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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Salsa and Songs
When we first arrived here, Becky researched a dance studio only a few kilometers from our apartment. We visited it at that time, but no one was home. There was a phone number on a sign, which Becky entered into her phone. This was before we knew which digits are added to a Ha Noi cell phone to make it work. Becky tried the number, but it never went through, so we gave up, not knowing that we didn't have the right number. A couple weeks ago, when we were pedaling past the street with the studio on a Sunday afternoon, I suggested we check it out again. There were two couples dancing, practicing in a big dance space, open-air, with a slick tile floor. I don’t recall the names of the two men, but the two women were both named Ha. (Funny -- Ha Ha!) One Ha speaks English well and goes by the name of Tracy.
They were some of the leaders of a salsa group that meets at the studio twice a week – once to work on couple moves, the other two work on “shines” – slick individual moves – and styling. We watched them a while – pure LA style salsa – lots of fancy turning, and dramatic hand gestures and constant hair tosses by the women. Not exactly our style, but they were good dancers.
Becky asked if they knew Rueda de Casino, a Cuban Salsa Mixer that Becky and I have been studying for a number of years. They showed us a choreography that they had memorized from youtube (in fact, most of their dance moves were learned from youtube). Becky explained that in a Rueda circle, people don’t memorize a choreography, but follow a caller who yells the moves a measure ahead. The sequence of short moves is improvised by the caller. We offered to show them and spent an hour teaching some basic Rueda figures.
They invited us to their Salsa class that night. The shorter man, who is an amazing self-taught dancer, taught a complicated dance sequence. Becky caught on quickly, while I struggled (mostly with the pace of the teaching – they didn’t really break things down as much as I need – they just demonstrated the move and expected my uncoordinated feet to know what to do). Fortunately, a very patient English speaking Vietnamese woman named Mai came to my rescue and patiently worked me through the sequence (which I have since mostly forgotten). When we said our good-byes, Tracy asked if we would be willing to teach Rueda to their class (about 50-60 Vietnamese people) the following Friday?
So Friday night (11/4), Becky and I headed down to the studio via Xe om – motorbike taxis. We were the first to arrive. Vietnamese people are much like New Mexicans – The “start” time for an event is really the time that the first people arrive, and the next half-hour to 45 minutes are still part of that start. Couples and singles trickled in. Some practiced, some just talked. After long warm-ups in which the male leader (I think his name is Minh, but I might just be making that up) had me trying to isolate my shoulder, torso, and pelvis in ways that just aren’t physically possible for me. Standing a head taller than everyone else doesn’t help either. Fortunately Vietnamese are not very self-conscious and similarly are not at all judgemental. So I threw my inhibitions away and tried every shoulder roll and pelvic thrust. Not a pretty picture – but I never claimed to be pretty.
Then Tracy introduced us to the group and translated Becky’s explanation of Rueda. The six of us who had practiced together the previous week demonstrated the moves to Becky’s calls of “da me” and “enshufla doble.” For the next hour or so, Becky, with the help of Tracy and me, taught eight or nine moves. The 50 Vietnamese people were quick learners and want us to return. Afterwards, we were invited to drink some lemon tea at a streetside stand by the studio with many of the dancers. From there, the group was heading to a Salsa club downtown. Becky and I wanted to go, but Sivan was home alone (Amali was in Laos captaining her team at a basketball tournament -- another story) and we hadn’t eaten dinner. After quick goodbyes, Becky and I set off to find a restaurant.
We walked to a strip of restaurants that we had passed on our way to the studio and were drawn to the one where we saw a group of four older men at a little plastic table, drinking beer and singing boldly, to the guitar that one was playing. We sat at a table next to them and listened as they sang a variety of Vietnamese songs – some patriotic marches (you could tell by the rousing choruses of "Viet Nam! Ho Chi Minh!" and some that sounded more like traditional folk songs.
We ordered beers and looked over the menu. All the dishes were goat. Headlining the menu was a choice between grilled and fried goat penis. I thought about ordering one, but they were pretty pricey, so we got grilled goat, and a dish of fried goat skin and whole garlic cloves that I did actually order. While we were literally chewing the fat (Vietnamese love to include as much fat and gristle in their chunks of meat as possible), the men at the table next to us continued their serenade. Suddenly I recognized the guitar riff as the opening bars of "Hotel California," which they encouraged us to sing. I knew the words, but it is not an easy song to sing, so while Becky rolled her eyes at my struggles to find the key and keep up with his fast tempo, I did my best. So to get back at her, I gestured for them to give Becky the guitar (again more eye-rolling), but Becky took it and played “Let It Be.” For the next hour, they sang for us and we for them. We toasted and shared beers. Their American song selection was mostly early 60s stuff that Becky and I recognized but couldn’t recall the lyrics. I noted that most of the English language songs that they knew were the same ones on the lists at the Karaoke bars. Then they sang the song Tumbalalaika in Vietnamese and then in English, to which I responded with a verse in Yiddish. These guys were young when the Soviet presence here was strong.
The restaurant staff were putting away the kindergarten sized plastic furniture all around us. The lights were dimmed and we had one more toast and shared our good-byes.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Jaya Sahihi meeting her host family for the first time.

Where have I been these last six weeks? Good question. School mostly – planning two new courses that I knew would be challenging, helping our four seniors wind their way down the tortuous path to college admissions, and administering SAT, PSAT, and ACT tests – three Saturdays in October just devoted to testing (and another in November). A couple short trips with my students, lots of grocery shopping and some creative cooking with very limited ingredients (one of the blog posts, I will summarize my “Expat cookbook”), bike riding on errands to track down lab supplies, playing ultimate frisbee a couple times a week, except for when it has been raining – which has been pretty often, and contending with the even more powerful forces of nature in the form of a hormonally unpredictable 14 year old.

School Year Abroad attracts some pretty remarkable students, especially the students who choose to go to a developing country over more established and predictable locations like France or Italy. Most of these students are mature, daring, perceptive and seem motivated to make the most of their time here. I am teaching AP Economics (Micro semester 1 and Macro semester 2). The problem is that I need to learn much of the material I am teaching, so I try to stay a couple chapters ahead of my students. Studying economics has been fascinating. I enjoy the elegant simplicity of economic models. But the idea that there exists average, predictable, and quantifiable human behavior seems dubious because I doubt that there actually are “free” markets – free from corruption, undue influence by powerful individuals, businesses, or governments, etc.
I am also teaching AP Environmental Science. This course material is much more familiar to me, but I have to provide a lab curriculum in a facility with two classrooms, 3 small tables, no sinks and few supplies. But I manage. In our first couple weeks, we observed exponential population growth of bread mold. Now we are growing radishes, basil and watercress in plastic cups to test effects of ecological competition. There is a pond on campus which we will study to examine community diversity (I brought four small field microscopes on loan from Sandia Prep), and we will survey fish in the pond using bread, and invertebrates using aquarium nets attached to long bamboo poles.
What my students find intriguing about learning Environmental Science and Economics simultaneously is how much the two disciplines overlap, and even more, how they frequently bring students to different conclusions regarding growth vs. sustainability. Environmentalists often disregard the power of markets and the ultimate power of the consumer, while Economists like to ignore those costs that can’t be easily quantified or paid for – such as the actual value of clean air or healthy populations of owls. The debate is between the "Tragedy of the Commons" and "The Invisible Hand." My students present current events each week focused on Economic or Environmental issues in Southeast Asia in which they must connect the article to principles we are studying in each class. I find it the most fascinating aspect of my classes.

Becky and I share College Counseling responsibilities. She will help the seniors edit their essays and the juniors summarize their goals, experiences and interests in anticipation of their future essay writing needs. Two of our seniors will leave in December, and the other two are here for a full year. We will have to help the first two complete their applications, and we will be with the other two through the entire process. It is a challenge to usher students whom we have only known a couple months through this crucial process. It is sufficient to say that these responsibilities keep me pretty busy.
I did spend the first three weeks of school trying hard to keep up with the Vietnamese classes offered to the students, but I had to drop out– I just couldn’t give up 90 minutes each day. Becky has persisted, fortunately, since at least one of us will really learn the language. My command of the language is pathetic. Even when I use the words and phrases that I have learned, the Vietnamese people I speak to look at me as if I was speaking to them in some other language. So my primary means of communication is a rudimentary sign language accompanied by grunts and loud slow words in English (as if somehow speaking slowly and loudly would help a person who knows no English understand me).
Our students arrived on Friday, September 2nd. We spent the first weekend at a hotel in the old district of Ha Noi – Hoan Kiem. Our meals were large and festive, and the students tried hard to keep from falling asleep in their chairs. We had them explore the tourist markets, figuring out how easy it is to get ripped off (a couple students accidentally bought a $15 pineapple). Saturday morning, we woke the students at 5:30am and at 6 had them out and walking around the famous Hoan Kiem lake. It was amazing to see thousands of people out at 6am exercising. There was a weight lifting group that transported all their equipment to the park via motorbikes, several Zumba groups, Some old ladies doing tai chi with swords, several hundred people who would do a bunch of movements and then they would all crouch down with hands on their knees, walking around laughing. Then they would move some more, and then laugh some more. There was a salsa class and a waltz club. There were badminton games (one pair of elderly – 70 something – women were playing badminton, each with two rackets – alternatively hitting the birdie with left and right hands!). There were roller-bladers, runners, and dozens of men and women exercising on their own. Some would twist at the waist over and over again, one man was bent over and kept swing his arms back one at a time, slapping himself on the back. Many men and women simply stood swinging their arms rapidly back and forth. Nearly everyone was active, and no one was self-conscious about what they were doing or how they looked -- very different from the gym experience back home. I have learned that Ho Chi Minh made daily exercise compulsory and the behavior has persisted. Maybe we should do the same in the US.
On Sunday, after brunch at a tasty French restaurant, our bus brought our students to the University of Languages and International Studies where our school is housed. We made our way up to a nicely decorated reception hall (pictures to follow) where our students’ host families arrived one at a time to meet their new sons and daughters. Some who came were parents only, others were just siblings of similar age to our students, while others seemed to come with uncles, cousins and grandparents. Our students were so nervous – it reminded me of the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter. As a family arrived, the students had no idea who was going to be called. The students and their new families sat at decorated tables eating petit fours and trying to make themselves understood. After Vuong, our director, made a short speech, the students and families went off together.

In the next blog post, I will describe our trips to Ba Trang (chahng) and Halong Bay, and a bit on Becky’s trip to Sa Pa and Lau Cai, Amali’s journey to Mai Chau, and Sivan’s to Da Nang and Hoi An.
This is Thâỳ Trúc (pronounced tie choock, which means Teacher Bamboo – my Vietnamese name) signing off.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Hanoi Hash -- Running and Beer through rice paddies

It has been a while since I have had time to add to this blog. I have pictures, stories, and some brief video to share. I will try get to much of it this week and get you all caught up.

The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, preparation, and work. Two weeks ago, on Saturday, we all participated in a Hanoi Hash outing. The Hash is a running/hiking club that started in Kuala Lumpur in 1938, spread throughout SE Asia in the 1960s and 70s and then exploded in the 90s and has almost 2000 chapters, and is on every continent (even Antarctica). The leadership is voluntary. They organize runs every Saturday (and some getaway weekends as well). They hire a bus and a beer/soda truck and head out to the countryside. Some members have scouted out a route, and after an intial beer/soda stop, with brief introductions of new people, the runners and walkers head off. The leaders call “On, on!” periodically to keep everyone on pace.

We met downtown outside The American Club met a few of the veteran Hashers – the first one I met, a tall Kiwi man, introduced himself as “Chicken Legs" and a British woman told me her name was “Shakesbeer.” I met others with similarly colorful Hash names such as “Nice Bitch,” “Spandex Man,” and a diminutive Vietnamese woman with the moniker “Moneypenis” given to her because of her passion for James Bond (somehow derived from Money Penny). Real names were shared as well, but the stories behind the Hash names were much more intriguing.

The bus took us out of town, picking up Hashers at various locations en route, and an hour
later, we arrived at a dam in the countryside west of Hanoi. The 10k route took us through rice paddies, floating lotus gardens, with ducks in pens, and wallowing water buffalo. It was muddy and beautiful, hauntingly similar to scenes from so many war films. We would exit the paddies into small remote villages. Children would call Hello and then run shyly back into their houses. About half-way through, after we were good and sweaty, like an oasis in the desert, there was
the beer truck. Tropical heat, an empty stomach, semi-rigourous exercize, and beer are an interesting combination. I definitely slowed down for the remainder of the hike. When we got back to the starting point, there was the truck again. This time, I had water.

It was nearing sunset and we wondered when everyone would head back to to bus. It wouldn’t be for another hour and a half. It was time for the weekly Hash ritual. A German man, whose name I cannot recall, was the apparent leader of the group that evening. Using some white powder (lime?) he made a circle and everyone stood outside it. He called all new people into the circle, had us introduce ourselves, gave us a cup of beer (soda for the kids) and after the group sang us a song (led by Shakesbeer and Nice Bitch), we had to drink and then were brusquely told to get out of the circle. Then they called in birthdays, people who hadn’t shown up for a while, people who were going away for while, people who started as runners, but finished as hikers, men with really nice bodies who had to take off their shirts before they could drink their beers. With each category, there was a song, and a drink. There was more, and it felt a bit cultish or secret societyish (although there seemed to be no secrets). It was funny for the first half-hour, but got a bit tiresome and Sivan and Amali were really tired. They didn’t start the ritual until sunset, so, after leaving Hanoi at 2 pm, we didn’t get back until after 8 (The bus stopped for more beer on the way – and then, after all that beer, had to stop for a pee break as well).

Becky and I will go back to the Hash, but I don’t know about the kids. They had fun, but felt witness to an adult group that they didn’t feel entirely comfortable with. Personally, I think it was great for them to see adults “playing.” My problem is that it conflicts with Ultimate Frisbee – I’ll just have to choose sometimes.

I will post some Hash pictures, but I left that camera at my office.

Eating on the street

Restaurants set up every evening (after the morning and lunch ones pack up).

Cook it yourself restaurants are among my favorites, but Becky doesn't like to sit that long, especially if it is on the little kindergarten stools.
Crispy Chicken Skin, Sliced Beef, different veggies -- cook them on the skillet, then fill your bowl, dip in soy or fish sauce, or shove into baguettes and "an" (eat)

Karaoke night

Cheesy and in the wrong key for the girls. Just us, a karaoke machine and some snacks for about $6 per hour.

More pics from Amali and Chuck's ride

Little kids working on a cha cha number at Bach Thao Park

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ngac San Pagoda, Hoan Kiem Lake, Old Hanoi

Amali and Chuck's Big Bike Ride -- mid-August

Dragon sculpture and topiary at Bach Thao park

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The start of school

Becky arrived four days ago, and immediately got caught up in the whirlwind. She starts work on Monday, teaching at the nearby campus of Singapore International School. SIS follows a strict curriculum called the Cambridge Program. It should be pretty straightforward from a planning point of view, but we'll reserve judgement until she has started. Most of the students are Koreans and wealthy Vietnamese. Becky is teaching several levels of English language arts (not literature, just reading, writing, and speaking). The pay is great, but she has a pretty full 8-3 schedule, and cannot leave until 5 pm. Not ideal, but we'll see how do-able it is once she gets started.
Sivan and Amali have completed their first week of school at Hanoi International School. This is the #2 school in town -- The UN International School is the best, but it has a long waiting list of applicants, so there was no way. Anyway, I am glad they are at HIS. It is more casual, with a strong emphasis on teacher-student relationships and creating a cooperative learning environment (much like Sandia Prep). I was there on Thursday and bumped into the school counselor (Pastoral Advisor is her official title). She commented that the girl's transition was remarkably smooth -- she sees a lot of kids who are resistant and angry about their dislocation and have trouble adapting to their new milieu. Talking about milieus, both girls are taking French, but Sivan has to take French 3!!! It will be tough catching up, but she has a HS senior tutuoring her and I am confident that she will do fine. Amali is taking both French and Vietnamese. It is a small school, so there really isn't any flexibility in the offerings. The girls have made good friends already, with students from Denmark, Finland, Thailand, and Korea to name a few of their home countries. They each have cell phones and have been texting their friends frequently and have facebook friended them as well. In time they will get together socially, I'm sure. The girls have signed up for a southeast Asian international school sports league! Sivan will play volleyball and Amali basketball, and they get to travel to Vientiane (Laos) and maybe Bangkok...
They've been commuting to and from school on the back of a xe om (pronounced seh ohm) -- a motorcycle taxi, but we discovered that we were being ripped off. They took a regular taxi on Friday, which cost 40,000 vietnamese Dong (about $2) with the meter on. The xe om driver was charging us 60,000 -- and xe oms are supposed to be cheaper. I renegotiated the price and we will pay him 40,000 -- still good for him and the girls prefer the motorbike to a taxi anyway. They'll take taxis if it is very rainy, but usually they'll take the xe om. I don't think I feel great about them commuting by bicycle yet, but maybe down the road. Some time soon, I will mount a camera on the front of my bike so you can get a sense of what it is like to cycle here -- crazy!
My first work meeting is on Tuesday, but I've been working all this time getting my courses together. I am intimidated by the prospect of teaching AP courses for the first time, and to teach AP Economics, without ever having taught the subject before is even more daunting, but I have been preparing and with a lot of prep work I'll do fine.
My ability to communicate with Vietnamese people is improving, although I still cannot pronounce anything well enough for any of them to understand what I am saying, even after lessons on how to pronounce their very foreign vowel sounds (recall my constipation reference several posts ago). I have trouble with basics such as numbers-- ba (3), bon (4--and then 'n' is barely pronounced, and bai (7) confuse me. I might accidentally offer to pay 70,000 dong for something that the shopowner just offered for 30,000. We westerners get ripped off routinely (a great example of Price Discrimination for my Econ course), paying 2-3x what vietnamese people would have to pay. We are getting more savvy as time goes on, and maybe by the end will only be paying 50% more than we should...?
Anyway, that's it for now. More later.
We're off to the local boba tea -- "feeling tea" around the corner -- one large tea costs just 20,000 dong (a dollar)! Then tonight, Becky and I are going to the Cinemateque to watch the Redux version of Apocalypse Now -- a free airing sponsored by the Italian Embassy. We would have taken the girls, but the newer version has a bit too much sexual content (according to IMDB). So they get to go out for pho and watch Disney Channel.
Xin Chao,

Friday, August 12, 2011

I was warned about shrimp paste. Vietnamese use it in their cooking, sometimes
serve grilled cakes of it, but most often use it as a dipping sauce. We don't
see it in our American Vietnamese restaurants, and two days ago I found out
why. In my many culinary escapades I have tasted things I didn't like or
wouldn't order again, but only once did I taste a food so utterly disagreeable
that I had to spit it out. In Taiwan there is a popular dish called Stinking
Tofu. It is cooked in big vats, often outside the restaurant to attract
customers. The traditional preparation was to cure the Tofu in fermented milk
(yuck) -- now they use artificial substances that mimic that flavor. I tried it
(twice to see if I might acquire a tolerance for it -- I didn't) and it tasted
the way a feedlot smells. Not my favorite. Give me Uni (sea urchin sashimi) with
it's post-nasal drip texture any day over stinking tofu. Mind you, I was willing
to try it twice.

Three days ago, on our way to buy our bicycles, we went to a mid-scale vietnamese
restaurant near our apartment. No translated menus, so we just ordered soups,
thinking that they would come in meal sized bowls like pho'. They came in tiny
bowls, so we looked around at other tables to see if there was an appealing
dish to order. Some young guys were eating fried Tofu, which seemed safe. We
pointed and our order arrived 5 minutes later, with a purplish, grayish dipping
sauce. Not knowing that this was the infamous shrimp sauce, I dipped and popped
a piece into my mouth. The piece came out less than a second later -- the old
men at the table next to us smiled knowingly. The taste was offal. Not awful,
offal. Best association is with the smell of a sewage treatment plant. I
grabbed for my beer -- empty. I took a swig of Sivan's coke. I felt waves of
nausea. I couldn't even sit near the bowl sitting on the table. I couldn't get
the flavor out of my mouth. We paid our bill quickly and headed down the block
to the french bakery. Even after the pastry, I couldn't completely extinguish
the stench.

I have subsequently learned how they make shrimp paste. They toss raw shrimp and
fish in salt, and then let it undergo liquefaction and fermentation under the
warm tropical sun. In other words, it is rotten seafood. Lan, our Vietnamese
teacher, told me that many Vietnamese can't stand it either, but it is popular
in the middle of the country. Will I try it again? I doubt it, unless there was
a lot of money behind the dare.

Then yesterday, we visited a nearby lunch restaurant that we have been meaning try.
We scope these out when we walk by people and see what they are eating, or, in
this case, the restaurant had a bunch of dishes that you could point to. Like
many street restaurants, the kitchen was the front part of someones home. No
door, just an open kitchen, a few tables inside and few outside. The woman
cooking scooped a big mound of steamed rice on each plate and then allowed us
to each point to as many different foods as we wanted, which were arrayed over
the rice. There were fried chicken drumsticks, steamed cabbage, curried coconut
and pork, some seasoned ground meat???, several dishes with fried chicken skin,
gizzards, or liver with various spices or sauces. Steamed collard greens, and
other appealing fare. There was one plate that caught my eye. Oblong, inch long
yellowish things, no sauce, which upon closer scrutiny, were obviously pupae of
some sort of moth or butterfly. Roasted, I think. To keep a short story from
getting too long, they were roasted silkworm pupae. I popped one in my mouth
and bit down. Crunchy on the outside, sweet and salty on the inside -- good
initial experience, but then, after chewing it up a bit more, some internal
tissues clearly did not taste as good as the ones that I first bit through. It
wasn't terrible, but also not so great. I will try them again to see if I can
acquire a taste. Sivan, with great courage, sampled a silkworm pupa as well.
She will not be trying it second time.

So we've gone from horrible, to weird, but there was also the best meal we have
experienced, four nights ago. We saw people sitting at the tiny preschool
plastic tables and chairs that comprise the street vendors' restaurants, with a
round, sterno fueled grill in the center of each one. (Some of the tables were
partially melted). It was a do-it-yourself meal. They brought us a large platter
of raw meats and veggies (one meat was pork skin, a fact I kept from the girls
until they asked why it was so chewy). They gave each of us two sets of
chopsticks -- one for cooking and one for eating. And a thing of butter and
another of oil. Suffice it to say, the food was fantastic. Can't wait to take
Becky there.
Pictures to follow.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

flowers are a big deal here...


Friday and Saturday -- vietnamese lessons, great teacher, bike shopping, bad teacher, music school, so so pizza, greek salad?, and a great time at the pool.
I'll elaborate a bit, and if Sivan will let me upload a few pics from her camera, I might save a couple thousand words.
Thursday and Friday we started private Vietnamese language lessons. I bought a little whiteboard, and my colleague, Lan, who teaches Vietnamese in my school, but is really an English instructor at a nearby university, gave us our first two lessons. She is a fantastic teacher, even though I haven't successfully retained much. (The girls have -- I'm a bit slow). Day 1 -- vowels. Vietnamese has 12 of them. They look like the 5 in English, but 7 of them have little squiggles or are "wearing hats," and several make sounds that I have only uttered when suffering from bouts of constipation. Then we went over the 30 or so dipthongs and tripthongs and the sounds they make. Seems complicated, but actually it is much easier (except for the constipation sounds) than English. Think about it. How many sounds can the letter o make? It even makes a short i sound in women. English is impossible. But all languages are confusing to those who are beginning to learn them. We moved on to the 29 consonants, which are also confusing. "d" sounds like z, and sometimes "g" makes the z sound too. Anyway, we will practice before we start on the hard stuff -- there are 6 distinct tones in Vietnamese. If you say "ma" wrong, you might call someone's mother a horse. Think introductions to a student's parents: "Oh, this must be your horse."
After the lesson, we took a bus to where Lan told us there was a music school which offered guitar lessons. We asked and looked and asked and looked and were directed this way and that and in the end did not find it (until much later). Nearby we walked to a bicycle factory, where they sell bikes wholesale (about $80 for a new bike -- simple, one speed, basket, bike rack -- so the girls can commute to school). We'll probably head back to make our purchases this coming week. While walking to the bike shop, we passed a cinema, and after looking over the bikes went to watch a movie -- assigned seating for a huge theater that was maybe 5% full. The choice was Smurfs or Bad Teacher -- Bad teacher won and I sat through this horrible movie, but I have to admit that it did make me laugh, and the air conditioning was great.
We were still in the area where Lan said there was a music school, so I decided to call her. She lived a couple blocks away and met us and took us to the school -- 1 hour private lesson -- 170,000 dong ($8.50). Classical guitar, which Amali has reluctantly agreed to.
We passed one of the Pepperoni's restaurants -- a chain out of Hong Kong. The pizza was ok -- weird cheeses, but good veggies on top, but the greek salad that sivan ordered was not so great. It was also pricey, so we decided to avoid that place in the future.
The high point of our weekend was a visit to a public pool. Lan told us of pool a bit north of our street, and this afternoon, we set out to find it. It took a while, but we got there and went in. We arrived at 2:50 and luckily discovered that it opened at 3. Interesting thing -- you know how pools have signs that read "shower before entering." To exit the locker room into the pool area, you have to walk through a carwash like curtain of water. We were among the first there, and it seemed quiet and boring at first, but half an hour later, Sivan and Amali were thronged by girls eager to meet them. Perfect. They exchanged facebook ids and we look forward to seeing them again at the pool. It will be great if the girls make Vietnamese friends. Heading out for dinner. I saw a street stand with some kind of shawarma-like meat turning on a spit. Wish us luck.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

There we were,
last night, about 7 pm, eating roasted duck and Pho from a streetside
restaurant up the alley next to our apartment (initially thought it was chicken
since there was a bucket of plucked dead whole chickens next to the grill –
best duck I’ve ever tasted though – a whole duck for 5 dollars!). The girls
ordered cokes and the restaurant owner brought us glasses with ice. I tried to
ask if the ice was purified water by pointing to the ice cubes and pointing to
the blue 5 gallon water dispenser. The owner nodded yes, so the girls filled
their glasses. The guys from the next table told me that it wasn't pure water,
so the girls had to order new cokes, drink them warm, and we enjoyed a great
meal. When it was time to go, the guys at the table next to us offered me a
drink so I asked the the girls if they wanted to head back to watch Glee.
did and I sat down with 7 guys ranging in age from mid 20s to late 30s (I
think). They worked for same import/export company and were eating and drinking
together after their company soccer team won their game. Several spoke english
well and we had a relaxed, sometimes funny, conversation. Trung (choong), the
youngest, with the best command of english, sat next to me and we talked about
Hanoi, about their business, about wives and girlfriends... I asked about how
working for a privately owned company compares with working for a government
owned firm and they all got kind of quiet... All the while, Trung and Yen and
Viet kept filling my little half-shot glass with shots of Vietamese wine (i.e.
vodka – and very smooth).We toast with a loud “zo” and down each shot. After several
shots, their dinner was delivered – they were having the same delicious duck,
and bowls of Pho (pronounced Phuh’uh), with brown rectangular very airy pieces
of meat floating in it.They offered me a piece with a bowl of noodles (mind you
I was full and getting a bit warm from the “wine.”)I asked what is was but they
just told me to taste it (reminds me of how I get sivan and amali to eat new that camel stew in egypt last summer).I tasted it. Not good. Sort
of the flavor I associate with canned dog food, but with a texture that made me
think it was cow lung – sort of spongy/but with a kidneyish stringiness – is
your mouth watering yet? Then Trung explained that it was coagulated cubes of
duck blood (from the rest of our dinner).When they offered me a second piece, I
politely took it, and smiled weakly as I popped it into my mouth and commented
on how interesting the texture was.I think I impressed them.Apparently other
foreigners gag. I told them that in China, I had some soup with what I thought
was pink tofu, but turned out to be cubes of clotted pig blood.Food is
food.Just have to work at acquiring certain tastes. I doubt I will attempt to
work at this one, though.

Now for the
interesting part.Trung asked if l like Karaoke. Ok I don't, really, but I know
how integral karaoke is as entertainment in Asian culture. This was an
opportunity to get to know these guys, and I'd now downed about ten mini-shots,
so, what the hell, I said sure. It was about 8:15.Glee had just started, so the
girls wouldn’t worry. From our apartment window we can see half a dozen karaoke
clubs, which is where we headed.The guys hopped on their motorbikes (DWI – but
for only two blocks), I behind Yen on a very nice ride, and we drove the two
blocks (thank goodness) to the street with the clubs.The clubs have wide open
entrances to a 20’ x 20’ room.The only people in the room were the red-jacketed
staff members (lots of them).Strange. And no music.Stranger still.At the back
of the first floor was an elevator.Two of the red-clad staff herded us into the
lift and up we went to the fourth floor of five.I was expecting the door to
open to a crowd of people listening to someone singing cheezy vietnamese
romance ballads, but there was only silence, and more red-jacketed workers.They
opened a thick padded door into a small (15 x 10) soundproof room.There was a
big sectional sofa around 3 of the walls and a big screen opposite.The coffee
table in the middle was filled with snacks, sodas, and there were 2 mics on the
table.A binder on the sofa had the two lists of songs – vietnamese and
english.We would write the number and name of the songs on little pieces of
paper and the red-jackets would come in periodically with more snacks,
Heinekens, and would collect our song requests.

Karaoke etiquette makes every song into an alternating duet between two of the
participants.They had me pick out some songs.They picked theirs.I went for 70s
hits – Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, John Lennon, Simon and Garfunkle and a few
cheesy 80s songs.Their taste in English songs was mostly early 60s stuff that
my friend Karen likes to sing, but I only know the chorus melodies for.But we
managed.They made me sing some Tammy Wynette country waltz that was vaguely
familiar – I did pretty well even though I was winging the melody.Troung had an
amazing voice – high clear, expressive. Some of the other guys were talented,
too.My strongest numbers were a very deep bluesy rendition of House of the
Rising Sun – they didn’t know that one but liked it, and then Yen and I
performed duets to Sounds of Silence and Imagine. At 9:30 one of their
girlfriends arrived.She and her boyfriend sang some much more danceable
vietnamese pop tunes – She had a great voice and could really dance...But at
9:50 I said my goodbyes, collected a bunch of business cards and walked home.

Tonight, I think
I will take the girls and we’ll have a fun time singing beatles and abba
songs.It only costs $5 per hour (although I have no idea what the drinks cost –
they wouldn’t let me pay). An interesting evening, indeed, even with the duck
blood soup.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Sivan and Amali get styled

August 2

Took a cab to the Big C -- Hanoi's equivalent of Walmart, only bigger, busier, and regrettably, not much less expensive. We've had to buy all our bedding, kitchen ware, etc. So these first few days have been pretty tough on our budget. But now the larder is stocked. We have four bowl, four plates, a little coffee press, a pot, a pan, a mop, a broom...
What surprised me at the Big C -- which was a two story building with a huge-box department store upstairs and a high-end boutique mall downstairs -- were the throngs of shoppers clogging the aisles. Consumerism, for those who can afford it here, seems as entrenched as it does back home (but without the recycling, or public trash bins, or other attempts that America makes to close the materials cycle). Interesting. I'm sure I have a lot more to learn about this.
My photos above are of two things that I observed yesterday (monday 8/1). The first was rush hour gridlock viewed from my balcony. The second was Amali and Sivan's first time venturing out on their own -- to get haircuts.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Food on the first two days --

The food has been wonderful so far. Pho for lunch, then for dinner we went to a restaurant next to our apartment building. No tourists anywhere. No menu in english, and no one to translate. So we ordered by pointing to one Bo (beef) and one Ga (chicken). The beef was cold slices with lots of fresh julienne cut veggies and fresh basil and watercress -- then rice paper to make our own spring rolls and dipping sauces -- yum. The chicken came out -- batter fried little round pieces with lemon grass and lime flavors -- popped one into my mouth and realized what part of the chicken we were eating -- the cartilage from the ends of the drumstick and thigh bones. Delicious but a funny texture.
Today we ate more mundane fare from my supermarket adventures yesterday. But we did take a bus to downtown/old hanoi and had wonderful drinks in a cafe there. Sivan had watermelon juice, Amali had a mango/yogurt smoothie, and I had one of the best cups of coffee I have ever tasted.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Rainy Season and Street Sounds

Today we welcome the arrival of tropical storm Nock-Ten. It poured this morning as the first wave of clouds passed through. Now there is a lull, but then it will pour again. August is the rainiest month. I will be glad to get through it. We are going out this afternoon to "Old Ha Noi" and Downtown. Ponchos are ready.
We live up on the 10th floor of a big building, but the constant beeping of horns down below is always in the background. Traffic patterns, especially at intersections are wild. A driver or scooter rider cannot wait for an opening to make a turn, he or she just heads into the mix of vehicles moving in various directions and somehow, usually, comes out on the other side intact. The difference between Ha Noi traffic and Cairo traffic is that Ha Noi is less congested, so vehicles are moving faster, and there are about 20 scooters for each car. Where we live, there aren't cyclos -- motorcycle taxis -- all over the place, just regular car taxis. We'll be taking one to downtown today.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Early morning day 1 tour of rooms and sleepy children

First morning continued

I am preparing a photo tour of our apartment. The girls are still sleeping and at about 8 am, the across the hall neighbor began to BLAST Beethoven! I walked out to say hi -- he had his inside door open and his security door closed, but did not turn around when I said hello and I did not want to yell and make him feel bad. The music is loud, but if his taste is consistent, I won't mind (although Sivan and Amali might).


We were met at the Airport by a man named Lam who took care of all our visa paperwork. Our bags arrived safely and Hang, the young woman who helps administer all the logistics for School Year Abroad Hanoi, met us outside customs. She had a van waiting for us and after a half-hour drive into the city, we arrived at our apartment at just past midnight. 7 suitcases, a huge duffelbag, a guitar, and 4 small pieces of luggage, made their way to the 10th floor apartment. The building seemed a bit dingy outside, but we entered through our doorway into a spacious living/dining/kitchen area. Furniture is simple, nice, and tasteful. There were 3 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms. We said goodbye to Hang (we're on our own for 2 days, until I meet her again at my workplace on Monday), and began to unpack. Sivan, semicompulsively began to decorate her room, while I urged the girls (until they finally complied at about 2 am) to go to sleep. I was tinkering with the modem and wireless router, trying vainly to get my vonage phone hooked up. I finally figured it out and called Aaron and Ellie Gordon, let the girls say Hi and, went to sleep at around 2:30. Woke again at 6 am, took in the views from my balcony, called my mom, and have been messing around with the computer ever since. Sivan woke briefly but went back to sleep.
There is a bran muffin from la montanita and a pink lady apple left from our trip, but nothing else to eat. We also have no kitchenware, no bedding (except for one sheet and four Korea Airlines blankets), and two tiny rolls of toilet paper. I need to do some shopping today. First impressions of the city later. I miss Becky and wonder what adventures she is having in South Africa.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

First posting -- 3 1/2 days before departure

I am remarkably at peace right now. The butterflies have settled down. Sivan and Amali have been terrific about packing and getting their rooms ready. They are making as much time as possible to visit with their friends. I played ultimate frisbee this morning and played my best game in years, even though I probably slept only 3 hours last night.
There is still a lot to do to finish packing and getting the house ready for the tenants. Becky left this morning for South Africa. She will be there two weeks with two dozen teachers, courtesy of Toyota, after which she will return to Albuquerque for five days with her parents. She will join us in Hanoi on August 17, two days after the girls start their school year at Hanoi International School.
Let me step back a bit for those who don't know what we are doing this coming year. Last fall, Becky and I decided that our dream of taking our family abroad for a year was beginning to slip away. It was now or never. We talked to our school administrators and family and decided to try. We created very professional looking .pdfs with a joint cover letter, personal statements, resumes, and rec letters and sent them out to about 200 schools. It was an arduous and totally fruitless effort. The schools that had jobs either wanted a 2 year minimum commitment or required that we fly off to San Francisco or Des Moines to interview at job fairs. Then my friend Stephanie, who teaches at Albuquerque Academy, told me about School Year Abroad -- a one-year program for American high school students. I sent our application and after a couple skype interviews was offered a position. From there life has been an intense sequence of logistical and emotional preparation.
Getting my classroom cleaned up for my replacement (a packrat like me can accumulate at lot of junk in 14 years). Getting our house ready for renting (lots of deferred maintenance could no longer be deferred). Preparing curricula -- I'll be teaching AP Environmental Science and AP Economics. Getting all the bills automated, getting all the stuff we need, etc. etc. etc...
After a trip to NYC to say goodbye to my family, we returned to Albuquerque. Becky flew to South Africa for 2 weeks while we got the packing and house work finished. Becky will return to Albuquerque for 5 days and then join us on August 17.
(Most of this blog was written 3 days before we left, but the last few short paragraphs were finished after setting up my internet in our Hanoi Apartment. The trip and first night will be the subjects of my next blog).