Listening to Wanbi’s advice

This article was published on Yan News in Vietnamese a while back. I still have not to date published the full version anywhere except my Facebook. Since it’s getting harder and harder to dig this story out of my old Facebook posts, and the Yan News version is only in Vietnamese, here’s the full version from my Facebook.

English + Tiếng Việt (dưới).

Listening to WanBi’s advice

I’ve had a pretty tough month. I’ve been struggling with trying to get a divorce from my ex-wife for 6 years now and I haven’t seen my daughter since she was a tiny baby. Then I had to quit a job that I really really loved at a school full of students and staff that I really loved because the agency I worked for was not giving me the respect and help I deserved. I took a long holiday in Vung Tau over the new year after walking out of my previous job, and on the final day of my holiday I accepted a new position at another school.

Money has been a bit of a problem right now due to some customers who won’t pay up or teaching agencies who won’t do what they’re supposed to do and I’ve been running on only a few hours of sleep every night for weeks on end, sometimes literally waking up after 2 hours sleep to prepare lessons and print and laminate flash cards before the sun has even come up. I’ve actually come up with a new saying, Apocalypse now style, for all the teachers in Vietnam “I love the smell of laminating plastic in the morning”..

But to top it off, my new home, Vietnam has come out and basically said “All the foreigners in Vietnam are not welcome here anymore. Unless you have official business here documented and supported by a large company or are legally married here, you can’t stay here anymore”. Four years ago I got a visa extension for $10. This month I’m faced with the prospect of paying $310. That’s half my last month’s salary, and that’s just for a 3 month extension. I feel very upset and hurt that the country that I love and have moved to and do charity and education work in is treating me like some unwanted pest when my country fought in their civil war that ended 40 years ago (whether or not you think that it’s appropriate for a foreign country to get involved in that is up to you, but in the long run, the outcome was good for everyone and Vietnam has unity as one country now), built huge bridges and infrastructure projects, and took millions of refugees in when things were at their worst. I feel insulted and hurt.

I despaired a lot and I yelled angrily, I wrote letters to the newspaper and I cried a lot and said “Forget this country. I will move to Korea to continue writing about my favourite Kpop music”. But I love Vietnam. My new wife is from here and I don’t want her to have to live anywhere except her home. I’ve been given a lot of respect and appreciation in this country by its people. I don’t want to leave it. But I can’t afford the massively high visa costs, nor can I manage to get an exemption due to the difficulties recognising my marriage here. So I’ve been frustrated and tired and sometimes I’ve just broken down and cried.

This week was WanBi’s birthday and since about 800 or 900 of the over 1,000 friends I have on Facebook are fans of WanBi and know me specifically through my writing about him, my Facebook has just been a non-stop WanBi stream all week. And I’ve had to mostly ignore it because I just don’t have the mental strength to read it all. I am already depressed enough. I wrote one post on the night of his birthday saying “Feeling sad about WanBi’s birthday ? Don’t. He wouldn’t want you to. Let the music free you from your sorrow. Be happy. Always smile”.

But then I got caught up in the frustration of work and everything else that has gone on recently such as breaking my lovely Samsung at new years and facing the prospect of maybe being kicked out of the country I live in if I can’t afford a visa. Christmas was just horrible because my daughter’s birthday is just before Christmas and I haven’t seen her since she was a tiny baby. I’m not even able to send her gifts. Her 6th birthday gift this year was a giant painting of Elsa from Frozen, but I can’t send it to her. Yet I’m teaching children her age every day who laugh at me putting on reindeer ears and hug me and hang off me and jump into my lap if I try and sit down and scream “I LOVE YOU TEACHER”. That’s tough when you’re missing your own 6 year old who’s thousands of miles away.

And I sort of snapped yesterday. I just couldn’t handle it anymore… I didn’t get dressed for work. I lay in bed crying and hating everything in my life and wishing I could die. Sitting at my desk, considering throwing in my job again and just leaving, I glanced briefly at the internet and caught one of those “Keep calm and ________” image memes. And suddenly the answer came to me. I wasn’t following my own advice from the night before. The answer was staring me right in the face …. Keep Calm and Listen to WanBi. I quickly made up a WanBi meme with the same type of text and his famous logo of him striding along happily in the middle of a love heart. And with minutes left until class, I threw on my clothes, grabbed of a copy of Lý Minh Tùng’s book, a bluetooth speaker, and my phone and school books and I put on a brave face and went to school.


I literally sat outside the teacher’s lounge listening to WanBi and crying… but I wasn’t angry anymore. I was happy. I’d forgotten the real meaning of his message in Bắt Sóng Cảm Xúc when I had posted the message on his birthday. WanBi would have never told us not to be sad about his death. He never talked about his problems. His message was to “Be Happy. Always Smile” and most importantly … “Let the music free you from your sorrow”. Not the sorrow over his death. YOUR sorrow.

I struggled through grades 1 and 2 with red eyes, trying hard to be happy and enthusiastic and keep my own problems out of the classroom where the only people who matter are my students. I did pretty good, although at lunch time I snuck into the front garden to listen to WanBi again. Then I walked into Grade 5 with purpose. It was the most unruly of all my primary school classes. The kids didn’t give a crap about being in English class, so I had to work REALLY hard to make any of them show an interest. I put my bluetooth speaker on the desk at the front and told them “Listen up. At the end of this class we’re going to listen to music. Forget your lesson plan for today. I’m not talking about the weather. You know what rain is and clouds are. You guys are my last class for the week and the only class of students I haven’t met at this school yet, so this lesson is going to be about two things. You getting to know me, and us playing a game”.

“What’s the game ?” They asked, expecting some physical game or funny activity.

“You are going to guess the name of the singer I am going to play. I am going to give you clues… hints. After each question you ask me about myself, I will give you a clue to who the singer is and I hope one of you can guess before the end of the lesson, and if you do. I will give that student a prize next week. So let’s start. Firstly. I’m Australian. And the singer we’re going to listen to is Vietnamese”.


The lesson progressed with the few students who weren’t ignoring me and playing cards or rock, scissors, paper or doodling in their books asking me how old I was, whether I was married…. what my favourite food was. Incidentally, every class asks this and I always say “bo kho” which always amazes them. One boy proudly said “OMG Teacher ! Me too ! That’s my favourite food too ! I love bo kho !” and I said “Great. That’s awesome”.

I continued giving hints, wondering how quickly they would guess. I didn’t want them to guess too early or I would have to play the song and the timing would be wrong. I needed them to guess correctly at exactly the right moment… 5-6 minutes before the end of the lesson. The hints I gave were:

* Vietnamese
* Man
* Handsome
* Born in Saigon
* 28 years old
* His birthday is today
* Friends with Minh Hang
* Girlfriend from Korea
* Dead

When I gave the hint about him being dead, I expected for sure to get an answer. One girl stood up twice and seemed to struggle… she knew the answer but she couldn’t think of his name. I kept prompting her to see if she knew, but it was “on the tip of her tongue” as you would say. She couldn’t think of it. Worried that they might not get it, I brought out the final clue, Lý Minh Tùng’s book. I showed it only for a second and then hid it behind my back. Nothing. I showed it again. The girl jumped up and down saying “OMG I know… What’s his name ?” One boy read the title “Bắt Đầu” out loud and looked thoughtful. I hid it again and waited.

Then suddenly, near the back, too far to read the writing on the book, an average sized boy with thick rimmed glasses stood up straight like a bolt of lighting and pointed straight at me and yelled out “Wanbi Tuấn Anh ! Wanbi Tuấn Anh ! Wanbi Tuấn Anh !” and I jumped down and yelled “YES ! YES ! WANBI ! THAT’S RIGHT ! THAT’S IT !” and I hit play on my phone and threw the bluetooth speaker to a kid in the middle of the class while everyone crowded around it to listen to “Bắt Sóng Cảm Xúc” while I went and asked the boy what his name was and told him I would remember it and give him a prize next week.

After the song finished, a girl stood up at the very back and raised her hand and asked “Teacher ? Why WanBi ? Why did you choose this singer ?” I was surprised by the question. It was so clear and direct and her English was perfect. I said to her “When I first moved to Vietnam 4 years ago, I didn’t like much of the music here. One of WanBi’s songs was the first one I liked, so I wrote about him many times, and I was supposed to interview him for a magazine just before he died. The reason I have Lý Minh Tùng’s book here is that he’s a friend of mine and on page 250 is my story about WanBi, so if you ever see this book, you can buy it and read my story as well as all the other stories about WanBi”.

And then the drum banged to signal the end of school and I said goodbye and jumped on my Hayate and screamed through District 7 as quickly as I could to get home and fall down on the bed after an exhausting week of meeting about 2,000 new students. I’d survived. I’d survived a week at one of the biggest public schools in Saigon. I’d survived my depression over my problems with my ex-wife and my visa and decided no way was anything going to keep me from living here and continuing to do what I do here (and I contacted a visa agent who could get me a very, very expensive temporary residency card without much documentation).

So this week I want to thank:
* Lý Minh Tùng – for writing WanBi’s biography that gave me the inspiration to continue working in music journalism in Vietnam
* Như Ý – for being my wife and supporting me all week when I was frustrated and upset
* Minh Hiền – for being the awesome student who got the answer to my quiz correct and for whom I will buy a WanBi CD to give to him next week
* All the students at Nguyễn Thị Định primary school in District 7 – for making me feel like it truly mattered that I was here in Vietnam teaching them
* Ngô Huy Đồng – for inviting me into the studio with him this week to help him record his new single (I’ll get you some sweet beats soon dude !)
* WanBi Tuấn Anh – for reminding me that the only thing that can erase your worries and truly lift you up when you are down… is music.
* Nguyễn Háo Thảo – Vietnamese translation

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