…my New England accent is desired for the recording of audio files for ESL (English as a Second Language) textbooks. For a decent hourly rate ( > $15 / hr) I’ll sit and read simple sentences into a microphone, pausing between each, trying to add emphasis and intonation to boring stories about what Sally likes to do in her spare time. Sally likes to watch films and play badminton, if you were wondering.
These are some notes about one such random side job…
I’m sitting in a dingy classroom without air-conditioning or air circulation of any kind. Two fluorescent lights along the ceiling cast a sickly blue light that no one seems averse to, but that I associate with hospitals and bathrooms. They’re everywhere in Hanoi; uncovered fluorescent bulbs even light many of the restaurants we frequent. I sit and wonder how anyone could ignore how horrible it makes everything look. People look ill, food looks gray and uninviting, the rooms look cold. The walls in this room are white in that way that walls once painted bright white have become gray with years. The student desks with blue leathery material have left scraps along the wall, dings in the plaster, scuff marks matching the same horrendous color as the chairs themselves. They’re sprinkled haphazardly throughout the room from some bygone small group exercise, apparently not everyone is listening to the sign on the wall in Vietnamese that warns teachers/students to return the room to the original setup with all desks facing the whiteboard. Inevitably – it seems – in every such classroom two of these chair/desk things is broken, leaning sadly against the wall at a wonky angle to be taken to the place where broken chairs go to die, to be broken apart for reusable scraps. This happens to everything; anything useable is removed and repurposed. The upside of this is when a door breaks on the cabinet in your office, a slightly-worn replacement surfaces.
The carpet is gray, but intentionally so, unlike the walls. Looking at it I suspect that it might be indoor/outdoor carpeting, though we are decidedly indoors and there is not even a window through which rain could come to make use of the water shedding function of this brittle material. Despite having desks, a whiteboard and projector, bulletin boards, a shoe rack (yeah, I’m not sure what that’s about), and a large standing fan, the room seems unfinished and under-furnished; I suspect it’s because there are no windows and thus it has a particularly empty-shell feel. The rooms at the school where I work aren’t this bad. Sure, the kids break things regularly and some our rooms don’t have windows either…but they’re painted with bright colors and have posters on the walls and…the lighting isn’t bare bulbs. Or maybe it’s because the students are loud and boisterous and fill the room with their energy, and right now I’m sitting in this room waiting for an audio technician, wondering if the $20/hr they’ve offered is worth it. Or maybe I’m just annoyed that they insisted I be here at 8:30 only to make me wait for 45 minutes while they figured out how to hook up the microphone. Or maybe it reminds me of the English center where I sit around waiting to get paid every month. But that’s another story.*
I’ve been sitting here for 35 minutes while a mouse of a man blows into a microphone connected to 5-year old Acer laptop, trying to get it to register with the pirated recording equipment he’s using. He adjusts a MILLION settings trying to make this work. How can a computer microphone have this many setting? This man, about my age, probably weighs 100lbs. Maybe 110lbs. His striped Oxford has sleeves that are slightly too long, but it’s clean and pressed. The Acer is not helping him, and he has to re-install the audio driver and restart twice before the crusty old computer even acknowledges that there’s a microphone in the vicinity. The microphone in question seen better days…I think. I hope. Whatever that black foamy stuff that normally covers the intake-bit is long gone, and a thrice folded paper napkin covers the top. Even better, the napkin is tied on by the thin plastic sheath that disposable chopsticks come in, resulting in a functional but very very sad state of affairs.
He eventually finds the magic setting, and the microphone begins to register sounds on the audio software. Then we begin testing with my voice, and apparently the napkin is doing too good a job, as I have to hold my mouth RIGHT up against it and talk as loudly as possible while maintaining a normal tone and emphasis.
“This book is six spans long”. What does that mean? What is a span? Who writes these English scripts? “My name is Rojan, I’m six and like to eat pizza.” Who is Rojan? Why have they hired an adult female to speak as 6-year-old Rojan? “On 26th November every year we celebrates my birthday.”
I ask the quiet gentleman watching my audio feeds if I can correct mistakes and grammar. He says no. I confirm that he wants me to read the incorrect English into the microphone. He confirms. Alright then. I very awkwardly read “On 26th November every year we celebrates my birthday” and imagine 20 Vietnamese teenagers listening to my voice and repeating it. This explains a LOT.
*Alright it’s not really much of a story. They’re the parent company, their HR department pay our salaries, and despite the fact that we submit time-sheets accounting for our hours and tell them when we’re coming to pick up our salary, it inevitably takes 45 minutes to get paid. Also it takes 5 people. One person who brings over a chair and politely insists that you sit down (which you do, begrudgingly), another who prints out the confirmation of what you should be getting paid, the one who listens to you explain that it’s not right and instructs the previous person on how to fix it, the guy who signs things in the corner when he’s not playing Angry Birds, and the matriarch of the room who sits in front of the safe and is actually the one holding the cash, doling it out in fat stacks that are only possible because the exchange rate is 21,000 vnd to 1 usd. I resign myself to the wasted hour every time the chair is wheeled in my direction.