A Writer Writes

    Gabon, Vietnam and Growing Up

    by Darcy Meijer (Gabon 1982–84)

    In 1982 I became a teacher of English as a foreign language with the Peace Corps. I was posted to Gabon in Central Africa. Twenty-three years later, in 2005, I won a Fulbright Scholar’s grant to train English teachers in Vietnam. I was accompanied by my husband and three children.
         Last month I was asked by Peace Corps Writers’ John Coyne to compare my two experiences. They were 23 years apart — a lifetime, and many of the differences I noted were in myself at 22 and at 45, apart from comparing the two countries. Having been in Gabon may have helped me live in Vietnam in the sense that I built on that experience as an older and wiser person.

    At First

    I HAD JUST GRADUATED from Boston College with a B.A. in French and English, a degree I valued but didn’t know what to do with it. I had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris my third year of college, and this caused me to be very restless as a senior. When I got word from Peace Corps that my application had been accepted, I was ecstatic at the prospect of being on the road again.
         I flew into Libreville, Gabon on July 4, 1982, the youngest in my group of 30 trainees. It included fish breeders, agriculturalists, construction workers and EFL teachers. For many in the group, this was their first experience overseas.
         The Corps provided a short training course in TEFL methodology in-country. I hadn’t thought of pursuing a career in teaching before my PC stint, and to be honest, I was a really bad teacher my first year and only a little better my second. I was lonesome, frightened at the responsibility, and awed with Gabonese culture, so different from my own.
         I was single with no children, and the most common question I heard was, “Where is your husband?” Many of the Volunteers lied that they had husbands in the States, and others sported faux wedding rings, both to no avail. Fending off advances with good-natured rebuffs was the best solution in the end.
         Other Gabon RPCVs with whom I’m in contact say that when they first learned they were to live in Gabon, they consulted their maps to locate it. It is hard to find substantial information on Gabon. President Omar Bongo, the longest-serving president in Africa today, keeps information to the outside world at a minimum.
         Gabon is the size of Colorado, right on the equator in Central Africa. Like many of its African neighbors, Gabon was a colony of France until 1960. It is the second wealthiest nation in Africa, with huge reserves of manganese, uranium, gold, bauxite, and oil, as well as ebony and mahogany. It also has the 5th highest cost of living index in the world. It was an expensive place to live, and my monthly stipend barely covered my living costs. (The expense partially explains why the Peace Corps withdrew from Gabon in July of 2005 — the other main reason was Volunteer security.)      Gabon and the U.S. maintain a minimum of trade contact, although President Bongo did give President Bush a machete as a gift last spring.
         If you think of wild, mysterious Africa, Gabon is the country you are probably imagining. There are pygmy villages, Bwitists who trip on iboga, warring sects that thrive on ignorance and deal in death, army ants that carry off domestic animals, parasites that eat you first and ask questions later. And the country is very beautiful, with plateaus, waterfalls, rainforest, and species after species of flora and fauna.
         During the three days my Peace Corps group spent in Philadelphia prior to flying to Gabon, we were told that Volunteers who go to South America learn how to be militant, Volunteers who go to Asia learn how to be contemplative, and Volunteers who go to Africa learn how to laugh. The Gabonese certainly do have the ability to laugh at themselves and at their situations. I was so stunned by the differentness and naive when I lived there, however, that I could not see much beyond myself. I regret that I did not learn more about Gabonese character.
         Because of my fear and immaturity when I lived there, the whole experience remains a mystery to me. I don’t remember details, and I can’t figure out what I might have contributed. In an effort to reconstruct what I have forgotten and get a bigger picture of the culture, I have been editing the newsletter of the Friends of Gabon — The Gabon Letter — for the past four years. It has helped.

    ON MY 45th BIRTHDAY, in 2005, my husband, three children and I flew from Knoxville, Tennessee to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Fulbright had awarded me a one-year grant to lecture instructors of English on teaching techniques. I had obtained my M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California twenty years before and had been working in ESL for 23 years. Behind me I had much experience in teaching, training, curriculum development and just living.
         Before leaving for Vietnam, my husband and I learned all we could about the country. This was not difficult as resources are plentiful. The shared history of the U.S. and Vietnam has gone a long way toward putting the country on the map for Americans, though the focus for most is the War. The nine-year-old daughter of a friend e-mailed me while we were in Vietnam, asking whether the country was as safe as her hometown in North Carolina. She wanted to know whether we heard gunshots every day. I told her that the War ended in 1975 and that the U.S. State Department considers Vietnam to be one of the safest countries in the world. The crime rate is very low and there is almost no violent crime. The American War is part of the past for the Vietnamese — Americans are having a harder time coming to terms with what happened. The relationship, though based on conflict, forms a foundation on which to learn more. More books by Vietnamese, Vietnamese exiles in the U.S., and American researchers of Vietnam are coming out every year. We continue to learn about the country from several angles.
         In Vietnam, I got the feeling that the country is healthy. Since Renovation policies were adopted in 1986 and President Clinton lifted the trade embargo in the mid-90s, the economy has improved a great deal. People are hopeful. They send their children to good schools with confidence that education will get them good jobs.
         The Vietnamese currency is the dong, and 100,000 dong is worth about $6U.S. I was shocked at first to be asked for 12,000 for a lunch and 30,000 for a motorcycle ride because it sounded like so much. I got used to it quickly, but then my relative wealth made me feel guilty — about the measly $80/month that workers at some international companies are paid; about my $1 haircut;about my $2.50/hour massage; about the piddling amount that the babysitter asked for. We gave more, and our Malaysian neighbors advised us not to do it again lest we “spoil the market.”

    Settling In

    I DIDN’T ADAPT EASILY to life in Gabon. I flouted some social mores. I am blond, pale and thin, though strong, and healthy Gabonese women are vigorous, rounded and capable. Gabonese women wear several light, colorful pagnes — cloths wrapped around the body — at home and in the village. Although I didn’t dress in an overtly sexual way, I wore Gabon-made sundresses which showed lots of flesh, like the Gabonese. The problem is that I am not as amply built as the women there. I looked different in my clothes and attracted attention.
         Another error I made — let’s say I danced with more men than was good for my reputation. This would not have been so bad, except that I dated one of my students. He was as old as I, a redoublant (a student who has repeated many classes). My students could not respect me after this, so I had trouble in the classroom maintaining discipline my first year. This was a painful lesson, and I’m grateful to have learned it early in my career.
         Looking back on my heedlessness, I see that I really should have adopted myself out to a local family there — some kind people to be my friends, show me the ropes and keep me out of trouble. I would certainly have contributed more toward my work and social objectives there.

    IN VIETNAM, I HAD NO such problems. As a mid-life mother and wife, I was not in the dating market. My role was cut out for me. Having children was a great social ice-breaker in Vietnam — as it is everywhere. Mine were 4, 5 and 15, and they provided a topic of conversation, a reason to smile, a basis for understanding among the people we met.
         Caring for children also requires being grounded. In Vietnam we basically followed the same family schedule we do in Maryville, Tennessee, and this was good for all of us. I am a creature of habit. Routine keeps me focused and contented.
         Another difference between the two countries which facilitated my adaptation was that people in Vietnam are very modest. Even in Ho Chi Minh City, you rarely see midriff shirts or shorts, never mind plunging necklines or mini-skirts. Two young female volunteers visiting my university from an Australian education program hadn’t noticed this. I was leading a poetry lesson, and Anna (the ample-bosomed one) and I were showcasing our accents. As we recited from Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” 42 pairs of eyes were fixed on her unrelenting cleavage, incapable of paying the slightest attention to the intonation pattern. Later I was asked by the Dean to speak to the girls on their sartorial choices. “It was many and many a year ago in a nipple, oops, kingdom . . ..”

    Exploring the country

    IN GABON, MOST OF US PCVs were young and free-spirited. All of us had come for the adventure, with a measure of altruism added. Peace Corps accorded us plenty of independence. My location in-country was a rough and tumble town called Lastoursville on the “route economique.” There was one muddy Main Street on which Muslim commercants sold dry goods, one impoverished produce market, and one public water pump. You had to go to the post office and wait for hours to make or take a phone call. Many truckers passed

    through and you could always see brawls on Saturday nights. None of the EFL teachers had trucks or motorbikes; I left Lastoursville only a handful of times, to travel in Cameroun during Christmas break and to train new EFL Volunteers in the northern town of Oyem.

    IN VIETNAM my family and I saw most of the country. I attended national education conferences and Fulbright seminars, and conducted workshops for teachers. For these trips and with my family, I visited the major cities — Hanoi, Hue, Haiphong, Danang and Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, as well as many smaller towns. I will never forget the beauty of Ha Long Bay or Bach Ma National Park in the Central Highlands. Each region has its special dishes, language accent and history. We toured Vietnam and deepened our appreciation of the country with every trip.

    Living there

    MY B.A. WAS IN FRENCH and English, and I had studied in Paris, so I spoke French fluently before I taught in Gabon. This made getting things done easier and got me acquainted with functionaries like the sadistic Chief of Police. It may also have shut me off from the local culture, as I didn’t make the effort to learn Baduma or Banjabi, two of the 60+ languages that the Gabonese speak. I never pounded bananas, never helped the women on the plantation, never had the brousse experience. I did improve my French, however, and delighted in the modifications that the Gabonese had made to the language. Two favorite expressions of mine were “Moi connais ou?” and “C’est quoi, ca!?” The first translates literally as “Me know where?” and means “How am I supposed to know?!” and the second translates as “That’s what, that?” and means “Whaddaya call that?!” Gabonese speakers would clap their hands after these utterances, and then hold them out palms-up to stress their humorous mockery.
         When I joined the Peace Corps I had no arrogant delusions that I was helping poor primitives to find the right way to live. I went to Gabon with no missionary zeal to convert the Gabonese to the Western model of life and government. I wanted to help the students speak English better and I wanted to learn about Bantu culture.
         I conducted my classes in the American style, but I would have been wiser to exercise my authority more often. I should have been stricter like my African co-workers. One of my co-workers, M. Coulibali from Mali, called his students “Petits Microbes” and made them kneel in the noonday sun when they did badly on tests. While not condoning his strategy, I observed that the students worked harder for him than for me. I lost status because of my leniency.

    I STUDIED VIETMANESE A LITTLE in-country, and my efforts reminded me how hard it is to start out in a new language. It was humbling. There are six tones in northern Vietnam, only five in the south. For example, in the north, there are six ways to intone the word ma. Depending on the mark on the a, the word can mean ghost, rice seedling, nevertheless, horse, grave or cheek. Some sounds are low falling, others are high rising. The story goes that an American dignitary visiting Vietnam addressed a large audience with the intention of saying, “I am honored to be standing before you today.” What came out was, “The sunburned duck lies sleeping.” He hadn’t studied his tonemes.
         By the time I worked in Vietnam, I had the confidence to lead workshops and large classes of teacher-trainees. My primary goal was to help the educators make their English curriculum more communicative. In my first months, I noted the dynamics between teachers and students and followed suit. What’s more, after teaching international students, Asians in particular, for 22 years, I knew what to expect. School officials treated me as an authority; co-workers, as a respected “Aunt-friend,” seeking advice and asking after my family’s satisfaction with life in their country. My husband, who is Dutch, and I were invited to several embassy dinners, sponsored by both The Netherlands and the U.S. We were even invited to gawk at Prince Andrew of England and Crown Prince Willem of the Netherlands.

    Observations

    THE MEN IN GABON are quite lazy, and most families survive from their plantations. The women care for the children, haul water, maintain the crops and sell what they can for school fees and other expenses requiring cash. 

    I CAN SAY THAT I ADMIRE the disposition of the Vietnamese. I recently asked a fellow teacher here in the US how his experience in Peace Corps/Thailand affected him 15 years ago. He said that before he left the U.S., he had taken it for granted that venting your emotions, especially anger and frustration, was healthy. But in Thailand he saw things as the Thais do: it’s better to preserve good relations and let bad feelings blow over. Vietnamese people demonstrate that same wisdom. They don’t share bad moods in ordinary conversation but act cheerful so others will feel good. During my first semester in Vietnam, I lightly told one of my classes that I felt sleepy. They reacted with sympathy and sadness. I had depressed them.
     
        I also admire the resourcefulness of people in Vietnam. One day I stopped on Hai Ba Trung Street. Like many other street names in Vietnam, it’s named after Vietnamese heroes — in this case two brave sisters who fought Chinese invaders a thousand years ago. I wanted to know if the shoe repairman under the umbrella on the corner (next to the tailor with his sewing machine and the lady pressing sugar cane juice) could repair my leather bag. He said yes and I sat down on one of the ubiquitous tiny plastic stools to wait. Five minutes later he was twisting the inner tube out of a motorcycle tire, and my bag had been put aside. In another few minutes, the inner tube customer was back on his motorcycle, and the man had taken up my bag again. He repaired it flawlessly for half a dollar.

    Expats

    ONE OF THE MOST INTERESTING things about living overseas is seeing how other expats deal with it.
         In Vietnam my daughter attended the British International School, thanks to the generous education allowance of my Fulbright grant, and the majority of her classmates’ parents were wealthy American, Asian and European corporate people. Most had chauffeurs, gardeners, full-time maids, nannies and enormous houses in private gated compounds. I think it’s living beyond your means if you have to hire all these people to keep your life going.
         During our stay, one of the compounds added 2 meters of concrete and barbed wire to the top of the already-high surrounding wall. The names of the streets in the compound included Lotus Road, Rose Road, and Tulip Road, but more fitting names would have been Paranoia Place, Whites Only Way, and Lotta Bucks Lane.
         On several mornings in Vietnam, my husband and I had breakfast at the rice joint across the street from our house. The place had an aluminum roof, and the walls were a patchwork of battered sheetrock, plywood, two decapitated trees and more aluminum, all pasted together with ads for Fanta. The floor was uneven, and customers tried not to get stuck with the table in the corner, where the stools wouldn’t stay upright. The owners loved our boys and automatically served two plates of rice to them when we entered. Half of the patrons were male construction workers, and the other half were people who ordered to-go without getting off their their motorcycles. I told our Malaysian neighbor (married to an Australian construction manager) that we liked this rice joint, and she couldn’t understand where it was. It didn’t exist for her, though it was right across the street.

    The effect of life and time

    SO, WHO IS THIS PERSON who lived in Gabon and Vietnam? What has changed over the years to make these experiences so different?
         Soon after I left Gabon, I wrote an essay called “Unmoveable Feast” in which I described a dinner that I ate with some Gabonese friends. My hosts pushed me to ingest what I was certain was a bovine asshole. I would have done the deed if they had not knocked the aperture from my hand at the last minute. By the time I got to Vietnam, I knew my personal limits. I did not drink snake blood wine or eat dog.
         Peace Corps impressed on us the fact that we represented our country, with warnings to behave ourselves. But in Vietnam I represented myself and my profession. My husband thinks travel does not “teach us new things” so much as remind us of aspects of human culture that have become dormant or discarded in our own national cultures in favor of the priorities we have selected. Examples of priorities include heaters, air-conditioning, bug zappers, leaf blowers, and subdivisions — technical manipulation of our environment. These choices are opposed to awareness of our dependence on and connection with the earth, the land where our food comes from. This is not to speak of our high estimation of our jobs and money over our ancestors and the appreciation of our physical being.
         I was able to learn much more about Vietnam than about Gabon when I was there because I knew what I wanted and had built up knowledge about the world in the 23-year interval. I did 100% better in my job because I was prepared and because I enjoy teaching. My family made and makes me feel contented (and tired) and focused every day. Much of my pleasure in Vietnam came from seeing things through their young eyes.
         Succeeding in Vietnam makes me feel more at peace with what I think was a bungled job in Gabon. I had felt lousy for two decades about my poor Gabonese students — my guinea pigs. Now I see that, given my resources at the time, at the age of 21, I couldn’t have done much better. Now my question is: What next?