Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas Time

I had the 24th and 25th off, as most schools are closed and everyone wants to celebrate Christmas. So, I celebrated on both days! Even though I was away from home I had some great people to celebrate with. In Vietnamese, the word for "celebrate" is "an", the same as the word for "eat". If you say that you want to celebrate Christmas, it sounds like you want to eat Christmas. I think it just emphasizes how important eating is on a holiday, in every culture.

On the 24th, our maid prepared a lot of food and my roommate Le invited some friends over to eat, listen to Christmas music, and gift swap. We had a shrimp and noodle and veggie mix that was actually served cold and tasted great. Then there was a beef stew with potatoes and carrots, just like back home. His friends brought over desserts like cake. AND I couldn't buy eggnog so I made it myself using a recipe online. It came out alright, didn't taste as good as regular eggnog and the eggs kept wanting to separate, but at least the guests got a general idea of what eggnog tastes like. Rather than go on and on talking, I'll just show some pictures.

Here's a picture of our group:



And my parents sent me a nice package from home with some candy and toys and an elf hat that I bought last year, so I posed in front of my freshly-decorated tree:



The next day, the 25th, Uyen and I went out to take pictures of the decorations around the city. There was a nice wintery theme outside of Diamond, the one big department store in Vietnam, although it didn't have the same effect when I'm wearing shorts and a T-shirt next to supposedly icy trees. Also, the big Notre Dame Cathedral was all lit up with people coming to the church services that night. Lots of people were out and about taking in the sights, although it did start raining. Perhaps I spoke too soon about the dry season, because it's been raining every day again. We got pretty wet, didn't have jackets, and now I'm feeling sick, but slowly recovering now. Oh, also, before we went looking at decorations that night, we stopped to eat sticky rice and chicken at a local Vietnamese place. Uyen got more exotic fare and had my try one of her pieces of meat. After I bit into something very rough and chewy, she told me that it was pig's tongue. That in itself didn't turn me off, but I just didn't like the taste that much. I didn't have my camera at the time to snap a photo, but here are some other pictures.





More pictures can be found here: http://s334.photobucket.com/albums/m418/PetroSmith/Life%20in%20Vietnam/Christmas%20in%20Vietnam/
Some other Vietnam picture can be found here: http://s334.photobucket.com/albums/m418/PetroSmith/Life%20in%20Vietnam/

Merry Christmas and happy new year everyone!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Unrelated Thoughts

There's many things here that I take for granted now, and I don't even realize are worth mentioning. For example, it seems common sense now that when you order a pizza, they will also bring you a free banana. I've gotten so used to it, that I forget that if this happened in America, it would be very confusing or at least worthy of a chuckle. Here I just welcome the extra fruit, and after my pizza I have a way to cleanse my pallet and feel like I've been slightly healthy.

Time keeps moving, and sometimes we don't realize it. At home, the passage of time is obvious, because it gets about 50 degrees colder during the fall and into the winter, plus it's hard to ignore the snow. (I've heard about the blizzard that hit the northeast.) But here, there are only two seasons, and the passage of time only becomes evident twice a year. Recently, we entered the dry season. Perhaps it is still in transition, but I think it must have rained only maybe twice so far this month, when it used to rain every day. Now the air is drier, but the temperature is just as high as before. The mornings and afternoons can be sweltering, but if you don't think about it too much, it's not that bad. Since it's dry heat, you don't sweat as much, and when you're riding on a motorbike you can sometimes feel a breeze. With no humidity to hold in the heat, though, it gets kinda cool at night. It's nice and refreshing, though. When I check the temperature online, the lowest it ever gets is about 72 degrees. And this feels cold to me and everyone else here. I think it will be a shock going back to America, but at least I'll be returning in summer.

Another random observation, it looks to me like certain things don't have the same stigma as in America. Like colors, for example. I see boys riding motorbikes that are pink or yellow, with helmets the same color. I think it's just a matter of what they have. Maybe they're borrowing someone else's stuff, or they just don't care. Either way, it seems like pink is not necessarily a feminine color.

Coming up is Christmas, and while it's not the same as back home, there is definitely excitement in the air, from the overwhelming decorations and lights to the Vietnamese Christmas songs blaring out of the shops. Most of my friends won't be around, but my roommate Le is cooking a Christmas dinner and inviting a few friends over, so I think Uyen and I will partake. I'm going on a quest to find eggnog somewhere in this city. Christmas just wouldn't be the same without it. Then, I would like to just drive around District 1 and look at all the decorations. I guess that's what a lot of people do here on Christmas. I don't know if anything special actually happens. Already there are tons of decorations everywhere. But I guess we'll have to see. I'm definitely bringing my camera to snap some pictures, though. I dread ever looking like a tourist, but I guess I can run that risk for one night.

I did take a picture recently, though, when I stopped to eat at a place I found called Red Hot Saigon that has burgers and hot dogs. I spoke to the owner for a while, he's very friendly and speaks English well. The food is pretty good, but they really pile on the sauces and extra toppings, so it's kind of a messy affair. The hot dog I got did taste like a hot dog, though, which is more than I can say about some other hot dogs I've had. I liked the style, too. The places to eat were in closed-off rooms where you take off your shoes and sit almost on the floor, like a tea house. It was nice and cozy, so I hope to make it a regular spot to dine.
Here is a picture of the hot dog, half-eaten and next to an imported Shasta Root Beer:



Also, last weekend Hien had her birthday. She's the program leader here, and she's the nicest, most helpful person, that I can always call with my problems and she provides an answer. She turned the big 3-0, and people are not afraid to reveal their ages here like in America, so I don't think I'll get into trouble for saying it. Anyway, Uyen and I bought her some nice flowers, which we put on the table of the restaurant where we ate, and it was kind of like a centerpiece that everyone liked. The table was very nice, as all of Hien's friends and the past and current Languagecorps students were there.
Here's a picture of me, Hien, and the flowers:



Yet one more thing to mention, this week I've been covering Genessa's classes at a public school for young children. The classes are only 30 minutes long, but it's as exhausting as a 90 minute class for adults, because they're so energetic and hard to keep focused. They're a lot of fun, though, and very friendly, saying "hello!" several times when I come in. They like a lot of games and songs and stuff, and some of them can't sit still for more than a minute. It's very satisfying because they're learning basic English words and structures, so you feel like you're really teaching them something new each time, and the games give them a chance to practice.

My roommate just made some che, which I'm eating now. It's kind of a sweet dessert made with beans, sometimes very cold and icy, but this one he made is very watery, but it's nice and refreshing and seems healthy since it's made with beans. They look like very big kidney beans, and even though I'm not a bean enthusiast, I don't mind them much, and they're kind of sweet.

Well that's all the news that's fit to give. Merry Christmas everyone!

Monday, December 8, 2008

My December

Hello, hello.

One of the gas companies here is Saigon Petro. It seems fitting, so I added a picture of the logo to the left.

Not much new to say really, but people keep clamoring for posts. I may have forgotten to mention that I started working at a third school, Vietnam National University. So, this is serious business. Same kinda stuff though, teaching lessons and getting students to talk English with each other a lot. I don't like the lesson books as much as at Elite. There aren't a lot of fun activities, and it's mostly centered around listening exercises. The one class I taught so far only had five people. Still, I bet I can think of some activities and games to make class more interesting.

I've been going out to karaoke a lot lately. They get a kick out of me singing in Vietnamese, and I can barely pronounce the words in time to the music, but it's alright. The collection of English songs they have mostly predate 1990, so the ideal songs to sing are the cheesy, over-the-top ones. Obviously, I showed off my Tom Jones impression.

I got a new roommate. And a toaster. He brought many things with him. But I especially am loving the toast.
He's a very cool guy, and I think we'll become friends as well as roommates. He's Vietnamese but very easy to talk to in English. He goes to work early every morning, so I feel like a bum since I usually get up around 11. He also goes on business trips a lot. Right now he's in the Philippines for the next few days.


And now, by popular demand, here is a picture of a recent energy drink which I consumed:



When I drank it, I briefly became a samurai. Then I reverted back to my normal self. It was actually pretty uneventful.

Farewell!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The 5th Post of the Month



Welcome to the Christmas season! Actually, with no buffer holidays like Halloween or Thanksgiving, Christmas decorations start popping up in October here. For a society with only a minority of Christians, they sure love Christmas here. It must be the commercialization of it, and how it's associated with American culture. At any rate, I bought my own 4 foot fake Christmas tree, and I'll be adding lights and ornaments another day. It's nice to have some festive charm in my house.

We all celebrated Thanksgiving here last Wednesday, with a complete meal delivered from an American restaurant. The turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing and everything was great, just like back home. Unfortunately, there was no football on TV. Not that I would really follow it or understand what was going on, but it is tradition.

I'm starting work this week at a new school, the Vietnam National University. So, I have yet another style of lesson to get used to, but the variety will keep things interesting. I think the university students will be that much more eager to learn, and many are probably hoping to study for some time in an English-speaking country. A lot of people go to Australia or New Zealand just because they're so close. That leaves them with an interesting accent, and vocabulary including "cheers" and "mate".

I was able to get 5 posts in this month, so that's an improvement! Hopefully more adventures await me in December.

I'm one third of the way through my overseas excursion.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Of Cockroaches and Kings

It's no secret that I hate bugs and small creatures.

The only ones I don't mind are the small geckos who live on the walls in my kitchen. They're very shy and run away when I turn on the light. I tolerate them because they eat all the little bugs and they look kinda cool.

It's a different story with Mortimer. This is the giant cockroach-like-insect who lives in my bathroom(s). I first met him when I lived in the bedroom down the hall and used the other bathroom. As I came in to brush my teeth, he poked his head out of the drain to say hello. I addressed the situation as I do any other, without any action but a determined staredown. He retreated to the safety of the pipes, and I brushed my teeth at a distance from the sink. I decided to name him something like Archibald or Seymour and I eventually settled on Mortimer. When I moved to the master bedroom, I thought I might never see him again, and I was glad. But tonight as I walked into my bathroom to take a shower, I found him scampering on the floor and I resumed my stare. It looked like he couldn't find a way out through a pipe this time, and he didn't fit through the drain on the floor. He was very shy, though, and dashed under a table. I had him cornered this time, and I was going to end things once and for all. I grabbed a box from my bedroom and wheeled the table to the side, which caused him to appear, terror in his eyes and trembling in his antennae and mandibles. I brought down the box on him and placed a sneaker on top, because I figured that the strength of an insect with a name like Mortimer should never be underestimated. He will spend the night in his airless prison and I'll have my maid dispatch of him tomorrow morning. It is very likely that she is less squeamish around bugs than I am.

That's all for today!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Teacher's day

On Thursday is Teacher's Day in Vietnam. It's kind of a big deal since teachers are traditionally given a lot of respect in this society. Students give presents like flowers to their teachers on this day, but I don't know if I'll be getting any gifts. My classes fluctuate too much from week to week, and on Thursday I'm filling in for a class I haven't taught before. Unless the students are so zealous about teacher's day that they bring gifts to class even when they don't know who the teacher will be, I won't be expecting anything, and I'm not that big into flowers anyway. It is kind of a good feeling to know that they have a day that honors teachers, since I suddenly randomly chose that job for the time being. I'm still trying to figure out what I'm going to do after this, and the time is ticking on making a decision, since graduate school application deadlines are coming up.

A couple days ago I had a dinner party at my house with my fellow English teacher friends, and it was nice to see them again and act like a host. My maid prepared a lot of quesadilla mix, we fried them up and they came out delicious. I also kept things classy with a plate of brie cheese and crackers, because I couldn't find feta in the supermarket, and some cornichons. I always associate those things with the idea of a dinner party. I take great joy in planning things and getting all the details right and having everything go well. Maybe that's my calling: I can be a wedding planner, haha.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tales from the Classroom

So much for new leaves.

Ants seem to be everywhere. Everywhere indoors, that is. I'll often see a stream of ants crawling up the walls in the kitchen, or crawling on the counter and threatening my dinner. And they often show up in my bedroom as well. I really can't understand. They're tiny and innocuous enough that it doesn't bother me too much. Still, it's unsettling. The ants must have discovered some tiny forgotten morsel of food. I kinda solved the mystery last night. In between teaching two classes, I went to the break room of the school and had a snack of fried rice. It was an interesting concoction, there were like 6 different kinds of meat inside, as well as bunch of other things. As I was wolfing this down, I dropped a small bean sprout or something on the floor and I didn't pick it up. About ten minutes later, I got up to get a drink of water, and I looked down at the floor in front of my chair. I observed a sea of ants emanating from a hole in the wall to the place where I dropped my piece of food. About halfway to the hole, a dozen or so ants were carrying the food, slowly inching it closer to their home. It was like an epic trophy that they were putting all their effort into recovering. It was partly disgusting and partly awe-inspiring.

Anyway, I wanted to share some stories from the classroom.
One of the classes I taught last week was incredibly raucous. Usually the students are relatively quiet and respectful, but sometimes they can get loud and out of hand. In America, I would just scream at them and strike fear in their hearts, but I've been warned not to yell in Asian classrooms. So I try a small hush and the few students who are watching me join in and eventually the class quiets down. Anyway, these guys were kinda out of control, and maybe it was the topic. We were talking about love, and since the students were all late teens or early 20's, it was a hot topic. One girl in particular was incredibly vocal. In one activity, they were practicing talking about likes and dislikes, and they had to write down things they liked and things they didn't, like countries, cities, food, music, etc. When we got to cities we didn't like, this girl kept yelling "HANOI! HANOI! HA-NOI!" And I said, ok, ok. When we got to food we liked, she kept yelling "KFC! KFC!"
Anyway, the topic got a little serious when I divided up the boys and girls and had them write the characteristics they look for in a member of the opposite sex. For some reason, the boys chose to list characteristics that pertained to this girl, and it was kinda funny and interesting to see what they wrote. They meant to say "talkative", but wrote "talk a tea", which is how they also say it since they don't pronounce final consonants. Well, I don't mean to make fun of them, I just find it interesting. So, the girl found out that they were talking about her but she wasn't too embarrassed. Next, she read what the girls were looking for in a man, and he had to be rich and handsome and tall. I asked them if any of the boys in the class fit the criteria, and they said "no, but maybe the teacher", so I assured them that I was not rich.

After that class, I taught a class where the topic was food. I asked them what food people eat on special occasions. I was expecting to hear something like cake. A girl tried to tell me something but I had trouble understand what she was saying, so she spelled it out for me. Even that didn't work, because they mix up how to say a lot of letters in English, like "g" and "j" and "z". Finally, I got all the letters correct and looked at what I had written on the board: dog. I laughed nervously as the students nodded.

Yesterday I taught two classes, and in one of them the power went out in the middle of the lesson. The students seemed content about the break in the lesson, but I took out my cell phone and used the flashlight function to read my book and keep asking questions, which was met with groans. The lack of A/C was starting to get to me, so I didn't think I'd be able to teach much longer in a dark, hot room, but luckily someone came up and flipped a switch to get the power going again.

I taught another class where they were reviewing for a test and had to go over a bunch of review questions. When of them was about goals in life. One girl stated that her goal was to make a lot of money, to which another replied that her goal was to find a rich husband, and the other girls smiled and nodded in agreement. For a non-capitalistic society, there sure is a lot of obsession with money.

In other news, I checked out a Greek restaurant here the other day. It wasn't exactly Greek, more Mediterranean, but it serves a lot of Greek dishes so I figured I'd give it a shot. The spanakopita is really good, at least. The gyros are nowhere near actual gyros, but as pita pockets filled with meat, they're alright. Uyen got moussaka, which I tried a taste of and it was alright. She really liked it. I've never been a big moussaka fan. For some reason, pasticio wasn't on the menu. They had a lot of dishes that sounded like shish kabob, skewered lamb and chicken and such. Baklava was on the dessert menu, but since I've been having a lot from what my parents sent me over the past few weeks, I didn't feel like trying it. I haven't ever really had bad baklava, honestly, so I don't see how they could screw it up. Overall, it's the best Greek food option in Ho Chi Minh City, so it will have to do.

Over and out.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Post-Brad

Now it's November, and looking back I made 11 posts in August, and 4 posts each in September and October, so I seriously slowed down to about a post a week. I'm hoping to turn over a new leaf in November.

So after some complications, my friend Brad was able to visit for a day, and it was nice seeing a familiar face. He was really enamored with the city, even though it rained most of the time he was here. We pretty much avoided all Vietnamese food and had a nice Italian dinner at Good Morning Vietnam. He enjoyed riding around on the back of my motorbike, dodging traffic and trying not to fall over at red lights. I wasn't used to having so much weight on my bike, so it took a lot of getting used to. We finally got the hang of it, though. We checked out the big outside market called Ben Thanh, which stays open really late, bought some cheap t-shirts and stuff. We also ended up buying some DVD's, I picked up seasons 1-2 of 30 Rock, which I look forward to watching every episode of. Uyen also met us for lunch at a French cafe type place that had good sandwiches and fruit shakes.

Then, I took Brad back to the airport to go back to Singapore, and I had to teach one class yesterday at a faraway campus. It went pretty well, though, and I feel that I'm getting the hang the lessons at Elite. I just wish I could teach the same classes every week and get to know my students better.

Luckily I started picking up some classes at a journalism school, whose name I don't really know for some reason. On Wednesday nights, I teach two classes back to back which are "interpretation classes". It's a different style where I work with a Vietnamese teacher to help the students understand a passage in English. This week, we had an interview with Bill Gates, where he talked about what it's like to be rich and what his work with Microsoft is like. The Vietnamese teacher read the class the interviewer's questions in Vietnamese, and one of them had to think and translate it into English. Then I would respond slowly in English, and one of them had to think and translate it into Vietnamese for the other teacher. So, since I don't know Vietnamese well enough, all I have to do is read the responses in English and the other teacher is the one who evaluates the students. Sometimes I also explain a word or phrase that they don't understand. So, it's kinda fun and easy. There are only a few students in the class, too. Wednesday night might be the night I look forward to in the week. If I don't start getting more classes from Elite, though, then I will have to look for yet another school to pick up classes at.

One complication came this week when my motorbike wouldn't work after my classes on Wednesday. It would start up, but if I gave it any gas it would shut off. It had plenty of gas, so I was stumped, and the guards kept trying to play with it and figure it out but they didn't know either. So, the next morning I called the place I rent my bike from, and they sent a couple people over to look at it and get it serviced. They fixed it and brought it back to my house, no charge. So, there's one bit of luck I've had.

In other news, now I've finished all the other books I brought, and it's time to delve into Don Quixote.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

October Surprises (not really)

At the end of this week, it will be November. Can you believe it? I left home at the very end of July, and that's now three months ago.

I guess I have grown over the past few months. I've learned a lot about living on my own and juggling many different things. I've faced challenges, and I've been calm and optimistic when I face them. Ultimately, I am blessed to have family and friends who love and support me, enough food to eat, water to drink, a roof over my head. Those are the essentials, and so many people in the world are not as lucky as me to have them.

I picked up two more classes a week at another school, and they are TOEIC preparation courses. TOEIC is a test to see how well people in other countries can use English, in a business setting. They need native English speakers to help them with the speaking section, which apparently is not that important. So, it's kind of a low pressure thing. They didn't give me a book or anything, they just said I should prepare something on my own and teach it. So, I taught one class last week and I came up with some scenarios, like the students take on roles in a company and we meet at an annual business meeting and they have to give a little report on their performance at the company, and how what they're doing is helping make profits. So, I prepared these activities, then I came into the class and I found that there were only three students. That was interesting. But, it worked out, and I adjusted my lesson for them. It was easier in a way because I could cater to their individual needs. But it's also tough filling up an hour and a half with three people. Also, I know NOTHING about business.

Last weekend was fun, some of Uyen's friends were visiting from her hometown, and she invited me to hang out with them. One night I joined them at a karaoke bar, they had packed twenty or so people in a private room and were loudly belting out Vietnamese pop songs. People here usually seem quiet and reserved, but I guess if you give them a microphone they undergo a sudden transformation. I treated them to renditions of "Hello" by Lionel Ritchie, and of course "We Built this City on Rock N Roll". On Sunday night, we had a dinner at a nice place that was kinda outdoors, lots of trees and nice scenery around, like a tropical theme. I see many of these places around, but I'm scared to go in because they're usually full of large parties of locals. Anyway, now I was with the locals. The waiters kept bringing out ample dishes of different foods, chicken and squid and these fried rice ball things, and then this soup they cook in a hot pot in front of you and put meat and noodles in it. Everyone shares from the communal dishes, taking some food and putting it on their own plates. All the food was really good, and all the people were friendly and chatty. Some of her friends had studied in New Zealand and they were really good at English, so they kept talking to me about Vietnam and cultural differences and such.

Teaching in general has been going a lot better, and I've been preparing extra hard for all my classes and I try to make sure that when I wave goodbye to my students and they say "goodbye, teacher" everyone is all smiles. I talk as slow as possible in the lower level classes. The frustrating thing is that I wasn't evaluated after any of my classes last week, so the school didn't get a chance see that I had improved, and this week I was given pretty much the same amount of classes as last week. I guess the evaluations really are quite random, because I taught two classes yesterday and was evaluated after both of them. I felt confident about how I did, though.

My roommate told me that she wants to go back to Thailand, where she was studying before, and she will probably leave in the next week or so, so I'm looking for a new roommate, hopefully someone that Hien knows or someone connected with Languagecorps. I want to have someone who I can be sure will stay for several months.

Tomorrow my friend Brad is coming to visit, since he's already in this neck of the woods seeing his girlfriend who's working in Singapore. He's only spending basically two days and one night here, so I have to pack in the activities. I feel like I will be a horrible guide. I haven't even really explored half of the city. And most of the times I go out to dinner, I eat Western food, so if he wants some authentic Vietnamese then I'll have to think hard.

Then again... there is the delectable Banh Xeo... a wonderful omelette-y thing stuffed with meat and shrimp and veggies, and you wrap it up in lettuce and dip it in some sauce.
I forget that I'm horrible at describing things. Let's consult wikipedia on the topic:
Bánh xèo are Vietnamese crepe-type pancakes made out of rice flour, water and turmeric powder or coconut milk (in the Southern regions) stuffed with slivers of fatty pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts and is pan fried. Traditionally, they are served wrapped in mustard leaf, lettuce leaves, and stuffed with mint leaves, basil, fish leaf and/or other herbs, and dipped in a prepared nước mắm called nuoc cham (Vietnamese fish sauce thinned with water and lemon). In the Central region, the pancake is dipped in a special 'tuong' sauce which consists of liver, hoisin sauce and garlic. Southern style Bánh xèo are larger compared to the small pan-fried versions in the Central regions.

Sorry that I haven't been taking pictures. I'm kinda shy with my camera because I feel like if I take it out, I'll be labeled a tourist. I actually have some nice pictures of the Mekong Delta that I can upload next time I'm feeling bored. Maybe when Brad comes I'll have an excuse to take more pictures.

Monday, October 20, 2008

strikes and gutters

I've had some ups and downs recently. The good news is that I'm feeling better, so my tonsillitis seems to be all gone. Once I got the right medicine, it worked really quickly to make me feel better, so I'm grateful for that. Now I'm just trying to get things back to normal.

The problem I've had recently is not getting enough classes to teach. When I was sick, I had to cancel my classes, and then I assumed I would start getting a full schedule again, but my school told me that based on some negative feedback from students, they're going to cut my hours and see if I improve. Well, I understand they want to hold teachers to very high standards, but it's very difficult for me, money-wise, to only work for a few hours in a week. Having just this one job which fluctuates so much is really too unstable for me when I'm trying to pay the monthly bills, so now I'm looking into other places to teach. Some of the other teachers here have been working for Cleverlearn, so I'll look into that, but Graham says he's been placed in public schools for some classes out of the week, and they have no air-conditioning. Considering that I am a sweaty mess before I even enter the classroom, to teach without AC sounds cruel and unusual. What I also like about Elite is that the locations were all close by, so I'm hoping to find a place to teach that is in my part of the city. Since I already signed my contract with Elite, I believe I may be obligated to continue teaching there until next July, but as long as I get another job, I should be able to get up to my goal of 20-25 hours and it hopefully will be less stressful when I have some variety teaching in two different places. At this point, I wouldn't mind also teaching some classes in the morning. I haven't had to get up early at all in the past few weeks, and it's kinda nice but I also feel like I waste the day.

At any rate, I do want to get better at teaching. I feel like I may have been slacking lately, probably because I was still feeling the effects of my illness and exhaustion from the week before. As hard as it is to maintain, I have to keep a very slow and loud voice so that the lower-level students can understand me. Also, even if I'm feeling really uninspired and just want the students to talk with their partners, I do have to plan a fun, active game of some sort that lets them practice the language as much as possible. Some of the classes I taught complained that it was too boring. I guess I had gotten discouraged from trying to do activities that students didn't understand or were too shy to get involved in. But, I can't let it get me down. Being a former student, I know that few things in life are worse than a boring class. Even if it's discouraging, I have to keep some fun injected into the lesson, because after every class there is a possibility that someone from Elite will come in to ask the students how I did, so the key is to make every class a great class. Since I'm going to continue teaching at Elite, I have to keep this in mind so I can get more classes and possibly raises in the future.

As far as other little anecdotes go, I can't really think of anything. Yesterday, Uyen and I went to a place that had Bubble Tea, which I had previously fallen in love with in the States. She referred to it as milk tea, which confused me until I saw it and I realized what it was. Apparently they use "bubble tea" to refer to just another kind of iced fruity tea drink that's kinda bubbly. I looked into it, and Bubble Tea was invented in Taiwan and spread to the rest of east asia from there, and in Chinese it has the name "pearl milk tea", so I guess that's more accurate, but now it's popping up all over America, at least in cities where there are a lot of Asians, and everyone calls it Bubble Tea over there. Oh, for anyone who doesn't know, it's like a fruity cold tea drink that has little balls of tapioca in it, and you drink it with this big straw that lets you suck up the balls as you drink. It's a strange feeling but it's delicious and I hope to drink it more often. It only costs about a dollar.

They tell me that the rainy season is on its way out, but currently it's pouring rain. Hopefully it will let off before I go to work. The downside to driving a scooter is the only protection between you and the rain is a flimsy jacket or poncho that will inevitably still leave you wet.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

sickness

For the past week, I've been very sick. I don't feel like writing much but I wanted to just give a quick update.

For a few days they didn't know what I had, and then a doctor examined me and said I have tonsillitis. This caused a fever, which has since gone down, and a horrible sore throat and cough, and nausea and stomacheache, and headache and dizziness. I had to cancel my class this week, except for one, and after I taught it I was completely exhausted. Elite has been understanding but wants me to get better. I don't like to disappoint them so I want to be better by Monday.

I've been taking a lot of medicine and resting but still not really feeling better. I feel alright when I'm lying down, but when I get up I feel weak and faint. The tonsillities caused low blood pressure, I guess, so I don't get enough blood going to my head.

This whole thing is very difficult and frustrating. I just want to be better.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Haircuts, etc.

I really should blog more often. I always come up with ideas of things I want to say when I'm out and about, then I get back to my computer and I can't remember them!

My biggest recurring observation though is just amazement at where I am and what I'm doing. When I'm coming home from work, I stop and say to myself, "wow, I am driving a motorbike down a very busy city street in southeast asia, wearing a shirt and tie because I have just been teaching twenty young Vietnamese people how to speak English." Years ago, I would not have predicted that this would be first job after college. I'm very pleased with how things turned out, though. I like getting into the routine of it, and the fact that living in a different country, driving a motorbike, interacting with new people every day has become part of a routine is a remarkable feeling. Some people get their thrills from doing all sorts of dangerous activities like bungie jumping or sky diving or mountain climbing. To me, the most exciting thing is when what was once exciting loses its excitement and becomes part of normality. To become so used to something that once was scary and unknown is a thrill to me. I don't know if that makes sense to anyone else.

A few days ago, I went into the breakroom between two classes for a 15-minute respite and a snack. The room was crowded with Vietnamese teachers who teach English grammar to the students, whereas foreign teachers focus on speaking and pronunciation. There was one other American, though, and he immediately gave himself away as a typical American baffoon, in my opinion. Most of the English-speakers I have met in Vietnam have been British or Australian, so whenever I meet a fellow American it is a little exciting, but this teacher proved himself to represent all the negative stereotypes of our culture. He was a big guy, maybe in his 30's, and he was loudly regaling a Vietnamese teacher with a story, which I entered in the middle of. From what I gathered, he had been cut off twice by another motorbike driver, and he decided to punch him in the face. Presently he kept alternating between justifying his actions to his eager listener ("he cut me off. i had to punch him."), and commenting on the pain in his hand which was his own doing ("wow, it really hurts. i got him good!") The Vietnamese teacher who was listening kept smiling and nodding his head and asking questions, and I gazed disinterestedly on. For some unfathomable reason, I spoke, and the man immediately recognized that I was American and began bombarding me with the usual questions. Predictably, he scoffed and guffawed numerous times at my decision to major in philosophy, explaining to his audience that this field does not pay a lot of money and I would be in debt for the rest of my life. I reassured him that I was in fact going to be okay before slipping off to teach my next class.

In contrast, all the Vietnamese I have met have been exceedingly friendly, except for the crazy woman who tried to sell me two packs of gum at the zoo for $6. Everyone is very interested to hear about my life and why I came to Vietnam. One of my students in a class I taught yesterday lingered at the end of class and asked me "do you like coffee?" I responded that yes, yes I do, and he subsequently invited me to a coffeeshop, which was nice. He was 27 but looked younger than me, and we had a good conversation about anything and everything. He was very modest about his English, as all people here are, but I thought he spoke very well. The downside to this decision was that drinking coffee at 9:30 at night, especially strong Vietnamese coffee, ensured that I would not fall asleep until 4 in the morning, even after taking two Tylenol PM's. It wouldn't have been an issue if I hadn't had to wake up to be at school at 9am today to sign a contract. Which reminds me, Elite has asked me to... sign a contract! Which I guess means that I passed the trial period, they like me, and want to keep me as a teacher.

And now to the title of this blog post, the haircut. Yesterday I decided that my hair was too long, especially for this humid weather. I walked a few shops down the street to a hair salon. Every time I had walked past it, it was devoid of customers, but rife with employees, all female and wearing matching outfits. That seems to be a trend in places of business here. So, I started to turn into the salon, but one of the girls sprang up to open the door before I could even touch the handle. They were very excited to either see someone with my kind of hair or just plain have a customer. I don't know if they had ever cut curly hair before. I told them in Vietnamese to cut it short but not too short. They sat me down and bustled about, one girl getting the smock, one prepared to brush away hair that fell on the floor, and a woman a little older than the others readying her scissors. I think it was my first haircut without the use of an electric razor. She did pretty well for curly hair, but it turned out a little shorter than I'm used to. It's still alright, I can kinda push up the front and give it some style. At any rate, I think walking around will be a hundred times easier without a furry cap to trap in heat and moisture. After the haircut, they also gave me a nice shave. When it was over, they handed me the bill. It cost a whopping.... brace yourselves.... $3.75. I left a generous tip and skipped back to my house with a spring in my step.

Last week I woke up at 8am on Saturday to watch the presidential debate (9pm in America the night before). I'm trying to decide if I should do the same tomorrow for the VP debate, or just wake up later and watch the highlights. It is kind of exciting to see it live, though, and be one of the first to catch something interesting happen. Political debates are my football games.

This is Peter, saying Farewell from the Future.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Teacher, this time for real

Sorry it has been so long since I last posted. Life has gotten busier.

I taught two classes last week which both went alright, but both days it started raining on my way to work, and I showed up soaking wet. I also didn't finish the lessons I wanted to teach. But, I got a better handle on the time it takes to explain and run activities.

So far this week, I've taught five classes, and I have one more tomorrow. They have been going much better. Elite has been very kind and helpful and forgiving of my mistakes. When I work two classes in a row, I have 15 minutes in between classes and they give me a free snack or drink. I've been getting fruit and vegetable shakes. Those avocado shakes are amazing. Next time I should get food, though. It's tough waiting until after 9 to eat dinner. By then I'm so tired I don't even feel like eating.

Anyway, I enjoy teaching. Some of the classes are low level and have trouble understanding things, so I have to expect that and train myself to talk slowly and loudly. I'm getting better at slowing down and being patient. It can be difficult when you have the students working on something for 5-10 minutes, and then you ask someone to share what they talked about or wrote about, and the class is dead silent. Students here are just more shy and afraid of saying something wrong. But with a little coaxing, you find that they have interesting things to say. In the higher level classes, some students are just itching to get a chance to share. One class I taught yesterday was pretty smart, and we were just flying through the activities so that I thought we'd have too much time leftover, but it ended up working out.

Yesterday I was also a little late to my classes, because I was teaching at a school I hadn't taught at before, and all I knew was that it was on the street that I live on, just in a different district. So I thought, ok, I can find this, I just drive up. Except, when I got to a busy intersection, the street turned from one way my direction, to one way against me. It made absolutely no sense. I could even see the school right there. I wanted to just drive on the sidewalk to get to the school, but the cop shook his head at me and I pleaded with him, asking "how do I get... right... there!!" and he pointed to another street going into the intersection. So, I took that up and took the next sidestreet to try to get back, but there was stop-and-go traffic the whole way, and it took me another 20 minutes to get there. Luckily I was only 5 minutes late and they seemed to understand. They also told me a much easier way to get there if I take another sidestreet and get to the school from kind of a backdoor. So, it should be easier next time.

Today is my... day off! I'm just going to be lazy today. I've been kinda tired and sick, just from lack of sleep and some stress. This past weekend we went to the Mekong Delta, which was a lot of fun, sailing up and down the rivers, visiting floating markets, eating seafood, getting caught in monsoons, and just watching how people lived their lives everyday. But, I didn't get much sleep that weekend. Last night I took some tylenol PM and slept for like 12 hours, so that helped.

Oh yea, I also got a roommate, so I can cut my rent in half. She's a Sri Lankan university student named Chethana, and her English is pretty good. She's pretty nice and I don't think we'll have any problems.

I don't think there's anything else to say, so I'll put this rambling, haphazard post to an end.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

An Observation, and a Prognostication

An observation on restaurants in Vietnam:

They will never give you bread before a meal.
They will always give you a moist toilette or two. If you use it, you will be charged 1,000 dong. Slightly more than 6 cents is a good price for clean hands.
They will always give you toothpicks at the end of the meal if they are not already on the table. Picking your teeth is simultaneously socially improper and a national pastime. The result is that you will see people impatiently reaching for a toothpick as soon as they've had the last bite of their meal, hurriedly cleaning all their teeth and using their other hand to cover their mouth so that you can't tell what they are obviously doing. I like to just sit there with the toothpick in my mouth, like I'm either Clark Gable with a cigarette or a farmer with a weed in my mouth, but I don't think this is proper.
Most places will also give you a free iced tea, which tastes like green tea but I think it's slightly different. I've already gotten sick of it. I crave berry and lemon teas. I should try and buy some packets so I can make some at home.
I think that every restaurant must hire three times as many people as they need at any given time. Granted sometimes I eat at odd hours, but every time I've eaten out, there have been extra wait stuff just hanging around doing nothing, gazing off in the distance, half-interestedly watching a Viet soap or melodramatic music video, or watching me eat if there's nothing more exciting to see. Maybe in the States the waiters are just better at hiding when they have nothing to do.
When you have a motorbike, parking at anywhere in the city becomes a non-issue. Just pull up front and a security guy will take the bike and give you a ticket. Half the places I've parked at so far have not charged me. The most I've ever had to pay is 3,000 dong. That's like 20 cents. Less than a quarter to park anywhere in the city for as long as I want, or at least until they close. There's one area where American cities can look to Ho Chi Minh for guidance.

This week Elite has given me two classes to teach. That's only 3 hours of work... One class Monday evening, one class Tuesday evening. I like that I don't have to get up early, and I have time to really review my lesson and plan everything out before I start. I wanted to work more this first week, but I think it would also be good to ease into things, especially since it's a new format from the one I'm used to, but with a lot of the similar ideas. The school says that depending on how I do with my first classes, I'll get more the next week, and more the next week, etc., until I'm up to 20 or so hours a week. With planning time, transportation time, etc., I think that's pretty good. If I still feel that I have too much free time, I can try to take on some tutoring.

I am looking forward to my lesson tomorrow, though understandably a little nervous now that it's an actual job. I just gotta remember that I did two weeks of teaching and it went well, so this is just kind of a continuation of what I've been doing. In the teacher's book we got, all the activities are pretty much planned out for us, but I hope that in time I'll be able to tweak things a little more and more. Some of the games and activities seem kind of repetitive and I can think of more fun ways to do things. Some of them are good ideas, though. There's a lot of stuff in the lesson plan, and I hope we get to it all in an hour and a half. There's also a CD that they provided with audio clips of conversations and such that are part of the activities, so that will help to keep things humming along. My lesson is called "have you ever broken a bone?" and is all about injuries and medical advice and stuff, with some grammatical things thrown in, like separable phrasal verbs (which I didn't even know until I took the Languagecorps course). Anyway... I think it will go well.

Wish me luck!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Alone in my Villa

Picked up my motorbike today. My new wild hog.




Easy enough to use. I decided to ride it around the city a little this afternoon when traffic was light. I quickly got the hang of it. There are so many bikes on the road, that they all have to kind of go at a moderate speed anyway. Still, it was a bit frightening at times. I pictured myself as the least likely person to drive around a huge crowded city with a motorbike, but I went ahead and did it. If I can confront one fear every day, I'm sure I'll never run out of fears but at least I'll grow more confident at doing new things. I would say the hardest part about driving in this city is finding a specific place. It's alright to just drive around in circles, but looking for a certain address is an exercise in futility. Streets change names several times, many are one-way, numbers on the right and left sides of the road count up differently, and google maps utterly fails at locations outside the US. Tonight I will attempt to drive to Greta and Genessa's new apartment for dinner, and it is pretty much a straight shot from where I live, so hopefully nothing will go wrong.

These past few days I've had nothing to do, so I've had a lot of time to muse on things.

I've been sleeping very unevenly, waking up several times in the night for no reason. Probably just things on my mind.
At 5am, a rooster in the neighborhood wakes up and feels that it is his duty to cooka-doodle his heart out until I know that he's awake and I am too. It makes it impossible to sleep, so I've taken to going to bed with earplugs, which is far from comfortable but at least it lets me sleep, and if I wake up in mid-morning I can take them out because he usually settles down by then..

My maid is really nice, she's only here in the mornings so I make a point to get out of bed before she leaves so I can say hi. She brings me coffee and a breakfast assembled from whatever is in the house, like bread and peanut butter and cheese and a banana. Today she also cooked me up a chicken quesadilla, which I heated up for lunch, and it was really quite good. My maid doesn't know English too well, but she's very nice and good at what she does.

I like my neighborhood. The streets are full of peddlers of all sorts of things, like fresh fruit and coffee and other random items. There are tons of tiny little shops selling everything from rain ponchos to motorbike helmets to lamps to phone cards. Everyone gazes at me as if I'm a martian, and I try to smile back. They'll get used to me. I'm their neighbor.

I've already seen a couple people interested in moving into the extra room here. They were both impressed with the place and the smallness of the rent. They're both British folk working as english teachers who seem to be in their 30's. One is male and one is female. She said "well maybe you'd prefer a lad", but it honestly doesn't matter to me. So, hopefully one of them decides to live here. This house is kinda big for just one person.

Tomorrow is an orientation day at my new school that I'm teaching at. I don't know if that means I'm immediately teaching after that, or even the very same day. At any rate, my free time will probably diminish significantly. Right now, that's a very welcome prospect, because I am bouncing off the walls just a little.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Vacation and House Warming

So from Monday to Friday we took a little vacation to the beach. First we went to Vung Tau, didn't like it too much, too busy and no good beaches, so we journeyed to Mui Ne, which was a lot nicer. It's a resort town but there weren't many people there, it must have been off season. We were able to get a bungalow at a resort for cheap, it was right on the beach and also had a pool. Most of the time we just hung out, swam, napped, read, went out to eat, repeat. It was pretty relaxed the whole time, but it was nice, especially being in such a beautiful area. It was a really nice mini-vacation before we started working.

Last Sunday I moved into my house, but today the guy who was living here before me finally got all his stuff out, so I was able to move into the bigger, better room and start making it my home. I like the house, it's really peaceful, like an oasis in the middle of the madness of the city. At some point I may have to buy some art to put on the walls so I truly feel like a young cultured professional on the rise, or something.

We got the jobs at the school called Elite. All we have to do is show up on Thursday for a training session for a few hours, and then we can start getting scheduled to teach. I'm really looking forward to it. All this free time is nice, but I need some structure, and some money. From my training and practice, I also found that I really enjoy teaching and feel that I'm making a positive impact on people. You can be surprised how well two people can communicate even when one of them is far from fluent in the language.

I've also been hanging out with a girl named Uyen who was one of the students in my practice teaching class. It seems to be slowly developing into a relationship. I am completely confused about the etiquette of Vietnamese dating customs, so I find the whole thing both terrifying and exciting, which is a good combination. I believe that I just have to relax and let things progress naturally.

And now, some pictures:


The beach by our resort.


Posing with my motorbike. We rented them for an afternoon to drive around.


My new bedroom, before I moved my stuff in.


The living room downstairs.


The curvy staircase which leads upstairs.


The view outside my bedroom window, one floor up.


Me and Uyen.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

End of Training

All my training is now over!
Huzzah!

Teaching was a lot of fun, and I'm really glad I had the opportunity to learn how to do it in this environment. Unfortunately, it's time to play with the big boys, and I'm moving out tomorrow and into my own house in the city, the place I talked about in another post. It has a maid to cook and clean, which is nice, it's got three bedrooms but so far I'm the only one living there, tv, internet, AC, so I think it'll be a good deal.

This morning all four of us interviewed at a school called Elite. First they gave us a little pep talk about how they teach their lessons, then we were individually interviewed, they asked us a little about our teaching style, and asked us if we had questions, etc. They'll let us know Monday if we get picked. It seems like it's pretty safe to say we'll all get chosen, since English teachers are in demand, and we made good impressions. I like the school, because one of the locations is close to where I'm gonna be living. Also, the schedule is kind of flexible, like you'll be teaching different classes at different times each week, probably 20 hours a week, and you can ask for vacation time when you want. Starting pay is usually 15-16 dollars an hour but every few months you get evaluated and may get a pay raise. The lessons follow a set order but you can make each lesson your own, and add your own creative activities to it. Mostly they need us to help students with speaking and listening, and they have local teachers for reading and writing. So, if I get hired, it sounds like a great place to work.

We've been going out to dinner at all sorts of interesting places lately. Tonight we got Lebanese food, which I loved because it reminded me of Greek food. Friday night we went to a place that served a gigantic burger where the meat itself was 1.1 pounds, and it was topped with cheese and bacon and lettuce and onion and tomato. Gen and I could only eat half, but Greta and Graham the champion eaters were able to down it all after about 35, 40 minutes. Afterwards, we all felt kinda logey and sick. But I'm proud of their great accomplishment. I guess my stomach has just gotten too small to tackle such a feat.

Not much else to really say. I've loved the training here, and the girls that work here are so amazingly nice and helpful. Like when Hien comes in and just offers me some grapefruit and keeps slicing pieces until I feel that I will have vitamin C coming out of my eyes. I'll definitely have to come back and visit from time to time.

Taking some time off before I'd like to start teaching. So Graham and I are going to beach on Monday I think, a place called Vang Tau or something. We're staying for a few days or a week or until we get bored. I don't know, I obviously don't know the details. He wants to learn to surf. I want to sit on the beach and read and contemplate. And become the center of attention for all the locals. We'll see what happens. If you don't hear anything, just assume I am alive. No news is good news!

adios for now

Monday, August 25, 2008

Time Marches on

When I first got here, I was eating 4 meals a day. Now my stomach has shrunk, probably from those days when I was sick, and I'm content off just two meals. And for some reason, they can be spaced very far apart. For example, today I ate at 9am and 9:30pm. I wasn't even hungry for lunch. I don't know if this will be a continuing trend or a passing thing, but it's nice to not spend as much money.

I checked out the place I'm thinking of renting today, and everything about it seems great. It's off a main road, but down a couple small side streets so that the location itself is very quiet. It's very peaceful, and I'd have my own big balcony, although it's only a couple stories up and doesn't look out on much, but that's okay. There's two bedrooms, and no one else living there at the moment. Somehow it is only $350 a month. If i find someone else to live there, though, I can cut that in half. I do have to pay extra for my utilities and tv and internet and such, but all the monthly bills are laughably small. I met the maid, who's a very nice lady who doesn't speak English well, but I hear she's an amazing cook. I met Hien's brother-in-law, a young American guy who lived there for some years and is now moving back to America with his wife, and he gave me some good advice and gave the place an excellent recommendation. The only gripe I have is that on the main road, it's not the kind of environment that I find ideal. I like having a smattering of cafes and restaurants and such where I can go and get a coffee and a snack or whatever, but the street instead is lined with tons of tiny stores selling things I'm not even interested in, like shirts and antiques and car parts. Oh well. Beggars really can't be choosers. I think enough about the place is positive to outweigh that negative. Hien said there is one cafe right by the street, and I saw the sign but didn't peak inside, but that could become my regular hang-out place.

Anyway, teaching is going great, the city is beautiful, and there's nothing else to really say at this point.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Great Awakening

I haven't posted in a few days, but life's been busy, and I was actually sick for two days out of the week. Stomach pains, and indigestion, and actually a really bad fever worse than I've felt in years. Luckily, since our schedule is pretty flexible with class in the morning and teaching at night, I was able to lie down for a few hours and that made me feel a lot better. I took immodium and ate pretty much just bread for two days, and by Friday night I was feeling much better, and starving, so we went out to dinner at a nice tapas place. There was a guy playing lots of American songs on guitar, everything from Billy Joel to Pearl Jam to Men at Work... so it was interesting, and we had good opportunity to sing along. Exploring more of the city, taking in more of the scenery, and starting to fall in love with Saigon and its people. We walked past the Hotel Continental last night, where the "Quiet American" was written. It's very old, left over from the French colonial period, but looks to be recently renovated. I read a travel article before I left about a guy who lived there for a few months trying to write a novel, following in the tradition of the quiet american, and it was a lot more run down then, and he never ended up writing his novel... but anyway, it looks to be in better shape now.

First week of teaching is done, and it has gone overall pretty smoothly. Even the day that I was sick, I was feeling well enough during the class time to get up and help Graham teach, but by the end of class I was zonked. Yesterday, Friday, I taught a class by myself at 3pm, so I had less time to prepare, and I wasn't familiar with the class, so I had to guess what they knew. Some were really sharp, some were struggling, but I think I got the content of the lesson across. I taught them a lot of new vocab about clothes, in the context of shopping at the market. Then I decided to try some drama, and I wrote a short play and acted it out as a one-man-show for them. It was kind of a funny play where a girl wants to buy blouses, and after she haggles and agrees to buy two, she discovers they are full of holes and decides not to buy them, but the shopkeeper demands payment. So, the girl tries to run away but trips over a candle and lights her pants on fire, taking off her sandal to put out the flames. The shopkeeper cackles and says "that will teach you to mess with me!" and the girl runs away to shop elsewhere. A simple thing, but the students absolutely loved it, and they could not wait to act out their own renditions of it. I also had a game at the end of class where pictures of the vocab words for the day were on the floor, and one representative from each team was up and when I called out a word they had to be the first to stomp on the picture with their foot. They loved that one too! We have also played a game where you smack the word on the board, but it's good to change it up sometimes. I'd like to plan Monday's lesson this weekend to get it out of the way. Perhaps we will talk about accessories.

Another interesting teaching experience came when I had to talk to a student one-on-one, as part of the training program here. We talk to them for an hour, find out what they know and what they need help with, then write a lesson plan, and then for another hour we tutor them using the plan. So, last week I met with a girl, and I found that it's much easier to discover what gives people trouble in language when you can talk and listen to them directly, rather than a classroom setting. For example, mixing up the sounds "p" and "b", which I think is very common among Asian students learning English. Also, consonants at the end of words are hard for them to pronounce, especially more than one, like "porch". A lot of their words end in vowels, or single consonants which are softer and not stressed. Anyway, I think tutoring can be a rewarding activity, and it helps one to think about language and learning on a more personal level.

This weekend we were supposed to be going to the Mekong Delta, but we figured that since we just got to Saigon and have barely seen it, it would be better to postpone that and instead see the city, so that's what we've been doing. Earlier today, we were driving around and looking at apartments for rent for people. I think on Monday Hien will show me a house that has an open room where I can live, where apparently her brother and sister used to live, and her friend still lives sometimes. It would be something like $400 a month, I think. A maid kind of comes with the house. I feel kind of awkward having someone clean for me, but Hien says that the maid is happy to do it and needs the job. Also, apparently she cooks. So, it's beginning to sound like a better and better deal. I just don't like coming across as the cocky American who comes over to another country where his dollar goes further and expects to be treated like a king. But, not having to cook or go out to eat is also nice.... I suppose I will see what the place looks like, but so far it sounds promising to me.

Until next time,
Peter

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Call me Teacher

Because that's what my students call me! I'm trying to get them to learn my name is Peter...

Ok! So the past couple days a lot as happened and I've been absolutely exhausted. But, as I frequently find, exhausted is one of the best states of being. When one has very little to do, and can sleep as late as they want and work as little as they want, it is easy to start feeling bored, restless, lethargic... At least for me, this leads to something like existential dread, and wondering what on earth the meaning is in all of this. Without something to ground you, you're floating off in space, and there's nothing there to sustain you. I've found that, as ironic as it sounds, the busier I am, the happier I am, and the more energized mentally I become.

Anyway! Enough rambling, because I am tired and don't want to be typing forever.
We've had very long days because at 9am we have Vietnamese language class, until 11am or so. It may be a futile exercise... we've so far learned how to pronounce the letters, and what the six tones of the language are, so we can sort of stumble our way through sentences, but will we really learn to say anything and remember it after two weeks? Perhaps the important things will stick with us. I know how to order an ice coffee with milk. Cafe sua da. Except there are many more symbols and accent marks. Anyway, after the class our time is kind of fluid, and we just have to write a lesson plan for the class we teach later that day. Somewhere in there we go to lunch. The first day (Monday, ie yesterday), we viewed a demo class in the afternoon. We watched Linh, the languagecorps teacher, teach a class using the same structure we learned, and we were able to see what she did well and how she organized her lesson. After this, the girls teach a class together around 5, and Graham and I teach a class together around 7. At some point we'll have to split up and teach the class solo and observe each other.

Going into my first class, I was extremely nervous. I kept wanting to just run away and retreat to my comfort zone. Why couldn't I just have stayed at home, playing computer games and drinking hot tea that my mom served me?
But no, here I was, and I was going to go through with it. My brain told me that tons of people did this kind of thing and it wasn't that hard. I KNOW English, I speak it every day. I KNOW the way to teach, I've been learning it for two weeks. And, I think I can be pretty good with people, when I'm not being awkward. And even that awkwardness endears me to people sometimes.
During my class, the nervousness kinda melted away, and I learned that it was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be. We had our lesson plan, we just had to follow it. We had to be patient when the students had trouble with things. We had to be careful to pronounce things correctly, and speak slowly so they got the words. We had to keep energized about what we were doing, even if it was boring to us, it was completely new for them, and they WANT to learn. Our class has 12 people, age 18 to 25, mixed gender but mostly female, at the beginning level. They know some stuff, but not a lot. Frequently they hit a block and don't know the word for something. But they learn quick and are eager to know more. They're all there on their own time, it's not like it's a public school and they're forced to be there.
Anyway, the first day went great. Graham and I kinda switched off with leading things, we were both confident and energized, kept the pace moving. The class was an hour and a half long. Feels like a long time, especially when you're on your feet, but it does go by quick. Our students are awesome... some of them are shy, which is what I expected. But some are talkative and always asking questions. In fact, it's kind of hard to get them to stop talking to each other sometimes. I don't want to treat them like little kids, ya know. It's kinda weird, cuz during training we were told that teachers were very well respected in asia, and all we had to do was walk into a room looking and acting like a teacher, and we immediately had their respect until we lost it by doing something stupid. It's not like American schools where you need to earn respect first. So, I was expecting all of their eyes to be transfixed on us the whole time, but it didn't happen like that. Could be worse, though, for sure. Our first lesson we did introductions and then a lesson about professions and locations where they work. Like, doctor and hospital, banker and bank. It went well and they got the words quickly, so the second day (today) we stepped it up a notch...

Today did not go as well. I wouldn't say it was a bad day. In fact, I'm glad how it turned out because we know so much more now, and we were able to change and adapt our plan in the middle of the lesson to meet their needs.
Our new topic was traveling. We made our dialogue longer and used many more new vocabulary words, in longer sentences. We introduced a ton of names of places around the world, like Eiffel Tower, Pyramids of Egypt, Great Wall of China. I underestimated how hard some of those words are to say for nonnative speakers. So, they were really struggling, and we pared down our dialogue and the number of new words we introduced, so we made it a little better, but it was still not ideal. You could tell they were having trouble with many of the words, and it was just too much to keep track of.
The worst part was that our class was being observed today by Linh, so that made us nervous. At the end, she told us what she thought, and how we could do better. Ultimately, it helped a lot, and we got some good advice from her. We went from too easy the first day, to too hard the second day, so we need to make it simpler and have less new words, but have them learn words they don't know, so it's something new. Our plan is to continue the theme of traveling tomorrow. It's quite alright to have a 2-day lesson. We'll still talk about traveling, but slow down a little and introduce less new words so they can handle it. Luckily we still have about a third of our lesson plan from today that we can carry over and use tomorrow. So, that means less planning tomorrow!
The smiling faces, waves, and sayings of "goodbye, teacher!" as they left the class told me that even though it was a tough lesson, they would be back to learn the next day, and I would be back to better attune the material to their needs.


Without meaning to, I've typed way too much again. Body exhausted, mind is still going a mile a minute.

One more thing to add, though: the two girls who work here, Linh and the administrative assistant Hien, are some of the nicest girls ever, and they've been showing us places to eat breakfast and lunch during the day and cook us dinner after our class every night. Well, two nights in a row at least. I won't expect them to feed us constantly. But it's great to be mothered a little. The homecooked dinners are just amazing and I get completely stuffed. Rice, and spinach things, and chicken that's all garic-y, and fish, and you put it all together in your bowl and shovel it in with chopsticks. Yesterday they made us this wonderful dessert called "buh" (I don't remember what the tone is or how it's spelled), and it's made of avocado, milk, sugar, and ice. It doesn't sound like a dessert... but it's sooo good! It's like a pudding almost. They also serve us cut-up grapefruit which is 10000 times better than grapefruit in the states. It's sweet, not bitter, and comes off in slices, not little pieces that fall apart. Also, you can dip it in this chili-like substance, and somehow it works.
Ah! I could talk all day about food. I've been eating four meals a day... 9am breakfast, 12:30pm lunch, 5:30pm dinner, 10pm late dinner...
You'd think I'd be losing weight with this healthier food, but sadly no. especially not when everything is dirt cheap, even cheaper than Cambodia. I've got over 1,000,000 Dong in my pocket, and I'm living large! Things will probably (hopefully) settle down at some point, though.

Ok, time for bed soon.

Peace!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Back in Saigon

We made it back to Ho Chi Minh City without any problems. It was just another long bus ride. It was drizzling lightly when we got here but it started raining harder and harder until it was a downpour. So, while we were hoping to explore the city a little more, we only really checked out a few blocks around our place. Graham and I are staying at the languagecorps school where we're taking classes, so that's really convenient. Greta and Genessa are in another hotel, and it's kinda weird to be split up after two weeks of us all living in the same house. It should be easier to communicate here, though, since I got a phone that works in Vietnam and I think they're getting phones, too.
Anyway, I'll still need a little time to warm up to the city, and maybe it will look more inviting when/if the rain stops. It already seems much friendlier and less chaotic than that first ride from the airport. Once I get a little better with the language, I think it will go more smoothly. We had kind of a tough time ordering coffee today in a place that wasn't really used to English speakers. Better to stick to more tourist-friendly places at least in the beginning. The people I see seem to be nice, and since I'll be living in this city for a year, I long to fit in with them and adapt to the culture. Of course, since I look different from them, in many ways I will always appear to be a foreigner to some of them, but just as my goal in Greece was to become an Athenian, my goal here is to become as much of a Saigonite as possible.

I finally got a chance to upload my pictures from Cambodia, and there are about 220 in total. I've got descriptions written for about half of them, and I hope to finish that another time. Check them out here: http://s334.photobucket.com/albums/m418/PetroSmith/Two%20Weeks%20in%20Cambodia/

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Last Day in Phnom Penh

I've been in Cambodia for two whole weeks, but it feels more and more like my home. It is a strange feeling to know that tomorrow morning I will be leaving it, to take a 6 hour bus ride back to HCMC, my home for the next 11 months. The housing situation is very odd there... apparently there are cheap, run-down 1-bedroom apartments, and then 8-bedroom spacious villas, with very little in between. It is very possible that with our group of 4 in Vietnam we will save money by living together in a big house rather than by renting individual apartments. We met a girl who had just been teaching there, and she said that each person only pays about $150 a month by sharing a house. It almost sounds too good to be true, but I'm definitely down for something like that. Our group has also been talking about working together to produce business english teaching plans for companies who want to improve their english. For example, a restaurant has a problem with its waiters getting orders wrong and misunderstanding customers, so they hire teachers to teach them english specifically tailored to their needs. You get paid to come up with a plan, and then to teach it, and the rates are very good. It could be time-consuming, but it would be good to make some extra money. Especially after I've spent a ton just trying to live these past couple weeks. For someone who has to eat out for every meal, it's not bad, especially when dinner usually costs no more than 5 dollars. But it still adds up.

Today has been a nice, lazy day. Woke up late. Lounged around and watched TV. Half of the stations are Asian and I can't understand them, but they're entertaining nonetheless. The other half show American movies and TV shows at all odd hours of the day. Then we sauntered down to the market and had brunch at this nice little French place which we have dubbed "the french place" since we cant pronounce the name. It's certainly interesting, because they have some random weird dishes. Today I tried the chicken and taragon muffins. I guess the chicken is baked into the muffins. At any rate, they were delish. Yesterday I had a breakfast and a lunch... chocolate and banana crepes followed by croque monsiour with the most delectable cheese and sauce. I don't care if they are snooty, the French know how to please.

We've been having such horrendous weather here. It's been raining every day, mostly in the afternoon, becoming a torrential downpour and flooding the streets. I definitely need to invest in a lightweight poncho. I have no extra layers here. When it rains, I put on my hat. That's my only protection. In Vietnam I have a jacket, but it's too heavyweight. I mean, it is nice when it rains if I'm inside and don't have to go anywhere. It fills me with a very peaceful feeling to see the rain steadily pouring down, and it definitely cools things off a little. When the sun is out, it can be dreadfully hot. It might also feel worse because the humidity is 94%. When I check weather.com, it says that the high is only 82 degrees, which is no hotter than a hot day in Connecticut, so it must be the humidity which makes it so uncomfortable. Yesterday we went to a water park, which really helped to cool us off. It was filled mostly with kids, who all stared at us, probably thinking 'look at those silly white people'. One of the boys just said to me: you're so pale! What do you say to that? I guess in their culture, it is not considered rude to come right out and say something like that.
Last night we ate Mexican food at a place called Cantina. The walls were lined with photographs of people with guns, and old movie posters. It felt like they got their impression of Mexico from 50 years in the past. My tacos were absolutely amazing, though. Where shall we eat tonight? If I have my way, I'd like to sway the crew toward a Greek place. It's called Steve's Steakhouse and Greek Restaurant. Usually I don't associate steak with Greek food, but we'll see. If their pasticio is up to par, it will get my seal of approval.
Yesterday afternoon, during the daily monsoon, I watched In Bruges on my laptop. One of the most hilarious films I've seen, and yet also deeply profound. Definitely on my list of favorites at the moment.

What will I miss about Phnom Penh? Tuk-tuk rides anywhere in the city for a dollar per person, coffee in a bag, amazing food, marvelous temples, monks walking around the streets with their yellow umbrellas, bargains at the market, and the friendly optimism of the Khmer people. A disproportionate percentage of the population is under 30, due to the genocide of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970's. Because of this, most of them don't remember the hardships from those times, and there is a general feeling of optimism among the youth. I'm not sure if it's the same in Vietnam, but it has definitely drawn me to the Khmer people.
What won't I miss? Getting woken up in the middle of the night by barking dogs. Trash in the street. Getting hassled by beggars. Sharing a computer with 6 other people.

Mostly, the good outweighed the bad. I am headed to a city which is ten times bigger than this one. In a word, it should be... interesting. Luckily, I should have access to wireless internet, and my first priority is getting my pictures uploaded! I'll get them all on photobucket and post some highlights on here.

Chum reap sua!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Halfway Done with Training

Today was our last day of training in Cambodia. So I've had roughly 70 hours of teaching instruction and practice by now. It sounds like a lot, but I still don't feel like a "teacher". I suppose I never really will until I actually do it in front of a real class.
We have gone over a lot in two weeks, though. We learned how to make a lesson plan and budget your time, how to introduce new vocabulary, how to put together fun activities, how to use reading and writing exercises to complement the speaking lessons. Every day we have practiced a part of a lesson in front of our fellow teachers-to-be, and while it could be awkward and repetitive, I really felt more and more confident with every lesson I did. When you plan lessons, you have to follow a usual structure but you're allowed to be creative, which I like. Some schools that hire teachers expect them to strictly follow a book, while others are more relaxed. To start off, I would like a little hand-holding, but I also don't want to feel trapped. After all, if I'm going to be the one spending time with the students every day, I think I will figure out the best way to get them to learn and the material they need to focus on, rather than the administration. We shall see, I guess.
It was kind of a sad day today because two of our eleven teachers-in-training had to leave in the middle of class to catch a flight back to Thailand so they can start the next leg of their training. It's tough when you spend a couple weeks getting to know someone, and then suddenly you're cut off and you may never see them again. I really want to try to keep up contacts with the non-Vietnam folk, though. I feel interested in traveling to Thailand now that I've heard more about it, and flights between the countries here are dirt cheap. Plus, if I know someone who's already there I won't feel too lost. Soon I'll be able to show people around Ho Chi Minh City like I'm a native. Maybe.
But anyway, we've definitely had some fun times in Phnom Penh while we've been here. We found a bowling alley close to our villa which was pretty cool. It seems that bowling is universal. We went to an Indian restaurant one night, too, and I tried Indian food for the first time possibly in my life. It is now probably my second favorite food, after Greek. It's really that good. I'm astounded that I never had it before. I got this thing called Chicken Jinjaaro, which was chicken and potato and something else all in this really thick sauce and I just immediately fell in love with it and couldn't stop scarfing it down. I also got some garlic nan, which is like crispy fried bread, and that was incredible as well. Definitely gotta eat Indian more often.

Last night we actually went on a little boat cruise up and down the Mekong River, which was really fun and we had some great views of the city. It was kind of a last hurrah for my traveling companions and I, at least for the ones who couldn't stay this weekend.

As for the Vietnam folk, we've extended our stay until Sunday so we can hang out, rest up a little, and explore some more of the city while we're here. I'd love to see some museums and stuff and try out some more restaurants. What other ethnic foods haven't I eaten? I think I should just go down the list, country by country.

Anyway, here's to the weekend! Cheers yáll!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

After Angkor

We spent the weekend up in Siem Reap, which is the city outside Angkor Wat, checking out the temples around the place. Our hotel itself was pretty nice, with a little pool and very friendly staff who were always offering us things. It felt like a vacation from a vacation. The town itself was riddled with touristy restaurants and bars with clever names like "Angkor What?". We spent all day Saturday checking out temples, crawling around the ruins, taking loads of pictures, and listening to a goofy, awkward tour guide who barely spoke English. I would have enjoyed the experience better if it wasn't brutally hot and humid the entire time, as we had to keep huffing and puffing and climbing up and down steps and such. At every turn we were also assaulted by little kids trying to sell us bracelets and fans and silk scarves. I somehow ended up with a free fan which I kept using to fan myself down. Don't get me wrong, it's not like I had a bad time. The temples were truly breathtaking, and I was just in awe of how they could have constructed such massive architectural wonders. You're not going to see anything amazing if you stay in your airconditioned room all day, so I guess it was worth it trudging through the heat to get such amazing views.

Really, the pictures speak for themselves, and I will try to get all of them up soon, but as I said it is difficult to get the time to do it. Here is one, though, to whet your appetites, and please be patient for the rest to come!



Tomorrow begins our second week of training, beginning with a grammar test that I will hopefully not fail.

Until next time, as usual.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

After Second Day of Training

We've had our first couple days of training, which I was at first a little apprehensive about, but now I'm feeling more confident about it. Our job as teachers is to teach them conversational English so they can communicate, more than rules of grammar or drilling words into their heads. So, I feel like it's not a big deal if I'm not perfect at grammar and spelling. The important pieces of grammar the students will pick up just by hearing me talk. We have a couple teachers here who are training us in teaching and the finer points of language in general. For example, today we were talking about phonetics, and how to write words in other languages by their phonemes. I find it all very fascinating, after taking a few languages myself over the years.
Today we each had to practice teaching a little lesson called a "warmer", which usually starts the day's lesson. It involved a short dialogue on a certain topic to review vocab, and then getting the students to repeat the dialogue back to the teacher and then with each other. It seemed really repetitive as we did it in English, but for nonnative speakers it must be difficult to pick up. I look forward to learning more about teaching methods and such. I mean, my temperament is such that I could sit in classes all day and learn things. In the near future, though, I will have to step over to the other side of the classroom and finally be the teacher.
I find Phnom Penh more and more familiar, as I get in the rhythm of how things are done here. It's not as unbearably hot as I thought at first, and not as insanely chaotic either. Anything is manageable when it becomes more familiar. I've been trying a lot of different food at the restaurants here, many of which serve American and French food too, and I'm interested to see how they do these dishes. I'm also interested of course in trying new Asian food. Every place here seems to serve Vietnamese and Thai and Chinese dishes along with Cambodian, so it doesn't seem like I'm eating in a specifically Cambodian place. Tonight I got a soup, though, that was Cambodian which was pretty good, with fish, egg, pineapple, and tamarind sauce. For a starter, I had feta and spinach spring rolls. It was definitely nice to satisfy my feta craving.
The other LC teachers in training are all very sweet people and I'm glad to be working with them. Someone tonight observed how the whole thing is not competitive at all. I think it's because we're all pretty much starting at the same level and going through the trials of learning to be an English teacher in a foreign place.
The highlight of my day, though, was definitely the massage that I splurged on this afternoon. $4 for a one hour massage... good deal, like everything here. I had never had a massage before so I was in for a surprise. I knew they could be kind of rough, and I definitely saw that. You never could have guessed they could be rough when your masseuse is like a 90-pound girl. They use their elbows and feet and work nearly every part of your body. Sometimes it kinda hurts when they hit certain pressure points. But at the end of it, as I'm walking away, I feel like I'm years younger. Like my bones and muscles are reborn. Everything is just more relaxed and renewed. Definitely worth it.

This weekend we're going to Angkor Wat, and I'm really looking forward to checking it out.

I set up a photobucket account, but it was taking too long to upload pictures yesterday so I haven't got most of them up. A few got uploaded already, though, so I'll post the link and you can get checking for updates: http://s334.photobucket.com/albums/m418/PetroSmith/Two%20Weeks%20in%20Cambodia/

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Series of Unfortunate Events

A short reflection after a couple days in Phnom Penh...

It's a much much smaller city than Ho Chi Minh City. One can traverse it with motorbike/rikshaw taxis that are all over the city. The traffic is ridiculous and seems to have no rules. There are tons of bikes everywhere honking and dashing in front of each other. On the streets, there are numerous little shops all over. At least in our part of the city, away from the center, all the main streets are lined with tiny shops and places which sort of pass for restaurants but I'm not quite sure. I remember in Greece we would complain about the uneven sidewalks. What we have here do not really even count as sidewalks. We found a couple nice cafes today to sit and chill and have a beer at. I had noodle soup for dinner last night and breakfast this morning. I think it's basically the same as pho, but they don't call it pho. It's very filling and I wouldn't mind having it all the time.

I don't really have time for a full run-down of everything I did today, but here are three unfortunate yet interesting items:

1. We were exploring the royal palace, which is full of beautiful architecture and Buddhist shrines and stuff. I got a lot of really cool pictures that I want to upload when I get a chance. I sat down on a bench in the shade and two monks sat down next to me and struck up a conversation. We chatted about what I was doing and they kept asking questions about English. They kept telling me to talk slower, and I did, but I also told them that for someone from the northeastern US, I talk very slowly. Anyway, my group had moved on, and when I finally bid goodbye to the monks I had to scramble to find them. They had just left the place and were about to leave before I ran up, but everyone was interested in the fact that I met two monks.

2. We were taking two rikshaw taxis to a welcome dinner at a nice restaurant, and one group went on ahead, so the two girls left behind and I got in the next one we saw, assuming it knew where it was going. The driver went on for about 20 minutes, all around the city, before stopping and asking where we were going, and we had no idea, nor the phone number of anyone there. We ended up going back to the languagecorps place, and someone there had the number of one of the people at the restaurant so we could get directions. We finally got there an hour late after everyone had eaten. I hastily ordered the first thing the waiter recommended, leading me to the third thing...

3. I was served a sizzling hot plate of duck and vegetables, which the waiter promptly lit on fire. The flame was enormous and continued to grow until I thought I would be engulfed, but I fearlessly gazed on stoically until it subsided. Peter: 1, Flame: 0.

All of these events I take in stride, though, and they make great stories. All in all a great couple of days. The area around where we're staying has already become really familiar to me, and I've walked up and down the main street to the market several times, coming to recognize the familiar faces and shops. This city intrigues me, and the people appear happy and eager. I can't believe how hard they work in their shops all day long. Only a few decades ago, the Khmer Rouge was committing genocide and destroying the country, and now The Kingdom of Cambodia seems to really be on the rise.

Tomorrow is Monday when our training begins. It is 10:30pm, I'm exhausted, and ready to go to bed.