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Friday, June 15, 2012

After 10 months getting around the city on bicycle, we decided to rent a motorbike for our last three weeks. It's convenient to just hop on the motorbike and take our daughters where they need to go.  It's also cheaper -- renting a motorbike is just $55 a month, but we were spending more than that just to have Amali driven by motorcycle taxi back and forth to her school. 

But I wouldn't have done otherwise.  I figured out that I have averaged 8-10 miles per day on my bike.  Mutiplied by about 270 days that we were here in Hanoi, and I have clocked about 2,500 miles by bicycle.  I feel more fit than I have in years.  One of the things I will miss most is living without a motor vehicle.  I love filling the basket on my bike with groceries.  I feel safer on my bike too.  despite their complete lack of consideration and disregard for safety here, people still generally yield to bicycles. 

The streets are lawless -- red lights are mere suggestions.  When people do stop for a red light (about 4 seconds after it turns red, red numbers begin to count down until the next green.  But no one waits for the green -- at about 3 seconds before, they begin to ride into the intersection, weaving in and out of the oncoming left turns and the people who've continued into the intersection after their lights went red.  Most intersections have no signals -- you just have to time it -- so that you don't hit the oncoming or turning traffic, and  hopefully avoid pedestrians as well.  There is no such thing as a stop sign, and you can turn left or right from any side of any intersection without stopping or yielding.  My peripheral vision was well trained this year.  
Esther Kovari and I traveled to My Chau for a couple days.  In the evening we were treated to a folk dance performance by the Ethnic White Thai people of the village.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sivan's firework birthday candles were a hit!
Amali going for the ball! 

What a great year for her -- being in a school with only 25 kids per grade has given her opportunities to play sports, perform music, and take on leadership responsibilities.  She has grown with the experience.  She came a child and returns a young woman.

Well, sometimes.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The pineapple lady in the alley by my building

Planning the return

   Record heat wave in Hanoi -- It is early May.  Normally the temperature hovers in the low 30s.  But this week we had four days of  >39 Celcius, with a 42 C maximum on Weds.  Air Conditioners can only do so much against the heat in uninsulated buildings.  The swimming pools opened this week and yesterday Becky and I lifted at the gym for a half hour and then moved to the pool where we swam for another 45 minutes.  I hope to make this routine, time permitting.

   But we have shifted gears here, from "living the expat life" to "planning our return."  Becky is looking at new teaching positions in APS, I am planning how I will approach my new role as Coordinator of Environmental Initiatives at Sandia Prep.  Amali has begun studying for her Bat Mitzvah, both girls are trying to figure out their "sleepover schedule" to visit with friends when they return. 

   I have spent hours, mostly late at night when the internet is faster and people are awake in the West making travel arrangements and summer plans for our family. 

   Here is how our summer is shaping up:

   Becky and I finish school in late May.  Our friend Esther comes to visit and she and Becky travel together, while I stay home and pack lunches and shop for food and withhold allowances and experience all the other joys of parenting teenagers.

   Sivan and Amali finish school on June 15 and board their plane on June 17 for the 27 hour ordeal back to ABQ via Tokyo and Dallas.  They have two four-hour layovers.  Am I worried?  They are too old for unaccompanied minor services, but are they old enough to go it alone?  I am confident that they are.

   Becky and I will not return to the US until July 5.  We are trying to figure out where we want to travel.  We could keep it really cheap and travel over land through Laos and Cambodia.  Or we can take a reasonably cheap flight to Kuala Lumpur and relax on the beaches of Malaysia.  Or we can spend a bit more and visit the Myanmar before it gets spoiled after it completely opens up to tourism.  Tough choices are better than no choices.  

   The girls will stay with their grandparents and arrange for visits with friends.  After 8 days, Sivan will board a plane for New York on June 26.  She will head up to Camp Naaleh, near Oneonta in Upstate NY (a recently revived incarnation of the camp her father and aunts attended in their youth) for 3 1/2 weeks. 

   Amali will go up to Hummingbird Music Camp in Jemez Springs for two weeks beginning July 1, after which she will go to Comedy Camp for a week at The Box theater.  Then Chuck and Amali will fly to NYC on August 21 and pick Sivan up from camp on Aug. 22.  Back to Brooklyn and then Sivan heads back to ABQ on Aug. 25.  Chuck and Amali hang out with the NY cousins a few more days and then drive up to Maine to visit the Connecticut cousins.  Then back to NM on Aug 2.  One more week and then Folk Dance Camp -- at least the girls will go.  Then back to School on Aug 13 for Chuck and Becky, Aug 14 for the girls. 

   Somewhere in there we have to make time to visit dentists, orthodontists, pediatricians, veterinarians, rabbis, cantors, DMV and driving schools (for Sivan), principals, and friends.  No problem.  (Mostly, we expect friends to come to us).

   I have had to buy health insurance for a couple months, and have begun shopping for a second car -- Toyota Prius, Honda Fit, or Mazda 2?  Any other votes? 

Keep cool.


Big Vietnamese roly-polies displayed on the mountain path to the Perfume Pagoda in Hanoi

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Too Many Charicatures of Americans

This blog post reflects my observations of the growing Vietnamese middle class.

I have had my students read excerpts from Thomas Friedman’s 2008  Hot, Flat, and Crowded in which the author links climate change, economic growth and the communications revolution, and population growth to explain the major world problems – war, poverty, disease, famine, government instability, tyranny, and loss of biodiversity and depletion of natural resources.  As a journalist, his sources – personal anecdotes, recalled conversations, and news summaries – are less rigorous than I would prefer, but his presentation is clear and his writing accessible.

He begins and ends the book with the not-so-new idea that everyone wants to be just like Americans.  The ambition of every family, every city, every nation is to develop a wealth that will allow for all people to live become like us.  He then goes on chapter by chapter to convey the dire consequences of 2-3 billion “Americans” instead of the 350 million in our country and another 500 million or so scattered about the globe today.  Humanity already lives beyond its resource supply, so doubling or tripling the number of affluent consumers will lead to disaster after disaster.  “Petrodictatorships” and terrorists, Crash of fisheries and loss of productive farmland, and the looming costs of the climate crisis are three examples.   Friedman gives credit to the great benefits of technology, the internet and wireless communications as economic equalizers: Every developing country now has a growing middle class, creating a snowballing effect of investment, growth, consumption, and more investment, growth and consumption...  But this same middle class constitutes the “Too Many Americans” of his thesis.

What I have seen this year in Vietnam suggests that the perception of definition of what it means to be an “American” is part of the problem.  The middle class in Vietnam, and elsewhere in the developing world is preoccupied with status symbols – Large Mercedes sedans, SUVs, or high-end sports cars are the vehicles of choice.  I have seen more Rolls Royces, Bentleys, and Maseratis driving around the crowded streets of Hanoi that in New York or Chicago.  Other displays of wealth include the constantly growing houses, and construction of massive 2nd homes out in the country; shopping only at brand name stores in dozens of new western-priced shopping malls going up all over town; and eating lots of meat, less rice, and increasingly, western foods like ice cream and chocolate. Middle class Vietnamese families do everything possible to send their children to (a) boarding school in the US, (b) boarding school in Australia, Canada, or England, or (c) international school here, all in hopes that their kids will go to university in the US. But the school system here is not training critical thinkers who will pursue a liberal arts education abroad – just consumers who will study business, finance, economics or engineering so that they can get a high paying job so that they can buy a bigger car, build a bigger house, take expensive shopping vacations to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore…

There are almost no overweight adults in Vietnam, but an increasing number of overfed children.  I see parents chasing their children around the lobby of my building or in sidewalks and alleys, bowl and spoon in hand, forcing the child to eat and eat and eat.  Vietnam is one generation away from food insecurity, subject to the whims of drought and flood.  Their eating habits – eat as much as possible now because tomorrow we may have nothing – haven’t changed, whereas the caloric content of their foods have double or tripled.

 So what have the imported from our culture – material consumerism, worshipping the dollar, and a preoccupation with advertising wealth.  But they have not adopted our inventiveness, our appreciation for nature and conservation, or our value of education for its intrinsic benefits.  How do we begin to export those qualities of Americanism?  I don't know.  We achieved our wealth by depleting our resources and despoiling our land.  Their mimicry of our overt symbols of wealth is understandable.  Sadly, the less visible yet equally American qualities of social justice and personal responsibility remain unknown and invisible.   

Sunday, March 25, 2012

11 year old boy in Khanh Village next to Cuc Phuong National Park.
Never thrown a disc but within 15 minutes was throwing forehands and backhands. 
I gave him the dis in the evening and the next morning, he and friend were out with it on the soccer field.
Climbing out of the Khanh village valley at the beginning of our 10 mile hike through Cuc Phoung National Park
(March 2012) 
Andrew Sanborn, Anna Oakes, Elliott Crofton, and Sarah Weiner climbing into the rainforest at Cuc Phuong.
Our guide Viet, Luke Williams, Andrew Sandborn, Anna Oakes, Elliott Crofton, Perrine Aronson and Sarah Weiner
in the Cuc Phuong Archaeological Cave -- site of ritual burials and stone and bone tools dating back 7,500 years.
Gorgeous "pitcher plant-like" flower in the understorey of the Cuc Phuong primary forest.  Is it a calla lily? 
Two  butterflies photographed in the meadow at the Cuc Phuong visitor's center.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Learning how to prepare "sticky rice" in steamed leaves on a trip to Dung Luan
In my life I have studied, traveled, participated in programs, and led trips to many different countries, but this year is different. I have passed the halfway point of my time here in Viet Nam and feel acclimated, comfortable, and competent. I know where to get the right color compact fluorescent light bulbs, where to get an electric guitar cord repaired, at which hours the gym is less crowded, which fruit ladies or vegetable ladies in the market will not rip me off, which ATMs don’t run out of cash when all the other ones have been empty for five days, and which bakeries have the best baguettes. I’ve learned how to bake dozens of different cakes (last night was mango, ginger, salted plum bread); and how to survive with a refrigerator the size of R2D2, a kitchen with two stoves and a tiny toaster oven. I know how much a taxi should be to anywhere in the city, how much to pay the driver who takes the “scenic route” that adds 8km to a 6km trip, and how much faster my trip will be if I ride my bicycle. The list of mundane things goes on and on. One of the reasons I haven’t written for this blog in so long is that life has become so normal. So, what do I love about my life here. I love climbing the ten floors to my apartment – for the exercise (the elevators work fine, but I try to climb the stairs as much as I can). I love the fact that there is a “farmer’s market” every few blocks where I can buy fresh locally-grown produce, and meat so fresh that was walking around the previous day. I love the constant discovery of new dishes being sold by someone who has set up a small, propane fueled stove on the curb or up some narrow alley. I love riding my bike on the lakeside road or up boulevards with stunningly landscaped medians, or streets lined with giant trees. I love how Vietnamese people will just come up to me on a bus or while eating street food and strike up a conversation to practice their English and find out what I am doing here. Their curiosity is especially aroused by my bicycle – few foreigners ride bikes – most get around by motorcycle. I love my job. It is truly an ideal teaching situation. Fifteen students (now down to 7 in the second term after the semester students went home), two classes per day. I am spoiled by my light workload. It’s not too little, though. It allows me to really think about my teaching, plan ahead, and to address the needs of my students as individuals. I particularly enjoy teaching environmental science and economics together, to the same students. There are so many cross-disciplinary concepts – it is such a natural pairing. I find economics captivating. Now that I have begun to appreciate economic thought, I can see the paradox of how free markets are the underlying cause of our most critical problems, but that these same markets probably offer the only realistic solutions to the social and environmental quagmire in which we are trapped. I have to add that I also love that a teacher’s salary goes so much further here. Back in the US, we always have to worry about how much we can afford for one thing or another. Here, our paychecks go so much farther – when we have the time, we ca hop on a plane and go to another country, we live easily and comfortably without a car. We can out and spend $2.50 for a full Vietnamese or spend $7 or $8 for an upscale western dinner. We are returning in four months and I feel ambivalent. I would love to stay another year, but then it will be even less likely that we would want to go back. I can definitely envision a future as an expat. When and where are up in the air, but I think it likely that Becky and I will find another opportunity to live abroad, when the time is right. In the meantime, I will enjoy our four months that remain. But our friends, families, dogs, and home are calling us back. There are also things I cannot stand and can’t wait to leave behind when we return. The pollution, the smoking, the fact that Vietnamese drivers have no concept of “right-of-way” and will run the red and drive straight at you when you are in a crosswalk with a green pedestrian light, or will turn left out of an alley without stopping and head toward you against the flow of traffic. But that’s about it. There are other things to complain about – how some vendors will try to charge me 2 or 3 times the price for goods that they will charge a local person (not many, but some), and how waiters will hand me a huge menu and then stand there right next to me, expecting my order immediately – such pressure! And then there is the fact that Vietnamese have no concept of standing in line or waiting their turn – getting on a bus, or getting food at a buffet is a free-for-all. But these are minor inconveniences that foreigners learn to deal with. In the end I find that I can adjust easily to life in another culture – even without having learned the language. I wonder how much culture shock I will have to deal with when we return. I imagine it won’t be easy for any of us, especially for Sivan and Amali. A year to me or Becky doesn’t make much of a difference – our lives tend to be pretty static. But to an 11 or 14 year old? Their world is so mutable – will they return to familiar routines? We are starting to think about those transitions. Have I changed this year? Honestly, yes. I need to reflect on those shifts in my physical, emotional, and social self. I think that will be the subject of my next entry. In the meantime, I will upload some pictures and videos over the next few weeks. All my best, Chuck