On two rare occasions, I have argued that good sense dictates that I should at least pay for my beer, if only because I drank more than the rest of the table combined. Vietnamese people, particularly when they are adult students, are almost intolerably nice. “Intolerably nice” is the same to a surly person (“surly” is one of a few possible ways to interpret the meaning of my surname — along with “idiot” and “fool”, all three of which are entirely accurate), as “perpetually sarcastic” is to a pleasant person. But that’s the culture, and if you push too much, or pay for your own meal without them realizing it (which I once did last year) the look on their face will surprise you enough to not do that again. As I said, intolerably nice people.
It now strikes me that I don’t know how I’ll react to normal sarcasm when I’m back in the States, particularly near where I consider home to be, even though I no longer have a home there. What will I say to the “yeah, buddy… that’s right…” of sarcastic comments? What random rot will roll off my tongue if tempers aren’t kept? The only time I hear sarcasm out here is from foreigners, and usually friends, so there’s next to no chance of offense. But, I can’t think of one student, not even one, who has demonstrated genuine sarcasm. It just isn’t there. Vietnamese are sarcastic enough, mind you, in their own language — just not in English. But I take many precautions and never carry around engagement rings because if an attractive woman were to lay some true grit sarcasm on me with even a half-way decent smile I’ll be on a knee fast enough to crack floorboards.
Not that that’s likely. Last week, students were protecting a fly from my wrath — Buddhists — which I was only able to personally process by continually killing non-existent flies for the rest of class.
Recently, on location at my place of employment, I attempted to teach some of my students ancient Wolf Owl collaborative conflict resolution techniques in an attempt to find some middle ground and convince them that by merging cultures we could all keep face and they could save a little money. I stressed that they practice The Tao of The Turtle, which for instance can make a person adept at deluding object permanence via stealth and pulling one’s shirt up high enough to cover one’s face, thereby saving said face from the quacksalved about aura of shame and grief emanating from a social guest’s recently dewalleted cash monies.
We also practiced submissive grappling and safe words, naturally, and extensive animal whisperer stare techniques employed by L. Ron Hubbard, Alf, and Carlos Mencia. It was great fun, and absorbed well at first, but by the end of the lesson I believe they thought I was some kind of charlatan faith healer — and though an accurate description of the people who teach English to non-native speakers in a foreign land, it hurt. I felt riveted to the floor by white-hot shame bolts and a grief welder. Had I taught them anything useful? Anything at all?
Or, had I finally reduced like some Millennial slop of butter sauteed over economic stress and too many failed plans into an American ex-pat English Teaching kosmolunged mosspig indecipherable from a quacksalving, snake-oil salesman…? It’s an odd thing to complain about, considering the pay is decent, and that if I were to go back to America permanently I would be profoundly broke, and either way I can’t breathe in space, which is a bummer of infinite magnitude. But still… odd. My mind is filling with confusion and third-rate urges to once again perform the kind of serious emergency reanalytics with the blunderbuss hope-shot necessary to see some effervescing thing on the horizon, some revelatory kernel that found and harnessed will achieve something right and good in a reasonable sense.
After what felt like ten minutes (probably ten seconds) I conceded defeat and allowed them the honor of paying for my dinner, while secretly vowing to bring them something to make up for it. Many of the Vietnamese students you’ll encounter have a reverence for teachers — even bad teachers — that you won’t ever experience in America. Most teachers out here will tell you the same thing if you ask, and the same people will also tell you that most teachers do not abuse their status, which for the most part is correct depending on how you define “abuse” and “status”.