the mid-1990s I had the privilege of teaching ESL to a group of
Vietnamese in Houston.
They were, to say the least, a diverse group. They ranged in age
from 18 to 60 plus. There was a mother with her two teenage daughters,
several former businessmen who never had the time to learn English
in the “old” country, some veterans and even a generous helping
of American-fathered kids – now in their 30s. The most memorable
of this group were two extremely tall brothers – same mother but
two fathers – one Black and one White. Their devotion to each other
was like something from a Greek myth.
Since these classes were administered by a Vietnamese who had first
come to America in the 1950s, there was great freedom with the curriculum.
I was only asked to “make it practical.” It was a volunteer position
with a stipend for gas. The only requirement was to be able to stand
upright for an hour in an non-airconditioned room and to teach English
that might benefit them in a constructive way.
From an initial class of about ten students, the class grew with
each session and more tables were added. Roll call and my butchering
of Vietnamese names was one of the high points of the hour – another
was my locking of the doors on Houm – a tiny Black-Vietnamese girl
who was habitually late. Houm resembled a young Eartha Kitt – including
her trademark sassiness. I would hear running feet and cup my hand
to my ear, asking the class "Who is that?" Houm! They
would shout with glee.
One day Houm
surprised everyone by being early. I commented on this earthshaking
event and said "Houm, you aren't late today." But she
only heard the word "late" and said, "Teacher, I
am NOT late - I am ugly!" Some of the other girls laughed and
there was a quick exchange in Vietnamese and Houm took her seat
- blushing and laughing at the same time.
Soon there were
so many students (not to mention the non-enrolled who just came
to watch roll call and then go outside to wait for their bus) that
another instructor was needed.
Meet Mr. Dang
My fellow instructor was a distant relative of the absentee boss.
He had taught English at an all-girls school in Vietnam in a city
that had a reputation for its beauty. If Saigon had been the “Pearl
of the Orient” then this city was Vietnam’s emerald.
My co-instructor introduced himself as Mr. Dang and I never called
him anything else. He was to teach beginning English in a separate
classroom, but without supervision, we quickly formed a tag-team
on the combined classes. Mr. Dang would translate my quips and bon
mots into Vietnamese, but he often refused to translate retorts
from the class (even while he himself was suppressing laughter).
“Oh, you know, Mr. Troesser, that is really quite a vulgar word
Mr. Dang had the decorum of a diplomat and his precise diction reminded
me of an Asian James Mason. When he once mentioned that his family
had eaten rats during the Japanese occupation of Vietnam, I imagined
a miniature Mr. Dang doing so with a knife and fork.
How does one say bon mots in French?
He also modestly explained that his French was much better than
his English. On several occasions one of the older businessmen would
ask a question in French – about the English lesson. Mr. Dang would
then say to the class: “Oh, you know…we are here to learn English,
Before or after classes, we would visit. One day he was mentioning
a dinner given by one of the many Vietnamese organizations in Houston.
It was a black-tie affair and the attendees were a mix of academics,
ex-military and high level bureaucrats from the former Republic.
Mr. Dang started the story in the way he always did.
“Yes, Mr. Dang?”
“Oh, you know… I was at a party last night.
“No, I did not know that.”
“Yes, and a most interesting thing happened.”
“I’m all ears.”
know... I like that expression.”
“What happened last night, Mr. Dang?”
He then went on to describe how during one of the fiercest periods
of the war, it was feared that the North Vietnamese Army would capture
the city. Reliable sources said that they had the place surrounded
and even the unreliable sources concurred.
He had lived in a three-story house on a hill. It was a pastel pink
(his wife’s idea) and was widely admired throughout the neighborhood.
It was walking distance to the girl’s academy where he taught.
I took the opportunity to ask what this had to do with the party.
“Oh, you know…the ARVN commander (Army Republic of Vietnam) of that
region was at the party last night.”
“When he asked where I was from, I answered ________.”
He told me that he had been in charge of that city’s defense during
that time. He then asked what part of town I lived in and I told
him. He then got quite serious and asked, “You didn’t happen to
live in a three story pink house, by any chance?”
“I told him "yes” and he started laughing and put his hand
on my shoulder!”
Mr. Dang continued: “He told me through his laughter that they knew
that if an attack occurred, my house would almost certainly be used
as an observation point by the NVA – therefore he had two of his
artillery pieces sighted on my house. At my bedroom window!”
I forget my response, but I remember Mr. Dang’s punch line.
“Oh, you know… I never knew!”
June 15, 2014 Column
© John Troesser
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