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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.