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Let’s talk weather.

 I am just so jealous of those of you getting fall. I know it’s crazy to complain about endless summer, but looking at pictures of people wearing sweaters and drinking cocoa is killing me. But in funny ways, it feels like fall here too. A couple weeks ago trice harvested the rice. Almost overnight, all the paddies had turned from lush green fields into lakes full of fat ducks, with the occasional clump of leftover rice. A few days after that they burned the stalks, and the air outside smelled like campfires. Add to that the string of unseasonable gray days, and my autumn-yen eased up a bit. Oh, and I had the good fortune to have awesome Halloween and Thanksgiving parties. So while I still grind my teeth at all the pumpkin recipes that pop up I’n my favorite blogs, altogether things aren’t too hard.

Well! I finally managed to get on to the blog! For whatever reason, my Internet at home won’t let me access WordPress. But I finally found an Internet cafe that will, so hurray! My sincere apologies for not posting for a month. I fear I may not be a blogger nature.

Anyway, it’s been one heck of a month! I’ve gotten busier with classes and things. I still only technically teach four and a half hours a week. But now I do several hours of one and one tutorials, a few hours of Vietnamese, and the fabulous morning aerobics classes. The tutorials are great. It’s such a privilege to be able to sit down with students and really practice the skills they usually only learn in theory. Not to mention they’re such cool and interesting people that the time flies by.

The Vietnamese is… tough. Here’s the thing. Every given word in Vietnamese seems to have at least three meanings. And I don’t just mean every collection of the same letters can have different tones. That’s true too, a tiny change in pitch can change mother to tamarind. But sometimes even the same group ofletters with the exact same tones can mean three different things depending on context. Ughhhhhhh.

On the other hand, I discovered recently that I actually kind of speak Vietnamese. This occurred to me on a bus headed to Bac Lieu, where my friend Quan is teaching. I started chatting with three older ladies holding bags of fruit and curtains in their laps. We talked about my job, my family, what I think about Vietnam, even the weather. And it wasn’t until maybe 10 minutes in that I realized that I’d been speaking Vietnamese the whole time. Well I felt super cocky for about three minutes, which was right at the point where I ran out of vocabulary and stopped understanding what they were asking. Oops. One thing I love about living here is that Vietnam is perpetually humbling.

The aerobics class is such a blast. I neglected to mention, when I proposed it, that I’ve never taught an aerobics class before. But even after my ignorance became obvious, people kept coming. I think it must novelty goofy faces I make. Some days there are only a few people, some days there are 15. But they’re all remarkably down to do things I don’t think people commonly do here, such as wiggle their hips to the beat of Shakira and Kevin Little.

The aerobics class also means I’m getting up at 5 most mornings, which is astonishing to me. I’ve been shocked to learn that I’m actually kind of a morning person. But who wouldn’t be a morning person, if they could spend their mornings watching the sun rise over the fields while they jumped around with 15 coworkers and students who buy everyone a bowl of delicious noodles afterward? I mean, that’s the kind of morning I can get behind.

Finally! Pictures!

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Vignettes

There are all these amazing stories that I keep saving up and forgetting to post on the blog. And that’s too bad, because they’re doozies. So I figured I would just throw a few out here while they’re on my mind. Cool? Cool.

So twice now I’ve been invited to people’s homes, and both times it was just a gem of an afternoon. Quite a few teachers here live on campus during the week and go home to their parents homes on the weekend. Students do it too, which explains why it’s so deserted around here on Saturday and Sunday. The first time I went to meet a co-workers parents, it was in Vi Thanh. They had a beautiful home along one of the canals with fruit trees and a swamp in the back yard. A bunch of other teachers and I washed produce, and I watched a tiny and stylish Micro-economics teacher skillfully hack apart a giant river fish. We ate sour soup, noodles, fried chicken and so forth. For dessert there was piles of fruit and, it being two weeks before the mid-Autumn festival, mooncakes. 

Two weekends later came the mid-Autumn festival, and the occasion of another party. This time it was a whole weekend affair. On Saturday we visited the orphanage in Vi Thanh to hand out presents. Being a comfortable little upper-class American, I had never been to an orphanage before. But the mid-Autumn festival is mostly for children, so it’s  common for people to visit the orphans and bring them little gifts, or the ubiquitous and delicious mooncakes. The kids were adorable, sweet and cheerful. Except the very sassy pre-teen girls, who I of course immediately loved. We bonded over hair, a little. Anyway there were songs and games galore, and I’m hoping I can find a way to support the kids while I live here. 

After that, Caroline and I hitched a ride to Can Tho, the biggest city in the region, on the back of some students motorbikes. We had arranged to meet up with two female teachers to go dancing at some clubs. When we left Vi Thanh, night was falling. Another important part of this festival is the candles. Families bring their children down to the river to light candles and set them adrift in paper boats. This part of the country is criss-crossed with rivers and canals, so every few minutes we vroomed past a little flotilla of candles, lighting up riverbanks crowded with happy children. Magical doesn’t even begin to cover it.

In Can Tho we found the teachers and danced until early in the morning. I was the only white person in either of the dance clubs we went to, so naturally I got a lot of unwanted attention. Otherwise, though, it was a blast. Finally, we got late night noodles and hit our hotel. In the morning, we headed to the house of one of other teacher’s (Long’s) parents. They had invited us to join in their holiday meal. Again, it was absolutely awesome. We had seafood hotpot with noodles, waterlily root and squash blossom, sticky rice, and beef. The most exciting part is that Long’s family members are pretty devout Buddhists, so there was vegetarian food! Well, no one else was that excited, but I went crazy on the lemongrass tofu. After lunch they showed us to a cluster of hammocks in the shade in the front yard, and we took a blissful afternoon nap.

You may have noticed that I’ve been getting a lot of rides on the backs of people’s motobikes. Everywhere I go, a teacher or student generously offers me a ride, and I’m endlessly grateful to all the people who have schlepped me to the grocery store or bus station. But the lack of independence is starting to rankle, so I’m making moves on the motorbike situation. On Sunday I had my first lesson, administered by my minder/hero/bff Khue. He took me to one of the little shaded country roads that goes by the college, pointed out the various buttons and levers on his bike, and said “go for it”. It’s a funny thing, but driving a motorbike feels exactly like piloting a cross between a car and a bike. I was nervous at first, but it pretty quickly became natural. As I tottered back and forth down the road, people started coming out of their homes to watch. Within about 10 minutes I was the town spectacle. Young people clapped and cheered as I passed them, one woman pretended to jump in front of me at least five times. A mother was teaching her little boy to ride a bike in one yard, and at one point they biked up to give me a hi-five as I was turning around. Another time I got the heavy bike stuck in some mud, and two very elderly women got up from their chairs and physically lifted it and turned it around for me. Being foreign has its perks. 

One-Month-iversary

I’m not clear on the textbook definition of a monsoon, but sometimes in the evenings it feels like I’m in one. It’s been pouring since late afternoon, and looks like it will go through the night. If you’ve never experienced a real storm in South East Asia, well, you should. It’s a whole different beast.

Anyway. Last week marked my first full month in Vi Thanh. I had been joking with Caroline, the Princeton in Asia fellow, that it was our one month anniversary and we should have a romantic dinner. Well somehow our students got wind of this, because a few of them decided to take us out for a night on the town. They came to my room to invite me out, and with seven grins at the door it was impossible to refuse. Now that I’d want to. We hopped on the back of their motorbikes and away we roared.

First, we got banh xeo, which I recommend googling right now so you’ll believe me when I say it’s just outrageously delicious. It’s Hau Giang in a bite. Next we sat by the road at a stall that sells che, which everyone translates as sweet soup. My favorite kind has longan, chunks of green and white jello type stuff, lychee jelly, coconut milk, and durian. Which, by the way, is not nearly as bad as I thought it would be.

After that it was time for karaoke. Can I tell you how much I love karaoke here? People do it in their homes and at special karaoke… clubs? houses? I don’t know what to call them, but you and all your friends get a room, a fruit plate, and an hour of sweet sweet jamz. Also it is taken verrry seriously. You can sing along while someone else sings, but it’s not encouraged. Don’t get me wrong, people bounce around and shout and laugh. But it’s also very respectful, the attitude seems to be that someone is performing and they deserve your respect.

After that I thought we were headed home. It was almost 9, which in Vi Thanh is fairly late to be out. But then  I was driven past the school and down a gravel road. My driver, an absolute sweetheart who gives me herbal mosquito repellant made by her mother, said we were going to her boarding house, and that “you ask no questions!” When we got there, Caroline and I were blindfolded and led along by our giggling friends. Inside my student’s room they un-blinded us. There, covered in sparkler-candles, was a cake with the words “Happy Month Here” written in frosting.

I almost cried. I was so moved that they had gone to all this trouble. The warmth with which people have received me here is seriously amazing. There have been some ups and downs in this first month, what with the inevitable loneliness and culture shock of moving to another country. But nothing eases the ouchies of that kind of transition like having a community of people who truly care about you. I’m a lucky girl.

Hey all! I’m still having a hard time uploading pictures, so those may have to wait a bit. But in the meantime I wanted to show you all two amazing text message conversations I’ve had in the past week. The first is with one of my incredibly sweet and friendly students after the very first day of class, the second is with a teacher of accounting who taught us to play billiards (in Vietnamese, some thing like bi ya) in the restaurant where Caroline and I eat dinner every night. Gems, both of them.

Student: HI,MS KATE.HOW ARE U TODAY?MY NAME IS ___.I’M 24 AGES.MS KATE TEACHED MY CLASS THIS AFTERNOON.I FEEL THAT I AM VERY HAPPY BECAUSE MS KATE VERY FUNNY AND LOVELY.
Me: Thank you ___, that is very sweet! You made my day. I’m very happy to be your teacher.
Student: yes,that’s right.MS KATE WILL BE MY TEACHER,I LIKE IT.WHAT DO YOU THINK OF MY CLASS IS AFTERNOON
Me: I was very impressed. I am lucky to have such smart and funny students.
Student: That’s awesome.thank u so much, which class will ms Kate teach tomorrow?
Me: the same one, course 6.
Student: I wish after I can become a teacher to help those who want to know ENGLISH ME. THANK U AND SEE U TOMORROW.GOOD NIGHT! 

Teacher: Hi. This is Kate number?
Me: Yes, this is Kate. I’m sorry, who is this?
Teacher: Im ___
Me: Oh hi ___! Thank you for the bi ya lesson yesterday!
Teacher: I want call you is teacher. Because i want learn English. You and carol teach for me.
Me: haha, sounds good.
(10 minutes go by)
Teacher: Do you know? Vietnamese very like Clinton family?
Me: Like Bill Clinton, the American president?
Teacher: Yes.
Me: Oh. How interesting!
Teacher: Because bill Clinton is person help Vietnam and American are friends. 
Me: Yes, I also like Bill Clinton very much.
Teacher: Okay. Very wonderful.
(at this point I had no idea what else to say so I went to take a shower. When I returned this happened)
Teacher: And, Clinton family visited many times.
Teacher: Bill Clinton’s wife and daughter
Me: Ah. I think Hillary Clinton is a great secretary of state.
Teacher: I think she is very good. 
Teacher: I like your country, because that is a big country.
Me: Oh good. I like Vietnam a lot, as well.
Teacher: Hahaaaaa. You are sure?
Me: Yes, everyone has been very nice!
Teacher: What time? Do you sleep.
Me: Actually, right now. Good night.
Teacher: Tonight it is rain. Sleep very good. KaKa.

Hey from Hau Giang!

Well kids, here I am! I’ve been at Hau Giang Community College for a little over a week now. Sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s been a week already, at others I feel like I’ve been here for months. But let me back up a bit, because I’ve been tragically remiss in updating this blog. Sorry!

Anyway the last time I posted I promised a full recounting of our trip to Sapa and Fansipan. Yeah, that’s gonna have to wait. As are the pictures from that, and from the trip Amanda and I took to Can Tho and Saigon (guest starring Jefferson!). Because right now I’m so caught up in settling into my new life here that I’d rather leave the reminiscing for another afternoon. Plus, my time at this Internet cafe is limited. Oh, and for some reason I can’t upload any pictures yet? I don’t even know.

So Hau Giang! Let me start by saying… it’s rural. Real rural. The college, while technically located in the town of Vi Thanh, is actually about 30 minutes outside of it by bike. The countryside surrounding it is just gorgeous. Biking in to town I pass through rice paddies, ponds choked with water lilies, canals, mini orchards of banana plants, and small palm-thatch houses, as well as more modern stucco/sheet metal ones.

The college itself is not quite as scenic. It’s apparently a very new school, and construction only started in 2008, so things are still a bit raw. Almost none of the paths are paved, and to get between buildings I generally hop around mud puddles, it being the rainy season. Between the paths are open fields of waist high weeds. As recently as last year, I hear, these were also rice paddies, and farmers would come on campus to graze their cows and buffalo.

There are four buildings total: 2 dorms, the library, and the building with classrooms and administrative buildings. I live on the bottom floor of one of the dorms. My room is awesome. Oh, I love it so much, it’s driving me crazy that I can’t post pictures! Anyway it’s ginormous, I looked upstairs and students live in rooms the same size, but with 6 boys or girls packed in. Most of the teachers live on campus, too, and they’re 2 or 3 to a room. I feel like a spoiled little brat, I have to be honest. My room also has such unfair conveniences as a/c, hot water, a propane stove and a mini-fridge, which no students and few teachers have. The first floor, apparently, is for married couples, families, and over-privileged foreigners. Guess which one I am.

People here have been incredibly nice, in spite of being super busy. Most teachers work another job as well, but they take time to get dinner with us, bring us fruit from the market, or just check in. Oh! Im forgetting something very important! By “us”, i mean me and the other American-born English teacher, Caroline. She’s with Princeton In Asia, and she’s awesome. You’ll be seeing her again in this blog, i guarantee. Anyway, back to the nice people. My first night, our co-worker/minder/brother-from-another-mother Khue took Caroline and me into Vi Thanh for pho and conversation. It was so reassuring to see the cute little town, and to know that I had friends already, even this far from home.

Welp, I need to go buy laundry soap, so that’s all for now. Next post, expect to hear what I do with my days (not much), how much I love my students (a lot!), and all about my burning desire for a motorbike. Oh, and hopefully there will be pictures.

Oh, and if you have a spare minute, let me know what’s up with you! I miss you all. Lots of love.