Thursday, November 26, 2015

Blog Post from Vietnam – 11/26/15 – Happy Thanksgiving-ish

I just read what I wrote in my initial sabbatical blog-post from a week ago – and realize that it was all about journeys and arrival – and, although I’ve posted a bunch of photos and even videos from the last week on Facebook, I haven’t blogged that stuff in yet.

So. . .

It’s now Thursday afternoon – It’s been “Thanksgiving” here “all day” – even as at home it’s the WEE hours of the morning and nobody’s UP for Thanksgiving yet.  This business of being 12 hours ahead takes some getting used to.  It seems like more than 12 hours ahead – because I live most of every day before “you” even start it!  To wish people a “live” Happy Thanksgiving, I’ll have to wait until like 9 o’clock tonight – at which point my day is pretty much cooked.  (Especially since our schedule has us getting up at 5:30 a.m. on “working days.”)

As previously noted, we volunteered through Greenheart International – and they have placed us locally with CSDS – a Vietnamese NGO.  Their website says  CSDS is addressing development issues in Vietnam with particular focuses on climate change for environment protection, women empowerment through sustainable livelihood support, children support through social inclusion, youth development through international exchange and non-formal education. Geographically, CSDS is now active in different regions in Vietnam: Ha Noi and surrounding provinces in north Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh City in south.

On a simpler level, CSDS is an organization run by our hosts, Don Tuan Phuong and his wife, Nguyen Thi Kim Que – or Phuong and Que (pronounced Kway).  We are staying in their home along with 7 others at the moment.  A larger group of volunteers (and contract employees) is staying at the office – about a 5 minute walk away.  All the others are young people – ages 18 to 29.  Which is a lot younger than us, isn’t it?!  And almost all of them are from places other than the U.S. – Denmark, Sweden, Australia, Spain, Holland to name a few. 

Our placement is teaching English in a nearby (20-minute walk) high school – Nguyen Tat Thanh High School.  As it turns out, Nguyen Tat Thanh is the name given to Ho Chi Minh by his father when he was 10 years old (a Confucian custom).  It means Nguyen the Accomplished.  The high school is part of a university – and is a selective school.  It has students from grade 6 through 12.  Each class seems to be about 45 students.  It doesn’t FEEL like it’s that many students – but when you add it up – well, that’s probably what it is. 

Each class we’ve visited basically breaks into 4 sections – with 3 students per desk.   The photo below shows about half of a classroom.  I took it before a class was taking place – on the day we first visited the school prior to beginning our teaching.

The students are SO enthusiastic and excited to see (people like) us – in part because English is a relief from the pressure of other competitive academic subjects – a time for them to blow off some steam – but also because they really seem to relish the exposure to outsiders.

We are stepping into an interesting seam in Vietnamese culture and learning – not unique to Vietnam, but typical of many non-English speaking countries:  Because of the internet and television and so much pop culture available around the world, the students really are exposed to more English than their teachers have been.  This can also account in part for their enthusiasm – as they place great value (I think) in building their facility in English and becoming successful in the modern world.

Most classes have been studying about Celebrations in their recent English classes – so we used the opportunity to teach about Thanksgiving.  Actually, it was really an on-the-fly situation: We had been told that we were going to be observing classes the first 2 days – and that we wouldn’t be seeing quite a few of the classes because of exams.  Imagine our surprise when, on the 2nd day, when we walked into the first class, the teacher said “I have a meeting to attend” – or was it some papers to grade? – and left us there on our own.  To compound the situation, we hadn’t known what time we were starting that day until 4 a.m.  The m’nahelet (as we call her – principal in Hebrew) had promised us to send us a schedule that night.  She DID actually send it around 12:30 or 1 a.m. – but it didn’t come to our attention (Susan saved the day) until 4 a.m.

We had been PLANNING a lesson about the Jewish Festival of Chanukah (very timely, and something about which they certainly know nothing) – but that was some days away from readiness.  In my sleepishness between 4 and 6 a.m. that morning (not expecting us to actually have to teach yet), I came up with an idea to teach the kids the old Thanksgiving song “Over the River and Through the Woods” (a lame enough song, admitted) with the bonus of having the kids (not realizing it) do a Madlib so that they would write a way more fun version of the song.  So when the teacher disappeared, we were (tenks God) ready for action. 

So thanks to that quick thinking, the students that morning got to sing:
Over the sea and through Thailand
To uncle's house we punch.
The pig knows the way to kick the bus
Through red and crazy snow.

Over the sea and through Thailand
Oh, how the chair does run
It jumps the brain and eats the hand
As over the underpants we shoot.

And as we went from class to class to class to class, we were able to share with them not only their own creation, but what some of the others had “crafted.”

I’m not really sure how we got through that first class or two.  After that, we turned the game into a bit of a more coherent lesson plan.

We introduced ourselves in each class explaining that we’re from Ohio – and teaching them to respond I-O to our O-H – and this will (theoretically in any case) serve as an attention-getting and quiet-inducing (after shouting the I-O) device during our tenure here.  I am certain that, by the middle of next week, students will see us anywhere in the school and give us a hearty “O-H.”  (By the way, GO BUCKS!)

We included pictures of people (including our daughter) forming O-H-I-O’s around the world, and concluded most of the later classroom visits (as we hadn’t initially developed this) with a video of TBDBITL (if you don’t know what that is, Google it) doing script Ohio (though that does give it away,  doesn’t it)?  We also showed 2 or 3 times Steve Martin doing his Grandmother’s Song – which is kind of a spin on having fun with a simple childlike song – a little mad-lib-ish in its own way.  This was pretty unsuccessful the first time when I wasn’t able to hook it in to the sound system in the classroom.  But when I WAS able to do so in subsequent classrooms, they got the jokes and enjoyed it.

To give you an idea of how sweet these kids are, here’s a photo of a drawing one of the girls did in one of our first classes – and of her presenting it to us.

So we’re settling in to a routine – Monday through Thursday morning classes (up to 3 of them) and Monday through Wednesday afternoon classes (up to 3 of them) – teaching a wide range of grades and levels of English.

It’s up at 5:30 a.m., out at 7:30 a.m., first class at 8:10 a.m.  Before and between classes, we’re very likely to spend a few minutes in the Teachers’ Lounges at the school.  The school comprises 4 floors, and there’s a lounge on the 2nd floor and on the 3rd floor – just a modest size room (about half the size of a classroom) with chairs around the table, hot tea almost always available and presented, after various teachers motion to us to sit.  A few teachers speak English – or some English.  One older gentleman teacher tries to speak French with me each day.

The classes are 45 minutes – with a 5 or 10 minute break in between.  The beginning and end of class is signaled by someone banging on a large drum – perhaps Susan’s favorite part of the school.

After our morning classes, we walk across the street to a different world – the Indochina Shopping Plaza Hanoi -- -- where Susan was already known by name the 2nd day we visited.  We usually spend an hour to 90 minutes in the Starbucks, working on materials and tweaking lesson plans, using the free and good wiFi (the school’s wiFi, we’re told, isn’t effective).

The first day, we had a bite to eat at one of the small restaurants on the street alongside the university/high school.  The two days after that, we ate at a couple of the fancier restaurants in the mall.  Truthfully, the tiny restaurant was excellent and so inexpensive – and we’ll probably eat there more often, negotiating things we can eat based on a tiny but growing food vocabulary.  But the second two days, weather and scheduling had us in the “fancy places” where it cost us something along the lines of $10 for our combined lunch (as opposed to under $2 the first day). 

Technology that is transforming the way people get around the world and live in the world:
1)      Google Translate.  Using Google Translate we are able to say “this is what I eat.  This is what I don’t eat” in Vietnamese (usually by typing it in English).  They can type in the answer in Vietnamese and then we can auto-translate it.  Sometimes we can speak these things in – and in another 2 or 3 years, I’m guessing that will all happen seamlessly.  But STILL – what a HUUUUGE advance in understanding and being understood. 
2)      Similarly, when we’re looking for household goods – take a picture and show it to the person in the local “shuk” (again, our own Hebrew word for something here in Vietnam), and they’ll find it or tell us where to find it.  This worked like magic for a little coffee maker – a covered soap dish etc.
3)      Uber – This is our big tip to all you world travelers.  We struggled with it a bit back this summer when we were in Europe but didn’t have data on our phones.  Once you’ve made the switch to using a local SIM card (as we have done in Israel and are now doing here and will do in India), you don’t have to fret about using up the tiny amount of data you have in your contract.  AND, with Uber, you don’t need to speak the language of the driver or negotiate with them.  Your credit card info is already safely in the system, you dial up your desired destination, you know exactly who your driver is and vice versa, you get picked up, off you go, and when you arrive, you really HAVE arrived.

I have wondered in recent years how many marriages might have been saved by GPS.  Where we once argued with our spouses, fuming over their seeming inability to read a map, recognize a turn, etc., we can now proceed without a care in the world: If you miss your turn, your GPS lady (unless you’ve used a man’s voice option) patiently redirects you.

These 3 examples above are the next steps of technology hugely benefiting our peace of mind halfway around the globe. 

And of course Viber, Skype, Google+. . . these are huge additions beyond e-mail.  How fortunate we are to live in such times, and who knows what’s around the corner?!

Well that’s pretty much it for now. . . Here are some photos and captions. . .

Before we even started teaching at the school, it was Teacher Appreciation Day!  We received gifts and a catered dinner with wine -- entertainment, too!

Our visit to the Ethnographic Museum involved our first bus ride.

We thought WE stuck out in this town.  Check out the group of German tourists!

Entrance to the Ethnographic Museum.  Vietnam is extremely diverse -- once you get past the 86% who are Kinh (Viet).

Water Puppet Theatre -- A Special Unique Vietnamese Entertainment.
This was sort of a road show presentation at the Ethnographic Museum (see below).

A burial tomb of one of the indigenous tribes (bodies not present).
Unusual images of what these folks do and look like in the afterlife.

Well, I couldn't resist this juxtaposition -- 2 additional memorial places -- one tribal (on the left) -- one local and recent (I think) on the right.  Below. . . very nearby. . . NOT a sacred memorial.


This and next two photos -- One of Hanoi's most famous sites -- The Temple of Learning 

This and next photo -- Hoan Kiem Lake

Picking up from Day Care.  There are SOOOOOO many motorbikes in use in Hanoi -- and bikes and cars and more all sharing the same roads.  Almost nobody gets over 30 km/hr.  Nobody wears seat belts -- and driving your kid around like this is normal and common.

The entryway to the home in which we're living.

A farewell/Thanksgiving dinner tonight with most of the other volunteers/interns. The hands raised indicate who's leaving this week.  Numbers will be way down until about January 6.  And you can see how well we fit in -- age, hair color, nation of origin.  (There was one other American there -- Thanksgiving-wise.)

Que -- our Hanoi "mom" (standing)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Sabbatical Post 1 – Arriving in Hanoi

We left Columbus Monday evening November 16.

As I write this blog, it’s Wednesday night, November 18 in Hanoi – a good exercise to try to stay up past 9 p.m.

We arrived in Hanoi about 11:30 a.m. this morning – which of course was 11:30 p.m. back in Columbus – after a Columbus to Chicago flight. . . and a Chicago to Seoul flight. . . and a Seoul to Hanoi flight.

Landing in Chicago:

Landing in Chicago

It was an endless night:  we left Chicago at midnight central time and flew for something like 14 hours – and it was still nighttime when we arrived in Seoul – 4 a.m. local time.  But it was now Wednesday morning.  What happened to Tuesday?  The sun never rose on Tuesday.  Our north to west route took us backwards in time and forwards in time (over the International Date Line) simultaneously.  Or something.

The plane was the same type that I recently took to and from Israel.  It seemed roomier.  Was it just because it wasn’t full. . . and we actually had THREE seats for the two of us?

The 3 of us? No trip would be complete without a rubber chicken.
A story I'll tell you later.  Maybe.

Or was it laid out a little bigger?  It seemed like even without the extra seat that my “personal space” was bigger.  I’m good at sleeping sitting up – in part because I’m SUPPOSED to sleep that way with my “wedge pillow” to ward off reflux.  When I sleep on flights like this, I don’t even recline my seat: I’m more comfortable just sitting straight up.  My wife prefers to lie down – and with the 2 people in 3 seats layout, it worked out nicely for both of us.  Truth is, that nighttime flight back from Israel is typically one of my “best nights of sleep” of the year – so this was “even better” because it was a longer flight.

Endless night.  As we arrive in Asia, daytime has spread across the U.S.
But we haven't seen ANY daytime throughout our trip.
As transit passengers in Seoul, we enjoyed the excellent facilities of Incheon Airport—places to lie down, get a free shower, reconnect with the world on WiFi etc.

Incheon Airport in Seoul -- A pretty fabulour place!

Transzzzzzzzzzit Lounge

Susan even managed to participate in an “authentic Korean Culture” program – painting a key ring that we’ll use for the key to the home we’re staying in in Hanoi.

Susan Gellman -- in South Korea for less than 5 hours --

Our flight to Hanoi arrived shortly before 11:30 a.m., but it took well over an hour to clear customs and immigration, completing the confusing Visa process.  We came with photos for our Vietnam visa and letters indicating what we were going to be doing here.  I’m not sure why this couldn’t be done in advance, but we went through this process with dozens of other travelers, finally getting the opportunity to pay $45 cash American each and getting a pretty Vietnam Visa page added to our passports.

I remembered to hit the ATM before leaving the airport.  A longstanding family tradition calls local currency Sigourbeys.  I’m not sure of the spelling on that – but it goes back to Gellman Family Vacations of a full generation.  The first such vacation was when Susan was pregnant with Ben – who will be 30 next March.  We took a family trip to Brazil – Ed and Rosalie Gellman (Susan’s parents) and David (Susan’s brother) and Susan and me.  Permanent snapshot recollections from that first family journey: 1) Susan floating on her back, 7 months pregnant with Ben(jy), observed from our 17th story (or so) hotel room in her ladybug pattern swimsuit. . . 2) a dinner with Gellman family cousins in Sao Paolo where we expected exotic Brazilian cuisine, only to find that these elderly Jews overcooked Eastern European Jewish food just like Ed’s family. . . . 3) “Nobody told me it was the RAINY season” – a quote by a stranger named Morty, the quintessential irritating American tourist. . . and 4) “Que Pasa” – what another hotel patron said to David when he opened his hotel room at 4 in the morning because the drunk guy was trying to get in the wrong room. . . and oh yes, there was the video I secretly made of the “South American Bowl” – examining whether water really drained in the other direction in the Southern Hemisphere.  This was back in the day of big, shoulder-held video cameras, and my little production (filmed on January 1) was a surprise to everyone when we viewed the video after our return.

Anyway. . . Sigourbeys here are called Dong.  So of course Susan calls them Ding Dongs.  And the way it shakes out, we were instant millionaires.  I had read that 21,000 dong equal one dollar.  Adjusting that to 20,000 dong, that means that 1000 dong equals a nickel.  So you can understand why I simply withdrew THREE MILLION DONG at the airport ATM – and was able to hand my wife A MILLION DING DONGS before we even left in the taxi for where we’ll be in Hanoi.  As it turns out, the exchange right is even slightly stronger, dollar wise – at the moment 22,465 dong to a dollar.  Or a dong equals 0.000045 dollars.

The taxi they arranged for us took about 30 minutes to arrive in the neighborhood of Mai Dich—about 9 km from Hanoi’s famous Old Quarter – to our east.  The airport (I can see now) is 25 km to our north.  Google Maps says 42 minutes – but we did it in more like 30 minutes – not going very fast, and maneuvering around typical Hanoi traffic.  It seemed like our driver short-honked at every vehicle we passed – and that many drivers like driving between lanes.  And as you get near the city you get into the coexistence of cars and motorbikes.  Quite a lively scene.

The program in which we’ll be involved (through the Greenheart organization) is administered locally by CSDS – Center for Sustainable Development Studies – a Vietnamese NGO.  We’re staying in the home of the Nguyens, who work in two different parts of the program.  We seem to have expelled their children, Kid and Nim (13-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl) from their room – at least temporarily.  There are 7 young people staying upstairs, and others nearby at the building where the office is located. 

Our first errands were to get SIM cards for our phones so that we can function easily here in terms of phone and internet, and buy some towels.  What an incredible revolution that is—going to a country halfway around the world, opening your smartphone, inserting a different SIM card, and connecting to local telephone and worldwide internet (and for a fraction here of the cost in the U.S. and (probably) Europe).  It was an easy transaction – except for the fact that, had we not been accompanied by another employee of CSDS, we wouldn’t possibly have been able to work out our needs and the variations in what we were purchasing with the merchant who spoke no English. 

In the nearby market (but it seems like all of urban Vietnam is a market), we looked at, haggled slightly, and purchased 4 very colorful towels.  Hung showed us the office where we’ll be reporting tomorrow – and we stopped for a cup of Vietnamese coffee – before returning to our new home, having dinner around 6 p.m. and then trying to stay up so that we won’t be waking in the middle of the night.

Seen where we bought the towels.  A taste of home?
So I may be boring YOU. . . but I’m keeping myself awake!

I’ve spent much of the last 6 weeks preparing to LEAVE Columbus – trying to put things in order so that Tifereth Israel will function pretty well in my absence.  Pretty well – we wouldn’t want it to function TOO well now, right?! 

I really did almost no preparation until the trip over – reading a small book at Vietnamese culture and habits, looking over the pertinent sections of Fodor’s.

So here we are. . . having said a lot but having done nothing.

Good Night (from) Vietnam

Jack Chomsky