Why I may never leave Vietnam: Confessions of an English teacher

By Benjamin D. Herman   April 10, 2017 | 11:27 pm PT
Nice to meet you! I have a confession to make.

As an English teacher landing in Vietnam in the summer of 2013, I made myself a single promise: three years in Vietnam is the limit! No more.

I’d read the stories, I’d seen the reports. It seemed like once people hit the five-year mark, they just never left. I wanted out well before that time.


Hmm, you know? Before you judge, let me tell you a bit about myself.

I’m an American from a small town (Evansville, once called The Grove!) in Wisconsin… and here I am bumping up against my fourth anniversary of living in Ho Chi Minh City, with no plans of moving anytime soon (which are mostly unrelated to my new president).

So, why am I still here, you ask? And, more importantly, why am I still teaching English? This is not my dream job! These are valid questions.

I’ll tell you why. I found, through a ridiculous amount of trial and error and networking, exactly what I wanted from this lifestyle. But that’s getting ahead of myself! First, let’s start at the very beginning.

My experiences teaching English in the city have been both joyful and challenging. The challenges can be… really challenging. The joys, though, the moments where you’re successfully connecting students to the material and, for like 1/64th of a second, you can picture yourself being one of those globetrotting professional ESL teachers, making bank and seeing the world while making a practical difference on an individual level, can make you come home singing.

There were some growing pains, however.

Attempt 1: Child phase

Everyone told me that kids are easy to teach. Everyone is 50 percent a liar. Kids are both the most exhilarating to teach (does anything learn as fast as a toddler?) and the most insanely difficult to teach, if only because you have to plan for a potential new activity every five minutes.

I suspect most newbie ESL teachers start with younger children. Teaching children can be a primal experience, for good and bad.

My first experience teaching was in a public school in District 6. I had 50 kids in a class, no AC, and a series of under-trained and overworked staff and TA’s. Uff. There was a lot of beer that year.

While the public school thing was a less-than-stellar experience all around, I made some friends and began to comprehend a bit more about the daily lives of regular Vietnamese – something that, for a foreigner, can often feel like trying to peer into a sealed black box. These were invaluable insights, and formed the basis for my further understanding of Vietnamese culture. Super rad.

After public school I visited the other end of the class size spectrum. I spent some time working in very small classes of preschool kids. My evolving understanding of teaching children included:

  1. Vietnamese toddlers are the world’s cutest children. I don’t care what anyone says.

  2. It’s really hard to fake a job that doesn’t engage you. Really, really difficult.

So, not so super engaged thus far. Perfectly adequate at these jobs, but not my deal. Children are the future, just not mine.

With these accumulated lessons in mind, I started looking for some opportunities to teach adults.

Attempt 2: Teen to adult phase

So primary kids were a solid no; preschoolers were cute and eager but not intellectually engaging. I needed new ground. I needed a different kind of student.

I needed adults.

I’ve focused on many different populations of adults, to varying degrees of success (of course).

Early on, I taught low-level military members preparing to go to the Central African Republic on Vietnam’s first U.N. mission (super cool!).

Adults have routines, and it is very difficult to disrupt them or change a behavior - without the person wanting to change. Many adults view learning English as a lost opportunity, relegated to childhood or smarter people, even as they half-heartedly engage in the motions. It’s a serious problem in the earliest stages of an adult student’s experience learning an L2.

Speaking and listening are two skills that adult Vietnamese ESL students have largely missed the boat on – their education largely consisted of Vietnamese teachers teaching English, which is just about as effective as it sounds.

I attempted to create a drama-centered private lesson approach to focus on this niche. I failed, but it was instructive.

People want instant results. If you ask a young 20-something to focus on "cumulative" gains, you’re going to have a bad time! Also, people seem to think that if the words “acting exercises” are in the description, they will be trained to be actors? This is an English class, get real!

Soon, I got a job teaching English to parents who were moving their families to Texas. At last, it seemed like I was closing in on what truly inspired me. I had spreadsheets. Made curriculum. I was making a difference. Made friends.

Then I got fired. Super exciting! Very, very important lessons:

  1. Don’t trust a boss who won’t give you a written job description and contract (and she was American! SHAME).

  2. I found some talented, incredible, and very motivated students, several of whom I still teach and work with today. Good deal, overall. Also, totally dodged a bullet on that whole job, to be honest.

Attempt 3: Corporate phase

Have I finally found my match?

Last September I got a job teaching the professional staff of a large Vietnamese conglomerate. It’s challenging in all the best ways (and a few less-awesome ways, but they’re slowly getting better).

I’ve got dedicated students, a fair amount of autonomy, and make ok money – not great, not terrible. I get to wear jeans and flip-flops to the office, and I’m learning new things every day.

But hey, you never answered. What are you still doing here?

Frankly, I’ve had an extraordinarily positive time overall in southern Vietnam. It is an incredibly easy place to live.

There’s an awful lot to love about this region, especially the people, the food and the environment. I truly believe it’s a very special place, and I almost always (Ahem, TRAFFIC) enjoy living here. I’m here to make the most of this amazing adopted home of mine!

As I slowly creep up on my fourth anniversary here in Vietnam, I’ll be thinking about these things. Que sera sera, I suppose.

For now.

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