Off to work

Finding a job can be a lot easier than finding your way around in the early days of your Hanoi experience.

By Grant Riley on March 18,2016 07:27 AM

Off to work

In an increasingly globalised world we are witness to an ever-increasing number of ‘foreign’ workers - almost everywhere. At times it can feel as if the whole world is on the move.

I have lived in and around London for many years and over the decades have been witness to the establishment of probably one of, if not the, most culturally diverse cities on the planet. I would imagine there is at least one representative of every single country in the world in London and possibly every ethnic group. The multi-cultural melting pot that is London brings life and colour and arguably now defines this most modern of metropolises.

London’s ethnic diversity is actually nothing new as for time immemorial it has been home to many colours and creeds from around the globe. So how does the rapidly changing face of Vietnam contrast with the old city of London in light of its own recent economic boom?

Unlike the UK - which has historically suffered from invasion, by the Romans, the Vikings, the Saxons, the Normans, and others - Vietnam has been able to resist many who seek to conquer it. While Vietnam has indeed had its fair share of invasions, in my view it is uniquely its own country. Yet in this modern era foreign workers are being employed in ever-increasing numbers for a variety of desired roles.

According to the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, in 2014 around 76,300 foreigners from over 74 countries lived and worked in Vietnam. I would imagine this has significantly and steadily increased in the years since. I haven’t the numbers at hand, but let’s assume that for many of these foreign workers one of the most common forms of employment is teaching English as a foreign language. Something I have first-hand experience of.

So what is it like to arrive in a new country, with barely a single word of the language, and immerse oneself in a classroom of small children and attempt to teach them your own language?

I shall offer a personal vignette of my own.

I had applied for jobs in Hanoi preceding my arrival, though my preparation was admittedly quite last minute. I landed in August - from an unseasonably cool and dull England summer - to a roasting-hot Hanoi. Staggering along in the intense heat I managed to drag myself from one interview to the next until I was soon accepted as part of a teaching team. It was quite unlike my experiences in job seeking in the UK: hideously bureaucratic applications, demeaning hoop-jumping exercises, disappointing outcomes, and a general atmosphere of doom. Getting a good job in Hanoi, though, was a relative breeze. I felt happy to have left behind a rather frustrated and declining country such as the UK, with daily reminders of the future prospects such as 1,700 people applying for eight jobs at a high street Costa coffee outlet.

Hanoi, however, with the right qualifications, work experience, and a positive attitude, seemed to open its arms to myself and to many others. Here is a country veritably racing into the 21st century and by historical consequence it wishes to adopt a second language to globalise itself - that of my own mother tongue: English.

So, it’s the start of the new term - lets go, go, go! Here are your books, your lessons, your classes, CDs, CD player, and flash cards, and here is some more information, name badges, contacts, and telephone numbers - go, go, go! I stagger - straining under the weight of my new recruitment tools - and re-enter the overwhelming heat of this still unknown city. Bewildered by a headful of pigeon English instructions, a little ashamed of my own dismal lack of Vietnamese, and an utterly confusing schedule - off I go!

I had been in the city for less than a week and orientation was the first of my challenges. I was given addresses for schools but no directions, and this was the first hurdle to jump. Being a punctuality-obsessed Englishman, I allowed what I thought was ample time to reach my first school. I am of an older generation, pre-internet and pre-mobile phone, and initially I opted for the old school method of using a paper map! Ill-prepared for the tropical storm that struck on my first day, I stared at my now soaked and soggy map. I frantically searched for road names, which can muddle dramatically in a foreigner’s mind. Nguyen this and Nguyen that, Hang Day, Hang Bong, Hang this and Hang that - they all merged into a blur. I was panicked but finally felt I was near my destination. I asked directions from the ever-helpful Hanoians on the street, but I appeared to still be a long way from my targeted school. The street I am after seemed to stretch for miles and the logic of the lane numbers confounded me! The next thing I knew I had somehow managed to cross a big bridge and now appeared on the other side of town. I gave up. I phoned the school. No! You’re miles away - what are you doing over there? I felt rather foolish but returned and gave it another try and, eventually, more by good luck than good management, the required lane number magically appeared.

I was late, with my new teaching assistant patiently waiting for me at the school gates. I was drenched from head to toe, heavily weighed down by my new teaching equipment and disappointed and exhausted for my first class. I was politely rushed through the door.

The class rose.

‘Good morning teacher.’

‘Good morning class, how are you?’

‘I am fine thank you teacher, how are you?’

I considered that question for a moment. How am I? As my soaked clothes dripped on the floor in the overwhelming heat of the day, I looked up to row upon row of white shirted and red-scarved smiling children … and smiled back.

‘I am fine thank you.’

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