When our bus crossed over the Vietnamese border into Cambodia, I asked my new friends, “can I go back to Vietnam now?” In that moment, getting punched in the balls by an 8-year old girl was a very distant memory. That moment was buried among so many incredible, inspirational, emotional memories from my Vietnam experience.
My three months in Vietnam left me wanting more. Yet, the first five weeks of my Vietnam story didn’t exactly go according to plan. A volunteer English teaching job brought me to Hanoi, the nation’s capital and second biggest city. Two weeks later, a small child punched me in the balls. I was only allowed to teach one more day after that.
Obviously, there’s more to the story than that. Let’s start at the beginning.
Hang, a 25-year old entrepreneur, brought me to Hanoi as a volunteer English teacher. Hang runs a low-cost English school in Hanoi at her parent’s house. She wisely uses workway.info to get native English speakers to volunteer and help her students with pronunciation, grammar, spelling, and more. Instead of working for $1,000-$2,000/month as English teachers in Hanoi, Hang’s volunteers agree to exchange their work for free accommodation and two free meals a day.
Volunteering to teach English to kids was more important to us than the money.
The kids were… kids
After meeting some adorable kids in my neighborhood, I was thoroughly looking forward to my first teaching gig! In the four, separate classes that I helped teach, the kids were 7, 8, 13, and 14 years old.
Just like most classrooms in the US, there was a mixture of good, smart kids who wanted to learn and what Americans often call “problem kids” – every teacher’s nightmare. Often, the only thing that got their attention was when Hang raised her voice or loudly banged on the table.
The two younger groups were much more likely to want to learn than the two older groups. When Hang would show them flash cards with pictures of fruit, animals, and shapes, most of the younger kids would compete with each other and shout the answer as loudly and quickly as they could. The older kids didn’t seem as interested or excited.
However, when I did the exact same thing, almost all of the kids, no matter the age, instantly lost interest. I’m a pretty relaxed guy, always reluctant to raise my voice and tell people what to do. I definitely didn’t have the same effect as their normal teacher. I believe they viewed me as just another revolving door volunteer teacher.
During my second week, Hang saw that I was eager to help and wanted to do more. After the schedule was made, she gave me an extra day of teaching, which I appreciated!
I was really starting to learn how to teach the kids better. I had this feeling that I was connecting with them on a personal level. Speaking of ‘connecting’, little did I know, one of them was about to close her little fist and violently connect with my most personal parts.
I should’ve seen it coming, really. The 8-year old kids started to get a little too comfortable with me. When Hang left the room for more than a second, all 10 of the kids got huge smiles on their faces, shouted something in Vietnamese, then immediately ran up to me, hit me on my legs, and quickly ran back to their seats. They repeated this process until Hang returned to the class and yelled at them.
It was definitely fun for them and it seemed harmless. Looking back, this might’ve been why they thought it was OK to hit me whenever – and, more importantly, wherever – they wanted to.
…And the pitch, into my balls
As with every class, the students eventually switched to quietly studying with their workbooks. I started helping one of the 8-year olds with her work. Then, I moved to the girl next to her.
I focused like a laser on reading the sentence that the second girl had written, checking it for any spelling or grammar errors. With all of my attention on the second girl, the first one clenched her fist and hit the unprotected bullseye – my family jewels, nuts, balls, bean bag, cajones, gonads, groin, my nutty buddies – my testicles. As any guy will tell you, whether it’s a punch from a grown man or an 8-year old girl – or, for that matter, any other unwanted connection with our nether regions – it’s no fun getting punched in the balls.
A very confusing disagreement
I certainly didn’t want that to happen again, so I calmly asked Hang to help me translate a message to the nutcracker. I needed her to understand that she hurt me and that I wanted an apology.
“Wait, what?”, I replied, very perplexed. I explained to Hang that I was in pain. Dismissing the girl’s actions, Hang told me, “I’m sure it was an accident”.
“It was definitely not an accident.”
“I’m sure she thought she was just playing with you.”
“No matter what her intentions were, I need you to help me communicate that she hurt me and I don’t want her to do that again.”
After a few minutes of back and forth, Hang reluctantly translated my message to the ball buster and the little girl apologized. I instantly accepted her apology and the class ended shortly after that.
The following Monday, at the start of the third week, Hang told me I could take the week off. I politely explained – as I’d told her before I arrived in Hanoi – I planned on helping her for five weeks, then exploring the rest of Vietnam. Hang refused my request and left me off the schedule.
The following Monday, she again told me I wasn’t on the schedule. This time I pushed back more firmly and she decided to change the schedule. She gave me one teaching day.
On the fifth Monday, Hang gave me another blank schedule and told me she didn’t want my help anymore. After I asked to be added to the schedule one more time, she said that the schedule was made and it couldn’t be changed. I reminded her that she’d changed my schedule twice in the last three weeks. It didn’t matter, she’d made up her mind. My time as a volunteer English teacher was short-lived.
In my opinion, Hang’s message was clear: “You should’ve just accepted being punched in the balls, Vince.”
The lesson for the teacher
This experience is definitely not how I’ll remember the children of Vietnam. I saw hundreds of smiling kids who were incredibly nice and very excited to see a foreigner in their neighborhood, outside of the touristy areas.
I’ll give you one perfect example of this. One day, when I was walking down the sidewalk, a little girl came sprinting out of her house. She shouted, “Hello!”, with great enthusiasm. I looked over my left shoulder behind me to see her waving at me with a gigantic smile. “Hello!”, I replied with an equally big smile, as I continued walking. She stopped waving, looked straight ahead, and strutted around with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. She’d communicated with a foreigner from her driveway. She was so proud of herself. It was truly one of the most adorable things that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
As a man who’s never had kids before, I suppose my experience with kids in Vietnam is unsurprising. For most of us, when we interact with kids in small doses, they’re very sweet. When we’re forced to work with them for extended periods of time, only the best of us can hold their attention for longer than 10 seconds… and keep from getting punched in the balls.