Monday, August 31, 2009

We and I

We, the Motorbike Riders of Ho Chi Minh City

We keep to the outside of the lane and leave the inside to the cars and taxis unless we need to turn left. When we turn left, we may linger until we see an opening, then we drive straight into the oncoming motorbikes - they will go around us like we do for them - but we yield to the cars and taxis. We yield to them for survival, because they are bigger.

The cars and taxis are kind, mostly; they drive deliberately for us, they make slow turns knowing that we will swarm around them when they do.

We know that honking is not a rude gesture, but rather that it is a statement: "I am here, behind or beside you."

When we merge onto the road, we don't look behind, only forward. Never behind, always forward. If we look behind, we could run into someone who is only looking forward. We don't check our blind spot, but we - also - move deliberately. Slowly, predictably, just like the pedestrians who cross the street. If they stop, we have to swerve. If they keep moving, the flow continues.

If a powerline falls, someone will tie a blue plastic bag to the end of it, so that we can see it hanging more clearly. If it whips us in the face, the bag will feel much better than the line would.

If a lane is filled with cars and the sidewalk is available, we will climb onto the sidewalk. If our co-workers find a way around the muddy construction site and can avoid the six inches of water on the road even though that back route spits us out about three blocks north of our school, we can ride our motorbike on the sidewalk in the opposite flow of traffic. We just assert our position and drive upstream.

If it begins to rain, we pull over and take out our raincoats and slip them on. We put our helmets on over the coat and we keep fairly dry.

When we park, we are given a little slip of paper with our license number on it; if we lose this piece of paper, we will not be able to collect our bikes. The men who watch the bikes remember which bike belongs to which rider, even if there are two hundred bikes in their care. When we emerge, our bike has usually been found for us, seat wiped down and ready to go. We pay 3,000 VND for this service (about 18 cents), and we can park them for as long as we like.

I, the new Motorbike Rider of Ho Chi Minh City

Saturday morning: I'm wanting to park in my gym parking lot, but the lot is one block up from the opening in the barrier. I have the time to try something new, and think that there must be another break in that barrier that leads to that lot. There isn't. The road forces me onto a bridge, which leads to another bridge, and suddenly, I am in District Two. Suddenly, nothing looks familiar. If I drive around long enough, I think, something is bound to look familiar. But nothing looks familiar, even after half an hour. So I stop and ask taxi drivers along the road, "How do I get back to District One?" All of them have suggestions. Three of them lead me back to the road with the two bridges, a road that is impossible to get off of for about five miles of barriers. I drive in circles on this highway three times.

It's hot; my face is caked in dirt. I keep asking. The drivers can't really help me. Nothing looks familiar. I begin to panic. Ho Chi Minh is flat - no mountains, not even a hill. The only water to direct you here is the Saigon River, but it is windy and confusing. Add to this me and my sense of direction...a sense of direction that struggles to get from point A to point B in Seattle, where there is a big mountain and lots of water in helpful places.

Finally, I find a driver who speaks good English. "Do you have a map?" he asks me. Yes, I do; however, District Two is not on my map. He begins to draw a picture that looks very much like the route to the two bridges. I feel like crying. But instead, I ask him, "Can I pay you to lead me back to District One? Please? I would be so grateful." He agrees.

I follow him over the two bridges once again, but here's the thing: there is a lane for cars and taxis and a lane for motorbikes - on the bridges, the lanes are separated by a railing, which makes it impossible to cross. So I am following this taxi through construction sites and over bridges where I have no business being. Suddenly I hear a siren behind me... the police. I've heard stories of how they like to pull foreigners over and take bribes to get out of citations. My heart is racing as the noise gets closer and louder. I am the only motorbike on the bridge. The police officer looks at me, points at me with his club and motions me over to the side, past the bridge. Here we go, I'm thinking, he's going to follow me over and do this thing I've heard about, and it's only my first week on my motorbike...but he drives on. Soon another siren is behind me. They are all heading to something else, and they all just point to me as if saying, "You're in the wrong lane. See, over there is where you are supposed to be."

The taxi leads me off an off ramp and around a corner and suddenly, we are heading back toward District One. I have told him to drop me at my gym, so he does. But guess what...he passes the parking lot I was trying to get to in the first place, so here I am, back at ground zero, where I started over 90 minutes ago. I don't even care. I park in the crappy lot next to the gym and hand the taxi driver 100,000 VND for a trip that probably would have cost about 30,000 if I had been riding with him.

Sometimes you really can't name a price on getting home. You know? Especially when getting home means removing the dirt from your face by diving into a beautiful lap pool at the most expensive gym in Saigon.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

My Mother Thinks I Am #1!

I'm negotiating my way through the market this morning (now I must do my shopping first, then head back to the castle to get my bike) when I hear my mother calling:


I turn and he is smiling. He points at me, then makes the gesture of giving gas to a motorbike, like "You got a motorbike?"

I nod sheepishly... but no need, because my mother lights up even more, gives me two thumbs up and says, "Mari, Number One!"

I am so surprised by his enthusiasm, and by the fact that - yes, my mother does know it is time for me to spread my wings and fly in this city. My supportive mother. I want to tell him that yesterday all I wanted to do was run right back into his arms - I mean - right back onto the back of his motorbike. But no, my mother, he is soooo proud of me, so I don't tell him that.

I couldn't tell him that, anyway.

I'm a little embarrassed by the praise raining upon me, so I divert by asking/gesturing to him, "Ms. Sue, firefighter hat?"

Nam nods a John Wayne "yes" and just says, "Cowboy."

Ok, now wipe the tear from your eye like I did, and come with me on my motorbike morning adventure. No dress or heels today, because there was heavy rain last night and I know the dirt bike section of road is likely to be flooded. It is. It is either thick mud or up to eight inches of water in some places. Me and the rest of the bikers - we choose our paths carefully, put our feet up, and hope that our bikes don't flood.

I have jumped out of a plane at 10,000 ft, but free falling doesn't really compare to the rush of adrenaline I get during my commute to work through the mud and water. You know what? It's really, really fun. For now, at least. I arrive to school feeling like I can conquer the world.

And then I teach English all day long.

But today, we talked about how to change the world through reading books, so I think the mud adrenaline just may have fueled my inspirational lesson~

Monday, August 24, 2009

Quirky Me in Quirky Ho Chi Minh City

Today I released my motorbike from the castle front gates, got on it wearing a dress, heels, helmet and sunglasses and rode to work - just like any other professional woman in Saigon. Except that unlike those cool cats, my heart was pounding right out of my chest, and even though I spent much of Saturday and Sunday riding my hip Honda manual (which I then traded in for a much more expensive yet much less hip Attila automatic- manual was a bit much for me at this point), I was SCARED to DEATH to be in such heavy traffic in the morning, especially on my first day of school. First Days of School really bother me.

But Brian, you are mother did train me well. It really, truly was no big deal; the traffic moves slowly and you just follow everyone else and go with the flow of it. But I realized this after getting to school. All the way there I was somewhere in between hysterical laughter and hysterical sobbing. Laughing because I was thinking of what a sight I would be dressed like this riding in Seattle, crying out of complete fear. And there's this portion of road around the construction that gets really muddy and sometimes friend Steven says I need to think about it like dirt biking - dirt biking in a dress and high heels though. But that went OK, too. The guards at school - ones that I consider friends now - gave me a thumbs up when they saw me on the bike. So has everyone else: Sweet Seamstress, T and T, etc.

So here's what I did about Nam: I went and found Minh Sunday morning. I gave him the Seattle Firefighter hat from Sue and some jam from my parents to give to Nam when he saw him. Then I told him that I got a motorbike and that I would drive myself to school, but that I had friends coming to visit and would like him to be their driver. All of this was met with no emotion from Minh, but that is probably because his parents woke him up to come and talk to me.

And I admit it - I got up extra early this morning so I wouldn't pass Nam on the street. I admit something else...I do feel bad about this switch in more ways than just Nam. I joined the most expensive gym in Saigon because it's within walking distance of the school - it's deluxe with TV monitors on all treadmills, new weights, great classes, a lap pool, sauna and steam bath - anyway, in only one week I had befriended the xe-om drivers outside of the gym and they were very happy to get my business. These guys just sit for hours on end with nothing to do and many of them are so nice. With one motorbike rental, I removed myself from this community. It is sad.
So...about school. When I arrived today feeling extra brave, I was met by my principal on the stairs. He told me that my schedule had changed from two Ancient History and three English classes to all English. I am very, very sad about this. It's a long story as to why it happened and I don't feel like going into it, if you wanna know the truth. 6th grade English All Day Long will be my life this year. And right outside my classroom lives a crazy family who sings really bad karaoke all day long or has knock out, screaming, yelling fights. And the construction outside makes the building shake like we are experiencing a constant earthquake. What a quirky place, what a quirky life.

HOWEVER, all of that aside, you cannot imagine how much fun it was to see my kids from last year. It was really fun. And the kids this year seem just as perfect. Even if I can't make them into gods and goddesses.

I am going to leave this quirky day on that note.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

I'm Turning Vietnamese

I am now a part of the masses of motorbike owners in the city of Saigon.

And I am also now about to let my Mother go.

You can see Monkey Boy here in front of the parking lot that is the castle's new front room - my bike is the black one. The one next to it is Thuy's. The two bikes are Tarn and Katherine's (Tarn is joining us for a Castle Dinner).

I have been thinking about becoming a Saigon bike owner for quite some time now. I have a motorcyle endorsement and have ridden my Vino 125 around Seattle for the past two summers, and now many of our new, savvy teachers have gone and rented motorbikes the first week they arrived - without any riding experience at all. Puts me to shame! Anyway, somehow, returning for year two makes many things just seem easy - I know how to negotiate things, I know the layout of the's just easier. And most of my new route to school is rather nice - I ride along a river - it's much better than the congested route to school last year.

And then there's what happened the other morning. I hadn't seen Nam for four days. The first few days I hid from him, then the third and fourth days I actually looked for him in his spot and didn't find him (Laid back, easy Mr. Seven took me to school). But on Friday, Nam's wife spotted me from her deep fried fish cake stand outside of Nam's mother's house as I was making my way through the market and she motioned me over and pointed me inside. There was Nam, hovering over his very-thin-but-sitting-up-mother. Remnants from the stroke still disfigure her face and her weight loss is severe, but she was smiley when I walked in and sat down. Actually, Nam looked at me rather tentatively for a moment, but when I stuck my hand out he grabbed it and shook it vigorously. I spent a few minutes holding his mother's hand, then asked Nam if he could take me to school.

So my Mother, Chatty Cathy, chats at me all the way to school. He keeps pointing to my tan skin and comparing it to his own and is telling me something like he hasn't been in his spot at seven since I left, etc. It's kind of nice....for about two minutes. Then he starts being his regular know-it-all self. I can't really explain all of it, but when we get within sight of the new school (in a very awful construction zone), I point to it across the pit of new road so he'll know where it is.

Well, the thing is that you have to go around that huge pit in a big circle, so he tells me "No! it's not that way, it's this way!

And, of course, The Repeater keeps repeating the hand motions of how he must go around the site- because obviously he knows everything and I know nothing - so finally I just can't take it anymore and say, "I KNOW! I I KNOW! I KNOW!"

And then, "I was just showing you where the school was!"

Well, of course he doesn't understand my outburst, so he pulls over, stops and just looks at me. I make the motion of going around the site and nod. But it's in this moment that I know for sure I cannot have a Mother for year number two in Saigon.

Just can't.

No way.

So, yes, I am dreading the moment that I must tell Nam I have a bike. It will be painful to see his face fall.

At least I don't have to see your faces fall, especially Mungo's. Nam was about one-fourth of my blog last year, and I hate to lose him as a character. But I have lots of visitors coming, and plan to tell him that I want to hire him for them. But I know, it just won't be the same.

I need to give you time to process this, so I will end it here. We are cooking with Thuy and Thanh tonight, and I have all kinds of news about the school, so stay tuned, and we will see how it goes here without stories about Nam my Mom.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Flailed Back in the Hood

Here is what I wrote about parting with Thuy and Thanh back in June:

All Thuy could manage was "See you next week" - she doesn't get too sappy - but Thanh hugged me and told me how much she was going to miss seeing me pass and wave every day. But I did see Thuy crying as she turned away.

Turning the corner from the main alley the morning after my arrival (I arrived at midnight on Sunday night with a meeting the next morning at 8), I see Thuy sitting perched on her fabric as usual, facing my direction. Her eyes widen and begin to tear up as I walk toward her, then she throws her arms around me and hugs me. But here is my surprise: within moments she begins to flail and hit me and say, "I angry you! I angry you!"

I'm so confused...this is certainly not the greeting I expected. Then, "Every day I wait you and remember (miss) you and you never come! You tell me you in America ONE WEEK. You in America EIGHT WEEK! Maggie, why you say ONE WEEK?"

Then Thanh comes out of the house, runs over and hugs me - she doesn't hit me (always the more reserved of the two) - but she also says, "I remember you every day! You say one week!"

Looking back, the fact that Thuy said "See you in one week" proves that this must have been what they thought. But this is a Miscommunication to baffle all other Miscommunications. Saying goodbye was such a big deal. Before leaving, I had gone to Henry, Candle Neighbor, Sweet Seamstress, The Bum Bum, and of course Thuy and Thanh and had shown them on a calendar when we would return. I did my best pantomime and received many nods of understanding. The T Sisters really seemed to know we would be gone for a while, and I know Thuy's sense of humor: she is quick and witty and transcends language with it and I thought this was her way to lighten a heavy moment. Apparently, I don't get it.

She goes on, "Everyone ask me where you are and I say 'I don't know!' Rice cake lady come and ask me, too!" (Imagine what this does to me.)

The thing I do get about Vietnamese people is this: when in trouble, play the family card. So I say to them, "You don't understand! I tell you I go to see my mother! I stay with my mother and father and family and friends. I tell you eight weeks!"

And at the word 'mother' they both soften. Thuy swallows and gains composure. "Your family is strong?"

"Very strong," I say.

"Your mother happy you with her?"

"Very happy."

And that is that. I am no longer in trouble. I tell them I will come by after work, leave their stand and proceed on a very fun journey through the market. All of my vendors literally perk up and smile and greet me so warmly, full of surprise. They all say something like, "You're back! We are so happy! We thought you were gone forever!" Garlic/Onion Lady and her neighbor, Towel Lady, say the "Hello!" they have been practicing all year. Squid Man smiles his big, silent smile and Banana Lady hops up to grab my hand. Pineapple Lady doesn't grunt or go into seizures today, she just smiles joyfully and points me to Banana Rice Cake with Tapioca Sauce Lady. BRCL just nods and smiles and serves me. Rice Lady, Deep Fried Spring Roll Lady...all of them give me a Red Carpet-like greeting as I buy from them. Ah, so good to be back. And during my trip through the market I keep thinking, "Another year of this! Lucky me."

I get to the new middle school (they separated the middle and high school this year and hired about twelve new staff members and a new principal) and find a new, young, fun, positive staff and am told that three out of my five classes may have no more than ten students. Are my Seattle teacher friends even going to tolerate me?

Returning to the hood later is fun, too. My mom sent me with four dozen chocolate chip cookies and I asked the Vietnamese teacher, Ms. Nga, to write a note that says, "My mother made these for you because you are my friends." I put ten on a plate and go to Sweet Seamstress (whom I hadn't seen in the morning) and she, Lieu and Ut all read the note and laugh and make "delicious" noises when they taste their treat (you don't see chocolate chip cookies here except the gross packaged ones). I do the same for Henry's family, Candle Neighbor's family, and the Bum Bum Girls. (Oh how I love the Bum Bum girls... ) All of them laugh and look so happy when they read the note about my mother making them cookies.

Then I go back to T and T's to give them their special gifts. They welcome me by setting up a table in the middle of their tiny home and as their mother and father watch on the periphery (it's a very small table), they open tea mugs that say "Seattle," smoked salmon (they haven't ever tasted salmon, it's not sold in the markets here), my parents' homemade raspberry jam, rosemary crackers, a lime juicer (after I give a demonstration Thuy's eyes widen with wonder and she keeps saying, "Vietnam doesn't know this!") and bags of American candy for Monkey Boy and Tu. My mom wrapped up a beautiful tea cup and saucer that belonged to her grandmother for T and T's mother, and when I explain the family history of the cup, they are touched. Their father keeps thanking me and inviting me to eat Pho with them, but I am getting so tired, I must decline.

When I leave, Thuy puts her hand to her heart and says, "Your family is my family." Oh, and many of you might not know this, but my mom, dad and sister's whole family will come for Christmas at the Castle. Thuy and Thanh are beside themselves with excitement over this news.
I know you are wondering about Nam. Well, my new school is far away and I had never been there, so I grab a taxi on the small street for my first day (he hangs out on the busy street). I want to figure out what I am going to do about My Mother after I have had a day or two because I'm sure he will stress me out in my jet-lagged state. But I see him as we pass - he is looking off in another direction. My heart softens. He looks older. I think I will ask him for a ride this morning (I am writing this at 4 am) and bring him the Seattle Firefighter Chief hat from Ms. Sue. He will love that.

This will sound redundant, but it's good to be back. K and I already logged two hours in the hammocks on the roof from midnight til two the night I got home (Tarn won't be with us this year so we are searching for a castlemate), and you already know that when I am in my hammock on my roof in Saigon, life cannot be any better. (Until I taste my rice cakes Saturday morning.)