Teaching a Fishy English Lesson, Nhatrang, 1978

Jimmy and I attended the local elementary school, where our studies focused on math, literature, history, and science. All were taught from the Communist point of view. Miss San, who continued to teach my class, decided to hold a free tutorial session at her home every Sunday afternoon. Those were the only lectures in my experience that were not delivered with any political overtone.

Miss San lived in a two-story dwelling several blocks away from my street. She used her first floor as a fish-sauce factory, and three enormous earthenware jars were constantly at work there. Each container could hold two to three hundred pounds of fish, marinating in an equal amount of salt. She explained to us that making fish sauce was her main source of income. Teaching was just a recreational activity. The rancid smell of rotten fish was deadly, like the stench of tooth decay, only stronger. The odor permanently clung to her clothes, seeped into her hair, and like a miasma, spread to her surroundings. The adults, especially men, avoided her. They feared her eccentric nature. Children, however, were drawn to her warm personality, and no one found her more magnetic than I did.

As each Sunday afternoon approached, we eagerly wondered what surprise she had in store for us this week. Sitting on the floor in her rumpled bedroom among her scattered clothes, we waited for her appearance like the audience of a performing artist. One of Miss San’s favorite subjects was English. “The only way for us to grow as a nation is to learn from other countries’ technologies,” she often told us. “How can you learn their technologies? You can start by learning the universal language — English.”

She winked at us with a mischievous smile. “Today, let’s not learn from the textbook. Instead, let’s test our vocabularies, shall we? For the next hour, all of us must speak in English. I know this is a very difficult game, but we can try. Let’s have some fun together.”

We were trembling with excitement. Abandoning our language in a large group discussion such as this one was a forbidden act, yet it seemed so natural and harmless to us in that moment. As if she sensed our uncertainty, Miss San continued, “Let’s keep this our own little secret, children.”

She switched to English and the lesson began. “Duy went out last night,” she said, and I saw my friend sit up a little straighter. Pointing at a small girl in a ponytail, Miss San ordered, “Chi, please finish that thought.”

Chi pondered a few seconds and then said carefully, “Duy went out with a girl last night.”

There were some giggles among the students. The image of Duy with a girl was funny in any language. Miss San turned to me. “Kien, please?” she asked.

“Who was that girl? ” I formed a sentence quickly.

“Yes, that is a good question,” she said. “Tell us who that girl was, Duy.”

Duy stood up. Scratching his ears, he stuttered, searching the room for help. Someone whispered an answer, and he seized it as though he were drowning. “That girl was — was — was — my — mother,” he shouted. His voice cracked from the excitement. We fell into each other’s arms with laughter. Leaning against the wall, Miss San, too, was smiling. In the shadow of the room, I thought she was quite a beautiful lady, almost like a vision.

SOURCE: The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood, by Kien Nguyen (Back Bay, 2002), pp. 139-141

Miss San abruptly disappeared soon thereafter.

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Filed under education, language, Vietnam

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