Alumni Connection: Interview with Dustin, who recently returned from 3 years Teaching in Vietnam
Expecting to teach in Vietnam for 3 months starting in 2014, by the middle of the second month, Dustin knew he had to stay longer.
What drew you to look for a program like this during that particular time of your life?
At the time, I had been working as a fundraiser at a university and I had also just finished my masters in International Relations. I knew that I wanted to work abroad in some sort of capacity, but I wasn’t sure how to do it. I had studied Vietnam in a couple of classes in college and I was really fascinated by the culture and the history, so I thought this is where I wanted to be. I started looking towards teaching English as a way to get my foot in the door to eventually find a non-profit job. I am from NYC, so I didn’t want to live in a big city. I was looking for a small city near the beach and then I found this program and it fit the bill exactly with what I wanted, and the rest is history.
What made you extend your stay from 3 months to 3 years?
The people are the real reason that I stayed. It’s how friendly the Vietnamese are, and it’s sustainably friendly. It’s not just like the first time you meet someone, they say, “Oh, you’re a foreigner. It’s nice to meet you” it’s every day, and still even today. Everyone is still so warm, gracious and welcoming. They’ll bend over backward to make you feel comfortable. It’s like I found gold.“
How would you describe the Vietnamese culture?
One thing that strikes me the clearest is that they treat strangers like friends and they treat friends like family. Once you’ve started a relationship with someone, you can instantly feel like you’ve known each other for a long time. When you develop a true and close friendship, they make you feel like you belong – and that’s true for other foreign teachers here as well, they’ve said the same thing about how welcoming people are.
Also, with my close Vietnamese friends, I could suggest something and they’re game. They’re very flexible; they just want to have a good time. I’ve never really seen any of my friends angry, disappointed or upset for an extended period of time. If there’s an issue, it’s like “ok, whatever” and it’s resolved. It seems they just forgive and forget very quickly.
What is day-to-day life like as a Teacher in Vietnam?
The teaching hours are from 8:00am to 10:30am and then around 5:30pm to 9:00pm, so there is usually a big break in the middle of the day. Everyone gets two consecutive days off per week. We work about 20 teaching hours per week. For most of our classes, we are substituting for a class that is normally taught by a Vietnamese teacher, so the students in the class will have the opportunity to practice and do some activities or games with the native speaker to get them feeling the native sound of the language. Each week our schedule is different, though there are listening and conversation classes that people sign up for that occur routinely. We have all different ages, from 4 to 5 year-olds to adults. We get a book, so we find supplemental activities relating to the topic we are supposed to cover for that class.
You have to be committed, energetic and enthusiastic to be a teacher. Those are the two key qualities that make this job work well; not only for us, but for the students too. The main purpose we are there is to get the students to enjoy English and to have fun – we cover the lesson, but just in a lighter way than the Vietnamese teacher would. We are always alone in the classroom, though if we need support for translation or discipline, we can just go into the next classroom and ask one of the teachers to come in for a second, which I’ve done many times.
What tips would you give someone interested in going to Vietnam to navigate challenges experienced related to cultural differences?
So #1 – a tip an API teacher actually gave me when I got here – is “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. If it’s something that I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable doing normally, whatever – I’m just going to do it. There are obviously some limits, like, I’m never going to eat dog meat, but the Vietnamese generally just want us to feel comfortably here because if we are not comfortable, they kind of feel embarrassed, and embarrassment is a major taboo here. #2 – be flexible and trust that your colleagues and friends are going to look out for your best interests and just go with the flow. #3 – don’t be afraid to ask questions. That’s a big one. Maybe they just don’t think to even mention it, so if you feel uncomfortable or not know what’s going on, just ask somebody and they’ll tell you. Especially colleagues here, the Vietnamese staff is trained and very familiar with westerners.
What skills have you gained from this experience?
In terms of teaching, it’s learning exactly how to engage the skills of the students and then developing lessons that suit their strengths and weaknesses. Outside of the classroom, I have learned to understand how other people think, how they see life in general and how it’s so different. Work ethic is different – not bad or good – just different.
So, I have to ask – you have recently become the Ambassador of Tourism for Nghệ An Province? How did that happen?
I have a friend who is the director of a local tour group and they were the first company to provide tours for foreigners in the region, which engages urban Vietnamese youth to get out in the countryside. Two years ago, the director of my school and I filmed a video with a professional film crew of me riding this old 80s motorbike around the city and the countryside and the beach, just showcasing the city and the scenery like nobody had seen before. Nobody had ever done that and shown what it looked like from that perspective and the video went viral across the entire country. Later on, I was joking to friends about how funny it would be if they made me Ambassador of Tourism or something like that – a total joke. A couple of weeks later, he sent me a text message telling me that the Nghệ A department of tourism would like me to be the Ambassador of Tourism at this special tourism event coming up this month. I said, “whoa, I was just kidding about that, but that’s cool!” So we’re actually leaving tomorrow to go to that conference in Hanoi. I will go in the traditional dress in Vietnam and sing some folk songs, recite some poems and then speak in the local dialect to see if people in Hanoi or other parts of Vietnam can guess what I’m saying.
Despite recently becoming Ambassador of Tourism, Dustin had planned to return to the US and he hopes to continue working in fundraising for a nonprofit to get more experience in the field, though hopes that within 5-6 years he will be able to return to Vietnam more a much longer period. You can see his video that went viral on the API blog.
For information about API’s teach abroad programs, visit this page to see the options available and application deadlines.