Sunday, August 31, 2008

Bahn Xeo Street

You know how I like streets with food themes...remember Stir Fry Street and Noodle Alley in Shaoxing, China ?

Well, Tarn and I decide to wander from school on our way to meet Kathryn (she teaches at the elementary school across town) and see another rental (did I mention that the security guards live at their schools here, so they are always available to let us in?--they sleep on the floor and shower in the gym) and we find a Bahn Xeo Street. Bahn Xeo are Vietnamese crepes made with an egg, rice flour and coconut milk batter and they are stuffed with bean sprouts, shrimp and mom loves them at the Tamarind Tree. I have barely seen Bahn Xeo here and suddenly, this street is lined with cast iron little stove pots with fires underneath, usually about six or seven of them next to a huge pot of grease.

Bahn Xeo Street also has quite a selection of vegetarian stands, and since Tarn is vegetarian, we find one stand with five teenage girls presiding over about thirty dishes. They are all laughing because they are unaccustomed to tourists here, and they find our wonder at the array amusing. Finally, I pantomime a kind of, "Tell me what is good" and they take a plate of rice and heap it full of their favorite items, giggling as they work. We sit at a table and they bring us a coconut milk drink, soup and bananas. For two huge vegetarian feasts we pay a total of $1.80. We know we are staying in the tourist area, because we sure don't eat that cheaply around our hotel, and the people aren't nearly as friendly.

We also wander into a temple. We see a huge bellied Buddha in one room and many people dressed in green-grey robes lighting incense and praying. This is only the big room...there are so many little side rooms and a place where people sit at long tables eating noodles. We look at a staircase but we are a little shy about tresspassing; then a petite toothless woman approaches and very gracefully invites us to take our shoes off and go upstairs. There we find even more rooms filled with pictures of ancestors (I guess) or Bodhisattvas...I need to read more about what we saw. In one of the larger rooms a Hindu looking figure presides and mostly women kneel at tables with little prayer books. Some are lighting incense and some are bowing. But some are smoking and some are text messaging, too. I'm fascinated by the variety of activities going on and want to understand it more. I keep reminding myself that some of that will come in time- after all, I do have ten whole months to figure it out.

Here is a picture of my classroom and the view from my classroom window. Not bad, huh? Lots of people email and ask how I have the time to blog every day...well, I love to do it, of course. And I have to choose from so many things to write about. Like now, I left out ten other cool things in favor of the temple and bahn xeo. But I suppose we'll see how this week goes as to whether I will find the time to write every day. The countdown is on...hopefully I will write very soon about the very cool place we will live...

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Which lizard would you choose?

You see all of these little wading pools? Critters are playing in them--they just play and play and play until you choose them out of the pool and eat them for dinner. See the pool in the lower right hand corner? It's filled with clams that are twice the size of my hand.

This is the typical Vietnamese restaurant I'm invited to last night with Alice Audrey Hepburn, her parents and some of their friends- they work at the other international school (last post I said there were two schools, well, there are actually three).

So, yeah, it's a bit different than the Tamarind Tree. Simon, Alice's step-father, orders for all of us: a platter of tamarind prawns, lemongrass clams (twice in one week for me), tamarind crab, grilled eggplant, and tofu. He does not recommend the lizard, but their friend Garreth is set on it. Garreth puts a lizard tail? lizard arm? lizard leg? on my plate and I taste tastes like chicken. But you knew I would say that, right? I have no need to eat any more lizard that tastes like chicken. Look over to the right...which lizard would you choose?

After dinner we go to their house and make music~meaning that Simon plays the guitar and everyone else gets a drum. Alice sings and - #1 Fan, Sbill, I'm telling you, she can sing. Wish you had been there, too.

Friday, August 29, 2008

What happens in Saigon...

Saigon is a mysterious place of intrigue. The ex-pat community is full of characters and I already know that the relationship between Vietnamese and foreigners is filled with book-quality material.

Alice-the drama teacher and international beauty- and I have decided to become detectives on these issues and we are gathering information from many sources. I will refer to her here as Audrey Hepburn because she is sophistication epitomized. Every day she comes dressed in flowing dresses and scarves and high heels with make-up and jewelry to match. Remember, she is the one who has been involved in experimental theater in New York City for ten years. She calls me "Hunny Bunny." She's Audrey Hepburn, down-to-earth, and fun.

Last night we have a "mandatory" dinner to attend and the event offers many pieces to our growing puzzle...the mysterious "M's" - a couple who has invested heavily in the school, are sponsoring the evening. The restaurant is huge-- it has eight food stations: a raw food bar for outside barbecue, a hand cut noodle bar, a snail bar...etc. Enormous restaurant. All of us, old teachers and new, office staff and administration, sit in long rows with hot pots on tables and clowns up front wrapping kids in toilet paper to circus music. Seeing everyone together is amazing, we're all dressed up and happy to be a part of it all, anticipating the year, eating at the stations for hours. But it's strange- The M's never show. They pay for all of it and we don't get to meet them.

Ater dinner a few returning teachers take us to a bar in District One that is popular with ex-pats. A Filipino guy named Jerome plays guitar and sings for three hours; he's fantastic. At one point, Alice cannot control herself and gets up in all of her drama glory and begins a middle eastern dance to his acoustic version of Nirvana's "Come as You Are." Every single eye (especially the men's eyes) are on her. If Rita had been there, she would have had to join Alice on the floor; and that is what happens. A "Rita" of Indian descent, also beautiful, enters the dance and the two of them create a the most exotic spontaneous show together. The crowded bar is speechless. When the song is over, I see them laughing and talking, then Alice comes over to us. "You won't believe this! (Her accent is a mix of French and British and Thai and Spanish- she speaks all of them fluently), "Charmaine is the drama teacher at the British School!" So that is how the only two international drama teachers in Saigon, a city of nine million people, came to be friends and exchange cell phone numbers.

As for the gossip and intrigue, well, for now it will stay in Saigon. But just know that I am working on it. I will leave you with a picture of Cynthia, many readers' favorite, and will tell you some of the names she has on her first grade roster: Rufus, Spiderman, Simba and Little Bean. Yes, you read that right! "I just can't wait for them to come!" she tells me last night.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Today's Happy Discovery: Cross-Cultural Napping

I have little idea what I'm going to teach, I don't have any books to teach from, I have not seen class lists, entire floors are still under construction, I haven't found a place to live and our meetings are long and meandering. But I am having so much fun. And my air conditioner works.
I really, really, like these people and this school. It is an amazing collection of highly educated, compassionate, interesting people, and every lunch break or after-school event brings another good story. Like anywhere, there are a few negative ninnies. One says she's going to have a party and tell us about "all of the corruption at AIS." But most of us have a very different attitude: we knew it would be chaos when we signed and we're just along for the ride. We've talked about having another party "The Office" style...if you are familiar with that episode, you know that means we are going to hold a different party at the exact same time and enthusiastically compete for attendance.
A few facts about the operation of the school: three security guards are stationed on each floor and the floors are not big... maybe five or six classrooms each. Each bathroom on each floor has a full-time attendant. After lunch I hit a foot when I open the door because my attendant is sprawled on the floor taking a nap. I like the way they take charge of their napping. I used to nap in the bathroom at Seattle Central between work and school until Jaci had a big fit about it, but now I hope she can see that I was practicing cross-cultural understanding for my future.
Yeah, so the school isn't finished...I'm trying to upload pictures of an unfinished floor and my classroom, but the blog won't allow them...the picture of the construction zone is great because two men are napping in it. Oh, and it's funny- every time I leave my room, security locks my door, and since I don't have a key, this gets a little bit tiresome. But they are so nice and smile so much there is absolutely no way you can get annoyed with them.
Tonight Katherine, Tarn and I have beer, lemongrass clams and fried squid with onions out on the sidewalk sitting at one of the ubiquitous plastic tables with tiny plastic chairs. The three of us began looking for three single apartments, but now we are looking for a house with three bedrooms. I guess it makes sense, doesn't it? The houses here are built straight up, so we should each have an entire floor to ourselves and share a kitchen and a "lounge" area. We feel we are getting closer to what we want, but finding a place is a tough thing to do in this city. The picture to the right is looking out a window of a potential apartment from earlier today. I just love all of the colors. So often, Vietnam reminds me of Mexico.
Well, back to dinner at the plastic table and chairs: Right in front of us near the road and just inches from the army of motorbikes, a girl is sauteeing chicken feet and whole fish on a grill over hot coals for the restaurant inside. The clam broth is so delicious, I eat what's left like soup. The whole meal costs about $8, including beer. Tarn, having spent the last year in China, agrees with me that Vietnam seems very expensive compared with China.
Tonight he tells a story about walking around Tiananmen square with an Olympic ribbon tied around his mouth during the opening ceremonies. Nothing happened, to his disappointment, except for some confused staring. I wasn't clear what he was demonstrating against...but Tarn is such a low key New Zealander, I find the image to be quite amusing, and his story reminds me of an article written by Nicholas Kristof- op ed columnist for the NYTimes- about applying for a permit to demonstrate during the Olympics. He goes through the application procedures and finds that no one actually gets the permit, but he says at least it is a step in the right direction. Here's the article by Kristof if you're interested:
Since I return to the hotel so "early" I decide to walk next door and get a $10 full-body one hour massage (great but no cousin Lisa or Tari). I'm surprised I don't see Cynthia there.
So, now a word for my #1 fan: Ahem, I think my brother is trying to edge you out. I realize you are in school full-time and have two kids and that you just moved, but I hate to see you lose your spot. My brother is pretty quick.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Tapeworm is Tired of Baguettes

Food. Finally.

Katherine and I go apartment hunting again after school, and we are taken to District 3 by people at "Real Estate Services for Foreigner." We like the place, but we like the two-hour walk back to our hotel even better.

District 3's got what I have been waiting to find: winding alleyways filled with interesting food and markets without a tourist in sight. The people in these back streets are friendly and welcoming (making it so difficult to pass up any of their food)and therefore Katherine gets a taste of what it's like to be with me on full stomach drive (perhaps my surroundings make me forget the stomach churn). I like her even more now because she just rolls with it and wants to taste everything with me. She's totally unfamiliar with Vietnamese food, so that is fun, too. The woman in the picture is making Bot Chien. At first we think it's fried potato and eggs with green onion, but it isn't quite potato-y in texture. We have no idea what it is, but some girls spell it for us and we Google it when we return: it's fried rice flour cake, and it is delicious. Here is it in serving form topped with shaved green papaya and served with soya bean sauce:
We sit at a little plastic table with little plastic chairs for about twenty minutes...this woman is very popular with the after school teenage crowd and she takes her time with her art. I wash my bot chien down with something called "Bird's Nest White Fungus-Nature's Drink." Very tasty. After the bon chien we find this cart with humbao, Vietnamese style filled with minced pork and a hard boiled duck egg. Brian, do you think my tapeworm and I could pass this opportunity to make you happy? No way. I am very grateful to my tapeworm for allowing me this opportunity.
Hopefully I will tell you about my new home and school details within the next few days...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Michelle, Cecilie, "Sweetie" and TW

I just watched Michelle Obama's speech on cool is that, and how cool is she? She should be VP. Now I am trying to streamline Marty and Jody's morning show on 103.7. How cool is that (if I can figure out how to do it), and how cool are they? I'm so close to the world, here in my little Lan Lan hotel room in Saigon.

Everyone went across the street to eat green papaya salad, but I have only graduated to scrambled eggs in the baguette. My stomach turns a full rotation every hour or so, but I am not sick. I think I just have a very long tapeworm living inside of me. Soon perhaps I will hold a "Name Marjie's Tapeworm Contest." So instead of eating, I decide to wander through District One by myself.

Here is what my Eyewitness Travel book says about about the center of district one..."Arguably the liveliest part of the city, Dong Khoi does justice to the city's old nickname, "Paris of the Orient." This street became famous during the French era, and is home to elegant hotels and boutiques. The communist regime shut down most of these establishments, but Vietnam's economic liberalization in the mid 80's revived the area. Evidently, it is the center of action in Graham Greene's The Quiet American. As I walk, I just think about all of the stories this part of town could tell.

The Opera House, City Hall (pictured) the Municipal Theater and the General Post Office are all beautiful colonial buildings. But what is absolutely breathtaking is the Notre Dame Cathedral, sitting in the midst of everything. It was built in the 19th century of locally quarried stone and the red ceramic tiles were imported from France. The Virgin Mary was added in 1950.

I have to cheat and find these pictures on Google because I can't capture any of it at night. Standing in front of the Virgin tonight are about fifteen people holding books and candles, reciting a very very long prayer, followed by raised hands and singing. It's a very beautiful sight...they are surrounded by sunflowers and candles. I do have to say, though~ what they're doing does not seem very Catholic at all. But I suppose it must be.

After walking down Dong Khai, I decide to get completely lost. I have the name of the hotel in my purse and figure if it comes down to it I can just show the address to a taxi driver. What a magical place asia is at night... at least what I have seen of asia. Like in China, everyone takes advantage of the cool evenings. People are ballroom dancing on rooftops, so I can just see heads bobbing up and down, flowing gracefully together. Kids are practicing both karate and Tai Chi if they aren't text messaging while lounging against their scooters. Adults play badminton on the sidewalks.

Speaking of scooters, imagine this: You want to cross the street, but the army swarm of scooters does not stop. You scout the horizon for a break, but there really isn't one. So you just step out into the street. And you walk. And the scooters move around you, filling in the spaces between. Walking here is all about faith in the movement of people. No one gets angry...I haven't seen one bit of road rage...they just move into the open spaces. And they honk to let you know they are there. According to one of the school's Saigon experts, motorbikes stop and move for you, cars do not. Fortunately, a car did stop for me tonight when I got myself into a bit of a tight spot while practicing my walking faith. I must practice more. I'm not sure if I will ever be able to hire one of these motorbike taxis. They give you a helmet and you just get on the back. Lots of people from school do it, but I just don't know. I would have to close my eyes the entire time.

Returning to my hotel, I pass the Reunification Building. Tu did not point out many landmarks on our way from the airport, but she seemed very proud of this one. During the 19th c

entury, this was the palace of the French governor general. Later, it was occupied by Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam's president. In 1962, most of the building was destroyed by his own airforce in a failed assassination attempt. It was rebuilt soon after, but Diem was killed before he could move in, and the succeeding president fled from the rooftop in a chopper before North Vietnamese troops took over Saigon. in 1975, the South surrendered to the North, and the palace gates were knocked down by a N. Vietnamese army tank. The photograph of this event has become symbolic of the reunification of Vietnam. Everyone here talks about reunification.

OK, here's Cecilie's part: right after leaving my friends at the restaurant, feeling a little sad about my stomach, etc, I find a shop with beautiful silk clothing. I have heard that you can have clothes made very cheaply, but I don't know how that works yet (of course). So I'm just looking at all of these exquisite clothes that are very small and a cute young shopkeeper follows me, smiling.

Finally, I pantomime that I am a giant and cannot wear any of them. "Oh!" she says. "We will measure you and make your size!" Her English is perfect. We talk for quite a while and I find that she moved to the city from a rural town to learn English. Her Vietnamese name...well, I try to pronounce it but cannot. After three attempts, she says, "In English, it means 'Sweetie.' You can call me 'Sweetie.'" Now, calling someone "Honey," "Hun" or "Sweetie" does not come naturally to me. Casey and I agreed that there is a waitress at Mama's Mexican Kitchen who can call other women that (the same conclusion that Julie, Jessica and I came to years earlier about the same waitress). And perhaps someone who rides a Harely could as well. But I will call her 'Sweetie' and feel really weird doing it. I am going back tomorrow and I'm going to have a dress and a sweater made. I think they will cost about $40 and $80 respectively, but I will have to check on that. Sweetie, like all Vietnamese people I have met so far, are so eager to befriend Americans. The support staff at work today, the builders, people on the street...they are all looking and waiting for a smile and friendliness. When they get it, they give it back times one hundred.

Anyway, back to Cecilie. I want you here as my shopping partner. After the silk shop I find a shopping center with every top label you can imagine inside at very low prices. I really need an expert to help me! And I am just laughing that shopping has trumped eating for me so far. Are you all thinking of names for my Tapeworm?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Apartment Hunting, Installment One

It's 5:45 am...I have finally slept through the night. Now I just have to move past eating only French baguettes~ they are all I have been able to consider for two days. It feels like someone is churning churning churning a crank outside my stomach...sorry to disappoint you. I could describe the bread -- it is very tasty... or the boxed lunch pizza at the meeting that came with sweet and sour sauce instead of marinara~

I can confirm that beginning of the year meetings are just as dull in foreign countries as they are at home. Everyone just wants to socialize and instead we must listen to theories and rules and legal issues of Vietnam. Both schools, elementary and secondary, met together, and as usual, there are a few who just love to talk, talk talk.
After the meeting, though, two of Tu's friends take three of us, Tarn from NZ, Katherine from Canada, and me apartment hunting. Jem speaks a few words of English, but carries on in Vietnamese as if we can understand every word, so we all just nod. Yen is a bit better, but neither really understand what we are looking for. What the night turns into, then, is a tour of Saigon. By the way, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975 after the war but is called by both names (some have asked for clarification). Saigon is so much easier to write, I am defaulting to that.

This city is divided into 10 Districts, and it's got to be one of the most confusing cities to navigate~just give me the grid of New York City any day. There is no public transportation (Seattle, we are not alone!) so motorbikes swarm and flow all around our taxi van (I am trying to decide how to describe it, that will happen in a future post). The first place they show us is on the other side of the river from the elementary school. Yen tells us that a bridge is being built to cross the canal and then, sometime in January, it will take only minutes to get there. For now, though, the commute takes over forty five minutes. As Yen explains this to us, we approach a slum which is juxtaposed by a brand new high rise apartment building. The lobby is dark and empty and open, unfinished. The landlord comes and we take an elevator fifteen stories up. The apartment is unfinished. We see no one in the vast building. Yen tells us how great this place is going to be. If we want, the landlord will furnish it within weeks and we can move in right away. While Jem and Yen discuss things with the landlord (we finally figure out that they will get a kick-back from the landlord for showing us), Tarn, Katherine and I decide that there are two things wrong with this place: 1) It's in a creepy location and 2) it's a creepy space. We decide that if we are to live here, we will take it unfurnished. We will come home and live in darkness and scribble on the walls and dance outside in the lobby late at night next to the slum and sleep in a sleeping bag. We will ride a dugout canoe across the river. But to them we say, "Thank you for showing us. It's very nice, but since the bridge is not finished, we can't take it."

The next place is in a better section of town, but it's on the 18th floor and I experience Vertigo on the balcony. It's also new and yet to be furnished. The third place is just a few minutes from the high school and resembles a traveler's room in a cozy house of only four stories. The room barely fits a double bed. Downstairs, we enter an alleyway and Jem and Yen motion for us to sit down at a plastic table with plastic chairs, and order sugarcane drinks for us. What this picture does not capture are the men next to the table hunched over three huge catfish, bludgeoning them to death.

Our apartment hunting is complete for the night. It's 9:00 and we are hungry, so the three of us head to the open market to eat. It reminds me so much of Stir Fry Street, I try to muster the stomach from within, but bread is still all I can do. I finally fall into bed and dream about swarms of motorbikes.
I will leave you with a correction regarding the "That Girl" sequence sent by my cousin, Lisa: "Oh, and I am sure someone - probably Dennis - has already corrected you on your recollection of "That Girl" - I think you were morphing "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (pink suit and pill box hat) with "That Girl". Actually, Marlo was wearing a big rimmed hat (60's style) and tossed it in the air. I am old enough to remember every episode, and probably could name every character - not a fact I am particularly proud of, really."
Thank you, Lisa. I like it that you figured that Dennis would correct me on "That Girl."

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Thirty-Six Stories, So Little Time to Write Them

How can I describe this day? Maybe I can break it down into three parts.

1. New teacher/parent orientation at the Saigon Sheraton Hotel
2. Brunch buffet with a group of teachers at the Regence Hotel
3. Next door at the spa

1a. Downstairs, a breakfast buffet is served every morning, and this is where the adventure really begins: "Hi, are you teaching at AIS? Where are you from? How did you find out about this job?" And thirty-six stories of how and why people from all over the world decided to come to HCMC within a matter of weeks begin to emerge. Here are a few short versions:

Doug: I'm choosing to introduce him first because within seconds of meeting me, he is using large hand gestures to describe the crab legs and scallops on the half shell he had for dinner last night. He has been teaching in South America for 17 years...Columbia, Venezuela, Chile, Peru. This summer he decided to jump to Vietnam. He's always wanted to come here. He doesn't miss the US at all.

Alice: She is a true international girl. Born in England to a French mother and a British father, she has gone to school in France, Equador and Thailand (and speaks all of these languages fluently). She spent the past six years attending CUNY University in New York City where she studied theater and dance, was married briefly, and because of her divorce and her decision to join her parents here in Vietnam (they teach at the other school), she cannot return to the US for ten years (the divorce made her illegal). She considers New York more "home" than anywhere else, so this is a hard choice. She is exotically beautiful and she will be teaching drama.

Tarn: From New Zealand, has been teaching in Chengdu China, was there when the earthquake hit. Loved China, but found out about this job and said "Why not?"

Most of "us" are from the US: Chicago, San Diego, Portland, Iowa... but a few come from Canada, the UK and Australia/NZ. I like everyone; it seems to be a good, fun group.

After breakfast we are picked up from this hotel and are taken to the Sheraton Hotel, where all parents and students have been invited to attend an orientation. None of us want to stop chatting in the lobby, but we have to sit through four hours of PowerPoint presentations about EVERYTHING school related in a packed of all ages have come with their parents. I can't believe how still they sit through this boring meeting! The parents ask tons of questions at the end. I can hardly stand it~ I never got back to sleep last night~

One last comment on pt 2: I really like the principal. If my first impression is correct, he is smart, genuine and has a gentle spirit. An American, he went to high school in Costa Rica and most recently has been a principal in China. He, too, has always wanted to work in Vietnam. He was circulating in the lobby of the hotel, meeting and greeting all of his new staff. When he met me, I was in a large group of people. "Oh! Marjie! I'm glad you made it! (he was not in charge of interviewing and had only slight input in hiring). (He says to everyone) "Marjie took a group of students to save the Leatherback turtles of Costa Rica!" Of course I thought that was so cool that he remembered that detail from our brief email correspondence, but I guess if Costa Rica is close to his heart then he would definitely remember.

2a. Even though I am exhausted after the meeting, I have made a pact to stay awake as long as possible to beat my jet lag. Some of the teachers decide to get the gourmet buffet at the Regence Hotel. It's not really my thing, as you know, but it turns out to be a great social gathering. I sit next to one of my future sixth graders, Di Wa. Her mother and father have both been teachers here, but are each pursuing other careers now. He is black and from North Carolina and she is from the Phillippines. Their two daughters are beautiful and have been raised in Burma (what they still call it), Thailand, and here in Vietnam. Her name is Vangie. We eat and drink wine all afternoon (I mean, Di Wa doesn't...), and I just don't have the energy to write about all of the other great people there...

3a. When I return to the hotel, my goal is to stay awake...what to do? I decide to go next door for a pedicure and an hour-long massage. Both cost me a total of $18 (twice as much as in China!). While I'm getting the pedicure, Cynthia, my new hero since last night at 1:30 am, comes down from the massage room looking all noodly and says, "I have never done anything like this. I think I'm going to do this here a lot. Is every other day too much?" After my massage, I come down to find her in a chair "getting a new doo." I think she is going to be one of my favorites. She is giving this all she's got.

When I pay at the front, a very cute girl asks me where I am from. When I answer "Seattle" she just about jumps out of her skin. "I am going to Seattle next month!!!!!!" Can you believe that she has finally been granted a Visa and will attend Seattle Central Community College on Capital Hill to pursue a degree in International Business. She is so full of questions about Seattle...she doesn't know anyone there. Her sister is behind the counter and does not understand much English. When Michelle, the Seattle bound one, tells her I am from there and tells her that I say there are many Vietnamese people in Seattle, she begins to cry. "My sister is very scared for me to go there. I keep telling her it's OK!" I ask her where she will live. "I'm not sure, but I think I can find a homestay through the internet." So of course, I need to ask all of you, do you know anyone who might be interested in hosting a very cute, articulate Vietnamese girl who has ambitions to study business in Seattle? I don't know, it's worth asking!

I'm just about to go out and meet some people for dinner. No pictures today, only a lot of words. I'll leave you with this: I'm feeling really, really good about being here. I like these people and today I enjoyed the energy of HCMC. Today's kind of day is absolutely one of my favorite kind of days: meeting people who do the same kind of crazy things I do is pure fun. I think the last person flies in tonight. What will her story be?

(Sorry for the poor grammar and tense changes. Maybe I will edit this later!)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

That "Uncle Ho"

I did not get to fly on a Hello Kitty Eva Jet. What a disappointment, because the lead-up was so dramatic with the pink striped gate in the waiting area with all of the little pictures and the playground. The gate seemed way too special to lead to nothing. My brother, who called me on Skype right after I posted (and yes, we talked through the internet for free while I was at the airport in Taipei and the connection was better than the one between our cell phones from Seattle to Bellingham) asked if he could have my Hello Kitty tray (what nerve!). Well, Brian, neither of us will get one now.

Anyway, I'm retrieved from the airport by a cute girl named Tu (pronounced "Du") holding a card with my name on it right outside the airport. She introduces herself as the "Director of Student and Staff Relations." During the bus ride (the Mercedes Benz bus is owned by the school) to the hotel (which is in District One, the most interesting district, according to my Eyewitness Travel guide), I ask her what her job entails. At first she says she is not exactly sure, because she is new along with most of the teachers, and then she lists a variety of duties and says, "And I have the most important job there is. I count the days you work and am in charge of payroll!" (she cracks up). Then she hands me a new SIM card loaded with time as well as one million Dong (the name for money here, which is ripe for fun). "Now I am making you a millionnaire!"(cracks up). I ask if Ho Chi Minh is on every bill. "Yes, he is. We call him Uncle Ho!" (cracks up.) "Just like you have Uncle Sam, right?" (cracks up). Well, I guess...except her uncle is real and inspired a gritty movement for independence, I think.

The ride there reminds me of my passenger days in China, where Amy and I uttered The Lord's Prayer in taxis on many occasions. "Motorbikes," pedicabs, cars and buses swerve in and out in front and behind, wherever there is space. I read that HCMC is filled with motorbikes, but I would describe it as a motorbike army. Most people on these scooters are wearing bandanas or face masks, but it doesn't seem particularly smoggy, and, thank goodness, the heat is not sucking the air out of my lungs. I think that my summer experience in Shaoxing toughened me up for life regarding heat and humidity.

We arrive at the hotel, Tu hands me a map and points me in the direction of the famous market just two blocks away and leaves. "Have a good time! See you tomorrow!" (she is taking me and some others apartment hunting after the parent orientation at the school). It's a nice hotel, and it's my home for the next two weeks.

After getting somewhat organized, I head toward the magnet which is the market--because I am hungry, and so, so excited. On the way there... I pass carts with fruits, vegetables, steamed banana leaves filled with rice and mung bean paste, salad rolls, sandwiches, fried fish and pho. I was too young to be a real "That Girl" fan, but the way I feel is like Marlo Thomas in the opening credits, where she is wearing the pink suit and the pill box hat and purse with the white gloves (is this an accurate memory?) and she is so overwhelmed by New York City and her freedom and love for her surroundings that she throws her hands in the air and spins around as the camera zooms out, capturing the moment. This is how I feel now, as I take in the food options in my path. I need an overhead camera...I take one of everything, and it is all delicious.

When I head back to the hotel, I run into a group of teachers. I like them all immediately. They invite me out for a drink and we are out for hours, just laughing and talking and planning excursions for the year...

OK, now, go back to the part that reads "on the way there..." I will now tell you how it really happened. There are no food carts, and I am gripped with fear at having to play Frogger across the street, a game I learned to play so well in China. I can hardly muster the courage to cross. Outside of the market there are numerous people with deformed limbs. They approach me, point at their deformity and ask for money. I enter the part of the market where women are hacking away at meat with cleavers, then move to the area where women are hacking at Dorian, the stinkiest fruit on the planet. The market must be ten blocks by ten blocks and it reminds me of the market in Oaxaca, only the goods are just a little different. Just like Oaxaca, there is an area of counters where women are serving pretty much the same foods: noodles, fried fish, snails, meat on sugarcane and salad rolls instead of enchiladas, tamales and chili rellenos. Every time I pause at a stand, a menu is shoved into my hands and I am commanded to "Sit down." Finally, I choose a clean-looking stand and order the shrimp salad rolls. They are chewy, not fresh, not even close to Tamarind Tree delicious. While I am eating, I see flies landing on the rolls in the case. When I stand up, jet lag hits and the market with its smells and sounds starts spinning, a spin quite unlike the spin in the "That Girl" opening credits.

I head back to my hotel--it's 3:30 in the afternoon and I'm going to sleep, just for a few minutes. I wake up and it's midnight. I'm starving, so I eat a Power Bar. One of my lights flickers on and off even though it's turned off, so I have to stand on a stool to unscrew it. Did I mention that I'm starving? And I haven't met any teachers.

I am not discouraged --just hungry and there aren't any Hello Kitties --or windows--in my hotel room, where I am wide awake and did I mention- hungry. I just got an email from another teacher who is also wide awake, so I suggested a hotel lobby meeting at 1:30 am. Not sure if she will think that is really weird, but we'll see. Someone go and eat a salad roll at the Tamarind Tree for me, OK?
**One hour later: Cynthia did meet me in the hotel lobby. She is my new hero. She is from San Diego and has only left California twice - she has never been overseas. Because California is laying off so many teachers, she decided to look "elsewhere." She is in her 50's and has three kids in their twenties; her two sons are freaking out about her split second decision to pick up and move, but her new husband of two years is supportive. She thinks it's good that he is out of touch in Dublin on business at the moment, because he "doesn't do well when I cry." Like when she tried to convert traveler's checks at the bank and they told her they "didn't do that anymore." She talked to her 80 year old dad on Skype today, though, and she was able to cry with him. She's teaching second grade. She is looking at this as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Like I said, she is my new hero. She can be your new hero, too.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Hello Ho Chi Minh City Kitty

Wow, this 13 hour flight from Seattle to Taipei was the best ever. I boarded a half-full Eva Airbus at 1:30 am, found my entire row empty, took a sleeping pill, woke up for meals only and suddenly it was over. My two hour trip to San Francisco last month felt three times longer. Now, sitting at the Eva Air gate waiting for my flight to Ho Chi Minh City, I feel so, so....happy. Here's why: First, look at the seat I am sitting in while I enjoy free wireless service:

And now, see the gate to which I will enter my what-will-now-surely-be-a-magical year in HCMC:Who could deny the power of HK's extreme cheerfulness? Behind me is a Hello Kitty Playground, around the corner I can see what Hello time it is all around the world, and I can use a pink Hello phone to call home if I want. I am hoping that I will get to board a Hello Kitty Jet for my next short flight...I saw one when we landed. You know that one of these planes would never "fly" in the uptight US. Here's an explanation of Eva Air's Hello Kitty Jet:
"EVA repeated the livery theme inside the cabin by creating a Hello Kitty fantasy with sweet Hello Kitty paintings on the walls, and by outfitting flight attendants with Hello Kitty ribbons for their hair and Hello Kitty aprons. Passengers booked on EVA’s Hello Kitty Jet will get pink Hello Kitty boarding passes and luggage tags. Onboard, they will enjoy a series of inflight Hello Kitty service accessories, Hello Kitty meals, and have access to exclusive EVA Air Hello Kitty duty-free shopping."

I really, really want a Hello Kitty meal.

I have three hours to wait in this very happy place, which makes me even more happy. After two weeks of packing up my life and executing countless details to make this happen, and after a great sleep, I can just sit and relax with all of the kitties. Next week, I will have to start worrying about whether or not I can be Smarter Than an ESL Vietnamese 6th Grader in matters of ancient history.
Oh, you probably noticed my blog name: "Pho~ a long, long way to run..." courtesy of my #1 fan, Karyn Norris. I may have been tempted to choose hers no matter what, because she is my #1 Fan. But this one just grew on me more and more. Dennis says that the lyrics are actually "Far~a LONGER way to run" and he threatened to never read the blog if I dissed Julie Andrews by misquoting her. Well, "longer" just doesn't make you SING it, does it? By the way, I was asked for a pho-netic spelling of pho: it's "fuh."
Well, I am off to find some food. Hello Food?

Saturday, August 16, 2008


The other day my brother and sister-in-law asked me what I would miss most from home. They claim that I answered "tacos" before they added the caveat "besides friends and family." Well, they have yet to experience the Taco Bus on Rainier Ave. S and Court St (and they didn't think about the fact that I interact more with them when I am gone than when I'm here and that tacos can't post witty things on my blog).

I posted about another taco bus last summer, one just south of this one in Columbia City "Taco Bus=Happiness." That bus is great, but JP, who knows both humbao AND tacos (and what else, JP?), was quick to set me straight. And I listen to JP. Ever since December, I have taken at least one person per month to the bus (which you actually climb into to order, instead of ordering through the window) and my efforts have resulted in many conversions. The truth is that there is no better taco, in Seattle or Mexico (or Texas, so I've been told). My search has been thorough. Now, only through this posting, can I continue to spread the word while I am gone.

Here is what I order, every single time, clockwise from the left: 1) Mulita with avocado 2) Sopita 3) Taco. And I always get them with carnitas: roasted pork, rendered crispy fat on the edges. Squeeze a lime on all of it and don't forget the hot sauce.

Go forth, and tell me when you do.

Friday, August 15, 2008

My Soul is a Good Student. (Can it name my blog?)

At the end of January - on Super Bowl Sunday, in fact- I attended a "Soul Collage" party/session at my cousin Lisa's house.

Here is a very simplified description of the Soul Collage process: a group of six of us went through stacks of magazines looking for cool pictures, cut them out and arranged them on cards. A very gracious facilitator named Mary guided us through the process. According to the website, the goal is:
"Cards containing the images you select --- or the images that select you --- come straight through your Soul, contacting the intuition, bypassing the mind."
To tell you the truth, I just enjoyed the day and had very little expectation from my soul. Lisa has interesting friends and her house is cozy and she makes great food. So at the end of the day, I went home satisfied with my little "art project." I put it away and didn't look at it again until just a few days ago, when I was packing things up for my trip to Vietnam.
When I saw the first one with the orca tail, the eagles and the flying squirrel riding the wave I laughed. When my quest for a "next step" began this July in a serious way, I signed up for a Kayak trip to the San Juan Islands...something I have always wanted to do. I went with a company called "Outdoor Odysseys" for the sole reason that they emphasized gourmet camp food on their website. The name of the tour? "Eagles and Orcas: San Juan Island Kayak Trip." I am not making this, look at their website (and sign up, because they make coconut curry vegetables and tortilla soup and eggs fritatta and teach you about island history):

At the end of the collage process, we chose one card to write about in a structured manner. I wrote about myself in the place of the flying squirrel (which one of Lisa's friends gave me at the last minute to complete my picture) and I mentioned wanting to jump in, loving freedom, being ready to fly somewhere new and tap into that adventure part of myself.

So, THAT is cool and fun and everything, and it is what I have been talking about all year: needing change. And adventure is not something new to me.

But then I pulled out card #2 and felt chills. Look at it! I had forgotten about these completely. If that is not a Vietnamese child, maybe she is Cambodian, but the way, I just got word I am teaching sixth grade instead of high school. What age is this child, anyway? And is that the universe in the background? With a transparent plastic bag? Did my soul know about the beginning of my quest and the end result of it back in January? Did it know it was going to last most of the summer until I had two weeks to pick up my life and rent my condo? Could it maybe have given me just a little heads up, if so?

Simple little art project? What do you think? I am of the opinion that my soul was paying much better attention at that party than I was. Now I'm thinking that if I had "bypassed the mind" -as the Soul Collage mission states- during college, and sent my soul to class instead, I would have earned much higher than the 3.0 that is now on my transcript.

Now, onto something so simple yet so elusive: I have not named my blog yet. You all have offered such great names, and SBill, I kind of like your Nummy Nammy one best (locker partners forever!). But none of them are quite right! Maybe if I tell my soul to name it, it will happen. But here are all of the suggestions:

Brian: What the Pho? Eating and Teaching in Vietnam

Miriam and Jo: Pho for Me and Tasty Times in Ho Chi Minh City

Dennis: Mekong, You Read and Vietnamerica

Sbill: Pho'n and Pho'nics in Nummy Vietnammy

Mine: Pho Pho Sho

Dennis, who named my China blog "Noodle by Noodle in a State of Confucian" and who was surely laughing when he read about my soul, says he is "A Slave to IT" and IT must come to him to name my blog again. He says this thing a lot, like he was a slave when IT made him stuff a few heads in a refrigerator. Dennis, can you at least try to tune into your soul to name my blog because your IT isn't even getting close? Just try it. You can borrow Jimmy Jack and my leftover Soul Collage cards if you want.

OK everyone...keep trying! It's getting close to the wire (a week from yesterday)~

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Last week I interviewed for a teaching job in Ho Chi Minh City through Skype, an internet phone...thing. If you must ask, Ok, yes, the job was posted on Craigslist. Where and how, other than on Craigslist, do people conduct their lives? I don't remember! Anyway, at first they told me I was inter

viewing for a K-5 position. I thought, well, that will be different and I want different. Then I was told they had an opening in high school social studies. I thought, well, OK. Then they found out that English was my "thing." The end of the story: I will be teaching English at the American International School in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. That's right...two nights ago, I bought a one-way ticket to Saigon. Pushing the "purchase" button for a one way ticket to Saigon was a little weird.

When I called to tell my parents, my mom responded with the usual. "We never know what you're going to tell us when you call." I responded with, "Just think how I feel." This couldn't be any more last-minute.

Back to the interview...when the principal asked me why I wanted to teach in Vietnam, here's what the thought bubble above my head looked like: I paused. "Well," I said. And I paused again. Finally, I said, "Um, honestly, I want to teach in Vietnam because of the food." He laughed. He said, "I eat pho ga every day!"

Here are a few details: the school has gone from 70 to 700 within one year. Vietnamese parents want their kids to get an English education so that they can go to University in the states...and Vietnam has a red hot economy now, etc. This recruiting company is hiring 30 new teachers for this school year. It's a brand new facility, and they follow the California State standards-based curriculum. Thirty teachers are now in the process of picking up and moving with very little notice; it will not be dull. To use Jaci's comment, "They should have a Real-World camera on all of you!" They are putting us up in a hotel for two weeks, assigning us a Vietnamese "buddy" who will help us find an apartment. The pay is good for Vietnam...I will be making $2600 plus a $300 stipend for housing. They were thorough in their interview process. I don't know what else to say...

Many of you remember my trials teaching in China--no air conditioning, no curriculum among those trials. I said to my mom, "I am going to die in the heat!" She said, "Well, just remember how you endured it in China. Because, you know, you DID endure it." All I remember is that I endured it by promising myself I would never again go to a place that sucked the air out of my lungs. It has been confirmed that the heat in Ho Chi Minh City will suck the air out of my lungs. But then, I know people who FOUGHT in Vietnam, so I can probably walk to school there. My former neighbor, Patti, married to a Vietnam Vet, said, "At least you won't have to drop your pants and check for leeches." I sure hope I won't have to do that.

To summarize and reflect, in 2001, about two weeks after 9-11, I got on a plane to teach in the food pit of the world (with apologies to Cecilie, who is reading this. Norway has wonderful pastries, and she herself is an amazing cook. And it's not that I don't love hot dogs wrapped in bacon and meatcakes and potatoes and waffles). But it's seven years later, and I am getting on a plane to teach in the food mecca of the world. And that makes me pretty happy.
Please help me name my blog for this next chapter~