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Teaching abroad and living ‘a bourgeois existence’ in Hanoi

Looking for expat opportunities abroad, you all have come across the possibility to teach your native language in some other countries. But what does that really mean? What are the benefits and challenges? Today Murray shares his own observations and an honest reflection of the teaching culture for expats in Hanoi by combining a variety of perspectives.

Western graduates can work part-time as teachers whilst enjoying a more-than-comfortable lifestyle in Hanoi. Children in the city get taught English by native speakers. But is this purely a win-win?

For more than 30 years, Vietnam has been taking steps to open itself up to the global economy. Since 1986, market liberalisation policies (known as Đổi Mới) have brought impressively consistent economic growth [(averaging 6.25% GDP growth since 2000]) to one of the world’s last remaining officially communist countries.

Successful assimilation with international trade is made much easier with a workforce that speaks the global business language – English. The government recognised this with a 2008 educational initiative which declared that, by 2020, all school leavers should have a ‘[good grasp of the language’].

On top of the government’s ambition, a swelling middle class combined with a cultural reverence for education has meant that private English centres have become big business.

For Vietnamese parents, their child’s academic achievement is of paramount importance. And there are few higher accolades than acceptance into a leading US or UK university. Private English centres in Hanoi, filled with children during the evenings and weekends, often include Oxford, Cambridge or Ivy League in their names.

Attendance at these centres can draw large fees, especially when the promise of an ‘international education’ as advertised. This has created a huge demand for native English speakers, one that far outstrips supply.

This imbalance has led to foreign English teachers earning on average $22-25 an hour, with some even pushing past the $30 mark in a country with remarkably low living costs.

Compare this to the UK, for example, where you have chronic wage stagnation, rising living costs and an overabundance of graduates and for many who have moved out to Hanoi to teach, their decision has proved to be a no-brainer.

“Compared to my life in England, I lead a decadent bourgeois existence. Within reason, my salary here allows me to do almost everything I would like within Hanoi. To do the same in London would require at least a six-figure yearly salary,” said Frazer Kerr, a British 23-year-old, who has been teaching English in the city for the past 18 months.

If a young graduate can feel like they are living on a six-figure salary while working 20 hours a week in an exciting foreign country, then it is no surprise that thousands have flocked here over the last few years to take advantage.

But does the allure of such a luxurious lifestyle necessarily attract those with the most dedicated or professional attitude to teaching? Or is Hanoi flooded with ‘backpacker teachers’ who want to exploit the high wage to fund their future travels?

“Some people are really good and know what they are doing. But others really don’t,” explains Linh, a 21-year-old Vietnamese student from Hanoi who earns roughly $2.16 an hour as a teaching assistant at a reputable private English centre.

“The centre’s priority is for them to be foreign, even if they don’t know what they are doing. It is unfair on Vietnamese people, for both other teachers and students.

“Foreign teachers say it is easy to live here. I take that to mean it is easy to make money here. Maybe some want to make money more than they care about education. Not everyone likes [working in] education but every single foreigner here looks for a teaching job.”

Her sentiments were shared by Charisma Pieterse, who managed a large centre for a year and half: “Being a fully qualified and experienced teacher, it pains me when expats show up with a degree in a non-related educational field and an online TEFL certificate and make payment demands exceeding $25 per hour,” she said.

“It often takes these ‘teachers’ months to figure out how proper classroom structure and discipline works and in the meantime, paying customers to suffer their incompetence.”

‘White props’

These recruitment practices reflect the darker truth that when a centre advertises for ‘native speakers’, it is often looking for white, good-looking English speakers to appease parents’ desire for ‘status symbolism’ where the nationality of their children’s teachers and the external image of their school matters more than genuine learning.

“Because I am considered attractive, I know I will get hired before a chubbier girl or a dark-skinned girl, which I think is horrible and completely discriminatory,” reveals Rochelle Caruso, 24, adding that she is sometimes made to feel like a ‘white prop’.

“At one of my jobs I teach one 30-minute class a week so really the students won’t be learning a lot with so little time spent with them, but every time I go in the camera comes out and it’s to make the parents feel like their children are getting an ‘international’ education.”

While many teachers I have spoken to sometimes feel like a prop, or a ‘white monkey’ as it is more disparagingly expressed, there is also fawning adoration for foreign teachers from all angles – parents, teaching assistants and students – which can lead to an inflated view of one’s own capabilities; a flaw that breeds complacency, especially when ‘backpacker teachers’ set the bar so low.

Insecurity on both sides

Typically, finding employment in a foreign country requires some kind of bureaucratic rigmarole. Not so in Vietnam. Working on a tourist visa here is commonplace, with renewal simply a process of leaving the country every three months (normally a flight to Bangkok) and returning with a new application to renew your status as a long-term tourist. Some say you are more likely to run out of pages in your passport than you are to run afoul of immigration officials.

A joke, but it reflects the general belief that the government are entirely comfortable with the situation as they do not want to do anything to deter foreign teachers from coming.

This has its benefits for expats – wages are typically paid in cash and are untaxed – but there are of course downsides too. A lack of security comes from being an illegal educator. One teacher told me she feels ‘vulnerable to sudden deportation’ if she’s found out, citing a story of a disagreement between a teacher and his employers that led to him being kicked out of Vietnam permanently. If you get on the wrong side of the wrong person, they have the tools to have you thrown out the country.

While I have discussed backpackers who abuse the system to earn quick cash, a teacher’s legal status means exploitation can also work the other way around.

I spoke to David Carolan who, earlier this year, was told by his centre that after a government inspection, they would no longer hire teachers without a work visa and would not help him to get one. When he asked for his wages for the previous month, around $450, his manager ‘refused point blank’. After continuing to demand what he was owed, he was forcibly removed by a ‘huge henchman’.

“He was very aggressive at all times even when I said I would leave. The school was just about to start and there were kids running around the playground as he and the manager basically pushed me onto my bike and continued shouting at me until I drove off.”

Ain’t no rest for the rich kids

There is a consensus, amongst the teachers I have met, that children in Hanoi are overworked. Full school days are often capped off with extra classes in the evening and on the weekend. Casual questions to students about how they spend their free time normally result in withering looks and mutterings of ‘homework…’.

“Mildly stated, the children in my classes do not have childhoods, they have extra lessons. The belief seems to be that the more hours a child spends in class, the smarter they will be, which is simply not true,” said Ms Pieterse, adding that she has had ‘parents scold me for letting the children have too much fun’ as they demand traditional listening and note-taking style learning.

“There is such an emphasis on the value of education that students comparatively fare better in Vietnam, in terms of academic prowess. Where it lacks, however, is the application of skills in real-world situations. Students struggle with decision-making and critical thinking, and often rely heavily on the approval of an authoritative figure before plans are followed through,” she continued.

But a number of parents and schools are leading the charge against these traditional methods. One private centre manager told me there was a growing ‘demand for specialisations’ such as debate, persuasive writing and critical analysis as parents recognise there is more to mastering English than just the four pillars of reading, writing, listening and speaking.

These specialised classes, however, are only available to those at the top of the income spectrum. A fact that will help replicate the nation’s [growing economic inequality] within the classroom as well, as analytical and critical thinking education is only available to the super-wealthy.

But as another foreign teacher, Ben Prizeman, summarised, such problems are the ‘price to pay for speed’, adding: “Ultimately, they’ve [Vietnamese government] got the result they wanted. Lack of regulation, visa issues, the hippie backpacker teacher issue…they are just casualties of the uptake or the huge explosion of English centre development.

“It will rectify itself, the government aren’t going to let it go on forever.”

Thank you Murray!