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)

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