Jessica Chau (far left) and half the volunteer tutors at a weekly meeting of the I Love Vietnamese project--which seeks to provide free Vietnamese language instruction to foreigners.
About a year ago, I began noticing that hundreds of foreigners had learned to speak Vietnamese much better than I did; in far less time.
One such person, a reedy Englishman named James, had mastered the language at 22 and was off to Japan to do the same thing over there.
“I Love Vietnamese,” he grinned, when I asked him how he'd done it.
Before I could hit him, James explained that I Love Vietnamese was a project created by a 23 year-old college student who organized the good-hearted students at the Ho Chi University of Social Sciences and Humanities into an army of tutors who worked for free.
I forgot about the project and slogged through my 8 a.m. classes at the University. Just me, two old Korean men and an occasional housewife—sucking it up in a frigid classroom, struggling to say awake.
I graduated with a broken, toneless pidgin that's most useful for making pretty girls giggle and confusing old people than conducting interviews.
Eventually, I decided to sign up for a tutor through ILV's website. Weeks later I got an apology saying they had a massive backlog of students and were only able to process 20 applications a month.
Last week, I walked into an evangelical church on Tu Xuong to meet the founder, Jessica Chau.
The idea donned on me that this whole project might be for Jesus or something equally incomprehensible.
“We're not religious,” Chau said, smiling, taking my arm and walking me to the center of a packed multi-purpose room. Chau spoke spit-shined English and exuded the warmth of a great kindergarten teacher—bubbly, but undeniably in charge.
For the past three years, she has spent one Sunday a month meeting her tutors in parks to play team-building games, create lesson plans and teaching techniques.
She'd cancelled last week's gathering due to rain. This was the first time anyone had ever offered her a room.
A semi-circle of tutors seated on the pale green tile floor grinned up at me—a sea of pimples and glasses and good-will. Some studied at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. But many more now came from colleges and offices all over the city.
“Is there anyone here from District 6?” Chau asked.
Three hands shot up.
“There's your tutor,” she said pointing to a girl in the far corner of the room, who seemed to blanch.
At this point, I got sort of choked up.
There's something heartbreaking about sitting in a room full of struggling kids who teach their beleaguered language for nothing and that thing is what's at once sad and beautiful about Vietnam right now.
Chau snapped me out of it by inviting me to address the room.
I bumbled through an introduction in Vietnamese. Everyone clapped as if I were a child who'd pulled off a card trick on his third attempt. And we resumed in English.
“This is only half of them,” Chau replied as her tutors began chatting amongst themselves.
At the moment, ILV has 108 tutors for its roughly 100 students—so many that Chau couldn't remember which “English James” I was referring to.
They're working hard at sorting out an enormous backlog of students and their monthly influx of volunteer applicants. Last month drew 300 people.
“Each volunteer has to pass an interview, a training day and a test,” she said. Chau guesses she and her eight managers accept less than half of the people who want to teach for nothing.
“Even though it's free we don't want anyone to waste anyone's time,” she said.
Tutors aren't supposed to speak foreign languages with their students.
“They're not allowed to get anything out of the lessons?” I asked.
Chau shrugged and looked around the room.
“I meet about 150 new people like this every month,” she said. “Every time you see them, you see their energy. Sometimes when I want to give up I just talk to them.”
For her, all that seemed enough.
To me, she might as well be teaching for Jesus.
Chau's project began, informally, in February of 2011 when a single Vietnamese language student named Eric Asato asked her for help. After two years of studying with Chau, he got married and moved to Hanoi.
“I taught him how to speak to his in-laws,” she said.
Eric's friends asked Chau for help but she didn't have the time. So a group of her friends volunteered to tutor them.
“[Eric's friends] stopped studying with my friends,” she said. “I knew there was a problem.”
She formed a group of three managers to help train and provide guidance to tutors. “It has grown,” she said.
She guesses somewhere between five and six hundred students have significantly improved through ILV, which is now overseen by a rotating group of eight volunteer managers.
“Can you believe that a PhD at my university signed up to be a manager next year?” she asked.
I Love Vietnamese uses the textbooks employed by the University of Social Sciences and Humanities as a kind of base.
“We realized they were too formal,” she said. “We use it as a kind of...format.” They use the same topics but build lessons on a more conversational Vietnamese. The tutors remain flexible—some meet their students in their offices and homes. Others gather in cafés.
Beyond classroom instruction and regular tutoring, Chau urges foreigners living in Vietnam to move into Vietnamese neighborhoods and use the language.
Which made me feel pretty lousy.
After a half-hour English-language interview, many of her tutors stood up and wandered out.
A small crew hung near the front door, waiting to explain what they were up to.
“At first I thought it was fun to teach Vietnamese though I was trained in teaching English,” said Pham Hoang Nguyen a 22-year old English Literature student. “I also thought it was a good way of spreading Vietnamese culture.”
“Like pronouns,” he said. “The ways you address people anh, chi, em and the way those words let everyone know your place.”
I nodded vacantly. I didn't get it.
Nguyen had taught five foreigners for free since he joined ILV in 2011. His latest student was a German who makes his living teaching Vietnamese people English.
Next up was Nguyen Thuy Hang—a 27-year old tour guide from Hanoi.
"I want to introduce our language to foreigners,” she said. “I am pretty proud of my language. I really appreciate that people want to learn and want to mingle into this society. I also want to introduce our culture. Somehow I hope to contribute a little to our economy. Once people get used to the lifestyle, to the language then they'll feel more comfortable about staying and living in Vietnam."
Hang leaves her office, twice a week during lunch, and tutors an Austrian NGO employee who could surely afford to pay her something.
But Hang found the suggestion that her student should distasteful.
For some reason, I couldn't help but think about the sunburnt roadside mechanic who had spent fifteen minutes, that morning, tinkering with my clutch handle. He too refused to accept any money for the work.
At least Chau is considering non-profit status.
While working a full-time job in the marketing department at Singapore Business Group, she applied for a $25,000 grant from the US State Department to create a ten week environmental science course for non-scientists.
Graduates of the proposed program would pledge to teach what they learn to high school students—a kind of reverse pyramid scheme.
Chau hopes the money will come through in August.
In the meantime, she's looking for orphanages where grateful ILV students can teach English to needy kids. She would appreciate some sort of business sponsorship, she says, to pay her board of managers and maybe rent an office and hire linguists and professional teachers to provide seminars for volunteers.
By the end of our interview, I sort of just wanted to hand Chau my wallet. Instead, I sat down with her and the die-hard tutors to take my entrance exam.
I answered questions about where I'd traveled in Vietnam, roughly read a familiar passage about a wedding in the countryside and did my best to write down an improvised story of star-crossed lovers that I didn't quite understand.
Everyone giggled as we rose to leave. And I was sort of sad again when we said our goodbyes in English.