Confessions of an overseas Vietnamese: What I learnt from going to school in Hanoi

I first got a taste of Vietnamese education in 7th grade and was totally unprepared.

Before then I was a happily set, high-achieving student in Warsaw, Poland. A daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who called Polish her first language, English her second and the ‘mother tongue’ her third.

As a teenager back then I could just about keep up with a simple conversation in Vietnamese, sometimes with the aid of a dictionary. Reading and writing were out of the question.

But I didn’t know how limited my vocabulary was until that one winter day in Hanoi when I picked up a textbook for first graders in attempt to learn all those confusing accents. I knew maybe half of the words in that book.

After two months of learning my a, á, à, â, ă, ạ, ã… with a primary school tutor, I hit the second term of 7th grade at a local school. My mother didn’t want to send me to an international school. Living in Vietnam meant having to adapt.

I wasn’t (yet) an official student because the bureaucrats said I had all the required subjects for entry under my belt except for, well, Vietnamese. As ridiculous as it sounds, our neighbor was the school principal, so I just enrolled anyway.

The paperwork was the adults’ job. The teenage me had other things to worry about, such as Vietnamese literature, grammar, history, biology, geography, physics, civic education and math. Only English was easy.

I remember the shock on my teacher’s face when I told her I had never studied Vietnamese history as an excuse for not sitting a surprise test she threw on the first day of school after the Lunar New Year holiday.

During my 11 years in the land of Chopin’s mazurki, I took pride in going to a school named after Maria Sklodowska-Curie and rooting for Polish diva Edyta Gorniak at the Eurovision Song Contest.

My idea of Vietnam, on the other hand, didn’t go beyond the Vietnam War and the French occupation. My parents rarely spoke of it. When they did, it was mostly about their academic achievements despite the bombings and evacuations.

So it was hard, and not just because I didn’t know the words. Four years later in high school another history teacher chose to cut short the lesson on Chinese history because “everybody already knew it” from TV series I had never watched before.

Sometimes I asked or wrote something that would be so outright dumb for a native speaker to say that the teachers who didn’t know my background would scold or make fun of me in front of the class.

I didn’t hold a grudge against them. I mean, how likely is it for the average Vietnamese teacher to have ever taught an overseas Vietnamese student? Now I know that nobody deserves that kind of public humiliation, but it took its toll on my self confidence. But that was pretty much the norm back then – a method believed to set an example for other students and compel the strugglers to try harder.

If anything, these incidents taught me that teachers are not some kind of deities who are always right, and neither are textbooks, especially after I noticed differences in how the Protestant Reformation had been interpreted in Vietnamese and Polish.

But on the other hand, it was also easy because understanding the meaning of all the words wasn’t actually that necessary to get decent grades. All I had to do was memorize key structures and ideas presented in example essays. As much as I hated it, the idealist me came to the conclusion that Vietnam didn’t teach literature at all, and I had to learn to be pragmatic. The same approach worked for virtually every subject.

Still, without help from teachers during my first year in Vietnam, I wouldn’t have ended up getting hoc sinh gioi (excellent student) status. The school’s best literature teacher agreed to tutor me extra hours and knew how to laugh off my silly mistakes.

I use the story about one of my mistakes now as an ice-breaker with new acquaintances. But another, lesser known story deserves more attention.

It was a typically hot and humid afternoon at the start of summer in Hanoi. I was writing yet another literature essay in my teacher’s tiny house where you couldn’t even fit a car. By some miracle, that essay turned out to be surprisingly good. It was a huge confidence boost as the year-end exams were approaching.

When exam day arrived, I was caught by surprise as the essay question was exactly the same one I had answered for my teacher. I was given a 7 out of 10 for my essay, the highest grade I’d ever got for a literature exam in Vietnam.

A week later, I was asked to recite a poem in class. I knew if off by heart and scored a perfect 10, which brought my overall average up to 6.5 – the minimum required to achieve ‘excellent student’ status.

I was happy. I knew I had worked really hard to go from being illiterate to a good student within six months. But whether I truly deserved that grade was another question that lingered on.

Now, as I write this essay, I realize what I had received back in 7th grade was akin to personalized learning – what is considered by today’s reformists as the future of education. Students under this system are taught according to their individual needs rather than based on a pre-defined curriculum. 

Within the traditional grading system, where a student’s performance is represented by a single number, any “preferential treatment” tends to be demonized as being unfair, without due consideration of other chronic inequalities linked to privilege and other matters out of a student’s control.

Looking back, I see that it never mattered whether the actual quality of my work warranted that grade. What mattered was that my teachers made sure I could see I was progressing, for which I am forever grateful.

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