Monday, May 10, 2010

More Than Just a Visit

As we ready our first cohort of graduates to complete the Diversity and Global View requirement, I've been thinking about DGV initiatives at the College and the positive influence of having a visiting professor from Vietnam with us this semester. I asked Dr. Sandy Engel, Director of International Education, if I could post the following as a "guest blog" and she agreed. My thanks to Dr. Engel and the many faculty and staff who have made Ms. Khahn's visit such a success. And my thanks to Ms. Khanh for her grace and humor in making all of us better for knowing her.

So Good So Far
A guest blog by Dr. Sandy Engel

It’s easier to say “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” than it is to do so, but we manage when we travel, and once we get home we know how right Dorothy was:
 “There’s no place like home.” These days our home is a destination, a temporary home, for Ms. Nguyen Thi Phuong Khanh, a visiting professor from MVCC’s partner school, Kien Giang Community College in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. She is here for nine weeks, teaching Vietnamese, helping in ESL classes, and giving presentations to peace studies, health, business, education and culinary classes, among others.

She is bright and she is absolutely charming. What an ambassador.

She’s here to teach and she’s here to learn. She keeps a list of questions and it’s interesting to see our world through her eyes. In Vietnam, classrooms are filled with students with black hair and brown eyes, very different from the local diversity where nobody looks like anybody. She comes from a place where students stand up when the teacher enters the room, a place where student legs are covered even on the hottest days and where there is certainly no classroom cleavage. On one hot sunny day, she said to me, “The students can dress like that?” The students were more undressed than dressed, but yes, I said. When she sees an older person with a limp come into a room, her impulse is to get up and help, even if he is a stranger. She sees none of us even notice him. She took photos of dog obedience classes in Petsmart, and she has decided that the drugstore I go to is similar to a supermarket but without vegetables. Fair enough. She has done the math and has figured out that an $80 dress here takes a smaller proportion of our salary than a similar dress would in Vietnam. Her vocabulary grows hourly and now includes “girly”, “oops”, and—this is Utica—“fish fry”.

She arrived with three coats, two pairs of gloves, and new suits that are heavier than she would ever wear in the sweltering Mekong Delta. And she is still not always warm.

She’s our second multi-week visitor from KGCC. Last year Mr. Nguyen Duy Khang, the English Department Head, visited. When she and I drove into the MV parking lot for the first time, she said, “I saw the photos and Mr. Khang told me everything, but I could never have imagined this.” I have told her more than once that we are not a rich school or a rich area but that we are in many ways a representative American place and that people are friendly.

She agrees with the friendly part. One thing she wanted to do was learn to sing some American songs, and so some of us are teaching her although we may be hopeless with the Vietnamese song she is trying to teach us. She is learning “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” and someone suggested we show her The Wizard of Oz. I wonder what she might make of the munchkins and the witches. Flying monkeys? In order to develop the relationship between the two schools, she has left her husband, 10 year old daughter and twenty-month-old son for nine weeks. “There’s no place like home”? I’m sure she’d agree. Despite her success, though, phone calls home cannot be easy. Still, she tells me she’s smiling and laughing so much that she’s afraid her face will look different when she goes home.

At the suggestion of Mr. Khang, she brought ao dai, traditional Vietnamese dresses, for several of the faculty and staff. The dress features a tight bodice and loose skirt over long, flowing pants and which the recipients wore to a college wide reception for her. Every celebration in Vietnam features singing, and so we sang, as a group, “New York, New York”, and as we did so, an impromptu, in-the-spirit-of-the-moment chorus line formed around her. Later, fearless at the microphone, she sang a solo.

I have been at MV for more years than I would like to admit, and, aside from the annual student musical, I cannot remember the last time any faculty and staff sang—much less danced.

Her visit is a daily reminder that we are all dots in the matrix, that we have even more in common than we realize we do, and often the unplanned moments are the best. Someone once told me that the more ways you have to look at things, the better off you are. He was right.

If you have any comments on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.