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Saturday, 28 April 2007

A school in Cholon. Saigon. Vietnam

I didn't have enough hours at the university so I took a post at a Chinese school in Cholon.
I knew very little about Cholon. There were an estimated million Chinese living there. Many had come during the troubles in China in the 1880's. They lived their own life and were very much apart from the Vietnamese. Many if not most could speak some Vietnamese but few if any Vietnamese could speak Chinese. Except perhaps some scholars but that is another subject.
A big difference was in their attitude to commerce. If I needed a box of matches in the street and the vendor were Vietnamese he wouldn't be bothered to change a large denomination note if that were all I had. A Chinese would always take the trouble.
At the time of the French war the French had used the Chinese Triads that controlled Cholon in their fight against the Viet Minh. I believe they tolerated if not actually helped their trade in opium. After the French had left the President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, crushed these gangs. He was very Catholic, his sister-in-law Madame Nhieu very pious. But he did not tolerate opposition of any kind.
In the school where I taught I had subjects in history, geography and English literature. I had two classes, each of nearly forty pupils. As I had to give them a test every two weeks and hand in the marks of these it meant an increased amount of work. Not to mention the preparation of the lessons. The owner of the school, which was private, then amalgamated with another. As he did not take on any more staff this meant the classes nearly doubled to between seventy and eighty per class. no corresponding raise in salary. The work load became impossible as one continued with these tests in all three of the subjects I taught. I came to distinctly dislike the director/owner of the establishment. One couldn't help but feel there was a profit motive in it.
At the end of the year there were exams. The best pupils learnt everything by heart. They had no imagination at all but very good memories. I had to maintain a tight discipline. If I made a joke everybody would of course laugh. They had a good sense of duty. But then they wouldn't stop. I never did learn how to stop a room full of nearly eighty pupils laughing. Luckily I never made them angry. There was something of the herd instinct about them.
I gave one girl zero out of a hundred in one exam. It was an English literature paper and there wasn't one phrase that was correct let alone a sentence. The director said her father paid for her to learn so she had to have something. I refused to budge and the school and I parted company.

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