Peace Corps Writers
Gabon, Vietnam and Growing Up (page 3)

Gabon, Vietnam and Growing Up

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     None of the EFL teachers had trucks or motorbikes; I left Lastoursville only a handful of times, to travel in Cameroun during Christmas break and to train new EFL Volunteers in the northern town of Oyem.

IN VIETNAM my family and I saw most of the country. I attended national education conferences and Fulbright seminars, and conducted workshops for teachers. For these trips and with my family, I visited the major cities — Hanoi, Hue, Haiphong, Danang and Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, as well as many smaller towns. I will never forget the beauty of Ha Long Bay or Bach Ma National Park in the Central Highlands. Each region has its special dishes, language accent and history. We toured Vietnam and deepened our appreciation of the country with every trip.

Living there

MY B.A. WAS IN FRENCH and English, and I had studied in Paris, so I spoke French fluently before I taught in Gabon. This made getting things done easier and got me acquainted with functionaries like the sadistic Chief of Police. It may also have shut me off from the local culture, as I didn’t make the effort to learn Baduma or Banjabi, two of the 60+ languages that the Gabonese speak. I never pounded bananas, never helped the women on the plantation, never had the brousse experience. I did improve my French, however, and delighted in the modifications that the Gabonese had made to the language. Two favorite expressions of mine were “Moi connais ou?” and “C’est quoi, ca!?” The first translates literally as “Me know where?” and means “How am I supposed to know?!” and the second translates as “That’s what, that?” and means “Whaddaya call that?!” Gabonese speakers would clap their hands after these utterances, and then hold them out palms-up to stress their humorous mockery.
     When I joined the Peace Corps I had no arrogant delusions that I was helping poor primitives to find the right way to live. I went to Gabon with no missionary zeal to convert the Gabonese to the Western model of life and government. I wanted to help the students speak English better and I wanted to learn about Bantu culture.
I conducted my classes in the American style, but I would have been wiser to exercise my authority more often. I should have been stricter like my African co-workers. One of my co-workers, M. Coulibali from Mali, called his students “Petits Microbes” and made them kneel in the noonday sun when they did badly on tests. While not condoning his strategy, I observed that the students worked harder for him than for me. I lost status because of my leniency.

I STUDIED VIETMANESE A LITTLE in-country, and my efforts reminded me how hard it is to start out in a new language. It was humbling. There are six tones in northern Vietnam, only five in the south. For example, in the north, there are six ways to intone the word ma. Depending on the mark on the a, the word can mean ghost, rice seedling, nevertheless, horse, grave or cheek. Some sounds are low falling, others are high rising. The story goes that an American dignitary visiting Vietnam addressed a large audience with the intention of saying, “I am honored to be standing before you today.” What came out was, “The sunburned duck lies sleeping.” He hadn’t studied his tonemes.
     By the time I worked in Vietnam, I had the confidence to lead workshops and large classes of teacher-trainees. My primary goal was to help the educators make their English curriculum more communicative. In my first months, I noted the dynamics between teachers and students and followed suit. What’s more, after teaching international students, Asians in particular, for 22 years, I knew what to expect. School officials treated me as an authority; co-workers, as a respected “Aunt-friend,” seeking advice and asking after my family’s satisfaction with life in their country. My husband, who is Dutch, and I were invited to several embassy dinners, sponsored by both The Netherlands and the U.S. We were even invited to gawk at Prince Andrew of England and Crown Prince Willem of the Netherlands.


THE MEN IN GABON are quite lazy, and most families survive from their plantations. The women care for the children, haul water, maintain the crops and sell what they can for school fees and other expenses requiring cash. 

I CAN SAY THAT I ADMIRE the disposition of the Vietnamese. I recently asked a fellow teacher here in the US how his experience in Peace Corps/Thailand affected him 15 years ago. He said that before he left the U.S., he had taken it for granted that venting your emotions, especially anger and frustration, was healthy. But in Thailand he saw things as the Thais do: it’s better to preserve good relations and let bad feelings blow over. Vietnamese people demonstrate that same wisdom. They don’t share bad moods in ordinary conversation but act cheerful so others will feel good. During my first semester in Vietnam, I lightly told one of my classes that I felt sleepy. They reacted with sympathy and sadness. I had depressed them.

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