Saturday, April 4 – Wear a Mask, Take a Hula Hoop


It’s been seven weeks and six days since they took my job away.

My friend Kep and I talked about the viral outbreak in China during the Tet Holiday. The first rumors that there were infected people in Hanoi reached my ears in late January as we ventured to a crowded park in the front beach area of my city – Vung Tau, Vietnam. Vung Tau is a popular get-away beach town in the south of the country with a population of about 500,000 just two hours from Saigon. After the first few quiet days of Tet, Vung Tau was flooded by Saigoneers looking to escape the sweaty sauna of the big city for the cleaner air and cooling breezes of our seaside paradise. The park was decorated with Year of the Rat paraphernalia, and people swarmed everywhere posing with Mickey Mouse and what were quite obviously Alvin and his brother Chipmunk knock-offs.

My friend and I had dressed up to get our own shots with the celebrity rat impersonators and b-list rodents. Still, the knowledge of a contagious virus so close to home loomed over me, and I became nervous and uncomfortable quickly in the sea of amateur photographers. I obliged my friend, took dozens of photos of her, but declined to have mine taken. No one wants to look at pictures of me nauseous with anxiety standing next to a poorly crafted Theodore statue.

Within days my ex-pat friends were suggesting purchasing masks and hand sanitizer in preparation for going back into the classroom with kids that had been traveling throughout the country for the past weeks. By now, it was early February, and there were 14 confirmed cases in Vietnam, all in the northern part of the country. I prepared myself for the long weekend hours and went to school.

The office was a disorganized mess. There was a lot of talk about the virus and how it spread, we were all aware of what should be done to protect ourselves and each other, but the administration of our school was not prepared. Children came to class without masks, some of them visibly sick. I tried to conduct my classes through a mask while my TA’s suggested the children remove theirs so they could be understood clearly. I spent half of my classes that weekend debating with my boss, the TAs, and other teachers about how we could ensure student and teacher safety. I was one of two foreign teachers who actually wore a mask to all of my classes. The administration would arrive 40 minutes into a session to take temperatures and issue masks to all the children. There were questions. Everyone was confused. Students were nonplussed. The weekend miraculously finished without incident.

Schools and language centers began to close on Monday. We were to close for a week; updates would be emailed out.

Every Tuesday thereafter, there would be hot debate amongst the ex-pat teachers wondering if we would actually be called into work. Eventually, the email updates and discussions died out of the conversation. It was an indefinite vacation.

Vietnam’s current numbers are a reflection of that action, amongst other smart and timely moves by the government.

Some Vietnamese language centers began to move some classes online early. Others tried to convince parents that the move was a good idea. All in all, it was a smart move by the government to get the schools closed quickly, children being such incredible viral conduits, and schools incredible vectors of contamination.

If you do have to go out, wear a mask, and take a hula hoop to keep people away from you. It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this!