Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chapter 7...Hoang and Other Treasures

Hoang (Alan) is his first suit.
Chapter 7…Hoang and Other Treasures…

A tremendous stroke of good fortune came my way a few months ago; Hoang, who’s English name is Alan, asked if he could move in with me. I’ve known this boy since I came here, almost a year ago. He’s a good-hearted lad, about, as he says, “21 or so.” It makes it difficult to judge ages here. And it doesn’t help that the Vietnamese consider their birth the day they were conceived and when they are born, they consider that their first birthday, which, if you think about it, they’re right.

On our first birthday, there is no cake, no candles, no presents for us except that great big gift called LIFE! When on the next anniversary of their birth, the Vietnamese claim to be two, we Americans claim our first official birthday. I am always asking my VN students, what YEAR were you born…on this there is no mistake.

Alan was born in Hung Yen Province, about a 2 hour bus ride NE of Hanoi. His mother and father are both poor rice farmers. Alan, along with his younger brother and sister, worked with their parents in the rice paddies ever since they could walk. At 14, his mother brought him to Hanoi with her for the first time. Once Alan saw Hanoi, he was hooked. Shortly after returning home to Hung Yen, he ran away from home and stayed on the streets working as a shoe-shine boy. He picked up English from his foreign customers and somehow, someone at our school took note of Alan and it wasn’t long and he was given a scholarship to come learn English formally.
When I first met Alan, he was working as a combination doorman and bell-hop at a hotel that catered to foreigners. Alan never could get the terms doorman and bell-hop straight so, when asked what he did, he said he was a doorbell. No matter how often I corrected him, it was futile…he was a doorbell.

When he lost his job at the hotel, he also lost his quarters there…which was a large closet he slept in so he needed somewhere to lay his head at night. When I took him in, he was as thankful as a lost dog taken off the street. The first night, before I retired, he brought a tub of hot water for me to soak my aching feet in. He repeated this unselfish act of service each night for weeks. However, both Alan and I got some stark reminders that we had come from vastly different cultures.

After his first few days with me, I went to take a shower one afternoon and found my towel sopping wet. I called to Alan and asked if he had used my towel. Without hesitation, he said “Sure!” as if there was no alternative. I told him that I would get him his own towel and I explained that in our culture, you don’t use other people’s bath towels…they are like personal property.

Somewhat puzzled, Alan looked at me quizzically and said that in his family, they only had one towel for 5 people so they all used the same towel. WOW! Culture shock afresh! Moments later, after I had handed Alan a towel of my own and I went to brush my teeth. No way!!!! My toothbrush was wet!!!

“ALAN!!!” I screamed. “Please don’t tell me you used my toothbrush!!!” Again, a dumbfounded look and he said, “Of course I used your toothbrush. I don’t have one…and besides…” I cut him off. “Don’t tell me…you only had one toothbrush for your whole family.” He nodded yes.
In great detail, and with slow speech and very clear words, I let Alan know that I would get him his own toothbrush…that this was very improper to use the same toothbrush as someone else. He got the message although at the time, he likely thought I was rather strange and picky.

Although Alan constantly tried my patience with unpolished ways and crass manners, he was a sweet, loveable boy and I could never find it in my heart to ask him to move out. Even when I discovered my underwear drawer was empty…and what a shock because my waist is at least double his…well, I had to start locking my bedroom door when I went out. I told him, “Alan, don’t tell me you and your family only had one pair of underwear between the 5 of you because I am NOT going to believe it!”
Wednesday, August 11h , 2004...“Flowers…”…

The lyrics of one of my favorite folk songs, called, “Give me roses” has the words:

“Give me the roses while I live, trying to cheer me on,
Useless the flowers you shall give after the soul is gone.”

Downstairs, in my living room, on the desk are 3 bouquets of flowers. These all came from students. Flowers are a very important part of Vietnamese culture and society. Last week when I was sick, I had to cancel my Thursday night class and just spend the day and night in bed. The next day when I came downstairs there were these beautiful flowers that the students of the class had brought. Alan, the young Vietnamese man who now lives with me, let the students in and accepted their get-well gifts and put the flowers in vases while I was asleep upstairs. That touched me so deeply. Flowers here are the expression of care and love.
For a society where there is no outward physical affection (no hugging, no kissing, no hand-holding) the Vietnamese show their love with flowers. I ask the question to all my students: “Do you ever tell your parents that you love them?” They answer always the same, a resounding “NEVER!” They tell me it would be inappropriate to say such a thing. You show it, they tell me, you don’t say it. And often times, they say it by buying their parents flowers. In the year that I’ve been in Hanoi, I’ve never had one student tell me “I love you.” It just isn’t done here. However, they demonstrate it by bringing flowers and food.
The Vietnamese are a very warm-hearted people with ready smiles and a cultural reservoir of love overflowing from their generous hearts. They feel very secure in their family relationships because their parents nurture them so totally and love them so completely. The divorce rate is less than 1% because they don’t want to break up families. Adults sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of the happiness and security of their children. In fact, the word “sacrifice” is a huge part of Vietnamese cultural mentality and society. A wife would never even think of divorcing her husband even if he was habitually unfaithful to her, especially if she had children.
After researching and reading about the low divorce rate in Vietnam, I mentioned this statistic to my boss, Mr. Lam, who is the managing editor of The Vietnam Economic News, the weekly magazine that I am foreign editor for. Although serious, his reply made me laugh aloud. He said, “That is incorrect. It is much higher than 1%. It is at least 4 or 5%!” He didn’t see the humor in his statement, but compared to our country where the divorce rate has now exceeded 50%, the relatively low figure of even 5% paled in contrast. No matter how poor a family, there are flowers in every home.
Now, when I see certain kinds of flowers, I think of certain people. Lynelle often brings me a bouquet of huge sunflowers. I will never see a sunflower without thinking of my cheerful, bright, bouncy little Canadian “daughter.” She will return to Victoria on Saturday after being here teaching for a year. I am really going to miss her. My Vietnamese “daughter” Ruth brings me yellow roses once a week. Alan brought a gorgeous array of lotus. Ha brought a vase full of cat-tails and water reeds. Students brought a rich array of flowers.
Although flowers fade and die within a week, the love behind them remains. It is such a small expression of love and yet, it is these small things in life that added together, contribute to the richness and color of this wonderful culture. Culture is in people. People maintain and preserve culture. As the little plaque on a friend’s wall states, “Friends are the flowers in the garden of life.”

Thursday, Sept. 2nd , 2004...“Vietnamese Ants…”…

Today is Vietnam‘s National Independence Day. It is the second biggest holiday in Vietnam after TET, the lunar new year. Today Vietnam celebrates its independence not from one country but from many. In their 4,000 year history, the Vietnamese have never been dominated for long. France conquered and occupied Vietnam for 100 years but 50 years ago this year, in 1954, the famous battle of Dinh Binh Phu took place in which the smaller, ill-equipped army of Ho Chi Minh’s loyal followers totally licked the French and drove them out of Vietnam. In 1973 the Vietnamese drove America from it’s soil as they have done China, Japan, and Mongolia thousands of years before. If there is one word that characterizes the Vietnamese people it is “tenacious”. Tenacious is defined by Webster as the quality of being able to overcome any obstacle with fierce determination. The Vietnamese have fierce tenacity. They are like little bulldogs that grab a hold of your leg and will never let go. Don’t ever get in an argument with a Vietnamese person. You will lose.
Other qualities of the Vietnamese include, but are not limited to, warm-hearted, friendly, kind and generous. For example, one night of the week I teach a group of army doctors at a military hospital. After the class one night I invited one of the doctors home for a meal with me. I had a persistent cough and couldn’t shake it. During the meal, the doctor told me he’d take care of me so the next day he brought medicine to my home. He called each day to see how I was doing and informed me, “I am your family doctor. Whenever you have any health problem at all, call me and I will come to your home to take care of you.” He would not accept payment…he said, “Just keep teaching us English!” In Vietnam doctors DO make house-calls! Incredibly kind people these Vietnamese.

I’ve mentioned in a previous email about the Vietnamese being curious. Remember “Curious George?” Well he is pretty typical of the Vietnamese and curiosity is a wonderful quality when harnessed. I use teaching strategies that utilize student’s curiosity like, “Guess what is in the box.” I usually have a vocabulary word on a flash card and they have to guess clues to find out which word it is. You would be surprised how much their vocabulary improves when their curiosity is peaked. This week the word in the box was “tenacious.”

The most common question the Vietnamese ask me and other foreigners is; “What do you think of Vietnamese people?” I usually tell them that the Vietnamese are friendly, kind, curious, survivors and as mentioned, most of all they are tenacious. I think I have really got this point of being tenacious across to the students. This past week, I’ve been having a real problem with ants. They even got in my air-tight sugar container. I don’t know how. I put the container in a bowl filled with water and a few hours later I saw ants crawling up the sugar container. In amazement, I called some of my students over to witness ants swimming in the water to get to the sugar container. I said, “I want you to see this for yourself. If I told my friends in America about this they will never believe me. Only in Vietnam will ants swim in water to get at sugar.” One of them said “Of course they can swim. They are Vietnamese ants! They are tenacious!!!” I have been chuckling all week long over those words!

Sunday, Sept. 12th , 2004...“Cherry Pie Will Have to Wait…”…
I love America. In America you can buy anything you crave, day or night, providing you have money, it is not illegal and you have the strength to get out of bed. I also love cherry pie. Last week I had a dream about eating cherry-pie. I awoke craving cherry-pie. The only problem was there is no cherry-pie to be found anywhere in Hanoi. ...not in a bakery, not in a home, not even in restaurants. Yes, I can bake a cherry-pie Billy Boy, Billy Boy but the problem is there is no oven in my home nor in most homes in Hanoi, just a couple of butane gas burners, much like cooking on a Coleman stove. So I forgot about the cherry-pie. It was just wishful thinking.The next night, I had a dream that I had made a trip to America and yes, you guessed it, the first thing I had was a piece of cherry-pie and a cup of coffee. I think my blood sugar is getting too low. When I awoke I was now drooling for cherry-pie. Normally I don't have much of a sweet-tooth but now I was getting desperate. My visa is coming up for renewal the end of this month and the thought even flittered thru my mind: "Maybe I won't be able to get my visa renewed and I'll have to go back to America and YES! Eat cherry-pie!" I banished this childish and gluttonous thought from my mind never to have it return again, except once every few minutes. This was starting to get to be an obsession.What does one do when one has irrational and impossible obsessions? I started to scheme how I could make a cherry-pie in my microwave. Then there came another problem. There are no cherries in Hanoi. Here there are fruits I've never heard of. In addition, there are some I have even never heard of until I came to Vietnam and now that I have tasted them I wish I had never heard of, like durian.Durian is a fruit that you either love or hate. Rex loves durian. Morris loves durian. .Most Vietnamese love durian. If someone wanted to get secret information out of me, all they would have to do is threaten me to eat durian and I'd tell all. There is absolutely no way I can describe the taste of it. The closest I can come is to say it is like eating solid lighter fluid, only it isn't flammable. Then again, I'd dare not light a match within 30 feet of it. Then again, I try not to get within 30 feet of it.The first time I am aware of ever having heard the word "durian" was in a going-away poem that Sharon Farnell from California composed before I left for Hanoi. She had a line, something to the effect of "from durian you will be a scurrien," or something to that effect. I thought durian was like a motor vehicle. I was wrong, it is more dangerous and lethal. How people can eat it and still live to tell about it is a miraculous feat to me.Well now, I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, cherry-pie! Wow, talking about durian has taken my appetite away for everything, including cherry-pie. However, if you have a good recipe for making cherry-pie in a microwave, please send it on. When was the last time you had dreams about cherry-pie two nights running? Oh the things we take for granted in America. God bless America, mothers, baseball and of course, cherry-pie. I guess cherry pie will just have to wait until I come home in December. Next time you have a slice of pie of anything, take an extra bite for me…and be thankful you live in America next time you crave something in the middle of the night. As our dear departed Marilyn Wheeler might advise, “Forget the cherry-pie and pick up your chop stix again!”


johnniebean said...

David, I've read chapters 8 & 7 and they are wonderful! More another day! Sorry we didn't get to see each other while you were here, but look forward to continuing to be in touch.

vnmotorbikerentals said... Pops, I was so shy when read your writing about me when i was little boy staying with ya! It remindwd me lots of things since you adopted me and provinded a home.It's almost 10 years since, Many thing changed but your love to Hanoi, Vietnames is same. I can't explain my feeling now but all i can say is thank you for your kidness, thoughtful and big heart!
Your litte son & student