Friday, December 5, 2008

Chapter 5...Reverse Culture Shock...

Friday, Feb. 20, 2004…Going Home or Leaving Home?…

Noi Bai Airport…Hanoi…11 AM…sitting in the VN Airlines boarding area awaiting my flight for Hong Kong. Mixed emotions. Three months ago I was marking the days off the calendar until this day was to arrive…my day of departure for the USA.

Chi and Huong rode with me in the taxi. They were gabbing all the way to the airport and Chi brought me a pink string to tie around my finger, so as not to forget to return to Hanoi.

“Chi,” I said firmly, “I’ve already got a huge ribbon tied around my heart…I don’t need one on my finger!” I had to turn away from Chi and Huong because I felt a lump in my throat and eyes beginning to water. How is it that a few months ago I couldn’t wait to leave Vietnam and now I wanted to stay? What caused these changes in the heart?

Now on the plane…noon…VN Airlines flight between Hanoi and Hong Kong. Visited briefly with a middle age couple sitting next to me from Canada. Asked them how they liked Hanoi…they were there for 5 days and said they hated it…traffic, noise, culture shock. Sounded like me after 3 months. To see true beauty in any culture you have to look below the surface.

In Hong Kong airport…2 PM…will board Cathay Pacific flight in about 30 minutes for SFO. 14 hour flight ahead of me and I’ll arrive in Calif. about the same time, same day I left Hanoi.

Friday, Feb. 27, 2004…at my mom’s in Denver…Reverse Culture Shock...

It seemed so strange stepping on American soil again. When I handed the agent my passport to clear customs in San Francisco, he asked me what I had been doing in VN for 6 months and when I told him, he handed back my passport, smiled and said, “Welcome home!” That felt good.

After renting a car, I drove to Santa Clara to see my youngest son Galen and his family. The first thing he noticed was that I had lost weight. “Looks like Vietnam agreed with you pops,” he announced.

After spending a few days with Galen, Shelly and my grandkids, Caden and Macy, I headed east on I-80 toward Denver. Stopping constantly to take pictures of the American landscape, as if I were seeing it all again for the first time, I especially lingered in the Sierras to get pictures of the snow. This would wow the students back in Hanoi.

In Utah I stopped at my first McDonalds. When I ordered a Big Mac, I told the kid behind the counter the last time I had a Big Mac was in Guangzhou, China. Obviously impressed, the kid’s response was, “Do you want fries with that?” So much for global consciousness in America.
Now, on my bed downstairs in the bedroom I occupied when in high school, I am typing my handwritten Hanoi journals into my laptop.

My mom, now 87, has really gone downhill since I last saw her before going to Hanoi 6 months ago. The house is a disaster. Piles of newspapers cover every inch of the kitchen table, over a foot high. It took me 3 hours to wash all the dirty dishes in the sink. My unemployed brother Danny, who lives here, spends every waking moment at the bar and only staggers home long after everyone is in bed. After I take care of filing my income tax and a few other items of business, I will be glad to be going back to Hanoi. Besides the homes of friends, I have no other home except this one here in Denver. Tomorrow I’ll drive down to Colorado Springs to visit my oldest son Jason and his wife Cat and my other grandkids, Carson and Kai.

Friday, March 12, 2004…58 in Denver

Turned 58 today and feel still wet behind the ears. Yesterday I got an email from Roger in Hanoi telling me not to return to Vietnam. He said the school was closing down in April so I won’t have a job to come back to. Also, he and the other teachers are all leaving to return to their homelands after the school closes so I won’t have a home to come back to either.

Although a bit surprised, it didn’t shock me. I knew I was going back to Hanoi anyway, because I left something very important there I have to go back for; my heart. So, I plan on returning the middle of next month.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004...Reflections on America…

I’ll be returning to Vietnam tomorrow.

Now, there are some things I must write before I go back to the other shore. I must write what is on my mind about America. After 6 months in Vietnam, I’ve come to appreciate my homeland like never before. For all of America’s faults and failures, it is still the greatest nation on the earth. What do we have that Vietnam doesn’t? I’ve been thinking about that ever since I’ve come home and there are three things about the home of the brave and land of the free that have come acutely into my focus. The three things that are in greatest contrast to Vietnam are LIBERTY, OPPORTUNITY, AND PROSPERITY.

There are things that I don’t have the liberty to write about in Vietnam. On the other hand, we have freedoms here that permit people to burn our flag, an act that infuriates and saddens me…but such is the freedom of expression in this country. In Vietnam it is illegal to own or carry a gun. In America someone would kill you for trying to take their gun away from them! We have so many liberties here that we take for granted. Maybe, just maybe we have too many liberties. However, liberty leads to opportunity.

For example, Colin Powell, a poor Jamaican youth rose from poverty in NY City to become the US Secretary of State. Quyen Lee, a refuge from Vietnam, worked in an LA bakery and even slept there at night, working 16 hours a day until he was able to buy the bakery and now owns a chain of donut shops and is a millionaire. Ken Hamblin, a fatherless black grew up as a gang member but after getting drafted, took advantage of the GI Bill and went to college to improve his station in life and became a talk show host on a prominent Denver radio station, as well as a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist. Opportunity breed prosperity.

America is the most prosperous nation on the planet and in the history of the planet. My Vietnamese students tell me they want Vietnam to be more like America and I caution them and explain, “I want America to be more like Vietnam!”

I’ve come to love Vietnam, it’s people, it’s culture, and it’s beauty. Tomorrow I will be returning to Hanoi for an indefinite period of time. I’ll not be able to write about the things that are most precious to me…the beauties in God’s Word, the beauties of His people there or the beauty and power of His handiwork there.
Sat. April 17, 2004...Go with the flow….

At this moment I’m at Morris and Chu-han’s and it is 11:30 AM. They are in their rooms studying with Tan. It was so good to see her again.

My first official journal entry of my “2nd Tour of Duty” in Vietnam. Roy took me to the SF airport on Wedns. Nite and he went as far with me as he could go before I waved him goodbye. He is such a good man. He is the kind of man I want to be. He is like Jesus. That’s the perfect pattern When Roy waved me goodbye Wedns nite and I walked to the gate, I felt so all alone. I felt so utterly lonely, yet I know in the depths of my heart God is with me. We can feel all alone, even when we are not. Not being with people can make us feel alone but the true loneliness is being without God. When we come to the end of life’s journey I don’t want to be outside the presence of God. When I took my seat on the plane I felt so totally and utterly alone and in a sense, wanted to stay in America. I know these feelings are normal.

Opportunity missed: When I checked in at Cathay Pacific to come here, the ticket agent asked me if I would volunteer to give up my seat as the plane had been overbooked. They would give me $400 and get me on the next plane the next night. When I hesitated, she added, “And we will upgrade your seat to First Class if there are any available.” What a difference it would have been to travel richer and better. My main reservation for not doing it was because I was to meet John in Hong Kong to get the mail. However, where there is a will there is a way. Maybe John was just an excuse because I didn’t want to inconvenience myself. Ironic, one more night in America would have rewarded me with $400 and a possible First Class ride to Hong Kong! I need to me more flexible and more aware of and willing to take advantage of Opportunities.

I sat next to Jennifer, a young lady of Chinese heritage who was born in Taiwan but grew up in Calif. and got her BS degree from UCLA in psychology. She was on her way to Thailand to visit her sister and we had a nice chat for about an hour but after a time we seemed to run out of things to talk about. She was a world traveler and had been to many countries all over the world. As Jennifer and I chatted, I realized how much I love people and draw comfort from getting to know people. As soon as we started to talk my loneliness seemed to dissipate. She used the word “privilege” often and I commented to her how seldom we hear that in our country. Often times we hear people in America talking about “their rights” but not “their privileges.” Jennifer is an exceptional lady and I feel she has a bright future ahead of her. She’s been working as a marketing research consultant for 8 years in the Bay Area.

Yesterday I did have a very brief visit in Hong Kong with John M. and got the mail for the workers. The flight from HK to Hanoi was most enjoyable. There were very few people on the plane and I had the luxury of having the whole back of the plane to myself. Only Roger was there to meet me when I landed and I got a hug from him, just as I did when I first came 8 months ago. He will always be like a son to me.

Roger and I got a taxi and had a lively visit on the way to Morris and Chu-han’s. I learned later that Van Ahn and Tan took the bus to the airport to see me but arrived too late. What a pity! I laid down for a brief rest and felt very thankful to be back in Hanoi. After Chu-han made us a good Vietnamese lunch of rice and stir-fry veggies, Lynelle came and it was so great to see her again. Now all we need is Brandon!!! Lynelle took me to the school to see Thuy…now all we need is Minh! Lynelle’s bedroom ceiling was leaking from all the rain…took a xe om to the Hoa Binh Hotel so see Darlene and spent the evening with her. Took her out to the “wrong” Little Hanoi for her birthday dinner and then we went back to her hotel to wait for the others while I had such an impossible time trying to stay awake! Len, Robert, and Marcus from Australia arrived with Roger. Lynelle and Thuy had come too so we had quite a reunion there in the hotel lobby but I was just wasted so couldn’t wait to get back to the bach to crash!

Slept soundly thru the nite and awoke refreshed today. I checked my email a little while ago and it was great to hear from Chi via email finally. Lunch again with the boys and Tan joined us.

The thing that has impressed me the deepest today is when Chu-han was offering thanks for breakfast this morning and it touched me so deeply I got teary eyes. I felt so incredibly thankful to be back here in Vietnam! I really love being here! There is no place I’ve ever been in my life where I feel more a sense of belonging than here. Darlene can fully understand my feelings!

Sunday, April 25th, 2004...Good Morning Vietnam!

On Wednesday nite, April 14, my dear friend, Roy drove me to the San Francisco airport for my return to Vietnam. As we walked together down to the security checkpoint, I said goodbye to him and told him he had gone as far with me as he could go. The rest of the way I had to walk alone. It was at that time that a strange and sad loneliness came upon me. As much as I had wanted to return to Vietnam, I was sad to leave a newly discovered America.

After having been in Vietnam for the previous 6 months, America seemed such a prosperous and wonderful land during the 2 months I was there. I rediscovered our hard fought liberty, opportunity and prosperity. I traveled over 6,000 miles during that time, visiting friends and relatives in the western states. I ate all the foods I couldn’t get in Vietnam. Packed into those 2 months were many memorable visits and sharing pictures and stories about Vietnam. In one sense I was more than ready to come back to Hanoi but in another sense I wanted to stay in my homeland. However, 2 overwhelming factors made it easier to leave America: (1) knowing without the shadow of a doubt this is where I am meant to be and (2) the people here in Vietnam have won my heart.

It makes matters a little more difficult coming back to our school which will close on May 1st after having been in operation for 3 years. On top of that I am homeless. While I was in America, Brandon, Roger and Rex, my room-mates moved out of our house. Rex went back to New Zealand and Roger will soon be returning to his native Australia after the close of the school. Brandon just returned from a 3 month trip thru China, Mongolia, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. While he was in Laos, last week, he was robbed twice and barely made it back to Hanoi. That is another story, best left for Brandon to tell. Anyway, for a few brief weeks, I am with my 3 “kids” that I traveled to Hong Kong and China with in January, Lynelle, Roger and Brandon. It is likely the last time I will be together with these 3 incredible youngsters at the same time. This privilege in itself was worth coming back to Hanoi for! Lynelle will stay on here in Vietnam, likely teaching Kindergarten after the school closes.

As for me, only One knows what the future holds. Roger, Brandon and I are camped in Morris and Steve’s 2 bedroom home on the outskirts of Hanoi. I’ve been actively looking for a house or apartment. I’ll just have to keep looking. However, I do have a job. Actually, 3 part time jobs. I still work for the Vietnam Social Sciences Journal as their English editor. Also, I will take over Roger’s morning editing job with the Vietnam Economic Review when he leaves, and I have formed a class of my own. Last nite was my first nite to teach a class of seven. Between all 3 jobs, I should be able to make ends meet here.

“Any kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted” Aesop

Yesterday 2 of my students took me house hunting. Out of the kindness of their heart they paid for 2 real-estate agents to show us around. That touched me deeply. They wouldn’t let me repay them. After looking at a couple of houses, we followed the agents on motorbikes to a third house. The house owner was not there to let us in so the agents phoned him. He said he’d be there to let us in and show us the house in about 30 minutes. I could see the frustration on my student’s faces. They were very apologetic for the delay but to me this was all just part of this new adventure of hunting for a house in Hanoi.

While we stood outside chatting, the next door neighbor came out and asked us what we 5 were doing standing around this empty house. When the agents explained we were waiting for the house owner to come and show us the home, he insisted we come in and sit down in his house and wait. We did so. While we waited, the neighbor poured us tea and shared hospitality with us. Here we were perfect strangers to this man and all of a sudden we were sitting around his table drinking his tea and receiving this great kindness. In Vietnam, this is the kind of hospitality that is standard. And, hospitality is instant.

As we 5 were seated around the neighbor’s table, one of the agents, a young lady about 30, took some hot water from a thermos and poured it in one of the small tea cups. She then poured it from cup to cup, almost ritualistically to clean all 5 cups before tea was poured in. The neighbor then put tea leaves in a tea pot and added hot water from the thermos. This is the way the Vietnamese always have hot water for tea ready for unexpected guests. As we sipped tea, I was deeply touched by all the kindness of the day…my students paying the agents to show us houses, the graciousness of the neighbor and the agent cleaning the cups before we shared tea together. By the time the owner of the house had arrived, I had already had a most delightful visit, thru the interpretation of my students, with the agents and the neighbor. Kindness is deeply imbedded in this culture.

Next week when I write, I hope I can report on finding a house. None of the houses I looked at yesterday were suitable. The average price of the homes we saw was a little above my budget at $300 per month.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004...“Moving Days…”…

Laying on my bed, I’m writing you after over a month of being back in Vietnam. Looking around my bedroom here I have to confess that this place is a disaster area. After staying with 2 of our teachers, Morris and Steve for 4 weeks, I found a place of my own and have been in the process of moving in here for the past few weeks. Last Saturday 2 of our teachers, Lana and Debbie moved out of their apartment for HCM and I inherited their furniture so I have plenty more boxes to unpack downstairs.

My house is quiet by Hanoi standards. It is far removed from horns and busy streets and is tucked away in a maze of lanes and alleys. The little lane I live on is so narrow that a petite taxi is unable to back down here. This was a problem in moving Saturday as the little moving truck had to park about 80 meters away and we had to carry boxes from the truck to my house. Luckily we had a lot of help from former students.

This house is typical Hanoi architecture; long and narrow and high. It is 11 feet wide by 50 feet deep with 4 stories. On the first floor is a small kitchen, living room, motor-bike parking area and guest toilet. The second floor is where my bedroom and bathroom resides. The 3rd floor is a room and bathroom the same size as on the 2nd floor but I use it for a classroom. On the 4th floor is another bedroom and a place for a washing machine, which I inherited from Lana and Debbie on Sat.

Work is plentiful here for Native English Speakers. During the weekdays I work as English editor for the Vietnam Economic News which is published weekly and is the official publication of the Ministry of Commerce and Finance for the nation. The working conditions and the staff, as well as the pay, are all excellent. This job just fell into my lap when I returned here. They hired me sight unseen on the sole basis that I was recommended by Roger, whether I cud rite a sentence or spell a single word in English. In addition, I’ve got another editing job with the Vietnam Social Science Review but it’s only published once every 2 months so I only correct articles for it a couple of weeks bi-monthly.

The biggest serendipity however, isn’t the blessed job with the Economic News but the number of students who have signed up to learn English. The demand to learn English in Hanoi is unreal. It is like there suddenly is this mass explosion to learn our mother tongue.

Saturday, June 5, 2004 “A Room With A View”

When you look out your bedroom window, what do you see? Have you ever lived somewhere where you had a room with an unforgettable view? I do.

It is unlikely I will be able to recall years from now my view from my front window from my second floor bedroom here in Hanoi. It looks out on a solid brick wall. However, I’ve spent hours looking out my back window night and day. It is a scene I will never forget…no matter how long I live.

I thought about taking pictures of it with my digital camera and sending them to you. Then my conscience got the best of me. Perhaps, instead of a picture, I will try to describe it.

The first thing you see looking out my back bedroom window is the back of a tenement building with what I estimate to be about 40 apartments in one long building. Laundry hangs on lines in back of each apartment. Sometimes at night I stand at the window and watch a microcosm of Hanoi city life take place. People preparing and eating dinner…watching television…chatting with neighbors. During the day there are mostly women and children as the men have gone to work. The tenement is about 40 yards from my house.

Between my house, which is attached to a long row of townhouses where we all share common walls with the neighbors on each side of us, and the tenement building across from me, are other dwellings, if I can call them such. They are temporary. They are tents. Made out of plywood and cardboard sides with visqueen plastic for a roof, they are the homes of construction workers, the lowest paid city dwellers. They are temporary because they will move on once their current project is completed and they are temporary because they can’t afford anything else.

I watch the worker’s wives cook on charcoal burners and go to public water spouts to get water to cook with and wash clothes and dishes. This is a view that both mesmerizes me and makes me cringe at the same time. I have never lived so close to abject poverty in my life. What is worse, I am powerless to do anything about it. Someone once said that we will always have the poor with us. Always. There will never be a world without poverty. For all its natural beauty, Vietnam is still one of the poorest countries in the world.

After having worked at The Vietnam Economic News for a month now as the English editor, facts and figures of the economy of this country flood my head. The gross domestic product (GDP) last year, the most prosperous in its history, was $40 billion. This stands 131st in the world economy. In 2002, the average per capita income in Vietnam was $241...less than a dollar a day per person.

All is not gloom and doom however. The good news is in 2004 the average per capita income is expected to be $431 for city dwellers…much less for the farmers who make up 80% of the country’s population. One popular indicator that the country is on the rise is that everyone owns a TV…almost everyone. There are some of us who opt not to have them.

Other than when I look out my back window, the only other time the poverty of Vietnam struck me so hard is when I crossed the border between Vietnam and China, coming home from our China trip in February. Leaving the prosperity of China and crossing the Red River into Vietnam reminded me of the time I crossed over into Mexico from the United States, only here is was more stark. However, there is something you see in the United States that you don’t see in Vietnam; homeless people wandering the streets. No matter how poor or makeshift, everyone has a roof to come home to. And usually under that roof is a wife and loving kids.

I watch the construction workers interact with their wives and children and they seem so happy to me. In fact, the whole citizenry of Vietnam seems happy, almost as if having money is NOT the key ingredient to happiness. There may be less dollars per capita here than anywhere else I’ve been but I can promise you there are more smiles per capita than anywhere else I’ve ever been or will likely be on this planet. Smiles come quickly and easily and are genuine and heartfelt. It is easy…so easy to love the Vietnamese.

Everyone says I am charging my students too little…about $1 per person per lesson, yet when most people only make that much in a day, how can you have the heart to charge more? Most of my students are still in college so they are trying to pay for tuition and books also. I have 52 students and what I charge them doesn’t even cover my rent of $260 per month. But I can’t in good conscience charge more. I have classes 6 nites a week.

Learning English is one way to escape poverty. There is this huge explosion in Vietnam to learn English as ours is the language of the future and the language of finance. Today, while on the back of a motorbike traveling to my class, 2 different people pulled next to me on their motorbikes and wanted my business card in order to call me and learn English. I have hired Susan Tche to help me with my classes as my enrollment is increasing.

Susan is a recent graduate from UC-Berkeley and I met her here in Hanoi about 6 months ago. Her father and mother were born in Hanoi and moved to San Francisco after the war. Susan was born in SF and had never been to Vietnam before so her father brought her here on his first trip back in Nov. to rediscover his roots. They had read the Mercury News article and figured since they knew no one here it would be a possible contact. Now Susan has come back to Hanoi for the summer and needs a job before returning to Calif. in Sept. She has the distinct advantage of speaking fluent Vietnamese as well as English without an accent. She will help me with classes that I will be splitting in 2 because they are getting too big. I am meeting people who are enriching me and expanding my heart. Yes, English is a way out of poverty…for both me and the Vietnamese.

Friday June 18, 2004…Hue…Move over Hanoi, you've just been replaced as the most beautiful city in Vietnam by your Central sister, Hue. After 4 days in Hue, it has now become the crown jewel of the country according to the unofficial vote of my heart. Not even the constant downpour could soak my impressions of this gorgeous ancient city.Having come to Hanoi to teach English 10 months ago, I fell in love with the capitol city and didn't see how any other metropolis in Vietnam could surpass Hanoi's serene beauty. With Hoan Kiem Lake at the center and many lush lakes and parks abounding, Hanoi captivated my heart. I had been to Sapa. I had been to Ha Long Bay. I had been to HCM City. However, they didn't have the romantic chemistry of Hanoi. No place came close until I went to Hue.Leaving Hanoi by train Friday night, June 11, I was traveling with a couple of my dearest English students to Festival Hue 2004. Khoa had been to Hue several times and Huong had gone once when she was in high school. They both promised me I'd be impressed. That was an understatement. I was mesmerized!Blurry-eyed from the 17-hour ride on hard seats, we rested a few hours in our hotel on Saturday afternoon before attending the opening ceremony that night. Colorful hot-air balloons were tethered near the stage. They had to constantly gobble fire to stay aloft in the pouring monsoon. Like the balloons, I felt my spirit soar. Traditional Vietnamese songs and dances highlighted the initial ceremony. The rain came down harder but couldn't discourage the hearts of thousands of celebrants who were there to enjoy Vietnamese culture and cuisine.The next few days, as well as take in different aspects of the Festival, we toured Hue and the surrounding countryside. We walked all around the ancient citadel and we even spent the better part of one of the days going to Minh Mang Palace, which remains one of the most idyllic spots I've seen in the entire world, much less Vietnam.Nature blessed us this day with the rare appearance of the sun.One evening we took a boat-ride on the Huong Giang, (The Perfume River). On board with us were 7 musicians who played and sang traditional Vietnamese folk music and gave quite a performance, if judged by the hearty applause. Even the handicap of not understanding the language couldn't stop me from enjoying this experience immensely. These musicians were all attired in traditional ao dais. Their enthusiastic performance was brilliant. In order to make our dreams come true, the musicians encouraged us to light candles and put them afloat in little lanterns of the river. Mine went under the boat instead of floating out into the river so I think my secret wish got snuffed out. Even if my wish is gone, my memory of the evening remains vividly intact.However, my most unforgettable memory while in Hue is one I will forever cherish. In an effort to avoid crowds and noise, I told Khoa and Huong I wanted to go someplace quiet for breakfast where we could visit over a leisure meal. Khoa knew just the spot. Not far from the wall of the Forbidden City was a little restaurant out in the middle of a pond, surrounded by water-lilies and lotus. The Huong Sen (Perfumed Lotus) was a place I could have stayed all day. Sitting out on the balcony, safe from the downpour all around us, we ate a delicious breakfast in the most tranquil setting imaginable. I noticed how the raindrops turned to little diamonds on the lotus leaves. It was at that moment that I fell in love with Hue. Toi yeu Hanoi… but I love the gorgeous city of Hue just a little more.

Sunday, June 27, 2004...“Viet Kieu…”…VN#37

“Viet Kieu” (pronounced Viet “Q”) is a term the Vietnamese give to Vietnamese people who have left the country and are permanent residents of other countries now. There are more Viet Kieu in America than any other country. In fact, there are more Vietnamese is California alone, than in any other country outside Vietnam…over 1 million. There is an estimated 300,000 in San Jose and over 800,000 in Orange County. No country appreciates the transplanted Vietnamese community more than America does.

The crime rate here in Vietnam is very low and this is reflected in the Viet Kieu communities around the world. They are an honest, industrious, and a respectful people in general. Since all guns are outlawed here in Vietnam there are few murders. There are even fewer rapes and other violent crimes. According to UN statistics, and as reported in most guide books, Vietnam is the safest country in the world for a single, unaccompanied female to travel alone in. You may recall in November that I wrote about Chantal Charbonneau, traveling alone for a month in Vietnam. After completing her one year tour around the world with stops in many other countries, she reported when she got home that she felt safer in Vietnam than any other country.

The reason I’m writing about the Viet Kieu is because this month I have run in to scads of them. One is even staying with me right now, a man named Hung, from Huntsville, Alabama. It is really something to hear a Vietnamese, who can speak fluent Vietnamese, speak English with a southern accent! Also, one is working for me, helping me teach English, Susan, who is in her final semester at UC-Berkeley. While in Hue, I ran into 3 others. Many Vietnamese are returning here to try to make a connection to their roots and also to make a contribution to the society they are so much a part of. Many keep their Vietnamese names, such as Quang, Trang, and Chi.

While we were in Hue, we were in a little street restaurant and I heard English being spoken perfectly. I looked around me but all I saw were Vietnamese. Where could this perfect American English be coming from? I strained my ears and found a table near us where 3 young Vietnamese were conversing in English with no accent. I introduced myself to them and asked them where they were from. There were 2 girls and a boy. Bob was from Texas and he was just working for the US Embassy as a summer intern and would be returning to Texas to resume college in August. Quang and Trang were both graduates of Harvard and were working for the UN Population Fund for the summer. They were both born in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and left when they were small with their parents for America. They were enjoying every minute of being back in Vietnam.

Susan, who is working with me teaching English, was born in San Francisco, but her parents were both born here in Hanoi. They are some of the very few Viet Kieu who have migrated to America from the north…as most Viet Kieu left Vietnam from the south in 1975 after the communist reunification. Susan’s father brought her with him to in his very first visit to his homeland in Dec. She was so enthralled with Hanoi and the country that she wanted to come back for the summer. Speaking the perfect northern dialect, my students are stunned that Susan can speak to them in both Vietnamese and English and they prefer her voice to mine as they tell me it is more suitable to their ears and easier to understand. I think the boys like her because she is prettier! She keeps their attention.

Perhaps the most interesting Viet Kieu I’ve met yet is Hung, 28 whom I just met yesterday. He was traveling on the bus with Roger, up from Hoi An and they got talking and Roger knew I would be thrilled to meet him. Roger invited Hung to come and stay with me here at my place during the time he will be touring in northern Vietnam. Born in Saigon in 1976, Hung and his father left Vietnam in 1989 and spent 3 years in a refugee camp in Malaysia before they moved to America where his uncle lived in Huntsville, Alabama. Hung started 9th grade there knowing no English. By the time he graduated from high school in Alabama he was prepared for college and on the math section of the SAT he scored 790 out of a possible 800. His English score on the SAT was 500, about the same as mine…passable. He just completed his master’s degree in chemical engineering from the Univ. of Alabama-Huntsville and is now touring Vietnam for a month. He wants to live and work in Vietnam.

Last night I had my class interview Hung and they so enjoyed getting to know him. It is a dream for young Vietnamese to travel abroad, especially to visit America but it is almost impossible for them to get a visa to leave the country. We are so fortunate in the US to be able to get visas to travel to almost everywhere in the world. If a woman is unmarried, it is virtually impossible for her to get a visa to leave Vietnam as the government feels they will not return. Vietnam is afraid of the best and brightest leaving the country and creating an intellectual void and technological poverty. I love Vietnam, as you are aware of by now, but like any country, there are some things that need to change and will change in due season. However, instead of the brightest and best leaving, something else is happening in reverse. The brightest and best Viet Kieu are returning to Vietnam!

More and more Viet Kieu are overwhelmed with a feeling in their heart to return to Vietnam to help the country. Quang, Hung, Trang, Chi, and Susan, are here to contribute their energy and intelligence to the enrichment of this beautiful society. When they come, they come to give, not to take. They are investing Yankee know-how, generosity and American good-will when they step on this shore. They are making a difference to Vietnam, to America and themselves. They make me proud to be American and I am proud of them, as they are some of the best and brightest that America has to offer Vietnam.

According to the Vietnam Economic News that I work as foreign editor for, the largest group of American tourist here come from the ranks of returning GIs, coming to see their old battlefields and to heal old wounds and exorcise demons of their past. The next largest group of visitors from the US to Vietnam are Viet Kieu, coming to bring help and hope and to visit relatives. Then there are the sightseers.

A Viet Kieu friend of mine in Denver, Hinh, hopes to move to Vietnam and teach English when he retires in a few years. He exemplifies the spirit of service and the desire to reinvest his life in his homeland. Is it the country of their nativity that produces this philanthropy is some Viet Kieu or is it an overflow of generosity that is nurtured by the most giving country in the world? No matter what the answer, these Americans who were born on Vietnam’s soil are exemplary of the best of both worlds, and they are the past and the future of Vietnam.

Sunday, July 4th , 2004...“Curious George…”…VN#38
The Vietnamese are very curious people .especially about foreigners. Take the case of my next door neighbor, who I've come to call "Curious George" because of his almost neurotic examination of every aspect of my life. He wants to know the name and business of each person who comes to my door. When I first moved into my house 2 months ago, he told the landlord that it was a mistake for me to rent this house because there were no foreigners near here and that I would be lonely and homesick here. No one would come to visit me he told the landlord. Boy oh boy was he in for a shock!I think the first week pushed him over the edge. On my first Monday here, 3 of my students and Lynelle came to visit. He wanted to know their life history and how they met me and what business they had coming. Then Chi came with a stack of papers for me to correct. Curious George wanted to see the papers and he was frustrated when they were all in English. He asked Chi what they were about. She told him they were for the Vietnam Social Science Review, a bi-monthly publication I work for as a side job. I asked Chi what Curious George wanted. She told me in English. Then he asked her, since he speaks not even a word of English, what I had asked her. She laughed. This 3-way dialogue was starting to get comical to Chi. The more she laughed the more frustrated he became, getting left out of the joke…and the more frustrated he got the harder Chi, who has a very sharp wit and sense of humor, laughed. Then Alan, one of my students, showed up and Curious George turned his attention to Alan. Chi came in while CG interviewed Alan outside my door. Then Nhet showed up and I asked Nhet to talk to him for awhile so I could visit with Alan and Chi without CG wanting to know everything we were saying. Curious George invited Nhet into his house for tea and after about an hour with this lonely old man, Nhet emerged chuckling, saying, "He is 80% off his rocker."The first Friday in the new house, some of my friends had a house warming party in which there were about 20 people. Curious George was livid. There were too many to interview each one. It was about this time that he threw his hands up in despair and went into his house and locked the doors. He still walks by my open door every day and stands and looks in to watch me putter around in the kitchen. Now that I have 6 classes and 52 students coming and going each week, he has given up trying to keep a score card on who is who. He can't differentiate one group of students from another. Which is OK by me.A few weeks ago, I made the following entry in my daily log about Curious George:Chu-han wanted me to meet his Japanese classmates from his Vietnamese university class. We met at Capitol Gardens, a nice restaurant in a swanky hotel that serves a dynamite lunch buffet for 40,000 VND (a little less than $3.00) Alan went with me and actually took me on his motorbike. Now Alan and his motorbikes are "pieces of work" as my departed buddy, Tom Fredgren would say. Alan drives a 30-year-old Russian-made MINSK motorbike. It is the biggest, loudest, clunkiest, ugliest motorbike in Hanoi. When we started to leave my house, my neighbor, Curious George, who speaks no English, told Alan in Vietnamese that "his piece of junk belonged in a military museum as a lethal weapon." And I was crazy enough to ride on the back of it. Every time we stopped at a stop light...and Alan is one of the few people who actually stop at stop lights...even when they are green...but anyway when we stopped, people would look around and retighten the breathing masks everyone wears against pollution here.Another way that the Vietnamese manifest their curiosity is wanting to know what I buy and eat. Once, while walking home from the market with a plastic bag of fruit and vegetables, an old lady stopped me on the sidewalk and went thru by bag to see what I had purchased. Very curious people, these Vietnamese.There are no rules here about asking personal questions. I've been asked things here that would make most people in the states blush to think about, little less ask. I've been asked about my age, weight, salary, rent, eating habits, relationships, laundry detergent, shoe size, number of plates and dishes I own, toothpaste, meat preference, methods I use to wash and peel vegetables, medications I take, why my nose is so big, and on and on and on. You get the picture. Actually you don't…so come visit me and see for yourself...and be prepared to blush.

Sunday, July 18h , 2004...“Bits and Pieces #1…”…

This week an old friend, Richard D. a teacher from Calif will be with me for a few days. He has been teaching in China for the past 10 years and is making his first visit to Hanoi. He is here for a special conference that we have each July. It will be good to see him again. I saw him at a conference in Hong Kong in January and we caught up on the news while I was there.

Since I don’t have a particular subject or theme to write about today, perhaps I can share with you a few bits and pieces of information about Vietnam that I have found either striking or interesting.

Hair…Most women here keep their hair long and many never cut it. I’ve seen women with braids to their knees. Few women dye their hair. When we were in China I noticed many Chinese women who had dyed their hair every color of the rainbow and it looked terrible. There is nothing so unnatural as an Asian woman with blond hair. I am thankful the Vietnamese respect their bodies and don’t do body piercing, tattoos or hair coloring. Their rich, thick, long black hair is beautiful. The men here rarely grow facial hair and most are very clean shaven. The men keep their hair short. Few have long hair. Men here look like men and women look like women. Unlike America, you rarely mistake one for the other.

Saunas…Saunas abound here. Every house has one. All I have to do is step out of my air conditioned bedroom into the hall way and I am in a sauna. The heat and humidity here is worse than anywhere I’ve ever been in the US, including San Antonio. The other day after a shower, I opened my bathroom door to let the steam escape and more steam rushed in than what left the bathroom. This summer Hanoi has recorded record high temperatures. The humidity is worse here than in HCM City so we are the recipients of both heat and humidity making the summer months a constant sauna…that is one of the few negatives about living here…the other is…

The Traffic…
I’d love to read Shakespeare’s description of the traffic here in Hanoi. I’ve tried to write about it but to me it is beyond description. It is like a motorbike ballet where at first you think it is mass chaos and then you see a sublime and subtle order in it all. There are few cars and millions of motorbikes and bikes. I’ve seen very few accidents but know they happen. The colleague of one of our friends was just hit and killed by a truck so each time I get on the back of a motorbike, I am reminded of those words of David…“There is but a step between me and death…”
Now this is interesting…just as I wrote the word “garbage” above, I heard the garbage bell go ding-ding-ding outside my front door.(6 PM each night) Garbage ladies come down each lane pushing an oversized wheelbarrow ringing a bell collecting each persons garbage for the day. I am an American trash generating machine and am always embarrassed to take my huge bag out to the cart whereas my Vietnamese neighbors have a sack of garbage that is so small you can hold it in the palm of your hand. I can’t understand how they can generate so little garbage and they probably don’t understand how I can generate so much…neither do I. These city servants who collect the garbage are usually little bitty women who are smaller than their push-carts and yet they are incredibly strong. They make 30 cents a day, the lowest paid of any city employees but they are thankful to have a job. They push their carts to a central location each night where garbage trucks come in the middle of the night and haul it away. As well as collect garbage, these ladies also sweep the streets and gutters with little hand-brooms. These garbage ladies, always cheerful and pleasant make me think of a proverb I recently read that said, “The richest person in the world is not the one who has the most but the person who needs the least.” Another proverb that goes along with this: “Happiness is not having all we want but being thankful for all we have.” And I must admit, the last 2 months have been the happiest 2 months of my life. Now, if I can just figure out how to stop generating so much trash…

PS about Curious George…I think I was a little too hard on Curious George, my neighbor last week. He really isn’t as bad as I might have made him out to me…he helped me negotiate with a street vendor who came to my door selling toilet paper and helped me save 2,000 dong for 12 rolls of TP (about 17 cents) so he did that either out of the kindness of his heart or because he likes to haggle…which I don’t. I pay whatever they ask. Negotiating for 15 minutes to save 17 cents is not my idea of a profitable way to spend my time.

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