School Days

Okay, so many of you have said that you want to know EXACTLY what it is I do these days in Saigon. Well, in addition to writing my monthly column for Asia Life magazine, and contributions to publications like Travelers’ Tales, I work for a small private business school that teaches all its classes in English. Half of our students are slated for work in the hospitality industry in Singapore, and elsewhere in the region. Others will go onto BA and MBA and other advanced business programs here and abroad. In my position as Academic Director, I do five main things: I develop courses in the various aspects of business English; I recruit and train teachers; I oversee the expansion of the school’s general English offerings; I teach some business English courses, such as accounting and marketing; I serve as the school’s “white face.”

Yes, I serve as the school’s “white face.” There’s a bit of bias here. It’s not the kind of racism that we normally think of.  But they do equate the white face with the rich and powerful nations, the sort they want to emulate. So when the company has to face the nation, they trot me out. Of all the staff, I’m the only honkey/gwailo/gringo//paleface/hairy barbarian they got. I go to the sales pitches, seminars, presentations, etc. Other members of staff show the folks copies of my books, the latest edition of my local column, etc. And then they position me at the podium and I yammer for ten minutes. Then another staffer talks nuts and bolts business and education, and they do a damned fine job. Everyone is impressed. Lots of students sign up. Most go to other teachers, but some come to me.

I know it might sound a bit sad to PC white folks, or still-angry not-so-white folks. But the saving grace is that I really bond with those that become my students. I fall in love with them. And they with me. More than once they’ve given me a surprise party at the end of the course. I stay in touch with many of them, and some have been guests at our house parties. And they think m’lady Constance is a peach.

It’s especially gratifying because many of of our students are poor. Our school is dedicated to bringing business education to kids who otherwise couldn’t afford it. Our classes, then, are necessarily large, 50 – 60 is common. But they hang on every word their teachers say. And they are truly grateful for the knowledge we impart to them. I lie awake at night thinking of how I can better serve them. If anyone deserves a break, they do.

We often go to local public schools and colleges to pitch our services to potential students. To us it’s a sales pitch (and I’m just the “white face”), but to them it’s an occasion. There must be speeches from the principal or president. And an appearance from the local member of the Communist Party (who might own shares in Wall Street). A senior of the student body must introduce us. I am always introduced first. I try to be avuncular. My gray beard demands it. And at the end of the program there is always a ceremony: we are profusely thanked; we are all given bouquets of flowers; and we are serenaded (yes, serenaded!) with all due gravitas by a guy with a karaoke machine!

And that’s the scene from Saigon.

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