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:

Friday, June 12, 2009


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.