The Writing is on the Whiteboard

By Connla Stokes

The evening’s unspectacular English lesson focusing on personality adjectives is drawing to a close. According to the lesson plan you should split your students into groups so they can analyse each other’s hand-writing and suggest what characteristics the text reveals. “This is called graphology,” you say as if you’re quite the specialist but you only learned the word while stuffing your face with Hanoi’s finest chicken tikka sandwich (with added bacon) in the teacher’s room 30 minutes before class started.

You break up the word into long drawn out syllables like you’re addressing a bunch of children in a school for the hard of hearing—“graffff-ollll-oohh-geee.” You’re actually teaching a troupe of technicians from a semi-State-owned company. They’re all electrical engineers of some description. Every single one of them claims their job title is ‘expert’ but as they can’t explain what they do, you’ve decided this is probably a generous designation. You imagine they’re the kind of guys who like skulling shots of rice wine at lunch and napping under their desks more than anything else. In the context of the classroom, where you can’t help but judge them on their English speaking ability, frankly speaking, many of them often come across as idiots. As a well-read, broadly-educated (read: you have an Arts Degree), clued-in, cultured young man of the world you frequently scoff at their laughable opinions on important global matters (e.g. they believe David Beckham is a better footballer than Dennis Bergkamp).

You have little faith that the subject of graphology will inspire much by way of free flowing confabulation. As far as you can tell, everyone in Vietnam seems to write with the same Department of Education-approved handwriting anyway. You just want to get this over and done with so you can get out of your inhibitive teacher’s outfit and throw on your glad-rags (shorts, flip-flops, t-shirt), jump on your rented 110cc Honda Wave and kick-start yet another evening of boozing, frivolous banter and increasingly bad behaviour. If you get lucky, you might be home at one or two, if you don’t, you’ll be out till five or six.

So to get the ball rolling you write a few lines of text on the whiteboard before backing away and inviting someone to step forward, analyse your handwriting and describe your personality. You’re expecting nothing other than mildly flattering and inoffensive suggestions, which you will have to correct: “I’m afraid ‘young’ and ‘handsome’ aren’t personality adjectives, Mr. Cuong, but thank you…”

Much to your surprise one of the technicians is raising his right hand eagerly, an unusual occurrence in Vietnam in your experience (17 months and counting). The student is Mr. Tung, a 30-something man riddled with a curious tic: a perpetually jiggling leg that seems to have a life of its own. It’s jiggling away right now. You ask him if he’s raising his hand as he needs to go to the toilet. As with most of your jokes in class, this one sails clean over everyone’s comb-over or floppy-haired head. You roll your eyes to no one, as if to say, next time I just won’t bother.

You invite Mr Tung to step up to the board. You coolly observe him as he approaches in his regulation State-employee clobber (black polished shoes, a white shirt tucked into a pair of belly-high-trousers, a belt that is wrapped around his skinnymalink waist one and a half times). He begins by quietly mentioning that he once studied graphology when he lived in Russia.

“Oh… so you’re an expert?”

You instantly regret writing your sample text so hastily, not that it would matter. If he really did study graphology, he probably formed an opinion of you the first time you wrote your name on the board two months ago. Even still, you don’t expect to be filleted in one.

“I can see that you are incapable to finish what you start,” he says, pointing to the tell-tale detail that has betrayed you (badly formed circles).

You’re dumbstruck by this frank and unintentionally withering appraisal. It’s like he knows very well that your hard drive at home contains a multitude of files with dozens of abandoned-short stories, film scripts and children’s stories not to mention your notebook with hundreds of random paragraphs and opening sentences that never went anywhere. It’s not that you care what Mr Tung thinks about you. What hurts is that up until this exact moment, you’d never doubted your own potential. Now it feels like you are fated to never finish anything. The evidence is there, scrawled across the whiteboard.

For good measure, Mr. Tung also suggests the irregularly spaced letters indicate that you are confused or uncertain about yourself, and he seems to be continuing but you’ve heard enough. You usher him back to his seat, laughing nervously as if it’s all just a bit of fun. You instruct everyone to continue in threes or fours. You grab the eraser and wipe away the damning evidence. As you do, you decide that when your evening classes are done, you will not join your pals in the Old Quarter’s finest watering holes as you usually do. Instead, tonight, you will drive home, turn on your PC and tinker with one of the more fully-formed stories you’ve written up and force it to a premature conclusion. You will go to bed defiant. Look! See! I finished something. In the morning, you will walk around to your local café where the owner always speaks to you in Vietnamese like you’re a child in a school for the hard of hearing. You will pull out your notebook and practice writing letters with perfectly formed circles. You will be so engrossed you won’t even notice the husband when he emerges through a beaded curtain just to point at you and say, “A-lô, Mr. Bean!”, the unofficial Patron Saint of clumsy and dopey looking foreigners in Vietnam. He will look at his wife and shrug his shoulders, as if to say, my best jokes always sail over that idiot’s unbrushed hair, next time, I just won’t bother.

This story first appeared in Eastlit – Creative Writing, Literature and Art focused on East and South East Asia