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


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.