Thursday, April 30, 2009

Blog Game Thursday: Can You Beat Minnie?

I was just about to post another Dress Competition Blog Game Thursday, but my Uncle Rex beat all of you to it. He sent me this picture of The Minnie Pearl Dress, and I can't imagine that any of you can beat this design for me.

Go ahead and try.

(I did not post this from the Philippines...just thinking ahead so that AmyT doesn't stop commenting.)

Here's Mungo's entry (isn't it nice when certain people have a reason to dress up in drag? By the way, Mungo, what was your reason? This contest?)

Love the dress.

And Michelle, is this one OK? So fitting, with "Dorothy and the King of Darkness" coming soon...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Warring City States and Sixth Graders in Love

We are studying Ancient Greece right now, and not only is each student a god, goddess or hero (6E will tell you who they are in the first two videos), but each table is a city-state: either Sparta, Athens, Olympia or Corinth. Each city-state had to create a poster advertising all of their major points of interest, as well as to present either a play about a myth from their city-state, a rap, or some kind of dance/song (these are my dancing classes) to promote themselves.

Unfortunately, my classroom is too small for much activity, so we had to use the weight room.
These videos arent' the greatest quality, but they are cute. The Spartans could put on a halftime show at a football game.

In English, we just watched Whale Rider to go along with a mythology unit (a near perfect movie, in my opinion). I just finished grading their character analysis paragraphs and honestly, I could put some of their writing up against a high schooler's (when the grammar is corrected) and you would not be able to tell the difference. Our discussions were so deep (their observations: "the whales are dying because the Maori culture is dying"..."the grandpa is stuck and he's mean to Pai, but he's still a good person" and "should we write this in present tense or past tense?"- which then led to a discussion about literature being a living thing.) They are bright and lovely kids. Still.

On a non-education note: it's spring and the fact that we are studying Greek mythology with all of its love scandals has fueled the fire for what was already beginning to blossom in the sixth About five girls in 6E are "with" five boys from 6A. Very unlikely couples, too. But seeing this occur is such a phenomenon. The interest level between the sexes has been slight, if any, up until exactly three weeks ago. But now...whoa...these kids are very similar to kids from the rest of the planet, I think.

Mom, this post is for you. I know how you love my sixth graders, and how I don't talk about them enough. They are still making me happy every day. Hope you are entertained by 6E's videos.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Saturday Roller Disco

Yesterday Tarn convinced us that our Saigon experience would not be complete without visiting Saigon's roller disco on a Saturday afternoon.

I'm thinking it woud have been a fine experience without it.

But it was funky and classic (Katherine saw this photo op first - so vintage with the old skates and the fan). There was a flat surface in the middle and a pretty scary rolling hills section around the perimeter. The disco lights were flashing, but they played house music instead of disco, what a shame. I wonder how many roller disco skating rinks like this are left in the world?

Shannon (as you know if you have been following) loves loves loves to dress up. She had the beaver costume made by the seamstress, she has a ton of costumes at home, and a few weeks ago when she and Katherine were invited to a party with the theme "Dress up as what you miss from home" - Shannon dressed up as a Sink and Katherine was Tap Water.

So last weekend when Shannon, Tarn and Katherine were riding their bikes through Chinatown and Shannon found this mask, she was thrilled. She wore it while riding her bike, she wore it all over the carnival they found that day, and she brought it to roller disco yesterday.

She was a hit with all of the kids at the rink (no one over 12 there) and at one point went into the middle when the strobe lights were going and she danced on the little platform. A bunch of 12-year olds joined her.

Later, as we were walking down a random street, we saw this picture of Audrey, so I made Alice pose for all of you, since I was just talking about her yesterday.

A few random things:

Edge sent me a text yesterday and told me that he has "rented an island" - a private island on the chain of islands called Palawan. He and a bunch of his friends (I think the ones who are making the music video). I asked Alice, "Can Edge rent an island?" She looked at me and said, "Of course he can."

Here is the Lonely Planet's description of Palawan: "Palawan is one of the real treasures of the Philippines. Stretching from the Midoro Straight down to the tip of Borneo, it is a magnificent, coral-fringed range of jungle-clad mountainous islands jutting up dramatically from the Sulu is a place of world-class diving, snorkeling and jungle trekking... we consider Palawan to be one of the most rewarding outdoor sports destinations in all of Southeast Asia."

And I never mentioned meeting The Evergreen School from Seattle. I got to stand outside to greet them, and it was pretty fun seeing these American kids walking up the steps, lots of them wearing REI clothes and shirts that said "Seattle." I didn't get to spend much time with them, but one of the teachers explained to me that all 34 kids spent the whole year studying Viet Nam... reading books about it and studying the history of this one country. I asked a few of them about the heat and they said they felt as though they were "wearing it" - which is a very good description. They seemed like a really good group of kids.

Tonight I am meeting a girl that Pam met while taking the slow boat in Laos- she is coming to see the castle (she also read about it on the blog) and to eat at our squid restaurant. Katherine had two separate friends "pass through" last week. Saigon - with its roller disco and modernizing skyline - part of the new major world highway.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Philippines, Scrambled Edge and "Dorothy and the King of Darkness"

On Thursday's Blog Game, regarding Where the Happiest People Live (according to a 2005 world-wide survey), A-Net said:

"I think it is some underdeveloped, non-industrialized island where the sun is present a vast majority of days and people fish, gather fruit, and take care of their neighbors. A place where the notion of consumerism and working your life away isn't quite as rampant."

A-Net, you are a genius. Yes, it's true, it's not Norway, Brian and Cecilie - although there are many reasons for Norwegians to be happy - and someday, Mungo, I truly hope it is Iraq. But The Happiest People live the place I will be in just a few days, thanks to my friend Alice who has given me this happy country for my birthday:
The Philippines.

I bought a (pirated copy of the) Lonely Planet the other day and have been reading all about it. No wonder people there are so happy...the book also says, "Filipinos love to eat - so much so that you would be excused for thinking that's all Filipinos ever do." Typically, it seems, they eat five meals a day. Five Filipino meals a day from Tuesday through Sunday, to me, will definitely equal happiness.
Alice, my Audrey Hepburn friend, has also given me a tour guide to go along with my country birthday present. His name is Edge ("Scrambled Edge" is his full name), and he is a DJ/music producer here in Saigon, but he is from the Philippines...they hatched this plan when Alice was trying to figure out what to get me for my birthday. Edge goes home all the time, and happens to be shooting a music video in Manila the week of my visit. Read on and you will find out how I am indirectly responsible for Alice meeting Edge and, therefore, for my own happiness this upcoming week:
A long, long time ago, I told you that I was "helping" Alice with The American International School's spring production of "The Wizard of Oz." Well, this is one production that I wish I could fly you all here to see: it's no little high school play, let me tell you. Because the person who is directing it is the Diva Alice Audrey Hepburn from Off -Broadway in New York.
To give you a little taste of what is to come (I will be writing much more about this later), she has renamed it "Dorothy and the King of Darkness." It has two parallel story lines: one with mostly middle schoolers - all of the munchkins are my sixth graders - in full, vivid color out front, and one with high school dancers behind a screen doing provocative, thematic-to-the-play "shadow dance" to music such as dark, brooding Tom Waits. (!)
I went to a dance rehearsal after school the other day and was blown away by the combination of their raw talent and Alice's choreography and artistry - they are basically hip hop kids with the opportunity of a lifetime. I've written it here before, but I will write it again: Alice is an amazing talent. And, well, Edge happens to know every artist in Saigon and has introduced her to all of them.
So. One Vietnamese costume designer named Ivy has sketched all of the costumes (you really, truly will not believe how edgy and cool and adorable they are, stay tuned, you will see them) and Ivy has EIGHT seamstresses working on them. Ivy told me the other night that the most difficult costume to make is the Lion's.
And. Alice's set designer is from France.
And. She toured all of the theaters in the city and found one that reminds her of New York, kind of small, but it's OK, because "Dorothy and the King of Darkness" will run for three nights.
And. None of it has been OK'd by the upper powers yet, but that's OK, because it's Audrey Alice the Down to Earth Diva, and it is going to happen.
Oh, and how it ties to me: well, the first time Edge met Alice, he called her "Audrey Hepburn." Apparently, I am the only other person to call her that, and she claims she might have ignored him if not for me. Turns out he is a very, very nice guy and has become a great friend of Alice's.
Here's what has been going through my mind lately (as we still suffer in the heat):
In August, I clicked on an odd little Craigslist posting that said little more than "Teach in Viet Nam" No one else was hired through Craigslist at this school, and some of the people in charge of hiring don't think anything was ever posted there. So maybe it was in some other reality that I clicked on it, sent my resume in half-heartedly, and suddenly found myself living in a castle with cooking friends and hair washes and massages and trips to treehouses and temples and meeting friends who buy me countries for my birthday.
Definitely a Year Filled with Lots of Happiness.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Become a Friend of the “Diarrhoea” Beauty for Some Days

Here is an email sent out by our principal's assistant, Mr. Dung. Mr. Dung is the one who came in to shake it like the King of Pop during 6E's Halloween Competition. Everything he says and does is funny (like when he taught us about 'swearing in Vietnamese' - best staff meeting ever):

Subject: Changing Season - Food - Health

Dear Teachers,

Four days of this week seems to be hard. The weather has been harsh. It is the season changing time. National Broadcasters report that 3 days – hot in a row (HCM up to 37 degree Celsius) then one day rain….until the rainy season officially starts (Hopefully early May). Due to weather, many teachers have been sick. And this email is to show our Appreciation to your cooperation of arranging your time to substitute the absent teachers.

The fluctuation of the temperature easily results in coughing, nose-running, fever, even diarrhoea.
è To fight the harshness,
1. Eat more fruits (not buying by the streets) è Vitamin C
2. Do not drink a lot of cold water (not clear origin) after being under the sun è you can become a friend of the “diarrhoea” beauty for some days. (Do you want?”
3. As moving from the air-conditioned room to a non-aired place. Do not rush. Pause at the doorway for about 1 minute to allow your body to get balance.
I am not a physician, but a Vietnamese who have been surviving in Vietnam for years. I hope this can help you somehow.
Any other advice, Please add to this!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Blog Game Thursday: Where the Fun and Happy People Are

AmyT sent me some fun news the other day:

The Ritz Cracker company commissioned a survey that found that SEATTLE is the MOST FUN CITY IN AMERICA. The fun little article is below, but here is the same type of question on a larger scale, and it is today's Blog Game Question:

WHERE DO THE HAPPIEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD LIVE? (according to a global survey conducted in 2005?) (They're talking a country, not a city.) (And evidently, the people who are having the most fun are not the most happy.)

While you are pondering this question (and now wanting a Ritz Cracker), you can read the Ritz article. (By the way, Ritz are sold in Viet Nam, but they are usually a bit stale.)

Ritz Crackers: Seattle is America's most fun city
If you're not enjoying yourself today, you might be in the wrong city.
A new study of the nation's 50 largest metropolitan areas has named Seattle the most fun city in America, topping Minneapolis, San Francisco and Chicago.
Just so you don't take it too seriously -- the study is the second this year to be conducted by Portland-based Bert Sperling's Best Places on commission from a snack food company. In March, Combos told us we were unmanly.
Today, it's Ritz Crackers who's telling us we know how to have a good time.
Our city's proximity to mountains, lakes, parks and other recreational hubs helped us get to the top, as well as our higher than average attendance at block parties and barbecues, our tendency to spend more of our income than most on things like the gym, the movies, and sporting events and -- of course -- all those dog parks.
Interestingly enough, the study also found that we also spend more money on musical instruments than most other cities. Who knew?

Here's the top of the list:

1. Seattle, WA
2. Minneapolis, MN
3. San Francisco, CA
4. Chicago, IL5. Washington, D.C.
6. San Jose, CA
7. Los Angeles, CA
8. Boston, MA
9. San Diego, CA
10. New York, NY

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

He Da Nam

Rain is heavy tonight, so the Evergreen School from Seattle has luck on its side for arrival timing; it's much, much cooler right now. I'm hoping I get to meet My People tomorrow.

Tonight Katherine is at soccer practice, Tarn is downstairs engaged in a Vietnamese lesson, and I have just returned from A Double at the Bum Bum (massage and hair wash). All of us at the castle pursuing what we love the most...

At the beginning of last week, Nam dropped by Minh's house so that Minh could tell me that Nam's mother went into the hospital. "She has a brain infection" he told me.

Every day since, if a student is near during drop-off or pick up, I ask Nam about his mother. "She is doing better, thank you," he says each time, but the gate to her door has remained padlocked, so I know she's been at the hospital a long time.

Today after the gym pick-up, with me in my very sweaty clothes, we stop by his mother's house. She is lying on a bed near the door and a physical therapist is on the bed with her, moving her legs around in a circular motion. She seems to be sleeping, but when she sees me, she perks up. Nam's sister Mai gives me a little red plastic chair to sit in and Nam's mother grabs my hand, squeezing it tightly. She talks and talks before Minh arrives to translate- just as she has done during my previous visits with her - as if I can understand every word. The left side of her mouth is drooping. She points to the left side of her body and makes the negative Vietnamese motion with her goood hand...that gesture has so many applications. When Minh arrives, he tells me again that she had a "brain infection" - a stroke.

After a bit of translating questions, "How do you feel? Where do you hurt?" I tell Minh that my father also had a "brain infection" that affected his left side. When Minh translates this, Nam's mother's eyes open wide again and she is filled with ten more questions. "How is your father now? How long was he like this? Was his mouth this way?" - spoken with so much fear and pain in her eyes. Finally, Nam pokes me and says (gently) "Go home?" His mother is tired, I can see that. But she doesn't let go of my hand for another minute, and says "Cam on, cam on..." Thank you, thank you...

I get a little teary at the scene, being there with the whole family around her looking so worried. I walk back to the castle and tell Katherine about it, and I tell her that now I feel kind of badly about how I talked to Nam in the morning.

"What did he do now," she asks, already annoyed at what my answer is going to be. K is the best affirmer, really, and she would have killed in the competition had she written her response regarding The Shoe Incident...(Marjie, that is NOT OK. NO ONE does that. NOWHERE in the world. WHERE is it OK to give your opinion about EVERYTHING? ABOUT YOUR SHOES? YOU'RE KIDDING!"

I tell her that on the way to school, Nam reached around and grabbed my hand- which is always gripping the back end of the seat- removed it and placed it on my lap. While we were driving.

And what I did was to jerk my hand away and put it right back where it was. And I was mad. "Nam, I can put my hand there. I CAN PUT MY HAND ANYWHERE I WANT!" So there's a little pent-up anger over his intrusion in everything, as you can tell. He turns and gives me his pouty, passive-agressive look, points at a restaurant we pass and says, "Miss Sue." Yeah, OK, I know, you and your friend Miss Sue ate there, and you had a really good time, and she never even came close to using the tone of voice that I just used with you. I know, I know.

Katherine's response: "Marjie, don't feel bad about that. No, no..." and then she launches into her favorite affirming response to me when Nam gets me all worked up over something..."MY GOD. WE WOULD HATE HIM IF HE SPOKE ENGLISH! IT PROBABLY INSULTS HIS EGO THAT YOU HOLD ON TO THE SEAT. WELL, I HAVE NEWS FOR YOU, NAM, THIS IS SAIGON! IT'S DANGEROUS HERE!"

See why I love her?

Still, though, his mother...

You're probably wondering when I am going to mention the picture of Obama.

Copies of great art abound in this city - you name it: Van Gogh, Matisse, Gaugin - as well as lots of pop culture art. This particular painting is everywhere. I knew I wanted one the moment they appeared on backpacker street- it says so much about being in Viet Nam during election year 2009- but I didn't want one of the huge ones you see everywhere. I finally found this one, a nice 16 X 20 or so. What do you think?

Pam told me I had to get one. "Just think if your mom had been cool enough to buy something like that of JFK or something," she said. (Mom, did you ever have the opportunity? I'm sure you would have been cool enough to seize it.)

Monday, April 20, 2009

It's Frickin' Hot, Other Bad Stuff and One Hero Story

It's Frickin' Hot

Our friends Steven and Sharon accidentally locked themselves out of their apartment Saturday night, so they spent the night at the castle, as well as the entire next day, until 6:30 pm (their landlord lives in the countryside and we don't think he understood what the problem was).

This would have been just fine for everyone if not for the deadening heat. The "heat index" was 105.8. Humidity: 60%. No one had energy for anything, especially for living. The castle stays pretty cool with our ceiling fans, but not on a day like yesterday. So there they sat with nothing to do except watch DVD's, which is hard to do when you have hardly enough energy for living.

I kept going downstairs to visit them, but it was hard to leave my air-conditioned room...even there I was sweating. I couldn't read, I couldn't nap, I couldn't blog...there was nothing to blog about except for what I am blogging about now: misery. And I'm only blogging about this because I write too much about massages, hair washes, great food and upcoming trips to the Philippines.

Whenever it's this hot, I think of Tim O'Brien's book The Things They Carried. The entire first chapter is filled with lists of what the soldiers carried with them in Viet Nam, from letters to peaches in syrup to weapons to gear to one Native American soldier's "grandmother's distrust of the white man." How did they carry all of that in THIS? (By the way, that is an amazing book if you haven't read it).

Other Bad Stuff:

Katherine was out late Saturday night. She was walking down the road with Tarn when a motorbike swept by her and the guy on the back grabbed her bag hard enough to rip one side of the handle off, but tough Katherine held on to it. We have heard of this theft procedure, and are always reminded (of course my mother reminds me ad naseum) to keep our bags close to us and wear them across our shoulders, etc. I have only had one other close call with my bag: K and I were walking down a busy street a few weeks ago when I felt some pressure in my bag. I turned and walking right next to me was a man fishing around for whatever he could find, my bag right around my shoulder. My reaction surprised me, because I hit him. Then K got up into his face and yelled at him. He just walked on, pretending he didn't hear anything (and pretending that my hit didn't hurt him...I assure you it did).

And more: We don't have our own keys to our classrooms. Each morning, I must wait for one of my floor guards to come and unlock my room, but I have this really great guard who turns on my air conditioning before I get there. I have been told to never leave anything valuable in my room, but of course I never think anything will happen to me. Well last Wednesday, I had more money than usual in my bag, one million VND (about sixty dollars). At the end of the day, it was gone, and I had only left my bag unattended in my room twice for short trips to the copy machine on the first floor. I was pretty sure it wasn't a student who took it and thought it must have been one of our floor guards. I wrote up the incident, then wrote it off as stupidity on my part.

After school on Friday, I went to the bathroom way down the hall to change clothes. I'm sure the guards thought I was gone, because when I came out, I saw my favorite guard slip into my dark room. He didn't see me until I opened the door, and he was in the corner going through my students' lost and found items; specifically, he was going through a pencil case. He was shocked to see me. He put the pencil case down and pretended like he was straightening up the items on the desk. He looked at me sheepishly a few times. My favorite guard. I told my principal about it and he said we had had so many thefts lately that he was sure that the cleaning ladies and the guards were in on it together. Today my guard was gone, I'm guessing he was fired.

It's unfair that we have so much and they have so little. They live at the school and I'm sure it's very tempting to take a little something extra when you work among "rich" foreigners. The draw for easy money, I can see, would be so alluring. So I hate that part of living here.

And one really amazing Hero Story:
One of my co-workers, Alison, told me this story today (she began telling it very nonchalantly, like she was telling me something she did this weekend):

"Yesterday Van (her Vietnamese boyfriend) and I were downtown on our motorbike and we came upon a group of people who were all staring up into the sky. We looked up and saw a man dangling from one of the wires. His head was flopping and his limbs were limp- his hands kept sparking a little and we realized he was an electrician being electrocuted.

"I told Van we needed to do something. It was really hard because that's how Van's father died - he was helping a neighbor wire something and he was electrocuted, and I'm sure it was really hard for him to see that. We rode down the street to Family Medical and I went in to the receptionist and began by calmly telling them that a man was being electrocuted right down the street."

"They didn't understand at first, so I became frantic, telling them that a man was going to die if they didn't do something. They sent a doctor out on the back of Van's motorbike (Alison said he weighed about 300 lbs) and I went back in and told the receptionist to call the electric company to have them cut the power to that line, since the man would be "live." The receptionist did as she was told, then they sent one of their ambulances out with resuscitation equipment. They got the man down and revived him and took him to the hospital. I called the hospital later and found out that he lived."

Yeah, so how about that story? You just wonder what you would do in that situation, in a foreign country, don't you... I remember reading about a test that was done in NYC, where a woman screamed in the middle of a street at night and no one responded from their safe apartments up above. When interviewed the next day, people said they figured someone else was taking care of it, or that it was "none of their business." (I think that story was in one of Malcomb Gladwell's books).

Here Alison saved this man's life, and she just said, "I pictured his family, and knew that I had to err on the right side." And so she saved a man's life in Saigon yesterday, when it was frickin hot and when no one else was doing anything about it.

Tomorrow we will go back to food, massages and hair washes. (I have to wash my own hair in this heat quite often because I just get too sweaty...)

Oh, and one more thing...a school from Seattle, The Evergreen School, will be visiting us for a week, beginning on Thursday. It's a private school from the Capital Hill area and the eighth grade class has been studying Viet Nam all year long - their culminating project is to visit here for a month. They will be spending a week with our eighth graders. Pretty cool, huh? Except that it won't be cool, it will be frickin' hot, and I feel for My People, my poor wimpy Seattle friends who don't know what heat is, to come at this time of year and suffer so...

Maybe the heat will break by then?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Monday, April 13, 2009

Snow Day HCMC Style, My Journey to School

I woke up to The Rain of my Lifetime. Seattle rain does not even count any more after what I woke up to this morning.

I had heard legends about flash floods in this city - how the drainage system is no good and how, at times, the water can reach two, maybe three feet if a heavy rain lasts longer than an hour. Turns out that this legend is completely true.

I open the castle gate to water water water and no market. Fortuately, neighbor Henry sees my bewildered expression and tells me to get on the back of his wife's motorbike and she will drive me out to the main street to meet Nam - she is taking her daughter to school in that direction. I grab my flip flops, roll up my pants, and away we ride. This saves me from having to slosh through the alleys in knee deep water.

Nam is waiting and he looks worried. He indicates that it could take up to an hour to get to school, and he's right. Motorbikes are stalled everywhere - Nam's bike even stalls once. But he is a pro at negotiating our way. When we get to the intersection before the school, the jam is horrible.

I tell Nam I'll just walk the next three blocks because it's obvious we aren't going anywhere, and I'm a little surprised that he allows me to do this. So I roll my pants further up my thigh and trudge through black, filthy water. I lose my flip flops twice and must chase them down river.

Half the kids are late for school: the ones who ride in cars are up to two hours late, but the motorbike kids are fine. One kid arrives on time from a car, and I ask him how he did it. "Our driver is a professional," he tells me.

I think what I can assume from this morning is that the rainy season is here, and that is has arrived with a vengeance.
But you know what? It was a pretty fun morning.

My sister-in-law Kristi is a city planner. Kristi, I think this city needs you. You aren't busy with anything in particular these days, are you?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Staying Home and Letting Moms Down

This morning, while speaking with my parents on Skype, my real mother, who never orders anything, ordered me to take a picture of myself with my specially made dress and high heeled shoes. She even stated, "That's an order!"

But then twenty minutes later during my Saturday morning fabric visit, Thuy tells me she doesn't want to go out tonight. I think she's joking; we've been planning this for weeks. She's tired, she says. Maybe it's the rain or something. "I just want to make dinner at your house. You, Katherine, Tarn, Thanh, me. Eating and talking. Warm like that."

A few minutes later when Thuy is helping a customer, Thanh tells me that Thuy's dress didn't turn out like she wanted. She's bothered beyond that, though. It's funny, I'm not sure if the language barrier makes it any more difficult to understand complicated emotions. But the only bad thing about having the T Sisters cook at the castle tonight is that I'm going to let my real mom down. And it gets tiring, letting moms down all the time, all over the world...

So anyway, Thuy and I go marketing together. We have another fish bludgeoned to death, buy seven squid and a bunch of noodles and vegetables. I can figure this one out: we're making fresh spring rolls.

I love having friends who show up at my house with a portable gas stove. We wash the fish five times with a water/salt mixture, rub it again with salt and put it in a steamer with seven dried shitake mushrooms. While the fish and mushrooms cook, we prepare the squid and vegetables and THE SAUCE. The sauce this time is amazing. She begins with the usuals: lime, water, sugar and chilies. But tonight, she smashes up a bit of pineapple and uses a special dark fish sauce made on the island of Phuc Quoc, where Katherine went last weekend for her three day vacation (just don't smell it up close). And the gas grill is just for the squid this time; Thuy puts vinegar and ginger in the pan and we boil the squid pieces as we eat.

The picture of the spring roll is taken before it's rolled up (if you look closely you can see the outer wrapper against the plate). The crunchy stuff on top is sauteed shallots, green onions and peanuts. When it's rolled, you just dip it into the pineapple sauce. All K, T and I can do is make yummy noises as we eat roll after roll.

After dinner we move to the roof and after digesting and cooling off a bit, we come back down to watch a Vietnamese movie with English subtitles.

I'm actually happy to stay in ("warm" in the castle is quite true), because our karaoke night was too much fun Friday night and we didn't get home until after 2 am. We had this great taxi driver who couldn't stop laughing when Shannon put her pink Easter bunny ears on him - he was such a good sport about it that Shannon gave them to him and he wore them all the way home. The others in my taxi still wanted more fun at 2 am, but I was ready for sleep. Before Tarn got out of the taxi, he handed me the birthday cake box, and while talking with the taxi driver all the way to our street, I noticed him eyeing the cake box.

"Do you want a piece?" I ask before getting out of the cab. He smiles and nods enthusiastically. So I take the cake out of the box and my bunny-eared taxi driver and I try to figure out how to cut a piece as we sit in the dark street at 2 in the morning. Finally he takes a notepad with cardboard backing and rips the backing off. It makes a pretty good knife. I sit with him and we chat while he eats the cake. When I say thank you and get out, he says, "You and your friends are nice."

Yes. For sure. So here's another example of how nice my Saigon friends are: for my "real" gift - as if she hadn't already done enough - Alice bought me a round-trip ticket to Manila for our upcoming four day weekend. She has this friend from there, and she has commissioned him to show me all of the best places to eat in the Philippines. I don't even know what to say about this gift. I am overwhelmed by it. And I'll get to share it with you...
Oh, and speaking of letting real mothers down and dresses that aren't quite right: the dresses that I had made for the dress competition a while ago, well, they didn't really turn out like I wanted. I chose the wrong material, and my Ben Thanh seamstress didn't really get the concept. Michelle agreed when she was here. So I had my other seamstress - the one all the way across town - make one. On the day I was supposed to pick it up, she sent me a text that her father had died and that she would be out of the city for a few weeks. So that is the status of the dress competition dresses. Sorry it's taken so long for the results.

And - real mom - I'm really sorry. You'll get your picture some day.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Blog Game Thursday: Affirm Me Well

I'm going to start with this:

I haven't bought shoes in months. Shoes in Viet Nam stop at size 7. I wear size 9 and a half. I repeat: I haven't bought shoes in months.

I'll come back to this.

After school, I want to stop and get Tarn's birthday present (two castle birthdays in the same week): a Buddhist/Hindu flashing round light - the size of a clock - with a Hindu swastika in the middle. Tarn was looking at them at the beginning of the year but never bought one. The perfect gift. And I know just the store...Nam and I pass it every day coming home from school. So I point for him to pull over, ask the seller the price, and he writes "280" on a slip of paper. It's what I figured it would cost (around $18).

Nam won't allow me to buy it, though. He points down the street, he knows another place. Of course he knows another, better place. I hesitate. I'm tired. Nam says, "NO!"

I give in.

We drive all the way to the top of our street and enter a shop that has many copy machines, but no altar flashing lights. He wants me to special order one from a cute girl who doesn't understand what's going on. We speak to her for 20 minutes, and I gather that they will make me one, but that it will not be ready until Saturday. Tarn's birthday is on Friday. It takes me ten minutes to communicate that this isn't OK.

So, apparently, Nam knows another place. We get back on the bike and ride all the way down toward Ben Thanh Market. Another ordering place with no flashing lights to point at for reference. They want to know size, color, glass or aluminum... After all of this negotiation, they write "300" on a slip of paper, and tell me it won't be ready until 8 am tomorrow. It takes me ten minutes to communicate that this is not OK. Finally, Nam says he will take me back to the other place, which is about 20 minutes away, back by the school.

I have not stated this yet, but I am annoyed. And it's an hour and a half after I saw the perfect light at the perfect price.

Now, back to the shoes.

Because I am down by Ben Thanh against my will, I figure I can pick up the shoes I had specially ordered to be made three weeks ago...I have the receipt with me and everything. Another teacher discovered this shop and though it's expensive, it's totally worth it to get the right shoes to go with my dress-up birthday night this Saturday.

So I show Nam the address and it takes ten minutes to communicate that I want to go there now. He wants to go back to the light place. Finally, I win this one. We find the shop. I go in and try on my brand new high heel shoes. They're lovely. I'm walking across the store, back and forth, looking at my shoes in the mirror. Then I turn toward the front door.

Nam is standing there, peering through the door window, waving his arms frantically - like "no, no!" Then he holds his hands way high in a gesture that says "you're too tall!"


I communicate in the most international language there is. Not in words, not in music, not in writing. I communicate in the International Language of a Woman's Hatred for Man, through the eyes.

There is no possible way that any man - American, Sudanese, Japanese, French, Columbian, Siberian, Egyptian or Alien - could have mistaken my message. And this miniscule Vietnamese man gets what my stare-down means. He turns away and sulks toward his bike. When I come out, he mutters a meager, "Go home?" and I nod with no feeling whatsoever.

Nam can get away with looking in my market bags, he can tell me to wipe sweat off of my face when I am eating pho, and he can even show me how to break lettuce off the stem and how to peel corn.

But he may not, never-ever, run interference regarding shoes.

The blog game today just decided itself: who can affirm me best regarding this situation? Come on, Mungo, you CANNOT side with Nam on this one. If you do, you will feel my stare-down from across the universe.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Blog Game Answer: Don't be Mad

Jade Buddha for Universal Peace arrives in Vietnam (from Vietnam English News)

March 13, 2009 - The Jade Buddha for Universal Peace, the world’s largest jade idol which is on a world tour, is on display at the Avalokitesvara Temple in the central coastal city of Da Nang from March 13 to 15.

The Buddha, including the lotus and throne, is nearly 3.5 meters (11.4 feet) tall. It has been carved from an 18-ton jade boulder worth US$1 million, which was found in Canada in 2000. The statue was sculpted by 27 Thai and Australian artists at a cost of US$1.2 million. The idol will visit four other temples in the country — Dai Tung Lam Temple in the southeastern coastal province of Ba Ria – Vung Tau (March 21-26); Pho Quang Temple in Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Binh District (March 29 – April 5) and Hoang Phap Temple in Hoc Mon District (April 9-24); and Van An Temple in the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap (May 1-10).

It will go on to the U.S, Indonesia, Myanmar, New Zealand, and Taiwan before moving to its final home at the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion in Bendigo, Australia, in 2010.

It was like a rock concert: loud music, lighters, people swaying back and forth...this is a picture of the picture T and T bought me.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Birthday Highlights: A Bag of Cheese, New Rice Cakes, Flowers, Parties, Purple Pants, Squid Five Ways, Campy DVD's and Hammock Swinging Til Midnight

As I head out the castle gate on my birthday morning, I see a sticky note: "Happy Birthday! Your present is on the top shelf of the fridge." It's from K, and what is on 'my' shelf is a bag filled with gourmet cheese.

Then Nam tracks me down in the market. "Mari!" (He has settled on this name for me.) He says "Banh Cu" and leads me to the other side of the market where he orders me some rice cakes to-go. I'm sure he does not know it's my birthday, but odd that he chooses this day to introduce me to a new "number one."

I get to school and Alice enters my room with a bouquet of Easter lilies, two baby quiches, some chocolate, and some fish made by her family's cook for lunch. On her way up to my classroom, apparently, she has told every student she sees that it's my birthday.

So during the day, I get four "Happy Birthday" songs, 6E hides under their desks to "surprise" me after lunch, and a party - planned by Alice and 6C. 6C is terrible about keeping the secret; they just cannot contain themselves. They have two dozen roses and two cakes and two cards for me, and ask me fifteen times, "Did we make you happy today?"

When I get home, there is another HUGE bouquet arrangement on the table. K tells me that Thuy just dropped it off, from her and Thanh. The tunic I told you about a few weeks ago - turns out that is for my birthday, too.

I see two gifts on the table, and Tarn tells me that Ms. Hao (Sweet Seamstress) just dropped them by. Inside one is a purple shirt - made in the pattern of another shirt she made me a month ago, and inside the other is a pair of purple pants. Really cute, too (although I have not tried them on yet). I take the pants and shirt three doors down, peek into the half-closed door, and she and Lieu (her assistant) give me the cutest little grins. They tell me the shirt is from Lieu, and that the pants are from Ms. Hao. I give them both big hugs and they just giggle.

Alice comes over after rehearsal and K, T, Alice and I go across the street to our stir fry place. I have thought this out: what I want most for my birthday is to order every squid dish on the menu: squid with cauliflower, squid with green pepper, deep fried squid, squid with onions, sweet and sour squid. We are all in love with squid. Especially the deep fried squid. Heaven.

After dinner, we watch two of Tarn's five gifts to me- he got me five new music DVD's - campy classics. I wish you could all see "Modern Talking"- for there is no way to describe it (go ahead and YouTube this 80's German band)- and Boney M.

After videos, Alice and I take the hammocks and some incense to the roof, and we swing up there until midnight.

Plus, all day long I receive email after email and post after post wishing me a happy birthday. And this weekend is my Karaoke Birthday Weekend: Friday night with AIS people, Saturday night with T, K, T and T. We all had dresses made for the occasion (except for Tarn).

Never in my life have I had such a unique, surprising, varied birthday. I'm sure it's all because of your wish, Brian. We have this cool reciprocal wish thing going, which began with me wishing him into existence. So thanks, Brian.

Oh, and I guess the blog game answer will follow, if it really must...

Monday, April 06, 2009

Happy Birthday Marjie!

(I figure it's already April 7th over there)

A warm happy birthday to you from your family back in the States! I hope you get some free food!

"Don't be jealous...?" My New Ultimate Fish on my New Ultimate Beach

Did I actually write "Don't be jealous..." about my weekend at the beach? Well, I think I should allow you to just feel what you feel.

You remember Nha Trang, the Thanksgiving beach destination? The weekend we couldn't land and had to return to HCMC and catch the dirty train...the weekend of pounding rain, howling wind and a delicious turkey/pumpkin pie dinner at Fran and Ann's house?
We had been told it was one of the ultimate beaches in Vietnam, but couldn't quite see that back in November. Now I know what everyone is talking about. Fran and Ann (they started AIS) invited a bunch of people up for our long weekend, but only two of us were smart enough to take them up on it. We took the sleeper bus Thursday night leaving HCMC at 8, arriving in NT at 7 am. A sleeper bus is just that - two levels of reclining seats- pretty comfy unless you get a berth five inches shorter than you are (which happened to me on the way there).

Fran and Ann have just finished building a lovely home near the beach and offered me the third floor suite all to myself. Ann learned how to make Italian food from Fran's Sicilian mother, so we ate eggplant parmesan, gnocchi and seafood spaghetti throughout the weekend.

We also rented motorbikes for all three days. One day we drove an hour through the hills to a waterfall. And another day, well, another day...

...we rode out to this beach of all the pictures - the beach I am calling My New Ultimate Beach. A No-Tourist Beach. You park your motorbikes up top, then walk down steep steps and choose where you want to sit from about ten stalls, each with a woman server/chef presiding over her section. I'm sure we chose the best one- she was so happy and gracious. When I saw the baby asleep in the hammock, I gestured to her: can I have a hammock, too? and she enthusiastically tied one between two posts for me.
So you sit under the cover of bamboo huts, where the waves travel in and wet your feet (or whatever is hanging lowest in the hammock) every so often, unless you feel like venturing out into the perfect, warm, wavy water.

And then, when you get hungry...when you get hungry, you order fresh seafood from right in front of you and your chosen chef cooks it right behind you in her kitchen.
We ate a kilo of clams and a grilled perch. The grilled perch is something I am now calling My New Ultimate Fish. It came with a tray of fresh vegetables and The Best Dipping Sauce in the World. When I gestured to our woman how delicious I found this sauce to be, she took me back into her kitchen and showed me how to make it. Here is her secret sauce recipe:

little green hot peppers
MSG (yep, they all use it, and it's yummy)

I caught the sleeper bus back Sunday night at 8:30 and was back in HCMC by 7:00 am, just in time to run into the castle, shower, and run back out to meet Nam on the street by 7:30 to get to school on time. I slept like the baby in the hammock on that sleeper bus. I feel so rested that I think perhaps I will grab a sleeper bus to Nha Trang any time I need a really good sleep.
Yeah, so, don't be jealous?
I'm jeaous, and I was there all weekend.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Blog Game Thursday: Name That Superstar

As I mentioned yesterday, Thuy and Thanh insisted that I go to a concert with them the night Pam left (when she left the first time). The venue was on the way to the airport, so we got out of the taxi, sent Pam on her way, and fought our way through thousands of Vietnamese people up to the front of the stage.

I was THE ONLY non-Vietnamese person in this crowd. Thuy kept pointing it out.

"Maggie. Look. You are the only American."

Yes, I kept thinking, and not only that!

You can see the crowd in the picture, but I have cut the superstar out of it: incense burning, flowers waving, cameras flashing. On the way into the venue, vendors sold cotton candy and popcorn and pictures.

OK, so the blog game is this: who is the superstar? Appearing in Ho Chi Minh City for four nights in a row, drawing thousands, possibly millions. You all know his name, but I was the only "Western" person in a crowd of thousands. He is on his way through New Zealand, Australia, Europe and then back to North America.

Who could it be?

I am heading to the beach for a long weekend (don't be too jealous, it's been unbearably hot in the city) so you won't know until Monday...

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Mothers and Castle Floors

Pam missed her flight last night.

We began the evening with a nice, leisurely dinner on Stir Fry Street Nguyen Canh Chan (as opposed to Stir Fry Street Shaoxing, China) with Thuy and Thanh, who insisted that I go to a concert with them out by the airport. Perfect, where Pam was heading anyway (heading there completely unaware that her flight left during our leisurely dinner).

So T, T and I get out at the concert venue, say our goodbyes to Pam and send her on her way. (The concert is a part of tomorrow's Blog Game, so you'll hear more about it then.)

Anyway, when I get home and open the gates to the castle a few hours later, I am quite surprised to see K sitting at the table with Pam, looking up flight information. Pam did what I have done so many times (but fortunately not with a flight - yet), she read military time incorrectly (20:30 -which is 8:30 pm, but Pam looked at it as 10:30) and arrived at the airport at 8:30, which she thought was two hours early. She was leaving this side of the planet after eight months, planning to meet her mom in Berlin in the morning.

She handled everything relatively well- better than I would have, for sure.

So that story will help you understand what happens next.

This morning, Nam asks, "Pam go home?"

I should have just said yes. But I said no, she missed her plane...I thought he might see her in the hood and be confused. So of course we must grab a student translator at school and Mom Nam's concern for his charge is reflected all over his expressive face.

When he picks me up at the gym after school today, he is quite agitated. Nam has been acting so strangely lately. I mean Nam is a quirky person, period, but the past few weeks have been...strange.

He's been looking at me with really confused, sad eyes. He has been bringing me different breakfast treats, some of which he retrieves from all the way across town: a different form of rice cakes, a pork and shrimp-filled muffin, and more sticky rice in all colors of the rainbow. I haven’t really known what to do about it.

So we get home today and he tells me he is going to get Minh. He has a lot on his mind and he needs family to translate. He comes back minutes later with his poor nephew. I invite them in and Nam kind of loses it. He collapses on the carpet and makes a low groaning noise.

"Is he OK?" I ask Minh.

"My uncle ask Pam if she join us to celebrate my dead grandfather today. She said "no." He want to know why Pam don't come."

I get some clarification on this from Minh. Nam's family had a lunch in honor of his deceased father at his mother's house, and he must have come by to fetch Pam. I knew Pam would be gone when I got home because she had sent an email telling me she got a flight out at 6:30. See, I should have told Nam that Pam "go home."

I explain to Minh that Pam needed to fly out, and that I'm sure she was sad that she couldn't join their family in the ceremony, and that it was very kind of them to ask her.

Minh tells Nam this, but he remains on the floor. He lets out another moan. It occurs to me that perhaps Nam did some drinking at the lunch ceremony.

Minh looks at me. "My uncle. He sad. You go in June. He see you no more."

Uh oh.

So this is it.

This is why quirky Nam has been acting strangely.

So I haven't told many people this, but a few weeks ago I signed another one year contract at AIS. The planets kind of aligned for me, and I signed. So did K, and many others, and T is still deciding.

Anyway, in this moment, with my driver moaning in agony on my floor, I'm conflicted over whether I should tell Minh this news. It's a little complicated.

But, of course, I must. I tell Minh I am coming back for another year. Minh looks surprised. He tells Nam. Nam looks shocked. Nam says something like, "Really?"
When I nod "yes," The Cowboy leaps up and looks straight at me. He puts out a formal hand for a shake. When I offer my hand, he grabs it and squeezes it so hard that now I must let out a scream.

"Nam! Stop! That hurts!"

He just nods and says, "Cowboy."

So I figure that this is as good a place as any to put in Sue's picture of The Cowboy, the one I forgot to get from her and which she sent to me a few weeks ago.

He looks just like the Marlboro Man, doesn't he?