“I’m American,” and Other Untrue Statements I Say in Vietnam

First Classes are always nerve-wracking. You want to establish a good rapport with your new students, yet you also want to it make clear your rules and expectations. After six months of post-CELTA teaching, I was finally beginning to settle upon a good routine for a First Class. I’d found an engaging introduction game on Teach-This.com that would satisfy my new students’ natural curiosity about me and also give me the opportunity to assess their English level. For lack of creativity, I’ve been calling it “Teacher Questions.” A quick run-down of how it works:

After taking attendance and telling them my name, I have the students each write down five questions that they would like to ask me about me. As they’re doing that, I write their names on the board. Then, I choose one student to sit in the teacher’s chair. Naturally, that student is now the teacher, or me, and thus has to try to answer another student’s five questions as if he/she were me. As the student in the teacher’s chair attempts to answer questions, I mark if they are correct or incorrect next to their name on the board. When everyone has had a turn, I then answer their remaining questions that their peers had not been able to answer as me.

PC: facebook.com/LanguageLink

PC: facebook.com/LanguageLink

I’ve tried it out on several teen classes so far, and it’s gone over pretty well. But I began to notice something. Usually, the students will want to know what their new teacher is from. The question “Where are you from?” came up in the Teacher Questions game several times. And as I stood with my marker poised over the board, waiting to hear the students’ guesses, I heard:

“Cambodia.”

“Thailand.”

“Japan.”

“China.”

Each time I’d mark an X next to that student’s name, while mentally rolling my eyes. At the end of the game, when I told them that I come from the USA, my answer seemed to be anticlimactic. The students kind of murmured; some looked confused or disbelieving.

Vietnam is a monocultural society, so few Vietnamese understand that a person can be an American and not be white. Only a handful of my students have been able to ask the polite version of the question that is on many of their minds during the First Class: “So why do you look Asian?”

(The polite version, by the way, is, “Where are your parents from?”)

Most of the time, even if the class can’t ask the question, I tell them what they want to know anyway: that my parents are from Taiwan, that I can speak both Mandarin Chinese and English. This explanation always receives a chorus of “ahhhhh’s”, and then we move on to more important things, like learning English–but funnily enough, whenever I bring up my background as an example for a language point in subsequent lessons, at least half of the class remembers incorrectly that I am from Taiwan.

I love being Taiwanese American, but it does not come without its challenges.

I love being Taiwanese American, but it does not come without its challenges.

Call it naïveté if you’re feeling generous, racism if you’re not, white imperialism and Western influence if you’re trying to be more objective–whatever you call it, a lack of understanding of multiculturalism exists in Vietnam. A thirteen-year-old student points at the black kid on a textbook page about UK teenagers and says, unsolicited, “I don’t like him.” Nine-year-olds’ faces droop when I assign them to read the lines given to the darker-skinned illustrated characters in our book. When instances like these happen in my classroom, I wish that teaching multiculturalism could be a part of teacher training.

I am fortunate enough to have never experienced any serious problems with my company or my students’ parents regarding my ethnicity. Yet I can’t help but feel frustrated by the little-discussed space I occupy as a TCK expat. To Vietnamese, I’m foreign, but not as foreign (for better or worse) as white people, who are what the Vietnamese mean when they talk about foreigners. But expat strangers couldn’t tell me from a Vietnamese unless their lives depended on it. I am therefore denied the privilege of having a superficial excuse for being unable to communicate well in Vietnamese, and the privilege of instantaneously making a social expat connection via visual markers.

I believe that multiculturalism is a vital aspect to incorporate into EFL learning, yet I don’t know the first thing to teaching it, and as personal experience shows, TEFL is a long way from successfully integrating multiculturalism into the classroom.

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