by Tam Thi Dang Wei
My Years in Geneva, Switzerland (1952-55)
ARRIVAL AND FIRST IMPRESSIONS
When I first arrived in Paris, I stayed for a few days then went on to Geneva. It was scary, but exciting. I rented my first apartment with an old couple, the Schneiders, on 41 Rue Plantamour. My third-floor room had a balcony looking out to Lac Léman. A few months later, Quynh Chau, my former classmate from Dong Khanh, came and rented a room next to mine. The rent was for the use of the room only, but Mrs. Schneider felt sorry for us and allowed us to use the kitchen.
Mrs. Schneider delivered magazines to neighbors-so sometimes Quynh Chau and I would read them early before they’d go out for delivery. One day, we were deep in discussion about a story, and we forgot to turn off the gas stove (we’d been cooking stew). We almost burned down the apartment! That was the end of our cooking privileges.
Geneva is a beautiful city, with Lake Leman separating the old part of town from the new. Swans swim lazily in the lake. And right in the middle, a jet of water rises high in the sky (the Genovese claim that they have the tallest jet of water in Europe!). A beautiful landscaped park runs along both sides.
In this park was the first time that I’d seen a swan.43 The birds were beautiful, white, and majestic. It was lovely to see the father swan swimming in front with mother following behind, chicks nested cozily on her back. I’ve heard that swans mate for life.44
Geneva is famous for Omega watches. When friends visited Geneva, they always wanted to buy watches, so I became their guide. I even got a 20% discount on my own (first and only) Omega watch.
Geneva is also famous for the UN building. It is interesting to see the various rooms in that building, each decorated differently to represent their respective nations. The Mexican and Italian rooms, for example, are full of vibrant color, while the Swiss room has more of a pastel look.
There were a lot of international meetings at the United Nations. One day, there was an important meeting between the American and Russian presidents. But the priorities of the media are interesting in Switzerland: I noticed that in the local newspaper that day, the main article on the front page was about a mother swan having her babies, while the announcement about these two presidents was down on the corner of the page.
Geneva is a peaceful city, but for a young students-like me and my friends at that time-Paris or Rome seemed like they’d be more exciting places to spend vacation. Now that I can appreciate the peaceful atmosphere, in my old age, I look back and think I would have loved to spend more time in Geneva.
SEASONS IN GENEVA
Geneva is a beautiful city. And I guess I’ve always been a nature lover, so watching the seasons change made a very deep impression on me when I first arrived in Switzerland.
MY FIRST WINTER SNOW
When it was winter, my friend called and asked me to look out the window. What a sight! Snowflakes were gently falling like flowers. I was mesmerized; it was so beautiful. I’d never seen snow before! I came out to my balcony, trying to catch some snow in my hands. I was amazed by the various sizes and shapes of the flakes. I could have stayed there forever, watching the white snow falling on my black coat. I collected a ball of it, and brought it into my room. The next day, of course, it was a mess on the rug. Mrs. Schneider couldn’t bring herself to be angry–she just laughed at my ignorance.
SPRINGTIME: COLORS AND FRAGRANCE
Later, one morning in the springtime, as I walked through the park,45 I noticed the ground was covered with beautiful yellow flowers. I saw a big riding lawn mower coming along and cutting them all down. I ran to the driver, asking him “why are you mowing down those beautiful flowers?” He laughed, then explained to me that those “flowers” were bad weeds called dandelions.46 I’ve always loved flowers. One day my friend drove me up to the mountain, and we saw narcissus and daffodils everywhere; it was beautiful and heavenly. What a sight. The flowers slowly swayed in the gentle breeze. I could not move, because I was afraid to step on the delicate flowers. And the fragrance was so strong, so I took some back to my room.47
Then came autumn. The leaves were so, so beautiful. I had never seen so many colors blanketing the landscape. It seemed to me like a good fairy had waved a magic wand and sprinkled all those brilliant colors everywhere. I took a lot of pictures of those colorful leaves; unfortunately, as I was a poor student, those photos were in black and white.
SCHOOL AT THE INSTITUTE OF EDUCATION
My life as a student had begun.
The Institute of Education (a part of the University of Geneva) was an international school, so my classmates came from all over the world.48 After living there for a while, I started noticing-and learning to distinguish- some of my friends’ cultural differences. Of course, these are just my impressions, but for example: the Swiss seemed more conservative while the French seemed more liberal, and the Italians seemed very vibrant while the English seemed more reserved.
My professor in Geneva was the famous psychologist Jean Piaget. 49 At the time, I did not know that he was famous, but I felt very lucky to have him as teacher. He taught me about clinical, objective observation (a skill I used extensively later in my work as a school psychologist), which is not easy to do. All of us, consciously or unconsciously, bring with us our own”baggage,” that is, our prejudices, our preconceived ideas, our opinions, and so forth.
Piaget was the first psychologist who specialized in childhood cognitive development. He developed his theory mainly by observing his own children. His approach tried to take into account various aspects of human development (physical, environmental, social, etc.) simultaneously. To me, this makes sense. Research conducted in orphanages shows that children who have more interactions with their caregivers tend to have higher IQs. A story went around at school: allegedly, a graduate student had failed on his final exam, so Piaget invited him over for supper, and asked him some questions from the exam. The student knew the material well. Piaget conferred with other professors, and decided to allow the student to pass. This story is an example of the type of teacher Piaget was: kind, forgiving, and thoughtful.
Piaget lived in the old part of the city. He bicycled to the Institute by crossing the Mont Blank Bridge, and the police would stop traffic to let him pass. Every week, he took the train to Paris to teach at the Sorbonne. His lectures were always very crowded because students from various disciplines attended. I remember getting together with two or three of my classmates after each class, trying to make sense of what Piaget had taught that day.
In my first year, I specialized in Early Childhood Education. My teacher was Mademoiselle Du Parc, a very well-loved teacher. She was very interested in our culture, so I decided to do my dissertation that year on Vietnamese folktalkes.51 I was hoping to do some research on the origin of Scottish folktales, but lacked the money and the time. Instead, I spent a summer in Paris, and went to the Far East Library at the Sarbonne to do my research. To cut down on expenses, I stayed at my aunt’s home in Paris. That year, I got my first certificate in Early Childhood Education.
In my second year, I studied Pedagogy.52 My teacher was Mr. Dottrens. I practiced teaching in elementary schools. I remember having to prepare a lesson plan on swans and other birds, for an early childhood class at the laboratory nursery school. I went to the Geneva museum and borrowed ostrich eggs, quail eggs, and duck eggs, so help the students compare/contrast the different egg sizes. The museum was very generous to allow me to take those eggs and carry them across town.
Of course, these children had seen swans all their lives, so they weren’t nearly as excited about the material as I was. I learned a lesson about teaching that day, and I resolved from then on to carefully take into consideration the student’s interests and to try to cater to those pre- existing passions. I also learned to speak louder and project my voice more-something I hadn’t really learned growing up as a Vietnamese girl. I received my second diploma in Pedagogy that year.
Finally, in my third year, I worked closely with Professor Piaget. First, I took classes in Mental Health, did practice in a mental health clinic, and got a Certificate in that field. Then I did research on cognitive development in school, under the guidance of Professors Piaget and Inhelder.
After three and half years in Geneva, I had a total of four degrees: Early Childhood Education, Pedagogy, Mental Health, and Developmental Psychology.53
MY EDUCATION: REFLECTIONS
Working closely with Piaget during that last year was a wonderful experience. He opened my mind and heart to a better understanding of human nature. Piaget was a great teacher and I was fortunate to have him as a guide in my career. Another teacher that had an impact on me Du Parc, my Early Childhood was Mademoiselle Du Education teacher. She was very gentle and sensitive and she cared deeply for her students. I remember at Tet, she always sent a bouquet of cherry blossoms to her Vietnamese students. As those flowers were out of season at the time, she must have made a special effort to buy them. She knew it would mean a lot to us. I kept in touch with her for many years after I came to the States.
Geneva opened my eyes and taught me a lot. I’m very lucky to have had that experience going to school there.54
OTHER EXPERIENCES IN GENEVA
I have many fond memories of Switzerland, including spending one summer wandering the country with my friend Thao until we ran out of money and returned to Geneva (we couldn’t leave Switzerland, because we didn’t have visas; we hadn’t realized that we would need them to visit other countries).
My scholarship from the Vietnamese government could only cover about half of my living expenses, but I survived, with help from my cousins Luong and Chau who were somehow able to send some money. Once in a while, I only had enough to eat bread, but French bread is delicious, so I did not mind.
Perhaps my bad teeth resulted from that period when I didn’t have good enough nutrition–but I have all fake teeth now, so in the end it doesn’t matter.
I once had a classmate, Heidi, who planned to go to Laos with her fiancé to work as a missionary translating the Bible. Her parents believed the Laotians are like savages, so to ease their minds, Heidi asked us to stop by her home in Interlaken 55 to prove that we are “normal” people. Even though none of us were Laotian, we apparently succeeded–Heidi went on to live in Laos for many years.
Every summer, I went to England to learn English. I would exchange my room in Geneva with my friend, Lan, for her room in Cambridge.
On my first trip from London to Cambridge, I took the train which was supposed to arrive at four in the afternoon. I did not know English well. I was prepared with the addressees of the school and of Lan’s home. Four o’clock came, but the train did not stop. One man must have seen the panic in my face. When I showed him the two addresses I’d written down, he realized that I must have taken the wrong train. “This train goes to Manchester, not Cambridge,” he said.
The man decided to help. He climbed out of the compartment to explain my situation to the conductor. So the conductor stopped the train at a small town to let me out-because Manchester was a long way from Cambridge.56 I went to the Information Office and learned that the train to Cambridge wouldn’t depart until the next day. The person at the information office saw that I was a student and decided to take me home to spend the night with her.
The next day, she brought me to the train conductor to ensure that I would safely get to Cambridge. This time I needed to change trains twice. But at each station, the conductor had already called in advance, so there was a person there ready to take me to the next train. I was so impressed by the care and thoughtfulness of all these people-especially the woman who had taken me to her home, treated me to a good dinner, and even given me a small English dictionary and a beautiful porcelain flower! I will never forget the acts of kindness from those total strangers. It warms my heart to know that there are So many good people in this world.
During the Easter holiday, I went to visit schools in Belgium, Italy, and Germany, with my classmate and with a couple from Greece. While in Germany, we decided we would like to visit the Beethoven statue. We started asking for directions from an old couple we’d met on the bus. They tried to explain how to get there, but they soon realized that we could not understand. So they decided to go with us and personally show us the statue—then they brought us back.
Again: good people can be found anywhere and everywhere.
During that trip, it suddenly turned cold-and I did not have enough money to buy an extra coat or a sweater. Someone told me to put newspaper under my clothes, and despite the crackling noise it made when I walked, it really did keep me warm! (I wondered if the students in the schools we visited were surprised or puzzled to hear all those strange noises when I came into their classroom.) I was grateful, though, for people’s help and advice.
NEWS FROM VIỆT NAM
In 1954, there was an important conference in Geneva: it was about the division of Việt Nam into two parts: the Communist North and the Independent South. I’d had neither news from, nor contact with, my parents since 1946; I was very anxious to possibly hear how they were doing. One of my uncles was in the delegation, so I went to see him. He gave me the sad news that my father was in jail-but he did not tell me that my parents had passed away, perhaps to spare me this shock while I was abroad and alone.57
I remember an exciting incident involving my best friend Thao. One day, her father came to see her in Geneva. Thao had fallen in love with a young man, but her father did not approve. The father wanted to separate them, so he took Thao to Paris (using the excuse of renewing visas, but intending to bring Thao actually back to Việt Nam). We were so offended when we discovered Thao’s father’s intention, so we (I and another Vietnamese couple) decided to try to sneak Thao back into Geneva for a day, so she could say goodbye to her friends and classmates.
We drove to Paris, clandestinely, and took Thao away. We then drove her to Annecy, a town in France close to the Swiss border. We waited until dark, covered Thao with a blanket, and drove into Geneva. We successfully crossed the border! Thao then spent the day with her friends and said goodbye to her teachers.
The next night we snuck Thao out again, and brought her back to Paris. Now, looking back on this event, I realize we could have all been thrown in jail-the Swiss border guards are supposed to be the best. I guess we must have looked too innocent!
After that, Thao went back to Việt Nam.
QUAKERS AND PHANTOMS
During my second year in Switzerland, I moved to a room in the attic of a Quaker cheaper room, a meetinghouse in Geneva. It was nice: from the round window, I had a beautiful view of the mountains.
I attended some of the Quakers’ meetings, and liked their beliefs-particularly those about working for peace, and about helping undeveloped countries. My roommate was a Quaker, and we got along very well.
One evening, I went to see the film “The Phantom of the Opera.” Upon arriving back home, late at night, I looked out my little round window, and got scared thinking of the distorted face from the movie. I could not stay in my room, so I ran to a friend’s home instead.
When I wasn’t scared of phantoms, though, the room was wonderful-and big! It was so big that I used a bedsheet to separate it into two sections (when it was all one big room, it was too big, too dark, too scary!).
After finishing school, it became time for me to decide on what to do for the next step of my life. I decided to go to America. My roommate gave me some names of people to contact when I arrived at the United States. They were waiting for me at the dock to help me when I arrived.
I had some friends like Ly who were studying in the States, too. Ly introduced me to a Belgian priest named Father Jacques, who often made arrangements for Vietnamese students to attend American schools. He I me find a scholarship at Marian College, a Catholic all-women’s college in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Looking back at my experiences in Geneva, what did I learn? I feel like I learned to be more mature, confident, and to take care of myself. I became better at managing financial and educational needs and at balancing my own life.
Before, everything had been taken care of for me, as I was always the youngest one in the family (until Dung arrived seven years later). There had always been an older sister or sister-in-law at home. I hadn’t even bought clothes for myself–until the day I married Anh Chat, at least.
And oh, how Anh Chat was still very much in my heart during this time in Geneva. I was a young widow, not too bad-looking, so my friends often wanted to play “matchmaker” and set me up with young men. But my heart was never in it. I didn’t want to remarry. For almost ten years after his passing, I still considered Anh Chat my husband.
While living in Geneva, I met with all kinds of people, and had to figure out how to navigate my new life among them. I discovered my strengths as a student and finished my education in three and a half years instead of in five. The confidence I gained and the growing experiences I had during that time are, to this day, very precious to me.
43 Although, later on, I saw a black swan in Australia!
44 Editor’s note: they do!
45 On my way to school-which was on the other side of town–I would pass through a park and cross a bridge every day.
46 Much later-when I owned a house in Urbana–I eventually understood that dandelions were really invasive weeds that kill all the good grass. I even wrote an article about them once.
47 Actually, I soon needed to take them out to the balcony because it was too strong; it gave me a headache. In Việt Nam, flowers had a much less intense fragrance-maybe due to differences in the soil or in the temperature-so we used to have flowers in the house all the time when I was younger.
48 School in Switzerland was taught in three languages: French, Italian and German. I was lucky that the University of Geneva used French, which I’d known since High School.
49 Editor’s note: Jean Piaget (French: [3ã pjazɛ]; 9 August 1896 – 16 September 1980) was a Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher known for his epistemological studies with children. His theory of cognitive development and epistemological view are together called “genetic epistemology”.
50 Apparently his failure on the exam wasn’t due to lack of knowledge; he must have choked under pressure. According to the story, this was exacerbated by the student’s having received some bad news from home on the day of the test.
51 This dissertation eventually resulted in a book on legends and folktales of Việt Nam, which I self-published in 1996 In Urbana, Illinois. My intention was to leave something to my children, grandchildren and great- grandchildren, and also to the refugee children from Việt Nam, so they could know about my country. This book has been reprinted three or four times. I am glad to have finished this book, to leave for my family.
52 Editor’s note: Pedagogy is the discipline that deals with the theory and practice of education; i.e. it concerns the study and practice of how best to teach.
53 That final Licentiate degree is equivalent to a Master’s Degree in the US
54 An interesting side note about my education: schools in Geneva were rather conservative, perhaps because someone as famous as Piaget acted as a sort of local authority in education. So there wasn’t much radical change. Meanwhile, at the time, in nearby countries like Belgium or Italy, new revolutionary ideas and methods were being explored by people like Decroly or Montessori.
(Editor’s note: Jean-Ovide Decroly was a Belgian teacher and psychologist, who founded The Hermitage School in 1907. He was a freemason, and a member of the lodge Les Amis Philanthropes of the Grand Orient of Belgium in Brussels. Nowadays the “Ecole Decroly” still follows his pedagogical approach. And Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator, developed an educational approach-known now simply as “Montessori education”-which is characterized by an emphasis on independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical, and social development.)
55 Interlaken is a little village in Switzerland between Lake Brienz and Lake Thunto.
56 Editor’s note: Manchester (where the train was going to) is about 257 kilometers, or 160 miles, from Cambridge (where Tam needed to get to).
57 Editor’s note: In a 2015 interview, I asked Tam why her uncle would willingly withhold such important information-after all, at this time Tam was 28 years old (surely old enough to be trusted with the truth about her parents’ deaths)! Tam wasn’t entirely sure why her uncle didn’t say, but she did clarify that her conversation with her uncle was very brief and there was not a lot of time to really talk. Also, the conversation was over the phone, not face-to-face. “And who knows, maybe he didn’t even know [about their deaths] at that time,” Tam added. “I’m not sure.”
Despite having her suspicions, Tam did not learn for sure about her parents’ deaths until she visited Viêt Nam in the 1980s-four decades after the last time she’d seen them.
(The content above is taken from the author’s memoir, The Story of My Life, 2015, with authorization)