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March 29, 2005 > The Dancing Lion

The Dancing Lion

by Lance Dwyer

In "The Dancing Lion," author Steve Barry takes us into the complex world of Bill Harris, a physics teacher forced to experience the struggles of intercultural conflict.

According to Barry, the novel is 90 percent real and 10 percent fiction. The novel appears to takes the form of a memoir however Barry said use of creative license allowed him to weave the story together more logically aiming for more of a mosaic rather than a memoir. The fictional aspect of the novel allowed him to protect the identities of people who inspired the characters.

Although Barry chose the name of Bill Harris in his book, the experiences are his own. "All of [Harris'] experiences were mine, right down the line," said Barry.

The novel begins with Harris at a turning point in his life. Just out of a romantic relationship, he was assigned to teach at fictional San Benito High School in San Jose, California. Upon arrival at his new school, Harris received upsetting news from the principal. The position Harris was meant to fill would not be available for another year. Instead, Harris would occupy a post that would change his life forever; ESL (English as a second language) science teacher.

Harris learned that the San Jose area has a very large Vietnamese population and this group would make up the majority of ESL classes. Harris had barely heard the Vietnamese language and had no formal training in teaching ESL classes. "This had all the makings of a disaster. I couldn't imagine a bigger mismatch," Harris thought to himself.

Trapped between the choices of a potentially disastrous year and unemployment, Harris agreed to be San Benito's new ESL science teacher.

ESL classes were divided into level one and level two classes. Level one students immigrated to the U.S. very recently and spoke minimal or no English. Level two students, who have been in the U.S. a bit longer, typically did not speak English well either.

On his first day, Harris' had five periods of level two classes; all went relatively smoothly. His level one class, which was the last period of the day, would be a very different story.

As Harris attempted to lead the class in an icebreaker activity, he got a taste of just how significant the cultural and language barrier was.

"I explained the procedure...and pointed to the brief questions on the board. Then I held my one responded. The whole class simply sat there and stared at me silently," as quoted from The Dancing Lion.

Harris would continue to struggle to teach that class basic scientific principles over the next few weeks but what began as a painful burden eventually became an opportunity to learn about the Vietnamese culture.

Harris tried his best to be as patient as possible as the weeks moved on, which, unbeknownst to him, was highly appreciated by his students. Although Harris had experienced a great deal of culture shock already, the true catalyst for his appreciation of the Vietnamese culture would come when volunteering to advise the Vietnamese club at the high school.

Harris was reluctant at first to take on more responsibility for no extra pay but after seeing the enthusiasm of the students who simply wanted to maintain and share Vietnamese culture, Harris acquiesced. While he initially only wanted to do the bare minimum for the club, Harris began to bond with the students while continuing to learn more about the Vietnamese culture.

Before long, Harris was doing many things he had never done before like eating traditional Vietnamese food including the popular soup, "pho" and attending Vietnamese events such as the Mid-Autumn festival.

The Dancing Lion is not the typical story of a teacher bridging a cultural divide with his students. The novel's contents open up several dimensions while offering an intimate insight into the struggle of the Vietnamese people to re-establish their lives in a foreign country after being forced to leave their native Vietnam.

Each chapter opens up with a vignette told in the form of a journal entry. Written by Barry in the voice of a student who had particular impact on him, these vignettes introduce an issue or cultural conflict that will be developed in the according chapter.

The central story of a teacher's life, broadened and improved by his introduction to the Vietnamese culture, may have been sufficient for a quality novel but what heightens the value of The Dancing Lion is Barry's ability to give the reader true intimacy into the lives of the Vietnamese people-from their rich culture to the unthinkable struggle virtually every Vietnamese family experienced to be in the U.S.

The Dancing Lion reveals a history of the Vietnamese people that is largely unknown. Based on personal accounts, Barry illustrates the tumultuous journey of many Vietnamese families simply to arrive in the U.S.

Living and surviving in the U.S. is nothing short of heroic for virtually every Vietnamese family, a fact that this novel will help its readers to comprehend. The Dancing Lion's multidimensional story offers many valuable lessons and thus is worth a thorough read.

Published by iUniverse, "The Dancing Lion" can be purchased at For more information, call author Stephen Barry at (408) 270-1897 or e-mail him at:

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