Does Vietnam Have Colors?

I am an international student from Vietnam. In Asian countries, English is one of the compulsory subjects for everyone, meaning that it does not matter if I like it or not, I still have to take it from 2nd grade to 12th grade. When I learned English at young ages, from about 4th to 6th grades, my teachers would always give us an assignment to write a letter to a foreign friend in English to make friends and tell them about us. But at the time, I never had a pen pal. It was not very exciting to write letters to an imaginary pen pal every week. Actually my teachers would collect them as homework to grade them and at the time, English was one of the subjects that I hated the most so my letters sucked and I hated them.

Now looking back at it, I realize that we had a pretty intensive English program throughout the school years but we did not really have the chance to learn about the culture of English-speaking countries because we did not have programs such as pen pal or learning with a foreign teacher. Fortunately, my parents paid for me to go to English summer camps and extra English classes with American teachers when I was in middle school so my speaking and listening skills are somewhat better than average kids. I also learned some cultural differences from those experiences but there are not a lot. Because of stereotypes on movies, TV shows and series, I had a lot of wrong assumptions about American culture, and English-speaking countries in general until I actually studied abroad.

When I was in middle school, my teacher told me that American kids never cheat on exams so I kept in mind that image of a perfect learning environment somewhere on the other side of the earth. It totally crashed when some of my best friends in Gettysburg College later explained it to me when I asked them. I am a big fan of the TV show “How I met your mother” and from the show, I also thought that one night stand is a very common thing in the United States. I thought it is socially accepted and people do it on a daily basis. Bingo is a classic American game but I haven’t played it until I studied abroad. My textbooks always say that the United States is the number one wealthy country in the world so I thought there would not be very many homeless people, the streets would be very clean and people would have a somewhat lavish and luxurious lifestyle. These assumptions were all wrong and they are funny to look back at. There was no way to avoid wrong assumption when I lived half the earth away from the United States and there was absolutely no connection between studying the language and picking up the culture.

Learning from the difficulties when I learned English, last week when I had to work with summer camp kids at the day-care at Gettysburg College, I started a pen pal program between Vietnamese kids and American kids. I contacted some teachers from Vietnam and offered to deliver their students’ letters to the American kids I work with in Gettysburg. It was very funny to read the letters from Vietnam. One of the Vietnamese kids wrote “My favorite food is short cakes. Do you have short cakes in America? If you do, you should definitely try them”. I thought it was very funny because just like me, they made the wrong assumption about the United States. They ate the short cakes in Vietnam and they had absolutely no clue that short cakes are originally from English-speaking countries and are much more popular in those countries. One also wrote “Even my country is not rich as many as yours but my country is very lovely ^_^”. I remember that was something from our geography textbook that they learn at school.

The letters from Vietnam are very funny to read but to my surprise, the response from the American kids I work with was even funnier. When I handed out the letters and let them read it out loud for everyone to hear, they asked a lot of strange question. “Do they wear clothes like we do here?” “Wait, they wear summer clothes a lot? Do they have seasons like we do?” “What? Their winter does not have snow? Weeee I can send a snow picture to them!!” “Why these letters are all from girls? Does Vietnam have boys too?” “My pen pal said she was just back from Korea. What is Korea?” “Do people live in houses like our houses because I know in Africa people live in tents”. I found it very funny but at the same time, very surprising. For 4th to 6th graders, they know very little about Asian countries and maybe other countries in general. But the strangest question they asked me was “Does Vietnam have colors?”. I was very confused and the kid explained “I imagine it’s like pitch dark there”. These kids are 4th to 6th grades and generally are the children of  Gettysburg College faculty and staff, but I was very surprised at how much they did not know outside the United States border. After I explained everything to them, the kids were very happy and they came up with a million ways to respond to the letters such as filming a video, sending pictures, etc.

When I asked them whether they learned anything today, they said no but I knew I at least gave them an idea of what Korea is and what Vietnam is. Answering all of those questions, I was very glad that I did the pen pal program because just from day one, I somewhat exposed the kids from both sides to a whole different culture. Now compare to other kids of their age, they have a friend from across the globe and they knew a lot about a place so far away they have never set feet on. The lessons they learn today may not help them to understand everything about other countries but may help them to realize that they should not generalize a group of people from something they saw from one individual.

Phoebe Do ’17