Sunday, May 31, 2009

Weasel, Porcupine or Men: What Do You Want for Dinner?

It's Vietnamese Barbecue night. The five of us take a taxi to one of the largest restaurants I've ever seen: two huge grills welcome you as you enter (the restaurant is open to the elements on the sides, like many here) and we look around and up to see what we think must be at least two hundred tables.

Katherine points to the animal on the grill and says, "Is that a racoon?"

"No, no, no," I say. "It's a pig."

But then we sit down and begin looking at the menu. The first thing we see is "weasel."

"THAT'S what it was!" she says. "I knew it wasn't a pig! It had no snout!"

We also see porcupine, deer mice, snake and what looks like "men" listed. I tell Tarn he may not be safe at this restaurant.

Then I point out "Goat's prick stewed with Chinese medicine" to him. Thuy laughs because she sees what we're looking at.

Thuy takes over the ordering, as usual, and she keeps it pretty safe, ordering with our boring palates and Tarn's vegetarianism in mind. The first dish that comes out is a cactus, pork and shrimp salad, which is delicious (and the only thing T can't eat).

Next comes the best barbecued squid and shrimp I've ever tasted. The shrimp is draped over a coconut, and the juice is lit on fire (not sure what else is in it, but it burns for quite a while). The result is tender shrimp infused with just a bit of coconut flavor.

Next comes the hot pot. Noodles, more shrimp and calamari, lots of vegetables. It's spicy, and K has to rub an ice cube over her lips to numb herself. It's really fun to dunk all of the goodies into the boiling pot and fish them out, in a similar manner as fondue. The soup is delicious, but not so different than Thuy's. Thuy is a fantastic cook.

We are using this night to celebrate Thanh's birthday, too, so we meet her with roses. What I am really excited for, though, is to give both of them their gifts. We missed Thuy's birthday back in November, so I have a present for her as well. They are getting the same thing with a different twist: I made them both photo albums with pictures- from Thuy and my first cooking session to the Christmas party to Tet at their house to all of our Sunday cooking with my guests and time on the roof. Thuy's has more pictures of her, and Thanh's has more of her. I found some vegetable/food stickers, so I attempted my own scrapbooking look. They both have the reaction I'm hoping for; Thuy actually squeals with happiness. They can't stop looking at all of the pictures.

When we finish eating, we are stuffed and sweating from the spicy hot pot. Thanh picks up the bill because it's her birthday - she will not negotiate. I tell her that I will have her come to America for my birthday because there we treat the birthday person, and then I will never have to pay. I know it's their way for returning the Indian dinner favor from Friday night. These women do not take anything without giving back times ten.

Later, we come back to the castle for chocolate pudding eclairs, even though we have no room for them. We light funky, twisty candles and sing happy birthday to Thanh. She says she feels "lucky" today - celebrating her birthday with such good friends. Thuy has tons of friends, but Thanh spends most of her time with Monkey Boy and Tu at night, so I think she is really touched by her little party - this woman who was so shy about becoming our friend.

When they go, we all hug and Thuy says the usual: "We are family."

Friday, May 29, 2009

Cross Cultural Scarecrows

"There's this cylclone, see, and she and her dog twirl over the rainbow and find themselves in a land of munchkins who tell her she has killed the wicked witch and they want her to live with them but she just wants to go home so they advise her to follow the yellow brick road to find the wizard and he can give her what she needs. On the way to find him she meets a scarecrow with no brain, a tin man with no heart and a lion with no courage..."

This is me trying to explain the story of The Wizard of Oz to Thuy and Thanh after T, K and I introduced them to samosas, butter chicken, fish curry, briyani and eggplant bartha at our favorite Indian restaurant. This entire night must have seemed so strange to them.

Really, though, how do you translate "scarecrow" into gestures? "Tin Man" was easier since the water cups were made of tin. I pointed at the cup and said "he's a man made out of that." Clear as mud, or tin, or whatever.

When I was done, Thanh tried to encourage me. "I understand half of what you said."

But during the show, I couldn't stop looking over at Thuy...every time the shadow dancers took the stage, her eyes lit up magically. She was lost in a dream world - which is what happens when anyone sees the shadow dancers perform - but I could tell she was especially touched by it. And she loved Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man and of course, Alice's "King of Darkness" - laughing at all the appropriate places.

After the play, though, she kept doing the hand movements of the first shadow dancer, from "Maiden Dance."

"So beautiful," she kept saying. And this morning, same thing. "So beautiful. Thank you."

It is a beautiful show. It's a cute show without the shadow, but the shadow element makes it breathtaking - the dancers (slaves in the picture below) are amazing kids who know what kind of gift they have been given in Alice this year. As for Alice, it's her directorial debut, and she feels very fortunate to have a pool of dancers with so much talent. Director, choreographer, costume designer, stage manager - she did it all, and she did it in a foreign culture that didn't understand what she was trying to do. (I'm really sorry - I have tried and tried to load videos of the shadow dances but have been unsuccessful - they are so difficult to explain with words.)

Anyway, both T and T loved the play. Now, the Indian meal - I'm not so sure about that. They were quiet and conservative during dinner, and after the meal when I asked them if they liked it, Thuy said, "It was good. Sunday. We take you to Vietnamese Barbecue."

In other words, let's get back to the good stuff.

Opening Night: Chorus, Slaves (Monkeys) and Munchkins

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Blog Game Thursday: It's Opening Night...Some Wizard of Oz Trivia 4 U

1. Which song was nearly cut from the film?

2. What is Dorothy's last name?
3. What made the horses in the Emerald City Palace Green?

4. What career did the Wicked Witch (Margaret Hamilton) have before becoming an actress?

5. What was used as the Tin Man's "oil"?

6. What city is the Wizard actually from?

7. In the book, Dorothy's shoes are not red. What color are they?

8. Who is Judy Garland's famous daughter?

9. Which character's actor got sick and almost died from the make-up (and had to be replaced)?

10. How much money did Toto make per week? How about the Munchkins?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Personal Massages in the Balcony Room: K and I are on the lookout for a massage table. (And now a bar hanging from the ceiling...thanks for the idea, Michelle...)

Alex (subject of Blog Game Thursday): Did NOT read the blog over the weekend. I had to get his friends to get him to read it. Now he is demanding to know HOW all of you knew so much about him. Obviously, I didn't mention to his class how perceptive people from Seattle are when it comes to judging someone from just a photograph.

Nam: We are still together in the mornings, but we remain broken up in the afternoons. He has been minding himself well in the a.m. Yesterday we woke up to another flood and he was Da Bomb Nam. The morning before that, a very swanky lady was trying to hire him to drive her somewhere and I witnessed it as I was walking up the street. He made a big show for me in procuring another driver for her. He pretended that he didn't know I was watching, so when he "finally" saw me, he made a flippy gesture with his hand that said, "Oh, I sent her away." So I have not completely stripped this character of his personality.

Nam's mom: I visited her on Saturday and held her hand for quite a while. She seems to be paralyzed on her left side, and all she does all day is lie on her bed. Her nurse is by her side, always.

The Play: is in two days. Everyone is excited and exhausted. Tarn, Katherine and I are taking Thuy and Thanh to see it. I hope they enjoy it...

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cue Personal Masseuse in Romeo and Juliet Balcony Room: The Neighborhood Spirit Moves in Mysterious Ways

Katherine receives a text from Tran on Saturday: she's not working at the new salon in District 3 anymore; can she come over and give us massages at our house? I write this, K is getting a massage in the Balcony Room and I am in the Rapunzel Room just waiting my turn.

We are no longer devastated.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Cue Devastation

Often, I feel like I am living on a movie set in this neighborhood. Sometimes the voice in my head says things like, "Cue woman with cone hat and two baskets hanging off her shoulders like weight scales," "Cue children playing with an old tire in the alley," "Cue man selling boiled rice and pork in banana leaves in a basket on the front of his bike," "Cue fresh fish and vegetable market with rice cakes down the alley," "Cue three day funeral with bad music and revelry outside my door..."

Even after ten months of living here, I still catch myself every time I am eating at my won ton soup cart: I always almost forget that I need to pay. People wouldn't pay if they were on a movie set, right?

Katherine and I, especially, have consistently marveled at our thirty second walk down the alley into Bum Bum Magic Land. It still doesn't seem real to us that all of that is at our disposal. K's famous line regarding the Bum Bum has been, "The fragility of it all..."

It could change at any moment. It's all just an illusion and someday we will wake up. That has been our M. O. in dealing with it.

Well, it has happened. I mentioned a few weeks ago that Tran, our massage girl and good friend, "went on vacation for ten days." Last week, we finally got up the courage to say these words out loud to each other: "It's been much more than ten days. What is up?" Katherine felt she was strong enough to search for the truth. I was content to remain in a state of delusion a little longer.

A few days ago, K goes in to get her hair washed. She asks about Tran.

"She married," says the owner - Lieu.

"Married?" says K. "Is she ever coming back?" To which she gets a negative hand gesture.

When she gets upstairs, she tells her hair washer, Chin, how sad she is about Tran. So Chin calls Tran and hands the phone to K. On the other line is one of Tran's friends who speaks good English, and she acts as go-between. Their conversation goes like this:

"Tran! Oh....Hi! Please tell Tran congratulations on her marriage!"

Laughter. "Tran not married!"

"Oh, the owner just told me she got married!"

"Boss lady lied to you!"

"She did? Well, where is Tran?"

"She working at new salon. District 3. You can come."

And so on.

K gets the address, but~

We are devastated. And we think that the owner has been trying to save face this whole time, which we know and have heard over and over is a very Vietnamese way of handling sensitive information. She's been gone for weeks, and we've been believing in her imminent return.

One of K's nicknames is The Masseuse Whisperer. K can speak to her in long paragraphs and Tran will nod and agree with everything she says, but if I just ask her how her parents are, she scrunches up her face with confusion. So K is especially devastated. Tran, besides being an amazing masseuse, is so friendly and unassuming and upbeat - someone we just love to see on a regular basis.

K sends me texts about her sleuthing while I am with a friend who doesn't understand my sadness. When I get home, all I can say to K when I see her is, "Can we talk this out?"

It's going to take us many incense burnings on the roof to get over this one.

Cue two hammocks on the roof with a palm tree.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Blog Game Thursday: What Can You Tell About a Person From Just a Picture?

This looks like the kind of person who...?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Letter in hand, I'm out on the street looking for my driver. It's 7:07 a.m. and he's nowhere in sight. Should I wait? A very smiley driver pulls up. "Motorbike, Miss?" he asks and I hesitate a little; usually I would wait. But I agree, deciding to take another "day off."

Again, the day feels lighter knowing that I am free at the end of it - I am almost giddy.

After school, I have the taxi drop me off at the top of the street instead of taking me all the way down to the castle alley because I want to see if Nam is in his spot. As soon as I hop out and look over, I see his hand raise in an awkward wave; of course, he has spotted me from two blocks away through a crowd of people. He is sitting almost cross-legged on his bike, surrounded by three motorbike cronies and as I walk over to him, they snicker a little. But he gestures me to come. When I hand him the letter written in Vietnamese, they find this especially amusing. I just have to wonder what he has told them, or if any of them were there for The Scene the other morning.

He takes out his glasses, puts them on and reads the letter. He stops three times while reading it, looks up right at me and says "yeah."



He nods his head once more at the end, puts his glasses back in his pocket and at the same moment, we both put our hands out to shake.

He tells me that when he got out to the street today, everyone told him that I was already gone. I told him I looked for him, but that I had to go. Again, he nods his head.


"Ok, goodbye," I say.

"See you again?" he says.


Monday, May 18, 2009

The Nam Plan

I have a Nam Plan in action. I need a break from him, but I don't want to hurt him. He called twice on Saturday when I was at rehearsal so I know he wanted to bring Minh by...but I don't really want Minh to translate on this one, so here's what I have done:

I wrote him a note telling him two things: 1) that I don't need rides home this week because I am working on a project. This is true because we have rehearsal every day after school now; however, before the blow out I would have guestimated the pick-up time. 2) that I want him to know why I was upset with him last week - that I appreciate everything he does for me, but that at times he gets too bossy and disrespectful.

Here is the best part: I asked one of my students to translate it for me. Lisa is the most mature, sensitive, gets-it kind of person, and at times she has translated for Nam and me out on the street. I explained the situation to her and she kept saying, "Yes, I see. Yes, Ms. Marjorie, I understand." And then, "Do you mind if I add a few things to this note?" I told her to do whatever she thought best. I trust this girl completely.

After school, she brings me the translated note (in perfect script) and reads it to me. Here are the additions: 1) a term of respect for him as my elder 2) that I hope we can try to understand each other's cultures better and therefore reach a better relationship and 3) that I feel very lucky to have him as my driver because he is very safe and reliable.

Our conversation after the reading is enlightening. I ask her what I might understand about Vietnamese culture to better understand him, and she's quite definite in her answer. "You see, most Vietnamese people are very bossy. They like to tell you what to do, and they even touch you to get their point across. It doesn't mean they are bad people; in fact, it shows that they care for you and that they are looking out for you. I'm just beginning to see this about my culture this year, Ms. Marjorie. I realized I like more space than most people here give me."

What a twelve year-old human being.

I will give him the note in the morning, when I tell him that I don't need a ride in the afternoon. I hope it goes well. I'm telling you what, though, I enjoyed today so much more just knowing that I had the freedom to leave whenever I wanted.

I'll leave you with a sneak peek at Tin Man (you've met Lucky), Toto (another of my 6th graders, Loren) and Lion (7th grader, Lucky's brother, Mickey). The costumes for all of them are so cute, and they are arriving all week from the eight different seamstresses so we can have a dress rehearsal on Saturday.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Xe Om Drivers and the Lessons They Have to Teach Us

Both Thursday and Friday, various people at school asked me, "Were you and your xe om driver fighting this morning?" because the place where he drops me off is highly visible - the only entrance (not good fire safety at this school).

My answer: "Yes, we were fighting." Here's a breakdown of the end-of-week fighting:

Wednesday our staff has an all-day meeting with the people at the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) at a very nice hotel (AIS is seeking accreditation). I forget to tell Nam that we don't need to leave until 8 (instead of 7). I call him in the morning just to say "8:00" but his phone is off. I'm actually relieved and am hoping to have the morning free of him -- really looking forward to taking a nice air-conditioned attitude or questions, just drive me where I need to go. Well that is not to be because my mother comes to the castle at about 7:40 asking Tarn for "Mari."

When we get to the hotel, I tell him to pick me up at 4, which is the end-of-meeting time that has been quoted to us. But the meeting ends at 2:30. I call my mom again, but his phone is still off. Being free so early is fun; I take the opportunity to shop further downtown with another teacher - knowing that drama is surely coming. But what else am I to do?

The next morning, when I get out to the street, Nam - looking very put out - tells me that he left his spot at 3:30 and waited until 5:00 outside of the hotel. I have my phone in my hand, so I make the gesture of calling and say, very patiently, "2:00" and then make the negative hand gesture. Again, he tells me he waited for me until 5. Again, I make the negative gesture with my phone, telling him that I tried to call him.

When we arrive at school, he beckons a poor, unsuspecting student I have never met over. He has the student tell me (surprise, surprise) that he left his spot at 3:30 and waited for me outside the hotel until 5:00. I have the student tell him that the meeting was over early and that I called him, but that his phone was off. The Repeater has the student tell me again that he waited for me until 5. I tell the student to tell him that if he would just turn on his phone, he wouldn't have this problem.

I am feeling sorry for the student - who is looking quite uncomfortable - so I thank him and tell him he can go and I tell Nam to pick me up at 6:30 at the gym, trying to drop the whole thing. I didn't even ask for my money back (I pay him for the whole week ahead on Mondays). At this point, I am still being very patient, but it is clear to all who are passing by that there is a conflict. As I walk away, though, he puts up his freakishly long five fingers and gets in one more "5:00" at me, kind of shoving his open palm toward me with attitude. Of course, at this, I lose it. Without - not needing - a translator. I am pointing at him as I am speaking to him harshly:

"Nam. This is YOUR fault. YOU didn't have your phone turned on. DO NOT TELL ME AGAIN that you waited for me for so long. That is YOUR fault." I make a dramatic turn away from him and I don't look back, although I do catch a glimpse of his puppy dog face.

When I tell Alice this story, as I am still hyperventillating from irritation, she says, "Maybe he is someone from a past life and you are supposed to work something out with him in this one." Which makes me laugh all day (in between telling everyone, yes, I had a fight with my xe-om driver this morning...")

When he picks me up in the afternoon, I hardly look at him or speak to him, even though he has brought me a rain coat like a good mom.

The next morning, I am late getting out to the street. To be honest, I am by nature kind of a late person and I have changed considerably so as not to perturb this person who supposedly works for me at a very good wage despite tons of tough, cheaper competition. I usually arrive out there between 7-7:10, but it is running about 7:25. As I leave the castle, I hear my phone ring and know it's Nam, but it's buried in my backpack and I don't want to take the time to get it out. As I am walking up the street, I look up to see my mother standing in the middle of the road, hands on hips, glaring at me. When I reach him, he points at his phone and holds up two of his freakishly long fingers and kind of shoves them at me like he did his palm the day before. He's saying, "I called you twice and you didn't answer!" So this is what I do (me, who is SO TIRED of being chastised by a mother...):

I am harsh. I say to him, "What is your problem? Do you think you have the right to treat me so rudely? Well, I will tell you what. I will take a taxi today." I say it loudly, and everyone - my sandwich lady and all of the other people I see on a daily basis - stop what they are doing and watch as Nam's face falls and as I begin to walk across the street - motorbikes swarming around me. I'm walking to the other side because I need to go the opposite way of traffic, and as I cross, I am hailing taxis.

Two cabs pass, but they are full. Out of the corner of my eye I can see Nam half riding half walking his bike across the street, the way he makes his bike look like two wheel legs, coming after me very sheepishly. He is looking at me with such a desperate expression; it is a big deal for him to lose face in front of all of his corner people. He makes the negative gesture and says "Don't know." He doesn't understand why I am mad at him. He gestures me to get on the back of his bike. I hesitate, start to get on, then hesitate again. Finally, I get on. All the way to school, he turns around and looks at me, so unbelievably bewildered. When we reach school, I tell him I don't need him to pick me up - I am meeting friends, but I don't bother to tell him that. He just continues to stare at me. He calls after me, "Minh!" and I know he will get his nephew later and he will come to communicate about what happened.

The thing is that I know he is devastated. I know he is home this weekend just thinking about the whole thing, worried sick about losing me as a customer, embarrassed about losing face.

I wonder who he was in my past life and what I am supposed to learn. Any guesses? Or is it perhaps that it has been a long year of being totally dependent on another person - a person with a quirky personality who likes to be Da Nam. Either way, I am ready for a six week break in the beautiful, clean city of Seattle where I have a Jetta that I can get into and drive wherever I want any time I want.

Yeah, I think that is it.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Blog Game Thursday: Write Another Caption

Sorry about the angle on this one, but my choice was between a bad angle and getting hit by hundreds of motorbikes.
Hopefully, you can see it well enough to write a caption, even though I chose life.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

One Down, Forty-Nine to Go

I've been reading a Saigon food blog called NoodlePie these past few weeks, and because of it I am finally learning the names of some of the dishes that Nam and the T Girls have introduced me to.

Evidently, this one to the left is called Banh Cuon, and it's a northern dish from Hanoi. A different version of this is what Nam and I get on the way to school sometimes, the "#1 breakfast." Nam's is just plain rolled rice film with no filling, but at Stand 1006 in the Ben Thanh market, it is filled with a mixture of minced pork, mushrooms and prawns. Both come served with sliced Vietnamese "Spam," sliced cucumber, beansprouts, deep-fried shallots and chopped mint with a nuoc mam (fish sauce) dip. Every once in a while, Nam will show up with this version (same filling) but it requires a special trip to another neighborhood. You really hardly see it on the street, and my colleagues are always quite jealous when I come into school with it; many of them have never seen it before.

Here is a picture I am stealing from Noodle Pie - his close-up is a lot better than mine (I hope he doesn't mind):

The blogger of Noodle Pie made an impossible yet admirable goal of eating at all of the food stalls at the Ben Thanh Market. Funny, but it had never occurred to me to try them...even though I am so enamoured with the food stalls in Mexican markets, I just figured this market was filled with substandard tourist food. I was wrong. I tried his recommendation, and this bahn cuon is delicious. It is a lot more expensive here...Nam's is only 10,000, this one is 25,000 (60 cents compared with about $1.50), but the filling is extra tasty and, therefore, worth it.

Here's kind of how it's made:

She takes a ladle full of rice flour mixed with water and spreads it across the skillet of a steamer and covers it for about 30 seconds. Then she takes a wooden stick and removes a layer of film, sets it on the silver tray, cuts it, stuffs it, and rolls it. It's tricky. If you try this at home, I'm certain it will only lead to frustration and a mess that will make you cry.

My frustration, now, is that I, too, must also make it my goal to eat at every food stall in the Ben Thanh Market. I think there are at least 50 of them.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Death in the Alley, Music for Days

I get home from school/the gym at around 6, and Nam and I cannot turn down the alley - about twenty people are standing and facing the home of one of our Chinese neighbors. As I pass the house and look inside, I see an elaborate altar decorated with pictures of a fairly young woman, flowers and fruits and a monk on each side reciting prayers. It's a funeral, and the pictures are from some time ago, I'm sure. When I head out for dinner 45 minutes later, three canopies are being set up to cover the alley, and four of our neighbors have set up tables underneath, all lined with glasses and plates. An hour later, Tarn and I are on the first floor of the castle when the music begins - a band has set up in the house of the funeral, and we know it will be a long night of singing and music in our alley.

Update: I wrote this post at about 8 o'clock last night. The music went on until about midnight, and started up again at 6:30 this morning. The amplifiers in this country seem to have only one setting - way above the level it should be, to distortion.

Update: this is what I see when I come home at 6 tonight; in fact, I can't get into the castle the usual way, I must go around the back. the white gate to the left, right where I stop, is the gate to the castle. I barely caught the tail end of the man pouring liquor from a bottle on the top of his head into another man's mouth.

Update: Two hours later, it's still going on. I can hear it clearly from my Rapunzel Room. I'm thinking about football games. Maybe I will dream about them...

Update: 10:00 pm. Tables are set up all down the alley and people are feasting on shellfish and hot pot. Tarn and I got a picture from his balcony, maybe I can post it later. Katherine came in on her bike and an entire table had to be moved so that she could get in the door. They were very apologetic and offered her a beer.

Candle neighbor is serving drinks, other neighbors are helping out in other ways. Community. But why does the music have to be so bad?

Update: It's now 4:40 am and the music started up again 40 minutes ago. You know in the movie Harold and Maude, every time Harold leaves a funeral (he is obsessed with attending them) a bright, colorful marching band passes by in really random places? That's what it was like this morning. I think they are beginning the funeral procession this morning (I hope they start it soon).

Monday, May 11, 2009

Pink Friends, Purple Tomato Soup and a Stern Orange Robed Monk

Part I: Purple Tomato Soup
For weeks, T, T and I have been talking about making "Purple Tomato Soup." "Purple tomato" is the direct translation for "eggplant"...I adore eggplant, more than any other vegetable except for the beet (I think they are equal). So a few months ago when I saw eggplants being grilled over an open fire on Saturday and Sunday mornings in our market, I was ecstatic.

At about 20 cents per plant, they are a real bargain, and they come with a little pouch containing a green onion mixture. You know what I just realized this morning? The woman and her daughter who grill the eggplants are the ones who just started the ban xeo business in our alley. They are a mother/daughter dynamo team, in my opinion!
So one day after buying the eggplants, I drop by T and T's stand and when Thanh sees them, she tells me they are meant for purple tomato soup. When they arrive for cooking Sunday - Thuy, Thanh and Tu all dressed in pink - I have a brand new huge pot to make the soup in...another market find. But they look at me kind of funny and say they don't need a big pot. I'm confused but I just go with it, as usual.
Here's how the preparation goes:
Make rice.
Cut up roasted strips of eggplant into bite sized chunks and put the sauteed green onions over the top.
Clean the biggest prawns you have ever seen and saute them in oil, garlic, shallots and more green onions. When they are finished cooking, add a mixture of hot water and sugar. Stir it in a bit longer, and remove from heat.
Mix up the fish sauce, water, lime, chilis and sugar - the special sauce that goes on everything.

Serve everything over rice, and top it all with the sauces.
So simple, so delicious. And nothing whatsoever to do with soup.

I suppose it's another one of those "pa goat a" day miscommunications. I keep trying to clarify what the "soup" part is, but never quite get it. Oh well, I have a really nice new pot for all kinds of soup making, which I'm sure is in my future.
After dinner, we all go to the roof and eat the banana jello that Thanh has brought once again.
It's a really fun afternoon, and I get to share the pictures of my new niece with them, and they appreciate her rightfully. They especially like my brother's cat's testing of all the baby equipment:
Part Two: The Stern Orange Robed Monk
The Moon was Round on Saturday. I love it when the moon is round because the market is filled with goodies that are only available once per month, such as my favorite: deep fried mung bean rolls. Many vendors stay home or close early so they can go to temple.

My usual Saturday morning visit to Thuy and Thanh is especially good, too- they are both enjoying some special vegetarian thick-noodle soup when I get there, and they tell me to go and get my own bowl, fill it up and come back to join them for breakfast. I have always wanted to BMOB (bring my own bowl), but have felt too self-conscious to do it. But with specific intructions, I go back to the castle to get my polka-dotted deep bowl, have it filled at their favorite stand, and when I get back they have made a space for me on their fabric table and have set a metal stool out in front of it. I draw many strange looks and comments - one made by a foreigner I have seen in the market a lot lately (I really hate seeing foreigners in my market...) An older gentleman, he introduces himself as "Alan" from Australia. He asks me if T and T serve both "Suits and Soup"?? After we chat for a bit and he walks away, Thuy leans into me and says in a whisper, "He has a young Vietnamese girlfriend." They don''t approve.
Thuy tells me they are closing early this morning, too. Would I like to go to temple with her? I have a five-hour "Dorothy" rehearsal beginning at noon, but how can I pass this up? I meet her back at her stand at ten and we spend the next hour and a half temple-hopping. At the first one we light the three sticks of incense, but we pray once at a hundred handed and hundred-eyed Buddha, once at a Little Buddha, and once at a Regular-Sized Buddha. Each one is located in a different garden or room; we climb the stairs to bow at a few other buddhas after walking by hundreds of people who are slurping the vegetarian noodle soup that is served at the ground level of the temple on this day of the month only (I think).

When we go to free her motorbike from parking, she asks if we have time to see a new, beautiful temple down the "new road." A road was just completed that connects district one with district four; T and T both seem very excited about it because Thanh took me there last week after we got the banana jello with tapioca sauce. The temple is beautiful - Thuy especially likes the Buddha here (you can just barely see it in the top photo).
We climb some stairs and enter another beautiful room with another huge Buddha. The walls are covered with thousands of gold-plated Buddha tiles, and Thuy is pointing at the walls in the whole room and saying, "Look, Buddha, Buddha, Buddha" - she is very proud of this temple - when we turn to grasp the beauty of the whole room, we see a very stern, serious, orange-robed young - maybe-30 year-old-monk, hands on hips, glaring at us.
When he beckons her over, her whole body stiffens; she walks toward him like a kid in trouble and bows her eyes as he scolds her. I turn away so I don't add to her embarrassment. When she comes back, she says, "Maggie. Next time, you cannot wear skirt in temple." I look down... yeah, I guess I am wearing what might be considered a "short" skirt. "And he say I was loud when I show you the Buddhas," she says, ashamed.
I know Thuy's language capacity and sense of humor well enough now so that when I answer with a whispered "Well, he is not a very fun monk" she breaks into giggles. She tries to stifle them, but they are the kind that cannot be stifled. We are both laughing and of course, the stern young monk doesn't find any humor in it. His hands are back on his hips. "I think we had better go!" I say. She nods and we get out of the beautiful temple and back on the motorbike, fast.
I'm typing all of this in the hammock on the roof on Sunday night...the power is off and it's cool up here. Last week the water was off, tonight the power. You just learn to live with it, if you have buckets and a flashlight on your keychain, everything is good.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ava is Here!

Meet Ava Ray Bowker.

This is the sweet picture I saw when I woke up at 5 am and checked my email. She belongs to my brother, Brian and his wife, Kristi.

I think they are in love with her.

As for me, I can't wait to see her myself in a little over a month.

According to Saigon time, she was born on Mother's Day, which is a gift my mother must like quite a bit~
I'm pretty relieved that they didn't choose "Hatshepsut"!

Friday, May 08, 2009

Nam, The Musical

Nam is so predictable. The day after Corn on the Abomination Cob, Scene II, he works his food magic on me. When he picks me up after school, he says two words, "Ban Xeo." The crepes. I am starving, and he recognizes the excited look in my food eyes. He looks so happy that I am happy, and he drives away with purpose.

I think he might be taking me to where he took Sue, Michelle and Pam - a ban xeo place I haven't tried but that he believes is #1 in Saigon. It's a dish that is not ubiquitous and therefore is a treat for me. So I am surprised that we drive all the way back to the neighborhood, right across the alley from the Bum Bum to get it. A woman and her daughter sit in a doorway cooking over a brick grill which sits on top of a large can. I see them often in the market, but they must be newcomers to the ban xeo business; usually, vegetables are sold at this spot in the morning.

"Number One," says Nam, and he goes about the business of ordering everything exactly how I like it. He's really proud to tell her that I don't especially care for bean sprouts, and that I like my shrimp peeled (they usually leave the crunchy shell on, believe it or not) and that I do want the mung beans added. He gets so much satisfaction from telling people what to do - pointing this way and that - what a pity he got me for a customer this year instead of some really nice person who allows him the simple pleasure of being Da Nam all the time. I only allow it in food situations, except in how to peel it or how to hold it. And I certainly do not allow it in shoe - choosing situations. The problem is that he will never understand these rules. The bright side to this problem, however, is that he always makes up for messing up by introducing me to new number ones.
So he hovers over the preparation phase of the neighborhood ban xeo, which takes a while because the wok is HOT HOT HOT and the crepe batter sits over the flame for quite some time - she must tilt the wok at several different angles to cook it evenly (when Thuy and Thanh made it for us, it had to sit for even longer on our lower-heat gas burner). As soon as he is sure that the crepe is cooked properly, his overseer's job is done. After I take my first bite and agree with his enthusiastic "number one," he goes on his way down the alley to visit his mother (who isn't getting better, he says).
The verdict: neighborhood ban xeo is delicious. It's not too taco-crispy, and it's not too soggy oily - both unfortunate textures I have encountered. The dipping sauce for after you wrap everything up in greens is just the right amount of spicy, too. My mother is right; once again, he has excelled in his most important role: My Food Introducer and Screener.
Which leads me to this topic:
This relationship I have with my xe-om driver is definitely one of the strangest relationships I have ever experienced, which is perfectly demonstrated by the corn event followed by the ban xeo event: he is impossible and infuriating, he is indispensable...he is opinionated and rude, he is extremely sweet and thoughtful... everything he says makes me cringe, some of his actions are so very touching. As you know, I call him my mother as do most of my friends ("Marjie can't go next door for a beer, her mother is coming to pick her up") but sometimes I feel I am in a committed yet bothersome marriage.
So, for quite some time I have been playing this little amusing game while being shuttled the ten or fifteen minute ride to or from school. Without the luxury of a car stereo or the possibility of books-on-tape to distract me, and possibly because of my current saturation with "Dorothy and the King of Darkness," I have begun imagining our year-long strange, funny relationship into a stage musical. In it, the story of our year is played out in songs, always performed by Nam, always sung in perfect English. Many of the songs are country because of his "cowboy" self-identity and swagger, but he also sings R and B as well as a little bit of pop. In some scenes, he will ring the castle doorbell, come inside and sing as he climbs the staircase, bringing the song to its climax and end on the Romeo and Juliet balcony. Other times, he will stop the motorbike, dismount and begin to sing in the middle of Saigon traffic. Sometimes, scenes require him to sing a song while reclining on his bike at "his spot" where I find him in the morning. Of course, he also breaks into song over food. Choreographed dances also accompany each song.
The fun part is choosing the right songs for scenes. For example, when he takes me to have lunch with his table-o-friends and they are all adding brandy to my drink and we are toasting "One, two, three, YO!" - he stands and sings Garth Brooks' "I've Got Friends in Low Places." When he hears the news that I often hire Mr. Seven on the weekends, he stands from his reclining position at his spot and sings Marvin Gaye's "I Heard it Through the Grapevine." When I turn the corner after the "how to peel corn" lesson and don't really interact with him for a week is the scene where he rings the castle doorbell to sing the Hall and Oates version of "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling." Aretha Franklin's "Don't Let Me Lose This Dream" fits at the part where he is on the floor moaning about never seeing me again and losing the job of driving all of my friends around (before I tell him I am coming back for another year). Weird Al Yankovic's "Eat It" - the parody of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" goes so well with the scene where he wants me to eat the ball of fat dipped in tomato sauce with my soup. And I'm not sure where this fits in yet, but Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" is a must with his Man in Black Cowboy Hat.
Please feel free to add song to scenes, past, present, or future to help me piece together this musical if you need something to think about on your way to and from work.
If you have a good car stereo, however, or a good book on tape, I would suggest one of those as a distraction instead.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Blog Game Thursday: Tarn's Neighborhood Photos

I have this very talented castlemate, Tarn, who took all of these photos last week. Today's "game" - which one do you like the best?

1. Thuy
2. Monkey Boy (T and T's nephew)
3. Candle Neighbor's Son (across the alley)
4. T and T's Mother
5. ?
6. ?
7. ?
A little bit of talent, right?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Corn on the Abomination Cob, Scene II

After school, when Nam hands me another steamed corn on the cob, all I feel is dread. If he even makes the suggestion of telling me how to peel this corn, I will completely lose it. It's been a busy day- I didn't sleep well last night - and I just can't...well, you know, deal with my mother and his detailed instructions this afternoon.

So everything is going fine, all the way home (except that he wants me to pronounce my gift, something like "pop" - but I can't say it correctly and he makes me say it over and over again when all I want to do is chill on the back of the bike and be mesmerized by all of the close motorbike calls in the heavy traffic). When we arrive at the castle, as I am fishing through my bag for my keys, I tell him "thank you" again for the awful gift. He nods a "you're welcome" and he and his long fingers make no attempt at instructions while he waits (he always waits until I am inside ever since Sue locked me out of the castle). Only I can't find my keys. I have to free up my hand to fish some more, so I take the abomination - which is covered in a plastic bag - and put it under my armpit.

At this shift, Mom's eyes practically pop out of his head. "NO!" he says, sharply, in a tone that says people do not put corn under their armpits! and he grabs it from me, trying to shove it into my hand to make me hold it properly.

Here is where I throw another one of my tantrums in English that he cannot understand, but in tone and gestures that are - I'm guessing - quite clear.

"Nam, I can HOLD THE CORN ANY WAY I WANT!" I grab it from him and - even though I have my keys now and do not need the other hand - I put the bag-o-crappy-cob BACK WHERE IT WAS, under my armpit. "See! I can put it under my armpit! Look!"

And you know what he does? Instead of giving me his signature puppy dog look, Nam finds amusement in my display, and he laughs at me.

"See you again?" he asks - it's what he always asks when he makes me mad - as I close the gate, go inside and jump up and down and throw the stupid thing on the floor. Someone analyze what is going on here. The man makes me crazy.

Later, on a more peaceful and delicious note, Thanh and I take her motorbike to a place I have asked to go... last week, she showed up at the castle gate with a delicious kind of banana jello with tapioca sauce for all of us, the same tapioca sauce that my banana cake market lady uses - the same sauce that would make a slug taste great.

At her spot, they were grilling the bananas wrapped in banana leaves as usual, but the jello was sitting on the side (my lady doesn't do the jello). It's served in plastic cups with sprinkled nuts on top. Do I need to say "yummy"?

By the way, my banana cake lady has been very off and on in the market since Tet. Mostly off. But when she is there, like she was this morning, Pineapple Lady just can't wait for me to get there so she can moan and moan and point me in the right direction (about ten feet away, in case I can't find it). And our pomelo guy has replaced pomelo with the terrible, stinky durian fruit for the past two weeks. K and I buy pomelo from this man almost every day...he peels it and sections it and puts it in a container - all for only 30 cents. For the last two weeks, we have had no pomelo and no banana rice cakes and Bum Bum Massage Tran has been on vacation, so again we have begun to speak of the imbalance we feel in our neighborhood...the insecurity of the lingering question: what is going to go next?

Well, this morning the pomelo was back (I had to send K a text I knew she would be THAT excited), plus the banana cakes. But you know what is gone now? Our rice stand, our go-to fried rice heaven. There is a big banner on the site and it looks as though they are moving. But how can we know for sure? Therefore, K and I are depressed again tonight.

This is what we get depressed about in Saigon.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Happy Birthday Mom! - from Me and Sweet 6A

I wish I had kept this video running just a bit longer because Peter, third from the right, jumped at the camera and said "Please make us a pie!" as an afterthought. A few weeks ago, we read a story that had a cherry pie in it and I found that none of them knew what pie was. So I googled a bunch of pictures of all kinds of pie - apple, blueberry, pumpkin, banana - and told them that my mom makes the best pie in the world. So now they often ask, "Is your mother coming to Viet Nam? If she does, will she make us a pie?"

So no pressure, mom, but when you come next year, you need to make pies for this sweet class of mine. The castle doesn't have an oven, so you will have to be creative.

That's brother was my mom's birthday present some years ago. Happy Birthday, Mom!!

Sunday, May 03, 2009

"Happy Birthday Mr. Brian!"

6C became a fan of "Mr. Brian" when he guessed on all of their "People from Seattle" appearances. I put his (and all of your) guesses on a PowerPoint and they laughed their heads off at all of them. Now they often ask about him, so here they are wishing him a HB, and welcoming "Little Hatshepsut" into the world. Brian and Kristi's baby is due in about a week, and they won't even tell their sister across the world what her name will be, only that it will be "Hatshepsut" after the Queen who was "King" of Ancient Egypt. 6C knows all about her, of course...

Anyway, happy birthday, Brian.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Who You Barely Know and Their Private Islands

Sometimes, it's all about who you know. Other times, it's all about who you barely know and who he knew in college.

It was the third time I had met Edge when he picked me up at the airport at 4:30 a.m. (I didn't even recognize him at first). We went to his family's home in Manila where his family's cook had huge plates of bacon and rice waiting for breakfast. There, I met his DJ friends (and one producer) - Rebecca from Manchester, England, Ari from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Marine from Marseille, France and his daughter, a lively, very grown-up ten year old named Zoe.

The family driver took us to the airport that morning, and we - with our UN assortment of passports - boarded a small plane for Coron - a small beach town with the only airport in the Palawan Islands. Edge's college friend, Daniel, met us at the airport there with his driver. They took us to Daniel's rooster farm for a typical Filippino lunch (no roosters on the menu), then all of us, plus Daniel's entourage - the boat man, the boat man's assistant, the cook and the cook's assistant - got on a boat and we made the hour and a half journey out to one of Daniel's family's private islands, Malcapuya.

Daniel's family owns six of the 7,107 islands that make up the Philippines, and how his father became an island owner is a good story. Back in 1973, when there was no airport in Palawan, Daniel's father, Ed, was passing through and missed the boat (only one boat per week) back to Puerta Princessa, where he was supposed to conduct some business. A man who had dreamed about living a Robinson Crusoe existence his whole life, Ed took advantage of the week, hired a boat and began to explore the islands. When he got to Malcapuya, he fell in love. He found the owner and asked if he could buy the island. He could; he bought it for about $200 - the price of a new car in the Philippines in 1973. There was another tiny island within view of Palawan, and that one was for sale, too - for $2. That's where it all started.

As for where it is going, it is going somewhere big. Currently, there is a rustic house with many beds (where we slept), many bamboo huts, an outdoor kitchen, and a caretaker's accommodations (to flush the toilet you have to scoop water out of a bucket). Within three years, the island will host ten villas and a swimming pool; a bigger island within sight of Malcapuya will host a hotel with 100 rooms to make it a mini Boracay - currently the resort capital of the islands. So, once again, I have beat the crowds to a destination that will be gone within a few years. (Oh, and not to worry, says Daniel, the little island will stay as is...)

Except there are crowds on Malcapuya... sometimes. I got up early to swim and to read in a hammock on the beach (are you recognizing the recurring theme of my year...?) and looked out to see a huge cruise ship coming toward the island. I asked Daniel about it and he said, oh, once per week, 200 guests from this cruise ship stop on the island for lunch, and they will be here within an hour. So that's why I saw a young boy stringing about fifty chickens on a stick for roasting, and why we saw the boat man and assistant carrying so many plastic chairs in.

So when the tourists disembarked and overtook our isolation, no problem, we - as in Edge's entourage, Daniel's entourage and a very big-lipped fish and some sashimi (better than tuna, Daniel kept telling us, and it was) -just got back on our boat and went to Daniel's family's island #3 for a bit of snorkeling. As we snorkeled, the cooks hiked up the island to a grilling station and grilled the big-lipped fish and mixed up a sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, onions and tomatoes. The sashimi was laid out and whenever we wanted, we just wandered into the bamboo hut and ripped a bit of the tender flesh from this delicious fish with a community fork.

This is something I became accustomed to during the three days on the island - chafing dishes appearing out of nowhere, filled with deep fried calamari, steamed crabs, grilled prawns, diced pork chops and grilled fish. At one point, during an island-hopping day, between exploring the remains of a WWII Japanese gun boat and soaking in some natural hot springs, we emerged with snorkels to find a table set up in the middle of the boat with five chafing dishes. It was like having a gourmet cruiseline buffet following us wherever we went.
And every morning we were greeted with the question, would you like some fresh juice? Mango or orange? And those chafing dishes would appear, filled with corned beef hash, eggs, rice and dried fish. The Lonely Planet did not lie: Filippinos eat and eat and eat.
And they are friendly, and they are happy. The greeting for women is "Hello, maum," - always accompanied with a huge smile. Vietnamese people tend to wait for you to smile first, but Filippinos, well, they embrace with a smile, no hesitation. Even back in Manila, every heavily-armed guard smiled a friendly greeting.

So after three days on an island and two days in very modern Manila - where Edge was kind enough to make sure we knocked all of the food I wanted to try off of a list I got from a blog reader who is living in Saigon but who is from the Philippines - I am spoiled, spoiled, spoiled. And now - the best part is that I now know people - really generous, gracious, cool people, who shared all of this with me. And one of them just happens to own six islands in the Philippines.
And all of this- a birthday gift. It's a gift to top all birthday gifts, thanks to my good friend Audrey Alice (who just met Edge, who had this friend from college...)