Working in Vietnam: My Experiences Thus Far

I have never worked abroad before now. Studying abroad and working abroad are worlds apart. I’ve been teaching English in Vietnam for over two months now and have had to learn quickly how to:

  1. Navigate the working world in Vietnam
  2. Pretend like I know how to teach
  3. Understand the cultural nuances of schools in Vietnam compared to schools in the U.S.

Please keep in mind while you’re reading this, that this post is just my personal experiences and does not speak to other people’s experiences who have worked abroad or in Vietnam.

First off, I teach English at Tra Vinh University in Tra  Vinh, Vietnam. I teach college students, high school students, and other teachers. It’s only been a couple of months but I feel like I’ve learned a year’s worth of information. I had never taught besides one-on-one tutoring sessions before moving to Vietnam. While I don’t think teaching is my second calling, it’s definitely been a great and fun experience so far. It’s true what people say: it is a fulfilling job. That’s not to say of course that I haven’t come across some frustrations along the way. Like with any new experience, you kind of just have to fumble along and embarrass yourself until you get things right.

I actually missed my first day of one of my classes because of a miscommunication. The whole language barrier definitely gives room for a lot of misunderstanding. For example, I’ve noticed that this week and next week mean the same thing to a lot of people who speak English here. Before I figured this out though, I was told that one of my classes was starting next week. I just assumed it couldn’t be starting the upcoming Friday because that was two days away so I figured it would be the Friday after. Turns out I was wrong. I really should’ve clarified. So Friday morning rolls along and I was invited to the opening ceremony for the high school that I also teach at which is about a 15-20 minute bike ride away. I get a call from my supervisor asking me where I am and that my class has been waiting for me for 30+ minutes. Since it would take me at least 20 minutes to get back to the college campus, we had to cancel my class. Luckily, classes here are relatively easy to reschedule so I was able to make up my class on Saturday. All in all, lesson learned. Be sure to double and even triple confirm things. You never know if you’re misunderstanding each other.

Working in a different country, I’ve had to learn about the cultural differences in the work place. While I’m a very laid-back and flexible person, I’m used to the set schedule that I had back in the states when I worked in an office in DC. Meetings and events were always planned ahead of time and you were always sent a calendar invite. I’m no longer working in an office so I expected things to be a bit different, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how things seem last minute to me. It’s happened more than once that I’ve been told about a meeting or an event only an hour or two ahead of time. Or even with my own teaching schedule. I found out what classes I would be teaching basically on day 1 of arriving in Vietnam, but I didn’t find out when I would be teaching until a few days before my classes started. At first I thought it was poor planning, but I’ve come to realize that’s just how things are planned here. Life in Tra Vinh is different compared to the states where I’m not planning every meal and happy hour with someone at least a couple days in advance because everyone is so busy with whatever excuses they have. Here on the other hand, people just tend to plan things as they go, and it works out for them. People expect you to be able to attend things at a moment’s notice because they’re usually able to as well. There’s no need to plan every single detail out beforehand. If anything, living in Vietnam has taught me to be even more flexible than I was before and to not over plan (unless it comes to my own teaching lessons). That’s not to say things aren’t planned ahead of time here, it’s just that planning and organizing are a little less obsessive-compulsive here which I’ve come to appreciate.

Another cultural difference that I’ve had to get used to is how professional life and personal life here don’t have as clear of lines as they do back in the states. While I loved my coworkers back in DC, besides the occasional happy hour, I didn’t really hang out with them outside of work. We sometimes talked about our personal lives, but we never delved that deep. One of the critiques I got within my first month here in Vietnam was that I was coming off as a little cold and unfriendly. I was acting how I normally would at work: professional and friendly. In Vietnam though, work life and personal life blend together.  I’m usually pretty reserved about my personal life around people I don’t know. This was further emphasized too because of the language barrier. Because of the critique I received though, there are a few things that I realized:

  1. You shouldn’t just go to work, do your work, and be done with your day. You should try and really connect with your colleagues.
  2. Do share some personal things about yourself. Family is such a big component of life in Vietnam so people love hearing about your family. People also love to hear about your interests outside of work.
  3. Be silly and don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself. I’ve been called quirky a lot in my lifetime but rarely do I act like full-fledged spazzy Selina when I’m at work. Part of being able to act super silly at work is because I’m a teacher, but also, ideas of embarrassment in Vietnam seem to be a little different than in the U.S. Things that would be considered embarrassing in the U.S. really are just laughed at and shrugged off here in Vietnam. I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin, but being a teacher has really helped me embrace who I am.
  4. Even though my Vietnamese is terrible and I’m super self-conscious about my Vietnamese ability, this is a great opportunity to practice my Vietnamese and get to know non-English speakers. I’ve been trying to test more of my Vietnamese out with my colleagues and it’s really helped me get closer to my colleagues.

As for teaching. Man. Props to all the teachers out there. Being a teacher is HARD. I have learned so much about teaching these past couple of months that I’m going to leave this topic for a future post.

All in all though, working in Vietnam has been relatively seamless. It helps that the the staff, students, and community here at Tra Vinh University have been amazing to work with. Even though I’ve had frustrations along the way, they all have been easily resolved.

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