Self Doubt & Teaching

Someone in my life once noticed that I tend to sabotage myself. Sometimes the problem is simple: I don’t have enough time to dedicate to something so I simply opt out of doing it at all, which is what happened when I dropped out of a high-level internship at a law office in Los Angeles after juggling school, work, university sports, and the internship. I felt like I was stretched too think to produce good work and rather than doing my best, which I felt wasn’t enough, I quit. Other times, I simply lack confidence. I’ve missed important interviews because I didn’t think I was qualified enough even though I was. The examples of this are countless and the reasons various. However, the common thread among them is obvious: fear. I was afraid of this, or afraid of that. I was afraid of doing my best and still coming up short; I was afraid others would laugh at me after I had left the room.

During my time at UCLA I completed two graduate courses. In those classes, the intellect was high and, as an undergraduate student, I lacked confidence when sitting in a room full of seasoned graduate students. My first course was a Portuguese literature and translation course taught by author and translator Benjamin Moser. Moser translated most of Clarice Lispector’s writings and ultimately wrote her biography, Why This World.  We talked about the theories of translation work, the processes involved, and were tasked to translate some of Clarice’s work from the original writings in Portuguese, which we later compared with one another while discussing our decisions. Clarice’s prose embodies the post-modern and is challenging to translate. Her syntax, word choice, and overall structure– or lack thereof– is everything but normal. The final for the course was an individual assignment, which went well. A semester later, I enrolled in another graduate-level course, this time in contemporary Russian literature. The intellect was even higher and this time I was the only one who didn’t speak the language. Everybody else was reading the texts in Russian and knew the underpinning historical and cultural contexts involved; I did not. I always felt like I was three steps behind. For our final assignment, we were all asked to consider the readings done throughout the course and teach the class for an hour. I was terrified. Even though I had done well in school and in the previous graduate-level course, I could not convince myself that what I would teach these graduate students would be of any importance to them or interest them in the least. I was afraid, even, that they would disagree with me entirely, or outwit me in my own arguments and thoughts, or think that I was unintelligent simply because they were more intelligent.

Over the course of two weeks, I labored for hours and hours, doing research, designing a lesson plan, selecting readings, practicing. It wasn’t enough to convince myself that I what I was about to do was good enough. When the day of my presentation came, I had the presentation in my hand, on my hard-drive; it was 100% complete, ready to go. What did I do? I lied. I told my professor that I had accidentally left my flash-drive at home and somebody else volunteered to go in my place. Since the class met once a week for three hours, this bought me another week. So, for another week I labored, tweaked, and practiced the new presentation. However, I had already shot myself down. I couldn’t shake the nerves of presenting to these proven academics. So, during the moment in which I was to prove myself, I failed. I approached the professor before class the day I was to present. I told him the truth: I was terrified and had undermined myself to the point of no return. I felt like shit for doing that and it seriously shook my confidence during my last two quarters at UCLA. I admitted defeat… but, again, the enemy was myself. I don’t know if he understood. However, he allowed me to make it up by writing a 15-page paper. Even though I had already spent more time on the presentation than it would take me to write a paper of that length, I was was both relieved and ashamed. I wrote the paper and got an A in the class, but the feeling of defeat stayed with me.

It wasn’t until I decided to travel that I began to confront fear again. During the months before my trip I honestly believed that I would die abroad. It was strange feeling that I couldn’t explain. My mind simply latched onto that idea, that fear. Perhaps I shouldn’t have watched Into the Wild. I went anyways, telling myself I was just being paranoid. Despite this, I didn’t really gain confidence until I came to Hanoi and began teaching. I really didn’t want to teach because I had never really taught before, I didn’t feel like I had the proper skills and experience to get paid for it. I had tutored before but for me tutoring and teaching were worlds apart. I let my fear get in the way of my first demo class, which was a room full of Vietnamese kindergartners and teachers who were watching me as if they were just waiting for me to slip up. I was to teach two demo classes that day and after an uncomfortable first class, I realized something. These are kindergartners. That time, the fear that I had to confront came in the form of children. Go figure! I left the building thinking that I never want to do that again, telling myself that I wasn’t made for teaching, blah blah blah. I was getting into my head again.

Out of necessity, I was forced to attend more demo lesson, interviews, etc– I had traveled to Thailand and Laos, and ran out of money in Vietnam. I thought about crowd-funding my way out of Vietnam, to Australia or New Zealand where I could work as a laborer or work in a bar and not have to go through the discomfort, fear, and self-doubt. I got a little depressed, looking for ways out. Ultimately though, I couldn’t throw in the towel. I owed it to myself. Fear of what? I decided I would keep doing this until somebody finally told me I was a shitty teacher and didn’t belong in a classroom. That never happened. The school I did my first demo class with invited me back, the new schools I taught viewed me as a valuable resource and wanted me there as much as possible, and soon I found myself literally overbooked and turning down jobs simply because I could not be everywhere at once. The kids loved me.

I was relieved, motivated, and felt renewed. Now, almost two months later, I have groups of kids whom I have taught for almost 8 weeks who genuinely miss me on the days I am not there. I have kindergarten students, adults, teenagers, and everything in between. One month ago, I never would have thought this but I am really enjoying teaching. Overcoming this challenge has been good for me. Now, I embrace this particular type of fear; I invite it. I know I can do it, I just have to want it and accept being vulnerable in the moment.

So, if your reading this and unsure if you should go out in the world and travel alone, I invite you to test yourself. Embrace fear. Do something that scares you. Go to a different country where you know nobody and take a chance. You will overcome it and be a better person for it. You will succeed– but first, you must be willing to fail. 

(Failure to) Quicken the Pace

I must have been there at least an hour drinking tea and trying thuoc lao as we laughed. They had a fire going to ward off the cold and ash rained on us the whole time as if it were snowing. Were it not for the Vietnamese faces around me, I could’ve sworn I was in Kieslowski film, in Poland or Russia. Meanwhile, the two shackled dogs barked and fought each other amidst the ash, smoke, and smog.

via Daily Prompt: Quicken

Today was supposed to be the day that I made magic happen: apply for (more) jobs, run some errands for the house to pick up things like a blanket so I don’t freeze again tonight, write, and begin learning the Vietnamese alphabet. However, my efforts to quicken the pace were halted. The motorbike I rented and have been riding around town had other plans for the day, which consisted entirely in fucking with me. It was like bad joke. Apparently, she thinks this is a game. This ain’t a game…

At first I thought it was just my inexperience with carburetors– “should the choke be up or should it be down? I don’t know but it’s freezing. Let’s try both.” Neither my Yamaha R6 nor the Honda CRF 250 had carbs. After fiddling with the choke in different settings, I at least got the bike to turn on, stay on, and not die when in idle. “Eureka!” Or so I thought. “Nope!” I leave the cafe in Tây Hồ and head towards my apartment in Ba Đình. Out of nowhere the bike simply turns off despite being in fourth-gear, cruising. Confused, I try giving it gas to no avail. Still coasting, I try to start the thing while in motion using the electric starter. I pull over, thinking I simply ran out of gas. The bike felt as if it wasn’t getting enough of something. Eight hours later I still don’t know what that something was because it wasn’t gas; I digress. I pulled over to the side, checked the gas levels since I have no fuel gauge. “It’s got gas,” I thought to myself as I jiggled the bike and had gasoline splash around the floor, lightly, leaving a urine-colored blotch on the pavement. For the next twenty minutes I fiddled around with the choke again just to try and get the damn thing to start. However, the things I did before did nothing.

After trying unsuccessfully a little longer I felt silly. I was stopped right in front of  a car-wash and the people kept looking over, exchanging glances with one another, and speaking in Vietnamese, laughing. I don’t speak Vietnamese. I bet they were commenting on how I had probably never ridden a motorbike before; “silly tourist”. I played with the petcock again, looking busy and telling myself their bikes probably break down as well. One of the workers comes over and I presume he asked if I needed help. However: language barrier. Also: masculinity. So, I politely decline and hop on the bike. I hobbled over to a friend’s house about 2-km away from where I pulled over, arriving sweaty and gross, simultaneously freezing and over-heating from the exertion. He isn’t home but his roommate lets me in. Waiting, I fall asleep on another friend’s bed. When I wake up an hour and half later he still does’t seem to be home. Nobody is. Feeling like I should give it another go, I fiddle again with the stupid nobs: what I believe was the fuel ratio knob, the choke, and engine idle RPM speed. At that point, I don’t even know what I did but it worked. I left the house, eager to get home and begin my day.

The plot thickens. I pass the round-about, wait at the same light, and take the same turn to the main road to my house as the bike stutters again, stalling and slowing.  I finish coasting and realize I am in front of the same place– again! At this point I could do nothing but laugh as I make eye contact with the same individuals from a few hours earlier. This time I don’t even pretend to know what I was doing. They invite me into their little outside waiting area; it was made of bamboo and covered with tarps, featuring a bong for thuoc lao, a table and a tea-set. They invite me to sit, where they give me seemingly endless cups of tea. One guy in particular seemed to understand English quite well although he either couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English. However, he understood that I needed to call my rental guy.  I show him my phone, which is at 2% as it always seems to be when I need to make calls. He lets me use his. After I hang up with the rental people he texts them the address. We wait.

I must have been there at least an hour drinking tea and trying thuoc lao as we laughed. They had a fire going to ward off the cold and ash rained on us the whole time as if it were snowing. Were it not for the Vietnamese faces around me, I could’ve sworn I was in Kieslowski film, in Poland or Russia. Meanwhile, the two shackled dogs barked and fought each other amidst the ash, smoke, and smog. The guy sent over by the rental company finally arrives, smiling. He fiddles with the same damn knobs I fiddled with it. However, maybe he actually knew what he was doing. It’s possible. Although the bike still didn’t feel 100% as it had a few days before, it got me home. I hadn’t eaten so I parked my bike at home and left the maze of alleys to treat myself a little; today was a little stressful.

So far, this is the only productive thing I have done all day. Today I failed to quicken the pace but perhaps tomorrow I will have more luck.

Center of Gravity

I won’t even mention how fresh everything feels outside the confines of the apartment; the sea of motorbikes, chickens everywhere– living, dead, or somewhere in between– a symphony of honks, dogs barking, roosters crowing, and construction. So, if ever it feels like things have gone back to what they were, all the new things I am experiencing and will experience flood into my head. I welcome the madness that is Hanoi.

(Part of the Daily Prompt Challenge)

Today marks the end of my fifth day in Hanoi, Vietnam. Traveling with limited funds has forced me to postpone my backpacking travels and return to a somewhat civilian life– at least in the sense of routines, a room to call my own, possessions beyond what I can carry on my back, etc. I can’t deny that it all feels a little contradictory. Originally, I set out on my journey to ditch the very things that I now find myself searching for in Hanoi: a job, a motorbike, clothes so I don’t look like a homeless backpacker at the new job I am in search of.

While backpacking I had no center of gravity and could float free around the country on a whim, writing my own journey as if it were a blog post where I could add, remove, or  edit whatever parts I want in an effort to make it my own– to make it me. It wasn’t so much of a balancing act; it resembled more of a unilateral push towards one thing, which was travel and explore. As a new resident of Hanoi, I am search to find that center of balance I was so intent on ditching as a new traveler just under three months ago.

At first glance, it seems as if all has all doubled-back on itself, reverted to what it used to be. However, this is far from the case. I need only to step outside my room in the fourth floor of a five-story house to be reminded of this. I won’t even mention how fresh everything feels outside the confines of the apartment; the sea of motorbikes, chickens everywhere– living, dead, or somewhere in between– a symphony of honks, dogs barking, roosters crowing, and construction.  So, if ever it feels like things have gone back to what they were, all the new things I am experiencing and will experience flood into my head. I welcome the madness that is Hanoi. I welcome the hunt for a job that has me obsessively writing cover-letters, sending resumes, and hoping for the interview.

Like I said before, this is a balancing act again– albeit a new one. Things that got pushed too far away from the center through traveling or by other means, whether by choice or habit, fell off. Hell, some things should’ve fallen off… some things still need to fall off. Meanwhile, there are other things, the things that fell off a while ago and need to be picked up and placed along the center again. This is exciting as hell as it gives me the chance to pick and choose what I want in my life again.

So, in effect, this new balancing act doesn’t contradict my original journey after all.

They are separate yet syncopated.