Lessons in the Park
Former engineer hopes to see the day when every young Vietnamese becomes English-literate
By Ghaz Ghazali
MANY PEOPLE THINK that recreation parks are just places where people go and do “recreational” stuff, but the 23-9 Square in Ho Chi Minh City is a bit different from any other park of its kind in Vietnam – possibly across Asia for that matter.
Every Sunday between 4pm and 6pm and you’ll spot groups of young Vietnamese reciting English poems or short stories in unison across the park.
Sometimes the sessions also have participants asking questions of their ‘teachers’, who are actually tourists willing to spare their time for a good cause.
Thanks to Tracy Trinh, these youngsters have become more confident in speaking English than when they first joined last October.
The ‘classes in the park’ are part of a creative programme set up by the 45-year-old together with her husband Dr Robert Tran, 55.
“These are good, hard-working youths who know that being able to converse and understand English is very important not only for the sake of education, but also in helping them get better employment prospects.
“Some of them have personally experienced rejections during interviews simply because they could not speak the language,” she told The Borneo Post SEEDS recently.
According to her, the job market in Vietnam has become highly competitive over the years with many global companies setting up bases in the former Communist country.
“Any good university here can produce graduates with good skills but without English, they can only expect a monthly pay of US$300 (RM950) – a level that could barely sustain you if you live in Ho Chi Minh City.
“Those with good command of the language, however, could earn more; at least US$1,000 (over RM3,000) per month if they’re offered positions in engineering or IT companies,” she said.
Tracy was speaking from experience. Growing up in a family of 18 siblings in a tiny apartment within the city’s District 8, she knew that if opportunity knocked, she had to grab it by all means.
The chance came to her more than 26 years ago.
“Like so many Vietnamese then, I didn’t speak English – not even one bit. What I did was listen to cassette tapes of ‘Good English’, repeat the phrases, record myself and keep on listening and repeating until I got the pronunciations right. I also kept my ears open whenever other people conversed in that language.
“It was a very long process, but I did not give up – I couldn’t because I was in the States. Like it or not, I had to learn English.”
Later a job offer came from US networking giant Cisco Systems Inc in San Jose, California, which became Tracy’s home for the next six years.
“In the next 10 years after that, I became a consultant/contractor to various US companies such as Northrop Grumman, V-Packet Communications, Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac, DirecTV, Bank of America and Megatest.
“Then I opened a software and printing firm in Fort Worth, Texas, which ran for four years before I sold the business and returned to Vietnam for good in February 2007.”
Tracy was among the educated and well-to-do overseas Vietnamese coming back to their homeland years after the Reunification between North and South Vietnam.
“It was a definitive decision not only because I came back, but I also wanted to give back,” she said.
And giving back she does, through the programme which is under the patronage of Thien Truc Temple in District 7.
How she works her “lessons in the park” is practical and simple. Every Sunday, Tracy takes her charges – over 50 of them – to 23-9 Square just across the tourist-magnet Ben Thanh Market, and separates them into two or three groups.
“My husband and I would then find our ‘instant’ teaching assistants, or TAs, among the tourists walking through the square.
“We have been fortunate to being able to have TAs willing to spare an hour or two teaching these youths,” she enthused, adding that her ‘children’ comprised undergraduates from local universities as well as high-school students.
“Also through word of mouth, the foundation has been getting sponsorships from temple patrons and several non-governmental bodies. It has been a wonderful endeavour for us, and we strive to do more.”
Tracy noted that the programme’s impact on her charges have been tremendous.
“These are bright and enthusiastic youths who are always eager for knowledge. With better English, they are now more confident than they were when they started. Many of them told me how happy they were just by being able to help tourists who asked for directions; when previously they would just walk away.
“Looking at how they beamed when they told me this, I know that they’re proud to be Vietnamese; of being able to portray their culture through English. In a certain way, they remind me of how I was when I was that age,” she said, smiling.
Currently, the foundation runs a website www.chuathanhtuyen.com, but according to Tracy, it is still in Vietnamese.
“We will strive to translate the site into English eventually but right now, the focus is still getting the kids to master the language.”
Asked on the nationality of the TAs, Tracy was a bit apologetic.
“We never had any Malaysian TA, although it would’ve been great if we had. They have been mostly Americans, Britons, Canadians and Europeans.”
Due to her commitment, she had not been able to travel anywhere outside Vietnam.
“However, if I got the chance to visit Malaysia, I would like to travel with all my kids. I want to help them get better lives so that they, in return, could help their families as well as others in need,” she said with a glint in her eyes.