A month in Vietnam - Austin Mitchell's internship in Hanoi

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July 5th 2013

Austin and Hoang Anh hanging out at Summer Camp

HANOI, June 2018 - Austin Mitchell first came to Vietnam on a summer camp trip with GVI. Since the first trip, he has developed a passion for children in Vietnam. After graduating from high school this summer, Austin has decided to intern with GVI Vietnam for a month, leading up to this year's summer camp with Birla. Follow Austin's story below and see how a high school graduate can impact lives in Hanoi.

Being mission-minded, to me, means taking those skill sets, weaving them together, and meeting needs.

I’m sitting here at Helio Cafe, right down the street from the school where I’ve been teaching for the past couple of weeks. Having commandeered a corner table here for myself, I use it to eat and read after my classes on weekdays. And the classes, which include anywhere from fifteen to thirty sixth-grade students, are reason enough for some quiet time! In all sincerity, though, as a GVI intern it’s been incredibly exciting to have the opportunity to fill a volunteer post teaching English at Dịch Vọng Middle School, where I’ve gotten to know about eighty students who are just starting their perilous stint in middle school. As Hanoi becomes more and more of a global city, English language programs are very much sought-after by school administrators, and so I’m glad to be able to model ELL skills with my students, with the help of some awesome high school freshmen.

Linh and Hương, the high school volunteers who’ve helped me with the classes.

Our lessons, which will conclude the day after I write this post, have taken place in the form of practice conversations and group activities. We’ve written comics, compared Vietnamese and American holidays, and acted out charades. All of our activities are based in small groups, which I understand the students will remain a part of throughout the school year. The kids’ eagerness to participate, and their surprisingly broad English knowledge (some of these 12-year-olds are fluent!) have made a big impression on me. Seriously, I’ve know high school seniors who can’t engage in a foreign language like these middle-schoolers can. I’ve also come to appreciate the superhuman levels of patience my teachers have exercised for the past twelve years. Very quickly I’ve learned why my teachers did that thing where they stood in menacing silence and dared us to keep talking over them, and also that thing where they always managed to assign me to a different group than my best friends. I guess the realization—that teachers are as courageous as shark tank cleaners, and probably less appreciated—comes a few weeks too late. (I picked up my diploma from school two days before flying to Hanoi.) While I’m not even an adult yet, I’ve been consistently mistaken this month to be in my mid-twenties. I guess this is due partly to my ultramature, wise-beyond-my-years personality, and also due partly to the fact that I’m 10 inches taller than the average Vietnamese adult.

Students from class 6I write words to accompany the blank comics on the worksheet.

Here, students gleefully made their classmates contort after we reviewed English words for the parts of the body.

Class 6B at 7:59, right before the lesson started.

It’s honestly kind of poetic that my first attempt at adulting should take place on the other side of the globe from Texas, in a city where I’ve stumbled from one daily life task to another. When going out for lunch on my own, choosing a restaurant is a roll of dice, especially when nobody can seem to understand my American accent. The word “broken” isn’t strong enough to characterize my command of the Vietnamese language, but it’s almost appropriate for characterizing the motorbike I nearly knocked over this morning as I dismounted it in front of the middle school, in full view of students and staff. Speaking of which, as an almost 200-pound human it’s amazing how much power I have over traffic patterns from the back of a motorbike. I’m like a rudder; if I lean right even slightly, that entire side of the street has to slow down, which gives me the immense privilege of being audience to a beautiful sixty-part ensemble of bike and bus horns.

This tasteful selfie shows my altitude compared to everyone else on the road, including the driver, whose head, as you can see, only goes up to my chin.

This tasteful selfie shows my altitude compared to everyone else on the road, including the driver, whose head, as you can see, only goes up to my chin.

Tan and his family have graciously bent over backwards to help me feel comfortable as part of the household, part of GVI, and part of their neighborhood community. That means being together for meals and chores, morning exercise at the neighborhood lake, and a road trip this weekend with the whole family! And being part of GVI meant help getting to a doctor when jet lag combined with mysterious allergies and cold symptoms to form an infection trifecta for a few days.

But as soon as I was feeling healthy, I started classes and visits to Birla Children’s Village, where I’ve been involved for seven years now. Most of the Children (the main demographic in the Children’s Village) are gone for the summer holiday, leaving behind about ten elementary kids and a dozen or so seniors, who’re busy studying for college entrance exams. So I’ve been operating in unofficial capacity as Minister of Playtime from 3 to 5. It’s during this time that I’ve really actualized my potential to alternate between human jungle gym and human safety net under the metal jungle gym used by the primary schoolers to perform death-defying feats. I’ve also learned new techniques for enticing children to help with chores, and have noticed a knack for making up games on the spot that won’t leave anyone crying. And I've figured out that while “anh bé” means “baby boy,” “anh bế” means “carry me.” So when the youngest resident at Birla, a three-year-old, shouts it at me I shouldn’t just nod and give him a thumbs-up.

For the kids at Birla who don’t go home to their families during the summer, I’m told it feels sometimes like they’re languishing, just waiting for everyone else to get back and for structured life to resume. So, like, they’d prefer to be in class to just sitting around in the humidity. So this aspect of my internship with GVI gives me an opportunity to use my skill set (being extremely charming, among other things) to get them up and moving at a set time every day. The childcare domain is as important as education, I think; in both ways, there’s a channel for showing love while also practically enriching the lives of kids, be that with social skills, exercise, or educational content. Being mission-minded, to me, means taking those skill sets, weaving them together, and meeting needs.

Game night at Birla Children’s Village.

I’m not sure why, but my legs are these kids’ vehicle of choice.

Here I’m popping a squat next to two elementary kids in their second day at Birla, alongside their older house-brothers.