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Postcard from Viet Nam: Crashing the Classroom

Semester At Sea students pose with the English class from Tay Do University in Can Tho, Viet Nam. SAS students are Qingruo “Momo” Zhao (Shanghai Finance University), Hayley Gocha (University of Colorado-Boulder), Avery Segal (University of Florida), McKenzie Green (University of San Diego), Lauren Jones (University of Virginia) and Nora Benson (University of Illinois).

I was sitting at this coffee house at 11:00pm with five of my friends from Semester at Sea, laughing at a joke our new friend Mazic Kangjo, a local Vietnamese college student, just made. He’d been talking about the differences between American English and British English, both of which he was studying in school as an English major, and his transition from a southern American accent to a British one (“Howdy ya’ll, I would like some jolly fish and chips”) was cracking our group of American students up.

But Mazic is actually a very serious English language major, which is why he was thrilled to be talking with Americans – we’re the first he’d met after years of studying the language. He sat back in his chair and groaned, “If only you could stay another day. My English class would love to meet American students; we’ve never talked to any before.”

The rest of us looked at each other. Tonight was supposed to be our last night in the Mekong Delta, where we had been staying in a small river village outside the trading city of Can Tho, Vietnam. We’d had a blast the past two days – meeting locals, eating food, taking a tour of the floating produce markets and rice paddies – but we’d planned to head back to the MV Explorer in Ho Chi Minh City that next morning, to spend two more days in the city before leaving Vietnam. None of us had expected to befriend students our age, and around the table we start to agree, “why not stay longer?”

After getting permission from his professor the next morning, Mazic invited us to spend the afternoon with his English class at Tay Do University. We didn’t know what to expect, but as we were learning from our experience on Semester At Sea, some of the best things about independent travel are the unexpected surprises that come up along the way.

We met Mazic at the school, and he walked us into this large, airy classroom with huge open windows and electric fans humming in the corners. Rows of long wooden tables and chairs stretched across the room, filled with students that immediately swarmed around us. I was talking with four girls at once – what were their names? Where were they from?  The students answered all my questions without a blink, and would excitedly fire more back at me. They were eager to talk about topics they had read about in their course packet, like what did I think about the American Civil War? Was it an insult to refer to a stay-at-home mom as a “housewife” rather than a “homemaker”? What movies were popular in America? Did I like Celine Dion?

Mazic Kanjo, an English student at Tay Do University, writes words for the class to pronounce with the visiting Semester At Sea students.

When class started, student groups had ten minutes to prepare presentations on topics in American history, customs and entertainment that they learned from us and their course packet on America. After the group presentations (which my team won, I should add), the SASers were told to go to the front of the room and face the students, while Mazic wrote words on the board that were difficult for Vietnamese students to pronounce. The teams had to tell us the words, and we had to write them back on the board. I thought the game would be a struggle, but these students were so much better at English than I ever was at French – they could throw out phrases like “Eugene works for an informational architecture company” without hesitation.  Even though Tay Do was situated in a relatively rural area with few local English speakers, the university students told me they had been taking English classes since they were ten – and not just American English, but they were learning British and Australian English as well.

After the class, I made about 30 new Facebook friends – most of whom had never been outside of Vietnam – but now, we’re connected. Several students have written messages to my friends and me, asking if they can continue practice their English skills with us online. And I told Mazic that if he ever makes it to DC (his dream city to work for, nearby my University of Virginia), to look me up.

While these students were able to connect with us, we also learned a lot from them about how America is perceived, how our education system is so highly valued, and how lucky we were to have connections to American businesses and jobs at home – the reason these student were majoring in English in the first place. The experience was both a riot of fun and incredibly humbling. I’ve been meeting foreign exchange students since my high school days, but the Semester At Sea students in my group were the first Americans to visit Tay Do University in its history.

Our visit to Can Tho, a place very few study abroad students will ever go, was an opportunity you can’t take for granted – because the access and freedom we had to explore Vietnam for six days ended up turning into so much more, for us and for these students, than we could have ever expected.

  • Education
  • Life at Sea

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