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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.