Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Lists

I'm not sure if anyone was wondering, but the reason why I don't name any of our Vietnamese roommates is that I was told at the DukeEngage training session that for their safety, I shouldn't associate them with us? I'm actually not quite sure what to believe anymore, but in any case I will still refrain from identifying them by name.

With contributions from Katie, Kathy, and Allison, but mostly from me...

Things I Don't Miss About Vietnam
  1. Dreading to go the bathroom, not knowing what danger lurks behind the door (if there even is a door)
  2. Flying cockroaches ("Wait what, they FLY???!!!")
  3. Trucks honking behind you as you're biking on the national highway
  4. Perpetually wet clothes
  5. Perpetually smelling like wet laundry
  6. Washing my clothes in the bathroom and having to adjust positions every five minutes because I can't do the Vietnamese squat.
  7. Slipping in mud at the worksite after a rainy day and almost falling off a monkey bridge while carrying a roof tile
  8. Bug bites of all shapes and sizes
  9. Drenching myself in bug spray every morning and night
  10. Not knowing whether to address someone as em, chi, or co without offending someone.
  11. Automatically assuming anybody who wears orange is "one of us."
  12. Seeing miserable animals strapped in cages to the back of motorbikes...
  13. ... then, seeing their cousins on my dinner plate later that day.

Things I Do Miss About Vietnam
  2. Fruit smoothies that cost 50 US cents
  3. Seeing puppies roaming everywhere
  4. Ben Tre Lunch Lady's home-cooked food
  5. Papaya soup!
  6. Homemade yogurt!
  7. Evening hang-outs at the Che (sweet soup) stand in Quang Tri with the local students
  8. Witnessing the magnificence that is Queen Allison's Power - her extraordinary ability to calm raging motorcyclists with just a sliver of a smile
  9. Having no idea what news or celebrity gossip is going on back in the US  ("Uh, J.Lo did what?")
  10. Local villagers/townspeople/city people recognizing me in less than a week
  11. Sneaking off after work to paddle out on a rowboat into one of the streams of the Mekong Delta
  12. Wondering how our female Vietnamese roommates were able to do construction work in the Quang Tri heat while wearing cloth masks, long-sleeved jackets, and dark blue jeans (essentially covering themselves head to toe and resembling robbers decked out in floral patterns) without suffocating.
  13. The little kiddos at our Ben Tre work-site, who would massage our backs anytime we sat down, and the game they played, where we were ducks that they were selling at the market. (According to them, Kathy cost more than Joey because she could lay eggs. Juan Pablo cost the most because he had the most "meat.")
  14. Late night "blooping" with friends.
  15. Going through all of the '90s hits at karaoke ("Bye Bye Bye," anyone?)
  16. Guitar jam sessions with Katie on the balcony.
  17. Having "teachers' meetings" after class in Quang Tri with my co-teachers, which mainly became hilarious discussions about Goodbye My Lover Kid and his crush on Allison's Quang Tri roommate.
  18. The ongoing competition between me and Xuan's Quang Tri roommate regarding who could repeat the other's name for the longest time in a single breath.
  19. Making fun of the Monkey King about his rooftop escapades and construction mishaps
  20. Rapping and talkin' swag with Mushroom
  21. Hanging out with the Quang Tri Fab Four (and Sidekick Four)
  22. My beloved Quang Tri Family - Mama, Grandma, and jie jie
  23. Staying up until 3 am with the Saigon Gossip Team
  24. Cheering for my beloved soccer team, Quang Tri United, at the youth soccer tournament we organized.
  25. Teaching elementary school students how to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in English in art class with Katie, Xuan's Ben Tre roommate, and Kathy's Ben Tre roommate, until my voice was hoarse from singing over and over again.
  26. Playing tennis with the Ben Tre locals, who were stupefied by my forehand Western grip. ("She has to be a pro! How else can she hit with that kind of grip?!")
  27. Meeting the Kung-Fu Master who also complimented me on my tennis
  28. Laughing at Juan Pablo's tan line from his "luscious locks."
  29. Laughing each time one of the guys got hit on by one of the local girls.
  30. The friendliness and hospitality of the all of the Vietnamese people I have met this summer.
  31. My darling English class of secondary students, whom everyone said I spoiled with the treats I'd buy at the market before class and whom wrote the sweetest letters on the last day of class.
  32. The village schoolchildren in Ben Tre, with their exuberance and inexhaustible energy.
  33. All of the roommates, assistants, and now new friends, both in Quang Tri and in Ben Tre.
  34. My beloved roommates from both Quang Tri and Ben Tre, who taught me so much about the world they live in.
  35. My groupmates - this summer would not have been the same without this group of amazing people.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Eating Animals

Fun Fact: After reading Eating Animals during the spring semester of my freshman year, I entered a brief stint as a vegetarian. My conversion to vegetarianism was mainly spurred by my newfound knowledge of the horrors of the factory farming industry. Embarrassingly, it lasted only until the semester ended -- when I arrived home for summer vacation and was greeted by my mother's home-cooking, I succumbed to temptation. Nevertheless, I remained optimistic that one day, under the right circumstances, I would able to return to vegetarianism again.

Before we came to Vietnam, our group was told that vegetarians would have a difficult time having their dietary restrictions met here. While I don't think that is entirely true (at least, not in my experience so far), meat is definitely in at least one or two dishes at lunch and dinnner, and if you are a vegetarian, you would have to pass on having pho for breakfast.

Now, here's the twist.

I think I have seen more baby animals here in the last two months than I have seen in my entire life in the United States. How often do you see puppies scampering about the roadside in the US? On a side note, yes -- it's true that you can eat dog here in Vietnam. In fact, puppies are apparently the ideal dog meat because their meat is tender.

I have no intention of eating dog meat, but I face quite a different dilemma when I see piglets and ducklings here. During one of our community assessments in Quang Tri, we stopped by an elementary school. At the front of the gate was a man on a motorbike with a basket cage full of little piglets. The cuteness attack that Kathy and I faced was tempered by the fact that chances were, one of these piglets would end up on our dinner table. In fact, at the closing ceremony in Quang Tri, each table was served a dish of roasted piglet.

Baby animals aren't just the problem. On Tuesdays and Thursdays in Quang Tri, we were given a stipend and allowed to explore the town and buy our own dinner. A group of us went to look for a certain kind of noodle soup whose name I have suddenly forgotten. We found the restaurant that served it, and upon entering the "dining area" which was really a person's yard, we saw a couple of chickens clucking around the yard. Immediately, the American students asked their roommates to not order anything with chicken -- the last thing we wanted was to hear the death wail of a chicken before dinnertime.

The thing about eating meat in Quang Tri town and our current village in Ben Tre is that the animals we are eating are not products of factory farming. These animals have at least being able to roam around somewhat freely on a village farm before winding up at the village market. I thought I would feel a little bit better about eating meat as a result. Instead, I'm starting to think I might end up going back to vegetarianism when I fly back to the United States. Something needs to change when you start thinking your food is cute.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Coconut Wonderland

I distinctly remember hearing a former DukeEngage participant mention at our training session that he regretted not blogging enough about his summer. If I ever become one of the training session assistants next year, I suspect I will end up saying the exact same thing.

Our fine travellers are now in Ben Tre, which is located in the Mekong Delta in the southern part of Vietnam. The difference between Ben Tre and Quang Tri is immediately obvious. Like a Starbucks on every corner of an American city, there are coconut trees everywhere. You can drink coconut milk straight from the coconut -- it costs only fifty cents to buy a coconut here. Our assistant told us not to go under a coconut tree at midnight -- apparently, people have been killed by a falling coconut. He also mentioned that the same applies to durian trees, which I personally think would be a worse way to go. For those unfamiliar with durian, a durian is a melon-sized fruit covered in hard spikes and is infamous for its smell. I cannot stand the smell, but durian is actually quite popular in Vietnam. The thought of being impaled by the spikes of a durian before succumbing to its smell is quite gruesome in my mind.

Instead of being split into two groups like in Quang Tri, here all 22 students work on building the same house for a three-person family. It takes us about 40 minutes to bike and walk to the work site -- we actually have to stop at a certain point and walk the rest of the way because we cannot bike across the multiple monkey bridges that lead to the work site. After lunch, we lead a summer camp for elementary school children in the village. I and two of our Vietnamese roommates teach art; the other five classes we are teaching are physical education, health, English, geography, and science. Dance was originally a class, but now instead the dance teachers (Katie, Devyn, Xuan) lead a group exercise with all of the children outdoors for the last fifteen minutes of camp.

Art has actually been quite a pleasure to teach. Our first lesson plan has had a music focus, and so we've taught each class of children to sing both the Vietnamese and English versions of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Consequently, my voice has had quite a workout from singing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" multiple times per class. In the future, we are planning to have lessons on origami, paper cutting, drawing, and painting. The children have very short attention spans, but they make up for it with their ability to melt your heart like butter with their cuteness.

The wireless internet connection is finally working at our guesthouse, so hopefully I will be able to update in Ben Tre much more frequently than I did in Quang Tri. If you're reading this in America, cross your fingers! But don't do that if you're in Vietnam -- it means something else here.  ;]

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Provincial Life

Anyone who has encountered me during finals week has probably figured out that Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite Disney movies. To maintain a good mood, I will usually cycle in a ton of Disney songs into my playlist while I study. Consequently, I know almost all of the words to the song "Belle" -- you know, the one with all the "Bonjours" and that hilarious bit where Belle sings, "I want much more than this provincial life" -- right before Gaston announces, "Just watch as I'm going to make Belle my wife!" and the townspeople go "Pftttt yeah right" and completely ignore him.

Yes, I'm getting somewhere with this.

I've grown up my whole life in the suburbs, and I cannot tell you who my neighbors are beyond two doors down. Thus, the small town mentality here in Quang Tri is completely new to me. It's awesome in literal sense of the word -- you know, awestruck. There have been quite a few instances here that have are perfect examples of this, but I suppose it's probably better for me to talk about my own experience instead.

On Sunday night, a group of kids came by the guesthouse to play. Unfortunately, the majority of our group had not yet returned from dinner, which meant the rest of us were left to entertain the kids while they waited for the others to return. We ended up playing a number of group games with the kids, one of which was called "Chicken and the Fox." At a certain point in the game, I was the fox and Kathy was the chicken. I was chasing her around the pavement when my foot got caught in one of the cracks on the ground, and I ended up spraining my ankle. Which is quite sad when you think about it -- I'd been working on construction for an entire week with nary a bruise, and strangely enough I end up spraining my ankle from playing games with children.

In any case, by Monday morning my foot hurt enough that I could not walk without limping. My Vietnamese roommate had to bike me to the health center to get my foot checked. At the health center, two things struck me:

1. People knew who I was. This was pretty bizarre for me -- because of my looks, I don't get the head-turning or second-glances that someone like Allison or Juan Pablo gets whenever we bike along the main street. According to my roommate, a bunch of people at the health clinic saw me and said, "Oh, she's the volunteer!" I have a feeling that by the afternoon, the whole town knew I had hurt my foot from playing games.

2. Health care costs are stupefyingly inexpensive here. I paid about 4000 dong to see the doctor, and 40.000 dong to get two X-rays done. That is equivalent to about 20 cents to see the doctor and 2 US dollars for the X-rays. Those two X-rays are my coolest souvenirs thus far.

In case you were wondering, I recovered quickly and was back to work by Wednesday, just in time to be present for our Parking Team's last day, as we completed the parking structure on Wednesday. Nevertheless, my sprained ankle caused me quite a few problems in those two days of recovery.

The most notable example happened on Tuesday night. My foot was already feeling much better, but at my roommate's insistence, I agreed not to bike to one of the Vietnamese roommate's house for dinner. Instead, her close friend, another Vietnamese roommate in the program, offered to carry me on the back of his bike.

At this point, I think I should mention that by Vietnamese standards, I am ridiculously heavy. I should also mention the fact that this bike ride involves at least 20 minutes on a bumpy dirt road in the countryside.

Not only did this poor gentleman have to carry this American girl who probably weighed more than him across a bumpy unpaved road, the useless girl who had just visited the house a week ago also forgot to tell him where to turn right. As a result, the two missed the turn and ended up biking for forty minutes until they realized they were lost and had to turn around and ask for directions.

In my defense, for a girl who grew up in the suburbs of one of the biggest cities in California, the Quang Tri countryside starts to look all the same when you see all those rice paddies one after the other.

To end on a positive note, the ride back home to the guesthouse was much better. It's actually quite nice biking through the countryside at night. There are no street lamps and no light pollution in the countryside, so we carry a flashlight as we bike home. The only sounds are from the nocturnal creatures and the occasional motorbikes. I would say the tranquility is what I like best about this little town.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Recap of Week One in Quang Tri

Is it sad that I've only written three blog posts in the two weeks I've been in Vietnam thus far?

We just started our second week in Quang Tri today, and our construction projects have been going smoothly. Our group is split into two teams, which we affectionately call the Restroom Team and the Parking Team. As you might be able to guess, one team is in charge of building a restroom for an elementary school, while the team I belong to is constructing a parking lot for the youth center. It's kind of cute, actually -- when we went out for karaoke Friday night, singing as we walked down the main street in the town, I felt like I was in a Quang Tri rendition of West Side Story, except our "gang" names are much cooler than ones like the Jets and the Sharks.

Jokes aside, construction is quite a challenge. Breakfast is served at 5 am, and we are required to bike to the construction site and start working by 6 am. We work until a little after 10 am, and then we rest and have lunch (and nap, if we're lucky) until 2 pm, when we have to be at the Youth Center to teach English until 4 pm. Dinner is served at 6 pm, and usually at night we have meetings about teaching plans and construction progress. Oh, and at some point during the day we find time to wash our clothes by hand.

But all in all, the work here is very rewarding. I am quite optimistic that I will slim down enough to look decent in an Ao Dai (traditional Vietnamese dress) by the time our time in Quang Tri is over.

The last two posts have been inexorbitantly long, so I think I'll write separate posts about some of the interesting stories that have happened here in the past week. Toodles.

Friday, June 17, 2011

5 Things to Know About Vietnam

[Day 7]
[Location: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)]

First off, my apologies for being such an inconsistent blogger. Despite the fact that I am getting at least seven hours of sleep each day here, I am still ready to keel over and crash onto the bed by around 10 pm. Consequently, whatever free time I've been able to enjoy thus far has mainly been spent towards napping and sleeping.

To make up for the lack of updates, and since I enjoy making lists, I now present to you Five Things to Know about Vietnam:

1. Vietnamese Time = "ish"
Alyce, our super awesome and smiley on-site coordinator, informed us on the first day that the Vietnamese culture tends to have a more flexible attitude toward arranged meeting times. That is, if you arrange to meet with someone at 6 pm, your buddy probably won't show up until half an hour later. We actually watched a documentary about a Vietnam/US theater troupe collaboration that touched on this idea. The analogy someone used in the film is that the Vietnamese are like a soccer player who adjusts the play to his opponent; the idea of scripting the game move by move to be ridiculous. Flexibility is key.

Allison and I suspect we must have been secretly born Vietnamese. Unlike many of the other people in our group who have been getting up naturally at 5 or  6 am, we got over the jet lag very quickly. Excluding the first day, we have been getting up at 7:40 am every morning and barely making it to our 8 am Vietnamese class. Obviously, this will have to change once we start getting up at 4 am for our construction projects in Quang Tri this Monday.

2. One Day's Worth of Food in Saigon < 10.00 US Dollars
Other than the discovery that exchanging 100 US dollars made me an instant millionaire in Vietnam, this is probably the most mind-numbing thing for me thus far. Not only is the food here divine, it is amazingly inexpensive. Street food will usually cost no more than two US dollars. For instance, yesterday I spent approximately 50 cents on steamed pork buns for lunch, and that was 25 cents more than I intended only because I accidentally dropped an entire bun on the ground and had to buy another one.

Although I'm not as "culturally-shocked" here as some of my peers might be -- (my Taiwanese heritage has quite a few overlaps with the Vietnamese culture) -- there are still many Vietnamese dishes that blow my mind. Furthermore, I am becoming addicted to the sinh to (fruit smoothies) here, which you can find almost everywhere in all sorts of flavors. It doesn't help that they cost me about 75 cents each for one. You can't even buy a bottle of water in the States for that sort of price.

3. Turn Your Haggle On.
Even if you're a foreigner with limited grasp of the Vietnamese language, you must haggle for your dignity's sake. Unless, of course, you're perfectly fine with being majorly gypped. Your dignity might appreciate some effort though.

It's not as bad as it sounds. In the wise words of Alyce, "If you're a foreigner and you can speak some Vietnamese, you're pretty much a hotshot." The saleswoman will laugh along, probably because you used the wrong tones and said something horribly atrocious instead, but at the end of the day if you're good-humored about the whole business, they will most likely lower the price for you if you ask reasonably. It's probably in exchange for the great source of entertainment you just provided for them. But really, the Vietnamese are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet.

4. Do Not Stop or You Will be Roadkill.
When we visited the US Consulate this afternoon, one of the officers told us that each morning she asks the taxi driver to drop her off on the other side of the street so that she has to cross through Saigon traffic. It wakes her up every time.

The trick is, when the swarm of motorbikes and cars dissipates somewhat before the next wave of vehicles, you start walking across the street like the Emperor marching around in his New Clothes. Even though you probably feel just as naked walking straight into incoming traffic, you must show no sign of fear. Motor bikes yield to you, not the other way around (though cars might be a different story).

And whatever you do, you must not stop. Imagine yourself driving your car back at home when a deer walks onto the road and freezes at the sight of your approaching headlights. Same idea.

5. Hello just might be the hardest word.
Unlike the States where asking one's age is a taboo topic akin to asking one's one weight or salary, in Vietnam it is one of the first questions you ask a new acquaintance. Instead of our English pronouns for you/me that make no distinction for gender or age, simply saying "Hello" to someone in Vietnamese will cause your brain to do all sorts of calisthenics.

Here is a typical example of the thought process. Let's say you go to a restaurant and a waitress greets you. You're about to say Chao... but then you stop. Are you supposed to call her chi ("older sister")? Co (younger aunt)? Bac (around your mom's age)? You take a better look at her, but you can't tell how old she is -- even I will admit that Asians often look younger than they actually are. Should you play it safe and call her chi? But since age is revered in this Confucian society, will she be offended if you refer to her with a younger term?

By then, you've probably given up and just smile and nod dumbly as best you can. Nevertheless, the food will be delicious, and when you're done, you can simply say Cam on (thank you) without necessarily going through the same hassle.

Tomorrow morning at 5 am, we depart for Quang Tri. Internet access may be limited, but considering my blogging patterns thus far, we shall see what sort of impact this may have.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Arrival in HCMC

[Day 1]
[Location: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)]

Hello everyone -- Xuan has given me the honor of writing the first post for this blog. At the moment, it is right around the time when the Vietnamese avoid the hottest part of the day by taking naps, but jet lag is really messing around with my circadian rhythm, and somehow I'm still managing to operate on last night's four hours of sleep.

I flew into Ho Chi Minh City from San Francisco, with a transfer in Seoul, Korea. In total, I sat on a plane for about 17.5 hours and went delirious from watching three movies in a row. Surprisingly, the flight attendants on Asiana Airlines mistook me for being Korean, and so there were several instances where I would have to guess what they were asking me. It's kind of funny -- in comparison to all the flight attendants with their pale, flawless skin, I tan easily and will probably be quite their opposite by the time I depart for my return flight in August.

Our intensive Vietnamese classes do not start until Monday, so for now our group has been given plenty of time to relax and recover from jet lag. We are currently staying in guesthouses across the street from HTV in Ho Chi Minh City.

So far, the biggest problem my roommate Allison and I are facing is the family of cockroaches that continue to pop up in our bathroom without warning. To get a sense of our situation, imagine spending a whole day out in the city and returning back to your room intending to wash off of the grime and sweat, except you can't even enjoy properly this shower because you are paranoid that some six-legged peeping tom is going to lunge out at you in your most vulnerable state. For some reasons, the cockroaches don't seem to visit anyone else except us. I guess it's just our charm.

Despite the cockroaches, the guesthouse is pretty nice. All the rooms are air-conditioned, and we figured out how to use the wifi here. Moreover, it really is conveniently located, because everything we'd need is within a ten minute walk away. We had brunch at a noodle shop on a nearby street called 18A, where there are a lot of food stands and restaurants. I have had pho back in the States, but the pho there can hardly compare to what we had here. Unlike the powdered broth they use in the US restaurants, here the broth is cooked overnight.

Tomorrow is our last free day, since Vietnamese classes start on Monday. I actually can't wait to start learning some of the language. When we went to Ben Thanh Market this afternoon, we stopped by a smoothie stand and the only way I could communicate was by pointing at pictures. Body language is useful and all, but not exactly the most effective way of communicating. Our plans for tomorrow are still up in the air, so we'll see what happens then!