a day at a vietnamese kindergarten

My sister-in-law, Quyên, runs a kindergarten out of her home in Danang, Vietnam. She and her husband had to take a trip to Huế this weekend, so Quỳnh and I came over to help out. Here’s how the day went.

classClass starts early in the day. It’s 7:30 AM, and a table’s worth of children, aged around 4-5 years old, have already arrived and have started studying, dotting their i’s, crossing their t’s, and hooking their ơ’s. Quyên teaches handwriting, which is a bit advanced for kindergarten, but appeals to many Vietnamese parents who want their children to be well-prepared when they get to primary school. That’s her specialty, but it’s not all she teaches. Children learn reading, writing and arithmetic, sing songs and listen to stories. This year, Quỳnh’s brother Nu (who studied architecture in Ho Chi Minh City) has also started teaching art classes after hours, to which parents can send their children separately (although the classes happen in the same place).

Some children start studying as they arrive. Some of them have signed up to have breakfast in the morning, so they sit at the table and eat first. Some of them are playing together in another room, using building blocks to make and break fanciful contraptions. A few others sit and watch children’s programming on television—although they’re restricted to short, intermittent periods of screen time, until the next activity starts. All together, it gives the schoolhouse—Quyên’s home—a playful, varied ambience, as a kindergarten should have.

I get a lot of amazed looks from the kids due to my height (nearly 6″). One of the children gazes at me and mutters quietly, “cao quá… (so tall…)” Another asks why I’m so tall, and one of the teachers insists it’s because I ate all my vegetables when I was young. (I did, too.) I try to kneel down and squat a little more to make them feel a little more comfortable with me. After a while, the children get used to my presence, but I get a lot of attention. Many of them may never have seen another foreigner in their lives, so I try to leave as good an impression as I can. That I can use my (still broken, but sufficient) Vietnamese to communicate with them helps a lot.

classThe morning rolls on, and around 10:30 it’s time for the children to eat. Lunch is served in the dining room, between the classroom and the kitchen; it’s a typical meal of rice, vegetables, and various bits of seafood, all served in the same bowl. When they finish eating, children sit back against the classroom wall to rest and digest, and prepare for what comes next: the several-hours-long naptime that’s common to almost every Vietnamese work day. Wooden pallets are laid out, and upon them, woven bamboo mats. After taking their potty breaks and washing their hands, the children settle in with their pillows, the curtains are drawn, and massive mosquito nets are strung up. Naptime lasts from around 11:30 to 2:30 PM—a bigger lunchtime break than any Canadian worker (barring CEOs) could ever dream of. During the break, the teachers and helpers—five of us in total—hang out in the dining room, watching over the children and having our lunch of bún cá, or fish with rice noodles. Something doesn’t quite sit right in my stomach, though, so I go home to pop some antacids and take a nap myself, returning around 3:00.

The afternoon proceeds much like the morning. Children continue to copy down letter forms in their books, in neat little rows, while others play. They repeat sounds out loud as they write down different combinations of letters, to help them learn proper Vietnamese pronunciation. A few younger children—siblings of the older students—have arrived too. A couple of three-year olds tag along after me, shouting to get my attention and offering me cups. I thank them, pretending to take a drink, and they move away. Then they come back again, offering the same deal. And so it continues for the next half-hour, every twenty seconds or so (I timed them). As in all cases with very young children, you gotta adapt, so we gradually turn it into an opportunity for them to practice addressing their elders politely: “Chú ơi (Uncle)! Please have some water!” instead of shouting. They eventually get sidetracked by other things, and I manage to go back to the classroom where I assist Quyên’s boys, who are off to the side learning English. What’s a table? What’s a chair? What’s an eraser? And how do you spell it? The silent e’s in “make a circle” cause no end of confusion. Oh, English. You crazy, haphazard patchwork of a language. How exactly did you become so universal? Don’t answer that.

classThe afternoon is drawing to a close, and parents will soon come to take their children home. The benches are rearranged to form rows, and Lâm (Quỳnh’s mother) takes center stage for game time. The game is some sort of traffic police game: someone acts as a traffic cop, and the rest are all sitting on their benches, riding motorbikes. As far as I could tell, the traffic cop gives directions (like “turn left”, “stop”, and so on) and the rest of the players have to follow the directions. If the traffic cop catches anyone who misses a command, they have to come up and pay a fine(?), which amounts to singing a song. I’ll have to inquire further to see if we could use this game in our children’s class back home. Anyway, little by little, parents drop in to drive their children home. One by one, boys and girls graciously go to each of their teachers to announce their departure—“thưa bà, con về”, “thưa cô, con về”—as the Vietnamese culture of respect for elders demands. Eventually, only Quyên’s boys remain, along with one more girl whose parents let us know that they would be at work late. We sit down for dinner—bánh canh cua, or thick noodles with crab. By the time I Ieave the schoolhouse, it’s past 6:30 PM, for a work day of eleven hours.

classEleven hours and sometimes more, six days a week. And yet Quyên doesn’t complain. Not only because she enjoys teaching, but because it supports her family quite well. Teachers are generally well-respected and well-paid in Vietnam, but Quyên is particularly respected by parents for her teaching skill, her sense of discipline and her trustworthiness. People simply know she does a good job, and they’re proud to send her their children.

Trustworthiness, I’m coming to believe, is one of the keys to sustaining prosperity. Since the turn of the 21st century, we’ve seen ample evidence of the opposite—untrustworthiness—everywhere around the world, from Enrons and Worldcoms through Fannie Maes and Freddie Macs. How long do you think economies, which are fundamentally based on trust, can keep going when the people and institutions that make up those economies are not worthy of that trust? The alternative, says Bahá’u’lláh, is to “be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor”. This, He says, is “the supreme instrument for the prosperity of the world”, and “the greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people”. Beyond her teaching skills, her smiling face, and her beautiful handwriting, that’s what impresses me about Quyên—how trustworthy she is, and the effect that has on the people around her. She may only teach kindergarten, but the whole world has a lot to learn from people like her.

rest, composure, and progress

Two good friends of mine, a couple who I met while pioneering in the province of Quebec a while ago, taught me a beautiful Baha’i children’s song. I forget what it’s called, but the lyrics of the chorus are: “Follow in the footsteps of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá / And in the pathway of the Abhá Beauty”. It’s going through my head right now. Anyone who’s taught children’s classes based on the Ruhi curriculum has had the chance to memorize plenty of stories about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and can probably call them to mind at a moment’s notice: The Merchant and the Coal, Lua Getsinger and the Poor Man, The Crystal Water, The Expensive Coat, and so on. These stories form the basis of a moral structure by which children can examine situations and determine what response would be in keeping with the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. What a blessing we have in the example of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá—a perfect example.

A few days ago I was getting ready for our weekly neighbourhood children’s class, going over the lesson and the activities we had planned. For various reasons—perhaps including the weather, a long trip we’d taken for a day-long training workshop, and the fact I’d just had a wisdom tooth taken out—I felt tired. All the same, we had planned the class for the next day, and there was no good reason to cancel or postpone it; in fact, we all agreed that we had arranged the best date for it. So with everything prepared, we drifted off to sleep, to get as much rest as we could. The next day I was still fatigued, and I could feel the insistent self in me trying to come up with ways and reasons to postpone the class. Finding none, I turned my thoughts to the example of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, especially to his trip to the West, when he spent every day moving from place to place, seeking no rest, continually engaged in serving his fellow human beings and in spreading the glad-tidings of Bahá’u’lláh’s Cause. As the Universal House of Justice recounted in its Ridván Message of 2011 (168 B.E.):

Tirelessly, He expounded the teachings in every social space: in homes and mission halls, churches and synagogues, parks and public squares, railway carriages and ocean liners, clubs and societies, schools and universities. Uncompromising in defence of the truth, yet infinitely gentle in manner, He brought the universal divine principles to bear on the exigencies of the age. To all without distinction—officials, scientists, workers, children, parents, exiles, activists, clerics, sceptics—He imparted love, wisdom, comfort, whatever the particular need. While elevating their souls, He challenged their assumptions, reoriented their perspectives, expanded their consciousness, and focused their energies. He demonstrated by word and deed such compassion and generosity that hearts were utterly transformed. No one was turned away.

These thoughts seemed to buoy my spirit, and solidify in me the desire to serve. I was further confirmed by the positive response of friends and family—whether Bahá’í or otherwise—when I my updated my status on Facebook, saying, “Tired, but still getting ready for children’s class tonight. Thinking of the example of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who taught and served humanity so tirelessly his whole life through.” Continue reading

recent teaching team writeup

The following post is based on an email I sent around to the teaching team I’m working with here in a neighbourhood of Ottawa; my main path of service so far has been teaching a children’s class open to the whole neighbourhood.

I arrived at the Vietnamese Centre around 10:30am, and they were still waiting for chairs to fill up (apparently the customs of punctuality I observed while in Vietnam carry over to the overseas Vietnamese as well). The morning crowd was full of older Vietnamese gentlemen and ladies, and perhaps through a bit of shyness—and a desire not to greet elders incorrectly, with my broken Vietnamese—I didn’t break out into greetings and conversation with them all. Instead I listened with bemusement, being able to pick out about 15% of what people were saying. The morning presentation was given in English by a Registered Nurse on Pandemic H1N1, and included lots of great flu-prevention tips. The Centre’s director translated everything into Vietnamese. At the end, the speaker was given a certificate of appreciation on behalf of the Centre and its community—such a nice gesture—and a photo was taken with all present.

By the end of the H1N1 talk, it was clear that the crowd had swelled to about twice its original size, including a few younger folks, and still almost 100% Vietnamese. The next speaker followed after a short break: ethnically Vietnamese, but raised in France and married to an Israeli gentlemen, she came to talk about the Vietnamese community in Israel (of all places). In fact, it gave me an interesting insight into Ottawa’s own Vietnamese community, and the difference between “mainland” and “overseas” Vietnamese—a mainly political difference, brought on by the after-effects of the Vietnam War. This presentation continued until about 1:00pm, at which point we stopped for lunch. This is when it got really interesting—with four of us present from our Chinatown teaching team, we had a lot of conversations with many different people and covered a lot of ground.

I spoke to a really nice Vietnamese lady who asked about my recent trip to Vietnam and the sort of activities I took part in while I was over there. I explained to her about the core activities, and linked my time spent serving in Vietnam to our efforts here at the Centre. She asked me directly whether I was interested in offering English classes to members of the community, specifically newly arrived Vietnamese immigrants who had been living in the Philippines. I told her about the English Corner initiative put on by members of the Baha’i community and she seemed very interested; I told her I would follow up with my contacts to see if we could offer something similar for this community. Maybe it’s time for me (or one of us, at any rate) to learn how to be an English Corner facilitator?

In short, lunch was awesome. I felt like we accomplished more in that hour than we had since the beginning of the project, in terms of making contacts and solidifying our foothold within the community.

For the story of what happened during the children’s class, visit my children’s class blog.

latest busymaking

There’s a lot of stuff going on this weekend. At home, Zea (my niece) is coming over for a sleepover at our place; I’ve been away from the house all day, helping out with a neighbourhood project in Ottawa’s Chinatown. check out my children’s class blog, which I’ve just updated with a few wrap-up emails that journal our efforts to start up an outreach class.

blitherblather

today’s a fine sunny day and I’m inside :O oh well, it’s for a good cause anyway—looking after the Baha’i Centre while a children’s class is at the playground down the street, in case parents come early looking for their kids. spring has come to Ottawa like a mad berserker, pumping the temperature up to 25 C with clear, bright blue skies and nary a cloud. the funny thing? piles of snow still persist after this winter’s heavy snowfall, so every hundred metres or so you’ll see a (dirty) pile of it—they’re shrinking though. I took my bike out and started riding it into work—such a treat! I’ve been waiting the whole winter to ride my bike again; it’s my favourite form of exercise. I’ll certainly need it after visiting a sugar bush last weekend… 😛

For those of you who read childrensclasses.org, I’ve kept up with the regular children’s class at the Baha’i Centre with very few interruptions. It’s been a little difficult this past season—the winter brought me down a lot, mood-wise; I still haven’t managed to work in some good, regular winter activities to keep my spirits up when it’s cold and dark. Winter’s becoming less and less my favourite season because of it (although I still enjoy the month of December). Anyway, I digress. The class has been smaller this season, and a lot of the cooler activities and initiatives we’ve talked about haven’t really happened; I blame my own lethargy 😛 Still, the important thing is that we haven’t let up on it—we’ll be going on our fifth year of classes soon. Not bad huh?

A little personal note: I’ve started watching a lot of anime. I went through the entire Rozen Maiden series, and I’m currently watching Azumanga Daioh as well. I’ve gotten lots of recommendations from friends so far, so there’s no shortage of anime left to watch… maybe this is a sign that I’ll get over my dislike of watching TV and movies soon? One can only hope.

random note

hey! just a random note to say that I’m still alive, just working like crazy and juggling several different priorities—two children’s classes and a study circle doing Book 6 of the Ruhi curriculum come to mind. It’s labor dabor day weekend in North America; tomorrow, Julie, my mom and I will be at the Ottawa Baha’i Centre doing some garden-planting with the kids (part 2). It’s supposed to be 21 degrees C tomorrow, which is just warm enough for comfort. We’ll be sure to take photos. Then on Sunday it’s a devotional gathering / BBQ / picnic to welcome everyone into a new year of children’s classes – we went an entire year without stopping during the summer, and that’s pretty cool! yay for us!