Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Teaching "I Have a Dream" in Vietnam

For the past two years, when teaching I Have a Dream to high school students in the South Bronx, I've received eye rolls and snickers. Not from every student, but from enough to make me realize that some inner city high school students feel they have been over-exposed to Martin Luther King, Jr. This, of course, is not the most mature attitude to have, but the attitude exists nonetheless, and I have to wonder why. Could it be that some of us in America have heard this great man's name and his moving speech so many times that we have become jaded? Forty-three years after our country's most moving speech was delivered, are we already taking it for granted?

Five years ago, I had the opportunity to teach I Have a Dream to English students in Vietnam who had never read or heard the speech before. Their responses were amazing. Each year on MLK Day, I get emails from former students in Vietnam who were inspired by Martin Luther King.

I didn't exactly have the easiest time in Vietnam. I lived for a year in Thai Nguyen, a seedy steel town north of Hanoi. Thai Nguyen was the first major center of the Viet Minh revolution, and it is still arguably the most communistic area in Vietnam today. While internet cafes and tourists with camcorders abound just 50 miles south in Hanoi, I had to argue for months with officials in Thai Nguyen before I was allowed to use email or make unsupervised telephone calls. I taught at a medical school in Thai Nguyen, so my students were about my age. Students who befriended me were questioned by police. After I snapped photographs around town one afternoon, rumor had it I was a spy. Of course, it didn't help when word got out that my father is a veteran fighter pilot who flew more than 200 missions over North Vietnam. I spent many nights alone in Thai Nguyen crying.

To put it mildly, I had a difficult time living and teaching in Thai Nguyen. I had become extremely cautious about what I taught in my English class. Two of my best students had walked out on my class when I taught a chapter of the book Catfish and Mandala, which was written by a South Vietnamese refugee who grew up in the U.S. I was not yet fully attuned to the lingering hatred between northerners and southerners. The term "escaped from Vietnam" in the book offended my students, whose history books did not include the perspective of South Vietnamese refugees. During another lesson, I decided to introduce "American song day" into my curriculum, and when I played an Aretha Franklin song, students literally plugged their ears in disgust. They were expecting to hear the New Kids on the Block-type American pop that had been over-marketed in Asia. Aretha was just too messy for them.

So when I decided to take the risk of teaching I Have a Dream in Thai Nguyen, I was nervous about how it would be received. I cautiously explained to the class that it was Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in the U.S., and that I wanted to share an American holiday with them. (My Halloween party had been a big hit in Thai Nguyen, so I thought the holiday angle would help.)

Halloween in Thai Nguyen - Get me the hell outta here!

When we began reading the speech in class, I was amazed by how excited and moved my students were. They had never studied this aspect of American history before, and their questions about MLK and America’s Southern states came pouring in. They wanted to understand the exact definition of every word of the speech. One advanced English student wrote that the class could understand the meaning of the speech so well because "Vietnam is still sadly crippled by the manacles of colonialism." (From the second paragraph of I Have a Dream – “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation…”) I'm sure some students also wanted to mention the manacles of the Vietnam War, but perhaps out of respect my father's experience, the class stayed on the topic of French colonialism. A week later, one student turned in a voluntary project. He had re-written I Have a Dream from the perspective of a Vietnamese plantation worker.

It was refreshing to experience (in Vietnam of all places) the raw emotion of young adults reading and hearing I Have a Dream for the first time. Like my current students in the South Bronx, I had become somewhat immune the speech. I couldn't remember the first time I’d heard it or how it made me feel. Was it in second grade that I was introduced to MLK? Growing up, it seemed I always knew who he was and what I Have a Dream was about. But it wasn’t until I taught the speech 8,000 miles from home that I experienced the full emotional appeal of MLK’s words. For once, I was crying for joy in Thai Nguyen.


Anonymous EdWonk said...

Now if we can just realize Reverend King's dream on this side of the Pacific...

3:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't want to make an assumption about your school or your students, but I'm guessing that a school in the South Bronx has a high concentration of poor and minority children, and very few white children. Maybe your students aren't simply jaded by over-exposure to Dr. King. Maybe they're jaded because forty-three years after the speech was delivered, we are still so far from acheiving Dr. King's dream. I'd be immune to the impact of the speech, too, if I'd spent the last 10 years hearing about it in segregated and substandard classrooms.

10:10 PM  
Blogger Mr. Babylon said...

Good blog. Check this out...

MLK - Why I Oppose the war in Vietnam

11:41 PM  
Blogger Leo Casey said...

Your students could well be over-exposed to the "I Have A Dream" speech, but I sincerely doubt that they are over-exposed to Martin Luther King. Rather, the problem is that he is reduced to that speech, and to a certain image drawn from a few lines in that speech [ie, the content of their character, not the color of their skin.]

What I am almost certain your students have not been exposed is his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, a classic of American political literature, or his sermon on the Vietnam at Riverside Church, or even his "I have been to the mountaintop" speech. These works touch upon rather compelling themes, such as civil disobedience, that do not fit into the consensus image which conservative Republicans embrace.

2:20 PM  

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