Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Kind and Handsome Jeweler and Rita Magic

Saturday morning Thuy tells me that her boyfriend, Dung (it looks like you would pronounce it like cow manure but it's actually "Yom" - and you kind of blow your cheeks out when you say it) is bringing his mother over at 5 o'clock Sunday afternoon to "discuss the wedding." They have set their date - May 19; it's a Wednesday, and was chosen because it's Ho Chi Minh's birthday.

"Maggie. I want you here."

This is a big moment; Thuy has been sort of dating him for a year and I have not met him. She keeps making excuses - sometimes he's "busy" or "sick" but often she just says, "He's not handsome." Oh, and she also says, "He's afraid to meet you."

So I had stopped asking.

But now, she is asking me to be there. "You are my sister," she says.

So at five o'clock today - a very hot afternoon - I walk down the alley to meet Dung and his mother. They are not there when I arrive, but Thuy's parents have set up a fold-up table in their tiny living space; three plastic chairs surround the table: one for his mother and two for them. His father lives and works in the Delta, so he could not be present to "discuss issues." On the table are a tin of Danish cookies, huge purple grapes and cold tea. Thuy's mother is dressed in a traditional Vietnamese yellow and green silk blouse and her father is in his usual casual attire. Thuy and Thanh are freshly showered and are dressed casually as well- in jeans and blouses. For a first-time parent meeting, it feels very un-ceremonial for a country so rich on ceremony.

Thanh sets up two plastic chairs against the wall. "This is where we will sit," she tells me. As we wait for Dung and his mother, Thuy and Thanh and I just look at each other and laugh nervously.

They arrive ten minutes late; Dung's mother is on the back of his motorbike. They stop outside in the narrow space in the alley and he gently lifts her off of the bike. He comes in and greets me with "Ciao Co" - "hello teacher." I greet him, by mistake, "Ciao Ba"- "Hello older honored woman." Everyone laughs at this, so I realize my mistake and quickly recover with "Ciao Anh" - "Hello Man" and greet his mother correctly. His mother greets me and Thuy's parents and the three of them sit at the table, exchanging a few words. Dung and Thuy stand at the end of the table. Dung is nervous... streams of sweat run down the side of his head. Thanh sees this and runs across the alley to buy him some tissue to wipe his face.

As the parents talk and Thuy and Dung stand at attention, I keep stealing glances at Dung. I've been expecting some kind of horror show to appear, but he is actually very nice looking. And better yet, he is very kind and gentle. Every few minutes, he turns to Thuy and whispers something. They seem to be at ease with each other, like good friends.

The parents meet for about 30 minutes. Thanh tells me they are talking about the restaurant, and about the jewelry that his parents must present to her on the wedding day. Dung is a jeweler, so he will make the traditional gifts himself. There are many gaps of silence and, being an American who is trained to keep conversations going, I feel uncomfortable. But I am also unable to assist, so I just sit and watch - a spectator at a sporting event - every once in a while whispering questions to Thanh.

"Will they go on a honeymoon?"

"If they have enough money."

"Where will they live?"

"At his house, with his mother and his three older sisters. All of them are unmarried."

I try to let this sink in, but I can't. I can't imagine an equivalent to this scenario at home. How will she do that? Will those sisters eat her up? She's a tough one, but in their home...She will be 40 at the end of May and he is 42; that plays a factor, too.

Suddenly, the meeting is over. Everyone stands up and Thuy and Dung both bow to Thuy's parents, greet me again, get on their bike and drive away.

Thuy's father - who always greets me with a strong handshake and an "America, good!" statement, comes over and asks me what I think of Dung. Thanh translates.

"I think he is a very kind man," I say.

He laughs and says, "Good!" And something like, "the wedding is on!"

Thuy comes in and sits down next to me, hugging me, giggling, and asking, "Maggie. What you think?"

"Thuy," I say, "Dung is so nice and kind. And he is very nice looking!"

Thuy squeals and says, "Oh, Maggie, I am so happy! I afraid you not like him. OK! I am happy!"

I just laugh. "Thuy, why do you say he is not good looking? He is."

She gets a serious look on her face. "I look inside him and see he is good. So to me he is good looking."

"That's right," I answer.

She squeals again, "Oh, I am so happy. If you don't like him, no wedding!" I know she is joking, but I also know she feels relief that we have met. I do, too.

Next weekend, I am taking part in the wedding of a friend from school, Alison, who is marrying a Vietnamese man, Van. Five of us are getting ao dais made for this - the traditional Vietnamese dress.

Rita will be here to experience it all with me. She had written me a few months ago asking if we could "visit a village in the countryside." I wrote back saying that was a very romantic ideal, but that it took hours to get outside of Ho Chi Minh City and I would have no idea where to find this kind of village. One week after I wrote that, I was told the details about this wedding: we will get up early on Sunday morning and take a two hour bus trip deep into the countryside of the Mekong Delta to take part in the traditional ceremony at Van's home.

I forget, sometimes, that there is always a little bit of magic sprinkled in where Rita is concerned. So that's where she will go on her second day here: to a place and a ceremony I haven't been witness to during a year and a half of living here. And two months later, I will experience another wedding in the alley of my neighborhood, for my Vietnamese "sister" who is marrying a very kind and handsome jeweler.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

What Nightmares May Come

For years, I have had this recurring nightmare that I am unable to get to school. Everywhere I turn there is a roadblock, and at times I cannot even leave my house. I am always aware of the dream clock - class has started and I'm not there.

I have these dreams only in Seattle, where there would be no foreseeable roadblock or flood outside my door (on my high Phinney hill).

I have never had this nightmare in Saigon, where - on more than one occasion - I have woken up to inches of water outside my door and where I have negotiated Road Challenges every day of this school year.

But on Monday morning, I literally could not get to school. I did my best through the Back Way Obstacle Course of holes and cement water pipes and sprinklers, but was stumped at the semi truck parked across what used to be our open-river-sidewalk-in-the-opposite-direction. I was within one hundred meters of the school, but had to backtrack four miles, re-cover those same four more miles back toward the school, overshoot the school by one mile and navigate a U-Turn to get there.

I was ten minutes late, and I cried when I got into my classroom (I have first period planning, fortunately. First period planning is never part of my Seattle school nightmares). What usually takes me fifteen minutes had taken over 60. The main reason for the crying, however, was not the roadblock issue. It had to do with my next topic: Scars from 'Nam.

I now have:
1) One very deep motorbike burn (Saigon kiss) on my right ankle (acquired in Sept. 09)

2) One huge, ugly motorbike burn (Saigon souvenir) on my left calf (acquired the day I got Dengue Fever, Dec. 09...people gasp when they see it it's so horrible...)

3) The memory of Dengue Fever

4) One dislodged crystal from my right ear that still causes me some vertigo (dislodged Nov. '08 when Nam and I were rear ended)

and now, added that same Monday Roadblock Morning:

5) One scraped left elbow and

6) One scraped right toe.

I acquired the scrapes right out on my little street - I saw one of my favorite rice ladies crouched on a sidewalk as I was driving out to the main road. As I made a slight turn towards the sidewalk, a motorbike was passing me on the left - one of the most annoying Saigon tricks. He barely hit me, but I lost my balance and went over. Not bad, but still, another wound from 'Nam.

So - I was crying not because of pain, but because I was mad that this scar was going to come with me to the wedding I'm going to next weekend, along with all of the others.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Your Commute, My Commute... Same Same but Probably a Little Different

The new road that runs past the middle school opened about six weeks ago, which came as a relief to many of us who "go the back way" to avoid 45 - minute traffic jam mornings. The back way was great, except for the three blocks we had to swim upstream on the sidewalk against the heavy morning commute. Now that the new road is open, we get to swim upstream on our own open river sidewalk. What a relief.

But the construction continues, and we never know what Challenge the sidewalk will meet us with each morning. There may be The New Pile of Gravel Challenge, or perhaps a bulldozer will be parked in the middle of it and we will get to try the One-foot Wide Path with a Two-foot Drop Challenge to go around it. Usually, I can take this all in stride; I feel very comfortable on my Honda Wave 150 in Saigon traffic and construction zones. So far, these Morning Motorbike Challenges have not been able to stump me (do I still need to add "while wearing heels?").

But this morning was a true test of my problem-solving aptitude. The "back road" that turns onto the "new road" (that turns into the now un-occupied sidewalk "open river") was completely torn up. Three bulldozers were busy tearing it up more, and three hoses stretched across the piles of dirt squirting water up into the air, creating a thick, messy Mud Pie Sprinkler Challenge. Motorbikes were still using this street - of course... the swarm just goes and goes, over and around everything. The thing that made me stop and consider whether I should proceed was a combination of what I was wearing (silk) and the fact that the woman in front of me got completely splattered with mud when one of the hoses went a little bit wild on her.

I looked to my right and spotted an alley, turned down there and was happy to find a new back way off of the already-back-way to the new road. Feeling very smart and successful, I then turned onto the gravel sidewalk and drove two of the three blocks to the school. That is when I encountered an 8 ft. hole in the middle of the sidewalk with a very narrow motorbike trail winding around it- providing no opportunity for driver error. I watched a colleague successfully attack this path in front of me, but I was gripped with fear. It was a Friday morning, after all, and I didn't feel like dropping into an 8 ft hole. So I turned around, made a perpendicular crossing of the sea of traffic on the new road (they all just go around you, trust them...), got into the opposite lane and drove a mile past the school, did a U-turn, and entered in the other "back way."

When my friend Steven and I discussed the morning's route to school, he said, "It was like Sarajevo..."

I returned to the sidewalk two hours later during my lunch to document it on film - but guess what: the hole was filled. No proof whatsoever of the Morning 8 Ft. Hole Challenge.

After school, however, we got to enter The Sidewalk Lake Challenge. Six inches of water greeted us then, as well as the Challenge of Negotiating Between Two Huge Trucks through Sand after we made it through the water challenge.

It's so much fun, getting to and out from this school.

If you're wondering what the school buses do, or what the taxis that drop off and pick up kids each day do, well... the guards have been spending a lot of time escorting kids up to the new road, over lakes and gravel hills to meet these larger vehicles. It's Saigon - here no one would think of complaining about this. You just go on and live.

I realized just today that the earthquake-like shaking of the school has stopped - the shaking was caused by digging construction really close to the school. But what continues is the power outages (I'm assuming these are caused by other digging close to the school). Yesterday we had three of them during our seventh period. I was in the middle of a lesson - projecting something on the screen - and it all went blank... three times. The generators started up and the power went back on within a minute after each outage. But when this happens three times in a fifty-minute period, it does become a bit invasive to a lesson, especially when you must re-boot your computer each time.

On the topic of my morning commute, I will show you my two favorite morning women: They sell glutinous rice balls filled with yellow mung bean paste. Some people get morning coffee from a drive-through, but I get to drive up, pay thirty cents and get three of these heavenly pillows from the most gracious women in Saigon (other than the most gracious women in my morning market...)

You know what, I think this is the best commute I have ever had.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Interlude: Scriber Students, Turtles and Chris Brown

Two years ago, many of you supported the 15 Scriber Lake High School students that Chris Brown and I took to Costa Rica to "save the turtles." The generosity of our family, friends and community really, really touched the whole group.

In August, Chris and I were able to see the majority of the 2008 Costa Rica team at a reunion, and it turned out to be a summer highlight for both of us. We could still hear the excitement in their voices as they recalled meaningful and funny experiences, and listened as they verbalized how this experience had made them more confident in pursuing life goals.

(For those of you who haven't heard of Scriber Lake HS, it's an alternative high school in the Edmonds School District, north of Seattle.)

One girl received a scholarship to study nursing in Pennsylvania and told us that "Costa Rica was the beginning of what I want my life to be." Another student has continued on to study at Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, and also viewed the trip as a beginning for him. Just recently, I received an email from another who told me, "If I did that (set the goal, raise the money and make the trip), I can do anything." Almost all of them had made future plans that somehow connected to the trip. As I drove home, I thought, "If only all of the people who gave could actually see all of this..."

So - what your generosity really did was "save the students." It gave them so, so much. Does it sound corny if I say that it "gave them the world"? Yeah, it does. But it did.

Rita Ireland, soon-to-be guest #15 at the castle at the end of this month, sent me a link to this article in The Herald from Tuesday, describing Chris Brown's effort to make another trip happen this spring (it also gives a summary of what the trip is about):

I am so happy that Chris has taken on this HUGE endeavor this year, and am extremely impressed that he is doing it all by himself. I know that I could have never pulled it off without having him as a partner - figuring out how to tap all of the resources available is a really tough, I want to help him in any way I can.

So, I thought of this: suggesting here that you consider supporting this year's trip.

When we received your checks in our teacher mailboxes two years ago, it was so much fun to go to our "Turtle Tuesday" meetings and watch students open the envelopes and wonder out loud, "But this person doesn't even know me!" in response to a $20 check. When the article ran in The Herald before, many people sent checks anonymously; these acts of kindness were almost incomprehensible to our students. They loved the personal notes, too... people would write things like, "Allow this experience to change your life..."

So, if you would like to donate to these students, Scriber's address is:

Scriber Lake High School
23200 100th Ave. W.
Edmonds, WA 98020

Checks can be made out to "Scriber Lake HS" and you can just write "Attn: Chris Brown" and the name of the student on the envelope.

I can't think of a better person to trust with this kind of thing than Chris - he has been a devoted teacher for over 30 years, and he is still making a huge impact on the lives of teenagers at Scriber Lake.

Thanks, everyone!

Back to Bali: "Spicy"

To make "Spicy":

5 shallots
4 cloves of garlic
small piece of turmeric root
1 candlenut
shrimp paste
aromatic ginger

When you grind up all of the above with a mortar and pestle, you have a paste - called "Spicy" - that you can mix into most all of the Balinese food we made, including:

Young Peanut Soup with Papaya
Small Potato Pancakes
Steamed Chicken in Banana Leaf
Shredded Chicken with Coconut and
Sambal (like an Indonesian salsa)

What did not include the "spicy" was the Black Rice Pudding, which is my new favorite dessert.

We learned how to make all of these dishes in Munduk - a town set into the mountains - on Day Three of our Magical Mystery (Motorbike) Tour through Bali, in an outdoor kitchen overlooking terraced mountains. Our instructor was a sweet woman who spoke little English.

The Lonely Planet's description of Munduk does not do it any justice at all, but this lack of attention means it is not overrun by tourists - a true find. Sue and I asked to be shown five "homestays" before we made our choice, and we chose based on the best view from the outdoor restaurant. Our advice: if you want to stay in a lush, untouristy mountain town for a very cheap price, go to Munduk. We saw incredible places to stay for between $20-$50 per night. All of these places offer nature hikes, cooking classes and massages in their purist form.

By the way, the peanut soup - it was insanely good. I'm so spoiled by soups here in Vietnam, and that soup took first place. Well, maybe behind the shrimp and pork soup in my market...

Another highlight during this Munduk mountain morning - because our cooking class didn't begin until 10 am, we decided to follow a path that wound down around the side of our homestay. After walking in zig zags down for about 45 minutes, we heard music coming from a place up and over some steps. We crept up the steps a bit to see about 25 children doing their morning exercises to a tape recorded song. They must do it every morning, because they knew all the moves. One of the teachers saw us and motioned for us to join in, so we did. The kids, from grades one through six, kept looking back and giggling at our attempt to follow their lead.

After exercises, we got a tour through a few classrooms and met the 6th grade teacher and the English teacher (who was afraid to speak English with us). A chalk board and desks were all that filled them - complete simplicity. And the kids - they were so bright-eyed and respectful. I thought about staying there on a teaching contract...however, there was no offer of a teaching contract.

Verdict: go to Bali, rent motorbikes, stay in Munduk for a couple of days. Your soul will be very happy. And so will your stomach.