Awarded a Fulbright ETA (English Teaching Assistant) award, Annie Buckel set off for Xuân Hòa, the industrial Northern Vietnamese town she was to call home for the 2013-2014 academic year. Annie was the only foreigner living in this town of 20,000 and her students were the only other English speakers.

Not surprisingly, Annie encountered many challenges in her new environment. Among the biggest challenges was getting her students to feel comfortable speaking to her inside and outside of the classroom. “I was not able to make friends until I was able to get my very timid students to open up,” Annie reminisces. “This process took a long time—about seven to eight months into my grant—but eventually they came around and I was able to connect with them and see Vietnam from their perspective. The effort it took to make this connection was worth it: they took me along to Buddhist festivals and explained the rites and ceremonies to me, had a fortune teller divine my future, and taught me how to make some of my favorite Vietnamese dishes.”

Annie wrote a novel while living in Vietnam, much of which was penned at Bn & Tôi, a local café that served Vietnamese iced coffeeNext to this café an elderly grandmother, Bà Lam, operated a quaint tea stand. Each morning as Annie waited for her coffee to arrive, Bà Lam would come over and give her a complimentary cup of fresh green tea. Annie remembers Bà Lam as a generous friend: “If I told her I hadn’t had breakfast yet, she would share some food with me. If I told her I was sick, she would tell me to drink more of her tea. If I skipped a day or two of writing, she would get worried. She spoke no English, and I spoke very little Vietnamese, but somehow Bà Lam and I became friends in that little corner of the world. The novel I wrote is far from publishable in its current state, but if it ever does get to the press, the dedication will read ‘For Bà Lam’.

Receiving a Fulbright ETA is no small task, and Annie recommends the following to anyone interested in applying:

  1. Choose a country that you would want to live in for a year even if you do not receive the Fulbright grant. Had her application been turned down, Annie says that she would have attempted to teach or work in Vietnam through a different organization because she is so fascinated by the country (and in love with its cuisine).
  2. If you do an ETA grant, make sure you are dedicated to teaching and working with students. It’s what you’ll be spending most of your time doing, so make sure you’re doing something you love.
  3. Take the time to perfect your statement of Grant Purpose and Personal Statement. All good writing takes multiple drafts.

Vietnam has opened up many perspectives for Annie. After coming back to America, she noticed that she would frequently try to understand the world around her from her students’ perspective: “I look at things and think What would my students think of that? How would they react to automatic dishwashers or large supermarkets? How would they view the negative campaign advertisements on TV?” It is this perspective—the ability to notice things we take for granted—that Annie sees as an invaluable part of her immersive experience of living abroad. “As time goes by,” Annie says, “I hope I never stop asking these questions.”