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Preston S.

“When we all understand that, across culture and space, people are similarly complex, I think we will be able to better bridge our divides.”

Preston S is a TEFL Volunteer in Viet Nam

1. What got you interested in the Peace Corps?

I became interested in the Peace Corps during my junior year of college. I was gearing up to write my senior thesis on Southeast Asian politics when my older brother, a Returned Volunteer who served in Cambodia, told me about the new Peace Corps program opening in Viet Nam. I was already considering applying to the Peace Corps as a potential first chapter in a development career when my brother mentioned this opportunity. Given my academic and personal interest in the Southeast Asian region (I was born in Singapore), I was determined to apply to a position in Viet Nam.

The momentousness of this new country entry was not lost on me. The U.S. and Viet Nam have a complicated, difficult history, and this post stands as a future-facing opportunity to grow the budding partnership between our two countries. The goal of sustained peace after conflict is worth devoting significant time and effort to. I think it’s worth stating clearly: the cause of global partnership and friendship on equal terms is vital, and the work in sustaining it is ongoing. I was drawn to the Peace Corps precisely because of its devotion to this mission.

2. What projects are you working on?

I am collaborating with ministerial partners and local school officials to establish English education projects in Vietnamese high schools. In my grade 10-12 classes, we’ve tried a couple different methods in the classroom. When I first arrived, I briefly visited and taught in each class at the school to gin up excitement for learning English. Since then, I’ve settled into a routine of teaching alongside three co-teachers and planning how to adapt communication-focused lessons to the national curriculum. I occasionally drop in on other classes.

As for extracurriculars, English speaking clubs are very popular in our schools. Volunteers have encountered many passionate, energetic students who are eager to put their English skills to use. Working closely with school administrators, we started two clubs—one for students to practice presentation skills, and one for teachers to practice basic conversational English. I also teach an afterschool class of 12-15 middle/high school students, where we focus on informal English speaking skills. All of these extracurriculars are a lot of fun, and I think students’ confidence using English to communicate has increased significantly!

Preston S at a counterpart workshop in Viet Nam.
Preston collaborates with colleagues at a counterpart workshop in Viet Nam.

3. What strategies have you used to integrate into your community? 

I’ve used a variety of strategies to get to know people around my community. People in the school community are often busy with family obligations, so much of my interaction with people has been in small moments: in the 10-minute breaks between classes, at school lunches, at student performances, etc. The school and I have also organized some outings to local points of interest, such as pagodas, water puppet theaters, and village meeting halls (đình). Learning about the history and cultural touchstones of my community and the surrounding area has been fascinating and has helped me feel more connected to the people I work with every day.

Outside school, one of my favorite ways to get to know people and practice language skills has been to improvise situations and see where they take me. This has led to some fun moments. A few months ago, while I was waiting for a friend to meet me, I sat on the side of a quiet street to see how many people would stop and interact with me. One motorcycle rider drove by, did a double take, and circled back while audibly saying, “Why is there a French guy sitting here?” He looked at me, asked where I was going, and drove away puzzled before I could explain that I didn’t need a ride. That experience didn’t lead to a long exchange, but I’ve been able to strike up countless other conversations by just being present and bold in my community. Persistence has been key.

4. What is a highlight of your time in service so far?

The highlight of my service so far has been working with students. After I visited one class, two students approached me asking for help studying for an international English exam that can be used to secure jobs and seats at university in Viet Nam and overseas. What began as a couple of study sessions turned into weekly meetings that continued even after they took their exams. They also chatted with me in English about American pop culture while sharing about growing up in Viet Nam.

Eventually, one student asked if I could help him with the application process for a university in Japan with dual English/Japanese-language instruction. After a couple months of back and forth, he submitted his application and was accepted with a scholarship. Now we’re discussing what he needs to bring overseas. This is the first time he’ll be leaving Viet Nam, as well as his region. I’m so excited for him to take this next step. Our relationship is a perfect example of Peace Corps’ mission of promoting global friendship.

5. What have you enjoyed most about the community where you are serving?

I have most enjoyed learning about the history of my community from the people living in it. There is a rich, well-preserved local history here—some of it written, much of it oral. Two mountain pagoda complexes near me are centuries old but still hold popular festivals every lunar year. It is fascinating to see old customs playing out alongside modern developments that have sprung up around these complexes. I’ve also visited smaller pagodas in the region. Each pagoda is maintained by monks or elderly volunteers who have always been willing to share some history over tea. Coming from a relatively young country like the U.S., I feel the weight of history when I hear stories from centuries or even a millennium ago.

Pagoda in Viet Nam
Preston has visited many pagodas near his community in Viet Nam.

6. What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from your community?

One of the most important things I’ve learned is how to create space for listening and to let stories be shared on the teller’s terms. One friend, an older English teacher at my school, loves to tell me about his time as a migrant worker in an East German rubber plant, prior to reunification. “I never felt freer to try new things and dance every night!” Growing up, I learned to view East Germany as an obstacle to be overcome, a wall to be torn down. For many, it was. Yet for my friend—and others—it was a breath of fresh air and a cherished memory. At a dinner with one student’s family, his grandfather asked where I was from, and upon learning, said through laughter, “the last time I saw an American, we were fighting!” He had been a soldier. I’m not always sure how to react to these stories, but I think giving them space to exist as told is an important starting point.

7. How do you spend time when you are not working on a project?

Exploring. My community is densely populated, and I discover new nooks and crannies every day. Recently, I went for a walk after dark to a neighboring village, which I’d visited numerous times in the afternoon, noting many shuttered doors and businesses. At night, I was greeted by a lively scene, with many motorcycles stopped outside businesses and street vendor stands. I stopped by an elderly lady’s shirt shop and bought a nice dress shirt. Then I found a bakery selling BBQ chicken pizza, which I had to try. It wasn’t bad. Not great, but not bad! There are still plenty of unique folds to my community which I have a lot of fun discovering in my free time.

Making Banh Chung with teachers at High School in Viet Nam.
Making a traditional cake for Tet, the lunar new year holiday, at a high school in Viet Nam.

8. What are you looking forward to in your remaining time as a Volunteer?

My counterpart and principal have mentioned wanting to take me to nearby mountains that I have visited before, but never with people from my community. When I go to places with community members, I tend to learn a lot more about the area. My site is quite densely populated and industrial, so I’m looking forward to escaping to the mountains for a bit. The region is also known for its yogurt, which I’m a fan of.

9. Once you finish your service, what will you do differently when you return to the U.S.?

Being in the Peace Corps has helped me get used to situations where I have no idea what will happen next, so my improvisational skills have improved. I believe I’ll feel more confident going about my daily life.

The Peace Corps’ Third Goal is to promote better understanding of other peoples in America, and I think this mission is particularly important with regard to Viet Nam. Given our two countries’ history, it’s easy for Americans to carry preconceived notions about Viet Nam or become hyper-focused on one period of time. Remembering history, especially its darker moments, is undoubtedly crucial. It’s important to tell full, honest stories about the many people we share the world with. My hope is that through sharing truthfully, I will be able to contribute to an understanding that all people are full of hopes, desires, successes, failures, and flaws. When we all understand that, across culture and space, people are similarly complex, I think we will be able to better bridge our divides.