In the foreword of Beloved, author Toni Morrison recalls the period after resigning her job to become a full-time author: “I was happy, free in a way I had never been, ever.”
Of course, freedom means something different to us all, yet Morrison’s words ring in my ears daily. It’s now six months since I gave up my job, home and country to work in South-East Asia as an English teacher.
The first three months were all-consuming. I was given a hectic schedule, with one day off a week. Planning and preparing for a two-hour lesson took up most of the day, cramming in a quick snack, and returning home, exhausted. Occasionally, lessons were awful, and there were days I felt I was seriously short-changing the students. Any feeling of freedom seemed a vain hope.
But fast forward a few months and the picture is much rosier. After a while, something clicked. Time spent on lesson planning decreased as my experience grew. Wise teachers create lesson plans which make students do all the work!
My days now look something like this: Get up and have breakfast, do lesson plan, go to yoga, have a coffee/lunch/go shopping with a friend, go into work – prepare and teach lesson, home.
“It’s the working day I always wanted. It’s my freedom.”
Vietnam takes its national holidays very seriously. On the 10th day of the third lunar month (April, basically) we had two days off to commemorate the Hung Kings. It’s an important and patriotic day for the Vietnamese as, according to historical records and traditions, the Hung Kings were the founders of Vietnam. For many people, it’s an opportunity to celebrate traditional Vietnamese culture and values.
I headed off with a couple of colleagues to Mai Chau, a place four hours by car SW of Hanoi. The most beautiful, lush countryside opened up before us, as we sped from the noise, pollution and traffic of Hanoi. Our hotel was outside the town of Mai Chau, surrounded by paddy fields and breathtaking mountain views. Around our bungalow, giant butterflies bounced from flower to flower, and geckoes chirped like birds.
We spent the first afternoon in the hotel’s pool, reading, listening to music and having a beer. In the evening we watched the sun go down over the mountains while sitting on our balcony, after a lovely meal of beef and pork noodles, traditional spring rolls and fruit juices.
On Sunday morning we were up early for a half-day trek through the hills. On the way, we stopped at a local market, where stall holders traded brightly coloured traditional fabrics, the traditional dress of the Hmong people. We were invited too, into the home of a local Hmong family, where we were served sweet tea and a plate of tiny, hard peaches – sounds awful, but they were deliciously sweet. As a Westerner, I’m always uncomfortable with this type of tourism – where you peer into the lives of others, even if, as in this case, the family are paid by the trekking company.
The guides were amazing, with great English and a wealth of local knowledge you just don’t get in a guide book. The Hmong have a rich heritage and a difficult relationship with Vietnam’s ruling Communist party. Political demonstrations are rare here, but in 2011, thousands of Hmong joined forces to demand an independent kingdom close to the NW border near Laos and China. Our guide remained diplomatic about the government’s reaction.
I sat outside the family home with my new friend Buon and with no common language, we just smiled a lot and enjoyed the sun. The final afternoon was spent by the pool reading, while my friends took a bike tour through the countryside.
Mai Chau is a world away from the bustle of the city, and on the trip back to Hanoi, we dreamed of teaching in such idyllic surroundings.