Viet Nam News
When they met for the Vietnamese Teachers’ Day last Sunday, local English speakers of an older generation did not miss the chance to recall the unforgettable times they’d shared with a wonderful teacher from New Zealand.
Freda Cook (1896-1990) came to Hà Nội at the invitation of the Vietnamese Government in 1960, two years after the institution of foreign languages (English, French, Russian and Chinese) as regular subjects for tertiary education.
Remarkably sprightly at 64, Freda, an Oxford Honours graduate and early member of the NZ Communist Party, buckled down to work as soon as she was introduced to the English Section, Foreign Languages Department, Hà Nội Normal University.
It was the beginning of a new period in her life, one she described as "the most absorbing, interesting and beautiful, next to the Unemployed Workers Movement in NZ in the early 1930s".
In that new period in her life, Freda displayed the same zeal and ardour she had shown militating for working people’s rights in her home country three decades or so earlier.
She never said no to calls for help. In addition to the regular classes she shared at the university with Đặng Chấn Liêu, head of the English Section, and other members of the teaching staff, Freda shuttled between special courses and crash courses for hundreds of government employees, soldiers and security officers, offering her services for free.
Freda never took, she only gave. She dined with her students at weekends to train them in table manners, brought napkins and blankets to mothers at childbirth, and stocked wedding parties with extra tea and candies.
And Freda was never short of practical advice. She told male students to wrap old newspapers around the chest for warmth in winter. “Don’t be shy,’’ she would insist. “I did it myself in my young days in London, like homeless people there.”
Above all, there was militant Freda – the Freda who protested might and main against the American War in Việt Nam. The principles of peace and justice she upheld all her life, her love for people and firm belief in their right to a peaceful and free existence – have enshrined her name in many Vietnamese hearts. — VNS
*Nguyễn Khuyến was Editor-in-Chief of Việt Nam News from 1991-1999. His book about the experience, Ship With Paper Sails, was published last year.