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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wedding Invitation

I've been invited to a wedding!

My coffee shop friend Miss Hang has invited me to her neice's wedding on October 10th. I'm looking forward to seeing what a Vietnamese wedding is like.

The invitation

Yes, the groom *is* a cowboy on the invitation. I wonder what the real bride & groom will wear.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Story of Stuff

Take a look at this great 20-minute video, & then visit their website to learn more.

I'm hoping to show this video in my advanced English class here in Vietnam. It will be interesting to get their perspective on The Story of Stuff since the town where I live is at the heart of the Production stage.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Busy Weekend

After nearly four months of almost no social contact with Vietnamese people, I've suddenly made a few Vietnamese friends. I'm not sure why things are changing. Perhaps I have started to get used to my surroundings, & thus have become more approachable. Or maybe it's because I've been going out with Katie, the newest teacher at my school. It might be easier for a Vietnamese person to approach two foreigners instead of just one. At any rate, I had a great weekend hanging out with my new Vietnamese friends.

On Saturday, I ate lunch with my coffee shop friend, Miss Hang. In the afternoon, my new Vietnamese tutor, Phuong, took me to her house for a couple of hours of studying & socializing. Saturday night Duy & Trinh, two of my students, took me & Katie out for coffee & then dinner at a late-night sidewalk stand.

Me with my student Trinh

On Sunday, I went to the pagoda for an English lesson with my regular group of people. One of the nuns joined us as well. Sunday night, my student Duy took Katie & me out for coffee again. We didn't stay long, though, because we had to get up early on Monday morning to go to Saigon.

Katie & I spent Monday morning exploring in Saigon, & came back to Bien Hoa around 3:00pm. I taught one class at the bank in the afternoon, & then a new friend, Tram, took me out on the town. We went with some of her friends to take a drive around Buu Long Park. Then we stopped at a cute coffee shop to chat. Afterwards, Tram took me to a vegetarian restaurant near the big market in town. & finally we took a walk in the park by the river.

Whew! That's the most that I've done in one weekend since I arrived in Vietnam. & what a great weekend it was :)

Tram at the vegetarian restaurant

Friday, September 25, 2009

I'm a Celebrity in Bien Hoa

There are plenty of foreigners in Saigon, so people generally don't bat an eye when they see me there. But here in Bien Hoa, I'm a celebrity.

When people pass me on the road, they invariably stare at me. When I smile back at them, they shyly look away. Many people yell "HELLO!" at me when I pass them on the street, & then giggle with their friends for their courage. When I walk into a coffee shop or restaurant, the patrons stop their conversations to point & comment: Look at the foreigner! Some even take photos of me, the anomaly.

The braver Vietnamese people approach me to ask: "What's your name?" When I answer them, they scurry back to their friends to a cacophony of merriment. Those that go so far as to strike up a conversation have often already taken a healthy dose of liquid courage.

It's nice to get so much attention. I feel like a rock star in LA. But it's very superficial & the encounters usually don't go beyond "Hello". I'm thankful for those rare opportunities to actually become friends with a Vietnamese person.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Post Office

I go to the post office at least once a week to send things home to friends & family. Sending packages is really easy here. I just bring the item & the address, & they provide the box or envelope & pack it up for me right there at no extra charge. The average cost to send something to the US is about 150,000 dong, or roughly $8. Let me know if you want me to send you something. I'm more than happy to do it :)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

10 Things I Like to Eat in Vietnam

1. Lotus seed sweet dumplings

2. Fried rice with garlic

3. Tofu & lemongrass

4. Grilled eggplant

5. Dragonfruit

6. Che, sweet pudding

7. Ca phao, a burst of sour juicy yum

8. Spinach & garlic

9. Pumpkin soup I make at home

10. Steamed okra with soy sauce & chili

Monday, September 21, 2009

I Found a Vietnamese Tutor!

I'm finally making some headway in my attempt to learn Vietnamese!

I've been living in Vietnam for almost four months now, but I haven't learned much of the language because I haven't had any direction in my studies. I've just been using my Vietnamese-English dictionary to look up words here & there, & pointing to various objects & asking for the word in Vietnamese. Most people that I meet will tell me a few words, but they are more interested in practicing their English skills than wading through my rudimentary Vietnamese.

Last week I finally broke through the language learning barrier when Marcus, another English teacher, got me a copy of Pimsleur's Vietnamese lessons. There are ten 30-minute lessons & I've already gone through two of them. Miss Hang, my coffee shop friend, was impressed when I tried out my new phrases on her.

Then last Friday, I went to teach my class at one of the local banks here in Bien Hoa. One of the students in the class introduced me to a co-worker, Phuong, who speaks English very well. She offered to help me learn Vietnamese, & we exchanged phone numbers. I met with her for two hours on Saturday & left very encouraged. She had all kinds of great information to help me learn Vietnamese. She even printed up three lessons for me to study during the week.

Phuong studied at a university in Bangkok, where all of the classes were in English. She's married to a Chinese man, who she met while she was studying in Thailand. Because of this, she seems to be much more open to making friends with foreigners = me! I'm planning on meeting with her again this Saturday.

To top if off, one of the students in my favorite English class gave me a book & CD: Vietnamese for Beginners 1. He said there are four levels & to let him know when I'm ready for the next one.

I'm so excited to finally start learning Vietnamese for real!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Tấm Cám: A Vietnamese Cinderella Story

We were studying a unit on storytelling in one of my English classes the other day. I asked them to tell me a Vietnamese fairy tale, one that everyone is familiar with. They told me the story of Tấm and Cám, a kind of Cinderella story. It's interesting that almost every culture has a story about an unfortunate woman who ends up living happily ever after, as they say.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Engrish at the Clothing Store

Shopping for clothes in Bien Hoa is always entertaining.
Today I found some especially good Tshirts.



Your guess is as good as mine.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Pimsleur Vietnamese

I just got a copy of Pimsleur's Vietnamese audio program & I'm thrilled! Now I can finally learn this silly language.

I've been using Pimsleur to study Mandarin Chinese for a few years now, & I love it. It's the only self-study language program that I have found that actually teaches you the language. Most other programs give you vocabulary & phrases, sure, but they don't teach them to you. With those other programs, you still have to teach yourself. Not so with Pimsleur. You just listen & learn. It's awesome.

The program is narrated by an English speaker, with native speakers presenting the target language. The method is unique in that it teaches you to form your own sentences that are not on the CD, & forces you to think in the target language.

For a simple example, you will hear the word for "I" & the word for "understand". Then they put it together in a sentence for you: "I understand". Next, they will teach you how to say "you". Then they ask you to form your own sentence: "You understand". You have to decide on your own how to put the words together, & only after that will you hear the correct sentence. In this way, you start thinking in the target language from the very beginning, which is so important when learning a new language.

I'm so excited to finally be learning Vietnamese!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Getting Things Done

Life is just slower here in Vietnam. Patience is a skill that I've been trying to hone while living here. Nothing happens in a timely manner - or rather, it happens on Vietnamese time. There is absolutely no sense of urgency in anything.

It took several weeks for me to get a bicycle after I moved here, because I had to wait for a Vietnamese person to go with me to translate. I've been waiting months for a skirt to be made, with still no sign of completion. People say: oh yes, I'll take you to that park/temple/mountain, but it never happens.

I'm trying to learn to be patient, to overcome my Western culture, which compells me to be productive & to expect others to be as well, but it's been difficult & frustrating nonetheless.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Vietnamese Bike Maintenance

Today I went with Katie, the newest teacher at my English school, to a different supermarket than the usual one, mostly for the change of scenery. We often spend our days searching out new ways to pass the time, since we seem to have so much of it.

We had ridden our bicycles there, & as we were leaving, the parking attendants decided that Katie's bike had something wrong with it. Before long, a whole slew of Vietnamese were offering their advice on the problem.

We had no idea what they thought was wrong, but soon Katie's handlebars were removed, & one of the guys hopped on his scooter & sped down the road in search of parts.

We waited almost an hour for them to finish before Katie finally decided to tell them that we had to leave. They hastily reattached the handlebars & we were off. The bike was worse for the "help", but we still made it home okay.

Later, our friend Jimmy took the bike to have it repaired properly. What a good sport Katie is.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Celebrating One Month of Life

One of the security guards at the English school where I teach invited everyone to his house on Sunday for a party for his one-month old daughter. Apparently this is a common event in Vietnam, celebrating one month of life. Here is the proud father & his precious little girl.

We all sat around a table full of delicious food & beer. They even made some special vegetarian dishes for me. Yum!

This was not one of them.

Mai, a receptionist at my school loved the octopus.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Learning Army in High School

Many of the students at my English school are high school students. I often ask them about their classes, what they're studying, what they enjoy, what they think is boring.

The other day, I found out that every eleventh grader in Vietnam studies "Army". The curriculum includes military strategies & war tactics, as well as how to use an AK-47. Yep. They all know how to use an AK-47. Really. Every man & woman in Vietnam over the age of 16 knows how to use an AK-47.

Why, I asked. In case they're invaded again, they said. Now that's being prepared!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Groundhog Day

8:30 am: Awake
9:00-12:00: Hang out at the coffee shop
Afternoon: Lunch, grocery shopping
5:00 pm: Prep classes
6:00-9:15: Teach classes
Night time: Hang out at home
1:00 am: Goodnight

Next day: Do it again

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Culture Shock

I always considered myself to be immune to culture shock. I've traveled the world & had many different experiences. Nothing can surprise me. I'm accepting of other points of view, & even curious to learn about how other people do things. I consider living in Vietnam to be an opportunity to learn about the customs here, as well as learn about myself.

But then I read this article, & realized that I have probably been suffering from culture shock for the last three months. The article lists five stages that a person goes through when moving to another country:

1. The honeymoon, or tourist, stage
2. The irritation-to-anger stage
3. The rejection/acceptance stage
4. The integration/assimilation stage
5. The reverse, or reentry, stage

Stage 1 began for me several years ago, when I started dreaming of traveling the world, & still continues now. I want to be a tourist! I want to discover new & exciting things. I want to see as much as I can while I'm on this side of the globe, & I want to take lots & lots of photos.

But Stage 2 has manifested in my irritation at isolation. I can't speak Vietnamese (though I've been trying to learn), & very few people speak English where I live. Also, it's been difficult for me to make friends here, partly because of the language barrier, but also because I don't know how to make friends in Vietnam - I'm not fluent in the culture. Feeling isolated linguistically & socially has made me frustrated: Vietnam is not what I wanted it to be.

I may now be starting Stage 3. I'm starting to accept that I'm an outsider here, & that I always will be. People see me more as a curiosity than as a potential friend. At best, I'm a resource they can use to learn English. As a result, I've been putting less effort into trying to make social connections with people, & putting more effort into being okay with being alone.

Will I make it to Stage 4, the assimilation phase? Only time will tell. But what really scares me now is Stage 5: going home.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

All's Quiet at the Buddhist Temple

I went back to the Buddhist temple on the island today. I was looking forward to hanging out with the nuns & exchanging language lessons. Today, however, not many nuns were there. Perhaps it was because the Hungry Ghost Festival is over & they were resting up from the festivities.

The young man that I had met the last time I was there was waiting for me, though. He had brought his English dictionary & a notebook, & we spent a couple of hours practicing English, & I was able to add a few words to my growing Vietnamese vocabulary list.

An older nun sat down with us after lunch & spoke with my new study partner. He translated for me, saying that the nun wanted me to return next Sunday to hold a formal English class with some of the nuns. That should be fun.

Friday, September 4, 2009

I Got a Package!

My friend Debra sent me a box full of books! I should be set on reading material for a while now.

Thanks Debra! That was just what I needed :)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hungry Ghost Festival

I'm not sure, but I think we just celebrated the Hungry Ghost Festival here in Bien Hoa, Vietnam.

My Vietnamese friends invited me to go with them to the Buddhist temple both yesterday & today. Unfortunately, I don't speak much Vietnamese (though I'm working on it), so I couldn't ask many questions about it, but when we got to the temple, there were lots of people milling around, lighting incense & bowing to the various statues of Buddha. I followed my friends around the temple, mimicking their actions: taking off our shoes, bowing, placing sticks of incense in large urns, & offering fruit to the alters. When I got home I did a search on September 2nd & found the Hungry Ghost Festival, so I assume that was it.

I feel like an anthropologist using context clues to draw conclusions. Maybe one day I will speak enough Vietnamese to be able to ask questions directly.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Hassel of the Haggle

Traveling on the tourist track requires you to deal with haggling, a national pastime in most countries.

I'm not good at bargaining at all. In the United States, everyone pays the same price, which is clearly posted or marked on the product. But in other countries, haggling is a kind of sport. People absolutely love it. They especially enjoy engaging foreigners in a game of bartering because they know they are much more skilled than us.

After several days of getting taken by every shop owner & taxi driver in Bangkok, I was annoyed & even exasperated. I just wanted to pay the going price without having to negotiate it. I'm definitely not a worthy sparring partner. I know I will lose the game every time.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Backpack vs. Suitcase

On my trip to Bangkok last week, I took a small suitcase with wheels, the kind that you might see a flight attendant use. I thought it would be compact & easy to handle. Plus, I didn't want to look any more like a tourist than I already do. I thought I could blend in better without that huge backpack on my back that screams "Take advantage of me!"

Wrong. Traveling requires lots of walking; climbing in & out of boats, taxis & busses; & going up & down all kinds of steps & staircases. A backpack is a much better travel partner. Besides, I look like a tourist no matter what I do.

Take the backpack.