Sometimes you just know that you are flogging a dead horse… No amount of cajoling, coaxing, threatening or inflicting sheer terror is going to breathe life into the corpse.
When a class of 15-16 year olds (grade 10…) looks and acts more lifeless than me (after a week of battling the worst bout of gastroenteritis I have succumbed to in just over three and a half years of exploring the great beyond divorce), something is seriously amiss. Whilst the girls were at least minimally attentive and not shy of some input, the boys were basically overwhelmed by persistent inertia… M’s head immediately settled on the desk upon his late entrance into the classroom and no matter of gentle – or otherwise – prodding got more than a grunt out of him. Normal behaviour for a teenager, you say… only Vietnamese teenagers buck the trend. They are, on the whole, a very polite, well-behaved, eager-to-learn bunch and make teaching a pleasure…
In their defence, I admit that watching a Youtube video of daredevil Danny MacAskell enjoying an endorphin high whilst doing awe-inspiring stunts on his mountain bike, may not have exactly produced the same adrenaline rush in the classroom. Especially as the video was merely a prelude to a reading exercise analyzing tenses such as past simple, present perfect and present perfect continuous… Lesser things have been known to drive teenagers to distraction and into oblivion in an English classroom. I should know, I once sat on the other side and I can assure you, we did not even have the likes of Youtube videos to liven up the monotony of conjugations and verb patterns…
‘It’s the ‘camping’,’ H assured me, hovering just above a comatose state. ‘We’ve been busy getting everything ready at school…’ His eyes glazed over, the mere effort of one sentence sapped him. We shelved the grammar, my capitulation inevitable. I relented, ‘OK, tell me all about it…’
Being a rather nosy specimen of the human race, I already had a pretty good inkling of what ‘camping Vietnamese-style’ entailed… Only a day earlier, I had witnessed the transformation of the nearby city square and put out feelers about what exciting event was about to unfold. Normally a quiet, peaceful area, occasionally frequented by teenage cyclists on their way home from school and early morning or late evening exercise fanatics making ample use of the street-gym-apparatus, that day every corner was beset by youngsters wielding massive bamboo poles and erecting intriguing structures…
Of course, I enquired about the goings-on at the English Centre where I work. Surely, someone would be able to give me the low-down and all the details… ‘Well,’ B in the office started, ‘to be quite honest, I have no idea… It’s the camping… Something to do with 26th March springs to mind.’ It was a start indeed… Like all good traditions in any country, Wikipedia and the internet probably could shed more light on folklore than the locals who live and breathe it.
Surprisingly, even cyber-space was particularly tight-lipped about this auspicious occasion, but as it transpires, the ‘camping’ is an annual event, celebrated nationwide on or around 26th March to commemorate the inauguration of the Youth division of the Communist Party, in 1931. Founded and initially led by Ho Chi Minh himself, the Ho Chi Minh Youth Union is the largest social-political organisation of Vietnamese youth.
Participating groups – either in the town square or in schools – pitch up against each other in exciting and fun-filled competitions, such as building the most spectacular and eye-catching entrance to their tent, hence the bamboo poles… Cooking skills are also hotly contested and there are even prizes for organizing the most exciting game such as tug-of-war, or possibly even for piggy-backing the girls across the square after performing manly acrobatics on bamboo poles under the watchful eye of Ho Chi Minh himself peering out from the inside of every tent… It is camping after all, and after dark, swarms of teenagers circle campfires whilst singing suitable songs and daring a bit of flash mobbing, and at least some of the lucky ones will be enjoying a sleepover… Teenage adventure as it should be.
Although the origin of the camping event may be largely lost on today’s Vietnamese teenagers, it is clearly one of the highlights on their calendar.. And who can begrudge them the fun, because just like their Chinese counterparts, the burden on Vietnamese students to do well, work hard and even harder, and build a successful future is immense. More classes after more classes, a diet of relentless studying.
So what if the past simple and present perfect continuous send my students to sleep?? They probably earned and needed the rest…. At the end of the day, grammar or camping?? No contest at all!!