I Was Too Ugly to Teach English
When I first applied to be an English teacher abroad, I was naive, believing that the experiences I was seeing and reading on social media would be my own. Teach all week; play all weekend. I imagined myself trekking through China or South Korea. How could I not when these language schools fawned over my Curriculum Vitae: over ten years of teaching; five-years working with ESL learners; experience with K-12 students — even with special needs. I gave my school my two-week notice. I was going abroad. The only thing these language schools insisted on was that I follow up by sending an attached head shot.
Afterwards, that’s when the communication stopped.
“They want teachers of European descent,” the message board read. “If they were in dire need, they’d even take black teachers, but they rarely accepted Asian teachers, unless they were biracial. And even if they are, they have to pass as white.”
I took an ESL/ESOL certification course in Cleveland, which guaranteed placement. It was an 6-week, 8-hour course with mostly white women who had never taught before. I was paying the $1,000.00 for the certificate. When it was time to talk placement, I spoke privately to the instructor about my past experiences.
“It happens,” he said. “Let me see what I could do.”
After a month and a half of classes, still no school in South Korea would talk to me after seeing my head shot. My friend jested that I use his photo. Another recommended that I Photoshop my face. “Lighten it up and round out the eyes.” I laughed externally, but inside I was devastated. Did they think I had an accent? If only they could hear me, they’d hire me.
I did get a phone call from a recruiter. The school was in Mexico. I’d have to pay my own way, then take a 4-hour bus ride to the village, and pay for my lodging. After calculating a year’s salary, the number didn’t cover those expenses, let alone food and living expenses. I politely declined.
When you’re living with your parents with time and tequila on your hands, dumb ideas seem like strokes of genius.
What if I went to Vietnam to teach English?
My parents were born in Vietnam, but I was born in Cleveland, OH. As a teenager, I had been to Vietnam once, but this time I was an adult. For much of my life, I had identified as Vietnamese but had never explored the culture beyond a menu, what I learned from history books and documentaries, and Paris By Night videos. I was familiar with Vietnamese and taught English. I was the perfect candidate, right?
I made a list of the top ten English schools; sent out my resumes but didn’t include head shots — just in case; priced out apartments and flights. At the time I envisioned myself as the bridge for Vietnamese-English learners. When they meet me, they’ll hear my Midwestern accent and love me.
My father, against his better judgement, made living arrangements for me to stay with a friend’s family in Cho Lon — Saigon’s Chinatown district. When I flew in, it was near the Tet holiday, which I later learned meant that all schools were closed for the holiday — sometimes up to a month.
The guest family I stayed with lived above their fabric store. They fed me and asked their daughter to give me a tour of the district. Each day I sat downstairs and tried to make small talk, but my Vietnamese was far from polished.
“What’s wrong with him?” a customer remarked, referring to my sloppy Vietnamese. “Is he slow?”
“He’s an English teacher,” the owner said.
The customer laughed.
Though I looked Vietnamese, I didn’t sound like one.
Leading up to Tet, the schools were closed but offices remained open for enrollment. The owner’s son was kind enough to take me from school to school as I handed out my resume. “We’re closed, we’re closed,” each receptionist said.
I instructed the owner’s son to tell the receptionist that I didn’t speak Vietnamese; that he didn’t know me; that he was just the driver. The front desk receptionists at these schools rarely spoke English, because most of their clientele were Vietnamese students, who also didn’t English. I bullied the young women with my big words. I patronized them. “I. Am. Teach. Er. Un. Der. Stand?” My goal was not to hurt them, but rather to frustrate them enough to find me an administrator or someone who spoke English — someone with clout.
I did this in all ten schools, and each time I either met the acting principal, manager, or head of school. Eight of those meetings resulted in a scheduled interview after Tet.
So, in the meantime, I stayed in Nha Trang, a beach town 8-hours away by bus. I was introduced to friend’s cousin, a young woman who played tennis and offered to be my tour guide. I assumed she spoke English when we messaged each other but quickly learned she was using a translating app. I enjoyed our time together, but those long rides going 50 mph on a motorbike on choppy roads destroyed my nerves.
Still, I kept an eye out on possible schools and opportunities.
The headmaster, along with his assistant, was kind enough to make to talk to me. They glossed over my CV and offered me the job on the spot. I flinched at the salary figure, which was 1/5 of the salaries posted online.
“I admit, you do a good American,” the headmaster said, “but you’re still getting the native rate.” He believed that my transcripts, my U.S. passport, and my accent were all impressive forgeries.
During the nights, I met up expats — almost all of them were teachers. I told them about my suspicions. “Yeah, it’s a thing here. They give Viet Kieu a hard time.”
“But I’m an American,” I said.
“Yeah, I get it, but you know what I mean.”
Viet Kieu is a term used for Vietnamese people that live outside the country, but the term also carries a negative connotation — Sugar Daddy. Many of the returning refugees flaunted their money and bragged, or sometimes lied, about the extravagance of their lives back in the States.
In many cases, it was an unspoken understanding that whiteness was part of the educational process. Students needed to be photographed with white teachers for school brochures and billboards. Parents needed to see white teachers at drop-off and pick-up lines to feel better about the tuition costs. I began to realize that there was little hope of me standing in front of classroom, because I wasn’t marketable. I was just another Vietnamese face in a sea of millions.
One by one, the schools stopped returning my messages about confirming the date and time for my interviews. One school asked me to come in. The human resource manager didn’t speak English. I sat there watching her furiously type.
“Is there anything else I can provide?”
She said nothing and continued typing. It was four-story school and the teachers were all white and young. I imagined myself as one of them. I thought of grammar, speaking exercises, and writing prompts I’d incorporate.
The woman stopped typing. “You. No good.”
I asked her for clarification.
She didn’t believe I was an American, pointed at my face and grimaced in disgust. “You too ugly.”
My story didn’t end there. I did live another five months in Saigon only to find some quality friends and the woman who would be my wife. I did teach, per se, tutoring adult learners out of my studio apartment at night over beers. But when I think of that experience, it reminded me that education — on all levels — is still a business.
When I was young, I had this purist, academic sense of education. Maybe it was too much Dead Poet’s Society, but money, especially in education, was a dirty word. Teaching was for the students. When I look back at those Vietnamese schools, I understand now that they were not presenting a formal education, but instead the image of one — one that you could market and sell like candy.
My son and I visited Vietnam last year. At the top floor of the mall was a school that promoted itself as Wall Street English. Inside the students worked with white teachers in small peer groups.
“This looks like a nice school,” my son said. “Why don’t you teach here?”
“They don’t want someone like me.”
“You taught college. You’re a good teacher. Why wouldn’t they want you?”
“I’m too ugly, son.”
“No,” he said. “You’re really, really handsome.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Let’s go get some dessert and let these nice people study with their pretty teachers.”