Sunday, November 23, 2008

Chapter 4...China

Chapter 4…China

Sunday, February 1st, 2004...“China…Part 1…”…

(Journal entry written from the train between Lao Cai and Hanoi)
Home. I'm going home. Every clickety-clack of the rails takes me a few more meters home. Out the window to my right is the Red River flowing from China toward my home and then out to the South China Sea. Out the window to my left is a water buffalo scratching his neck against a banana tree. Ladies hang a rainbow colored wash on lines in front of bamboo huts with grass roofs. In my railcar all around me are bobbing brown heads topped with thick black hair, sleeping, eating, looking out the windows, chatting or smoking. Some cigarette smoke finds its way out the open windows but most it seems finds its way back to me. But I don't mind so much now because every clickety-clack of the rails brings me a few more meters closer to home. Conical hats crown thin figures in the rice fields hoeing or plowing with water buffalo or planting. Spring and hope are in the air. What I see around me is like nothing I’ve ever seen the likes of before…this is a train ride that really defies description.

The 4 NES, (Native English Speakers) from our school, Brandon, Lynelle, Roger and I, left Hanoi on Friday Jan. 16th for China by train. We attended a conference in Hong Kong where we all spent the first week of our 2 week vacation and then spent the second week traveling together by train around southern China. These 2 weeks will be unforgettable and I’ll likely be writing about them in greater detail in the next few general letters.

Originally, I had planned to fly to the conference while Brandon (24), Roger (23) and Lynelle (20) planned to take the train. However, “the kids” as I shall herein affectionately call them, invited me to join them. At first I declined, thinking I’d be extra baggage to them, but I enjoy being with these 3 so much that I thought it would be the opportunity of a life-time. And I was right. Spending 2 weeks with “the kids” made me feel younger than 57…trying to keep up with them made me feel 87! However, I wouldn’t trade the experience and it would have been a mistake not to go with them.

As we started this incredible journey we had no idea really what awaited us. Only Roger had ever been to China before. We had a 4 person sleeper from Hanoi to the China border. There, we had to get off the Vietnamese train and switch to a train from China. That was our first clue that China was immensely more prosperous than Vietnam. The sleeper in China was BETTER than first class! It was luxury in every detail. We slept little however on the first leg of the journey as we were all too wound up and excited. Brandon had brought along his guitar so we sang and chatted most of the way to Nanning, our first stop in China.

Nanning is a small city by Chinese standards, only over a million people. It was a gloomy, cold, overcast day and before we left the train station, we waited while Brandon bought the train tickets for the next leg of our train journey. While we waited, I noticed that the Chinese people, are on average, about 20-30 lbs heavier than Vietnamese and they look well fed. You rarely see Vietnamese who are overweight. This was not the case in China. Another thing that struck me was how quiet and clean Nanning was. No horns honking. Traffic was orderly and smooth, unlike Hanoi. There were lanes for motorbikes and bikes and other lanes for cars, trucks and busses. This was a modern city compared to even HCM.

We had 6 hours between our next train from Nanning to Guangzhou so we decided to walk around, which became more burdensome with every passing period of time due to the heavy backpacks and baggage we had brought along. It was during this first day we all became painfully aware that we had packed way too heavy.
Our first stop was to have coffee on the 22nd floor of a revolving restaurant atop one of the finer hotels in Nanning. We were all pretty blurry eyed from the all night travel and we needed to wake up. We chatted, drank coffee and watched the city “turn” around us. Here as in Vietnam, when you order coffee you get one small cup with no refills. You pay for each cup. At $2.00 a cup, we made only one revolution in the restaurant.

Walking down one of the broad, clean boulevards of Nanning, I was so impressed with the quietness, order, and cleanliness. However, unlike Vietnam, there were no ready smiles from the citizens and at first we could find no one that could speak English. This would become an increasing problem as we traveled further thru China.

We came upon a small, well-manicured park and as our backpacks and luggage were too much to bear for further walking, we stopped to rest on some benches. People gazed at us as if we were foreigners! Brandon broke out his guitar and started to play. We began so sing together. Pretty soon we looked up and we were encircled by about 30-40 curious onlookers. Too bad I didn’t have the presence of mind to pass around my hat and take up a collection for the show we were giving. We all felt a little uneasy. No one spoke English and it was obvious foreigners were rare in this south China city.

After a few more songs, 3 young men emerged from the crowd and started speaking to us in English. They were college students and one was an English major. While two of the young men talked to the other 3 I started asking one of the young men all about Nanning. Now we were getting somewhere. Suddenly it dawned on me. There were no McDonalds at all in Vietnam. Not one golden arch to be found anywhere in the whole country. Could it be possible that Nanning might have Big Macs? I asked the young man. “Of course!” he answered as if McDonalds was a Chinese birthright. “Where?” I asked with excitement. Now mind you, I avoided McDonalds in the states unless there was nowhere else to go but after 5 months of eating things that I couldn’t identify, little less pronounce, this was going to be pure culinary joy! He pointed to some golden arches just above the trees in the park. We were only 500 yards from pay dirt! “McDonalds!!!” I screamed and pointed to my blurry-eyed mates. As if shot out of a cannon, we left the stunned crowd gazing wide-eyed behind us as we headed quickly with all our gear for a taste of home.

McDonalds, bless them, has the same menu in China as in the good ole US of A. And the place was packed. It took us ever so long to finally get seats where we could all sit together with our boxcar sized gear. A waitress came to our table with a picture menu and graciously took our order. This was no ordinary Mickey D’s…this was first class. And when, after drooling for those eternal minutes before the familiar food came to the table, I slowly took at last, my first bite of a Big Mac outside the home of the brave and the land of the free. Pure pleasure! Now when a man has been so deprived that he’d rather have McDonalds than a lobster tail, you know he is on the verge of being institutionalized. However, there was some comfort in knowing there were 4 of us all headed for the same institution.

Two Big Macs, a coke, large fries, a hot apple pie and an ice cream cone later, my mates and I sat comatose in a world of contented oblivion. For the longest time after we ate, no one said a word. The whirl of unidentified Chinese voices all around us were just soothing white noise to these stuffed and satisfied tired travelers. We didn’t want to move. China had afforded us our first, but by no means our last, culinary comfort zone. Now we were ready for a long winters nap. But it was past time we needed to be going to catch our train to Guangzhou.

Begrudgingly, we put on our packs and picked up our gear as weary soldiers going off to another battle. We had to rush to get to the train station. Our overnight train from Nanning to Guangzhou was as deluxe as the one we had arrived on. Four soft berths in our own cabin awaited us. This nite we didn’t spend much time singing or talking…we slept. And slept soundly.

The next morning we awoke, without option, to the sound of Chinese music. It was raining hard when we got off the train at Guangzhou, a city 2 hours bus ride from Hong Kong. We had decided to take the bus from Guangzhou to Hong Kong because it was cheaper. However, like in Nanning, we had a 6 hour layover. On our way to the bus terminal we walked past a McDonalds, much to my protest but the kids said maybe we could come back here after we bought our bus tickets. Disgruntled, I followed, looking back the whole while at the fading golden arches in the rain behind me.

My frustration and pouting was needless as right next to the China Hotel where we bought our bus tickets for Hong Kong was…dah dah dah dah tah dah! Another McDonalds!!! Perhaps, because of the downpour, this one was practically deserted. We cheerfully had round two of China’s finest cuisine. As the kids discussed where we could leave the gear while exploring this rain drenched city, the most unselfish and philanthropic idea came into my head. “Look. I’ll stay here at McDonalds and watch it while you kids run all over the city exploring!” Reluctant to leave me behind for fear I’d overdose on Big Macs, they did agree it was a thankless job that someone had to do. Actually, I used the time, not to eat, but to read Brandon’s book on China during the 3 hours they were gone shopping. (End of China Part 1)

Friday, February 6th, 2004...“China…Part 2…”…

(Continuation of China trip)
While sitting alone in the McDonalds in Guangzhou, as the rain poured down, I felt safe and secure in familiar surroundings. The tidy restaurant was practically deserted this Sunday morning. I started to read Brandon’s book on China and was fascinated by what I read. China, the most populous country on earth has about the same square miles as the US. However, they have 4 times as many people as we do, 1.2 billion. One out of every 4 people on planet earth lives in China. This is a 4,000 year old culture in the throes of reinventing itself.

There will be an increasing focus on China in the future as Beijing will host the 2008 Olympics. Tourism is in a state of super-nova proportions and China’s economy is exploding at a 9% growth rate, more than any country in the world. The USA, in comparison, has a 4% growth rate. America will find increasing competition, not with Japan, but China.

However, in spite of increasing prosperity, China is facing some huge social problems. For the last 20 years, the government has instituted “One Child Only” policy which means families are only allowed to have one child. Birth control is not an option, it is mandatory. If a family has more than one child, they will be fined heavily for each child. Since boy babies are preferred over girls, many female babies somehow disappeared from Chinese families, leaving China with a serious shortage of young females now. For every 100 women, there are 130 men. There is a rash of young women being kidnapped from cities and taken to remote villages to make up for a lack of farm brides. The shortage of women will become more serious in coming years.

At the time I was in Guangzhou, I was unaware that Time magazine was going to do a feature story about the youth of China in its Feb. 2nd issue. If you get a chance, you’d enjoy reading it as it states things that I am not allowed to write about here…I can’t write about human rights, politics, or religion. Missionaries and evangelists are strictly prohibited in both China and Vietnam and if a person is caught preaching Christianity, they will be immediately expelled from either country. In America, we take our freedoms for granted. In Vietnam and China, it is almost impossible for the average young person to get a visa to travel outside these borders. It felt so strange for us to be able to travel at will, providing we had visas, across these borders when others can’t. In time, the youth of both Vietnam and China will be changing these policies. Neither country can stop the internet, although certain sites are banned. The internet and foreigners are like a reservoir of freedom that is about to spill over the dam of information and truth control. The old is about to give way to the new.

While I read about China, hours passed invisibly and I was distracted by a strange, yet comforting sound, English. During the whole 2 weeks we were in China, I only heard 5 Chinese speak my native tongue. It was not a Chinaman who was speaking English but a foreigner named Ruben, who I introduced myself to and told him it was so good to hear English! He told me he was from Persia (the politically correct name for Iraq) and he lived in Los Angeles. We had quite a conversation. He informed me that he had a furniture business in LA and he had been coming to Guangzhou (formerly Canton) to buy handmade Chinese furniture since 1996.

Ruben was quite frank when he said, “You Americans are lazy! I was born in poverty in Iraq and I worked very hard to make enough money to come to America and start my business when I was just a teenager. The kids in America have everything handed to them. They could be rich like me if they wanted to work hard. America is the greatest country on earth…anyone could be rich if they wanted to but you Americans are apathetic, only making enough money to get by.”

Although this struck me as surreal, getting a lecture on prosperity from an Iraqi in China, there was a lot of truth in what he had to say. I felt a warning bell go off if my conscience and it told me to take note of this man’s words. I did not argue or speak, I just listened. As I’ve told my students in the classroom many times, “You don’t learn while you are speaking…you learn when you are quiet and listening.” So I listened to this Persian businessman-philosopher. As we were to learn in our travels thru China, there was a McDonalds in every city in China and in each one we found English speaking foreigners like ourselves. However, few Chinese speak our lingo. When Chinese is the most widely spoken language on the planet, they reason, why learn a minority language.

Four hours after my mates had left me in blissful solitude they returned rain-drenched but bubbly and excited. They had found bargains at a nearby market and had now increased their total baggage. It was now time for us to catch our bus to Hong Kong, the most prosperous city in China.

The 2 hour bus ride was eventful in-as-much as we had to get off and on the bus twice to go thru customs…once at the border of China and another time at the border of Hong Kong. Although Hong Kong was given back to China by the British in 1997, it is like a separate country from China and basically does its own thing. People in Hong Kong are free to come and go. People in China are not.

We arrived in the center of Hong Kong about 8 PM and somehow the kids seemed to manage to know how to get us where we needed to go by light-rail. We ended up at the facility where we were to have the conference and we were able to get into our dorm rooms a day early. We were not expected to arrive until Monday but beds were found for us and we all were thankful to have made it to our destination alive and well, although chilled to the bone.

The conference didn’t start until Wednesday nite so we had 3 days to explore Hong Kong. It is the most modern, prosperous, expensive city I’ve ever seen. Although the prices on food and clothing were astronomical, the price of public transportation was reasonable. For $20 you can buy an “Octopus” card which allows you about 3 days travel on all the public transportation vessels: busses, trains, subways, monorails, ferries, and light-rails. I spent one afternoon just riding the ferry back and forth between Kowloon and Hong Kong island. It reminded me of being on San Francisco Bay and it was the only sunny day we had during the 2 weeks of our vacation and conference. It gave me a great sense of satisfaction to be able to find my way around on Hong Kong’s public transit but truthfully, it is as easy as riding BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in my home area.

The conference, which featured many guest speakers from all over the world was truly an international event. We had citizens from 18 different countries, with Canada having the greatest representation. I loved the conference in every way except one…it was bitter cold and the buildings in Asia are not heated, so I was chilled to the marrow the whole week I was in Hong Kong. What the weather lacked, my mates in the dormitory made up for by their warmth and goodwill, and sense of sharing and humor. I wish there was time and opportunity to share all we heard. While in Hong Kong, I acquired a digital camera so once I get using it, I’ll send you some pictures of sites along our journey after Hong Kong.

One morning, while sitting at breakfast with Richard D., one of the teachers who I knew in California, he gave me word that 2 of my friends had passed away, Chuck and Marsha. Both were unexpected deaths. With the advent of email, news travels quickly, almost as if this was a family.

On Monday, January 26th, a group of about 15 of us broke camp and traveled together from Hong Kong back to Guangzhou by bus. That afternoon, the 4 of us from CLASP, plus Lynelle’s cousin Jodi from Canada, joined us on our continuing saga thru southern China. Our batteries were recharged and we were ready for the adventure of seeing China for the next week. And what adventures we were about to have! (End of Part 2)
Friday, February 6th, 2004...“China…Part 2…”…

Tuesday, February 10th, 2004...“China…Part 3…”…

(Continuation of China trip)

During our bus trip from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, I sat next to Darrel, one of our teachers who teaches in HCM City. It made the 2 hour bus ride go quickly and we said goodbye to him in Guangzhou as he and 2 of the other teachers flew on to Vietnam. That left the 5 of us from Hanoi and 8 visitors from Canada who had attended the conference with us. The 8 Canadians got a hotel in Guangzhou and the 5 of us got train tickets to continue our China odyssey.

Now, at this point I have a confession to make. I was getting travel weary and I was ready to return to Hanoi at this point. If it wasn’t for the fact that I love these 3 young people, Lynelle, Roger and Brandon so much, I’d have returned and left them at this point. However, it would have been a great mistake, as I was to learn later. Together we are stronger than all of us alone. I was cold, tired, and out of diabetes medication and I was starting to get cranky. The goodwill of the youngsters helped keep my sagging spirits up.

We caught a night train from Guangzhou and it was on this train we were to meet 3 incredible people. Before this train, we had always traveled as 4 in a closed compartment together but now Jodi, Lynelle’s cousin from Canada was with us and there were no compartments available for our trip to Guilin so 2 of the girls had to sleep in open bunks next to our bunks. Remember, I said there were only 5 English speaking Chinese we found and it was on this train we discovered one of them, Jessica, a sweet little young college student who had wonderful English. In the same compartment were 2 young English girls who had been teaching English in China, Mandy and Kayte. I was so thrilled by the advent of finding 3 English speakers right next door. We talked until they turned the lights out on us. Jessica had the bottom bunk and I had the top bunk but she insisted of sleeping on top to keep this frail old fellow from having to climb up the steps. It still amazes me how the young show respect for the elderly here.

In the morning, when we arrived in Guilin, we exchanged email addresses and vowed to write, as traveling companions often do. (And, I will add here that we have already received a couple of emails from Jessica.)
It was raining heavily as we departed the train station with backpacks that seemed heavier than before. Here, in the train station, we found another angel, another young college student named Ying, who spoke perfectly good English, and wanted to take us weary, wet travelers to breakfast. We accepted! Then Ying helped us get bus tickets to Yangzhou. And what a bus ride we had.

This bus ride, I shall call the bus ride of faith. Had numerous guardian angels not been working overtime, this 3 hour bus ride would have ended in disaster numerous times. The driver crossed the double yellow line an uncountable number of times. That is, had there been a double yellow line. In China, as in Vietnam, the number one rule is the biggest vehicle has the right-of-way. At times, it seems that truck drivers and bus drivers want to look into each others eyes before swerving the lighter vehicle aside. There is a strong desire in each human being to stay alive. I got deeply in touch with this desire during these eternal 3 hours that the bus swerved in and out of vehicles and pedestrians on our way to what we found to be the most beautiful place in China.

In all our travels, I was never so glad to get off a vehicle as I was this bus when it finally arrived at our destination, Yangzhou. Yangzhou is off the beaten path. It has not yet been fully discovered by tourists and we were finally here. The first hotel we checked into was a nightmare. All I wanted to do was get into a hot bathtub and warm up. Before I even took my backpack off in the hotel room, I was running water from the shower hose into the tub, waiting for some sign of even a little warm water to issue forth. Without warning, the shower hose broke and freezing water drenched my shoes. At about the same time, we heard a scream from the adjoining room and Brandon and Roger were told by Jodi that a man had broken into her room. That was it. We were “outta there!” We got our money back and went to another hotel. This next one was very expensive…but I was sure it had hot water. So, we checked in to the Li River Hotel and the first thing I did was check to make sure it had hot water and good locks on the door. By US standards this would be a one star or less, hotel, but in China, this was deluxe!

The 4 youngsters had energy to burn and had been cooped up too long and wanted to explore this mystical area. The limestone rock formations here are strange and mysterious and are like none except Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. While the others hiked the hills in the rain and mist, this cold January day, I soaked in a hot bathtub and later slept.

It was dark when the exuberant youngsters returned with tails of unfathomable beauty that abounded from this strange and romantic place. I was starving as I hadn’t eaten anything but a bowl of noodles all day so we all set out together to find a good restaurant in this quaint little village. I still marvel at the wonderful restaurant we found and culinary delights that I can still savor. The restaurant overlooked the Li River, which is one of the smaller rivers in China. Most of the meals on the menu of this nameless restaurant were Western and I ordered a steak, the first I had eaten since I left the good ole US of Beef in August. The others had various dishes and we shared bites All 5 of us were deeply satisfied with our meals and as we sat eating rich chocolate cake for dessert, firework displays went off around us. It was part of the Chinese New Year celebrations.

So far, these few hours in this restaurant became the high point of our trip, thus far. I was warm and dry. I had just eaten the best meal I’d ever had in either Vietnam or China and I’d eaten chocolate cake and watched fireworks, both firsts in Asia for me. We practically had the restaurant to ourselves and our Chinese waitress was gracious and accommodating. As we leisurely sipped tea after the meal, we discussed points we had enjoyed from our Hong Kong conference. It was a rich and memorable time. My heart was knit more firmly to these 4 intelligent, sensitive young people, Lynelle, Jodi, Roger and Brandon. This would be the last time all 5 of us would have an evening together on this trip.

The next day, the 4 youngsters wanted to take a boat ride down the river. When they invited me along, at first I wanted to decline but some inner voice urged me to go. When we got down to the Li River, there was no boat, just a small lady on a raft. When I realized THIS was the boat they wanted to ride on, I begged off. This raft was 6 huge bamboo logs lashed together, navigated by a little Chinese lady who couldn’t have weighed more than 75lbs. including the heavy pole she used to guide the “craft.” Brandon urged me to go, and as this would be our last day together, I reluctantly, sat on one of 4 little stools on a plywood plank lashed to the bamboo. When I sat down, the boatwoman looked at me and at the nearly sinking raft with terror in her eyes. Roger stood at the rear of the craft as the other 3 carefully took seats on the other 3 little stools. That survival instinct started to become very strong again. Since the water line was almost up to the edge of the raft, Brandon said, “David. See how strong your faith is. See if you can walk out on the water.” “Brandon,” I said, “It took every ounce of faith I had just to get on this raft! I’m not getting off!”

We started off down the river, a river much like the Eel in Northern California. The boatwoman propelled the raft forward with her pole and I became more and more concerned as the raft was only inches above the water. The look in the boatwoman’s eyes was one of concern also. There were 4 stools on this craft for a reason…it was made for 4, not 5. It wasn’t too long until she navigated us to her houseboat. There, with relief, we got off the raft and into a battered old rowboat. At least this looked a little more seaworthy than the raft. Then, an incredible journey began. We drifted down the Li River, and for the most part, were the only vessel on the river. It was a serene, misty, day and all these fantastic limestone mountains surrounded us. Words failed us to describe them. Now this journey replaced the restaurant as the high point of our China trip. All 5 of us were spellbound. We would drift for minutes without saying anything, except perhaps, “WOW!”

We drifted down the river for about an hour, and suddenly, in this quiet and pristine setting a telephone rang. None of us had cell phones. Where was it coming from? To our amazement, here in remote China, the little boatwoman took her cell phone from her pocket and started talking! We all laughed at this comical event. What a great television commercial this would have made for her cell phone company! In Vietnam and China, almost everyone, no matter how poor, or how remote, has a cell phone and an email account.

It never occurred to me how we were going to get back upstream to Yangzhou, an hour away. The current was too strong for the little lady to paddle. So what was the solution. None of us knew. She set us ashore in a remote spot by a deserted lumber mill. Now I started to get concerned. This would have been a great place to get robbed. No one was around. No signs of life! We were virtually lost.

We walked a ways past the lumber mill and came to a busy road. Which way back to Yangzhou and how do we get there, walk? Thankfully, Brandon has a good sense of directions so he led the way and we put our thumbs out in hopes someone would have room for all 5 of us. It wasn’t long and a Chinese man in a van pulled over and, miraculously, had 5 seats and no passengers. The guardian angels came through again. Time and time again, things like this would just happen.

Back at Yangzhou we checked out of the Li River Hotel and decided we would have one last meal together before saying goodbye to Brandon. He was going to stay in Yangzhou for 3 more days and spend the month of Feb. traveling by himself around China. Then it would just be the 4 of us going back to Vietnam together, Jodi, Lynelle, Roger and I.

We found a cozy little restaurant in the market place of Yangzhou and had hot tea, coffee, and a last meal together. It was cold inside the restaurant and the waitress, seeing we were all chilled, brought a stone bucket with glowing hot coals and put under our table. In less than a minute we could feel the heat under the table embracing our feet and legs. What comfort! And what novelty. That is something you won’t see in America! I’ve seen fires ON tables but this was the first time I’ve seen a fire UNDER the table! OSHA doesn’t look lightly on putting a fire under a wood table!

After the meal, we hugged Brandon at the bus stop and we quietly, soberly, started the journey back to Guilin and eventually our journey home. Now we were going home. I would go as far as the China border with the rest of the crew, then, just inside Vietnam, at the border town of Lao Cai, I would return to Hanoi by train and the others would go on to Sapa for a last weekend before returning to work. (END of Part Part 4 to come)

Friday, February 13th, 2004...“China…Part 4(FINAL)…”…

(Continuation of China trip…last installment)

There was a quietness within the 4 of us, Roger, Lynelle, Jodi, and I as we started the bus trip from Yangzhou to Guilin. Brandon was the “life of our party” with his guitar everywhere we went. Now we had left the man and his music behind and it was a bit of a sad parting, although I knew we’d see Brandon again, back in Hanoi in a month. Almost with fatherly concern, I worried about Brandon traveling alone in China by himself. However, even at the time we left him, I realized he would not be alone. There always seemed to be an unseen force looking out for us wherever we went, like the miraculous empty van stopping on the deserted road to pick all of us up earlier in the day. Perhaps the bus ride back to Guilin was just as harrowing as the one coming, but there was not the same anxiety or worry in my heart and eyes this trip. Maybe all the experiences of Yangzhou had strengthened by weak faith. Stepping out in faith on a flimsy bamboo raft was certainly one of them!

When we arrived at Guilin our little angel, Ying, was there to meet us with her sparkling eyes, broad smile, and perfect English. She helped us buy train tickets for a trip back to Nanning. At this point, I had a decision to make…should I go on from Nanning to Hanoi while the others went to Sapa or travel with them? The decision was made for me. I wanted at this point to go home so badly. I felt physically exhausted and had the worst cold I’ve ever had. However, this was Wednesday and there wouldn’t be another train from Nanning to Hanoi until Saturday…so it was on with the troops.

We arrived in a cold and quiet Nanning about 9 PM that same night. We needed to get a hotel but so far, my batting average in choosing hotels for us was zilch-point-zero. I let Lynelle do the haggling and choosing, and after 3 rounds of negotiating at 2 different hotels, we settled on an 8 story place for $2 per person. You get what you pay for. This place was more stark than any hotel I’d ever slept in even in 57 years of life on planet earth. The hallway to our room from the 4 flights of stairs we’d climbed up with full combat gear, was longer than 2 of my Air Force barracks put together, only much drabber. When we finally came to our room, at the end of the long, dimly lit hall, I laughed when I saw the room. There were 4 small beds, and one chair in the most barren, Spartan hotel room in China. There was one small light in the huge room. The bathroom had a shower hose but no shower stall. You took a shower and let the water go all over the floor. Of course, as in all public facilities in Vietnam and China, this is a “bring your own toilet paper” society. Toilet paper is a luxury that is not furnished here.

Perhaps, as fair warning, I should take this opportunity to inform future Asian travelers, especially the more dainty and delicate type, of something you need to be aware of before you come here. First, the trains here lack a little something in the toilet compartment, like, for example, a toilet. Since this is an item you usually don’t carry around in your backpack, you have to make do with the wee little hole in the floor. Forgive me if this seems too graphic but it is better to be informed than surprised. It was ironic that in a “five-star” hotel in Guangzhou I found no Western toilets in the hotel restroom but in all McDonalds there are. Now I know why there are so many foreigners eating at the golden arches in China. As mentioned previously, no McDonalds at all exist in Vietnam. This is for political reasons that I am not free to go into here. When he comes back, Brandon jokingly suggested writing a guidebook about China listing all places with Western-style toilets.

After a restless night in “the barracks” at Nanning, we knew this time right where the McDonalds was so we made a beeline there for brunch. However, when 4 people travel together, the old Mexican travel adage is always true: “When you travel alone you come and go when you are ready…when you travel with others, you come and go when the last one is ready.” With the 4 of us, it seems we were always waiting on either Jodi or I to bring up the rear. Now the story gets interesting.

While in the McDonalds in Nanning, we met Janet, a young college student that Debbie L. from Boston and Evelyn P. from HCM had met two years before in Nanning. They had given us Janet’s phone number when we were at the conference together in Hong Kong and told us to call Janet and give her their greetings. Because she had kept in touch with these ladies via email over the last 2 years, we had Janet’s phone number and she promptly met us at the McDonalds there in Nanning. While visiting with her, just out of wishful thinking to have a Chinese guide, I invited her to travel on with us into Vietnam. Much to our amazement she instantly accepted the invitation!

What serendipity! We had just acquired a brilliant Chinese guide who spoke wonderful English…a rarity in China. However, there were some hurdles to jump over first. She had no suitcase or clothes with her so Lynelle and Jodi took her shopping and got some items for her to travel with on our journey ahead…and there was a matter of her buying a train ticket on a train that was already packed with TET holiday travelers. We were pushed for time and we ran to the train station with full backpacks, Janet trailing carrying just a shopping bag of the bare necessities for this spur of the moment trip.

We left her at the ticket window as we ran to the train that was just ready to depart for Kunming. We barely got on and I watched out the window for Janet. There was no sign of her. The whistle blew. The brakes on the coaches sounded their release. The train started to pull out with no sign of Janet coming from the station to the train. After all our excitement she didn’t make it.

We all settled into our berths as the train pulled out of Nanning. There was a somber quietness in all of us. We knew how heart-broken Janet must have felt after all that preparation to get her ready to travel with us and now she was left behind. I could picture the tears in her eyes. This was the low point of the whole China trip.

Downcast, I climbed into my upper berth and began to write in my log. My mates were quiet and gloomy too. After about an hour out of Nanning, Roger said the sun was shining outside, the first time that had happened in the last 2 weeks so I was coaxed down out of my gloom to look out on the sun shining on fields in the late afternoon. Lynelle amused herself my teaching a little Chinese girl to say her ABC’s. Suddenly, Lynelle squealed with delight. Lynelle was hugging Janet!!! She had made it but it took her over an hour to find us on the train! She had miraculously gotten a ticket at the last minute and she was off with us to Vietnam! Janet was to prove to be indispensable help to us for the rest of our time in China.

We talked way into the night and exchanged our life stories. Then toward midnight we climbed into our bunks in this packed train and I slept soundly until we arrived in Kunming the next morning. Now, at this point I have to add that I saw something everyday in China that I’d never seen before in Vietnam; my breath! I was cold to the bone the whole time we were in China, even on the trains. I had on my long underwear and my sweat suit over them. Then I had my trousers on and 3 sweaters…and I was still cold! I was to remain cold until I returned to Vietnam.

Before the train ever stopped in the rail station in Kunming, I could see the breath of the people outside and knew this January day was going to be cold also. When we got off the train, Janet talked to the ticket agent in the station and was able to get us 5 bus tickets for Hu Kou, a Chinese village which is on the Vietnam border. At 10:30 that morning, Lynelle, Roger, Janet, Jodi and I stepped onto a packed Chinese bus for a ride I will never forget. The scenery was spectacular, from Kunming thru 500 kms (about 400 miles) of countryside that looked identical in every respect to No. Calif. Some scenes made me think of the Cloverdale area. Some scenes made me think of the Shasta Lake area. The scenery was beautiful. The only thing that diminished this trip was the driver had Chinese action videos blaring for most of the ride…and I was starting to get a headache. After about 8 hours of the 10 hour ride I had a pounding headache.

Out in the fields farmers hoed soil by hand. Men and women were doing the same manual labor their ancestors did thousands of years before. Interspersed in the countryside would be ultra-modern villages that were still being built, likely by the booming government treasury, filled by Western money. China was such a contrast of prosperity and poverty side-by-side.

When we finally got to Hu Kou, which sits across the Red River from Lao Cai, Vietnam, I felt great relief in knowing I was only a day’s journey from home. Janet, Jodi and Lynelle got a hotel room across from Roger and I and we had our first real Chinese meal since coming to China 2 weeks before. Hu Kou was too small to have a McDonalds.

Roger and I cleared customs the next morning in a big, modern Western-style building where the Chinese soldiers were polite but very formal and direct. We were the only 2 in the building that morning besides the customs soldiers. Before we walked across the bridge between China and Vietnam, Roger showed a guard his Australian passport and I showed the guard my American passport. As often happened, the guard asked if Roger was my son. Seems strange I thought, for an American to have an Australian son, although I’d certainly be proud to have a son like Roger.

I’ll never forget the walk over the bridge that spans the Red River between China and Vietnam. It was like going thru a time machine. Hu Kou reminded me of a miniature San Diego and Lao Cai reminded me of a very poor and small Tijuana. The contrast between the modern, prosperous China and impoverished Vietnam was so stark and real at that crossing.

I almost bent down and kissed the red soil of Vietnam when we came to the other side. The temperature seemed almost balmy, and warm. The Vietnamese guards were familiar and friendly. While we cleared customs in a battered shack at the Vietnam border, I studied a blue and white map on the wall trying to identify the geography. Then I realized it was no map but blue paint peeling away from a white wall. I smiled and felt at home again.

Roger and I got a xe om (motorbike taxi) to take us to the train station. There I bought a train ticket for Hanoi and Roger and I would have breakfast together before he went back to the border to fetch Janet, Jodi, and Lynelle who wanted to sleep in. I would leave the others behind here and go on home. I was exhausted, out of money, and had the mother of all colds. Roger would go back to the border and wait for the 3 girls and then get a bus with them to go to the resort town to spend the weekend in Sapa.

Before I got on the train I hugged Roger goodbye. We had gotten incredibly close, all of us, traveling together, helping each other put our backpacks on, looking out for each other. I wouldn’t see Janet again but I learned from the others later that she had the time of her life with them in Sapa, staying up late talking about the purpose of life and seeing the sunrise from a mountain-top together. I wish I could have been there but I’d already gone past my limits. We never know where our limits are until we’ve gone past them. This 2 week journey in China expanded the borders of my heart and gave me greater appreciation for both Vietnam and America.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Chapter 3...Part #2

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.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Chapter 3 (Part #1)

Chapter 3…A Change in the Air…

Mon. Nov. 3, 2003...Noise…

Since there is a huge industrial size compressor and jack-hammer pounding away just 2 feet from our front door, I can think of no other topic to write about today than noise. Noise is a constant thing here in Hanoi. In the narrow lane we live off of, they are putting a new sewer drain in and they fire up the compressor and jack-hammer at 4 AM. There is no such concept evidently, of consideration for your sleeping neighbors. These workmen have been working for the past week and they sleep and eat on the job sight. The other nite, coming home from school, as I turned into our dark lane, I saw three young workmen sleeping on a slab of plywood, without blanket, pillow or bedding. No wonder they wanted to start work early! It is very common here to see workers put up a tent and sleep on the job sight.

On Doi Can, the street our school is on and also the lane our house is off of, there is a constant stream of horn honking. Sometimes I see cars and motorbikes honking for no other reason than to make noise. At first, while I was trying to teach, this was very annoying and distracting but in time, in the classroom I hardly notice it now. It is amazing what you can adjust to when you have to.

Most people own their own roosters and hens so we hear the neighbor’s chickens, dogs, cats, televisions, and conversations all at the same time. The walls are paper thin so I can usually hear neighbors talk, play music, sneeze, blow their nose and a myriad of other activities thru the walls. Like most homes here, we share common walls with neighbors on all sides of us. Construction around us is constant as Hanoi is a city in perpetual remodeling.

In December Vietnam is hosting the 22nd SEA GAMES and many visitors will be coming to Hanoi. This is a mini-Olympics for the Southeast Asian countries and Hanoi is sprucing up and putting its best face on as there will be television crews here from all over Asia here. The homeless have been skirted off the streets and taken to “homeless villages” in the far flung provinces. Prostitution has either gone underground or disappeared altogether. The government is putting policeman out in droves to show a strong presence here before all the international visitors flood in soon. But the noise does not stop.

There are only two places in Hanoi that I’ve found solitude and quietness. The first is the campus of Hanoi University of Technology and the other is the grounds of Ho Chi Minh’s home and mausoleum. These are little islands of tranquility in a sea of cacophony. This goes to prove that there is a sense of respectful silence in some places. But not on Doi Can St.

Wedns. Nov. 5, 2003...ROOTS…

Duong (pronounced very roughly, DU WONG) is my favorite student. He is 28 and comes from a poor farming village near Da Nang in central Vietnam, about 500 miles from Hanoi. Of the 11 children in his family he is the youngest. He is very bright and got a scholarship to attend a university in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). After receiving his engineering degree 3 years ago he was hired by a joint venture company that is headquartered in Korea but has an office and plant here in Hanoi. He makes a good salary.

However, because it requires an expensive flight on the government owned airline, Vietnam Airlines, (which is, by the way, the only airline allowed to fly the forbidden skies here) AND because it would in addition require ground transportation of over 2 hours to his remote village, Duong only sees his parents about once a year. He can’t call his parents because their village does not have phone service. As Duong was relating all this to me, his eyes filled with tears. He told me he loves his parents very much. They have lived a hard life as rice farmers and encouraged him to leave the village and have a better life. He is torn between prosperity and a coveted career and being with his family. Duong’s roots go down deep into Vietnam’s family soul.

When we first meet a person, we are immediately aware of the exterior…how tall or short, how fat or thin, how attractive or unattractive that person is. We try not to get taken up with outward appearances because we know, more than anything else, that the REAL person is not on the outside but on the inside. And, so it is with any culture, especially this culture, the Vietnamese culture. The essence is hidden at first.

Now, little by little, the layers of the onion are getting peeled away and a few of the essential essences of this fascinating land are coming into focus. I am starting to see things about this society and culture that I could not possibly have seen or known three months ago when I first arrived here. I was taken up with how horrendous the traffic was, how different the people and the food were (and no, I haven’t eaten dog yet) and so many other outward trappings. Now, gradually, and primarily thru my students, I’m seeing the very roots of Vietnamese culture. Duong has been a little window into the roots of Vietnam’s heart and soul.

When you see a tree off in the distance you can’t make out much more than the shape and color of the tree. As you get closer you start to see the texture of the bark and the kind of fruit it bears. As you stand next to the tree you can see the shape of the fruit and even pay attention to individual leaves. But then, to really get to know the tree you have to dig underneath the surface to discover the root system of the tree. And what do you think is at the very core of the Vietnamese society and culture? What are the roots of this ancient land? The roots are the FAMILY.

In my wildest imagination, I could not have envisioned family ties that are as strong as those here in Vietnam. I have 5 classes here at the school and I ask my students many of the same questions…including “where do you live and how many people live in the same home with you?” In one of my classes there are 14 students and all except one lives with his parents. These are students who range in age from 15 to 44. And no, it is not the 44 year old who lives separate from the parents. It is Duong.

To buy a home in Hanoi would be impossible for a newlywed couple. Besides, the custom is that newlyweds always live with the groom’s parents…indefinitely! There are usually at least 3 generations living in every Vietnamese household; grandparents, parents, and children. Most of my students say they enjoy living with their parents and grandparents and it works out very well. Try that on for size in America and see if it fits. A little too tight and too close for comfort eh? In Vietnam it not only fits but it is the preferred family living arrangement. The Vietnamese LOVE…and I mean DEEPLY LOVE…their family members. They enjoy being together as much as possible.

Here it is rare and very improper for a young man and young woman to live together before marriage. I only have one student who admits to that living arrangement and her parents live in a distant province and village so they are not aware of it…or so she says. I asked my married students if they want to get a home of their own and move away from their parents. They look at me with a puzzled look. The concept of moving away from their parents never crosses their mind they answer. Besides, it is the duty and responsibility of at least one child to always live at home until the death of both parents. Then, that child inherits the family home.

Moving your feeble or infirm parent to a rest home is another unheard of and incomprehensible concept. People have more value to the society and to the family, the older they get in Vietnam, not less. The older you are, the more respect you gain. When I told students in my class about rest homes in America they looked at me as if I were joking. Such a thing does not exist here, nor is it likely to. Older family members are cherished and venerated. When they die they are worshipped.

Family altars exist in almost every shop and home in Vietnam. Daily, incense is burned and fruit or some favorite substance of the departed is offered to the spirit of grandpa or grandma or those more ancient. Just as a grieving widow may visit the grave of her late beloved, so too, do the Vietnamese daily keep in remembrance deceased family. Family is more precious than anything else in this culture. Family is sacred.

We in America love our family but how many of us would want our children and their mates to live with us for the rest of our lives? Or, how many people lovingly and willingly want their aged or infirm parent to live with them, to nurture and take care of them until they depart? These very concepts are undesirable to most of us, yet they are and the roots and core of Vietnamese culture. The family is the very soul of this society.

As I write these things I feel a sense of frustration because I can’t express strongly enough how important the family is to Vietnam. Everything revolves around the family. Duong wants to make enough money to buy a home and move his parents here but he knows they won’t leave their ancient village. They want him to have a better life. Duong is the only student I have that is not in daily contact with his/her parents. His roots are in his family and I can see the sorrow and grief on his face when he talks about his deep love for his home and parents.

This society is thousands of years old and the roots are in family traditions and values. We are babies. American society is about 250 years old. We are but a newly planted sapling in comparison to Vietnam which is like a 2,000 year old California Redwood. The whole concept of family here is making me rethink my own values. When we have no culture or society to compare our own to, we think ours is the only right one. More than anything else, being in Vietnam is making me miss and appreciate my own land, family and roots. In all sincerity and honesty, I can say MY TRUE ROOTS are going down deeper!!

Mon. Nov. 10, 2003...My First Vietnamese Wedding…

East is EAT and West is BEST, at least as far as weddings are concerned. I attended my first Vietnamese wedding on Sat. and I have to say, here the difference between America and Vietnam is as dinstant as Mars is from Earth. I thought our Western weddings were an endurance test but try eating your way thru one of these 3 day epic banquets.

The average Vietnamese wedding lasts for at least 3 days, longer in the villages. No, I did not participate in all 3 days of the non-stop partying and feasts. I merely attended a 3 hour mini-session, just a mere sprint in comparison of the over-all marital marathon. Next to the importance of family, there is probably nothing as different in our 2 cultures as weddings and marriage.

Let’s start from the beginning. One of the students, Binh (pronounced “Bing”), who is a young lady of undeterminable age, invited me to her wedding. Having never been to a Vietnamese wedding, I was curious. On Friday night, in an effort to prepare myself, I talked to my class about Western weddings. Much to my amazement they sat with rapt attention and their eyes grew wide as I explained our courtship, love and marriage procedures. There is NO subject that I’ve ever discussed with my classes that got as much attention and interest as this subject. The Vietnamese are spell-bound by the topic of love, romance and marriage.

After I explained in great detail the average Western marriage ceremony, I asked them to tell me about THEIR courtship, love and romance, and wedding traditions and ceremonies. Then it was MY turn to get big eyed, drop my jaw and feel stunned by what they told me. I knew by the end of class on Friday night that my experience on Sat. would be no ordinary, in-and-out wedding ceremony.

For starters, their courtships are very, very different than ours. Most couples have known each other for years, on average, 10 years! The man does not propose to the woman…merely once! No self-respecting Vietnamese woman would accept her boy friends first proposal, even after years of courting. It is bad form. And remember, this is a country where form and formality are all important as a way of life. A woman has to know how sincere a man is so he must ask again…to prove his sincerity and test his patience. And then he must ask again…and again…and again. The average number of proposals the man makes before any self respecting Vietnamese woman finally, and reluctantly says yes, according to my students, is 10-12. Whew!!! And that is just the marriage proposal!

Next the man must go to the woman’s parents and get their permission. Without parental approval, the marriage is off. The number of couples who get married without parental approval is less than 10%…and we’re not talking about teenagers here, we are talking about couples in their mid and late 20’s. According to the ministry of information, the average age for couples in the city to marry is 26. The average age in the rural villages is 22.

Next comes setting a wedding date, which is normally about 2 years from the time parental approval is granted. Next comes the week…or weeks of the actual marriage. Now this is the tricky part. The jury is out on when the couple actually become man and wife. In America, it is when the judge or minister says, “I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride.” That by the way, is the part the class just loved…and wanted me to tell over and over. Maybe the reason my Vietnamese students loved me telling that is because it is so simple, cut and dried and distinct from their culture. Vietnamese boys and girls do not hold hands or kiss in public…and since I’ve never seen them do it in private, maybe they don’t do it at all for all I know. It is culturally taboo to show affection of any kind in public. In fact, none in my class admitted to ever having seen their mothers and fathers ever having kissed, even in private. Somewhere along the way, their parents had to have some form of physical contact folks, as I hate to tell my 25 year old students that I’ve known since 7th grade that storks don’t bring babies anymore.

I’m sorry. I’ve digressed. So, when do they actually become man and wife? According to the government, it is when they take the first legal step…and that is when both man and woman go to the government clerk to sign the marriage certificate…which is usually about 2 weeks before the actual day…or rather, days, of the wedding ceremony. Here is where the class had differing opinions. In the villages it is different than the city. Among the rich it is different than with the poor. From family to family it varies but most students said that the average city wedding ceremony lasted 3 days. The first day, nominal friends and acquaintances are invited to a feast. That is what I partook of on Sat. There you see the bride in her wedding dress and the groom in his finery. You meet the parents and the best friends. You eat. And eat. And eat…and finally scream ENOUGH ALREADY! I’M FULL!!!

The second day only family and relatives and closest friends are invited and that feast takes place at the groom’s home, where the bride and groom will soon live. The third day the groom comes calling for his bride at her parent’s home. This will be her last day under her parent’s roof, unless the groom’s parents are too poor or too crowded for the couple to live there. Then, and only then, would a groom move in with his mother-in-law. Yes, they have THAT tradition also in Vietnam. So, definitely, by the third day, when the groom takes the bride from her parents and literally carries her into his parents home, they are man and wife! Whew! Got all that? It is really complicated! However, as the younger population comes of age, they are opting more and more for one day Western style marriages. 70% of the population here is under 30 so there is a gradual shift from traditional ways to Western ways.

The average newlywed couple in Vietnam rarely have more than 2 children. Families over the last 15 years have become smaller. And, perhaps the most astounding statistic of all is their incredible low divorce rate. Less than 3% of the couples in Vietnam ever get divorced…probably because no man in his right mind would ever want to propose 12 times and go thru a 3 day wedding ceremony again!

Saturday, Nov. 15, 2003...Chi and Huong at Bat Thang and the Incredible Day!An incredible day! What wonderful friends I have in Chi and Huong! What goodfortune! What good blessing! Today was one of those rare and marvelous dayswhere everything went right! In fact, it more than went right, it was fullof serendipity! It all started when I left the house at 7:30 to meet Chi andHuong , 2 of my students, and they took me to Bat Thang, a village 30 kmsoutside of Hanoi where all the shops specialize in making pottery.I had assumed that they each would have motorbikes and I would ride on theback of one of their motorbikes. However, while I was standing waiting forthem on Doi Can,(our street) a xe om (motorbike taxi pronounced, SAY OHM)pulled up to me. I told him I did not need a xe om. A few seconds laterHuong pulled up on her motorbike with Chi on the back. Then I realized thexe om was for me. However, after I thanked the girls for getting the xe omfor me, they said, no, they didn't know who this guy was. What wonderfulgood luck! I needed a xe om and here he was. Furthermore, he not only agreedto take me to Bat Thang but the girls negotiated a very good price, about $3for his all day services.So we 4 were off to Bat Thang. The ride took about 45 minutes and we crossedthe Red River, which is the largest river in Vietnam and reminds me of themighty Mississippi. Down a bumpy, dusty road we went into the heart of ruralVietnam. The village of Bat Thang is precious and mostly devoid of tourists.I only saw 3 white-skinned foreigners. Every shop in the village isdedicated exclusively to pottery.We watched every phase of pottery making: turning vessels on a wheel,pouring slip into moulds, cleaning, priming, painting, firing, glazing andshipping. We even got to paint some pottery and once it is fired and glazedwe'll go back to Bat Thang and pick it up. One pottery shop owner not onlylet us paint our own pottery but he invited us to his table for tea. I havepictures to prove it. While in one pottery shop I bought my grand-daughterMacy a tea set and the girls bought Caden some ceramic cats. After spendingabout 4 hours in various pottery shops we went to another village for anoutdoor lunch of catfish cooked at our table with all the trimmings. Thefood in Vietnam is so delicious and healthy. I continue to lose weight!While over a leisurely lunch we exchanged cultural customs and traditions ofour respective lands. The girls told me that they hoped Vietnam would becomemore like America. I told them that I hoped America would become more likeVietnam! This country is so rich in love, kindness, respect, graciousnessand friendliness. Oh that our great land could become more like this. I'vereceived more smiles in the 2 months I've been here than in 2 years inCalif.In America, we refer to Vietnam as a 3rd world country. What does that meananyway? According to whose standards is this a 3rd world country? And whatis a 2nd world country? And what determines a 1st world country?. Can someoneplease tell me? In my humble opinion, a country should be classified, not byits economy but by the character of its people. I feel that the people inVietnam are 1st world citizens. They are the kind of citizens we should allbe. Thoughtful, sensitive, friendly, and kind. I have come to really lovethis country and these gentle souls.Every teacher craves a close relationship with his students. Here that dreamis a reality. The students here can't do enough for you. When they take meout to lunch or dinner I try to pay but they won't hear of it. On average, Ieat out with some of my students about 4 times a week.

Each year, on November 20th, Vietnam celebrates National Teacher’s Day…rather than tell you what it is, I’ll share the exact words of one of my pre-intermediate students, Thu Nga: here is her account:

...I will tell you about our Teacher's day. It's one of the most important holidays in Vietnam (the National Day, Tet Nguyen Dan, Teacher's day and May Day). In this day, students go to their teacher's house to wish them with best wishes, to give them the most beautiful flowers. Students go to school not to study, but to celebrate the anniversary with many anthems. In their class, they pitch flowers on vase all week. The Speaker of the National Assembly makes a speech to congratulate all the teachers working in Vietnam.In short, students must respect their teachers (old teachers and new teachers). It's one of our human moralities. If a student isn't grateful and respect their teachers, he won't be respect in society.We have a famous saying: You are my teacher a day, you will be my father all life. (translate word by word)...Thu Nga

I plan on taking a little vacation this week to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) I hope to leave on Tues. Nov. 18 and come back Monday Nov. 24th so I won’t be here to celebrate teacher’s day with my students. One of my students, my dearest one, Duong, (if you can have pets,) wants me to meet his family in southern Vietnam so I am traveling with him there.

Sun. Nov. 23, 2003...Ho Chi Minh City... I am writing you from the dank, dark, humid skies of Ho Chi Minh City, some 1,000 miles apart. These 2 cities are an entire world apart. HMC (formerly Saigon) is a much bigger, busier city than Hanoi...almost 3 times the size. HCM is over 8 million with 4 million motorbikes. The traffic is much heavier here than in Hanoi...and here I didn't think that was possible. Hanoi has a small town atmosphere in comparison. I can walk from the center of Hanoi to our school on the NW outskirts in 45 minutes. Here, from the center to the outskirts would take weeks if you didn't get run over by a taxi or motorbike first.There have been many highlights since coming here a week ago. Perhaps none so great as having my picture taken with one of my Vietnamese students, Duong, in front of the USS Vandegrift in port here in HCM. That is USS as in United States Ship! This week marked the first time in 30 years that a US ship docked at port in Vietnam. US sailors were everywhere in this metropolitan, modern city and there were times I had to remind myself I wasn't in San Diego. The implications of this occasion are monumental...especially in light that Washington DC was receiving the Vietnamese Minister of Defense just a few weeks before. It gives real hope to a solid friendship between the US and VN after 30 years of no diplomatic relations. I am not into politics but I am into friendships and this is one I am very anxious to see deepened and extended.Sat. nite a few of us English teachers had dinner in downtown HCM and it was hard to decide on WHICH Western restaurant to choose from. Wanda is from Texas, JP is from Korea, and I come from the restaurant capital of the world, The SF Bay Area. So, we opted for a Medditeranean restaurant that had a varied menu and soft jazz in the background. There's never been a time in my 3 months in Vietnam that I felt an experience was more "unvietnamese." In fact, most of HCM is very unlike Hanoi. This city has a very strong US a first cousin.They do not celebrate Christmas in, so I thought until I came here. The other day we went in one of the skyscapers here for coffee and on the 6th floor there was a bowling alley with a huge Christmas tree and Christmas carols blaring in English. No, you wouldn't find a Christmas tree in all of Hanoi. I actually am anxious to get back home to Hanoi. I like the small town atmosphere...for a city of 3 million. I am having "inner culture shock..." finding a culture within a culture.There are many ethnic minorities in Vietnam and I think HCM is one of them...but in a very urban way. Hanoi is the Vietnam that I've come to know and love and feel comfortable and familiar with. Had I come here first, I'd likely find this to be my comfort zone. We have no skyscrapers in Hanoi. Here there are many.One day this week Duong and I went up to the 33rd floor to have lunch on top of the Prudential Building, one of the tallest buildings in HCM. Again, a Christmas tree adorned the center but this time it was the Carpenters singing, "Yesterday Once More" from the sound system. Every restaurant you go to there is music playing. One thing most Vietnamese feel uncomfortable with is quietness. I crave quietness. The only "sound of silence" here is coming thru the sound system by Simon and Garfunkel.There is something the Vietnamese dread more than silence. When giving a 10 question quiz, I asked my students, "What are you the most afraid of?" I expected them to say snakes and spiders, as most of my American students did. However, I was stunned to read their answers, "Being alone!" Being alone and lonely is the greatest fear most citizens of the city have. I don't know about the village dwellers...perhaps it is different as I haven't gone into many rural villages yet. That will come next. Tomorrow Duong and I are going to meet his parents at a village 2 hours bus ride from here, Mi Lai.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Chapter 2 Leaving the Comfort Zone

Chapter 2…Leaving Home

Wedn. Aug. 20, 2003…11 PM… San Francisco International Airport…Cathay Pacific Boarding Area…

Just said goodbye to Roy, Jack, Tim and David. They went with me as far as they could go. I feel very much alone now. I have no idea what awaits me on the other shore….there must be more than 200 people in this boarding area and roughly less than 5% are Caucasian. They all appear to be headed home and I am leaving home. I am surprised that I have no strong feelings at this point. I have no fears and I have no excitement. Why am I void of emotion at this critical point in my life? Next stop: Hong Kong.

Fri. Aug. 22, 2003…noon…Hong Kong Airport…

The flight took 13 hours and for the first time in my life, I crossed the international dateline. An entire day fell out of existence. Talk about time flying! Slept most of the time on the plane. From my vantage point here on the upper concourse, I look down on people from so many different continents and countries crisscrossing this place. When Rudyard Kipling wrote, “East is east and West is west and never the twain shall meet…” obviously had never been in the Hong Kong airport. There are people of every color and dress imaginable here and they all seem so oblivious of each other. There seem to be an equal number of Caucasians as Asians.
(Now on board a Vietnam Airline flight for Hanoi) This French Airbus ??? is not what I had expected, thank goodness. I first pictured a Vietnam Airline plane as being a rusted out, bullet-hole ridden C-47 from the war era. Not only is this airliner modern, the flight attendants are decked out in traditional Vietnamese dresses and speak pretty good English, although I couldn’t make out a word the pilot said in broken English after we got airborne. Next stop: Hanoi.

Mon. Aug. 25, 2003… 3:15 AM…in my bedroom on Pho Doi Can, Hanoi…

Finally, the horns have stopped. But just woke up at 3 AM, as I have been doing since I arrived. Have not written in my journal for a few days. Roger (24) from Australia and Rex (72) from New Zealand came to the airport to pick me up. I’d never met either before and it was a horrendous ride back to Hanoi (42 kms.) from Noi Bai Airport. I was ready to hop back on a plane to the US after the taxi ride…here in the city it is mostly motorbikes and bike traffic…constant honking…nerve wracking…dogs barking…roosters crowing. No one could have described the noise and traffic…and Roger informed me today that I’ll start teaching Tuesday. Nothing like going right into the furnace from the fire. Everything here moving 160 mph. This is all like a bad dream. Heat and humidity excruciating but I have AC in my room and our house is a palace. I even have my own bathroom with hot water…so much for the grass hut with the dirt floor! Roger and Rex each have their own room and another American teacher is coming next month to the school. Have been to the school once to meet the staff. Both secretaries are VN with good English, Minh and Thuy. Have not yet met the director, John, who hired me.

Tues. Aug. 26, 2003…first time to teach…

Crossing the street here is like walking a tightrope. You just slowly walk out into the street and traffic goes around you. This is going to take practice. The smells, sights and sounds make me wonder if I’ve lost my mind. Today I went out by myself for the first time. The alley we live down looks like something out of a spooky movie. I fear the first time I walk home alone in the dark I’m gonna get mugged. Roger assures me this is the safest place on earth. He taught in Cambodia before he came here. Rex taught for 35 years in India before he came here and he says in India they had to lock and bar “their camp.” Rex uses a lot of words and phrases, either from New Zealand or India that I don’t understand. Sometimes I wonder if he is actually speaking English. Roger seems easier to understand but has a real Aussie accent. Can’t tell if it is still jet lag or culture shock that makes me feel like this place is so insane…
…taught my first class tonight. All the names are difficult to pronounce; Phuong, Hien, Hanh, Tuan, Huong, Thuy, (actually 3 Thuys)…8 girls and 3 boys in this intermediate conversational English class. Roger taught most of the class tonight because he can see I am still shell-shocked. The kids are between 18 and 25. Most have already graduated from college. They need English for their jobs. Many international companies have come to VN in the last few years and they only hire people who can speak English. Met John today…he is Canadian thank goodness! He speaks perfectly good English eh? Rodney’s cousin left Hanoi to teach in Saigon before I arrived so I’m the new kid on the block…very NEW!

Wedn. Aug. 27, 2003…depressed…

Feel like I’m free-falling down a mine shaft. Today was terrible. I wanted to impress Roger with my courage so I walked a few blocks to our local open air market and bought some tomatoes, onions and carrots. Have no idea what things cost here. $1 US is equal to 16,000 VN Dong here and Roger tells me I got ripped off because I got charged 45,000 VND for the veggies I bought and he said they should have, all together, been less than 16,000. So much for shopping. At least the little loaves of French bread that Rex buys for 1,000 VND from the vendors is something I can eat. So far Rex has done all the cooking. Have no appetite and would eat nothing if I didn’t have Rex and Roger to guide me as to what if safe. I’ve been gone from the USA a week and it feels like the passing of the ice age. Things now moving about 170 mph. Crossing Pho Doi Can today, a motorbike grazed me and tore part of my pant leg off. No skin damage…noise here never stops until the wee hours of the morning. Then before 5 sellers hawk their goods up and down the lanes waking the dogs and roosters. When do these people ever sleep? If this is just the first week, how am I gonna survive another 6 months of this?

Fri. Aug. 29, 2003…heat unbearable…

Have never experienced such heat and humidity. In the morning, when I come out of my AC bedroom, stepping out into the hall is like stepping into a sauna. By the time I walk down to the kitchen I am drenched in sweat. I can’t seem to get enough water in me. We buy bottled water from vendors who bring it in 25 liter bottles to the house…I’ve never drank this much water before. Just can’t seem to get enough…thirst is constant…taught the class again last night and we don’t have a written curriculum. Each teacher just makes up their own lesson plans and curriculum for each class and you just teach by the seat of your pants. In a way I like this because it leaves a lot of room for creativity. Tomorrow, Rex and I are going to travel by train to Sapa, up on the border of China because it is a holiday weekend…I think it is like the VN version of our 4th of July…Independence Day from France. France ruled VN for a hundred years until 1954 when VN defeated the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Sun. Aug. 30, 2003…Sapa…

Rex and I boarded a train Friday night, along with Minh and some of the students. Didn’t think the taxi was ever going to get to the train station because of the sea of motorbikes…holiday weekend. No different from the USA on get-away day except motorbikes clog the roads instead of cars…we traveled by sleeper Friday night…beds are just a sheet of plywood…not much sleep and awoke at dawn to gawk outside at banana trees and rice fields…peasants plowing with homemade hoes and water buffalo just as their ancestors did thousands of years before…arrive at the rail terminus, Lao Cai, in a monsoon and with Minh from the school and some of the students, we piled in a van at the train station and trekked up a washed out dirt road that should have been impassable. No driver in his right mind would have made this trip and if I’m ever going to get ulcers, this should be the start. VN girls got car sick. They just barf out the window. My nerves were pretty shot. Sapa is up in the mountains. Mt. Fan Si Pan, the highest point in VN at about 9,000 feet is a day’s hike from Sapa. When we piled out of the van at the village of Sapa, throngs of Hmong met us and wanted us to take their pictures…only to beg for money afterwards. Cold and rain and fog. Finally wasn’t sweating…last night the inn keeper where we stayed came in and looked under our bed. Minh says he was looking for women we might have brought in with us! She said foreigners often bring women in illegally! Wow! They even legislate morality in this country! They asked for our passports to keep overnight when we checked in and I wasn’t about to surrender mine but Minh says its the law. You get it back when you check out and PAY…this morning when Rex and I awoke the sun was shining and what a gorgeous view of terraced rice fields in uncountable shades of green. Fog clung to the high peaks around the village and Rex and I had strong black coffee, fried eggs and French bread with butter and jam for breakfast. This was the first day since I came that I felt everything is going to be OK. It was cool in the morning so Rex and I went for a hike down to a waterfall and back up the mountain to the village. Rex is in remarkable shape for a man of 72 and if I had not been taking morning walks before I came to VN, I would never have been able to keep up with him. Or even survived this long. Tonight we’ll take the train back to Hanoi, about a 13 hour ride.

Wed. Sept 2, 2003…2 weeks…

Today makes 2 weeks since I left the US. Only 5 months and 2 weeks left until my 6 months are up. So glad for email. Without it, I’d be so homesick…or more homesick than I already am. Everything moving about 140 mph now. I still blink to see if this is a dream or if I really am in Vietnam. I’d love to have a pizza, hamburger, or anything red white and blue right now. Mostly we eat rice and veggies. Blistering hot today. In 2 weeks we are to get another teacher from the US, a young man named Brandon and he will occupy the 4th bedroom here in our home.

Mon. Sept. 22, 2003......A FULL HOUSE!

Finally, we have a full house. It was one month today I came to Hanoi and we’ve had an empty bedroom for that period of time but now our 4th mate has arrived. I feel very fortunate to have 3 excellent “flat mates” as my English textbook says at school.

Brandon arrived on Thurs. Sept. 18 from America, so now I have someone I can understand who speaks perfectly good English. Brandon, 24, is from Ontario, Ore. He taught high school for a year in Idaho before coming here to teach at our school. Rex (New Zealand) and Roger (Australia) will learn proper English pronunciation now and they will realize that the words like “sport” are REALLY not pronounced “spot” but “spoRt” It is amazing how British, New Zealanders, and Aussies mistakenly think we Americans have an accent!

Our 4 story house is full now. The ground floor is where the kitchen, living room, dining room and one of the 4 “loos” (British for bathroom) are. Then the second floor is where Brandon’s bedroom and Rex’s bedroom are. They share a “loo.” Then the third floor is Roger’s bedroom with an attached bathroom and then there is my domain, a spacious bedroom with it’s own bathroom. On the roof we have our washing machine…strange place I know…but there are stranger things than that here. All 4 bedrooms have their own separate air conditioning system.

Yesterday morning, on the way to class, I noticed a little less humidity in the air and just a tad cooler temperature. There is just the slightest hint of fall in the air. The ever present and ominous “THEY”, meaning most people I talk to, tell me that it gets very cold and damp here in the winter time. Since all I’ve experienced so far is heat and humidity, alternating with days on end of monsoon rains that can drown a duck, I will be anxious for cooler days. The houses here are without heat so I’ll have to purchase an electric heater for my bedroom once the winter arrives.

Hanoi is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. There are lakes everywhere. When I ask most of my students, “Where is the most beautiful spot (no “r” in spot this time)in Vietnam?” They often reply, “Hanoi!” The citizens love their capitol city and for good reason. This is the Washington D.C. of Vietnam and all the government buildings are here. Also, Ho Chi Minh, considered by almost everyone here to be the “Father of Vietnam,” has his mausoleum in the heart of the city where you can view his body resting behind glass. I have not been to see “Uncle Ho” (Bac Ho as the VN say) yet.

On Saturday, an American friend, Ted, took me on his motorbike on a tour of Hanoi and we covered most of the main attractions of the city. We spent about an hour in the sacred palace of literature where all the famed intellects and scholars came to study since about 1100. It has been restored to its former glory and color and it is really more esteemed by the citizens of Hanoi than Ho’s resting place. It was a sunny day, so perfect for viewing this venerable old city. Most Americans would find Hanoi extremely beautiful and exceptionally fascinating.

Things have finally slowed down to the place that everything is making sense and I now see a sane flow in the traffic whereas all I saw at first was chaos. It is amazing how the human mind sorts out sensory stimuli and in time, makes order out of chaos. There are unspoken rules in operation that the uninitiated do not see at first. After a month in Hanoi, I’ve been initiated.

Thurs. Sept. 25, 2003…Brandon…

Brandon is a quiet lad. I liked him from the get-go. He stays in his room in the morning and does email. He also brought a guitar and sings well. Although Rex and Roger are wonderful roomies, there is something strangely comforting about having “your own nationality.” It is also noteworthy that the VN don’t despise Americans. This has been such a pleasant shock to discover this. 70% of the 81 million people in VN are 35 or younger. No vivid memories of what they call the “American War.” This has been a real PLUS!

Because we teach at night, I’m free during the daytime so John lined me up with a daytime job as English editor for the Vietnam Social Science Review. I correct translations that go into the English edition of the monthly government publication. My dad would turn over in his grave he knew I was getting paid by the communist government. Like the school, they pay me in cash. Minh, our school finance treasurer was puzzled when I said I needed a checking account to pay my bills. She said everything is done cash only. My first pay was last week and I made 2.3 MILLION VND!!! I’m a millionaire! Now I know why all the Vietnamese have heavy metal safes in their homes. No one has a checking account here and most credit cards are not accepted. Cash and carry.

Sat. Sept. 27, 2003...My Day at the University…

Superlatives and adjectives are inadequate to describe my day yesterday at Hanoi University of Technology, the largest university in this country. At the invitation of one of the English professors, I spent most of Friday touring the campus and talking to Vietnamese students who are learning English there. It was an exhilarating and exciting day!

The day started with professor Hanh (pronounced HI-n) picking me up here at our house at 9 AM and taking me on the back of her motorbike to her university where she has worked teaching English for the past 15 years. As we navigated thru morning rush hour traffic (that is a story in itself) she gave me a little background about the university. She had to get special permission from her superiors to take me on campus as Westerners are not allowed access otherwise. Permission was granted.

When we first arrived, I was struck by how quiet and serene the campus was. Everywhere you go in Hanoi noise abounds. Here there was an atmosphere of tranquility and reflection. 4 of her students met us as we arrived. Two were first year English students and two were 4th year students. Although all 4 were eager to explain to me things about themselves and their university, the more polished skills of the seniors won out over the neophytes. School had just started the fall semester on Monday.

One of the first buildings we toured was the library. It was the QUIETEST library I’ve ever been in! I didn’t know such a place like this could exist in Hanoi since horn honking seems to be a prerequisite to getting a Vietnamese birth certificate. My eyes widened in dismay as the students showed me the antiquated card catalogue with handwritten cards detailing every book in the huge library. With pride, they then showed me the 2 computers that held all the same information, with a row of students lined up to get on the 2 computers. Perhaps because I expressed total dismay at having seen the outdated card catalogue system, a supervisors insisted we meet the director of the library. I was astounded to learn that there are only 200-300 books in English but thousands of books in Russian here. During and after the war, most educated Vietnamese learned Russian as their second language as their were close ties between the two.

Even professor Hanh was a little intimidated to be ushered into the directors office and seated. The white-haired, venerable gentleman explained to Hanh in Vietnamese that a new, modern, state-of-the-art library was being built on campus and he invited me to be his special guest at the grand opening in October…of 2004! I told him if I am still here then, I would.

We then walked around the huge campus and saw the new library under construction. The way buildings are erected here, one brick at a time, is a story in itself…best left for another day. As we walked about the campus I noticed how students would just stop in their tracks and gawk at this portly, graying American, the whole day. Hanh explained that because no Westerners came on campus, they probably thought I was a dignitary. This was rather amusing to me. Nowhere else in Hanoi, will a Westerner get notice because they are so common. And Westerners act as if they don’t notice other Westerners either.

The 4 students and Hanh and I had tea in the faculty lounge. There on the wall was a picture of “Bac Ho”, Uncle Ho Chi Minh. Not only does his body lie in state at the mausoleum in Hanoi, but his presence is everywhere here, as well as his face on each monetary bill and he securely rests in the hearts of all the citizenry here as the “Father of Vietnam.” In that peaceful moment, with just the six of us sipping tea, I mentioned to them there was a man in America I regarded as highly as they do Uncle Ho. His name is Abraham Lincoln. After reading several biographies about Lincoln, including Sandbergs, I feel an esteem for Lincoln much the same as the people here feel for Bac Ho.

After tea and a tour of some more of the sparse and stark campus, we had lunch at the student canteen. It was a Vietnamese buffet, the first I’ve seen here. The food was passable, but not my favorite cuisine. Since the 2 freshman had class, they did not join us for lunch, just the 2 seniors, Thuy (pronounced Twee) and Duong (pronounced Zoom) as well and Hanh and I. What the food lacked, the conversation more than made up for. They delighted in chatting in English and loved it when I would correct their pronunciation. They thrive on learning English. This is a country where English is viewed as the means to escape poverty.

Vietnam is one of the poorest countries in the world. This past week, in reading UN literature about Vietnam, I learned that the poverty rate in Vietnam 5 years ago was 70%. Poverty, as defined by the UN for this country, is less than $1 per day per household. Now the poverty rate is 35%. A mass influx of foreign business investments has infused new life into this once depleted economy and most of these businesses have come from America, Canada, Australia, and England…so the largest common denominator to getting a better job here is to speak English.

Hanh had arranged for me to meet all of her advanced English students, and to make the class more enjoyable for them, and for me, she assigned the class to meet us in Lenin Park at 2 PM. Unlike most of my English classes here at CLASP, the students were on time but the teachers were late. As we entered the beautiful park, me riding on the back of the professors motorbike, Hanh pointed out a group of students, standing waiting, on the far end of the gorgeous lake from the entrance gate. I felt nervous about meeting her best students. I felt I would be under a magnifying glass.

After a crisp walk to where the students stood watching us gallop toward them, Hanh made a general introduction and we then took seats at a large table inside an open air cafĂ© by the lake. There were about 20 students, about 18 girls and 2 boys. I’ve noticed this demographic to hold true in most of my classes here at the school as well. It is primarily girls who study English, not boys. I really don’t know why that is, other than the fact many of my male students have to work late or work at 2 jobs in order to support their families.

What followed was the most incredible interviews I’ve witnessed, little less been a part of. Hanh had told the students they could ask any question they wanted of me, no matter how personal, so long as it was all conducted in English. The students mostly wanted to know all about America, what was it like, what kind of food did I eat there…what did I think of Vietnam, where did I live, what did I like, (everything except the traffic) what did I not like, (the traffic) and on and on. After about an hour and a half, I asked the students to each tell me something about themselves and why they were learning English…always it was to get a better job.

The class, which started a little after 2, went on and on. Surprised that there was no set time to stop, we visited until after 6 PM! I felt such incredible sense of warmth for these kids, not one of which was over 21 and most even looked younger. Since I had to be going…I’d been gone from home and school all day…I had to get back. We made plans to meet again next Friday at Lenin Park for round #2 of what we decided to call the class: “The English Club.”
This will go down in my journal as my most incredible day in Vietnam yet. Next week I hope to take some of the other NES teachers with me, (Native English Speakers) as I’d like to share this “little gold mine” with John, Rex, and the others. Eventually I’d like to see some of these kids come study at our school!

Sun. Oct. 5...Homesick…

I’ve been here for 6 weeks now and today, for the first time, I think I’ve finally come to that place that we commonly call “homesickness.” It seems that there has been an advent of collapses in my world that triggers that unwanted thought, “What am I doing here in Vietnam?” Sometimes nothing works here…and sometimes that happens all at the same time. I bought a cell phone today and it does not work. My internet connection does not work anymore so I’ve not sent or received any email in the last 2 days… I crave someone to speak English with at the moment but there is no one here at home except me and my computer. I am hungry for pizza, hamburgers or anything else I don’t have to use chop sticks to eat with…something firm and juicy I can hold in my hand and put in my mouth…something that tastes red, white and blue and familiar.

One American who lives in Ho Chi Minh City told me before I came over here that the 2 things that would help fight homesickness were pictures and email. Well, I’ll just have to get my pictures out and look at them again. And I’ll have to get a new email card. Here in Vietnam there is only one ISP…and you have to buy cards, like phone cards, to use for internet service and I think my service ran out. How good it will be to get reconnected to friends and home.

The first time I ever experienced homesickness was when I was 5 years old. I went to spend the weekend with my grandpa and grandma Weir, who lived all of 2 miles from our home in Denver. After the first night, I asked grandpa to take me home. I told him, “Grandpa, I want to go home…I forgot what mama looks like!”

The second time was when I was a Boy Scout in France, and our troop traveled to Germany for a 2 week Summer Camp. I got blue and lonely and missed home again…just like when I was 5. I thought I must just be immature…only little kids get homesick. Well time would prove that even 57-year-olds can experience a longing for the familiar.

Then, after joining the Air Force in 1968, I left my native Denver for San Antonio and 6 weeks of basic training. Our first week we were not allowed to get any mail or make any phone calls… this was in the age of no cell phones. So when the time came that the men in our squadron were allowed to call home from the one pay phone outside, there was always a waiting line 10 or 15 men deep. I decided to get up at 3 AM to call home and what a shock. There was a line of men in their shorts and tee shirts waiting at the phone booth at 3 AM! There was little consolation in knowing I was not the only lonely airman!

Now Hanoi in Oct. of 2003. After 6 weeks of fast paced, busy days, it has finally hit me…I am not home…I am on a lonely planet somewhere in another galaxy, in another time and place. But, I lived on the roller-coaster of LIFE long enough to know that this too shall pass. However, just as letters from home helped in Basic Training in the Air Force, so too will time…

Sat. Oct. 11, 2003…Yesterday Once More…

Something happened that melted my heart yesterday. For the past 3 Fridays I've been meeting with Professor Hanh's advanced English class from Hanoi Univ. of Technology. I am really coming to love these kids. And yesterday was the clincher.I played an old song that I rediscovered here at the school, "Yesterday Once More" by the Carpenters. I use to love that song years ago so when I heard it this week it helped so much. Music has such healing power. I thought I'd introduce it to the university students so I took a cassette tape player and the tape with the song on it and played it for them and passed out a copy of the words for them to sing along. Much to my surprise, almost all of them knew the song by heart. They love English songs! It brought tears to my eyes. but they are warm tears, not cold tears.This song, "Yesterday Once More" is about rediscovering a familiar old song that brought back happy memories. That was exactly what happened and it was so heart warming to hear my new friends sing it by heart and with gusto. I recorded it on my little tape recorder. I will cherish that tape. As well as this song they sang me many traditional Vietnamese folk songs. I recorded them too. I played this tape last nite and it broadened the borders of my heart and knit my heart with these precious gentle souls. I am glad once more I am here. I feel I am where I belong. It is a good feeling and my heart is more united.

Tues. Oct. 14, 2003…Van’s Confession

An incredible thing happened tonight after the intermediate conversation class…Van, the oldest student in the class at 44 asked if she could talk to me. After everyone left, she said she had a problem she wanted to discuss with me. Van said she’d been married for 20 years and that she had discovered that her husband, a high-ranking police officer was having an affair with a young college student. My immediate response; “Divorce him!” She told me divorce wasn’t customary in VN and that it wasn’t an option to her. When I asked why, she gave me 3 reasons; (1) Her relatives would never approve, (2) It would leave her two children without a father, (3) and it is impossible for a divorced woman to survive or remarry! Wow! What a terrible situation! Here I thought VN was such a moral country. Van said many men in high positions often do the same thing her husband was doing. If this is true, it would explain why so many more women are taking English classes than men. When I go by the bia hois (beer halls) at night, there are only men in there, no women. That would also explain why men don’t spend their extra money on English lessons. I was blown away by her experience and asked why she wanted to share this with me. She said she needed to talk to someone and that I might have some suggestions for her. She asked how a woman in the US would handle such a situation. “Divorce!” I told her…not mentioning that our divorce rate is over 50%.

Walking home after class, I was so preoccupied and mortified by Van’s plight that I walked right past our lane. I intend to do some research on the divorce rate in VN.

Thurs. Oct. 16, 2003…An Answer…

While correcting one of the VNSSR (Vietnam Social Science Review) articles about marriage in VN, the article at hand said the average age for marriage in rural areas was 18.5 years of age. Astoundingly, in the cities, it was 27.8. The reason given for the wide spread was because young people in the city, especially women, want to pursue a career before marriage. It said that the divorce rate in VN, according to state records was 3%. I asked Mr. Cuc, the editor, if this were true and, although he works for the state, he said, “No, it is actually 5-6%!” I laughed and he looked puzzled. I told him the divorce rate in our country was now over 50%. Mr. Cuc, who has traveled extensively in the US told me he knew that and when I asked why the divorce rate was so low in VN, he listed the same 3 reasons that Van had told me about the other night. I find this unbelievable. None of my students come from broken homes. When I was teaching summer school at Waterford, I only had two kids in the entire class that DIDN’T come from a broken home. The family is the cell of any society and a society is only as strong as the family units. The woman is the backbone of the society in VN.

Tonight, for our topic, I chose: “Why is the divorce rate so low in VN?” The conclusion of all members, including the men, was the same 3 reasons Van had given me. Although, students did say that as VN becomes more Westernized, the divorce rate will increase.

About 90% of what I learn about VN comes from my students. The other 10% is a combination of the VNSSR and my random observations. My heart still bleeds for Van. She wasn’t present tonight.

Sun. Oct. 19, 2003…a day of crisis

Week 8 has been a living hell. This past weekend Roger and Brandon left for a little R&R on Cat Ba Island and Rex left this afternoon with some of the older ones. Workmen are putting a new water main down our lane and the jack-hammer has been unceasing. I’ve not been able to get my email to work for a week and the phone, because of the construction, is not working.

The isolation and noise has become more than I can bear. If God meant for me to be here, why is there this constant sense of loss and loneliness? Why is life so difficult here? I got cheated today at the market and I didn’t care anymore. Some of the vendors have no conscience.

This morning I was so despondent that I got on my knees and begged God for some sign, some form of encouragement just to last out 4 more months. Just as I was thinking about returning to the USA tomorrow, Rex knocked on my door and had a letter for me. It was from Huong, the monitor of the Friday afternoon Hanoi Univ. of Tech. English Club. It began, (and I read it aloud to Rex while still on my knees,) “Dear Mr. David, On behalf or our class, we are writing to thank you for your time with us and to encourage you to stay in Vietnam for the rest of your life…” and before I could read further, with tears, I told Rex this was exactly what I had been praying for. The rest of the letter melted me…these words, written by this precious tender soul, were the exact words I needed to hear at that moment. The letter was written 3 days before and delivered, much to Rex and my shock, by the postal service.

Knowing you are, exactly in the place you are meant to be, no matter how difficult or foreign is a tremendous comfort.

Tues. Oct. 21, 2003…Roller Coaster of Emotions.
Emotions swing like crazy here. I go from elation to depression is one day. Like Brandon said, we are always just a little on edge…and are constantly reminded this is not our homeland. I am still counting the days until my 6 months have ended and I can go home. I never ate very often at McDonalds but there are none of those here in VN, so perhaps, the first thing I eat when I return to the USA is a Big Mac!

Fri. Oct. 24, 2003…Beauty and Morality…

Vietnamese women wear long white gloves that cover their arms when they ride their motorbikes. It is to keep from getting sun tanned!!! Here in Hanoi the very thought of a tanning salon would be repulsive to the women here because they long for white skin…light skin like Westerners! So opposite in the USA. The women also cover most of their skin and don’t look provocative or suggestive like the Thai or Hong Kong women. The women here are very moral and I’ve never had one of my female students flirt with me. I am not saying it would be flattering but 30 years ago, when I was in my 20’s, it would have been deflating if none of the women flirted a little. I am glad that the women of VN help my purpose to be true. Youth has battles that are easily lost. It is hard to defeat an enemy who has battalions imbedded in your hormones.

On billboards, when lingerie is advertised, they always use a Westerner, not an oriental to pose in skimpy garments.

Another thing I like…guns are not allowed here. Not even the police have guns. The only time you see a gun is when you go by one of the many embassies here and see the guards holding a weapon.

Fri.. Oct.31... “We won’t eat Max!”

Last year, when I was substitute teaching at St. Timothy’s school in San Jose I met some adorable 4th and 5th grade kids. I wanted to keep in touch with them, and their teachers, one of which is Alison Dahl who teaches 4th grade there. I asked Alison if her kids would like to have some Vietnamese pen pals. We have a class of “Teeny Boppers” between 10 and 14 and in the first round of letters the kids introduced themselves to each other. The Vietnamese students wrote about their favorite food, one of which is dogs. This shocked the 4th graders from St. Timothy’s and I was amused by their second round of letters…some of which I now share here…this is such a rich cultural exchange between these kids…enjoy! Bon Appetite!

Here are their second set of letters. Uncorrected..Hi. My name is Samantha. I like to sing and dance. I was wondering why you like to eat dogs. We are studying Language. Hi! My name is Josh. I like to play soccer. I am 10 years old. My hobbies are building, reading, and playing on the computer, and watching tv. My faorite foods are chocolate, shrimp, porkchops and burritos. At school I learn math, Language arts, Religion, Science, Social Studies. Do you eat dog? Does it taste good? From, Josh Hi my name is Hannah. I am 9 years old. My favorite hobby is football, soccer, hockey, and baseball. At school we are studying math, language arts, spelling, social studies and reading. My favorite foods are chocolate, and ice cream. What parts of a dog do you eat? Here we don't eat dogs. HI! my name is Susanna. I am 9 1/2 years old. I like to play soccer, dance, and sing and play piano. We are studying Language Arts, Science, Math, Social studies, and reading. My favorite foods are pizza, pasta, and peeps. (they are marshmallows covered in sugar) I have a brother and a mom and a dad. I have a pet hamster. Why do you eat dogs? Is it really good? I asked that because I 've never had it before. From, Susanna Hi! My name is Jessica. I am 9 years old. My hobbies are soccer, softball, and piano. In Language arts we are studying nouns. In math we're doing subtraction. My favorite food is chicken nuggets. Why do you eat dogs? Are they good? Love, Jessica I'm David. I am nine years old. I like to collect coins. My favorite foods are spaghetti, pizza and and bean and rice burritos. I'm studying nouns in Language. I have a dog, cat, hamster, and cactus. These are not foods. Do you like cactuses? What are you studying in school? Do you have any pets? What kinds of games do you like to play? Hi. My name is Nicholas. I like motor cycle riding. I am 9 years old. In school we are studying nouns. My favorite food is pizza? What is your favorite food? Hello. I am nine years old. I like football, hockey, and baseball. We are studying subtraction in math. My favorite food is Burger King. From Jason Hi I'm Sarah. I'm 9 years old. In Math we are studying subtraction. My favorite foods are strawberies. watermelon, or any fruis or vegetables. What is your favorite sport? I have blond hair and blue eyes. My skin is very light. I have lots of freckles and I am 4 feet 4 1/2 inches tall. Hi my name is Nicole. I am 9 years old. I am a girl. My hobbies are softball and soccer. I am studying a lot of subjects. My favorite food is calamari. What is your favorite food? My name is Matthew. My age is 9. I like to play football and soccer. I learn math and reading. Why do you eat dogs? What is your favorite sport and game? Hi my name is Jordan. I am 9 years old. I am 4 feet 7. My favorite hobby is football. My favorite food is mashed potatoes. My other favorite food is ice cream. I am studying for a math test. We are also learnign spelling. Hi. I'm Kaitlin. I am 9 years old. My hobbies are playing at parks, and running. At school we are studying math, language, and social studies. My favorite food is mashe potatoes. Do you have any pets? Do you have any favorite people? I like Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. Well, talk to you later. Kaitlin Hello. My name is Molly. I am 9 years old. I like to collect elephants. We are studying language. We are workin on nouns in Language. I love to eat choclate, and chicken and Macaroni and cheese. That is noodles with cheese on it! Hello. My name is Andy. I am 9 years old. I love football, baseball and hockey. We are studying math and language. My favorite food is pizza. I am 4 feet 7. I have a hamster and we might get a dog. I have a good family and house. My friends are Matthew, Jason, Peter, Jordan, and David. Hello. My name is Ashley. I'm 9 years old and my birthday is July 12. I'm a girl. My hobies are reading, golfing, and swimming. We are studying Math, Language, Science, Social Studies and Reading. My favofite foods are steak, chocolate, and strawberries. Do you like to read or draw? I have 5 people in my family. I have a dad, mom, sister and grandma. My grandma is away on a trip to visit a friend. Does your grandma live with you? My grandma lives with us.

Hi. My name is Leanna. I am 9 years old. My hobbies are horseback riding, dance class and piano. I have a brother and a mom and dad. In studying science in class. My faovrite food is BBQ ribs. I also love Mac and cheese. Why do you eat dogs? I have a puppy names Max. I don't think you would want to eat him. He is cute and cuddly. You should try cow and pig. Love your pen pal, Leanna