Thursday, December 18, 2008

I Talk Too Much

As I leave the building today, four of my sixth graders grab me to talk about Important Sixth Grade Matters. (Do I think that Cindy's personality is changing?) This leads into quite a discussion.

Now, Nam and his other motorbike driver (xe om) buddies hang out across the street from the school and wait for their "people" to emerge from the building. Have I mentioned how difficult it is to tell someone at 7 am when you want to be picked up in the afternoon? This requirement leaves no room for spontaneity. Also, to understand the rest of this story, you should know that there is a definite "space" between drivers and drivees, I guess you could say. They wait, and wait, across the street, if necessary, until you are ready to go.

So I am already a little bit past my requested pick-up time when the girls engage me in this conversation. After a bit, out of the corner of my eye, I see Nam cross the street and pull up next to me. He says something to Jessica with a little grin, and I am a little surprised that he has crossed the street (and the line so to speak). She laughs at what he says. She repeats it to everyone and all the girls laugh.

"What did he say?" I ask her.

"He says you talk too much," she says.

Nam is laughing at his joke, and, I think, at his boldness. I give him a look of mock surprise. "Oh really?"

And then, it's so funny, he begins to talk with the girls, mostly about our Christmas break, I think, but he just keeps talking and talking. They aren't even translating for me - what they are saying doesn't seem to concern me at all.

So after a minute of this, how can I not say to Jessica, "Tell him he talks too much."

She does this and he lets out one of his belly laughs.

"Tell her she must say 'I'm sorry' to her driver!" he responds. I refuse, and I tell him he must say sorry to me, and it goes on like this for a minute.

Then he pulls another joke. Since they were talking about break, he says to Jessica, "Tell her that if she doesn't apologize, she can get one of those guys over there to drive her when she gets back." He points across the street - Get him --or him, --or him.

I can't believe how sarcastic he is being. I'm just laughing. "Ok," I say, "I'll take him!"

Nam belly-laughs again and puts his hand out to shake with me on an even score in our cross-cultural dissing session.

He is endless entertainment.

At the beginning of this week, I didn't have that "I am so ready for a break" feeling. But now I have it. Really bad.

Teaching sixth grade has been so much fun this past month. I have really enjoyed ancient Egypt and I hate to leave it. Both of my ancient classes have transformed themselves into a family of Egyptian gods and goddesses. We read a lot of myths, and as the kids read them, they read like this: "Then Joe (Ra) put a curse on Helen (Nut) so that she couldn't have any children."

Or "Then Tom's (Osiris') evil brother Khanh (Seth) made him a special coffin that only he could fit into..."

Every single kid can replace the name of his or her classmate's god identity as we read. They know who their grandparents, grandchildren, husbands, wives and enemies are. It's really so much fun to walk into this world every day. When the bell rings they must have their god nametag on to get a point, and they really scramble to get this done. And after we read sections of the story, I have them make a freeze frame, on or around their desks. "OK, everyone, you have two minutes..." and again, they scramble to make a tableau of what they have just read. They are so funny and creative with it. Last week, one of the guards came in to tell Baby Horus (Jack) that he should be studying instead of lying on the floor with a baby (water) bottle in his mouth. The kids had to tell him that we were studying.

And in English, we just finished reading The Tale of Despereaux (coming out in theaters in America today, so I have heard..). A really cute story about a mouse with big ears on a quest...we had a class set of the books photocopied right down the street. It's great, not having to follow copyright laws (Rita, how do you feel reading that)? We did a reader's theater thing where kids were assigned parts and read the dialogue, so good for ESL kids. After break, we will turn it into a play and present it to the primary school.

Well, tonight and tomorrow I sleep in Saigon, but then I will be sleeping in Cambodia, then Laos, then Thailand. Did I mention that I am so ready for a break? And did I mention that I talk too much?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Just Like the Pineapple Lady, Not at all Like the Pineapple Lady

Katherine took all of these neighborhood photos on Sunday~ they will go well with today's neighborhood story:

When I walk by Ms. Hao's house after school (three doors down), Ut waves me in. "Maggie!" he calls out.

As I enter, they point to their two stockings hanging on the wall. I figure that is why I was called in and we interact for a few minutes about Sunday's dinner. "It was delicious," Ms. Hao says. However, then I am surprised...they have three clothing items for me to pick up: a skirt, a tank top and a blouse.

I'm surprised because these are three of the first items I ever asked Ms. Hao to make for me, all the way back in September. I requested them in what now seems the pre-historic age - the time before I knew about connections and loyalties in the neighborhood. Here it is: I bought the material for these clothes from the woman who sits right across from Thuy and Thanh in the market.

I had met Thuy and Thanh before buying this material because Ms. Hao had walked me over to choose my material from them that first time, way before Thuy told me she would be my soul friend in Vietnam, etc., but I had no idea there was a coalition. I just liked some of the material that the other woman was selling. Seems simple enough, doesn't it, to buy the material - or the pineapple - that we want?

It's been about three months since I requested these items. Since that time, Ms. Hao has made me three other dresses - two with material from Thuy and one with material from Nam's sister. But the others...well, the material has just been sitting in a bag on the floor. A few weeks ago, I asked about it and she sweetly nodded, went and got the bag, showed it to me, then put it back in a pile on the floor. Not a word more until tonight.

So it seems...just like with pineapple, it doesn't matter which pineapple you like, it's who is selling the pineapple. If the pineapple isn't ripe, well, you will not get ripe pineapple. If the material is sold by the wrong person, you will not get your order for three months. I had given up on ever getting my clothes. Ms. Hao is just like the pineapple lady, who is just like probably a very h

igh percentage of Vietnamese people: their loyalties run deep. Their loyalties are everything. The only difference between Ms. Hao and the pineapple lady is that Ms. Hao is one of the sweetest people I have ever met. And part of her sweetness is her devotion to Thuy and Thanh.

Now I simply try not to look at any material across from my soul friends; if I like it, buying it will put me in all kinds of awkward positions, and besides, who wants to wait that long for clothes? Not me.

As for the pineapple lady...well, every morning this week she has waved me over more fiercely than she did prior to The Incident. Her scowl is more severe when I don't stop to buy from her (actually, I have only bought from her once, on that fateful day). I am not sure what I'm expected to do, perhaps I'm just supposed to buy from her once to save face or something. To show her neighbor that I am "hers."

But in this case, you know what? I just want to do what I do in MY culture, which is to NOT buy from rude people who pressure me and scowl at me when I don't do what they want me to do.

So there, Pineapple Lady!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas Light Strolling in Downtown Saigon

Thuy and I did our downtown Christmas walk tonight.

Last week I told you that Christmas had exploded in Saigon after Thanksgiving...well, I don't know what to call what it has done since then...except to say that it has exploded times ten.

One street has green and red blinking lights draped over all of the trees - tons of green and red blinking lights. Another street is lined with maybe ten giant - 25 ft tall - wizard hats (wizard hats are a ubiquitous Christmas icon here) and trees hung with golden round lights that look like ornaments, another street is lined with an enormous Santa pulling eight reindeer and a sleigh. The town center is now one gigantic snow globe with an Amtrak train running through a hill town with snowmen and Santas - blaring scary spacey music.

Again, no one has Christmas packages, and no one is really shopping, but there is tons of activity. Most of the activity involves people standing in front of the displays posing for pictures. There is no sitting on Santa's lap...what would kids be asking for? When would Santa deliver? Who has a fireplace?

Anyway, back to Thuy. I meet her at her house and sit with her mother, Thanh and the niece and nephew that Thanh cares for. Thanh is teaching the kids English, and she has them practice with me. They are so cute... Tu and Khanh. I'm not sure what their parents do, but Thanh seems to be their primary caretaker after the market closes each day. She is the oldest daughter, so care for the parents falls on her shoulders as well. Every time Thuy does something with me or us, Thanh says she would like to join us, but she can't. She must take care of everyone. Thanh is an extremely genuine, gracious person. She also keeps very much in the background. Thuy can be fun and sarcastic, but Thanh is always the one to notice small details. I wish she could join us, too.

Eventually, Thuy and I get on her motorbike, ride it downtown and park it in a secured lot near the beginning of the downtown Christmas mayhem (motorbike theft runs rampant here so security is a necessity). As we begin our walk down the street, Thuy locks her arm around mine - a very common gesture between women in Asia (something that Sunny did with me in China, too). When we get to an intersection, Thuy holds my hand. And she always, always moves to block the oncoming traffic. This petite woman who seems half my size protects me from the onslaught of traffic all night long. The arm in arm thing feels OK, but the holding hands thing...I admit, that's a hard one.

We window shop and she is so proud of beautiful Saigon at night. It is really fun for her to see my reaction to all of it. We get to her favorite ice cream shop and I can see why it is her favorite - ice cream in this country is just so good, and at this place, they top it with whipped cream and cookies. I get Dalat Strawberry and, I know I've said this before, but ice cream here tastes like the essence of whatever fruit it is. As we eat, I pull her Christmas gift out of my big bag, and she is surprised. Before she opens it, she moves it to the side of the table and takes a big, deep breath. She says, "Maggie - Sunday last, your Christmas party -" and then she puts her finger to her temple and closes her eyes, "I will remember, I will remember," and then she opens her eyes and puts her hand on her heart and says a third time, "I will remember."

Then she opens her gift, so slowly, and gasps, "Oh!"
I got her three very nice small bows for dipping sauces - green, black and taupe, and they fit on a taupe platter, and each one comes with a little wooden spoon. "Wow!"

"So you will always remember cooking with us," I tell her.

"I know why," she says...she knows why I bought them.

We continue on with our window shopping and I stop to look at a children's picture flip book at a bookstore. I'm laughing and I say, "This is perfect for me!" (because I am so bad at Vietnamese and it has simple categories for food, clothing and animals) and before I know it, she is buying the flip book for me.

By now it's 9:00 and Thuy decides we need to eat dinner. I figured that Dalat ice cream was dinner, but she wants to take me to her favorite place downtown - a downtown back alley, of course. So at 9:30 at night, after eating strawberry ice cream and cookies, we eat crab soup (it may have been crab and fish bladder, I think, because that is what the menu offered, with or without fish bladder- either way, it was delicious), Singapore noodles (with shrimp, pork and egg), and deep fried calamari. The reason she took me here? On the flip chart I pointed to squid, crab and shrimp as my favorite seafood. Yep, so that's what I got for dinner - all of my favorite things.

After dinner we drive home through more lights, and finally we are back at the castle. As I'm getting off the bike, my foot catches on her high seat and I crash to the ground. At first she is horrified, but then the ridiculousness of me on the ground makes us both laugh. My second motorbike accident.

I have to say, all of the arm and hand holding, the light viewing, ice cream eating, gift giving and buying, traffic protection and dining with my favorite food items... I don't know, it may just sound to you like the perfect date. Am I right?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Stuffed Stockings and Big Huge Tacos

From left with stockings: Ms. Hao (seamstress), Lieu (her assistant), Ut (Ms. Hao's 16 year-old son), Thanh (Thuy's sister -- I finally know how to spell her name) and of course, Thuy.

"Taco Bar Christmas" is our concept for tonight: meat, beans, cheese, sour cream, homemade guacamole and chips, salsa, black bean salad...

The corn tortillas we buy are the only ones we know of in the city...and they are huge.

Therefore, the tacos are huge. Biggest I have ever made. And of course, the biggest they have ever eaten, since they have never seen a taco before. I make a very American version of taco - I doubt if they have ever tasted cheddar cheese or sour cream, either (there is one specialty store downtown that sells all of this). Vietnamese people rarely ever eat dairy, except for milk. They never, ever eat large portions. And they certainly have never received a stocking many firsts tonight.

When I demonstrate how to build the tacos, they all ask, "Is this for just one person?"

Watching these five very petite people try to eat these huge tacos is so funny. Good thing they find it comical, too...they spend all of dinner pointing at each other and laughing. I could not have chosen a messier dinner for this dinner party. I show them where Mexico is on Google Earth, but I'm not sure they understand that it's "Mexican" food we are eating.

A turkey, gravy and mashed potatoes would have been ideal, of course, but they keep saying "Ngan lam..." -- "delicious.."

After dinner, we get their stockings off of the balcony and they open them all together.

Right before the party, Katherine buys a Billabong t-shirt for Ut's stocking at Ben Tanh Market (most likely a copy). They joy he shows upon opening it is so pure - he whips it right on over his shirt and stands up to model, it is such a great moment.

Katherine is very proud to have introduced Ut to Western Pop Culture. At one point she asks him where he goes to school. He says he doesn't. None of us push the questioning, but what could be the reason for that? He sits and diligently sews with his mother and Lieu all day, every day. He is such a sweet kid. The other night our cooking stove gas tank ran out of gas and I tried to call to replace it but couldn't communicate on the phone. I ran next door and got Ut- he came right over and called for us. He understands some English, his mother and Lieu understand none. When I needed to know how to write their names on the stockings, I asked Ut. I thought he had a dot under the "U" of his name - which would make the pronunciation very quick. I wrote it like that and he laughed and laughed, and ran to show all of the people in the shop. I have no idea how that dot changed his name, but the tick marks in Vietnamese do that. It is such a hard language!

Anyway, otherwise, we fill the stockings with chocolates (the ones my parents sent- that I kept safe from the ants all of this time in the fridge), cashews, pistachios and gum. Katherine's mom always gave them magazines in their stockings, so she buys those, too, so the stockings are quite full. Thuy, ever the generous host and guest, buys a very expensive chocolate mocha cake for dessert.

I have a special Christmas gift for Thuy and plan to give it to her on Tuesday night--it's a nice set for dipping sauces, pottery I found in a store downtown. Our plan on Tuesday is to walk downtown to see all of the lights and displays, and to eat ice cream at her favorite shop.

I think I need this week off to recover from all of the parties and to get ready for our trip, but I know all of you feel the same way, right?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

I Just Got Told and then Invited to Two Homes and then Saw a Goose in a Bag

As you all know, the market is a highlight of my life right now. As I walk through it each morning, I exchange greetings with not only my regular vendors, but with just about thirty or so people I pass.

Most of the vendors are quite gracious; however, some of them are a bit pushy. A few women in particular make the gesture for me to come and buy their fruits or vegetables and when I don't, they give me a pouty face. I hardly ever buy from these women because, of course, I would rather give my business to a gracious vendor. But last week I needed some pineapple and stopped to buy from a pushy vendor.

This morning, I need some pineapple for a black bean salad I am making for the party tonight. I am not thinking of anything except that I need to get my shopping list taken care of, and I stop at a vendor right next to the one I bought from last week. She cuts the pineapple into chunks for me and then I buy some little green apple looking things. Naturally, the market sounds and voices are just white noise to me since I can't understand any of it, but as I am squatting in front of this woman, I suddenly become aware of a harsh voice above me. I am so accustomed to the market people treating me with such kindness that it takes me a second to register that she is telling me off. She points to my vendor from last week and I think she must be saying,"You bought pineapple from her last week, and look, you are buying those green little apples and she has those exact ones, too. You are being disloyal. Shame on you."

She walks off angrily. I look over at Last-week's-pineapple-vendor and she is frowning. She points to her array of fruits and says something like, "You bought pineapple from me last week and from her today. Why? I even have these little green apples, too." She makes a sweeping gesure, the equivalent of a little kid stomping his feet. I am not sure what to do, but I look up and get disapproving looks from three other women. I look at my current pineapple vendor and she just smiles and tells me "Cam on." (Thank you.)

I feel awful. Little did I know that buying six cents worth of pineapple would be considered such perfidy. The only thing I can do is to continue on with my list, but it stings. I turn the corner and feel a hit on my back. I think, uh oh, there is going to be a smack down over my insenstivity. But no, it is a little tiny older woman, and she is smiling, but is covering her mouth (I think it's because she has bad teeth.)

"Hello," she says, and I can hardly make out her word because of where her hand is. She motions for me to come over to the side of the alley.

"I want to practice my English," she says. We exchange a bit of information...where we live, where I work, where I am from. She is so shy, but very sweet.

And then she says, "I would like to invite you to my house." And then, "Right now."

Part of me wants to go to this woman's house. But most of me just wants to get back and cook and clean for the party. I tell her I must go home, that I have friends over.

"Next time," she says, and I agree.

Not two minutes later, I feel a firm grasp on my arm. What now? I turn and see Nam's great aunt. She is smiling and asking me to come to their home. I have never seen her away from her perch, and I have no idea why she wants this, but she is particularly smiley this morning. Usually she keeps quiet unless she feels like adding something like her "Souvenir." I tell her thank you, but that I have much shopping to do. She nods and says, "Next time," and I agree.

I purchase the rest of my ingredients (Mexican fiesta Christmas) and am heading back home when I get one more surprise in my market. There is a plastic bag hanging from the handlebars of a motorbike, and inside that plastic bag is a pure white goose. I guess I should clarify that it is a live, pure, white goose. Just hanging out in the bag on the motorbike, looking quite happy and unaware that he is about to be glazed and hanging from one of the glass carts in the market.

-As I pass the Pineapple-from-last-week-vendor, I look at her, nod, and say, "Xin loi," -which means, "I'm sorry." She gives me a nod and a partial smile, acknowledging my apology. I think we are good. But how can I know for sure? I cannot. And I sure don't want to buy pineapple from her anymore.

After four months, there are still days that I must just come home and take a nap and write in my blog that "this is a place of endless confusion."

Good Castle Christmas Karma and Moon Travels

I can't tell you how much of a hit the calendar is as a White Elephant Gift because my conscience does not allow me to give it. My conscience voiced itself through two emails, too (I mean, obviously, my conscience was already struggling in the post): through my brother's and through a very tall Scriber teacher's. Both of them mentioned my neighborhood karma...and I kept thinking that it felt bad to mock Nam's sincere gift.

Then, Tarn and I have a conversation in his libary Friday afternoon about wanting to be Westerners who can appreciate and find humor in asian culture but how we don't want to cross the line by making fun of it, etc. It's a very thin line at times.
Perhaps it is my brother's comment about Nam being a sensitive person that really does it. Because he is... he is so sensitive and so thoughtful. Right away I am happy about my decision not to give it, because after school on Friday I ask him to take me to a French bakery to get bread to make bruschetta for the party. (Bruschetta is the perfect appetizer here because I can walk right out the front door and get huge leaves of fresh basil and tomatoes and pre-chopped garlic.) So I run into the store and come out with a two-foot-long baguette that has been packaged in a little bag. It's a short drive home, but Nam would have none of it. He enters this store (a store I'm sure he otherwise would never set foot in) and speaks to one of the clerks. She fetches a longer bag, but still, he is not satisfied. He tells her he needs one more. Then he carefully places it over the other end of the loaf. Finally, we are ready for the five-minute trip home, bread protected and secure. My dad would have done the same, I'm sure.
When he drops me off, he says the new phrase he has been working on, "See you again."

How could I dis Nam? I have heard stories of other drivers being crazy and drunk and late (much more often and later than Nam is - late, that is) and I know I have a really good person looking out for me.

Anyway, the Castle Christmas Party - total success. Twenty-six guests show and Katherine adds such great last minute decorative touches, such as sculpting a wall tinsel Christmas tree from a dead plant in a planter and adding a drape of tinsel to our monk picture. Flashing white lights line the balcony and around the door, our tree is on the table and ornaments hang from the beam separating the kitchen from the living area.
I bought stockings for our guests for our Sunday night party and wrote their names on them in fabric paint - "Thuy," "Tram," "Ut," "Ms. Hao" and "Thieu," and hung them from the balcony as well. Everyone wanted to know...who are those people named on the stockings? Did you make up some Vietnamese names for fun? I have to admit, it's feels great to say, "No, these are our neighbors and good friends."

Sometimes the White Elephant gift exchange idea falls flat- it completely depends on the chemistry - but everyone is really into it (I think that only a few out of the 26 had ever been to one) and the gifts are a nice mix of cool, quirky and silly. A few highlights:

- Song Han is our Mandarin teacher from China, and her response to our email invitation is by far the most enthusiastic one, stating her excitement to be invited to a Christmas party because she LOVES CHRISTMAS!! so much and loves to learn about our customs, etc. She comes with her gift wrapped in a paper bag that she has made into a Santa and dives into the carolling and the gift exchange in such a refreshing way.
-Franco brings his mandolin and he and Alice lead us in singing some Christmas songs. We leave the front French doors open, as is the custom in the neighborhood...everyone's lives are on display...and as a result we see quite a few people pausing to look in at our celebration.

-The police come only once, and they are extremely nice, merely putting their fingers to their lips at about 10:30. I think they realize we are having a Christmas party, and really, it's not as loud as the first one because everyone is focusing on the gift exchange.

-Shannon turns her beaver costume from Halloween inside out (to hide the beaver tail) and is a reindeer for the night. The gift she wins: a box of exotic fruits - a perfect gift for a reindeer, don't you think?

The after-party is more fun: five of us head out to the street for a midnight bowl of Pho. One of my colleagues, Allison, is quite serious with a very nice Vietnamese guy named Van. Because he is about to visit America for the first time this Christmas - visiting the east coast (Maine) - the other four of us tell him about "snow," because Allison tells us that he mentioned to her that he did not think he would need a coat. "It can't be that cold," he told her. So over pho, we all take turns telling our favorite cold snow stories. I think he will be taking a coat now.
And after that, eight of us head back up to the roof. It's a beautiful night...the moon is "round" and the wispy moving clouds make it seem as though the moon is traveling across the sky. Tarn brings his stereo up and we lounge up there until 4:00 am. I haven't done that in a while, and you know... I am paying for it now. But when the moon is round and it is traveling across the sky and you have a rooftop deck with a hammock in Saigon, you just don't feel like going to bed. Trust me.
I am looking forward to our little neighborhood party even more. I just don't want to cook or clean to get ready for it.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Blog Contest: What Do You Think This Is?

You can either post a guess or email one to me...


What do you do when you are living in Saigon and one day you are just:

1. ...weary because 6th graders have been asking you all day long: "Ms. Marjorie, can you help me think of a conflict for my story?" and "Ms. Marjorie, when are we going to switch gods again?" and "Which god is the most powerful god in India?"
2. ...sure that the proposal you are writing to take the entire sixth grade on a one week field trip to Northern Vietnam in February to see the ancient ruins will continue to be handed back again and again (I have written it four times, it is eight pages long with detailed lesson plans for each day in Math, Science, English and Ancient History) (it looks like it will be approved tomorrow!) (Chris Brown, I keep hearing your voice..."We can do anything we want" and that is the inspiration that keeps me going)
3. ...really, really tired of motorbikes everywhere, all THE time. You can hardly stand the thought of crossing the street.
4. ...sure that your headache will last all evening?

Here's what you do:

1. When you get home, walk to Nam's village and get the Hieu Tu My soup with all three types of noodles (especially the won tons)
2. Walk back to your village and get the strawberry orange shake sweetened with pressed sugar cane.
3. Go to the Bum Bum for a Tran massage.
4. Since you can't go shopping, take the Vogue dress pattern you found online to your downtown seamstress to have a dress made.
5. While you are downtown, go to an outdoor cafe and order a whole plate of crispy eggplant and eat the whole thing yourself.

That should do it. You will feel a whole lot better.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

So, am I living in a tropical, Buddhist country?

Christmas exploded in Saigon after Thanksgiving-- it exploded just like this store right down the street from the castle (which otherwise sells random lights and disco balls and batteries):

When I wandered into this shop last night, a pimply twenty year-old followed me around telling me, "You are implessed! You are implessed!" while shoving tinsel, ornaments and Santa hats in my face. I was impressed, I guess. I think I was more "incredulous." Saigon Christmas is Consumer-y, it's Fun-over-the-top, it's No Shopping Stress. It's "This is cool in other places let's do it here, too." I asked Thuy (who is Buddhist) if she celebrated Christmas. She was very eager to tell me, "I do not, but I am happy for you." That seems to be the attitude. People aren't rushing around buying gifts (not even the 20 percent or so of the population that is Catholic), it just seems to be good PR if Santa, his reindeer or snowmen grace the front of downtown stores. Maybe they are "Business Santas." Oh, and I did see one baby Jesus (I think that is him...):

A-Net just wrote asking if I had seen any Santas riding on the back of motorbikes and believe it or not, I did see one just this evening.

And everywhere, absolutely everywhere, you see baby Santa Suit Stands selling outfits such as this one, modeled by this Christmas girl:
And, apparently, there must be Big People stands, too.
Two weeks ago in Nha Trang, we saw fake evergreen trees with lights interspersed with the palm trees lining the beach.
We at the castle are getting ready for our weekend parties. Today, right out on our street, I found a (fake) Christmas tree, with ornaments, for 80,000 ($4.80). George Michael's "Last Christmas" was playing in the store. I got some strange looks carrying it home. We have tinsel, stockings, lights and music, too.
Despite all of this, I am surprised every time someone writes to me telling me "Christmas Plans." It has been much cooler lately, high 70's, low 80's, and the motorbike babies have been dressed in their wool caps and everyone is wearing heavy coats. Nam shivers on the way to school. It's a perfect temperature.
But Christmas? It all feels so strange!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Guess what everyone...

My brother (Brian) and his wife (Kristi) are having one of these in May!!

It's not very considerate, is it, for them to do this while I am away. When I come back in July, this baby will practically be an adult. They will be giving a cousin to the three pictured here, who are all pretty excited, I can imagine!

Ant Update

A few weeks ago I included some conversations having to do with food poisoning, ants and - I can't remember what else - but the next day my mom sent an email asking, "When was the last time you had a Hepatitis shot?" plus some advice about getting rid of ants.

"Sprinkle cornmeal around the ant area. They will eat it and die," she told me.

She is such a good mom.

Cornmeal is not easy to come by, but I did find some last week. On Friday, I sprinkled some around the sink area. I did this just hours after picking up a package from my parents which included homemade fudge and peanut brittle and a bunch of packaged chocolates for my neighbors. I put the box on top of the refrigerator, thinking that it would stay safe from the ants. About an hour later I went to get K some brittle when I noticed a string of ants heading up the face of the fridge. I screamed. I rescued the fudge in time (the ants were just beginning to break into the ziplock), but K decided she had had enough.

"When the ants start messing with the homemade goods, it means all out war," she declared, or at least she declared something like that (and the declaration may have included some profanity - I can't remember).

So she dumps about an inch of cornmeal all over the counter, the shear force of which should have killed the ants right then and there. But they just crawled right over and around it. Actually, they seemed pretty excited about it, like it provided a neat new playground or something. Absolutely no deaths occurred.

The next day, I spoke with my mother and she told me not to worry, that it would take three days for the ants to fill themselves up with it and die.

So the cornmeal has been there all week long. As of this update, I swear that cornmeal is an ant reproductive aid. They have multiplied while playing on their grainy sand dunes.

My dad has sent me some ant traps for Christmas.

He is such a good dad.

I really can't think of anything I want more.

Any other suggestions?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

White Elephant Gifts for Castle Parties in Saigon

I'm wondering if I should feel badly about asking Nam for another calendar for the purpose of using it as a White Elephant gift for our party on Friday night. It was Tarn's idea; he immediately recognized the genius of it.

Nam seems so pleased when I ask. He delivers it himself in the evening as K, Alice and I are sharing a bottle of wine downstairs.

He hands it to me and points at the pictures. "You mentioned that you were interested in getting yourself photographed for your own calendar, so I checked with my friend for the price. Do you still want to do that?" I think he says (because it sure takes a lot of words for him to ask whatever he is asking). I tried to convince T and K that we should do a shoot with the three of us, but they did not show any interest at all.

I just hate to do it, but I must tell him, "No, thank you."

My rejection doesn't seem to phase him, though, because he turns right to Alice and asks her if she wants one of her own.

"No, thank you," she says.

And he is Chatty Kathy again, going on and on about the calendar this, the calendar that. The three of us are silent, just waiting for him to finish. Then there is an awkward silence.

"Ok, goodbye," he says, and does the little wave with his hand.

Don't answer about my wondering. I do feel badly.

This morning he is 20 minutes late picking me up. At exactly twenty past seven, I head across the street to catch a taxi and wouldn't you know, all of a sudden he shows up, asking me why I am heading across the street to catch a taxi. I am a little irritated; after all, I seem to be waiting for him more than he is waiting for me lately. And I have a lot to do on this Monday morning.

"You're late," I say.

He looks confused.

I flip open my phone to show him the time (which is what he did to me, on occasion, when I was late and when he still had his phone), only he does not look at the time. He looks at the picture on the screen of my phone: it's Nina, the Gorilla at the Woodland Park Zoo. I used to visit her all the time and I keep her picture on my phone to remind myself that I am from Greenlake in Seattle near the zoo and that I used to visit this gorilla all the time.

Nam points to it and laughs. Which is not at all why I showed him my phone.

When he drops me off after school, he starts talking a lot, again, and eventually I realize that he wants to see my phone because he pretends to put something to his ear and says, "hello?"

I get my phone back out and he flips it open so he can laugh at Nina again.

As I write, I am listening to the sounds of the neighborhood: the grandpa across the alley just loves to make his very cute granddaughter laugh and laugh and laugh and I can hear her now, and there is a cart going past with a speaker announcing what sounds like "amen amow, amen amow" - he is selling sticky rice filled with pork steamed in a banana leaf, and then there is a rattle signaling that if anyone wants pho, the rattler will go and get the soup and bring it right to the house.

This happens in the busy markets, too. Pho sellers will walk through the narrow aisles and advertise their service by clicking a piece of wood or glass or by ringing a bell or shaking a rattle. I'm not yet sure if the different sounds and instruments indicate different food items, but it is kind of nice - food can come to you if you don't feel like going to it.

The sounds of our alley are in our castle all day long - they drift right in through the high, open grates near our ceiling to make us feel a part of everything, all the time. I can only hope that the neighborhood, with all of its expertise in infiltrating all aspects of our lives, does not find out what a White Elephant gift is, or that I am offering the calendar that Nam gave to me for that purpose.

You don't think that will happen do you?

Don't answer that, either.

Squid and Strawberries, and "Goat Meat Boiled with Chinese Medicine"

Pa-Goat-a Day is a lot of fun.

I swear that over pho the other night Thuy tells me that we will begin the Pagoata Day field trip at 2:00. We will go to some pagodas, get on a ship, eat goat, and be back at 10:00 pm.
After the first pagoda visit, while in a taxi heading toward the second, Tarn finally speaks to Thuy in a combination of Vietnamese and Goat to get to the bottom of it (because I keep saying, "I think we are going to the ship next" and he keeps insisting that he, too, has talked about Pagoata day with Thuy and that she never mentioned a ship to him); his Vietnamese/Goat is an amazing sentence, quite fluid and ending in "Baaaaaa." Somewhere in there he mentions a boat (Tarn has picked up Vietnamese amazingly quickly here, but we don't know how or where he learned Goat.) We all laugh at the Goat, but Thuy looks very confused. "No boat," she says. Then I say, "But we go on a ship, right?" and she nods and says, "Yaaaah." During this conversation, Katherine is making up a very bad poem about goats getting on boats. It's a very confusing taxi ride, filled with miscommunication and bad poetry- which, really, is the same thing, right?
Later, we are heading up the stairs of the pagoda by our school, but it is locked after the first flight of stairs. "Why is it locked?" I ask. I think she says that all of the floors of the pagoda are open only twice per year. I ask her "when during the year?" and she says, "7:00 every night."

"Oh! It's open every night?"

"Nooooo! I show you on calendar."

Our communication goes like this all day long, despite the fact that Thuy shows up at 2:00 wearing a very cute cap and holding a bag containing three Vietnamese/English dictionaries.

The best thing about the field trip is the pacing of it, and the way that Thuy enjoys our every reaction to what she is showing us. We spend a lot of time exploring the first pagoda - there is a sign that says it was rennovated in 1939, but no sign telling us when it was built. The grounds surrounding it are in such disrepair that we think they have never stopped rennovating it since 1939.

Inside is beautifully ornate, though, and (after paying homage to her Buddhas) she keeps locking her arm around mine, leading me to places where she sees a good photo opportunity. "Maggie, here!" and she points to an ornate three-dimentional mosaic or walrus tusks presenting a Buddha sitting under flowing red tapestries. or a bird riding on the back of a horse.

Outside on the street, we walk past many vendors and Thuy is happy to stop anywhere that strikes our interest. Tarn wants to try the dried squid, so she picks through the pile and finds just the right one (and later, we pass a store that has just the right hot sauce for the dried squid, so she picks that up, too). Katherine wants strawberries. I want something that looks like a combination between zucchini and watermelon (which, by the way, explodes before we reach home). Tarn wants a Dragon Fruit. We all want bananas. Thuy takes care of us. It's nice. It's so nice that I keep repeating the names of the things we are passing on the street, "Squid and Strawberries, squid and strawberries, squid and strawberries..." and I like the way those two words sound together so much that I think I want to rename the boring first part of my blog name to that. It captures Vietnam, somehow. It's not crunchy, but it is sweet, salty, chewy and spicy (if you use the hot sauce). I'm going to try it for a while...what do you think? #1 Fan, I'm just going to move your most awesome sub-title to a sub-sub title to try it out. Are you OK with that?

Here's another thing that captures Vietnam: at the Boiled Goat Inn (which, incidentally, you do not reach by boat), the front desk contains both a "Business Buddha" shrine and a "Merry Christmas" sign. Business Buddhas accept offerings of gifts and fruits (and possibly, cigarettes) and in exhange, bless business. A prayer might sound like this: "Dear Buddha, if you grant me good business today I will give you cake at the end of the day." I know this because Rot, our Dalat tour guide, told us that he promised his Business Buddha that he would give him cake if we were kept safe on our motorbike journey.

"Um, what do you do after you "give" him the cake?" I asked. Rot shrugged, "I eat it before I go to bed." It's pretty cool, isn't it? This way, you get both good business and cake.

So, yeah, I hope to include many more pictures of Christmas decorations, because the Vietnamese culture embraces Santa Claus, tinsel, Christmas trees and lights. If it's a cool thing or party, they are into it. So why not wish everyone a "Merry Christmas" over your Business Buddha?

The goat restaurant is interesting, but I can't say it's tasty. I am really excited when I see how it's set up because they bring a grill to your table, along with a tray of raw goat meat (marinating in what I suppose is the "Chinese Medicine" advertised on their business card) as well as a tray of vegetables such as okra, beans and long green onions. You grill it all there, then eat it out of the individual bowls. The goat meat is fatty. Some is lean and that is good, but some of it is really chewy. Katherine and I try to hide the bits that are really chewy while we envy Tarn his vegetarianism.

But we are especially jealous of his vegetarianism when the second course comes around: hot pot. Because after the pot of broth with normal meat and veges is set down in the middle of the table, two plates containing intestines and liver are set before K and me. Great. Well, thank goodness K gets on it pretty quickly and tells Thuy that we would rather eat the soup without the offal. She is OK with that, but I don't know, it's hard to turn down something that someone else is so excited about, always.

And especially because Thuy picks up the whole bill for dinner, too. Wow, she is a tough one. She is so so so stubborn and so generous. But we at the castle are not only throwing a Castle Christmas Party for school (a white elephant one) this next Friday night, but we have also invited Thuy, Tan, Ms. Hoa and Ms. Thieu (seamstresses) and Ms. Hoa's son, Ut, over for a Christmas party on Sunday night. We want to fill stockings for them and either have a Mexican Christmas Fiesta or a Turkey dinner (but we don't know where to find a cooked turkey - because the castle has no oven!). So that will be our chance to be generous back...

We end this Sunday with the same four words we are ending most Sundays with - and most days, for that matter. "We are so lucky!" It's the kind of day that I wouldn't want to be anywhere else other than visiting pagodas and buying squid and strawberries and turning down plates of offal and not taking boats to eat goats.

And, oh, we get back at 6:00 pm, rather than 10:00 pm. Which is also very lucky (school tomorrow).
Seems the only thing I got right about this day was "pa-goat-a."

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

My New Calendar

Today Nam takes me all the way out to the hospital for a follow-up appointment. It's a long way out and he should probably charge me at least 40,000 each way. But when we return, he tells me I owe him only 50,000 total. We are stopped at his aunt's house and his nephew is coming out. His nephew tells me that Nam only wants to know that my back is better. He has just given me a kindness discount. He is a kind man.

Nam then tells me to wait and after a minute he emerges from the house with a huge brown paper bag and pulls out a calendar that is about, oh, two feet long and one foot wide. It's huge. He is very excited to show it to me.

His nephew explains the calendar, and I'm sure that I did not understand a word, but here you go: Nam's friend went in on a partnership with someone to create the calendar. It has something to do with Nam's daughter's wedding shop and his friend who is a photographer or his friend who is a businessman, or perhaps it is his friend's son in EVERY SINGLE photo with the beautiful girl.

Is he giving me the calendar? Does he want me to buy one? His nephew asks "do you want?" It is An Awkward Moment. What can I do other than ask how much? It seems that Nam doesn't know, but he will check with his friend about the price. So then I figure that he just wanted to show me this really cool collaborative project and that we will be heading back to the castle, but no, Nam gives me the calendar. It's mine to keep. Every day for the next year, beginning January 1st, I can look at this couple in all of their finery while keeping track of my life.

I don't know. Tarn is certain that I have just scheduled myself for a wedding photo shoot. If he prices it out for me, should I do it? Which month do you like the best...January, May, August?

Another Nam story: this morning, he intercepts me before I begin my market crawl. I really hate it when he does that because then I am denied all of my daily treats: my pomelo, my rice pudding, my deep fried taro root spring rolls, my coconut "pies" and my rice noodles with stir-fried beef. Anyway, he finds me at the very beginning of my morning journey at my banana-rice- cake-with-tapioca-sauce stand. He pokes me and begins to chuckle at my breakfast. His bike is right over at his aunt's house, he says, so I grudgingly follow him over there. He chuckles all the way, and he keeps pointing at my little treat.

"What?" I say. "What are you laughing at? I love these!"

But he just keeps laughing and shaking his head. When we get to school, I don't see any of "my" kids around, so I call an anonymous boy over to ask him, "What was so funny about my breakfast?"

This takes a while to translate. Finally, "He's laughing because you know all the best food. Those are his favorite cakes, too," he tells me.

Often I think about these people in my life here, and how I will never really know what their lives are like or what they've experienced - past sorrows, happinesses, etc... but one thing I do know: Food is equally important to me and my xe-om driver. Food and music, the international languages, right?

OK, now, what about those photos? Which dress is my color?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Pa-goat-a Day is Coming!

When I return to the neighborhood tonight, I hear Thuy call my name. It suprises me because I have never seen her outside of her alley. She is carrying a bowl of pho and is walking toward her house (I find out later that it is her own bowl that she has filled at the stand), but she asks if I have eaten yet (have you eaten rice? they say) and of course I am interested in which pho stand she chooses, so she hooks her arm around mine and we head back up the street together.

She leads me to the woman who puts the dinosaur bones on the ground by her stand- the one Rita wrote the poem about; ironically, I ate there for the first time last night. But tonight I allow Thuy to order for me and she puts it all in there: the lean meat, the half and half, the ball of fat and the meatball. I'm hoping that she won't notice that the ball of fat goes untouched, and she at least acts like she doesn't see it. (With Nam I would not have been so lucky.)

The broth is full of flavor. Over dinner, she tells me more about our Sunday plans. We - Katherine, Tarn and I - are to meet her at her house at 2:00, when the market closes. We will then get on a "ship" and travel to a place with a pagoda and then eat at a restaurant that Thuy is very, very excited about. She, Katherine and I will eat goat, and Tarn, well, he will be OK. There is lots of vegetarian food there, she says.

"Maggie," she adds, "Do you like Banh Xeo?"

Ban Xeo is the crepe filled with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. The filling is also used for the turmeric rice cakes.

"I love ban xeo!" I say. I am so enthusiastic about it that she laughs.

"Next Sunday, I make ban xeo for you. I make a list, you buy the food, and I come to your house."

I feel like telling her I love her.

And then she says, "After that, the next Sunday, we make the rice cakes."

I'm thinking of the song in The Sound of Music when Maria and the Captain are falling in love and they sing that song "I Must Have Done Something Good." In this life, I must have done something good to deserve my own Vietnamese Alley Angel who is teaching me how to make all of my favorite Tamarind Tree favorites every Sunday. I don't even have to make a request.

And this next Sunday is all about what Thuy considers the best goat in Vietnam, along with a very cool pagoda. I swear that last weekend Katherine called this upcoming Sunday "Pa-goat-a Day" but when I tell her last night how funny I found that phrase she just says, "I never said that." I guess I made it up myself.

After pho, Thuy takes me on a walking tour of the best food in the neighborhood...and you know what? I have already located all of the best food in the neighborhood. We go to the fried rice stand that we castle dwellers patronize at least three nights per week now (crab, shrimp, and flank steak fried rice plus an excellent salad- for about $1.50), the Hu Tieu My wonton soup place that Nam has forbidden me to eat over his village's Hu Tieu My, the fried chicken in the alley, and the bbq pork chop place that has the pork-stuffed tofu.

When the tour is finished, Thuy goes back to the stand to pick up her soup bowl and says, "I go home now. Bye Bye, Maggie!"

This neighborhood...I'm telling you. It's magic. It's my Magic Neighborhood. When I return from the airport on Sunday, the first thing I do after dropping off my bag is walk around the corner to my shellfish lady. I sit on the low plastic red chair and order the clams - it's all she has left because it is after 3 and she is getting ready to close. She prepares them to perfection on her little stove - she boils them with just a little bit of sugar and lemongrass, and mixes the salt, pepper and lime for dipping. Then I go to my new friend Cung who works at a fruit stand and she makes me my shake-of-the-month - fresh strawberry.

Now I feel home.

The next morning I am curious as to whether Nam will be waiting for me on the street at 7. I get there right on time, just in case the tall blonde Dutch man tries to steal him again after a week-long hiatus, and there he is, in his spot, reading the paper. When he sees me he jumps up a bit and hides a smile. He folds the paper and gets the helmet out of the plastic bag before he looks right at me and asks how I am feeling. The other day Alice asked me how I know what he says, and it's just one of those strange communication things...I just do. I tell him I am much better. He nods.

"How was Nha Trang?"

Of course I didn't tell him I was going to Nha Trang. The neighborhood network did.

"It was good. It was rainy."

He drives me to school and calls one of the kids over just to confirm.

"How are you?" he gets Selena to ask me.

"I'm much better."

"How was Nha Trang?"

"It was good. It was rainy."

"What time (to pick you up?)"

"Half past four."

"OK. Goodbye. Have a good day."

After school, Nam meets me with a treat. It's a fruit cocktail kind of a has all kinds of chewy things in it, plus custard and the ice is on the side. He is a little embarrassed to give it to me, but he explains that I must put the ice in it when I get home.

"Thank you, Nam," I say. He hides the smile again and nods. I think we are both happy to be back on schedule.

And then...then, Brian, he takes me to the post office to pick up my flashlight. Yes, finally, I have the flashlight. Nam wants to know what I got, of course. I show him, and he thinks it's pretty cool. When I get home, Tarn thinks it's really, really cool. He wants one, too. So Brian, could you just do one more commercial for the flashlight because now everyone wants one. And, Brian, is it OK to tell other things on this blog? Let me know. I am happy that my band is almost all back together again~

Only five days until Pagoata Day!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nha Trang Weekend, Part Two: Same Same but Different

Here's the "Same Same but Different" version of this weekend's story: Katherine and I find six other AIS teachers at the airport heading for Nha Trang. We have no idea that we are all relocating to the same place for Thanksgiving weekend. After hours of waiting and finding out that the flight is cancelled, four of us decide to tough it out and take the train. We know that the weather may be crummy, but we just want to go somewhere. You know how it is~

One of "Team Nha Trang" is a man named Fran. Fran is responsible for starting AIS and he has helped me tremendously since the school year started. He is simply just very, very cool and is probably one of the most intent listening ears I've ever met. He was principal last year but this year his title is "Director of Admissions." He loves the school and the kids more than anyone and the kids know it. Fran and his Vietnamese wife just built a house in Nha Trang and he tries to make it up there most weekends. He knows about the train and tells the three of us that we can stay with them until the morning.

When we arrive at their beautiful ocean -view home, K and I get the fourth floor to ourselves and wake up to a pancake and bacon breakfast. They are having Thanksgiving parties all weekend and invite us to all of them, but for the time being we head to our hotel...a $10 per night spot in an alley right off of the beach with a balcony and ocean view. It's a great spot (beach weather, of course, would have made it perfect). We meet up with our two friends (who had wisely flown in Wed evening) and decide to head to the mud bath/mineral springs spa up in the hills for the (cloudy rainy) day. It's a long, bumpy, steep, puddle-ridden journey to the spa, but it is a fantastic day. We have lunch on a little tiny island that hosts a wood-fire oven and we eat the best pizza since arriving in Vietnam. Then we are led up a steep flight of stairs and get in a freshly-run tub full of warm mud where we relax for twenty minutes. After that we follow a winding path to the mineral springs tub where we relax for another twenty minutes. After soaking in these two tubs, we can enjoy the pool and the waterfalls as long as we want, until we decide we want our hour-long massage. The cost for this day? $15.

The next day we see a Cham temple: the kingdom of Champa flourished between the 2nd to the 15th centuries-- they were semi-piratical and attacked passing trade ships to sustain themselves. They remain a substantial ethnic minority in Vietnam and are mostly known for their architecture; now I want to find much more of it. The temple that we see in Nha Trang was built in 791. It is active; incense burns all day long, and we see women in traditional dresses bringing in trays of fruits as offerings on the altars.

We also see the Long Song Pagoda with these two striking Buddhas: the reclining one is 18 meters long and the sitting one watches over all of Nha Trang at a height of 24 meters. A old toothless man guides us up the stairs (a self-appointed guide) and says, "I love Obama" to me all the way up.

I'm not even at the best part of the weekend yet.

Katherine has to fly back Saturday night because she is in charge of organizing the Terry Fox run for the elementary school. This is definitely not her best part: she is supposed to fly out at 7 pm...however, it's still too stormy, and her flight is cancelled - again. She must take the night train - again, which arrives back in HCMC at 5:20 am. The race begins at 8:30.

Meanwhile, as K is setting up a night of bunking with three Vietnamese men on the same grimy train, I accept the Thanksgiving dinner invitation at Fran's house - along with twenty others. I am among only four Americans in this group; it is fun to watch the wide-eyed wonder of the Vietnamese guests (and their picture taking madness) over the size of the bird. Fran and his wife bought it at a gourmet store in HCMC, and most of their guests have never tried turkey before. Some are a bit hesitant, but after their first bite of turkey, dressing and cranberry sauce, they are sold on the idea. Still, the turkey doesn't stop them from eating the other offering - traditional Vietnamese BBQ pork chops and rice.

Half-way through dinner, I am telling my Norway pumpkin pie story - not the regifting one - but just how difficult it was to find all of the ingredients necessary to make those pies there. Fran's wife overhears me and says, hey, I wanted to make pumpkin pie but I've never made it before. I have canned pumpkin and a graham cracker crust, but I can't figure out how to make the right substitutions.

Well, I am well-trained in pumpkin-pie making (just hoping my parents will understand the canned pumpkin), so I can make the substitutions- like using the heavy Vietnamese French coffee cream instead of condensed milk and nutmeg for ginger and cloves...and those who remain when the pie is done two hours later (a perfect pie eight of us at midnight) are beyond happy over tasting pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving in Vietnam on a stormy beach front night. And the fact that Ann has only banana split ice cream in her freezer- no big deal. Actually, it's a fine combination. The evening turns out to be exactly what Thanksgiving dinner is meant to be - a time to share a meal and friendship. What a great night.

And yet another highlight: the next morning I hire a motorbike driver to take me to an art gallery mentioned in the Lonely Planet before my 11:00 bus to the airport. Long Thanh is an internationally recognized photographer who has shown his work in over 53 exhibitions world-wide. He is known for capturing Vietnam's everyday beauty and contrasts. Long Thanh happens to be at his studio/house when I arrive - I am the only one there. I take in his stunning work and talk with him for quite a while. I finally decide to buy this one:

Here is another one that has been recognized all over the world:

After I make my purchase, the internationally acclaimed photographer says to me, "Would you like a ride back to your hotel?" and so I hop on the back of his very cool motorbike and he drops me off, curbside. On the plane, I am flipping through the Vietnam Airlines Heritage magazine and who is featured in the main article? Long Thanh, of course, Vietnam's beloved photographer.


Yeah, so, the only time I am on the beach is on Saturday morning, when K makes me bring my green tea out to the lounge chairs - chairs that are stacked up under palapas to protect from the rain. She wants to drink her coffee out there. Other than that, no beach, no ocean swimming, no sun. But I bet not one of you feels sorry for me, huh? Especially because, unlike Katherine, I was actually on that easy, clean, 45-minute flight from Nha Trang to HCMC. Easiest flight in the world.

p.s. Katherine, by the way, made it to her race, of course, and I suppose represented her country well with about ten AIS students among approximately 7,000 participants.