A wonderful visual image

“Marking Marathon”


(Marking marathonBy underthecastle. Link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/underthecastle/5186190999/in/photostream/lightbox/

This paper is an assignment for Coursera online course Writing Expertise by Professor Denise Comer Duke University)

The image, entitled “Marking Marathon”, depicts a black and white portrait of a teacher marking his students’ written assignments in Nansato Primary school at the foot of Mount Mulanje, Malawi, Africa. At first glance, the focus of the photo is the side-view of a male teacher who has heavy built and is in his forties. On the background shown several school kids, of whom the two girls were in uniform and one of them expressing a big grin. Taking a closer analysis, several distinctively visual features are indentified.

Firstly, it is the close relationship between teachers and students which reveal the natural interaction in the classroom. Proximity is kept at the minimum when the teacher sat next to the student he wanted to mark and provided on-the-spot feedback. On the other hand, there could be a lack of teacher’ personal zone in the classroom because he had to share the desk with students while marking. More important, one could observe that the teacher was wearing a patterned tie, which was extremely unusual in a primary setting and increased the formality of teacher-student relationship. In other words, the teacher while maintaining a formal position in the classroom through his attire, was showing an intimate relationship with his students.

Secondly, teacher’s expertise is demonstrated through the chalk dust on his fingers. As a teacher myself, I would rarely hold a pen and mark my students’ work before cleaning the irritating and itchy chalk dust. He was so immersed in his task that he ignored the physical annoyance! It also demonstrated that the teacher moved directly from doing his presentation and writing on the board to marking his students’ paper without recess. Furthermore, though I could not see the teacher eyes, it could be inferred from the image that those must be striking and gleaming.

Thirdly, as the photo was taken in contrasting color, one could presume that the photographer tends to contrast this particular traditional classroom in an impoverished area with more modern technology-integrated classrooms in more developed regions. The teacher used very basic tools to facilitate learners, namely chalk, pen and paper. On the contrary, a classroom in more wealthy contexts would involve peer assessment or providing review on the computer. Though it is reported that schools in Malawi are mostly “under-funded, under-resourced and under-staffed”[1] I would be uncertain if students in other developed areas are more motivated than those in this photo.

Finally, what I learned from the image is the devotion the teacher exerts on his students. As mentioned above, the chalk dust, the tie and the close proximity reveals his teaching expertise. From the photographer’s note, it is also revealed that the teacher had to mark 70 papers! How much patience would it take? More remarkably, according to the photographer, the teacher had to cover two classes at the same time because his colleague was away[2] How much stamina would it take?

Without doubt, this photo should be presented to teachers-to-be, those who wish “to teach is to touch a life forever”, to tired teachers, those who needed to be motivated and encouraged to keep moving and also to teacher trainers, those who are seeking for an appropriate method. A must-see at Museum of Education all over the world.


An American Dream or a Vietnamese mirage?

Applicants line up outside the US consulate in Ho Chi Minh City on May 28. Photo by Tuan Anh

If one were to take a tour around the premises of consulates in Ho Chi Minh City, one would easily notice that the United States Consulate always attracts the largest number of applicants, waiting from dawn in the longest queue of them all, just for an interview.

Understandably, the recent reports on US visa scam (http://www.thanhniennews.com/index/pages/20130606-catching-up-with-the-vos.aspx) and (http://www.thanhniennews.com/index/pages/20130531-the-big-visa-scam.aspx), in which the former Head of Non-Immigrant Visa Department, Michael T. Sestak, secretly sold each visa for tens of thousand dollars, have sparked public outrage.

But the fact remains that he would not be a successful visa salesman if there weren’t many Vietnamese people willing to buy them at any cost. This raises a disturbing question: why are we Vietnamese so eager to get a US non-immigrant visa?

Is the US the most educated country in the world? No, Canada is. Is it the country with highest number of tourists? No, France is. Is it the richest country in the world? No, citizens of Luxembourg, Qatar and Singapore can boast higher salaries.

Personally, I have several relatives living both in the US and Australia. Let’s do a simple wage comparison. A relative in the US said the average wage for a waiter in the US is $8 per hour. In Australia? 12 AUD an hour.

Regarding high school education, is the US the best place where your teenage children can do well in math, reading and science? No. Finland, Singapore and Korea would be much better options.

Also, is the US a safe country to live in? If safety means having a gun to protect yourself, probably. US must certainly be the most armed country in the world, having more weapons that the world’s most violent hotspots at the moment. Then, just going by the headlines, where do horrific mass shootings happen the most? Would it be safe to describe the US as a country living in fear due to uncontrolled gun ownership? It would, based on obvious evidence.

In other words, the US is by no means the best place to earn, the most nurturing environment for kids to grow, or the safest neighborhood to take a leisurely walk.

So what is the charm of a US visa? In my opinion, it is the long gone past of economic success that makes Vietnamese still believe in the American Dream. The truth is also that the Vietnamese community in the US is quite strong. America used to be an economic superpower, but the economic downturn from 2008 onwards has seen the unemployment rate in the US soar, and it has reduced the country from a “land of opportunities” to one in deep crisis on many fronts.

So why did we pay such fortunes to such greedy creatures like Sestak so that they would open the gate to a devastated land? What do we want to see there? Unemployed workers trying to find a decent job? Discontented undergraduates with broken dreams aiming guns at and shooting their peers and teachers? To enjoy such an experience, it is better to go to a local world-class cinema and watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters. That is definitely a wiser and much cheaper choice.

And in case you still want to go abroad, apply for a visa to Australia, Singapore or Canada. At least you do not have to wait in a long line or get ripped off.

(Published on http://www.thanhniennews.com/index/pages/20130613-an-american-dream-or-a-vietnamese-mirage.aspx)

What writing really is

For long I have mistakenly considered writing as an art. Much more than that, it really requires hard work and tedious drafts.

(Idea from Daniel Coyle, the author of The Talent Code. Full article: http://thetalentcode.com/2013/04/02/11-rules-for-better-writing/)

Here’s the basic problem: people think that writing is this:


When in reality, it’s more like this: channel-curation-featured-large

This happens to be Proust, but it could be Orwell or Austen or Whitman or Hemingway, who wrote no fewer than 47 different endings for A Farewell to Arms. Point is, writing isn’t wizardry, and good writers are not superhuman. Building a story is not magic. It’s more like building a piece of furniture: you need quality wood, basic design skills, and lots of sandpaper.

For example, J.K. Rowling plot for chapters 13-24 of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

So, stop reading. Take a pen and a stack of A4size paper. Commence your writing construction!



The image above may not be the official poster for the movie, which would depict a hero (a naughty Leafman, imaginary protector of the rainfortest) and a human (a pretty girl from our real world). Sure, in my opinion, Mub and Grub, though just supporting actors, have brought the best moments in the 3D animation EPIC and during the film their appearance and hilarious conversations triggered the most laughs. More than Minions from Despicable Me, the Triplets from Brave and Scrat from Ice Age, Mub and Scrub have some personalities

Like this one:

Mub: What’s going on, baby girl?

Mary Katherine: Talking snails.

Mub: Actually, I’m a slug. No shell over here, baby.”

and this:

Mandrake:  You just can’t stop the rot.

Mub: Ugly says what?

Mandrake: What?

Mub: Nothing.

[he and Grub snicker]

Generally EPIC makes a decent cartoon, even much better than Brave by Pixar though still may not excel Ice Age. It both contains awesome gliding and arrow-shooting scenes and a structured story with emotional moments.

Final say, if you like Avatar’s Pandora (also the best 3D movie up to now), you will definitely enjoy being in the rain-forest and observing its creatures’ rituals to nurture our mother earth. Well done EPIC!

Score: 8/10


The Alchemist: Review


My family has been running a jewelry business for more than 15 years. We do make profits sometimes but if I had a choice I wish we didn’t. That being said, reading a book about alchemy, the business of turning metal to gold, is the least option in my head. So for several occasions just passed on reading the book.

But then comes summer of 2013 when I do not have any classes, I’ve got to read something to cover hours of free time. And “The alchemist” comes in handy for its extremely reader-friendly writing style. Maybe because it was translation version, which I found very similar to Vietnamese English J

The book has become a best-seller for that fact and also because it is written as a parable with different layers of meanings. Reviewers at amazon.com even said that they could highlight every single sentence and one critic praises that the writer has successfully conducted “poetic alchemy”

So, who’s this book for? For those who are finding a way to truly understand their unfulfilled dreams and to realize their personal calling. The writer Paulo Coelho (Portuguese: [ˈpawlu kuˈeʎu]) is an experienced traveler hence I guess Santiago the boy, the main protagonist of the story, is a reflection of himself. Besides, the main theme is also connected to God’s, in the writer’s word, “the hand” and it could be inferred that God plays the role of an alchemist who helped individual achieve their own dream, their own treasure. The important thing is to realize the “omens” which are laid by God’s hands everywhere and anytime in our lives.

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”

Towards the end of Santiago’s quest for treasure, the book seems not to be gripping anymore, but you would find the ending convincing and self-revealing, making the book worthwhile and putting yourself lost in your own “Personal Legend”.

In the past we had Aesop’s fables; “The Alchemist” could be considered the most thought-provoking of our time.