Monday, November 20, 2006

Teacher’s Day

Teddy De Burca Jnr. gets sentimental, guilty and even a wee bit philosophical over Teacher's Day, a school holiday in Vietnam

I don’t seem to recall ever being in the habit of gift-giving as a pupil. No flowers, no thank you cards, no apples on the desk, no-nothing. I think it was one of those “something that happened when I was a child” incidents that possibly put me off.

You see, laying back on my imaginary chaise longue here, speaking to my inner psychiatrist, I do remember, once, bringing a present for a Ms. White, my first class teacher on the last day of summer term.

Tell me about this day.

Ok. Well, I was 6, she was in her twenties. She was all things nice, sugar and spice (never even raised her voice), everything a 6-year old boy looks for in a teacher. But it was more than that. I mean, she wasn’t up there with Wonder Woman, but my feelings for her were strong; in extremely relative terms, I had a crush.

So I gave her Chocolate mints at the end of the year – was it my idea, or my mother’s idea? Who knows. But I remember she smiled, patted my head and said, “Oh, these are my favourite!” I believed her, of course. But as I proudly sat down, back at my desk, I overheard her say the exact same thing to one of the three Dereks in my class who was giving her a box of Chocolate Marshmallows (no class). I was crestfallen. On the way home I opened up to my mother, who is a counsellor by profession and a good listener by nature, how technically you can’t have two different favourites. She tried to tell me how Ms. White probably thought all her pupils were special, so every gift was a favourite, plus who's to say you can't have two favourites - I liked Apple tart, she said, as much as I liked Apple Crumble, for example. But I was too young to understand all that, just old enough to feel betrayed.

So post-first class, at the ripe old age of 6, my generosity for teachers dried up. Tough luck for Mrs Thompson, Mrs Greene, Mrs Oldham and Mr Morton, who saw me through the rest of primary school. I never became emotionally attached to any of them; at the end of the year it was no hard feelings, goodbye and good luck.

Of course, they wouldn't have noticed one less box of cheap chocolates on the pile back home, or even if they did, as presents were presented (jinx) as a final fare thee well then there could be no consequences, no repercussions or no begrudgery.

But for Vietnamese pupils there's no such escape into the summer sunset. On Teacher's Day, aka Ngày nhà giáo Viet Nam, on November 20th, slap bang in the middle of the autumn term, the kids all get a day off but that's because they're expected to visit their teacher's house – current and in some cases former – bringing flowers and presents to show their appreciation.

There's also, so I’m told, the odd wink-wink-envelope being passed over from kids' parents – separately. Everyone has a different take on this, though I'm led to believe it’s common enough. One Hanoian described it as a "corruption that became a custom". Plus, no one wants to look like the family who doesn't appreciate a teacher's hardwork and investment into their kids' future, especially if they think everyone else's doing it.

However, teacher's low salaries are another part of this particular equation. Which is why some locals I've spoken to don't seem to see it as corruption, per se; perhaps it's more like a restaurant waiter in the west's 15 per cent tips beefing up an otherwise paltry income. If the cash gift comes from their heart it doesn’t matter, one friend said. Plus, rather than give the teacher a crappy gift then why not just let them spend the money themselves, she added. There’s deeply embedded cultural factors as well. In less well off days, teachers might have been given silk for an ao dai or decorations for their house, etc. So, there is a strong tradition of cherishing one's teacher and wanting to take care of them in Vietnam, unlike back in sunny Ireland, for example, where often teachers look like they could do with a good hug not to mention a nice bunch of flowers and sincere thank you. (Is that what the Teacher's Unions are for - support group therapy?)

Of course, not everyone under-appreciates their teacher back in Ireland, but then no one wants to be considered a teacher's pet or a lickarse either.

But it's worth pointing out, in Vietnam it's not about gushing praise on the teacher whether they deserve it or not. Judging by the abundance of innocent smiles and giddy shrieks of the kids cycling around Hanoi today, who usually meet up with classmates before heading en masse to the teacher's gaff, they love every minute of it. (It is most definitely yet another day for the florists of Vietnam along with Valentine’s Day, Vietnamese Women’s Day, International Women’s Day as well as good business for the fruit vendors.)

It can also be a great evening.

During my stint as an English teacher Ngày nhà giáo meant heading to the Bia Hoi after class with the kids (adult kids I should say) and 28 bouquets of flowers tied to my old Minsk (Boris R.I.P.), trying to think of a good excuse to avoid being dragged to karaoke or ways to avoid answering those a-wee-bit-too-personal-for-my-liking-questions. But how can't you love a country where a 50-year-old man gives you flowers and says "thank you my teacher" then challenges you to knock back your beer in one before driving home redfaced and merry?

The above would be despite asking students not to bother bringing me gifts or flowers, arguing technically it was just for Vietnamese teachers. But they were having none of it. Private students even rang me for years after I finished teaching them just to remind me of their gratitude for me teaching them back in the day. Just today a junior reporter at the paper gave me a gift, her way of saying thanks for my guidance or minor-mentoring since she started. I know Vietnamese folk in their mid-twenties who still go to their old favourite teachers' houses – for lots of 20-somethings it sort of doubles up as a class reunion. It’s all very sweet and the more I think about it the more it makes me feel a bit guilty about all those teachers post-Ms White that I spurned.

So Ms Thompson, Ms Greene, Ms Oldham and Mr Morton... if you’re reading, you have it here in writing: IOU – one box of cheapish chocolates. A bunch of flowers and a kilo of mangoes would be just too expensive in Dublin.

And Mrs Fleming - my arch nemesis, we will meet again! - in case you noticed I left you out, that's because I didn't like you. But that's another story for the inner psychiatrist to wheedle out on another day.

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