My introduction to the English class was made by Jerre, a Minnesotan who felt that ice fishing is one of the top things that H'Mong girls from northern Vietnam should learn about Canada. This is what all Canadians do – in winter they go out and cut a hole in the ice, so thick you could drive a car across it, and they sit there for hours, trying to catch fish. And they watch the Red Green show. I tried to explain that the Rideau Canal in Ottawa freezes in the winter and all kinds of people skate across it, and then we had to explain skating. And then hockey. Before that the first things that came to my mind were the things that people in Japan seemed to find important about Canada – maple syrup – like honey, cooked from trees; Niagara Falls – lots of water, very high; and Anne of Green Gables – a girl with red hair and no parents who lived in a house with green paint on it… In between trying to explain the wheat and timber trades and snow, it was starting to get a little complicated. When it came time to write about me and Canada for the creative writing segment, the questions boiled down to – How old you? How many brothers and sisters you have? What your favourite food? Canada is very cold, they wrote. My teacher is very pretty (I didn't coach them on that one!) She favourite food is french fries.
I spent my time in the classroom trying to coach the girls to express their thoughts and opinions – why do they like cats better than dogs? What kind of parties do they go to, and what happens there? Did they like the book they just read? I tried to explain meanings of words like 'decided' and 'specific', which led to explaining choice, result and not exactly 'particular'. I realised how unhelpful a regular dictionary is for simple definitions. Sometimes this was a little less than exciting, particularly in the afternoon. Zur, who was the most like an American H'Mong girl, according to Jerre, wrote a sign that said “Jerre we want some coffee”. Not long after lunch one day Vang #2, otherwise referred to by Jerre as Ms Perfect Complexion or Sleeping Beauty, began to blink her eyes very slowly at me, in a way that was almost hypnotic, so much so that I had to fight to keep the room in focus. “Look at the two of you”, Jerre yelled, “you make a good pair!” Puppy dog cute 13-year old Sho apparently fell asleep while standing up and reading aloud in one class.
But although they might have had a hard time after a rice and pork lunch, the girls did grasp how important it was to be learning English. The opportunity to get a job – likely as a tourist guide – and be able to make money was not lost on them. One of the girls, Zua, the oldest in the class at 18, and who also had the most difficulty with learning, left the school suddenly after the second week I was there. She wrote a letter to her classmates in H'Mong, telling them to make the most of the chance to learn. She had another student read it for her because she was in tears.
The volunteer teachers at the school were as impressive as the students. Jerre, a sixty-plus year old Vietnam War vet and retired probation officer who worked with H'Mong kids in Minnesota, loudly quoted lines in class from the movie Lincoln and sometimes from True Grit. He has been coming to Sapa for 9 years, getting to know the trekking guides, and taking an English acquisition course in the US to learn how to teach them. Lyn, a retired school teacher from Australia, had just come from volunteering for two months with her husband at an orphanage in central Vietnam, and got the girls singing and making art. Me and several other novice assistants helped round out the instruction for the group of 13 girls and 3 boys, all at different levels of understanding. At the end of each class we were all met with a chorus from the students: “Thank you teachers!” they yelled. “Thank you for being you!” we all yelled back to each other.
There are some politics in the organisation that are putting pressure on the operation of the school, and left a lot of questions unanswered around how decisions are made, the development of a curriculum, and how many more students could benefit. But the biggest thing for me was the chance to work with the girls. I mentioned before that the girls are lovely, didn't I? So lovely that I almost cried when I finally said goodbye to them after almost a month in Sapa and just about 2.5 weeks trying to help teach. The girls are used to seeing teachers come and go, but for me it was an emotional farewell – like the meanings of words, it was hard to articulate just how much it meant to me, and how I felt so attached to them, so quickly.