Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Debriefing

I have been home for one month now. For the most part, the transition back to american culture has been smooth. Everything is familiar, and it's easy to embrace the convenience of everyday life once again. Still, many things remind me of Vietnam, and I continue to notice stark contrasts between our culture and theirs. Many of their customs have rubbed off on me, and it's difficult to break them.

Let's just take the example of eating out. Now I find it strange for the waiter/waitress to take drink orders and then disappear for five minutes before coming back for meal orders. I'm used to rushing to choose what I want to eat and drink at the same time, since the waiter is ready to hear it all at the start in Vietnam. When eating something out of a bowl, like rice or noodles, I have to resist the urge to bring the bowl close to my mouth for scooping. And at the end of every meal, I'm always looking for the toothpicks. Some places don't even have toothpicks here, which causes me to feel a little confused. Why wouldn't I want to pick my teeth after a meal? And when I do pick it, I absent-mindedly cover my mouth to make sure no one sees what I'm doing. The same happens when I yawn, and I have to get used to the fact that other people yawn with reckless abandon. In addition, I'm trying not to cringe when I see people wearing shoes when walking around the house. I could go on and on...

Driving a car at first was a little strange, after becoming so comfortable on a motorbike. I missed the sensation of being outside and exposed to the wind and sunshine while I drove around. Being in a car feels like you're not even moving. It's like I leave my house, I enter a room, the room is transported, I leave the room and find myself in a new place. I look at motorcycles I see on the road longingly, but I also am turned off by the gigantic, garish models I see most people driving here. I'm much more interested in scooters and vespas rather than big harleys.

The weather of course was another shock. During the day here, it can get as hot as Vietnam, but it's not nearly as humid. It's actually somewhat pleasant, and when other people around me are complaining, I don't see what the big deal is. In Vietnam, it stays warm all through the evening and night, and being outside at night can still be a sticky, sweaty time. In America, it actually gets chilly at night even in the summer, and I cross my arms to feel warm even when other people still say it's hot. I wonder how winter will feel for me.

I would say the biggest shock, though, is the advertising in America. The food advertisements on TV are ubiquitous, especially at night, and they show the unhealthiest foods at the latest hours of the night. They show burgers up close so that they cover the screen, and I can't help my mouth from watering, but I know in real life that they're actually quite greasy and disgusting. This pervasive advertising, though, seems to be a major part of our culture, and probably part of the reason why we're so unhealthy. I don't recall fast food commercials or anything like that in Vietnam. Instant noodles and such would be advertised, probably because there was just a bigger audience for that. In America I have also noticed a huge prevalence in media commercials, advertising movies, electronics, etc. When a new movie comes out, it's advertised so frequently that you'll hear about it on every commercial break for every show on every channel. And then after it comes out, it's forgotten, and the next movie is advertised. Everything is so ephemeral when it's so consumeristic. New product, then it's old, see what's next.

So, I'm progressing through my reverse culture shock, and I'm re-acclimating to America even as I miss certain things about Vietnam. I wish there were nice, inexpensive, well-decorated coffee shops here where one could bring their laptop or chat with friends. Unfortunately, there is mostly just starbucks and duncan donuts, with boring settings, expensive drinks, and I think the wireless costs money to use. It's not the same as a cafe filled with trees and ponds where you can while away the hours of the day.

Looking back on the past year, and reading some of my old blog posts, it seems like it was a dream. When I read certain things, I can't believe they actually happened. It was almost like a second life I lived over there, where my personality and habits changed, and when I came back here they are slowly changing back. However, I would say that the experience of living on my own, teaching English at different schools, and meeting new people really did change me in some ways. I think it transitioned me from my college stage to my adult stage of life. I learned greater independence, confidence, and open-mindedness. I learned what it means to be a man on his own, either here or abroad. And I learned that teaching is a fascinating and worthwhile profession, but it is probably not something for me in the long term. If I try something which is unfamiliar, I can succeed at it and attain new strengths, but in this case I can also better understand my own personal areas of interest. So for the next stage of my life, I will be entering law school, and taking the experience I've gained in Vietnam to prepare me for whatever unexpected challenges await me in the future.

Hen gap lai!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

China

After Hanoi, I went to China.

I wish I had spent longer there. Three days was a bit short to spend in Beijing, although I saw all the big things that I had planned to see. Because I was only there three days, I was able to spring for a better hotel room, and treated myself to a sumptuous peking duck dinner on the last day. With longer time, I could have seen some different temples and museums and zoos in the city, but perhaps that will have to wait for a future date.

I had some interesting impressions of Beijing because it was the first city I came to after leaving Vietnam. It was like coming back to civilization again. There was a wide, well-paved highway from the airport to the city. There were actual criss-crossing highways in the city. There were subway stations and decent buses. Everything seemed much less crowded in general. But the biggest change was the lack of motorbikes. Sure, there were a few here and there. However, it was mostly cars and bicycles, and they didn't constantly fill the streets. It was actually quite pleasant walking down the street. I didn't notice pollution per se, but the skies were pretty hazy during my whole time there.

One other difference was that there seemed to be less English everywhere as in Vietnam. I think since Vietnam relies more on foreign investment, they realized the importance of putting English translations on signs and restaurants and such, but the Chinese seem to be attempting to be more independent of America, and all around me I saw chinese symbols that I couldn't even read. When I asked my hotel for a place to eat, they wrote two symbols on a piece of paper, and I had to wander down the street trying to match the symbols to a sign. I felt that the Chinese were also not quite as friendly as the Vietnamese, but that may just have been my impression.

I took a hiking tour of the Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai, which was 10 kilometers. I severely underestimated the strenuousness of it. A lot of the area was old and unrestored, which was really cool to see, but it was tough climbing up and down steep staircases and ramps that were falling apart. I was completely exhausted not long into the hike, but I kept on moving and eventually I finished it. While I was walking, an older mongolian woman was following me with a bag of things to sell, and she kept fanning me and chatting with me and helping me climb down steps, until the end when she asked me what I wanted to buy. I was thankful for her company so I bargained down some good quality chopsticks from her.

When I first entered the great wall, there was a group of chinese who were all taking pictures. A few of them asked to take pictures with me, which I guess is something they do. So I posed for a few pictures with them, and they seemed happy at that. I couldn't imagine someone trying to do that in America, though.

In Beijing, I checked out the Forbidden City, which was full of old temples and palaces, and one could really spend hours and hours in there. It's very crowded and full of people from all different countries, with automatic audio guides in about 30 languages available. The guide explained everything to me, so I understood the gist of the chinese imperial history. Mostly I just liked looking at the architecture and hearing about the meaning behind certain statues.

And now, some pictures:




Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

I spent 4 days in Hanoi, and it was very nice to see a familiar face, because my friend Mike was staying there working with the organization Kiva, which does microfinancing in developing countries. So, he was able to show me around, and introduced me to his friends, and I didn't feel like so much of a helpless tourist. While there, checked out a water puppet show, too. They have the puppets in the water, telling a story, with people moving the strings standing behind them out of sight. We couldn't really tell what the story was, but the program gave us the gist of it. It was a lot about the harvest and the kings and the magical animals of Vietnam. Worth seeing, but anything longer than the one-hour show we were there for would have been a little repetitive and boring.

What I really liked about Hanoi was the Old Quarter, which was an area filled with many little streets, full of shops and hotels and travel agencies. This is the most popular area for backpackers, so when you walk through here you are constantly being asked to buy something or eat something. All of these streets have names which correspond to the product they used to sell, such as "duong" for sugar or "cha ca" for fried fish. But, nowadays the names dont always correspond to what they actually sell. After all, they didnt have a "bootleg dvd's" street a hundred years ago.

People told me that Hanoians are less friendly than Saigonese, and I couldn't really tell any difference but I started to assume it was true. Perhaps I was reading too much into it. I was taking taxis everywhere in Hanoi, which I hadn't really done in Saigon, and had a couple bad experiences to sour my mood. No one really walked up to me to ask me where I was from, which happened often in Saigon. But maybe they could tell I was a tourist, not a resident. Anyway, even though it was 1,000 miles away from Saigon, I felt the same distinct Vietnamese atmosphere, similar food, practically the same language, similar looking people. All in all, Vietnamese.

It was a nice, relaxing few days there, but we did spend one long day on a tour of Ha Long Bay. We left very early for the 3 hour drive there in a cramped travel van, but we had a nice boat to tour the harbor in. We ate a lunch on the boat, then docked at an island that had a strange cave with many stalagmites, and then back to the boat while people tried to sell us sodas, doodads, and jewelry. Next the boat traveled around the bay some more, it was a very sunny day, and we saw some remarkable islands and strange rock formations. The Vietnamese have folklore about the area, and when they look at the rocks they can see a certain person or animal who is part of the story. You have to admit when you look at a certain rock that it looks like a man's face.

Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO heritage site and it's on the list of nominees for the 7 natural wonders of the world. So, it's a very famous place of natural beauty here, and I'm very glad I had the opportunity to see it.

I could ramble on all day about it, but here are some pictures:





Sunday, July 26, 2009

Home

That's right, folks, I'm finally home from my year living in Saigon. It was quite a whirlwind the past couple weeks, saying goodbye to everyone, finishing up last minute things, then going on a week of traveling. Even though i was on my own, I still kept pretty busy while traveling, and it wasn't the relaxing vacation I had envisioned. But that was fine, because I was in such beautiful, fascinating places such as Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Beijing, and the Great Wall, so i didn't want to waste time. Now that I'm home, I have plenty of time to lounge around and relax before I start law school.

Now I'm still pretty exhausted from my long journey and my huge time shift, so I need to let my body clock adjust. Once I feel up to it, I'm going to post about my travels and show some pictures, and also reflect on my year abroad and the reverse culture shock of coming home.

And I think I may still keep this blog in the future. After all, even though I'm no longer in Ho Chi Minh City, I will always be the rock of Saigon.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cafe Tram, or what i'll miss the most

Did I mention how much I love coffee shops? In Vietnam, they really embrace nature and make you feel like you're miles away from the city when you've ducked into a coffee shop down an alleyway. I met fellow blogger Kevin at a coffee shop Thursday morning that was very relaxing and beautiful. However, I did not have my camera to take a picture.

However, later that day I met someone at Cafe Tram, which is practically around the corner from my house, on Tran Huy Lieu. I didn't know it existed until my friend recommended that we meet there. I think they are really trying to keep the place a secret. All you can see from the street is a narrow passageway. You enter through giant wooden doors to find a secret garden of sorts. There's a small manmade stream, and you walk over it on stone steps, with lots of statues nearby to wish you luck. In the water are big, bright koi. My friend led me into a very dark room, lit only be dim Chinese-style lanterns. It takes awhile for your eyes to adjust when you first walk in, as you can barely see. But once you adjust you realize how peaceful and cozy it is in there. You are at almost a lower level than the water outside the window, so you feel like you're in the deck of a ship. Did I mention the fruit juices are delicious? I can't believe I discovered this place with one week left in Saigon.

Also, they wouldn't let me take pictures, apparently afraid that someone would steal their ideas. However, I still snuck a few, and they let me take a couple from up top as long as a person was in the picture. So, enjoy a free, clandestine peak at Cafe Tram! (by the way, Tram, which sounds like 'jum', is a word which means introverted or introspective)





Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What I'll miss

Even though I miss many things from home, I know that when I go back I will miss many things about Vietnam.

My tutoring job has finished and my student will try taking his visa interview for the third time. Good luck to him, but I really think he needs another toeic course before he can hope to pass it. Anyway, in this last week or so before I go home I once again have a lot of free time, even though I'm still teaching at VNU right to the end. Also, the construction on the house nearby has finished, so once again my neighborhood is quiet and peaceful. It reminds my why I quickly felt at home here in the first place.

So here is the list of things I think I will miss:

Cheap prices for almost everything
Overly friendly waiters
Smiles from everyone
Toothpicks readily available on every table
Driving a motorbike
Never needing a jacket, except for a rain poncho
Many exotic fruits
Looking around the room in a restaurant and finding that I'm the only foreigner, and the good feeling that i'm not another face in the crowd.
Harmony of seeing churches, temples, and mosques all together in the same city.
Planning life around my own timetable
Vietnamese coffee
Cheap gym, even though it's hot, small, and has old equipment
Juice coffee shop
The abundance of street vendors
Interesting stories from English students
very cheap dvd's and tv shows
being able to live and not be saturated with pointless news and media updates
all the friends I've made here, even up to the very end

I could go on, but I think I'd really just keep listing things that are cheaper here.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

What I miss

Things I miss from America, that are either hard to find or nonexistent here:

Carbonated red bull
Greek food, including an abundance of Feta cheese
Sarcasm
Being able to use slang wherever I go
Using googlemaps to find where I am
Nintendo wii
Fast, stable internet connection
Electricity not randomly getting shut off by the city
Temperature fluctuations
Driving a car
Empty supermarkets at 8pm- ive actually never found a time when the supermarket isnt swarmed with people.
Quieter neighborhoods
Lemons
Grilled burgers, hot dogs, and shiskabob
TV stations like comedy central
Being able to watch any TV show online
Greater variety of music, movies, books
Black pens - they all seem to be blue here
Wearing shoes indoors - not that i ever really did
Snow
Hiking in the woods
Homemade apple pies, cookies, etc.
Orthodox churches
Driving a car
Trash being put in trashbarrels, not just thrown in the street
Printing things in my own house
Philosophical discussions!
pumpkins

Friday, June 26, 2009

New Ventures

I'm not really inspired to write today but I figured I'd give an update.

It's always darkest before the dawn. For awhile I was worried about money, and I thought the last month here would be rough trying to find work. However, I was blessed to be given a lot more work by one of my schools. Vietnam National University, the Foreign Language Center, has been giving me a lot of new classes to teach. Mostly children classes in the morning, which I don't prefer, but I'll take it. I'm glad that when all other schools turned a blind eye and couldn't find any work for me, one still stood by and offered me classes. I guess it was good that I kept friendly with one of the administrators there. In addition, on the bottom of my paycheck this week I saw that I got a small bonus because the re-enroll percent for a class I taught was 67%. So I'm doing something right, and the school rewarded me. That's a good way to run a school, rather than those silly random evaluations done by the other school. And to think that I was considering quitting VNU a few months ago since they only had one class for me at the time. It just goes to show that sometimes it pays to stick it out and take your chances. It's never true that "all is lost".
I've also been given the opportunity to tutor a student who wants to study in the US. He has to pass a difficult visa interview before he can study there, and he has already failed the interview twice, so he's paying me to prepare him for his next attempt. It's a lot of pressure, and I hope he passes so that it wasn't a waste of money for him. However, he really has a lot of work to do. He makes many mistakes speaking english and he has trouble understanding me when I talk at normal speed. I've been asking him a lot of different questions in addition to the interview ones, hoping to get him more comfortable with the language. He makes a lot of the same mistakes that I've been seeing in my students for the past several months, so I know what to expect and I know how to help. However, even if I repeat a sentence a hundred times and finally gets him to pronounce and intonate it correctly, he'll forget it before the next time we talk if he doesn't practice on his own. Now we're halfway through our 3 weeks, and I'm seeing some improvement, but I really hope I can bring him up to the right level before the end.
I've made Juice part of my regular weekly schedule. The place, not the drink. Although sometimes I do drink juice there.
I go there every tuesday and friday afternoon. I've been trying a new dish every time I come. I must have had 10 different things already. I'm starting to run out of options so I may have to eat some again.
Usually I get some good writing in when I come here. But sometimes I just don't seem to be in the mood. I don't know how to describe it other than that my mind is lazy.
The workers there are very friendly, especially the guy behind the counter at the end of the day. I usually spend up to 30 minutes just chatting with him before walking out the door. He even gave me a 10% discount on my bill once. I guess it pays to make a friend sometimes.

Anyway, I have 3 weeks left in Saigon. Can you believe it? With work, exercise, and coffee shop I should get through without too much boredom. I'm getting really excited about coming back. But it will also be sad saying goodbye.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Vietnamese Wedding

Last night, I went with Uyen to the wedding of her friend. Although I haven't been to too many weddings in America, just one when I was 8 years old, I could tell that the Vietnamese wedding is very different from the American one.

For one thing, the wedding is usually held at night. We arrived there at 6pm, as the sun was going down. (As a side note, I have experienced 6pm sunsets every day for the past year, because we're so close to the equator.) The wedding was in a small city about an hour's drive from Saigon, and we took motorbikes out on the main road out of town. Not really a highway in the American sense of the word. Just a long, straight road populated mostly with trucks on their way to the port city of Vung Tau and back.

The wedding was held in a big hotel, not a church. In fact, there wasn't really anything religious about the service. I assume they have a more traditional wedding ceremony, but this was just seemed like a very modernized service. Modern, but still distinctly Vietnamese.



The wedding itself resembled what we in America would consider the reception after the wedding. The bride and groom stood at the entrance greeting everyone who came in, and they were very excited to see me. So, I suppose it was not taboo for them to see each other before the wedding service.

I wore jeans and a casual buttoned-down shirt, as suggested by Uyen, and in the big hall I looked out at the crowd of guests sitting at tables and saw that most of them were dressed similarly, although there were a few ties. Only the people actually involved in the wedding were wearing suites or dresses.





And what about the wedding gift? People give money, not gifts. This lets the couple buy whatever they want. Uyen gave them about 55 dollars, and I gave 11 dollars, placed in an envelope and then slid through a slit in a huge box. Sounds like an odd amount of money, but it's equivalent to 1,000,000 dong and 200,000 dong, respectively.

Anyway, the service began with a traditional dance performance of men and women which was really entertaining.



Following this, the announcer welcomed everyone and the lights were dimmed. The bride and groom marched up the aisle to the stage, holding a sparkler thing that was shooting off sparks. They were joined on the stage by their parents and some other people. They all said a lot of things in Vietnamese, and I think the father was offering his approval. Then they brought out the cakes and champagne and everyone toasted. Then all the balloons popped and the sparks shot up and it was a huge spectacle. I guess at this point they were married, but I'm not sure. There was no kissing, of course.

Then the groom went over to a stack of wine glasses on a table on the stage and poured a bottle over it so that wine fell into all the glasses. It was red, so I don't think it was champagne. There were also smoke machines firing off smoke all over the place. Finally, they departed from the stage, and circled around the tables to toast people throughout the evening, stopping by our table twice to toast me and and shake my hand. The next form of entertainment came in the form of a steady stream of pop singers, and we were right near the speakers so it was kind of loud.





BUT the best part, of course, was the food. There were several courses, and I gleefully ate them all.

As usual, all the food was placed in the middle, on a swiveling thing (man I'm really bad at naming things), and everyone put food into their bowls.
1st course: wafers, a collection of shrimp and vegetables, and some weird meaty bready cube thing which tasted just like a chicken mcnugget. in other words, delicious.
2nd course: a hot pot was placed on our table, and a pot placed on top. inside the pot were a dozen or so LIVE shrimp. That's right, whole shrimp, eyes and tentacles and all, squirming away, slowly being cooked by the burner. After some minutes, they had turned from grey to orange, and we were shelling them and cramming them into our mouths. I didn't quite like the head part of them.
3rd course: soup with some kind of chewy red meat, i have no idea what it was, but it was good. probably just some strange part of beef. it was a nice hearty soup with carrots, and bread to dip in it.
4th course: another soup, with noodles and seafood, all the standard things like shrimp and squid and maybe clams.
5th course: dessert! cake? no. pie? no. just some nice fresh pieces of fruit. Pomelo! it tastes like grapefruit but it's a lot better. i just call it "buoi", the vietnamese word.

after we had eaten, everyone was celebrating and having a great time and i fully expected it to go long into the night. much to my surprise, about 7:45pm, uyen said to me, "ok, we go." With that, our party left, and i could see a number of other people clearing out too. i was surprised to find the wedding celebrations so short. but anyway, we did have a long ride back to saigon ahead of us, and i was quite full and tired.

So, all in all, a really great experience, and I'm glad I went. One thing is common to weddings of all cultures: celebration and cheer! everyone was just in a great smiling mood for the start of these two people's lives together. if anyone was in a foul mood from the traffic congestion or the hot, sticky weather, the wedding was sure to cheer them up.

More pictures here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2202685&id=1607549&l=742e06d6fa

Friday, June 12, 2009

Friendliness

I wouldn't call myself a friendly person. And I know most people think it's a good thing to be very friendly. But I'm just naturally not that way.

However, people who get to know me well usually say I'm friendly. I suppose what they mean is that I'm friendly in the sense that I'm congenial and chatty, at least with my friends. But my definition of friendly includes a dimension of outgoingness, and being so comfortable around other people that you can greet and talk to people you don't even know as if it's the most natural thing in the world. I'm not like this, and in fact very few people in Connecticut seem this way, but it is a very common trait among the Vietnamese.

If I walk into any store or restaurant where the manager speaks some English, he will not hesitate to start asking me questions and learning about me. It always starts with something like "where are you from?" rather than "what's your name?" or even "hello, i'm __, what's your name?". Then they want to know everything about me, and I realize only after several minutes that I don't know their name. I've met several people around the city this way, and they're so chatty and free with their questioning that they act like we're old friends. I don't mind, but it's certainly not something that I would do, and I have to get used to the fact that when I come home, I'll be the same as everyone else again, so when I go to buy a book or a coffee, they won't ask me where I'm from or how long I've been there, they'll just hand me my bill with a bored expression. Everyone here keeps a smile on their faces, and the waiters are especially polite. If I've finished my coffee, they don't just take it, they quietly ask "excuse me, may I take your coffee?".

I've even had people introduce themselves to me at the gym, asking me what I'm doing in Vietnam, how long I've been here, etc. Sometimes they also walk up to me and randomly give me advice, like where to position my hands when I'm lifting weights. I'm innately very cautious of new people, careful not to trust them if they're looking for a way to take advantage of me. But so far everyone who has introduced themselves to me has had no ulterior motives than to meet a new person and use english. when i was driving home from work one day and stopped at a light, i was startled when the man on the bike next to me said something to me, "money about you", and pointed to my pocket. i didn't know what he wanted, until I saw that there was money hanging out of my pocket. so, people are always trying to help. even those that don't know english well. on my street, i pass by a family who hangs out at the entrance to their alley, who sell cigarettes and repair motorbikes during the day. they're always out there in the evening, eating their dinner or relaxing, several members of the family spanning all ages. the matriarch is an older woman reclining on a hammock, there's a middle-aged guy who fixed my bike a couple times, and there's a young guy with a haircut like a japanese pop star who gave me motorbike rides a couple times. everytime i pass by, they yell "hello" at me. i say hello or wave back in return. then i drive by the small cafe and nod at the employee who sits on the chair at the entrance watching the traffic go by, and sometimes little kids are playing soccer in the sidestreet and say hello to me.

i dont really know any of my neighbors. but when i was walking past a new house being constructed, this woman called at me to have a look around. it's a 4-story house and she's hoping to rent out rooms. it was almost finished and looked really nice. the workers have been laboring away there constantly for a few months and soon all that dedication will pay off. from the top floor balcony, you can look down on my roof, as my house is only 3 floors. it would be nice to see the house when it's completely finished.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

When it rains, it pours.

Last week one night, there was a very loud, violent thunderstorm. The thunderclaps kept waking me up, and when I got up in the morning, I saw that some of the water had seeped into the house. Apparently there was a river downstairs, but the maid cleaned it up before I came down. Even my bedroom on the second floor had some pools of water on one side, which was very strange to see. That was the first time I'd seen flooding in my house in Vietnam, luckily.

Nothing else to report. The evenings/nights can get pretty lonely here when my friends are busy, and since it's early morning in America, I have no one to talk to. It doesn't help that the sun goes down at 6pm all year round, either.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Daily Schedule

I'm sitting now in a cafe called "Juice", which has become my new favorite place to hang out. Despite the name, they have more than just juice. Their menu includes a lot of sandwiches and wraps and salads, and the few I have tried are absolutely incredible. They've really captured what I love and miss about sandwiches in America, in a way that they usually fall far short in typical Vietnamese cafes. I've had the smoked beef, which turned out to be pastrami but it was quite good, and a french pannini which was made of chicken. Today I've ordered a mediterranean pannini which should feature the usual elements. I guess the reason why I kept coming back here was that they gave me a card that gets stamped every time I get a drink, and after 8 drinks I get 2 free. It's good, because every time I come here I bring my computer and spend a few hours so I have a couple coffees or juices.
The upstairs room is large but cozy, with low lighting, cool A/C, and no invasive Vietnamese pop music, just the sound of the cars below.

It recently dawned on me that unlike some people, I have no daily schedule. I almost never do the same things at the same times every day. This is in large part caused by the fact that my teaching schedule is different everyday, but I also just naturally resist any sort of routine. I know some people like having a routine, but it always seemed dull to me.
I start the day usually waking up in the late morning. The time I wake up is different everyday. When I set my alarm before going to bed, I consider how tired I am, how much I want to sleep, how much I want to do the next day, and I set the alarm accordingly, but it's usually between 10am and 11:20am. During the week, I never have to teach in the morning, so there's no need to wake up earlier. Once I'm woken up, I often neglect to turn off my alarm and fall back to sleep, only to be awoken by the snooze feature. But I'm motivated to get up because of the breakfast waiting for me. I go downstairs, and the one thing I do every day is take my computer with me to the living room. When I've just woken up, I'm too sleepy to do something different everyday. So, I check my email and various blogs and such while watching tv, maybe cnn or mtv, since they play just music videos at this hour. Then my maid brings me a breakfast, which is different everyday. There's always fruit in yogurt, but the fruit changes. Maybe it's strawberry, banana, mango, dragonfruit, any combination of these. She also brings me bread and cheese, or bread and jam, or bread and peanut butter, or bread and omelet, or a BLT she just started making recently. So, I slowly munch through my food, drinking my Vietnamese coffee and becoming more alert. When my laptop battery starts to die, I go upstairs again. It's around noon or 12:30 or so at this point, so I shower, listen to music, play a computer game, whatever. In the afternoon I used to have classes at public school but now they're finished. So lately I've been packing up my computer and going to a coffee shop.
Even though I haven't been writing much in my blog, I've still been writing, in this book I'm working on based on my experiences. The problem is I haven't thought of a proper title yet, and this literally keeps me up at night trying to figure it out. It makes more sense to write it first and then decide what it should be called. At this point, I can't even tell what the main point of it is.
Anyway, even the coffee shops I go to are not the same every day. I've been to several around the city, and rarely do I go back more than once. I'm not the kind of guy who has a "regular" place. Even when I was in college, I would get lunch at a different place every day and couldn't eat the same thing twice in one week or I'd get sick of it. I like most of the places I go to, but they all fall short of perfection. Juice is nice, but it's very far from my house and anywhere I teach. Cafe de la May is good, and the food is cheaper, but it's not as good, and I hate driving on Le Van Sy in rush hour. This other place near my house is nice, it has a vietnamese name like Moc or something, but it's not as comfortable as the Western-type places, inadequate A/C, terrible Vietnamese music, etc.
So, rather than go to one place regularly, I prefer to go to a new place every time, since there's always the possibility I'll discover something approaching perfection.
Now, the way I go to this cafe, or to a class, or anywhere, also changes based on many things. I know half a dozen ways to get to the center of town, but I take into account where there is construction, where is the heavy traffic at this hour, where am I trying to go, and I pick a certain way to go. I recently discovered a whole new way, cutting through a small sidestreet, that is really preferable during rush hour.
Anyways, when I go to these cafes, sometimes I eat lunch, sometimes I don't, and the time I eat lunch is different everyday. As for dinner, I usually eat what the cook prepares for me at home, and I could eat any time from 5:30pm to 10:30pm. It really depends on whether I teach, what I'm doing, if I had lunch. And basically, when I feel hungry, I make dinner, and either watch tv or some tv show on my computer. At night, I might watch tv, but usually there's nothing good on, as I've seen all the overplayed B movies they have on constant rotation. So, I typically watch a tv show like Scrubs or 30 Rock or Simpsons or Seinfeld or anything else I have on dvd or I can find online. Usually every night, I'll watch a few episodes of a show.
As for going to bed, this is different every night, depending on what I'm doing, how sleepy I am, how early I have to wake up the next day. I could go to bed anywhere from midnight to 3am. Basically, when I yawn and rub my eyes, I say, "ok, i'm going to bed." I brush my teeth, turn on the fan, turn off the A/C, get in bed, read a little, and then (hopefully) fall asleep. Lately I've had insomnia so I take some tylenol PM to help me. So that's my (sort of) daily schedule.

BUT I recently added a new activity, which is something sorely missing from my life, and that is exercise. My boredom and lack of work has led me to start going to a gym with my friend Simon, and at 9 bucks a month, I think I can afford it. It's just a simple weightroom, and also has a track and tennis and basketball courts, but it's a nice place to go in the evening, and after working out I'm able to relieve some stress.

In other news, I recently solidified my travel plans. I'm flying to Ha Noi on July 17, and then to Beijing on July 21, and then home on July 24. Really just two days in Beijing, but I think that's plenty to see all that I need to see.

That's all for now!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Dam Sen Park

No news to report, but sometimes people just like to see that I'm still alive. It has been uneventful, and I suppose that a lot of classes are finishing for the summer, so teachers have to find work at summer school programs. It may be difficult for me since I'm leaving in July, but I'm really hoping to get some classes to teach. After the hassle of working here as a teacher, I'm definitely going to appreciate having a full-time, reliable job in the future. I've had enough of not knowing what my schedule will be like next week, of frequent last-minute changes, of getting called in the morning to teach somewhere later in the day. I guess that some people have been able to find more stable jobs, but nothing is set in stone, and it seems like only after you've been around for awhile at schools do you start getting preference.

Anyway... last weekend I went to Dam Sen Park with Uyen and a couple other people. The place is a very big amusement park with gardens and interesting landscaping and a huge lake in the middle. Unfortunately it was pouring rain the day we went. But we still made the most of it, walking around and taking pictures. The rain eventually let up so it turned out alright. They had little pagodas and bridges which looked just like they were from a distant, idealized past. They had an Egyptian-looking temple that maybe had some sort of attraction inside for kids. They had lots of bumper cars and bumper boats and some animals to see. It seemed like a popular place for kids but also young couples in love.

Here are some pictures for your viewing pleasure!





Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Birthday Pictures

I've had lots of free time lately, which is ok. The schools are waiting until after the holiday to start up new classes. All my schools are closed for 4 days. But, a lot of places got booked up fast, since everyone wants to travel. I think it must be really crowded at any vacation place. So, I'm just going to hang out with Uyen and her cousin and go to a nice resort close to the city. I think it's better to plan vacations during times that aren't holidays, so there's less crowds.

Yesterday I got a freak illness, a really bad stomachache and fever, and I think it was probably some food poisoning. Not sure what caused it, it could be anything else. I'm feeling better today and able to eat some normal food. I got a lot of medicine to take, too. But my stomach still feels a little strange.

So, last weekend I celebrated my birthday with Uyen and her cousin and a friend. We were originally going to eat peking duck but we wound up eating sushi instead. Which is ok, sushi being one of my favorites. We ordered a lot of different sushi, and then some soup and rice as well, and we were all stuffed by the end. Since it was my brithday, I treated them all to dinner. Such is the tradition in Asian culture. But altogether it was about $30, which for quality of food and the amount we ordered is still a great deal (though very expensive by vietnamese standards). After that we got a cheesecake at Tous Les Jours which made me very happy.





Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Proper Update

Time for, as the British would say, a proper update.

Today is also my birthday! Although it hardly feels like it, because today I had to work, and so I'm celebrating on the weekend. And it's strange not having all my usual family and friends around. But at least I can celebrate with Uyen.

The past couple weeks have been moving at a slower pace, as a lot of my classes have been ending. Since many classes started up soon after Tet, and they last about 10 weeks, a lot of them end around this time. Maybe there won't be any new classes until after the next holiday (april 30 to may 1). This holiday celebrates the reunification of Vietnam, or the fall of saigon, and then may day. It's one of the biggest traveling times for the vietnamese, and this year it's on a thursday and friday, meaning a 4-day weekend for people who dont work on the weekend (or a proper weekend for those who usually have to work weekends). I was hoping to go somewhere new and interesting, like Binh Chau hot springs, but it got all booked up quick. So now I'm trying to book a room in Vung Tau, which I've been to a couple times before.

A few days ago, I was pulled over by a cop and my heart started racing. But, less than a minute later, he let me go and I was on my way.
What happened? Well, I was moving into the left lane in anticipation of a left turn onto Pasteur street from Dien Bien Phu. It is not allowed for motorbikes to be in the left lane, and it is strictly enforced by the cops here, but I hate getting stuck in the right lane trying to make a left-hand turn so I thought I could fudge the rules like everyone else. No dice, and I was waved by the cop to pull over. I decided to play dumb and kept repeating in English "I go left!" and using hand signals. So he finally gave up and waved me to continue on. I was fretting because some foreigners get pulled over and have their bikes impounded because they dont have vietnamese licenses. But apparently it's the cops on bikes who ride around and pull over foreigners, not the stationary ones.

On Monday, I celebrated Easter belatedly at the Russian consulate. I tried in vain to find an Orthodox church service on Easter, but I did discover that a priest was coming from Russia on Monday, so I stopped by the consulate to see what was going on. I was happy to stumble upon a small room with 10 or so Russians inside and the priest doing the service all in slavonic, which is an old, church version of Russian. I had no idea what was going on but I can only assume it was the service for the day after Easter, so I joined in and crossed myself when I saw the others do it. It was really nice just to smell that incense again and hear that beautiful music. After the service he flung a lot of holy water on us, and I got a little wet, but it was nice and reminded me of home. After the service, I didn't quite understand what was going on but I could tell they were preparing for another service, and since I didn't have to teach for another hour, I decided to stick around. It turned out to be a baptism! So I stayed and watched because I was sorely missing all the beautiful Orthodox services. I guess the small Russian expat community has to wait a long time for the priest to come, so while he was there to celebrate Easter, they had him baptize a baby as well. After it all, I introduced myself to the priest in my bad Russian and he said he spoke a little English, so we chatted for a bit. He was pretty friendly and bearded, and I was glad that despite different languages and cultures and being in a completely different country, we had something that connected us in the faith. Finally I said "do svedonya" and went to my class.

That's all for now. Stay tuned for the next "proper" update!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Quieter American

I got tired of seeing that picture of beef at the top of the page, so here's an update.

I finished reading "The Quiet American", and I found it to be a pretty engaging book. It wasn't so much about Vietnam as the development of the characters and the political tensions underneath. It was fascinating to find out more about the history of Vietnam, since I wasn't alive in the 1950's and I only have a vague understanding of the war with the French and then the Americans. It's interesting to note, though, that most Vietnamese I meet today are really not interested in politics. In Greece, everyone wanted to rant about something political, but in Vietnam it's just not on the minds of most people. They mostly want to talk about culture or something, and the most political they get would be talking about Obama or something. But if I try to read an article about Israel or anything else that doesn't concern them, they get very bored and actually confused why anyone would even be interested.
It's a very different world from when "The Quiet American" was written. Even then, there was a colonial mindset, though it was fading away. The French thought they could control Vietnam's destiny through force. Then the Americans thought they could do the same and prevent Communism. But the North Vietnamese eventually took control. Nowadays, it seems like military force is not as reliable a method of controlling destiny, because you'll never win the hearts and minds of the people. Today, people are conquered by culture and economics. The only remnants of French rule you see in Saigon are the architecture, the bakeries, the catholic churches. These became somewhat part of the culture of Vietnam. All but a couple of the streets were renamed. There is no more "Rue Catinat", the central area of activity in "The Quiet American". The only French names that remain honor important scientific or cultural figures, such as Louis Pasteur, or a school named after Marie Curie.

In the book, the main character is a British journalist, and he and an American are both in love with the same girl, Phuong. She appears to have no real power over her own destiny, just sort of blowing in the mind and going with whatever man promises her a better, more secure future. Today, there is a little bit of that sentiment left, but I think that the women here are much more assertive now, and the stereotype of submissiveness is quite outdated. At least in my own personal experience. However, the large economic inequality between the women here, along with many of the locals, and the foreigners is still a reality, so this will always affect the relationships between them.

Right now the Vietnamese system is really quite stable. When looking back through their history, there has been a lot of violence. Even before the Europeans came, there were numerous dynasties and kingdoms over different territories that were at war with each other, and the Chinese were actually in control of the country for 1,000 years. Then there was the French rule and the many years of rebellion and war that followed. The past 30 or so years have been pretty stable compared to the rest of the region, and as Vietnam grows more economically successful and open to foreign trade, I believe the quality of life will gradually improve. Right now, though, it still has got a long way to go. The biggest change that I'm holding out for in Saigon is a subway, to ease the horrendous rush hour traffic situation. 6 million or so people, all trying to drive to work or school on their motorbikes, is just lunacy. There are buses, but when vying for space on the narrow roads with the motorbikes, and navigating around construction, it seems like far from the ideal public transportation.

Anyway, this was just my own rambling observations, make of it what you will.

Monday, April 13, 2009

on Beefsteaks and Teachers

It was a good weekend. I especially enjoying hanging out with a couple expat friends. We ended up at a place overlooking the river in Phu Nhuan near my house, where a lot of local Vietnamese go. It closes very late, around 4am, so a lot of locals go there when the bars and clubs close, and it's a great place to people watch. It's also a good chance to buy cheap food from the people who wander up and down the tables trying to sell things, like quail eggs and boiled peanuts. It took me awhile to get used to the softer peanuts when they're boiled but I've come to like them.

Sunday night I wanted to go with Uyen to a place that advertised ostrich meat. I was really excited to try it, but when we came they told us they were out of ostrich. So, we settled for beefsteak, which was fine, because I really like it here. It's not the same as the typical steak in America, which I imagine as being thick and juicy with steak sauce. Here it's very thin and is served on a hot pot which is hot and crackling as it comes to you. Often it is also served with an egg and other styles of meat, and even french fries and bread on the side. The Vietnamese then squirt chili sauce over the whole mess but I passed. Anyway, beefsteaks are one of my favorite dishes in Vietnam, and they're usually cheap compared to Western food. Plus, almost every coffee shop in the city has it on the menu, so if you're ever in a hunger panic at any time of the day, you can count on getting some beef and eggs and bread at a cafe.
Here's a picture of my meal:



So, now that I've been teaching more children's classes, it's very interesting noting the differences between my co-teachers. When I walk into a class, the students are often already engaged in a lesson with the Vietnamese teacher, and I unwittingly cause a disruption. They all turn to me, most of them saying "hello!" and if some of them remember me then they shout my name. Some Vietnamese teachers are really hands-on and don't like letting go of the class. I'll start to teach and they'll keep interrupting with suggestions or ideas for games, which is okay towards the end of class if I'm looking for a different activity to do. Sometimes they will even interrupt in the middle of a game and say they want the students to work on their workbooks. But these teachers are good at translating my more complicated instructions to the students so they can participate in the games. Other teachers see me come in and immediately retreat to the back of the class, where I don't hear from them until the end of class and I'm pretty much on my own. So, if I do try to explain an activity, the students are lost and the teacher isn't really paying attention, so I have to look at them in exasperation until they realize they should translate what I'm saying. I can relate to these teachers, because the students really are a handful, and they have to be around the kids longer than I do, but still, I rely on their ability to convey quickly in Vietnamese what I'm trying in vain to describe with English and hand signals. At any rate, I think I'm able to better establish a rapport with the students when I'm communicating directly with them without having the other teacher trying to direct things all the time.
In general, I feel like a novelty item, as a foreign teacher. I come in and I'm immediately an item of interest. I don't have all the training of the Vietnamese teachers, and I'm not expected to have any knowledge of grammar or anything like that. Yet somehow my role is still essential. I guess it pays to have someone who speaks English as a native speaker so the students can at least hear how it's supposed to sound. Especially when even the Vietnamese teachers pronounce things wrong, saying "He ee tall" instead of "He is tall". No one wants to say the "s" at the end of words. It's an ongoing battle.
But Rome wasn't built in a day!

I've finished Don Quixote and bought a photocopy version of The Quiet American for 2 bucks while on vacation in Nha Trang. It's quite short and I'm almost done, but I'm enjoying it so I'm only reading a little bit everyday. I'm interested in its portrayal of Vietnamese culture 50 years ago, not so much interested in the politics. After I finish it I want to compare my experience with that of the observations in the book.

And on that note, farewell til next time. I'm trying to blog more often now that Kevin of SaigonNezumi.com gave me a shout out and I'm getting some more readers! So, if you read mine then check out his too, he talks a lot about coffee shops which are a major interest of mine!

Friday, April 10, 2009

My new-found obsession with coffee shops

I've gotten back into the swing of things, and making up the classes I missed last week at the public school has kept me busy. Some of my classes at the journalism school are ending so I'm hoping that new ones will start up for me to teach. So, some days I have a little more free time than others. Yesterday I was busy pretty much from 2pm to 9pm but today I just teach from 3:30 to 4 then 4:30 to 5 and I'm free at night. Hopefully I'll be meeting some fellow expat friends. I've been hanging out almost exclusively with Vietnamese people lately, which is good, but there's something to be said about being with expats and being able to speak at full speed. With some of the free time I had on Monday, I started writing, and trying to realize the goal of making a novel about life in Vietnam, semi-autobiographical. As they say, you need to write a little bit everyday and get in the habit of it. Same as exercise or reading the bible or anything else, but since I tend to forget about my daily tasks until the end of the day, I usually don't exercise since doing a bunch of sit-ups before bed keeps me awake. Even though I'm tired, I'm usually able to write a little bit before bed and time will tell if it's actually cohesive. I'm just writing now and not worrying about what it looks like until later.
This week I've also been sick with a common head cold, which are so common here that people barely bat an eye if you tell them that you're sick. They just remark, "oh, it's the weather" and recommend some medicine for me to take. The medicine has been making me feel better and I should be back to normal soon.
Sometimes living in Saigon really gets on my nerves and I dread the drive to work. I think part of this is just the conditions of driving in general. From where I live, there are several routes to take to reach my school, and I often try different ones to test the traffic, but I keep finding that all of them are bad. There is perpetual construction on some streets that limit the width of the road to barely the width of a car, and all the motorbikes have to go on the sidewalk to get around it. There are some construction areas in the middle of the road which actually jut halfway into the intersection, and if you're making a left-hand turn, well, good luck. Because of all the narrow spaces, if a motorbike breaks down in the middle of it, it causes more chaos than the apocalypse.
Now, it appears that the rainy season has arrived early. Every day for the past week or so it has rained heavily in the afternoon, not for long but rather intense so that driving is very unpleasant. A light drizzle doesn't cause much of a reaction, but as it starts to pick up, you see many drivers who are stopped at the side of the road pulling their raincoats out of their compartments and sliding them on, then back on their motorbikes. One upshot is the cooling down that happens after a rain. But I still miss the cool, dry season.

Now I've been getting more interested in finding coffee shops, particularly when I have some free time. It's much better than sitting at home. I want to find one that is the perfect combination: good vietnamese coffee but not expensive, some light food options, free wifi, A/C, relaxing music, interesting decor, a nice upstairs area, close to my house. Sounds like a lot, huh? But it's pretty common, except the coffees are more expensive than I want. At the places I've been trying, coffee is 35-40,000 dong, which is about $2 or $2.25, but when I can buy it on the street for a quarter, it's overpriced. I guess I'm paying for atmosphere. Yesterday I had coffee at a nice place called Le Cafe de la May, which had a French theme and nice artwork, on a busy street but pretty quiet inside, and lots of plants around. A recurring theme of coffee shops here is the inclusion of nature, with some cafes being right outside with trees in between the tables, but I like my A/C so I'll take an indoor venue.

So, this brings me to today. I was enjoying my typical breakfast at home when suddenly the power turned off. I learned not to expect it back up again until 5pm, so I made plans to look for a coffee shop. I looked around near the street where I teach this afternoon but found some other places were missing power too. So now I wound up at the turtle pond rotary place, and found a place aptly named "Coffee Cup". I like this place a lot, although the coffee is still expensive and I decided to indulge in an iced cappuccino. Anyway, I like the music, it's some good instrumental stuff and now suddenly this song "quando quando quando" came on, this big band song that probably has a famous singer whom I should know but I don't. Now the decor here is really amazing, it looks like a 19th-century parlor. They have comfy old couches and chairs, along with standard coffee shop chairs. I'm resting my computer on a glass table with flowers on it, looks like it was taken from a hotel lobby. Next to me is a shelf with pictures and candlestick holders and mirrors and mood lamps with darkened shades. I have sort of my own little corner here. And of course, free wifi. Being close to Vo Van Tan and Nguyen Dinh Chieu, two streets where I teach, is convenient, and about 15-20 mins from my house. They even have these elaborate curtains on the windows, and flowerpots by the windows as if this were an old apartment building.
And now, a word on the "upstairs" requirement I have. You see, horizontal space is limited here. It seems that most buildings are alotted just a small amount of space to build on the ground floor, and this place looks like they probably also bought the place next door, because it's twice as big as the typical place upstairs. Anyway, this means that when downstairs, you're pretty much open to the outside, there's not much room to hide. I like to hide away in a coffee shop to read or do some writing or internet browsing, so I go upstairs to find a nice nook or an empty seat by a window to watch the rat race below. Nearly every building as at least one or two extra floors above the ground floor.

Anyway, that's all the news that's fit to report right now. Au revoir!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Nha Trang

Nha Trang is one of the most popular beach towns in Vietnam. I say town, but it's really a small city, though much more relaxing than Saigon. One road lined with palm trees stretches along the coast, with the beach on one side and hotels on the other. It has the standard tropical beach town feel but definitely has the Viet charm too. There is some dispute about the origin of the name, since "nha trang" doesn't mean anything. But, I noticed that it's similar to "nhà trắng", which means white house. Could this be the Vietnamese Casablanca? Well actually, this was the home of Louis Pasteur, and he and Alexandre Yersin did their scientific research here. Apparently Pasteur had the only white house in town, and when he was telling the driver where to go he said in his bad vietnamese "nha trang" without any tones, so the name stuck somehow. That's just a story, one of many possible explanations, but it's my favorite.

Anyway, I had a fun couple of days in Nha Trang. It was just me and Hien, as the other teachers had already gone. Unfortunately, it did rain quite a bit. But it was still a fun, relaxing time.

The first day we got in very early from the night train, about 5:30am. We took a taxi to the little but comfortable hotel and saw many people out exercising as the sun was just preparing to rise. After checking into the hotel we had to wait for the breakfast places to open, then we got breakfast at a nice french place. I had my usual vacation fare, an omelet, along with bread and of course a ca phe sua da. After that we went to the beach, I read Don Quixote for awhile, I went swimming for a bit in the pool, and just relaxed. It started to get cloudy and then rained, which it kept doing most of the time there. Anyway, at least I got some beach time in.

The rest of the time, I ate a lot of food, Vietnamese and Western, I got some very good pizza, billed as the best in Nha Trang and definitely the best I've had in Vietnam. We also went on an island tour, we took a bus and then a boat to check out a few islands. They had lots of animals to see, like ostriches and deer and monkeys. One island was all monkeys, and they were wild but also used to people, so they went right up to you and demanded food. As soon as they got some, they grabbed it and ran away to eat it. They were very competitive with each other. I think there were two different monkey tribes that were at war on the island. They also had a little performance with monkeys and dogs and goats, dressed up funny and doing tricks, some of it was silly and ridiculous. It looked like they mistreated the animals, and I figured that such a show wouldn't go on in the US without a lot of complaints. But here, the presenters were smiling away and the audience was clapping.

Anyway, I took a lot of pictures too, which I'll show. When I came back to HCMC, I drove back from Languagecorps at 5am, 1 hour before the sun rose, and saw lots of people awake on the street, some selling food, others exercising. I can't believe what an early start people have. And my mom complains about waking up at 5:30 hahaha... Actually, I complain if I have to wake up before 11am.

So, not much else is going on. Been slow with work since I got back, since I have a couple days off because of Hung Vuong. He was the first king of Vietnam, like 4,000 years ago. It was his birthday on Saturday. They don't know for sure, because it was so long ago, but they decided to celebrate it then anyway. So I got off from both private and public schools. Then later this week it's time to get back in action. A lot of classes are ending but I should start getting some new classes too.

Here is a smattering of pictures. I realized how easy it is to just upload photos to facebook instead of photobucket, so all my pictures are on there as well. Here are the links to those albums: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2192334&id=1607549&l=28f012c1ac
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2192335&id=1607549&l=8fd9477f55





Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Teacher in his natural habitat

Recently, we caught on camera an English teacher in his natural habitat, the classroom. You must be very quiet if you spy him, so as not to scare him away. So here it is, just for you, exclusive photos straight from the public school!





Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Here we are again

March is always the month that feels like a black hole which swallows me up and never seems to end. This is probably because it comes after February. Or maybe March drags on because it seems like a time for change, but change is slow to happen. At home, it's the beginning of spring, but it usually stays cold with the potential for snow even into April. It may get warmer for a few days and then plunge back into winter. So, the delay and even backwards motion of change seems to make March into a month that becomes an eternity. Even now for some reason I feel like I've been living in March, 2009 forever. Maybe this is because the heat makes every afternoon unbearable, and now instead of spending the afternoons snug in my air-conditioned pad, i have to brave the sun's rays to drive to the public school, sometimes more than one in the same day. One day I actually had four different schools to go to, almost all right in a row.

I also have been waking up earlier on the weekends to teach children's classes at Elite. These classes are 45 minutes each, using the same books I've been used to at the public school, but it takes more creativity to fill up a longer class time. The classes are smaller so it allows for better interaction. But the students are no less restless, and begin to demand games after 15 minutes of class.

So, waking up earlier and having more to do in a day certainly makes each day longer. Which in turn makes the whole month longer. At any rate, it's not bad. Time doesn't move faster or slower, just our perception of it. So, I'm only in Vietnam for a limited amount of time, and I want to enjoy every moment while I'm here. I'm taking chances to eat out at various places for lunch or hang out at a coffee shop when I have the chance. Mostly because it's so cheap. And now with my busier schedule, I'm making more money and I'm starting to feel like part of the aristocracy. I was surprised to hear, but I guess it shouldn't be surprising, how much money a foreign English teacher makes compared to locals. Even working about 20 hours a week, I make twice as much as someone working 40+ for a company.

So, while I keep hearing grim news about the economic recession from the US, I haven't really felt the effects here. Nevermind my debts from college for the moment...

So my vacation to Nha Trang is finally going to happen, next week. This is a trip I paid for when I first came to Vietnam but I delayed going on it. Finally I have an opportunity to go, and I feel that it's at the perfect time for me to take a little time off to relax. I also haven't seen the beach in quite awhile. It will be good to hang out near the ocean and go swimming a little before the rainy season kicks in again. It's supposed to be a really beautiful place, very popular with tourists and locals as well.

As for the future... I was planning a glorious trip around all of Asia, stopping in every country for a brief time to soak up the culture and move on... but I realize that that's quite impractical and expensive to book so many flights. So I'm now interested in just traveling around Thailand and Laos, checking out some relaxing beaches and nature and temples and such. When I think about what I like to do on vacation, I realize that I'm not big on shopping. So, there's really no point in going to Singapore or Hong Kong, two big cities that are sophisticated and wealthy but I think I've had enough of cities for now. However, I think I'd love to make it up to China to check out Beijing, the forbidden palace, the great wall, maybe even Tibet. And rather than fly everywhere, I want to utilize trains. It will take longer, but the experience of riding through the countryside will be worth it, I think.

Since tonight I don't work, I decided to wander to a cafe on my street to blog from there, because I always drive past it and it advertises free wifi. However, it's not airconditioned, the fan just moves back and forth, and although it's wide open to the outside and it's 9:30 at night, it's sweltering in here and I'm sweating bullets. Specifically, about one bullet per minute. That's some record fast sweating. I just checked the temp online, it's 82 degrees, feels like 90, 79% humidity. I'm starting to feel that rainy season can't come fast enough.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The time has come, the peter said, to talk of many things...

...of bricks and gifts and lecture halls, of pizza huts and things.

Well I tried to fit the events of the past week into a rhyme by Lewis Carroll and it didn't quite have the punch I wanted. Plus, the only thing I could find to rhyme with thing was thing.

Bricks: The empty lot a couple doors down from my house is finally getting built upon. Maybe there used to be a house there that fell apart or something. Now there are several people there working on the house, starting in the early morning and often waking me up. They've got the bricks piled on for the walls and also a roof, but the inside is mostly bare. There's also an old woman who sits outside during the day bending metal wires into rings. I'm not sure what it's for. I haven't really inspected the area because people are always there and stare at me when they see me, even if I cheerfully yet awkwardly greet them. Sometimes in the evening they're eating or playing cards, and even at night, the workers sleep there in hammocks or on blankets on the ground. I don't know if they're going to be living in the house or if they were hired to build it. If they were hired, I don't know why they'd sleep there at night.

Gifts: Yesterday was international women's day, which no one seems to care about in America, but it's a big deal here, even though they also have a vietnam women's day. Uyen adamantly told me she doesnt like flowers, so when I drove down the street and had flowers thrust in my face by the roadside vendors, I had to politely refuse. Instead I found a cute stuffed bear that she liked a lot and practiced saying "happy women's day" in vietnamese. Even moreso than Valentine's day, this is a day to go out to eat with girls and treat them to things. Also, many husbands will do the housework and cleaning and cooking that the women usually do.

Lecture Halls: Well, not quite. But I just started teaching more classes in the afternoon at another public school, and the classes are much larger than what I'm used to, with students all packed in in nice rows. There must be at least 40 in each class. The Vietnamese teachers helps to keep them in line, even slapping a ruler on a desk to calm them down if they get loud. They all greet me with 'hello teacher' in unison at the beginning and when i say 'how are you' they all respond with 'Fine. Thank you. And you?' Doing certain games and activities is difficult with such a big class and so little room to move around, but the teachers helped me out. It's easy enough to make two teams by splitting the class in half, and taking one student from each side to square off in a game on the board, like writing or drawing or saying or slapping the right word.

Pizza Huts: I went to Pizza Hut in Vietnam for the first time, and just like in Greece, it's a fancy place to eat. It was nice having a thick pizza for once, with all the greasiness and crispiness I was missing when I got pizza at other places. I also finally got some real pepperoni. This pizza hut also has lots of other things like pasta and salad and soups, so it's a far cry from the pizza huts in America where you just run in to get your pizza and get out.

Things: I'll admit it, nothing to say here. I've been busier with more work, and Uyen got a full-time job last week where she works monday-saturday, which is pretty standard. I guess she's working as a secretary for a construction contracting company or something. So now I only see her on Sundays or if I happen to have a night off, which is ok. It gives me time to work on my novel which I will probably never start or finish.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

the tangled mess that is my mind

Well, it's been a long time since I gave people any real news, so I want to update people on a lot of things, and give some observations, but it's difficult to organize my thoughts, so I will be presenting ideas randomly and not in any logical order. Enjoy!

1. I asked my maid one day to cook avgolemono soup. This is a Greek soup, and one of my favorites, it always reminds me of home, especially when I'm sick and my mom would make it for me. Basically, the name means 'egg and lemon', but it also has chicken broth and pieces of chicken and rice, and I also like to squirt lots of lemon juice in it. Anyway, I tried to explain a recipe I found online to my maid and her daughter, who knows some English, and they sorta got the gist. However, when I saw the finished product, it was quite different from what I was hoping. The egg is supposed to be all mixed together as part of the soup. But there were pieces of egg floating in it. Anyone who knows avgolemono knows that this is a very strange appearance. No matter, I heated it up and ate it and enjoyed it, but it wasn't the same as what I was familiar with. Part of this reason is because...
2. Lemons seem practically non-existent here. Instead, it's all limes. When I ask for a lemon, they point to a lime. I can't remember if I've ever seen a lemon here, but maybe I have and don't recall. At any rate, they're rare. If you know me, you know I like lemon on a lot of food, like rice and broccoli and fish. Lime is not an adequate substitute. I guess that's one more thing to look forward to when I come home.
3. I have applied to several law schools and now I'm waiting to hear back from them. Actually, there's one more I may apply to this week, and my app is almost done. It has a slightly later deadline than most other schools. I probably should have applied to all these schools earlier to increase my chances, but it's been busy and I feel confident about my chances.
4. An interesting restaurant: The City Diner. This place looks just like an American 1950's diner. It has a non-functional jukebox, cozy booths, stools, signs on the walls, a harley davidson hanging from the ceiling, it's got it all. Even pop art pictures of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. I explained to Uyen all the history and culture of diners, and she got a kick out of it. The food was pretty good too. They have lots of good sandwiches and burgers and even stuff like chicken fried steak and meatloaf. I got a meatball grinder that I enjoyed very much. No diner would be complete without a good amount of breakfast dishes as well, so maybe I'll have to come back to try it out. The place is a little hard to get to, though, and it seems to be almost in the middle of nowhere. From a busy area in district one, you take a long road which seems to stretch on into the abyss, and it crosses the saigon river to the far end of binh thanh district where there does not seem to be much, but development is in progress. There is lots of construction, and half-completed shells of tall buildings. One day it may be a busy area but so far its kind of a spooky, desolate area with a post-apocalyptic feel. The diner itself is part of a massive apartment complex called The Manor, which looks like a wealthier place to live, particularly because the diner had prices in American dollars rather than dong, and the prices were almost up to the level of a diner in America. I mean, dinner for both of us cost about $15 so I guess I shouldn't be complaining.
5. Pizza Hut exists here, but I haven't eaten there yet. They don't deliver. I tried to run in one day to grab a pizza before my class, but I got held up at the post office and didn't have time to wait for the pizza (they told me it would be 17 minutes). But, similar to the pizza hut in Athens, it has the appearance of a nice restaurant, or at least like a ruby tuesday's or something, not like the places in the US where you basically just run in, grab your pizza, and go. Anyway, there are many pizza places in Saigon, but so far I haven't been able to get one with actual pepperoni, just some cheap knockoff sausage stuff, and I miss those red crispy circles. I hear Pizza Hut is the real mccoy, so I'd like to go there to get a taste of home. There's a Vietnamese teacher I've hung out with a couple times and he's suggested we go there some time. Last time we hung out at a Vietnamese place, and I tried rabbit meat for the first time. It was okay, like chicken, but it was on the bone so it was difficult to chew off. My perennial favorite at Vietnamese places is squid. Also on the menu at this place was frog. I'll have to give that a whirl someday.
6. I've been getting some more classes lately, and I hope to get another public school class for an hour every other day, but I've still got mornings and afternoons mostly free, and if I can it wouldn't hurt to find another place to work so I can save up some more money.
7. One of my roommates, the one who just moved in in January, is named Yen (pronounced "een"), and she's spending all of march in Cairo, Egypt for some training program for her job, which sounds interesting. She's very friendly and I just started getting to know her a little. Her English is good, but not as good as my other roommate Le. I hope I'm not embarrassing her, but something she said was very funny, and I think that all mistranslation stuff is funny. I was watching a rebroadcast of the Oscars on tv a few days ago, and she was chatting to me about it and asked "is your favorite waiter or waitress in there?" It took me awhile to realize that she meant to say "actor or actress", and when she realized her mistake she was pretty embarrassed. But they are both pairs of words with the masculine ending in "ter" and the feminine ending in "tress", so I can see how she could confuse them. God knows I've done enough stupid things trying to speak any language throughout my life.
8. Speaking of languages, one of the languagecorps folks is Tzachi, from Israel, and he apparently has started some Hebrew classes just for some of his friends, for 11:30 on Sunday mornings. Sounds like fun, I always love learning the basics of a new language, and it's a reason to wake up before noon on a sunday since I don't have church here. I really miss Orthodox church services and I want to find one for Easter. I've read about a Russian church in Vung Tau and I hope to get more information rather than going on a wild goose chase trying to find the place.
9. I've been pressured to talk more about cockroaches. There's not much else to say. Apparently Mortimer has a large extended family, and sometimes a new cousin will wander into the house. I find them grotesque. Last time I put a box over one and let it slowly die. When I took the box off, it was curled up on its back. I wonder why they always die like that.

10. Today I said goodbye to Genessa and Greta at a special dinner at Pacharan with the other languagecorps crew members. It was a bittersweet time, because as long as I've been in Vietnam they've been there, and we did the whole training in Cambodia and everything. I can't believe that was 7 months ago now. And I'm actually over halfway through my time here. It still feels like it's just beginning for some reason. Anyway, I haven't even explained what Pacharan is. It's a spanish restaurant, with lots of good tapas and dishes, and I decided to go all out and treat myself to a nice big steak. I hadn't eaten a proper steak since I was home, so I enjoyed it. It had blue cheese on top, and came with roasted potatoes and vegetables, very tasty. We were on the top floor of the restaurant and could look out on a good central area of district 1. We were directly across from the gigantic famous Continental Hotel. It was a wonderful night even though it briefly monsooned in the afternoon. The girls will be going home on Tuesday to resume their normal lives and move to different places in the States for jobs, so i wish them good luck.

I'm probably forgetting ten more important things, but for now I think that's a good update. Adios!

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Hotness

It's been noticeably hotter here in the past couple weeks. I was talking to my students about it and I guess this is the sunny/hot side of the dry season. While it was a little cooler in December and January, it gets much hotter with a strong sun in February. Maybe the temperature itself isn't higher but the constant presence of the sun just makes it seem much worse. I checked the weather a couple days ago and it was 95 degrees, but felt like 102. So if you're freezing in America, you can picture yourself here. I would gladly trade places for a day, though. After driving to work through insane traffic, and trying to calm down a class of active kids in a non-airconditioned room, I'm awash in sweat. I taught my kids about weather today, and I said that today is hot and sunny. One of the kids said "yes, but I'm cold and rainy." I don't know why he called himself rainy. Maybe there's a euphemism I'm missing.

That's all I wanted to say. I've been very busy and tired lately, but I promise to make a longer post with more news soon.