respect353

Not Vietnam.

Next to a well-regarded and successful doctor, guess what is the most respected profession in Vietnam? No, not a model, football player, newsreader or Celebrity Apprentice contestant ... it's a teacher!

Wow. Weird, huh?

In fact, teachers are so admired they have their own pronoun*, reflecting both the esteem in which the Vietnamese hold education and the people who provide it.

When I discovered this during my recent New Year's vacation in the country, I thought "What a wonderful order to life, how sensible, how adult, how wise."

Then I got drunk on Saigon Red beer and pretended to be a teacher, flirting hopelessly via broken English with a beautiful local gal sporting a gleaming, midnight black, bob haircut.

Now, I'm sure local teachers don't use their status to try to pull roots - but the social deference shown to educators of all stripes must be some consolation; it's nice to be appreciated.

The salary levels for teachers in Vietnam are pretty much in step with all white-collar professions over there - they don't get paid very much. But then nobody gets paid very much in Vietnam.

Anyway, just before I left the country, I had the opportunity to speak to several classes of students - from years 7 to 11 - at a Ho Chi Minh City international school.

When I walked into the classroom I almost leapt backwards as the kids shot up from their seats, smiling and welcoming their teacher: "Good morning, Mr Simon", then offering me the same: "Good Morning, Mr Sam."

I rumbled for 20 minutes about writing and blogging, the importance of language skills, and the kids could have been at their parents' double funeral, so silent were they.

I'd like to think this was because of my aura of authority - or maybe because I'd stepped momentarily into the august role of teacher - but my friends who live in HCMC tell me respect for elders happens pretty much across the board in Vietnam.

To whit: while there, I saw an altercation in traffic between an older and younger man - junior giving senior some lip about a perceived misdeed (which was bizarre enough, considering HCMCs chaotic roads).

However, as the young guy went on with it, yelling at the older man, people converged from all side telling him to "zip it", "shut up", "respect his elders".

The guy's teenage girlfriend, sitting on the back of his scooter, even joined in telling him to wise up, until junior nodded, apologised to the older man and went on his way.

This respect for elders, though I'm sure not universal, is also enshrined in Vietnamese culture with strangers quick to ask how old the other is, so they can then refer to them by the correct (junior or senior) salutation.

Now, I'm not suggesting everyone who is your elder deserves deference, but ya know, generally, as a system, it's pretty ancient and seems to work well in Vietnam.

The temptation to "know it all" when you're 16, 26, 36 or 46 is rather strong - having been there for three of those ages myself.

However, I imagine this impulse never gets too out of hand if you constantly have to acknowledge: "Hey, there's people who've been around longer than me, so just nod, agree, and see how it pans out."

I reckon, nine times out of 10, you'd probably be happy you kept your mouth shut and accepted a senior's perspective.

* Any Vietnamese speakers, please correct me if I have this wrong.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.