, others cheering me on, telling me if anyone could solve it, I could. To end our discussion, Anh Dao expressed to me some of her feelings about me and my opportunities in America, saying that she sees my future as bright and with no boundaries. "You have a bright sky ahead of you, and there is nothing limiting you from doing anything in your heart's desire" she said, "I can't do that, I never had the opportunities like you did, I couldn't have done as much service to the world as you have, as in Vietnam, you just don't do those things, there is no money and no opportunity for those kinds of things." I understood her emotions, telling her that I knew that each and everyone of the students here could do equally if not better than I have in America, saying that it of course has to do with the issue of environment. But here was my point about living in a land of opportunity. "What I have learned to understand that is important to living happily is that its not important what types of opportunities are put in front of you, but that you do what ever it takes to take the opportunities that are provided to you, as few as they may be," I said, "if there are none, make them happen, develop your own idea, pursue your own passion in whatever it may be." "I agree with you on that..." she replied, "you are right."
That night, I stayed up late once again, working and reading into the night as usual, tired as ever, and stirred with a fervor to make things right for the children, the mothers, everybody at the center. I have to make things right.