Chapter 3 (Part #2)
Sat. Nov. 29, 2003...Our Comfort Zone…
“Only those who risk going too far will ever know how far they can go.”
The above quote hangs above my desk as a constant reminder to get out of my comfort zone each day. I’ve got such a tendency to just stay here in my safe secure little room like a hermit in a cave. That still small voice keeps nudging me to get out on the street and experience this incredible culture and meet the people here. The turtle that I am keeps begging me to pull my head inside my shell and hide. The still small voice says, “Don’t be a coward! Get out of your comfort zone! Go out and meet new people and see new sights!” That still small voice afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.
All I have to do in Hanoi to see things I’ve never seen before is just go outside our door to our street, Doi Can. I see things every day I’ve never seen before just walking to school, which is on the same street I live on. Each day is a mirror of my life. I remember the day the director of our school sent me an email in California inviting me to come here and teach. That letter caused me such anguish because I was torn between coming to teach in a place that was WAY OUTSIDE my comfort zone or staying in a safe, comfortable environment. Oh how I shudder now to think what a tragedy and mistake it would have been to stay in a safe place! There is no safer place on the earth I can be now! I walk down our dark lane at 10 PM each night after school and I feel safer here at night than I did walking the streets of San Jose in the middle of the day!!!
In the school, I have many role models of people who’ve left their comfort zones to be of great benefit and help to others. Brandon and Lynell are such wonderful inspirations and encouragement to me and all of us at our school. Brandon is from Ontario, Ore and is a 24-year-old, mild mannered, gifted teacher. Lynell is 19, from Victoria, BC and is a creative, vivacious dynamo. Brandon came in Sept. a month after I did, and Lynell came last month. Both have brought such energy and vitality to our school.
Last night I sat in on one of Brandon’s children’s classes and was very impressed with his lessons. He is making learning English such fun for these kids. When I went from the first to the third floor to get some tape for Brandon, I could hear the children’s laughter ringing throughout the building! What music to my ears! Brandon also plays the guitar and sings very well and is popular with the young and adult students alike. Lynell has an incredible love for people, especially children. She is a “people magnet.” People are just drawn to her.
Both Brandon and Lynell, unconsciously, are causing me to daily step outside my comfort zone and do things I wouldn’t ordinarily do. This past Monday, after getting back to Hanoi after a week in Ho Chi Minh City, Brandon invited me to go with him and a group of other young people on a day long excursion to Tam Do, a mountain village by motorbike some 60 kms from here. After declining, the next morning at the sound of the rooster crowing, I repented and felt this coward’s heart needed to be pushed to further limits. I went and was very glad I did. It broadened my borders and enlarged my heart, not to mention seeing one of the most beautiful places on the whole planet! I might have a 57-year-old body but the company I’m keeping is causing me to have an 18-year-old heart!
Brandon, Lynell and I are planning a train trip to China and Hong Kong in January when the school is closed for Tet, the Vietnamese lunar New Year. This is another thing I wouldn’t ordinarily do on my own, and I certainly wouldn’t do it alone. In preparation for our trip, one of the teachers here, who is from Taiwan, is teaching us Chinese two nights a week after our classes are over…another step outside the comfort zone.
Each time we are willing to take a step outside our comfort zone it increases our willingness to take yet another step on the adventure, which is called Life. I see teachers here who’ve left their homeland to come and teach a people eager and willing to learn. I see people so deeply appreciative and respectful of foreigners who’ve come here to labor. It would have been so easy for Brandon and Lynell to stay home with their families and friends and just plan a life of marriage, home and family. Yet, here they are…outside their comfort zones and growing, thriving, and prospering. Oh how I long other young people and older ones too, would be willing to leave their comfort zones and take similar steps. We never grow until we leave our comfort zone.
Sat. Dec. 6, 2003... “The Great Hanoi Victory Parade”…
“There is no such thing as an unimportant day.”
This has been a rather remarkable week. I shudder to think how it will end at close of the day but thus far, it has been anything but a “typical week.” However, thus far in this rather remarkable country there hasn’t BEEN a typical week. No week has resembled the last…and no day has resembled the last. All I have to do is step outside our door and walk across Doi Can St. or now, I should say TRY to walk across Doi Can.
Last week I wrote that there is probably no place on earth I felt safer than here. Open mouth, insert foot. Speak words, eat words. Well, Sunday, while crossing our busy street, in a period of relatively light traffic, , I was blind-sided from behind by a motorbike. Somehow I was able to stay upright but it tore the left leg of my trousers almost completely off and put a wound in my leg. The driver of the motorbike looked more dazed than I did. It embarrassed me more than anything else as I had to hold my trousers together to finish my walk home to repair myself. Very few people witnessed the event, only about half of Hanoi. Here, an accident of any magnitude is a spectator sport as the only violence that exists is accidental.
My ego was more bruised than anything else. While my wounded leg and bruised ego were healing, I got the flu on Tues. I doubt the motorbike incident caused it. So, after 3 days in bed and very little food, I went to school on Thursday nite with a ravenous appetite. After my class was over, I asked Brandon if he would take me on his motorbike downtown to a Western restaurant called Alfrescos for a pizza. He kindly agreed.
Now there is one very important detail I need to mention at this point in my story. Vietnam is crazy about soccer, which they call “football.” I’ve always thought they have the term right. In American football there is very little “foot” and a whole lot of “sock”…so we should call our NFL soccer, not football. Anyway…I digress…it must have been the motorbike accident. As I said, Vietnam goes hysterical over their national team and this week is the most glorious week in Vietnam because the 22nd SEAGAMES are being held right now throughout this land. The SEAGAMES are held once every 2 years in Southeast Asia and this year, for the first time, perhaps ever, they are being held here. 11 countries are competing for gold medals in this mini-Olympics.
On Thursday afternoon Indonesia played Vietnam in soccer for a berth in the semi-finals. The stadium is a mile from our school but when Vietnam scored their lone goal a roar could easily be heard at our school. That lone goal stood up as Vietnam went on to win 1-0.
Meanwhile, back to Brandon and I on the motorbike headed to downtown Hanoi for pizza. We hadn’t traveled on the streets of Hanoi for very long before it became apparent this was to be a week like no other in the capital city of Vietnam. People were out in mass. Waving the national red flag with the lone yellow star in the center. They had the flag painted on their faces. They wore red head-bands. They were yelling and celebrating as if they had just beat the Denver Broncos in the Superbowl!
We had not traveled very far when I felt going anywhere tonight was a bad idea. Had Brandon wanted to turn back I would have seconded the motion but Brandon is not easily frightened. All of a sudden we were in a sea of motorbikes and it became apparent to me we could no more turn back than a lone steer could reverse the flow of a stampede! Another thing became apparent to me. We were the only foreigners in this flow of red. And another thing became apparent to me. We were the only ones who didn’t have a spot of red on. One motorbike driver next to us said in perfectly good English, “WHERE is your flag???”
Suddenly, I spotted a lady selling Vietnamese flags and head-bands on the curb. I begged Brandon to pull over while I quickly purchased two small flags and a head-band. From then on, we felt safe, although the wall-to- wall motorbikes limited our progress downtown to Alfrescos. Brandon did a super job of keeping his motorbike and me upright and moving upstream as we arrived alive at the Western restaurant.
Ever since Brandon took his children’s class to Alfrescos a month ago to try pizza for the first time, he has been given preferential treatment by the staff there and he was greeted by name when we arrived. We were ushered upstairs and seated at the balcony where we could watch the celebrations on the street below. Brandon and I searched for a word to describe the scene. It was “pandemonium.” Neither of us had ever seen anything like it before. We had just ridden in the greatest victory parade in Hanoi history. At least, modern history.
There was no end in sight to the celebrating. As we watched all this, it struck me: there was no alcohol involved in all this! We never saw one person drinking or drunk during all this revelry. I am not saying that some people had not been drinking but this flow of red-flag-waving motorbikes was a controlled pandemonium. It was like a flock of starlings when they swoop one way and then another, almost chaotically but in unison and harmony, without breaking formation! Almost as if they had one connected mind. That is how the flow went.
Hanoi was like a city in America after they had just won the Superbowl…only without drinking and without something that often accompanies alcohol use: violence. No cars were overturned and set on fire. No windows were broken. No one was killed. No guns were fired. No one was even hurt according to the account in the newspaper the next morning. It was exuberant, controlled pandemonium. It was controlled by something that defines the Vietnamese character and culture: RESPECT.
Respect is at the heart and soul of Vietnam. There is a deep engrained respect for the family, the parents, and the authority of the culture and country here. Respect kept those crazed, celebrating citizens from destroying property or each other. And us! In fact, when they saw a couple of white-skinned Westerners riding along side of them carrying Vietnamese flags with red head-bands they laughed, smiled, and gave us a “thumbs-up.”
This will be a week I will never forget. Before this week I had 2 little American flags on the wall of my bedroom. Now, as a memorial to the “Great Hanoi Victory Parade” I have a little red flag of Vietnam closely snuggled between them! I am coming to love this land…and I’m gaining a DEEP respect for the Vietnamese.
Sun. Dec. 14, 2003... No Rest Homes Here…
“Your only treasures are those which you carry in your heart."
Winter has come to Hanoi! It has turned cold this week so I brought out my sweater, fleece vest, and coat, all on one day. While riding on the back of a motorbike I realized this cold can go right thru you like a knife. However, to offset the cold we had a very warm and productive 3 day teacher-student conference at our school. There is so much I would like to write about but that will have to wait for another day. I could write volumes about some of my experiences here but most of what is treasured in my heart will have to wait until I can come home and share one on one with you, as well as share pictures that I’ve taken.
“Your only treasures are those which you carry in your heart."
Although the above quote was sent to me by my cousin in Denver, this could easily have been the theme of the last 3 days. I have hundreds of pictures that I’ve taken while I’ve been here but in essence, what I will come home with from Vietnam is what is in this enlarged heart of mine. Every experience we go thru effects us in one way or another…and the condition of our heart will either determine if we become harder or softer. The same boiling water that makes the egg hard, makes the potato soft. Although I have no family over here to share my experiences with, I am amazed at how my heart is being knit together with so many of my colleagues and students. I didn’t know a single person here when I first came to Hanoi 3 months ago but now I feel I have “a family” here. The conference this weekend almost felt like a family reunion!
I’ve got a writing assignment for you, my friends and family. Many of my students here have asked me to describe our American holiday of Christmas. Would you please send me a few paragraphs of what Christmas means to you, if anything. I am rather at a loss as to know what to write. Each year at this time of year, I try to attend at least one performance of Handel’s Messiah. Here, since there are no Christian churches, there will be no Messiah performed, not at least in Hanoi. There are Christian churches in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) as any churches that existed in the former country known as South Vietnam before the change in government in 1975 are allowed to continue to exist. Here in Hanoi there is only one old Catholic cathedral. That is the extent of organized religion outside Buddhist places of worship. 90% of this country are nominal Buddhists. Each home has a shrine where they burn incense to the ancestors.
As I’ve chronicled in past emails, the family is the supreme foundation of Vietnamese life and culture. Governments can come and go. Centuries can come and go but the family will remain so long as our Western influences and ideas don’t erode family values. Compare the divorce rate in America with that here in Vietnam. We’ve now achieved the highest divorce rate in the world, topping 50%. Guess what Vietnam’s divorce rate is? If you guess 1% you are too high. The divorce rate here is .7%…that is POINT 7 percent…less than 1%.
One of the questions I ask my students is, “Why is the divorce rate so low in Vietnam?” Their answers usually center around one of three things: (1) traditional values (2) keeping family intact for children and (3) the strength, tenacity, and determination of Vietnamese women to keep their marriage together at any cost! I keep coming to the same conclusion: We Americans have so much to learn from Vietnam!
Before I came to Vietnam I bought a guidebook called, “Lonely Planet…Vietnam Phrasebook.” In the introduction, I was not struck by the following passage, while reading it is America, but now that I’ve been here for three months I feel this is both accurate and profound:
“When learning a language, it’s useful to have a basic understanding of some aspects of the culture. There are three things you are sure to notice when traveling in Vietnam. One of these is the respect that is held for elders. According to Vietnamese beliefs, each generation inherits cultural perspectives and expectations of life from previous generations. Elderly people are, as a result, highly respected. The reasons are simple: they made great sacrifices for their country, their patriotism prevented foreign invasion, and they are now the only link between the dead and the living.”
Can you understand a little why there are no rest homes here? Can you understand what it would be like to see the eyes of the elderly here glistening and brightly shining because they are reverenced? When I was working as Bob Pfister’s caregiver in San Jose, I would take him to the rest home almost everyday to see his wife and I’d just cringe at seeing all the people with glazed-over eyes, just waiting for death to come and take them from their miserable existences. However, in the dining room, there was a group of about 4 Asian elderly ladies. I don’t know if they were Chinese or Japanese but they, unlike the others, had a twinkle in their eyes and a smile on their face. They usually always had visitors also. They were cherished, and they knew they were cherished, even though they were in the rest home. That struck me, even before I saw elderly people here.
Wed. Dec. 17, 2003... Chantal…VN #22
My Dear Family and Friends,
“The world will stand aside to let any pass…If he knows where he is going."
Every person on this earth has a dream. Few people dare to dream their dream and even fewer ever have the courage or ability to live their dream. Chantal Charbonneau is living her dream. At the time I am writing this she is now flying from Hanoi to Singapore on the 8th leg of a one year tour around the world. Chantal’s dream, since she was a little girl, was to travel around the world. Chantal has made the choice to make her dream become a reality. This story is about making your dream become a reality.
A month ago, when I was in Ho Chi Minh City, (formerly Saigon) I took a one day sight-seeing tour with nine other people. I sat next to Chantal in the tour van and instantly took a liking to her. She was pleasant, outgoing, and friendly. In the course of our day together and having lunch with her, I learned Chantal was in the midst of a dream come true. A native of Quebec, Canada, she spoke both French and English and had always dreamed of touring the world. For 20 years she saved up her money and 7 months ago she sold her house in Canada and left her family’s printing business to buy a 1 year travel package on Singapore Airlines to make a 1 month stop in 12 countries. Her 7th country was Vietnam. She is now on her way to Australia via Singapore.
This week’s assignment for my Intermediate Communication class and Pre-Intermediate class is to write and tell about their dreams. Since many of us never formulate nor verbalize our dream, little less live our dream, I thought it would be a good idea to bring Chantal into my classroom and have my students interview her and get her to tell about her 1 month tour of Vietnam and the world. It is the dream of most of my students to travel abroad, especially to America and other English speaking countries. Chantal told them how to make that dream come true. Many foreign companies are now being established in Vietnam and many require or encourage their employees to speak English since it is the international language of commerce and finance and may someday become the most common language of the world. Already, in the second largest country in the world, India, more people speak English than any one Indian dialect. In the largest country in the world, China, English is more in demand than any other language. The same is true for Vietnam. Learning English is one of the first steps in making the dream to travel abroad become easier.
As my students asked her one question after another they began to piece together Chantal’s dream. She is 40 years old. She has never been married. She was one of 4 members of her family who had worked in her family’s small printing business in Quebec. She loves animals, especially puppies. On her tour around the world she spent one month in each of the following countries: England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy, Greece and Vietnam. After Australia, Chantal will go on to New Zealand, Tahiti, and then end her tour in the United States. She will return home to Canada in May, one year to the day she started her amazing world tour.
Last night, Chantal told the class about her incredible month in Vietnam. She has gone from the southern end of the country to the northern end and toured all the major cities, Da Nang, Sapa, Hue, the Mekong Delta, Da Lat, besides of course, HCM and Hanoi. She chose Vietnam over all other Asian countries because it has the lowest crime rate and is very safe for a single woman to travel alone in. She encouraged the students, before traveling abroad to discover their own country first. She said it was so varied and different, from one place to another. Chantal told the students about places in Vietnam they had never even heard of. She told about the borders of her heart had being enlarged by her travel experiences and the people she’s met on her journey.
As the students asked Chantal questions, you could seem the gleam in their eyes and the intent, rapt interest. They longed to do the same. They were reassured that their dreams could become a reality. And she told them she was saving the best for last. Her favorite singer, they learned, is Celine Dion. She will spend her final week in May in Las Vegas, Nevada where 18 of her friends are flying from Canada to meet her. They all will go with Chantal to attend a live concert where Celine will perform. Like Chantal, Celine Dion, also a native of Quebec, is living her dream. As the 13th child in a very large family, Celine has risen to stardom and fame. Chantal can recite Celine’s biography for over an hour, as if reading it out of a book.
Thu. Dec. 25, 2003... Christmas in Vietnam…
“The Grinch couldn‘t steal Christmas…it wasn‘t a thing, a place or a time…Christmas was a spirit in the heart!" (from “The Grinch who Stole Christmas” By Dr. Seuss.
Last year at Christmas, I had gone home to Denver to spend time with my mom and relatives in Colorado. I remember going for a walk on Christmas morning wondering where I would be on Christmas day in 2003. Likely I’d have laughed in unbelief if someone would have told me I’d be in Vietnam this Christmas.
The Vietnamese do not celebrate Christmas. Today was just a regular workday in Hanoi. Therefore, it was so surreal to hear the school children in the elementary school next to our home (and I mean RIGHT next to our home) singing “We wish you a Merry Christmas” at 7:30 this morning. Western influence is creeping into Vietnam, and it’s creeping as slow as a tidal wave! In the 4 months I’ve been here I see this country opening like a rose. Prosperity is coming to Vietnam. FAST!
But Toto, we are still not in Kansas yet. Nor Colorado. Nor America. Take today for example. I had told my 3 housemates, Roger, Rex and Brandon that I’d cook them a traditional American Christmas turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Our lone Western woman teacher, Lynelle, offered to help me. I was busy all day yesterday so decided to buy the ingredients for the dinner today. You don’t buy turkey in Hanoi at the last minute…nor hardly any other time. Turkey is an unknown commodity here. However, there are 2 Western markets here and I figured they’d have turkey. The first market, L’s Place, was ACTUALLY CLOSED! Probably the only business establishment besides our school that was closed on Christmas day here in Hanoi! Fortunately, the second place, was open and I was able to get two turkey legs.
So, in our little microwave I somehow was able to miraculously cook turkey legs. There are no ovens in the homes here, just butane 2 burner stoves…kind of like looking on a Coleman camping stove. Then in the largest pot we have, I put in potatoes to boil to make mashed potatoes and in the other pot I put in carrots. I was able to scrape together enough turkey drippings to make a small pot of turkey gravy. After considerable effort, and untold kilometers on the back of Roger’s motorbike, 8 of us sat down to a meal of mashed potatoes and gravy, 2 turkey drumsticks, a pot of carrots and…thanks to Lynelle, a loaf of homemade bread, a wonderful tossed green salad with walnuts and mangos, and for dessert, pumpkin pie with whipped cream.
Also present with us were 3 Vietnamese who were having this traditional American Christmas dinner for the first time. Chi and Phuong are my colleagues on a side-job I have writing for the Vietnam Social Sciences Journal. The Journal is an official government review that comes out once every two months. The other native guest was Anh, who is one of our teachers. She teaches basic English to our Vietnamese students who have no English speaking skill at all. All 3 girls are very fluent in English and the conversation around the dinner-table was lively and filled with laughter. It was one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had, in spite of having to share 2 drumsticks with 8 others. In fact, it was as good a Christmas as I can ever remember. No tree, no lights, no glitter, just food and friends and laughter and good conversation. Maybe that is what the holiday season is really about. Wherever I am next year at Christmas, it is hard to imagine it being any better than this one. Vietnam never ceases to amaze me. Vietnam IS my Christmas present and the friends and “family” I’ve discovered here.