Saturday, January 31, 2009

My First Tet

A lot has happened since last time I blogged, but I haven't really had internet access except for the occassional internet cafe session, which I'm making use of now. The Tet celebrations have slowed down now, and people are starting to return to their daily lives, but I'm still in vacation mode as long as I'm in Pleiku.

I came here about a week before Tet started, and it was a week of preparation and anticipation for the big day. I took an overnight bus from Saigon, and it was full of beds instead of seats, so I was able to sleep a little on the way there. When I got there, it wasn't too exciting in the days before Tet, because Uyen was helping one of her sisters run her shop, which was really busy selling snacks and special foods and wines before Tet. I helped in any way that I could, but I couldn't exactly help the customers when I couldn't speak Vietnamese. Anyway, I was Uyen's guest and I was treated as such, so I had access to as much food as I wanted from the shop. There was quite a bit of snacking that went on, but not as much eating as during Tet, which I'll get to later. During the preparation time, though, Uyen also had to help clean the house, and I helped out with this. Her family has a nice house, even though like most houses in Vietnam it's very narrow, but they make use of the space and it's actually pretty wide open inside. The floors are all hardwood or marble, and I don't think I've really seen any carpets here. Breakfasts and lunches and pretty much every meal involves rice, and different plates of meat and fish and vegetables, and you just take from the middle and put on your plate. If I happened to be awake early enough for breakfast, though, I always preferred just some bread with cheese or something. For some reason certain "regular" foods I don't feel like should be eaten when I've just woken up, like rice and meat. I always have to have some kind of bread or egg or fruit.

Anyway, I was able to explore a little bit of Pleiku, but there wasn't much to see. It reminds me of Glastonbury back home, in the small town feel, but this is also the capital of the whole province out here. The center of the town still is probably no bigger than a small town in America, but it does feel a little more urban and crowded. They don't really have any chain stores or big stores, it's mostly all little shops that are run out of people's homes. There aren't any restaurants except for little noodle places that serve things like pho or bun bo. The food is healthier and I like most of it, but they don't seem to be afraid of a huge chunk of bone and having to gnaw around it to get to the meat.

On Tet and the days that followed, we ate a lot of different foods. Tet really lasted more like 4 or 5 days, since it started Monday and only now it's getting back to normal, and I don't see all of Uyen's family hanging around the house anymore. So over the whole span of it, we ate rice with most every meal, but also they cooked pasta and liver one day, and I really liked the liver. They made some fried spring rolls and also these fried squid and pork balls coated with coconut, or something. The other night for lunch there was lots of fried chicken pieces that were really delicious, but some of the pieces were a little less appetizing, even though her family members picked it up and started nibbling away without hesitation. I'm talking about the actual head of the chicken, where you can still see its eyes looking at you. Also, Uyen seemed to like the feet of the chicken. I guess they don't waste a single part of the body. Also, part of nearly every meal is some soup, with pieces of fish or some kind of meat inside. On one day we drove a couple hours to another town to meet her grandmother and some other cousins and relatives, and for lunch we ate from a giant hot pot on the table where we cooked beef and noodles, and it was very good. All in all, lots of food, and they always seemed to cook much much more than anyone could possible eat. If there were leftovers from lunch, and there always were, they just brought out the same stuff for dinner again.

The eating tradition on Tet itself was interesting. After you eat at home, and distribute lucky money to your family members, you go off and eat and toast at all your friends' houses. I went with Uyen's brother and a few of his friends, first to play billiards, and then in a caravan across the city, stopping for a few minutes at a friend's house, raising a glass of tea or beer or wine, having a few snacks, and moving on to the next place. Since they didn't really speak English, I was very confused by all this, and I felt more like a sheep just being herded along to various pastures, but all in all it was pretty fun. The snacks were similar at every house, usually some dried fruit like raisins or dates and pieces of dried ginger, as well as some other crackers or cookies. Ubiquitous here are fried watermelon seeds, which you crack open with your teeth and feast upon the tiny seed inside. Everyone is entranced whenever they see them around, and start mindlessly opening and eating one after another. Every single place you go, from the coffee shop to the internet cafe where I'm sitting now, has watermelon seed shells littering the floors. For me it's a great difficulty to get them open and I usually end up with some hard shells in my mouth, but part of the fun is the process of opening them, when you have nothing else to do.

Uyen's family is very big, because she has 3 sisters and 2 brothers, and most of them are married with kids. She also has several cousins, and her grandmother had 9 children so clearly there's lots of extended family, but she doesn't see them very often, especially since she lives in Saigon. For the family members who are dead, they honor them on Tet, going to the temple to light some incense and say some prayers. From what I could see, it was not a Buddhist temple, and I'm not sure if there is a specific name for it, since Uyen said her family doesn't have a religion but they just honor their ancestors. At the temple and the shrine in their house they have little statues of people that look like Confuscious or some other old wise person. They leave anything from fruit to chocolate cakes to cans of beer at the shrines in their homes. Also at the temple, people get their fortune on a piece of paper which predicts what will happen to them in every month of the year, according to the year in which they were born. This year is now the year of the buffalo, which in China is the year of the ox, and since it is the year I was born in maybe it will be lucky for me. Apparently not only do I add a year to my age for the new year, but I add one in advance of my birthday, which I don't really understand, but now I tell people that I'm 25, and it feels nice to be a little older.

What else is there to say? Pleiku is a little colder than Saigon, which I like. During the day it feels pleasant but at night it's really quite cold (uyen tells me that it gets down to 10 degrees celsius), so I'm glad I have my hoodie with me, which I hadn't used in Vietnam until now. People go to bed pretty early here, like 9 or 10 o'clock, but I'm staying in a hotel and at least there's a couple movie channels like HBO that I can watch before I go to sleep. I don't know why I wasn't allowed to stay at Uyen's family's house, but I guess it's a cultural thing, like only family can stay there during Tet, or something. She hasn't told them that I'm a boyfriend, just a friend, because I guess once someone is a boyfriend or girlfriend, it is assumed they will get married. But they have to suspect something. Why would I come all the way to Pleiku to spend two weeks with just a friend?

Anyway, I've said a lot, and I'm probably forgetting some stuff. I just wanted to point out a few interesting differences in manners between this culture and Western culture. Respect and politeness is very important here but they do many things that people back home would frown upon. For example, they have no shame at all in burping at the dinner table or elsewhere and not covering their mouths. However, if you yawn you must cover your mouth. At the dinner table, appparently there is no etiquette to wait for everyone to be seated and have food to start eating. At least in my experience, they encourage me to sit down and eat when only the father has food. Maybe he's supposed to eat first since he's the head honcho, I don't know. Something that I always tried not to do at home was put my elbows on the table, but apparently that's no big deal here. People actually usually pick up their bowl of rice and noodles so that it's just a few inches from their mouth, and shovel it in with great speed and fervor. I can't say I object. It may, however, be a shock when I go back home.

So, on Monday I return to Saigon with Uyen, and soon after that it's back to work. I may be looking for a different schedule, or quitting one of my schools and looking for another. Actually, ideally I want to start tutoring some people, because that's the best hourly rate you can get. I want to work more in the morning because Uyen is finished with her degree now and will need to find a daily job, so if I keep working at night I'll never have a chance to see her except for the weekend. Plus, I tend to waste a lot of time doing nothing in the afternoon, so it will be nice for a change of pace.

That's all for now.
Chuc mung nam moi!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Cu Chi, and other interesting matters

My classes have been over the past few days, so I've been finding other ways to pass the time, going out to eat and exploring and such.

On Saturday I finally went to the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Saigon, where the Viet Cong hid during the war. They had a really elaborate system of tunnels that allowed them to get underground and reach the Saigon river, and I think it even connects to the city itself. Also, many booby traps were still there, and the tour guide showed us how they all worked. For example, you step on a platform that swings down and you fall on spikes. The tunnels had many entrances, some of them very narrow, and some bigger so the bigger western tourists could fit. You can't even stand up in the tunnels, and have to scoot along with your back hunched over. There are a few lights down there, but some parts were pitch black and you had to slowly creep along and hope not to hit something. We also watched a short video about the tunnels, and listening to the narrator and the tour guide talk, they kept stating how brave the Vietnamese were in fighting off the American Enemy who was trying to invade their homes. A skewed perspective, but that was to be expected. Anyway, I'm glad I did it, it was a nice little half-day trip.

Sunday night there was an end-of-the-year party held by Elite, at this reception hall called the White Palace. Every time I would drive past it, the White Palace always looked like an incredibly lavish place, with everyone dressed up very nice, and I felt like it would be too good for me, but it was alright, I found some friendly western teachers to sit and chat with. The event started with a performance of dancers followed by break dancers, and then the announcer presented some awards and talked about the progress made by Elite over the year. Standard stuff, really. Then the buffet started, and my oh my were we in for a treat. There was so much food, both Vietnamese and western, I was in heaven. Then had some fried breaded squid balls, and noodles, and rice, and really incredible pieces of beef, as well as a very spicy seafood soup. Basically, I love food, so I was happy. Then they started a talent performance from various teachers at the school, singing different cheesy pop songs and dancing. When I saw them performing, all dressed up nicely and belting their hearts out, I could not picture them as teachers. To me, this would be very different from a Christmas party at a school in America. In Vietnam, I guess there's not as much embarrassment about putting yourself out there and singing something you love. No one is ever ashamed to sing, whether it be in the shower, or at karaoke, or riding on a motorbike.

Tomorrow I begin my valiant sojourn towards the faraway land of Pleiku. I will probably be eating Vietnamese food for 2 weeks straight, so maybe I'll lose some weight. I'm looking forward to relaxing and just going with the flow. If I have internet access, I'll update the blog with information and pictures.

For now, here are some pictures from Cu Chi.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Spas and Bakeries

Last night after teaching, I went out to eat with a couple teachers I know from the journalism school. One of them is an American from Oregon, looks not much older than me, but he's married and has a kid. It sounds like he wants to eventually move back to the states, though.
After eating, we went to a massage place that was actually really nice, like a spa. There were two steam bath rooms, which were incredibly hot and steamy, but as long as you didn't move it felt kinda nice. After that, there's the jacuzzi stage, and then you get a nice silk robe and wait in a room where the tv is playing a motocross dvd, and then you get called for a massage. Once again I was surprised at how rough they can be, especially when they're doing crazy things like walking on your back, but ultimately you feel much better and relaxed.

Now today I stopped at a bakery to buy a snack. They have more than just bread and desserts. Basically they can bake anything into the bread. They seem to like hot dogs, either whole or in pieces, so they had a lot of bready pastries with hot dogs. I bought a banh jambon pho mai, basically a hot ham and cheese pocket. Everything has "banh" in front of it, which is like a cake. Even imported English words have banh, like banh pizza and banh cookies. They had little french bread pizzas and round pizzas, one of which was called "banh pizza new york" and had pieces of hot dogs on it. I didn't have the heart to tell them that people in new york don't eat pizza like that. They also had an array of sweet cakes and pastries that looked appetizing, like banh donuts. They was something called "banh mehico", or mexican cake, but it didn't really look mexican, more like just a sweet roll. I'll have to try it some day.

The new year will be the year of the buffalo. In China, it's the ox, but in Vietnam it's the buffalo. There are lots of cute cartoon buffalos everywhere, and it's sort of a mascot similar to Santa Claus. But I guess it has to change every year. I was also born in the year of the buffalo, 24 years ago. Three months until my birthday! Although, in Vietnam I could already say that I'm 24, since everyone counts an extra year in their age.

That's all for now!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tet Den Roi

So, it's 2009, as usual I didn't make a resolution but I just hope for another safe and exciting year, beginning in Vietnam and ending in America.

What's happened in the past couple weeks?

The Christmas decorations have been replaced with Tet decorations. Really elaborate red and yellow signs and lanterns and hanging things with symbols on them, or messages like "happy new year". The symbols looks like Chinese characters but they're actually the old version of Vietnamese, before they adopted the Latin alphabet. Everyone is getting really excited about the upcoming holiday, and it is a similar feeling to America when people hope for greater fortune and luck in the new year. One thing that you must do is buy new clothes to wear on Tet. I bought some jeans and shirts with Uyen's help, and it took a lot of driving around to different stores to find jeans that fit me. I was excited to start wearing my new clothes, but she told me I can't wear them until the actual day of Tet. I will be spending two weeks in her hometown of Pleiku with her family, starting on January 20. Looking forward to it, and participating in all the traditions, but right now I'm not really sure what to expect.

Classes have been winding down at schools, and I haven't been getting as many classes this past week or so, as I guess people are eager for Tet. In one of my classes only 2 students out of 13 showed up, but we still made the most of it. I finished up at the public school a couple weeks ago, and they had an interesting way of saying thanks and farewell. After my last class, I said goodbye to the students and walked out of the classroom, and one of the women who worked there was standing outside, and she handed me a wad of money and said "your salary." Then I signed my name on a piece of paper and I was off. Looking back, those were very fun classes, and I'm glad I did it to see the lighter side of teaching English, and see what it's like to teach kids.

There's a Tet song that I heard on TV. It goes "Tet, Tet, Tet den roi..." which means "Tet, come now!" Except the song is sung with the northern Viet pronunciation, so the "r" sounds like a "z".

Today is Sunday, and you know what that means... pizza and banana day!

Bye for now!