Saturday, October 31, 2009

Successful Losers

My homeroom did not win the Halloween contest this year. All that really matters, though, is that the rubber snake they rigged above the door did in fact drop onto the judges' heads when they entered.
For the rest of the period, I heard, "Did you see that? That was so funny!"
Definition of "success."
Like I said, that's all that matters. I am able to put my ego aside, I think. (Brian, I am working on making the black streamers that say "losers!" now.)
The class that won - which includes many members of my great 6C class from last year (remember Alex and the "I hear that people from Seattle..." entries?)- created a "Horror Hospital." They all wore white coats and had bloody babies being operated on one table and Lucky being operated on at another (with a knife). It was pretty cool.
And another cool thing is that I bought this blonde wig at the Ben Thanh Market and I love it; I am going to buy two more before leaving Saigon (the women running the stand really liked the dark brown bob, but when I told them it was for Halloween, they insisted on this one). It cost $12, and my black leather cowboy hat cost $3. (I was much happier about it than the picture suggests.)
The kids thought it was fantastic. They kept asking me if it was my real hair and I wasn't quite sure how to answer them. They are so...funny.
On to another topic, aren't these the most beautiful shrimp you have ever seen? Thuy and Thanh are coming over to cook these guys tonight, and Thuy has informed me that I must eat their heads. I told her I didn't think I could eat their heads and she just laughed a laugh that said, "You are going to eat their heads."
I have not really enjoyed my day since that laugh. I will let you know how the shrimp head eating goes.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thriller Reputation at Stake

All homeroom classes are supposed to decorate classrooms for Halloween tomorrow. I'm really dreading it. For weeks now, last year's members of 6E -of the epic Thriller Dance Halloween win- have been seeking me out to ask, "Ms. Marjorie, you're not going to teach this year's class the Thriller Dance, are you?"

Of course, I get very serious and answer them, "The Thriller Dance was OURS. I will not share it with ANYONE!"

Usually I get a response like "Yeah! It's OURS! Thank you Ms. Marjorie. You're so cool!" (here's the story:

Well, my homeroom this year has only seven students - six girls and one boy. They heard that my sixth grade class won last year so they are putting pressure on me; they have high expectations that the sixth graders can pull it off again for another shocking win.

I've given it my best shot, but for one week, all they want to talk about is what they can rig up above the door entry to fall on the judges when they enter the room. Homeroom conversations have gone something like this:

Me: OK, listen up everyone. The thing that impressed the judges last year was that we had something different than everyone else. What can we do that is different?

Nhung: We should put something up above the door so that when the judges open it, something falls on their heads!

Whole class: Yeah!

Me: Well, OK, we can do that, but that is just one thing. I was thinking that we could read the Halloween stories that we are writing out loud; that would be really cool and different.

Jessica: Maybe we could put a bunch of fake spiders in a box and that could drop on the judges' heads!

Whole class: Yeah!

Me: OK, well, I guess that would be good. But I was thinking that to set the mood for the stories, we could find a Halloween track of scary noises to add a spooky background.

Maria: Or we could put a bunch of black streamers in with the fake spiders and all of that could fall on the judges' heads when they come in!

Whole class: Yeah!

Me: That would be funny. And we can dress up to read our stories and have special lighting on us so that the room looks really creepy. We could cover the windows with black material and put white blinking lights behind the material.

Truong: Maybe we could put red paint above the door, so when the judges open it, blood will fall on them!

Whole class: Yeah! That is so cool!

Me: Well, I'm not sure about the red paint, but...

You get the picture.
I'm just not convinced that I will be able to uphold my reputation this year.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Traveler's Tales that Make You Want to Stay Home, Part Two

It's Saturday night in Dalat and six of us are wandering around looking for something to do - Dalat is not a real happening place at night. Karaoke was the plan, but the cool-looking Karaoke place is "fully booked." Down around the corner and back up a hill, we see another sign for "Karaoke." It's a hotel/Karaoke place, and this tells us something right from the start. It tells us that Karaoke is definitely a side business, that their other business is~ well, it's something else. Six small voices whisper to six foreigners that this might not be the best place, but twelve ears choose not hear the whispering.

At $5 per hour, it's a good deal. So we take a Karaoke room.

Right away, the painted hostesses bring us four trays of goodies: one tray of pomelo, one tray of grapes, one tray of apples and one tray of dried squid in packages - none of it requested. Again, six small voices tell six foreigners "Don't eat the fruit." But, again, twelve ears do not listen to the voices. At one point, K asks, "Is this free?" But the woman pretends she doesn't understand.

We pick at the fruit. On the up side, the list of songs is fantastic and the microphones and speakers are better than we've ever had in Saigon. We sing, drink beer, and eat a few pieces of the fruit. But the fruit is not so good, so we leave ninety percent of it on the plate.

After two hours, the painted hostesses bring us the bill. It is not $10 plus beer, as it should have been. It is $41. Each tray of fruit is listed as $6. Our pomelo guy in the market peels the most delicious pomelo for us and charges us 4,000 VND - about 24 cents. All three trays of fruit, together, possiby cost them under a dollar to buy, but the bill claims something very different. The woman comes back and we begin to fight with her. We didn't even eat this fruit, we tell her, and she points to about six grape seeds. We tell her how bad the pomelo is...we tried one piece, but it was inedible. She argues and argues, but then finally tells us she doesn't speak English. She's done, and she leaves the room. We do get her to remove the package of squid from the bill, and the wet towelettes - both unopened. Finally, we decide to pay $30 and just be done with it. In hindsight, we should have just paid for the two hours and the beer, but we didn't listen to those six voices, either.

You lose perspective, living in a country where everything is so cheap. Five dollars each is not a lot of money, but it seems like a fortune when you are paying it out to dishonest people who are most likely laughing at your stupidity as you walk out the door. Stupidity that shouldn't be stupidity. We all know better by now.

One more Tale for you: the last hour, I ask K if she wants to see the skinned dogs being sold in the market. She looks guilty but her answer is "yes." I had seen the skinned dogs the day before while with another friend and had suppressed a gag reflex many times (they were right next to caged ducks sitting one right on top of the other, and next to that the seafood section of the market - not lovely smells. ) We have both been here for over a year, and this is the first dog-for-eating either of us has witnessed. I'm acting pretty brave, leading K over to the dog section. But suddenly, I just can't do it again. I'm feeling really, really sick. I tell K I can't go back and she says she can't stomach it, either. We both get out of that market as fast as we can, and when we are out we are thinking the exact same thing: our market is so cool and so clean and doesn't smell like death.

Hotel karaoke, anyone? An eight hour bus ride, with comedy? Dog for dinner?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Traveler's Tales that Make You Want to Stay Home, Part One

Trip to Dalat #2 happened this past weekend. If you want to hear how great Dalat is, see the Dalat blog from one year ago and read about what a beautiful mountain town it is, how the air is fresh and the hills are beautiful and how the lake is surrounded by immaculately kept gardens and how you can mountain bike or rappel down waterfalls.

In this post, you are not going to hear about the good stuff (there was lots). You are going to hear about the down side of traveling - the kind that wears you out and makes you promise yourself you will stop doing this crazy thing sometime very soon.

The bus ride from Saigon to Dalat is supposed to take about six hours. Part of the road is washed out, though, (six of us leave after work on Friday, at 5:15), so - instead of six hours, the trip takes over eight hours.

When we go to book the bus back to Saigon on Sunday, we are told that the only bus available will be leaving at 5 - all of the earlier ones are booked - this according to our hotel guy, Rot. Not wanting to get back at 2 am the night before a work Monday, we check into flying. Flights are booked, too. Feeling despair, we reluctantly decide to book the 5:00 bus back to Saigon.

But at the last minute - after witnessing our agony for over half an hour - Rot says, "Well, there is another bus that I can check." When we ask him why he didn't mention this other bus before, he says it's a "second-best" bus. We check to make sure that "second best" doesn't mean "high fatality rate" and when he calls, we get 1:00 tickets on the Mai Linh bus. Mai Linh is a taxi service that we all like, so we feel pretty happy. We get on the bright-green bus promptly at 1:00 and rave over the neck balloon pillows that are provided.

"We've upgraded!" we all proclaim. "This isn't second-best, this is first-best!"

And then, when the bus gets going, The DVD is inserted. The DVD is Vietnamese slapstick comedy, and it comes with a laugh track. Like everything else played through speakers here, it's turned up to distortion. We are instantly miserable. But it can't last long, right?
After three hours of listening to comedy in a very loud, tonal language we don't know, we stop at an odd tea room/rest stop. Over artichoke tea, we come up with a plan: I am persuaded by my fellow-travellers to dig out my newest Michael Jackson DVD (I collect them, found this new one in Dalat - started this before he died, just FYI) and give it to the bus officials in hopes that they will switch things up in our favor. "He is the god of pop," they tell me. "The whole bus will love it."

So I ask the driver to open the storage under the bus and fish out my DVD. I give Michael to the assistant on the bus and she smiles and says, "Yes!" She looks excited, too.

We all move to the back of the bus feeling light and full of expectation, just waitng for the DVD to appear on screen. We are all laughing, joking and happy. However, not for long. I notice it first: the DVD is struggling to play. After a minute of the swirling icon, it says, "Cannot read DVD." Our hopes are dashed. Michael is ejected and Vietnamese slapstick comedy goes right back in. It plays for the rest of the trip - for eight hours total. Every so often, I look around because I think that, surely, the patrons on the bus will tire of this loud formula. But no; most of the people on the bus are thoroughly enjoying the never-ending comedy show. They are laughing their heads off.

I try to concentrate on the book I am reading: it's called Sold~ it's about a British girl and her sister who are sold as Yemeni wives/slaves by their British/Yemeni father. The laugh track in the background serves as a twisted sound track to the tragedies the book describes.

When the bus finally arrives back in Saigon, the DVD continues to play until every last person steps down from the bus. We are the last ones off. We have listened to over eight hours of purgatory comedy.
During the taxi ride home - all of us sitting in stunned silence - I wonder if I have been permanently damaged by the ordeal. All night I dream of things that are supposed to be funny but aren't. Somewhere in there, what is not funny has something to do with British women being sold as Yemeni wife-slaves.

Tales That Make You Want to Stay Home, Part Two will air tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How to Peel a Mango

I'm walking through the alley at night- the alley that by morning is the market - when a group of people I'm always friendly with says hello and waves me over. In the evenings, many families sit outside their homes reclining in lawn chairs, just passing the time.

The woman in the group- who, by morning, sells me baguettes from time to time - offers me some dried squid. You know how much I love squid...but in its dried form, it is nothing like its former self. It's smelly. Men ride carts around with dried squid hanging from a wooden bar and I almost get up and run from them to escape the smell when they and their dried squid pass.

Of course I pretend to enjoy this woman's squid and say "Cam on" (thank you).

I begin to walk away but she calls me back. She runs inside her house and comes out holding four baby mangoes. They're so cute, and these little ones are always extra sweet and juicy. I don't see them much in the market. "Cam on!" I say, no longer pretending.

But then, listen to what she does. As an afterthought, she grabs one of the mangoes back. She looks at me to make sure I am watching and makes a peeling gesture to the mango, like, "You have to peel these first, then you eat the fruit inside." She does this a couple of times so that I am sure to get it. The others in the group sit quietly...patiently, while this woman demonstrates the necessity of peeling fruit.

Does this remind you of anyone? Maybe I was too hard on Nam; I mean, maybe this culture really believes we have no clue as to how to peel corn on the cob or fruit, or how to wash lettuce. Maybe it's part of the cultural propaganda that our entire nation eats at McDonald's for every meal. Who knows.

But the point is...what is the point?

It brought back uncomfortable memories. I have not yet reached cultural peace with this type of Vietnamese kindness.

I'm so glad my banana lady has never tried to show me how to peel a banana.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I Made it to the Gym This Time...

Remember this "Nam left" picture of the street outside the school from my post of a few weeks ago?
Well the picture below is what the same street looked like today after just one half hour of rain.
The current is strong enough for some white water rafting; I was hoping one would come by to whisk me away. From a construction-and-very-poor-water-drainage perspective, I think the school is saving a lot of money on the location of this middle school...
One positive is that my socks did not dry on the line last night, and they didn't dry at school today, either. So when I changed into my gym clothes at school, I thought great, I have to exercise in
wet socks today
. The positive is that my shoes and socks got completely wet during my ride to the gym, so they would have been wet, anyway.
p.s. Hello Dyllyn!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Panning for Fish Eggs

A few of us decided to visit a town where the Saigon River meets the sea this weekend - Can Gio. We heard about this resort:

What we did not hear about, though, was the interesting culture here- in this place that isn't even mentioned in the Lonely Planet.

We arrived around 11 am to see lines of people walking home from a morning out in the water. They carried long poles with nets, but we couldn't see anything in the nets; we thought for sure they should be packed with clams or something.

This morning (Sunday) the tide was way out and we saw hundreds of people standing in the sea, silhouetted against the horizon; the scene reminded me of the gooey duck digging that goes on at dusk at Ocean Shores during the fall. So we went to investigate. This beach walk turned out to be one of the most culturally interesting mornings I have experienced in Vietnam... I guess the element of surprise added a lot to it:

Men and women alike - we figured that every adult from town must have been out there - were dragging these long nets through the sand under the water. Eventually they would stop and put the sifted sand into buckets, then take that sifted sand to a designated expert who would put samples of the sand onto glass plates (pictured here). Once the dirt was on the plate, water was added and contents scrutinized - it seemed that they might be panning for gold. The inspectors would swish it around, sift it some more, and then dump it out. Again, we saw absolutely no seafood. Nothing visible at all. And there was never an indication that they saw what they were looking for.

What were they looking for? Was it some kind of precious metal? We couldn't see a thing.

This friendly guy actually tied the rope around my leg and showed me how to pull the bag behind me for a bit, laughing in a jolly way as I did (his friends enjoyed it, too). In most of Vietnam, people wait until you smile at them to greet you back times ten. But this guy sought us out and showed us around.

After about an hour of walking around watching this activity and wondering what could be going on, a young guy greeted us in English. We asked him what they were looking for and he stumbled for the words, "Fish eggs!"

This made sense to us. On the bus ride out, we saw fish farms - rows and rows of canals built to farm fish. We don't know what kind of fish, but at last we were satisfied with a partial answer. They were panning for fish eggs.

When the tide began to come in, the people started heading in en masse for the inspections, and we saw some monetary exchange taking place. These people of the water were getting between 15 to 20,000 VND (about 90 cents to $1.20) for the contents of their bowls of for a morning's worth of hard work.

I kept thinking of the Zora Neale Hurston novels I've read and thought this is probably not so different from a story set in the 1930's on the Mississippi Delta. Except that people in those stories would not be wearing Versace coats and Be Be sweaters...right? And it was especially hot and muggy this morning, too~

The bus ride back - an hour to the ferry, the ferry ride, and the hour from the ferry back home - cost 7,500 VND = 42 cents. I guess that makes sense when a day's work only nets twice that much.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Five Elements of Cool


I'm lying on the balcony room bed with the fan blowing on me, but not because it's hot. I was just telling Katherine that I felt cold on my way home from the gym tonight. I could have used a jacket. It's been a cool fall - or perhaps I am just acclimating to this climate. But I think it's a cool fall.

Cool, Too

I am lying here waiting for our castle massage therapist to arrive. This will be Tran's (pronounced something like "Chung's") fourth castle visit since our return this cool fall. Remember how distraught we were last year when she left the Bum Bum? K and I were inconsolable. But now she comes to us regularly. We discovered that it was Tran's decision to leave the shop; evidently, she was bored. Her friend there, Chin, told us that Tran wants to make money all around the city instead of being in a salon all day long.

K and I both knew she was special since the beginning...that's why we counted her as our blessing all year and kept saying that she had to be too good to be true. When we got massages at the Bum Bum, we paid between 30 and 50,000 VND - between $1.80 and $3 - depending on the room location (was it noisy and light? or dark and solitary? the answer to that was about a $1.20 difference in price), and who knows how much of a cut Tran was getting out of that. For castle visits, K and I pay her 150,000 VND - about $9 - for massages that last an hour and a half (Katherine's usually last longer because Tran loves her most, I'm afraid). So she makes $18 in one night - a great wage for her. She is shy about receiving this much money, too; she usually tries to hand some of it back. She defines "unassuming person." We really love her.

Every time she leaves, I start plotting for her future. I usually say things like, "Let's start a business for her, she can come here and massage all of our friends and she'll make way more money than she could anywhere else." Or "I want to put Tran through massage school" - not for technique purposes but just because she is that good. K always answers my plotting with "You just don't stop with her, do you? You just can't help yourself."

She is a little bit difficult to communicate with, though. Take, for example, this text K got from her yesterday in our attempt to schedule an appointment:

“No froblem, 13 Tuesday tran buzz! See you 14 ok?”

K's email to me to communicate this was: So she can’t come tonight cause she’s buzzing, do you want me to tell her to come for you tomorrow night?

But when the 90 minutes is properly scheduled and carried out, usually one of us will say to the other:

Our lives are so cool.

Cool, Three

I got a little lost on my way home tonight. Traffic was bad following a rain storm, so I took some back streets. It was the coolest kind of lost because I ended up in what must be "Little Singapore." I saw a packed restaurant called "Singapore Hainamese Chicken Rice," and to me, a packed restaurant screams "stop your motorbike and try me now!" So I did. Yum. Except I didn't get the chicken, I got the char siu (barbecued pork) on rice with a mystery side sauce that was heaven - for about $1.20. I keep accumulating restaurants that I want to visit once per week. How can I attain this goal?

Cool, Four

Today I had my (total) 43 students write blues lyrics to the tune of BB King's "The Thrill is Gone" from the perspective of a down-and-out character in our current novel. Not one of them thought it was stupid to get up, sway and snap to the music, or sing the lyrics crazily. In every class a few of them used their tennis rackets as air guitars and they passed my sun glasses as they shared the lead singer role. Not only did they not think it was stupid, they thought it was cool.

Cool, Five

Post massage now. I fell asleep about an hour in and reached that "other dimension" place. We asked Tran if she can come every Monday night from now until forever. She said yes. Cool.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Five Element Correspondence: How Wikipedia Ripped off My Blog Title

The other day I decided to do a little research on soup, because, you know, our market does not have signs telling us what we are eating. Sometimes, I feel I should be more responsible and know what to call what I am eating.

I was horrified to discover that under "Vietnamese Cuisine," Wikipedia has completely ripped off the name for my blog in how they describe Vietnamese food. Read this:

Five element correspondence

Many Vietnamese dishes include five spices: spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (Earth), corresponding to: five zang fus: gall bladder, small intestine, large intestine, stomach and urinary bladder.
Vietnamese dishes also include five types of nutrients: powder, water or liquid, mineral elements, protein and fat.

Vietnamese cooks try to have five colours: white (metal), green (wood), yellow (Earth), red (fire) and black (water) in their dishes.

Dishes in Vietnam appeal to gastronomers via five senses: food arrangement attracts eyes, sounds come from crisp ingredients, five spices detected on the tongue, aromatic ingredients coming mainly from herbs stimulate the nose and some meals, especially finger food, can be perceived by touching.

*Vietnamese food must be eaten with right people, in suitable places, in a happy atmosphere.

I came up with my blog title all on my own. I'm a little mad.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What's in a Name Change?

You know about English nicknames, right? When students join English speaking schools in Asia, it's fun for them to name themselves and it makes things much easier for their teachers. So some kids pick a new name as early as the first grade. That's why many have names like "Spiderman," "Pink" and "Little Bean." This year, one of my favorite nicknames is "Wattle." Tarn once had a Chinese student called "Star Power," and I had twins there named "Sonny and Cher."

When "Little Bean" grows out of her name, we simply receive an email stating: "Little Bean will now be called 'Mia'." And just like that, it's done.

But more and more frequently, students are changing their reasonable names, too: "Selena" changed her name to "Anna," "Susan" changed her name to "Justine," and "David" changed his name to "Joe."

These changes are annoying, for sure... but this one really got me: One of my students from last year, Jack, has one of those devious personalities I find quite endearing. By "Near Perfect Vietnamese Children" standards, he was considered a "trouble-maker" - and of course, he was one of my favorites. To me, the name "Jack" is fitting for someone with a bit of a dark side, and I thought he had chosen a perfect nickname for himself.

At the beginning of the year when I saw Jack in the hallway, I said, "Hey, Jack!" and he replied - with some uncharacteristic seriousness - "Ms. Marjorie, I'm not Jack anymore, I'm Jared." And then he flashed his Rocket J. Squirrel smile at me.

I couldn't help but say, "Jared? No way! You will always be Jack to me!" He put up a bit of a fight, but I wasn't having any of it.

Finally, he came up with a compromise. "Well, I guess you can call me 'Baby Horus' then," he said, which was his favorite god name from last year. That settled alright with me and now I refer to him as "BH." It makes him laugh every time I say it.

It goes the other way, too, at times; for example, "Lucky" became "Extreme" (not the Lucky you know from last year) during his junior year.

But there is a trend happening that I really like: many kids are returning to their Vietnamese names for school. My sixth graders are Khoi, Luan, Quan, Vi, Thuy and Nhung; last year not one sixth grader was called by his or her Vietnamese name.

As for my own name, now that I know most all of both the sixth and seventh grade classes, I hear my name hundreds of times each day - but that's not a bad thing. EVERY student who comes into class says "Hello Ms. Marjorie." And EVERY kid I know says "Hello Ms. Marjorie" in the hallways or at lunch (we all eat in the cafeteria with them). That's a lot of "Ms. Marjorie's" to hear every day, but each one is said with such genuine enthusiasm, I never get tired of hearing it. Even if I see a kid going up the stairway and see her again on the way back down, I am greeted with that same enthusiasm. These are truly amazing, respectful kids.

I do like using my birth-certificate name...I have tried it before but it has never stuck like it did last year. It seems fitting and a little more formal than just "Ms. Marjie" - and it is a bit sadistic and fun, since many kids must struggle with it and usually say "Ms. Ma - jo - rie..."

But I take part in my own, secret name change almost daily; I will share my secret with you. You see, by the time I teach the same thing for the fifth time each day, I am really, really tired of saying things over and over. So in between 5th and 6th periods, I become "Roxanne." "Roxanne" is my alter-ego; she is the one I call on when I need to do something that takes a little more guts or nerve or endurance. I just say, "Take it from here, Roxanne..." and then it's her doing it, not me. I decided on Roxanne's name because that was the runner-up to "Marjie" when my parents named me, and because it sounds kind of tough. It came in handy during my first month at Options (a school for at-risk kids): on the way to school, in the car, I would say out loud, "You are not Marjie anymore, you are Roxanne. They cannot hurt you, they can only hurt Roxanne. And Roxanne is a lot more tough than Marjie is, so she'll be fine." So when 5th period leaves and 6th period comes in and I just don't think I can do it again, I give it to Roxanne. She is usually fine with it. She thinks this is nothing compared to that first month at Options.

I actually admitted this strategy to one of the school counselors at Scriber, and she thought my split personality idea was a pretty healthy and cool practice (I didn't tell her about the long, interesting conversations Roxanne and I have, though...).

To end this commentary on names - my "point" I guess - is this: I want to tell "Tubagoa" that I really liked "Mungo" better. And that I am tired of everyone changing names on me, all the time - even on my blog - and that I don't think the practice is OK or healthy. Except when I do it myself, secretly.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Finally, Barbecue Garden Night

I pass Barbecue Garden every night on my way home from work and have wondered about it for weeks. Turns out that this is the barbecue place T and T have been wanting to take us to since the beginning of the year, and we finally made it happen tonight.

It's not as authentic as the place we went last time - remember the weasel grilling outside? - but it was so delicious that it is going on the list of places I will take my family in December. Plus the garden is so beautiful - you sit outside with strings of white lights all around you while you grill your own food in the middle of the table.

The platter of prawns were placed in front of Katherine and the look on her face told me they were still alive before I looked down. They were squirming, and K's look was one of mortification.

"What's wrong?" I asked her.

"They're still alive"

"But we have ripped the heads off of these guys before..."

"I know," she said, "but it's different to cook them alive over a fire." I guess she is right. To be marinated in spices and then cooked to a slow death... it isn't as humane as getting your head ripped off quickly, is it? But K got over it and we agreed that this method produced the most tasty and tender prawns ever.

The winner of the night for me were these beef skewers...I haven't had such tender, delicious meat like this forever. They were marinated to perfection and the peppers, onions and tomatoes were squishy and nice.

Second runner-up, believe it or not, was the grilled squid. It was perfect, too, but not quite as perfect as the beef. Yum.
And this banana chocolate crepe for dessert wasn't bad, either.
All four of us ate until we were full: skewers of squid, fish, beef and prawns, plus beer, dessert and tea - came to less than $10 a piece.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rain, Bees and Turkeys

Speaking of Floods...
I love how the people of this country deal with whatever is in front of them. They don't complain about traffic or weather or construction or hard work, they just go with the flow, pull out raincoats or tarps, go the opposite direction on the sidewalk, and work long, long hours. After all, this is the environment in which they live, and they are resilient people. So when a resilient someone loses it, it does kind of take you by surprise.

This morning, I was sitting at the rice cake table when ominous clouds darkened the blue morning sky within one minute - literally. People here move quickly; as the first drops fell, vendors had already pulled out tarps and long poles like magicians. I don't know where they hide these things, but out they come with just a moment's notice.

Most of the walls have hooks to attach the tarps, so while my rice cake maker kept watch over her two hot pans over two fires, her two assistants hooked up the tarps. Because I was the tallest person around, I stood up to hold the tarp while clutching my cakes, trying to keep them dry.

The rain came fast and hard, but it seemed we had been successful in covering everything up in time. However, after the heavy rain had accumulated on the tarp for one minute, the weight of the water made one of the poles slip. This created two waterfalls; one of them poured directly onto one of the rice-cake pans, forcing two of the eight cakes out onto the ground, and the other one came down right on top of the rice cake maker's head.

As you know, I love my rice cake lady. She is gracious and smiley. She is always gracious and smiley. But at the occurence of these two simultaneous injustices, she let out what I can only guess were a string of very effective Vietnamese curses. She recovered quickly, though, and just re-filled the washed-out cake spaces and continued cooking - water dripping from her head down to the tip of her nose.
My fish sauce dipping bowl was filled with two inches of water by the time I sat back down, but I decided not to say anything to my violated vendor and just ate them plain. (See, I am resilient, too.)

Spelling Bee
I never considered how distinctly "American" spelling bees are before yesterday. Yesterday was our second Swine Flu Make Up Saturday and we devoted the whole day to spelling bee competitions (my idea). I learned from my diverse staff that spelling is not something their respective countries play around with. And as for the Vietnamese language, all of their words are just one syllable and are easy to spell. The tricky part with this language is the pronunciation. So no bees are held in Vietnam.

The kids had a blast. The whole school began the day by watching "Spellbound" - a fantastic documentary profiling eight compelling teenaged finalists from all over the US in a national competition. The kids loved it. After that, we played spelling games with the grade level spelling lists they had been given the previous week and then had classroom competitions and class finals.

At the end of the day we did something that I have really missed while being at AIS - we had a whole school assembly for the finalists from the classes. We had all of the tables and chairs taken out of our small cafeteria and the whole student body sat on the floor - all 230 of them. My principal this year is an easy-going guy; he said, "Well, we'll see if this works." What all three AIS campuses specifically, tragically lack is a gym facility (just ask Katherine about that, who has been teaching PE in a box and in a long, narrow parking lot for two years).

But we made the best of what we had,and the kids sat with rapt attention until the very end. Our principal stood at a podium in the front as the word dispenser and the six class finalists sat in chairs facing the audience. We three grade level English teachers were judges. I held the little bell to ding for words spelled incorrectly.

The crowd went wild for "their people." I'm sure it was the first time many of them had been in a whole- school setting before and the spirit factor was really fun for them. One of my sixth graders reached the top two and got out on "idiosyncrasy." The only letter she got wrong was a "c" instead of an "s." Many kids told me that it was the "best day of school they had ever had." A seventh grader - one of mine from last year - was the grand champion.
Canadian Thanksgiving
Thuc was born in Ho Chi Minh City, but was educated in Canada and worked in Vancouver for the past three years. Now she is back in HCM with her family, working as an assistant at AIS. Her family owns a very popular steak restaurant here, and they have been very generous to treat us to a meal at their restaurant and - already - two parties at their beautiful home.
It was Thuc's idea to throw this party for her adopted countrymen, and putting it together required some of that HCM creativity we must possess; anything can be done here, it's just figuring out how to make the details come together. She ordered bread and apple pies from a new German bakery, and she bought two turkeys from a gourmet grocery store. The grocery store gave her the address for a place that would cook the turkeys for her (remember, hardly any ovens here).
The cookers then sent the turkeys by taxi to Thuc's house. But when Thuc began to carve them, she realized they were still pink next to the bone. In the picture is Van and Eric, carving up the turkeys in order to put the pieces in a pan and cook them some more on the stove. Surprisingly, the turkeys turned out tender and juicy, despite all they had to go through. The mashed potatoes and gravy were delicious.
If water would have poured down on this meal, I would have let out a very effective string of Vietnamese curses (that I probably could have spelled correctly).

Friday, October 09, 2009

Excuses, Excuses

Why didn't you go to your gym today?

Were you too tired? Hungry? Did you have too many things to do? Or were you just giving yourself the day off?

Or did it rain so hard in the afternoon that when you took the "Nam left" you found yourself on a completely flooded sidewalk/road, but you decided to go for it anyway and you drove one very wet block toward the gym when you saw three motorbikes stranded in the middle of the deeper part of the lake - maybe six inches - with no way around because of the construction on the other side and so you turned down the only street you could which led you through a very narrow street market where chicken feet were hitting you as you passed?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Story Visuals

1. Standing on the front steps of the school looking out on the "basketball court." Last week our basketball team played at the Australian International School - for some of our kids, it was their first time playing on a full court.
They've done a great job separating the school from the road; the trellis looking thing was assembled the day before school started to provide shade (men were walking up on the metal bars with nothing securing them as they tied these branches) and the trees were planted in front of the wall. Nam was watching behind one of those trees, behind the wall.
2. Chaos outside the wall - I turn left at this wall after school to go to the gym (this shot is taken in the morning). The three-minute ride to the gym using this shortcut would take me over an hour if I went right and circled the construction. I know you are thinking there is no room for a motorbike to swim upstream; you are wrong. There is lots and lots of room. Nam was hanging out right behind the post. The guards, dressed in tan and black, stand out here every morning and afternoon to guide motorbikes and taxis in and out of school grounds.
3. I come up this sidewalk each morning. I know you are thinking that there isn't any room for a motorbike to swim upstream; you are wrong. There is lots and lots of room.

4. Our staff parking area, behind the school.
5. Construction view from the second floor. It's hard to tell, but in the middle is a huge road pit. The green part is the trellis.
Hopefully, this will give you a visual of both the story from yesterday and more of an idea about why tremors run through our building all day long~

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

She's Back, He's Back

Be honest... when your child went off to kindergarten - did you ever drive to her school around the time she was getting out, hide behind the fence and wait on your motorbike for her to come out the door, just so you could get a look at her?

Did you ever do that?

Because today, as I was leaving the school on my motorbike (in my dress with a huge backpack and my friend Linda on the back, turning against traffic on the sidewalk to go to our gym), suddenly I was face to face with my mother.

It was so very shocking. To see this face from my past with my very new independent life surroundings as a backdrop made me stop, put my high heels down on the ground (he was, after all, blocking my sidewalk path) and say, "Nam...what are YOU doing here?"

I'm going to describe his reaction as, uh... both sheepish and shocked. Yes Sheepish-Shocked was his look. He was not expecting me to come around that thick fence (where he could peek in at the door) in the opposite direction on the sidewalk (because, as you may recall, I would not allow him any sidewalk driving). And he was definitely surprised to see that I was carrying a passenger.

He began to look around and mumble. Something like "I, Mari, see you, goodbye, see you again." And then, "I say hi... Mari, goodbye." And then he pointed to Linda, confused. And then he moved his bike to the side and motioned me-and-my-passenger to pass on by.

I wave to Nam often in the mornings as I pass, but what was he doing all the way out here? The possible answers to that question make me more than just a little sad.
In any case, I will be relieved when Jessica comes, and then my family, so that Nam has something to do.

Many of you have written to ask if I am OK...with all of the natural disasters in SE Asia and not getting any blog entries seemed a little fishy to some. The truth is that, actually, life has been more than OK. I got a little lazy about writing and then our internet connection went out at the castle for more than a week (just back on tonight). A few of you asked if the Lack of Nam was the issue. AmyT begged me to put up a picture other than beautiful Vietnamese women eating greasy burgers (which she has now seen every day for the past three weeks). Here are a few things that have been distracting me lately:
Mostly, I've been caught up in the independence of having a motorbike. I traded in my equivalent to a '76 Ford pickup truck (an automatic Avilla) and down-graded in actual bike but upgraded back to coolness. Here is a picture of both Franco's and my Honda 110 Waves - both manuals, four gears...matching bikes at the castle, yep. Rented for $50 per month. To downshift, you use your heel, which is a little tough for tall people. I'm getting used to it.
It is so much fun to zip around this city. I get to take my time in the mornings because I have first period prep, so I kick around in the market trying all the soups and getting rice cakes if the spirit moves me. I also found another market on the way to school and have been picking my way through that, in a drive-up kind of way - meaning that I drive up to the glutinous rice cakes filled with custard stand and the women prepare them for me while I sit on my bike. It's so cool.
And after school, after I drive against the sidewalk traffic to my amazing gym and exercise, swim and sit in the sauna or steam room. Then I head home through one of the best food streets in Saigon. At least two times per week, I pick a new place to try - lately it's been mostly Japanese noodles, sushi and food from the epicenter of Food Vietnam, Hue. Two times per week is not nearly enough... actually, eight days a week would not be enough to try all of the goodness that is the restaurant scene in Saigon. Last year, I was like this country bumpkin, hardly ever eating outside of my neighborhood, but now I'm back to my old self, hyperventilating at times at all of the food choices before me. But then again, there is the need to stay loyal to my street. K and I eat from our Pho lady at least once per week, and my wonton guy still sees me regularly. The squid restaurant was a part of movie night last week, so I still get that one in, too.
Yeah, so it's school (teaching only English, so hardly any prep, first and last period planning, which I have never experienced), gym, eating, then either Bum Bum hair washing, watching pirated DVDs on the roof (just finished Season 3 of 30 Rock), or parties, parties, parties. Last weekend, Tarn met K and me here to go to a costume party and the three of us walked down our street as quite a sight - Tarn as a monk, me as Johnny Cash and K as one of Robert Palmer's back-up singers. I am not so aware of being looked at in our hood anymore, but that night we definitely got looks while walking toward a taxi. Yeah, so parties everywhere, and now kickball at the soccer fields every Sunday night. This is a fun group of teachers. Canadian Thanksgiving party on Saturday, too. And now a dinner club.
Other things:
*Ever since our Swine Flu closure, the guards stand in front of the school in the mornings to give us hand sanitizer and the nurse shoots us with a temperature gun. When we go to lunch the guards give us more hand sanitizer. When I entered a theater for a movie last weekend, same thing. And when I went to watch the American International School basketball games - both boys and girls - play at the Australian International School (both teams were cheering "AIS! AIS"), more guards and more hand sanitizer. Is this happening in America? I kind of doubt it.
*And guess what...remember those two Swine Flu Days Off? Well, we had to make one of them up two weekends ago on a Saturday and the other one will be made up this upcoming Saturday. Yep, working Saturdays, just like Marysville did after that strike... This Saturday, our school is having a Spelling Bee Day, suggested by me. I will let you know how it goes.
*There is an electronics store that opens early in the morning and closes late at night, and I pass it both going to and coming home from school. Every single time I pass, a Michael Jackson song is playing. Today: "Billie Jean" in the morning and "The Way You Make Me Feel" in the evening. Every single time, I want to stop and go in. So I'm guessing it is effective.
*Thuy and Thanh have not called me fat again. We are busy planning things and having them not work out - but the Vietnamese barbecue place is on the agenda for this weekend, if we can fit it in around Canadian Thanksgiving and kick ball. I still see them every morning.
Now I am beginning to hyperventilate about all of the things I have neglected to write about in addition to all of the food I have not tried in Saigon, so I think that means I will sign off for tonight and start fresh with a new day and a new story tomorrow. Thanks to everyone who voiced concern over my lack of blogging. I appreciate it.