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From Volunteer to “Goo-yai”

Title – From Volunteer to “Goo-yai”

By – Elizabeth Kohmetscher


    I discovered my love for teaching through a volunteer experience that changed my life.

    In university, I studied merchandising and business, which I found mildly interesting, but not especially rewarding as a career choice. Meanwhile, I had always been extremely interested in other countries and cultures, especially in advertisements calling for volunteers to teach English to “Speakers of Other Languages.” To satisfy this curiosity, I responded to one of the advertisements and suddenly found myself in a weekend training program to teach ESOL. It was an enlightening experience and soon after I found myself matched with a Vietnamese woman named Oanh Ha.

    Oanh Ha had a very basic English vocabulary and had just moved to the United States from a small town in Vietnam. She had two small children that spoke a mixture of English and Vietnamese. She wanted to learn English so that she could pass the United States citizenship test. I tutored Oanh Ha twice a week and she insisted on cooking dinner for me every time we met for the year that I tutored her, so I got to try a variety of Vietnamese dishes. I learned how to use chopsticks and

    I discovered that I was a “goo-yai” (teacher)

    . Her children were constantly asking for “nook-nak”, which I quickly learned meant “drink”. I even traveled to Vietnam with Oanh and I met her family that had remained in Vietnam. I spent ten days with Oanh and her family as the only English speaker (Oanh spoke very limited English) and that was a definite learning experience. In a way, our languages divided us, but in another way, we were able to connect without language: simply through body language. One experience that I distinctly remember was eating with the other women, in a sort of crouching position on the floor, and a large cockroach fell from the ceiling onto the floor near me. I was startled and tried not to scream, but the women shrugged it off in the manner, “What’s the big deal?” Cockroaches were seen as a part of life to them and were not cause for any unnecessary attention.


    After my volunteer tutoring experience, I realized that I loved teaching

    , so next I went to Japan for almost two years to teach English, quickly followed by a year in Korea. After my various experiences teaching abroad, I decided to get my Masters degree in Teaching English as a Second Language in Puerto Rico. I studied, taught, and found a new appreciation for cafe con leche.

    Altogether, these experiences have broadened my life on so many levels. I have lived, traveled, and befriended people from all over the world. I am thankful everyday that I answered that advertisement in the newspaper for a teacher, which caused me to meet Oanh Ha and discover my love for teaching.

    I challenge all to answer that call to what you have always wanted to do. Doors may be opened for you that you never even realized existed.

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Elizabeth Kohmetscher

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