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Published: December 19th 2021
In 2011 I was in my second year as Head of English at Renaissance International School in HCMC. Here is the Xmas letter I sent out to friends:
225 Ben Chuong Duong
Dear Overseas Friend(s)
Since last Xmas, my life has been very pleasant, if not terribly exciting. But at my age – 62 on Dec 22nd – comfort, not excitement, is the main thing.
I’ll begin with a bit of a rant…
Now in my second year as Head of English at the Renaissance School, I am blessed with an excellent team of English teachers – all of them hard-working, clever and cooperative. I teach 4 classes only, which gives me time to strategize. However, there is a very large fly in the ointment: my otherwise comfortable life at school has been upset by the introduction of ‘Performance Management’ – whereby all teachers have to set themselves 3 educational goals for the year. As HoD, I have to supervise the goal-setting of my team (6 teachers and 1 TA) as well as invent my own goals - which means I’ll have to fill up over 100 sheets of paper by the year’s end. Ultimately, I will have less time for my students. Our Acting Head this year (last year’s Head was sacked) is the ‘brains’ behind all of this. He is a workaholic who loves procedures, form-filling, going by the book and work for work’s sake. Our school now resembles a UK school - with a correspondingly stressed-out teaching staff. Our Head’s ‘philosophy’ can be summed up by the following limerick:
As a head he thinks he's first class,
But it's quickly becoming a farce.
There's paper galore,
Who knows what it's for?
I'd save it for wiping your arse.
We will find out in January if this man has been granted the permanent Headship, which he plainly lusts after. Whatever happens, I have signed on for two more years – which will take me up to 64 (cue for Beatles’ song).
Rant over. Now for some of the year’s more pleasurable highlights:
I moved into a new apartment – my sixth in Saigon and the best yet. It’s on the 17th
floor, has a splendid balcony with a great view of the city and is just a short walk from “the backpackers’ area”, where I often eat and make merry.
I travelled to Sumatra for the first time and spent a memorable week at Carolina Cottages on Samosir Island in the middle of Lake Toba. An idyllic spot, where I read books, walked, ate lovely fried noodles and played chess with the locals (Indonesia is a chess-mad country). I wrote an essay about my holiday, which can be found at:
Lake Toba was my only new destination; other holidays this year were to familiar places – Phnom Penh, Bangkok, Penang, Nha Trang, Phu Quoc Island.
And, of course, I paid several visits to the hometown, Tan Chau, of my partner, Thuy. (I hate the word ‘partner’ – it sounds as we’re in business together; I am ashamed to say I still haven’t got round to marrying Thuy, so I can’t call her ‘wife’ yet.) On a typical day at Thuy’s I sit outside in my favourite chair, book in hand, overlooking pristine rice-fields, sipping banana wine and eating pork ribs. Sheer bliss after the traffic and hurly-burly of Saigon.
The last time I was there I read a memorable book, ‘The Painted Veil’ by Somerset Maugham. I’d forgotten what a good writer Maugham is. He seems to have gone out of fashion (for example, he’s never appeared on the IB book list), which is a pity, because he’s much better than some of today’s trendy scribblers.
My other memorable reads this year have been school-related: ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne, ‘The Quiet American’ by Graham Greene and ‘All My Sons’ by Arthur Miller. The first, all about Auschwitz prison camp, is a superb novel for younger readers. The Greene novel I’ve taught twice before, but the prose and the human insights never fail to move me. A great novel by a novelist who, for some obscure reason, failed to win the Nobel Prize. The Miller play I’d never read before, and, although a tad melodramatic and contrived, it’s powerful stuff.
This year I taught my IGCSE students poems by Thomas Hardy. In an attempt to improve their reading aloud, I made them video themselves reading. As a model, I posted on Youtube some recordings of myself reading Hardy. If you want to see how age has ravaged me (and admire my collection of malt whisky bottles in the background), type in 'Kevin Mulqueen Hardy' on Youtube.
I have taken steps towards the disposal of my mortal remains (as opposed to all the immortal things I will leave behind – ha,ha!) after I die. Thuy has just bought a plot of land adjacent to her restaurant, and various things – fruit trees, vegetables – will be planted there. Later the plot will be a resting place for the bodies of her dead relatives, herself and yours truly. I’ve never fancied going up in a puff of smoke; far more natural to fertilize the soil. In a Xmas letter – years hence, I trust – I will give precise directions as to the whereabouts of my grave – so that you may make the pilgrimage and water it with libations of Saigon Red or Laphroaig.
On that joyous note I wish you all a very merry Xmas.
CHUC MUNG GIANG SINH
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