Last Days in Saigon
By Antonio Graceffo
There was a short article about me in a hair replacement e-magazine in Canada. That’s when you know you’ve made it.
If you remember from part one of this tale, I was lying on my bed in Saigon, feeling sorry for myself, while trying to recuperate from a mysterious fever, and dealing with the depression that comes with unemployment and poverty. Actually, that isn’t much of a teaser. A description like that should just turn anyone off from reading the rest of the story, unless they’re some kind of masochist, who enjoys exploring the depths of human suffering. Also, you can pretty much guess from the title that I leave Vietnam at the end of part 4. So, it’s not a great who done it, like “Where’s Waldo?” I must have read that book fifty times, and I still can’t figure out who Waldo is. It’s one of the classic mystery books of all time.
The first days after my illness I could barely stand up. So, I spent a lot of time in bed, watching “The Shield” which one of my Asian friends thought was a horror movie. “Why do you watch that movie? They just talk, and boring, and then everyone die.” Good point.
One of the nice aspects of depression is that you catch up on your sleep. But I was still in a lot of back pain from the weird sickness, so I was having trouble sleeping. I bought one of those soothing white noise generators that are supposed to help you sleep. But the only tapes it came with were rush hour traffic, jack hammer street construction, and a dentist’s drill.
My friend Pete landed himself a job teaching for a dodgy Turkish company, which placed foreign teachers in Vietnam, government schools. Pete had only been in Saigon for a week, and already he was starting work. His optimism got me off the couch, but only as far as my computer, where I sent out resumes, looking for jobs. Of the twenty or so emails I sent, I was only called in for one interview, and it turned out, it was the same company Pete was working for.
“Both of us getting hired on the first email seems to easy.” Said Pete. Pete was Canadian and just used to his life being more difficult. “I think the school is a front for something.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Money laundering…drugs.” He answered.
I gave him some advice. “If they ask you to transport drugs in your body cavities, don’t eat a lot of fruit or Indian food the night before.”
On my first day of work, the company sent me out to a government elementary school which, they assured me was only ten minutes away. It took forty-five minutes to get there, and when I did, I couldn’t believe what a dump it was. It reminded me of the village scenes from the old TV show, “Planet of the Apes.” There was a broken down, rusted out car, sitting next to the gate. Actually, there was no gate, just a hole in the crumbling stone wall, where a gate should have been. Perhaps they pushed the car in front of the hole at night, to lock up the school.
I was looking for a security guard or an administration office to check in with, but all I found were thousands of screaming kids, playing, seemingly unsupervised, in the overgrown, weed-infested courtyard, between all of the little communist-style, dilapidated, concrete-block buildings that served as classrooms. For a culture that valued education, they had certainly spared quite a bit of expense on this school.
Eventually, a fit guy in his early twenties came over and introduced himself as the phys-ed teacher. He spoke to me in Vietnamese, while escorting me to the “teacher’s lounge” which was also the students lunch room, and which didn’t have a door, so he had to shoo kids away like geese to clear a plastic stool for me to sit on.
The room had windows, with no glass. At each window I could see about five or six, laughing children, who seemed to have nothing better to do than to stare at the new teacher. It was so loud, I could barely hear what the gym teacher was saying, and this was one of my first experiences of actually needing to speak Vietnamese for meaningful communication. I asked him for an administration office, but he mumbled something about the Ministry of Education in District 1. Not knowing how to say principal, I asked for the director. Just then, the lunch lady came and sat with us. The gym teacher looked relieved. “Here she is.” He said.
Either lunch ladies have more authority in the Vietnamese school system than they do back home, or my pronunciation was faulty. I am going with the second option.
I pulled out the class schedule which the agency had given me. It said that I was teaching three classes, third grade at 1:20, first grade at 2:10, and fourth grade from 3:00 to 5:00 PM. The schedule even had the classroom numbers written on it. It was a very nice, professional-looking schedule. Of course, it was all wrong.
The classroom numbers didn’t match classrooms at this school. The times were also off. While we discussed this and a million other subjects, in Vietnamese, it became apparent, that, although they knew a foreign teacher was coming, no one at the school actually knew what I was meant to be doing. Suddenly, a group of kids burst into the room, dragging another foreign teacher by the hands.
“Are you from the agency?” He asked.
“Yes, and you?”
He answered in the affirmative. The lunch lady and the gym teacher asked me if this was a friend of mine. I had to explain that although we worked for the same company, we had never met. They asked me a lot of other important questions about him, like how old he was, what country he was from, and if he was the oldest or the youngest in his family. They never asked his name, and either did I. I did, however, ask him how the agency thought he could possibly do this job without being able to speak Vietnamese.
“That’s why I’m late.” He explained. “I couldn’t find the school, because they told me it was ten minutes away from the agency. When I realized it wasn’t, and started asking for directions, I had to find people who not only knew where the school was, but knew how to speak English, as well.”
The guy had no teaching experience, no degree, and didn’t speak Vietnamese. This was typical of the types of people that these schools and agencies were hiring.
The lunch lady disappeared, and the gym teacher led me and the other foreigner to separate classrooms. I walked in and found 39 kids, aged 8-11 who didn’t know more than three words of English. At the agency, I had asked for a curriculum, but they said, “You don’t need a curriculum. Just practice English with them, play games and sing songs with them.”
“Well, is there a syllabus?”
I don’t remember the answer, but it was pretty much the same as the first one.
“Is there a textbook?” I asked. You can play games in classrooms. In fact, when teaching children, you should play games. But those games must be an alternative means of drilling material already covered in lessons. If I knew what they were studying that week, I could devise games around it.
The agent handed me the crappiest English textbook I had ever seen in my life. It was about twice the thickness of a comic book, with a huge picture, and not more than one or two words per page.
“I understand that the students are on page sixteen.” He told me.
“But you told me that one of my classes is in fourth grade and one is in first grade. Are they both on page sixteen?”
He nodded, non-commitally. “Just play games with them.” He repeated. “Practice conversation with them.”
Having nothing at all to go on, I walked into the classroom, hoping I could wing it. I figured I would divide the class in teams and have them run to the board and write their vocabulary words. The team that finished writing first would win. But when I saw how small the classroom was and how many kids there were, any game that involved standing up or moving around the room was out.
The students were packed in so tightly that they had to crawl under their tables to reach their chairs.
Somehow, I got through the first fifty-minute class, but by the end of it, my voice was fully gone. In between classes, the other foreign teacher and I compared our schedules and realized he had just taught the class I was scheduled to teach as my second class. The lunch lady came and took me to my third class.
Walking back and forth across the courtyard, I couldn’t help noticing that apart from the gym teacher and the lunch lady, there were no teachers at this school. Had the children killed them? Was I next?
Lunch lady didn’t seem know when this next class was meant to end, and neither did the kids. This time, there were about 60 kids in a room built for twelve. I just couldn’t believe that anyone could learn anything under these conditions.
The kids were all talking to each other and playing with their pencils. Even if I had a syllabus, I wasn’t sure how I would even attempt to teach with such disorganization. I asked a few of the kids their names and ages, but I even standing right next to them, the noise drowned them out completely.
“Teacher, play game.” Yelled one of the students over the roar.
“Sure, what game do you want to play?” I asked, hopefully.
There was no response. Then another student, “Teacher play game.”
“Yes, ok, fine, what game do you want to play?”
“Teacher play game.” Said another student.
It seemed they were all in agreement that we should play a game, but no one, myself included, knew what game to play when you had no context, no materials, no room, and no quiet.
I had a few kids come up and write vocabulary words on the board, but that quickly got boring. I was thinking back on what the agent had said to me as I was leaving his office, “Practice conversation with them.”
Conversation? About what? They didn’t speak any English. Even if they could speak English, there were sixty of them. How do you have a conversation with sixty people? With a fifty minute class period, that would mean giving each kid less than one minute of talk time. They could have done that without me.
I stepped outside the classroom in the vane hope of seeing a teacher or administrator who knew what I was supposed to be doing. There was none. Finally, I just decided to leave. This was easily the worst teaching job I had ever had, and I certainly didn’t want to do it again the next day.
I couldn’t just walk out and leave sixty children unattended, so I tried again to find someone, even the gym teacher or the lunch lady, but they were nowhere to be found. I called the agent, but he couldn’t hear me over the noise of the children.
“I hate this job!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. ‘I am quitting.”
“OK.” He answered, with no hint of emotion. “Just go home.”
“I can’t just leave the kids alone.” I protested.
“Why not?” he asked. At first I was incensed. How could you leave kids unsupervised? But then I looked at it from his point of view, why not? I walked right out the front gate, like Jude Nelson in “The Breakfast Club”, past the dilapidated car and hopped right on the back of my driver’s motorcycle.
When I got home, I sent an email to the agent complaining about the job and demanding that he not only pay me for the day, but that he compensate me for travel time.
His reply infuriated me. It read: “Sorry, we didn’t know the school was so far away. We will pay you for an extra hour of teaching. Stop by today and collect your money.”
I was angry because I wanted to hate this guy. But now he was giving me money, so by the moocher’s code, I couldn’t hate him. When I went in to collect, not only did he pay me in cash, as promised, but he offered me another job. “If I could get you work at a private school would you take it?” he asked.
“Maybe.” I answered. The government elementary had been a particularly bad job, I know, but I knew that part of the problem was that I just wasn’t meant to be teaching anymore.
I went back to my room feeling like an unemployed, 43 year old guy, who sits around in his underwear, watching TV and ordering pizza.
When you were young you thought, “Someday, I’ll be rich enough to buy whatever I want.” Life has taught me to dilute my expectations. My dream is to someday, be rich enough to rent anything I want.
So desperate for cash I accepted a job working in women’s shoes. But I had to quit, because they made my feet bleed.
When I’m already depressed, I like drudging up painful memories from my childhood, in order to really help sink my mood.
When I was a boy, my puppy died and my Dad buried it in the backyard. The reason it scarred me for life was because it didn’t happen in that order.
People told me not to go into a downward spiral, but did I listen? NO!
A few days into my funk, Pete stopped by to tell me he had also quit the horrible agency job. “When I told them I quit, they just didn’t seem to care.” He told me. I relayed my experience to him, then said. “It’s such a bad job, I guess they are used to people quitting.”
“I don’t think so.” Said Pete. “I think they are up to something.” Again with the paranoia! “When I went in to turn in my books, they gave me my pay in cash. Isn’t that strange?”
“What were you expecting? A check? This is Vietnam, there are no checks.”
“Yeah, but still…I think they’re laundering money.”
“How much was your pay?”
“Seventy-Eight dollars.” Answered Pete.
“And you think they set up this company so they could launder seventy-eight dollars?”
Pete didn’t have proof, but he knew he was right.
We would usually hang out in the alley, drinking drug-strength, Vietnamese coffee, and talking. Our favorite topics were literature, Taiwan, Japan, world events, and our job search. I had reached a point, I couldn’t even make it down to the alley for coffee anymore. I was afraid I would miss my favorite TV shows. “But they’re on DVD.” Pointed out Pete. “Well, they ain’t gonna watch themselves.” I Said, clearly winning the argument.
The next day, Pete found me a lead on another job, a better contract and improved work situation, working in private schools. He had already been called for an interview. I sent an email, and once again, I was also offered an interview. Pete was already suspicious.
And this time, I had to agree. I didn’t want to work for any company that was willing to hire someone like me.
Peaceful Withdrawal with Honor (part 3) coming soon
Antonio Graceffo is self-funded and needs donation to continue his writing and video work. To support the project you can donate through the paypal link on his website, www.speakingadventure.com
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at amazon.com. The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army.
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