The most interesting person I’ve met this year (so far)

I’m a design researcher. By trade and choice. This means I spend much of my time talking to strangers and using a mix of charm and curiosity to build confidence - enough for them to start sharing stories, secrets, hopes and dreams with me. It’s a privilege to be invited into the inner working of another human’s life, and while a few hours isn’t enough to even begin to understand another person, I can honestly say that I have learnt something from every person I have ever interviewed for a project. Some more than others.

We spent a week in Ho Chi Minh City recently, talking to dozens of people. And I was lucky enough to meet one whom I truly built a connection with.

Tao. That’s what we’ll call her. Teacher Tao, that’s what most of her students call her. She started an English training school in her living room, offering her spare bedroom on mainly to attract English speaking foreigners - willing to practice and chat with her students in exchange for a place to crash for a few nights. Interesting business model, especially given the plethora of ‘English Speaking Schools’ across Vietnam. Here are three things I learnt from her that I hope will be useful for you -

1/  You can always change your mind and dream new dreams: Tao started her career as a journalist, working with a National newspaper. She quickly tired of it though for reasons too sensitive to mention here. At 26, she was ready for a change. She was travelling around Vietnam with her American boyfriend and was impressed by how many young people she met wanted to practice their English with her. She would teach them for free, and this is what gave her seed of an idea. Learning English, she found, actually equipped people with confidence and a sense of freedom, as though they were suddenly liberated to pursue bigger dreams. And seeing people transform is how Tao decided to set up her own school, despite limited funds and zero qualifications.

Lesson #1: Prototype cheap, see proof of success, pivot, evolve but stay passionate about why you began

2/ First learn how to think, then how to express it. One of Tao’s greatest purposes is to teach people how to think for themselves. She told us about the Vietnamese education system - which typically of Asia - rewards learning by rote, simply repeating what is taught rather than building a comprehensive understanding of complicated situations. Tao told us that the first thing she works on with her students is simply teaching them to think for themselves; to make micro decisions and gain the confidence to voice them without heightened fear of judgment. This points to a larger goal - not just to equipping them with English speaking skills, but the confidence and ability to express their own opinions. Learning English isn’t just about upward social mobility but about being independent and holding your own amongst people from varied cultures and backgrounds.

Lesson #2: Empower others. Create a vision that is inclusive for impactful change to society. Are your goals self serving or designed to contribute to a brighter world?

3/ Pride in the homegrown: Beyond her students, Tao is equally committed to developing her own team of English teachers as well. She feels strongly about foreigners who can barely speak English coming into Vietnam and teaching just to make some money. Not only are these people incompetent, she says, but often their English is worse than hers. “Simply being white does not mean that you can teach English.” Tao’s goal is to have a strong team of Vietnamese English teachers, often students who have a desire to give back and help contribute to the community. Her team and students are actively helping her build her next enterprise - a cafe where students and travellers can meet for a chat, practice their English and also learn about each other’s cultures.

Lesson #3: Don’t stop evolving. Tao is constantly looking for new ways to strengthen her students’ skills and create new sources of income. What would this look like for your company?


Hot Wheels

One of the things that really unsettled me in Vietnam was the traffic. It was relentless, and I found myself ducking into cafes periodically for cover. Even crossing the road was an ordeal! The bikes were countless and they never seemed to give way. Our local guide kept telling us that we just had to stick our hands out and walk with confidence - so we tried our closest, nervous approximation of that and simply prayed for the best.  

We had just gotten the hang of this when Kaj suggested we take a ride on a Grab bike, because hey - that’s how the locals live. Sofia and I looked at each other in terror, telepathically communicating our fear, “We’re already so terrified of crossing the roads, how are we to survive on a motorbike?”

But since everyone on the team was game, I too opened my Grab app and quickly booked my first bike ride - ever - apprehensively. I had a nervous smile on my face as I waited for the driver to arrive. After a few seconds of frantic waving to attract his attention, I plopped the helmet on my head, clambered onto the bike clumsily and gave him a thumbs up to let him know I was ready.

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As soon as my driver sped up and into the traffic, I started smiling. I was thinking, “Omg, this is so amazing!” repeatedly. I started to loosen my death grip on his shoulder and appreciate the scenery and vehicles I was whizzing pass.

The traffic did not tire or frustrate me any more - I loved being a part of it, watching everybody as they eagerly wait for the light to turn green. This was the best way to experience the city - on a bike, feeling the wind on my face while I take in the sights and smells of the city. Ho Chi Minh City is beautiful when you’re zipping by on a bike.

We did not have much time left in Vietnam after my first ride but we managed to squeeze in a few more trips - even one just before we left for the airport. I wasn’t going to leave without having another go! I’m so glad I decided to step out my of comfort zone, even though I was afraid and it took a little bit of urging. It wouldn’t really have been a cultural immersion if I hadn’t experienced my first real life bike ride - the most common and efficient way to get around the city. It was a great learning experience and I will always push myself to experience something new and scary whenever I visit a new place. And maybe, just maybe -  someday Kaj won’t have to force me out of my comfort zone anymore because I’m learning to do it for myself!