Teaching to the Choir

Takiyah Gray is a Brown University alum, who is currently an elementary school teacher in Vietnam. With her Trinidadian passport in tow, she treks the world in search of good eats, teaching opportunities, and sane couch surfers. She is a talented dancer and yogini, whose Trini roots keep her near tropical beaches as frequently as possible. Existabovethenoise.com readers may remember her as the friend I was staying with in Thailand back in January – check out the My Thai post.

We’re not in Thailand anymore, Toto. Sure, there are still roosters crowing at all hours of the day. Yes, there are street vendors hawking their wares—from fly-flecked pork innards to hanging pieces of chewy, salted squid, to the ever present random assortment of locks of various shapes and sizes. But this is Vietnam, and the people here sure do not like to smile at the odd looking stranger.

Some people think that the best moments of life unfold when you put yourself outside of your comfort zone. In her latest book, Committed, a mere $2.50 per Xeroxed copy in the backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh City, Elizabeth Gilbert agrees. She says that “I had ago learned that when you are the giant, alien visitor to a remote and foreign culture, it is sort of your job to become an object of ridicule.” For better or worse, I have been happily toeing that uncomfortable line for much of my existence, ever since my mother decided to bring me from Trinidad to America at the age of 2. Maybe this initial trip is what sealed my future as a world traveler, because since then, I’ve been crafty and fortunate enough to peak into life in countries like Sweden, Brazil, and Spain. (I say crafty, because anyone that knows me KNOWS that there had to be an ulterior motive to joining the glee club back in high school– clearly it was the summer trip to France). Not surprisingly though, nowhere has that discomfort been more present than here in South East Asia. Here, I am a complete foreigner, and boy do I stand out. In this part of the world, it’s not just my language that pegs me as different, but my height, my skin tone, everything that I’ve ever used to define myself. And believe you me, wherever I am the locals cannot wait to figure out what a tall black woman is doing in their country of size 4 shoes and K-pop idolizations. Though we in America are proud to have elected our first black president 4 years ago, many people on this side of the world are still incredulous that Americans can look like me. Add to this the fact that I still retain my Trinidadian citizenship and people are all the more confused. I, myself, pause to figure out which country I will say I am from today—do I go for the mildly puzzled look when I say that I am from the US or the completely dumbfounded look as I try to explain about where the Caribbean is?

No one needed this geography lesson more than a woman I recently interviewed with. Now, as a visitor in South East Asia, I am grateful for the opportunity to work as a teacher. It’s a downright privilege when my peers and I can travel, work and realize a standard of living that is generally higher than most of the population around us (simply because we speak English and carry TEFL degrees). My year of living in a beachside house on a Thai island was made possible by precisely these things. But they aren’t always enough, and apparently, having made the move to Vietnam, I was starting at square one all over again.

At this particular interview, I quickly learned that I was missing — what in the Dominican Republic they call — “buena aparencia.” Instead of a normal interview, where the trained and professional interviewer and skilled and eager interviewee go back and forth about the school, expectations and relevant work experience, I spent the entire time trying to prove that no, Trinidad and Tobago was NOT a country in South Africa (?!) and that YES I grew up with English as my first language. The interview ended with a cold, “If you are short-listed for a position, I’ll let you know in a few months.” The entire “interview” lasted a grueling 10 minutes. I had spent more time that morning trying to figure out an updo for my twists! Never before had I been in such a hostile interview environment. Later that night I spent many hours plotting the exact flavor of the very pointed email that would say thanks but no thanks, up yours, and oh yeah, I’ve attached a world atlas for your convenience.

Was I surprised that this level of ignorance could come from a fellow educator? The sad truth is no, not really. The fact is, before embarking on this journey almost 2 years ago, I had braced myself for many more scenarios like this one. Fortunately for me, Thailand never presented an issue, and I was able to find work without problems. Now that I’m in Vietnam, however, other brown-skinned expat friends, namely Filipino teachers who face similar prejudices, have warned me about this kind of overt racism. I’ve heard of many different ways to this overcome the issue, including lying about citizenship and leaving out the requisite photo that most schools ask for in their applications. What’s a girl to do?

For the most part, I realize that I travel to learn and to have others learn about me. So I put up with the stares, the odd looks, the oogly eyes, and the scores of parents with varying levels of discretion nudging their children as I go past, to make sure that they catch a glimpse of me. I spend the extra 10 minutes at the grocery stores, hunting out the soaps and lotions and deodorants that don’t have whitening ingredients in them. I choose the work environments where I know I will be treated with respect. I know many expats, mostly men, who are happy to make the permanent leap over to this side of the world. Me? I am grateful for the experience to observe these moments; at the end of it all, I’ll be glad to get back to my little corner of Kansas..erg…Boston.

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