The curious teacher

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A young man finds himself after being sent to teach a remote hill tribe


Tran Nguyen Khanh Phong holds a music instrument of the Ta Oi ethnic

Tran Nguyen Khanh Phong, 37, from the central province of Thua ThienHue, has been teaching for 12 years, but he hasn't saved a single dong.

Partially, that's because teachers aren't paid enough.

But mostly it's because he's spent everything he's earned collecting artifacts of the Ta Oi, a tribe that live in rural areas outside Vietnam's former imperial capital of Hue.

Phong was born to a farmer family in a tiny village and graduated from the Hue University of Sciences in 2000 with a degree in Literature. After earning his teaching credentials, he began teaching at A Luoi Highschool in A Luoi District the next year.

After classes, Phong took his bicycle to visit his students' families in local Ta Oi communities. He began the trips as a way to encourage parents and students to take school seriously. But he was soon putting himself in the position of student as his curiosity about the Ta Oi's foreign culture grew and his students and their families became his teachers.

Through these trips, the teacher was exposed to the Ta Oi's way of life for the first time in his life.

Phong was first fascinated but the Ta Oi's tools and daily appliances, but then he fell in love with the objects they use for worship. In most homes he visited, he found such items in various states of disarray, often left lying on the ground or at neighbor's houses.

"These artifacts as well as folk stories and myths should be collected and recorded for not only the benefit of the Ta Oi, whose traditions are being affected by modern lifestyles, but also for researchers and tourists," Phong told Vietweek.

Phong is also now a member of the Association of Folk Culture and by 2007 had learned to speak the Ta Oi language like a member of the tribe.

He has since built himself a massive collection of artifacts.

He bought part of the collection, but much of it came from gifts local Ta Oi people gave him. One unique gift was the plastic shell of large bomb, a valued artifact from war time, given to him by a family in A Roang Commune.

"I asked the family to sell it to me, but they told me to talk about it later because they wanted me to have dinner with them first. They fed me a mouse preserved in vinegar and explained that it was a specialty for VIP guest only. I picked up the mouse with my chopsticks and started shaking, but I tried to smile and ate it. I nodded repeatedly, gave them my compliments," he said.

"Later, I found the toilet and vomited. After the dinner, the family gave me the bomb shell."

Though he has a motorbike, he never has money for fuel and only rides his bicycle because he keeps spending all his money on his Ta Oi collection, which eventually filled his nine-square-meter room in the school's dormitory for teachers.

He's got over 1,000 items, including fishing baskets, harpoons, threshing tools, rice pounding pestles, wooden statues, dug out canoes, loin cloths and much more.

Among the collection, the rarest items include a set of knives made of animal bones, a costume made of bark, a set of earthen pots to worship the god of rice, as well as several war time artifacts featuring President Ho Chi Minh, better known as Uncle Ho, and the people during the time he lived in hiding among the Ta Oi.

During his 12 years living and teaching at A Luoi High School, Phong has visited all 131 villages of 21 communes and towns of the A Luoi District, as well as the mountainous areas in the neighboring province of Quang Tri, where the Ta Oi also reside (they are also across the border in Laos).

Phong has also written 11 books on folk culture and music, published by local publishing houses, including Thanh Nien (Youth), Lao Dong (Labor), Thuan Hoa, and the National University of Hanoi. He has been co-author on around 40 books about folk culture and ethnology.

He also plans to publish another 13 documents thousands of pages about Ta Oi artisans, the culmination of  his research at 180 villages in five Thua Thien-Hue and Quang Tri districts.

"My son has never brought home any money," said Phong's mother Nguyen Thi Minh.

"But suddenly, one day, he shocked us by bringing home a wooden coffin. Thinking about it now, we still cannot stop laughing and are happy with his passion."

At the time, however, Phong was scolded and had to return the dug out to a family in the mountains. He's given other items in his collection back to the communities they came from, and he's also donated several to the province's Ho Chi Minh Museum.

But he says it's not enough:

"I hope that I win lottery to have enough money to build a museum of Ta Oi culture and open it for everyone for free.

THE TA OI

The Ta Oi speak a MonKhmer language and are concentrated in A Luoi District in Thua Thien-Hue Province and Huong Hoa District in Quang Tri Province.

Indigenous to the lands now known as Vietnam (and parts of Laos), the Ta Oi had a population of 34,960 in 1999 according to a census.

In addition to swidden farming, they are adept in growing cotton, weaving cloth and brocades, sewing or fastening glass beads on costumes, and in making musical instruments (drums, pan flutes). They are also good traders who earn profits exchanging cloth and clothes, blacksmith goods, shoulder baskets and honey for other more valuable goods.

The Ta Oi follow an animist belief system by which all things have souls that can exert an impact on other things; natural objects are animated by spirits.

Only a small number of cultural anthropologists possess any knowledge about the specifics of the group's belief systems.

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