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Teaching Vietnamese Roots the U.S. Way

Volunteer instructors huddle on how to get Americanized kids excited about the culture. Many learn that strict homeland methods aren't the ticket.


Hundreds of Vietnamese volunteer teachers gathered at Cal State Long Beach this weekend to exchange ideas on how to infuse increasingly Westernized Vietnamese students with a greater interest in the culture and language of their ancestors.

The weekend instructors, from engineers to assembly workers to bankers, teach courses in Vietnamese language, culture and history at 65 churches, temples, public schools and office buildings in Southern California.

About 1,000 volunteers cover nearly 10,000 students.

Parents and educators say that the Americanized youngsters do not respond well to traditional Vietnamese teaching methods and that the more tradition-bound teachers frequently quit in disgust over their students' attitudes.

Vietnam was deeply influenced by a Confucian ethic that places obedience to educators above even parents. One well-known saying holds, "You should follow the orders of and respect first the king, then the teacher, then your father."

Teachers in Vietnam were traditionally held in highest esteem, and they could often pick their students on the basis of attitude and manners. Their word was law, and parents would cede them the power to hit or spank their children.

Students in Vietnam stand and bow as their teachers enter the classroom. When the teacher requests silence, there is not only quiet but no movement.

Some of the volunteer teachers complain that the students here frequently display disrespect in the classrooms, even insubordination, all because American society gives children too much freedom.

"Children here think that being a teacher is just a job," said Khoa Van Nguyen, president of the Assn. of Vietnamese Language and Culture of Southern California, which organized the conference. "But in Vietnam, this person is highly respected and someone that everyone listens to."

Others at the conference insist that they are the ones who must adapt to changing times, not the youngsters.

"The children live in this society where they go to school eight hours a day, then watch television, listen to CDs and chat on the Internet," said Hue Pham, dean of counseling at Orange Coast College. "So we can't expect too much from them. You can't do anything about it but change the way we teach."

Pham and others insist that the volunteer teachers must no longer teach by memory and repetition, as most do in Vietnam. Teaching the Americanized youths should integrate music, poetry and activities.

Catherine Pham, 11, of Westminster said she has seen fellow students disrupt class by talking or trading Pokemon cards while her volunteer teacher at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School was lecturing weekend classes. But she says she's glad Vietnamese teachers are no longer old-fashioned.

"I'm happy they don't hit you here," she said. "They should be more understanding because some of us grew up in American ways."

Parents, meanwhile, are too occupied trying to make a living and less involved in their children's lives. So some students rest their feet on their desks, talk back to their teachers or walk out of classrooms without permission.

"It's frustrating because we're not used to children talking back to us," said Nguyen, of Garden Grove, who works as a mortgage lender during the week. "A few teachers can't stand it and they quit. But we all know the value of Vietnamese culture and language."

The three-day conference, which ends today with a teacher talent show, also featured courses on spelling and Vietnamese grammar.

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