Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin. Or, Dammit, Jim, I'm a Teacher, Not a Clown!

"Attn. Jeff Chappell: give it up already ... So, I think the writing is on the wall – hence the post title – with regard to my nascent teaching career. After leaving a Thai public school one month ahead of the end of a semester-long contract to come back to Viet Nam to teach at a private language school, said school has handed me my walking papers after less than two months. D’oh! Apparently I’m just not cut out for teaching young learners – which seasoned TEFL teachers both here and in Thailand tell me means entertaining – as well as adults who are new to English study (damn n00bs). In fact the only students that didn’t complain about the difficulty of my classes were advanced learners; from them I even managed to garner praise, I’m told.

One might be inclined to say that I shouldn’t throw in the towel just yet – the Thai school didn’t want me to leave, and I had established a good rapport with my first graders (I miss the little buggers). But I felt relief more than anything else when I got news of the termination – via email at 11 p.m. after no prior indication that there was any problems (would have hoped for a little more class from a fellow Yank; alas, no), but that’s another story. That feeling of being awash in relief, I believe, is the impetus for the metaphorical hand writing that appeared on my Bien Hoa hotel room wall that night, rather than my abilities – or lack thereof – as a nubert teacher.

I had every intention of trying on teaching as a career change and not just a means to an end when I first came to Southeast Asia at the beginning of the year. But I think it’s clear now that teaching young learners – to use the vernacular of the industry – and new students is clearly not my thing. Furthermore, I don’t think I have the inclination to make it my thing; I just don’t want to do it. I made things work with my Thai first graders, but it was grueling and hard work to establish that rapport and figure out how to teach them in a meaningful way, and I don’t want to make a career out of that – Hell no. I left Thailand to get away from that. When I had my first class of Vietnamese kids – granted much smaller than a Thai public school class, but just as unruly – I realized I was in for more of the same, and in retrospect my heart wasn’t in it. Granted I didn’t have as many contact hours with kids as I did in Thailand, and I had adult classes that I actually did enjoy, but I think deep down I was rather dismayed – but didn’t want to admit it.

Dammit Jim, I'm a teacher, not a clown!I was grimly determined to make things work here this time; I enjoy being in Viet Nam much more than I did Thailand (more on that in a later post, as previously promised), and really wanted to do well at the private language school. I really wanted things to be a success on all fronts this time around. But I’m sure this feeling of dismay was affecting my attitude in the classroom; I know it was out of it. I used to dread going into school on evenings and Saturdays when I had kids’ classes. Didn’t want to prepare lessons for them – hell, I didn’t want to think about them. And those hour-and-a-half classes used to drag on seemingly for hours sometimes. What the hell am I supposed to do with these kids? How am I supposed to get them to settle down so I can teach them? It took me a couple of months to figure it out in Thailand; in a for-profit private language school, you don’t get that luxury of time.

Dammit, Jim, I’m a teacher, not a clown!

WTF Do I Do Now? Slink Back to the 4th Estate

Dammed if I know. My plan, insofar as I (ever) have one – I’m rather Southeast Asian, in this respect, heh – is to try and get some part-time telecommuting work back in ye olde field of journalism and couple this with income from private lessons; yet again I go slinking back to my professional mistress and beg her to take me back. Perchance all of the mad InterWebs skillz I’ve garnered over the past several years will come in handy.

I briefly toyed with the idea of going back to America and picking up where I left off – being an unemployed slacker half-assedly looking for work. But I quickly dismissed this idea; while I haven’t set Southeast Asia ablaze as a teacher, I have enjoyed my time outside of school both here and in Thailand. I figure I can be marginally employed here even more easily than I can back home in America – the cost of living is much cheaper here, after all. Besides, goofing off in coffee shops is a national pastime here in Viet Nam.

So the dream continues. I may eventually seek a university teaching position either here or in China; one long-time expat teacher here in Bien Hoa has suggested I seek a position with a university in Sai Gon. The fact that I have a journalism degree and many years of experience would make me a valuable commodity, he says, since most foreigners who come here don’t have a degree/experience in a field related to English. I think teaching at the university level would be fun and rewarding; in fact I’ve long had a hazy-long term goal to go to graduate school – always “someday,” and we know what that probably means, eh Dad? – and get a masters so I could teach journalism or English at the college level.

If Only I Could be a Full-time Slacker. Oh, Wait …

On the other hand, just doing part-time work to feed myself and pay the bills while I have leisure time to explore Asia further, while also pursuing my own writing and photography work, sounds ideal. When I ask myself, “Self, in your heart of hearts, if money were no object, what would you be doing?” The answer has three parts:

  • traveling/living abroad
  • writing – blogging and creatively
  • photography/art (as in 3D rendering)

Well, I got the first part down, at least for now. I fiddle with the other two, but not nearly as much as I would like. I’ve often thought about how I can make money with photography; I already know how to make money at writing from a non-fiction/journalism standpoint, but haven’t attempted to publish anything creatively in years. What’s more, when I read on the blogs of some of my favorite authors about all the trials and tribulations they go through, and talk with pro photographers about what they do to pay the bills, I think “meh.” I want to write and I want to make images, but I don’t want to do that.

I don’t want either one to become a job. I used to be passionate about journalism; I still am to some degree. I can still enjoy doing it, if the story I’m working on is a subject I find particularly interesting. But at some point over the years it became a job, and not a passion. And I get bored with jobs quite easily. I don’t want writing creatively or photography to ever become just a job. I don’t want to take pictures of weddings or products or CEOs – I want to take photos of things I want to shoot; of things that I find visually appealing/arresting. I want to make images of things and ideas that I’m passionate about. As cliché as it sounds, “I wanna make art.”

I could get into photojournalism, but again, having worked as journalist so long, I know it would more than likely become a job very quickly, except when I was working on a story that I personally cared about. It’s the same with writing creatively. I’m vain enough/confident enough in my ability to believe that I could write fiction and eventually get published enough to make a bit of dough at it, but again – to hear established authors tell it, it sounds like a job. Even after they have put years into their craft, they don’t necessarily get to write what they want, and even when they do, it often has to be tailored for a market in order to be salable/publishable. And how many of our favorite authors have we read that clearly “phoned it in” on subsequent novels published after a brilliant one, in order to fulfill a three-book contract? Screw that. It sounds too much like work – like a job. So why even try?

I think at the end of the day I can only be happy doing what I want to do – can anyone be truly happy doing anything other than something they truly want to be doing?

So now whut? That’s why I like having my own website – it’s nothing but me being self indulgent. Show me someone who edits his own copy and I’ll show you someone that has a fool for an editor. I firmly believe this. Nevertheless, I enjoy having my own site and populating it with my epistles and expostulations merely because I have no editor other than my own muse. I write what I want, post what I want, put up whatever pictures/images I want – no copy editors telling me that my em dash or semicolon should be replaced by a period and a new sentence begun. No managing editor telling me to dumb down the language or to cut 200 words to make a dogleg fit. No editor-in-chief or publisher telling me we can’t print that because it will piss off an advertiser. I do what I want, and when I don’t feel like it, I don’t. After years of working in journalism, it’s a wonderfully liberating feeling.

It’s funny, but I don’t even care that my site has so little traffic, in spite of the hours I spend on it. I could do more on various fronts to increase said trafic – but then it becomes work; at that stage, it’s a job. It’s here to make me happy, and it does (I’m quite pleased with this latest theme). Now if only I could find something that makes me as happy as my own writing and photography make me, and also puts food in my mouth. But then I suppose that’s what every human being has been trying to figure out ever since we started planting crops and invented leisure time.

Dear Spammers That Don't Speaka da English: a Business Proposition

Dear Spammers:

I’ve been perusing your efforts in my spam filter, and I’m constantly impressed with your cleverness. Were it not for the fact that Akismet shows me your domain and email address, I might even be somewhat tempted to possibly believe that maybe — oh, I dunno, one in 1,000 — is a legitimate comment. But more often than not, your use of Google Translate or Yahoo Babelfish is telling. To wit:

“Searscard,” searscardcom.com, Mouret98335@aol.com, 173.234.122.75 writes:

Thanks for publish rather good informations. Your net is good, I am satisfied by the info which you have on this weblog. It reveals how well you recognize this topic. Bookmarked this web page, will appear back again for a lot more. You, my pal, I discovered just the material I previously looked for all over the place and just couldn’t unearth. What a perfect web-site. Similar to this website your webpage is a single of my new favorites.I like this info shown and it has provided me some sort of contemplation to have success for some motive, so keep up the wonderful work!

Yes, I agree that my “net is good,” because I “publish rather good informations.” I’m gratified that I could provide you with “some sort of contemplation to have success for some motive.”

Nevertheless you, my pal, are clearly not a native speaker of English. As you note above “I recognize this topic.”  Thus, I have a business proposition for you. In return for a modest share of your profits, I will be happy to either a) teach you how to speak English correctly, or b) edit your spam for grammar and style before it is sent. I assure you that my rates are affordable.

I look forward to your prompt response and a future business relationship in which we can achieve “contemplation to have success.”

Yours in ESL Instruction,

Jeff Chappell

Bat-Shit Insanity: Initial Thoughts Upon Leaving Thailand

Bat-Shit Insane in the MembraneWell, it’s been more than four months since my last post, and what a long, strange, interesting, fascinating, frustrating, and largely miserable trip its been. My first official foray into teaching English as a second language has not been easy; in fact I’m leaving my position in a Thai public school (and Thailand, for that matter) one month ahead of what I contracted for.

In answer to the obvious question, no, I definitely could not have toughed it out. If there is one thing I know, it’s myself. I’m usually the stubborn-as-a mule type who never knows when to quit. The never-say-day-die type who insists on toughing it out to the bitter end. The loser who just … can’t … let … it go. But after 40 some years, I’m finally learning to distinguish when its best to stick things out and when it’s best to cut my losses, tuck my tail between my legs and haul ass. This is one of those situations that falls into the latter classification.

There have been three points in my life where I’ve traversed the rocky bottom of depression and despair: after the respective deaths of my parents (Mom, January 19, 2001; and Dad, December 16, 2008) and the 18 months (seems like 18 years) I spent in Sedona, Arizona (indisputably the most beautiful asshole of the world) that drew to a close in December 1999. An aside: it’s (not really) funny how I’m damned if I can ever remember birthdays or anniversaries and whatnot, but I can instantly recall the specific dates of my parents’ deaths.

While I haven’t sunk that deep here in Thailand, I’ve gotten deep enough at times that the sunlight no longer penetrated and the waters turned dark. So without getting into the wrist-slitting details – speaking metaphorically, of course (and I’d like to keep it that way) – I figure its best for me and my students if I move on as soon as possible; a month’s notice of my pending departure will have to be good enough.

As my father used to say, “enough is enough and too much stinks.” It’s time to go.

Ever since I gave notice, I’ve struggled over what to write here – and oddly enough, I’ve felt the urge to write for the first time since, well, since the last time I posted. I suppose I’ve just been too wrapped up in my first teaching gig, what with it being in a foreign culture and all – that, and wanting to slit my wrists (again with the metaphor; I’m more of a scotch and pills sort of person, anyway — I keed, I keed.). Usually, with so much mental stimulation I feel the urge to write, but my muse has been far away during all this – I’ve done naught with my camera or keyboard for the past four months or so, as I’ve had no creative urges whatsoever.

Another aside: is this a symptom or part of the problem? I digress; this is the third version of this post. I feel justified in leaving – my letter of resignation was two pages typed and single spaced (!), and reading it over just now, a month later, I feel it is accurate and justified (albeit a bit self righteous in tone, but I’ll forgive myself that much). But that first post was all about why I was leaving, and it was just way to much pissing and moaning; it needed cheese to go with its w(h)ine. In the second version I just tried to edit the first version, but that was the editorial equivalent of polishing a turd, hence this start from scratch. As one of my writing teachers from college would have said, I am perhaps “too close to the moment” to achieve the proper perspective to write about it.

So, rather than rant about all the things I don’t like/problems that I’ve had while teaching first and sixth grade at a Thai public school, I think I shall use this blog-cum-prism to look at the light at the other end of the spectrum. Lo these last four or five months I have learned a lot, both about myself, teaching, and about Thai culture. While it had hardly been all fun and games, it has most definitely been an adventure.

And isn’t that what I wanted? Isn’t that ultimately why I set out for parts unknown? I wanted the experience of living and working in a foreign culture, both for the personal enrichment it could offer me, as well as just for the hell of it – for the adventure it offered. True, given my past travel experiences abroad, I assumed that this adventure would largely be fun; that was naive, in retrospect (and always suspected that it might be thus). But I can say that outside of my current but soon to be ex-teaching position — outside of that, the adventure has involved more fun than not.

So what have I learned? To be honest I think I’m still too close to the moment to discuss that as well, to any significant degree; I’m still processing the huge amounts of data. To place things in the realm of simile and metaphor once more: it’s like opening a ginormous photoshop file – say a composite image with 20-some layers or something – on my five-year old Toshiba laptop with its pokey 1.3GHz dual-core processor. It’s gonna be awhile (unless I can figure out how to convert my brain’s OS to Linux).

But here are a few gleaming, golden nuggets of wisdom gleaned (not to mention some alliteration):

What I’ve always loved about foreign travel is what I like to call, in my colorful, colloquial, R-rated manner, the absolute “mind fuck” of the experience. It is constant stimulation; even simple things become an adventure. Being a stranger in a strange land way the hell out of his comfort zone is an amazing mental trip; not only do you learn things about the world around you – foreign languages, customs, cultures, etc. — but you learn things about yourself and your own culture through your own reactions, as well as the reflections and perceptions of yourself and your culture in the eyes of those around you.

But be careful what you wish for. Travel is one thing; living and working is another. The things you find interesting and even fascinating about a foreign culture can become troublesome, burdensome – even a royal pain in the ass – when taken on an unavoidable daily basis. There are things that I like and admire about Thai culture; there are some aspects of it I think we in the West would do well to emulate, to a degree. But some of those same things have driven me absolutely bat-shit insane at times, working in a Thai public school via a Thai-owned-and-run placement agency.

I don’t say this to get down on Thai culture; I’m merely making an observation about living abroad vs. traveling abroad. Maybe once I’ve digested this whole experience I’ll put pen to paper (boy, there’s an idiom that’s rapidly becoming outdated).

In fact, I’ve got a new-found respect and admiration for any foreign immigrants back home. I have the luxury of having had an education and a white-collar professional background, in addition to having a skill set that is in demand in the countries I choose to visit. Furthermore, that’s just it – I choose those countries and this life and I’m doing it for the hell of it, really; with relatively little inconvenience I can go back to my home country whenever I want to. Many immigrants to the United States don’t come there under such ideal circumstances, and on top of that have come there seeking a better life – and yet they have to deal with these same issues. I can now imagine what that must be like, and thank the Fates and various gods/goddesses that I only have to imagine it.

Which leads me to my next point, which is a bit of a cliché but nevertheless true: you don’t appreciate home until you leave it (and I’m not talking about tacos and burritos, although I do miss those). I can now appreciate things about America that I took for granted or just never even thought of before. Not that my home country and culture is without its faults; to be sure they are not. But I wish I could take all the chronic America bashers (the domestic ones) — as well as all those über-patriotic morons wrapped up in the flag – and make them live abroad somewhere for six months. Let ’em walk in my shoes for a bit. It would give both groups of people a number of things to think about – and maybe shut them the hell up for awhile.

America: leave it and learn to love it.

On the flip side, the things that used to get me constantly bent out of shape when I was still on American soil no longer seems to bother me – namely politics, as you can see if you go back through the archives of this here blog. I still see the same old stupid shit going on as always back home (meet the New Boss, same as the Old Boss), the kinds of things that drove me bat-shit insane when I still lived there. Thanks to the series of tubes, I still get the same exact news feeds I got before I left. But being on the other side of the planet, and not being immersed in it, I just don’t seem to get worked up about it. If I ever do return to the States to live permanently, I think I’ll still arrange to be out of the country during election years (while the rest of you — Democrats and Republicans alike — stick your head up your ass).

Okay, that’s enough navel gazing. The next post will likely be made from Viet Nam, where I’m returning to (and in retrospect probably should have stayed in, in the first place).

But one more thing before I go. Bat-Shit Insanity: its the worst kind of mental illness, and official recurring theme of this post. I had planned to eventually rename my blog the Gecko’s Bark, given the amusing noises Southeast Asia’s most prolific inhabitants (outside of homo sapiens and 10 bezillion species of insects) make – I’ve got a great closeup shot of a tokay to use in the blog header – but maybe I’ll rename it Bat-Shit Insanity Abroad. Kinda has a ring to it, no?

Sabai Dee Phi Mai Krab!

Ah, where to begin? The fact that I’ve been involved in celebrating the dawn of a new year — for the third time this year? The fact that I’ve been volunteering my time to help teach Thai kids English at a non-profit learning center in northern Thailand? Or that I went with the same non-profit to visit kids at an orphanage that specializes in children with HIV/AIDS (some of the loveliest children you’ll ever meet)? How about the fact that I’ve also been helping said non profit — Isara, by name, which means “freedom,” in Thai — get their computer lab into shape, pretending I’m an admin?

Once a nerd, always a nerd.

Or how about the fact that In a few weeks time I’ll begin my first paying job as a teacher, teaching kindergarten and first-grade Thai kids English, math, and science (ye gods, what have I gotten myself into this time)!? Or maybe the fact that it routinely hits 100 (Farenheit — say 39 Celsius) or more here, and I drink liters of water per day yet never have to pee because I sweat like a yak constantly. Or perhaps that I’m surrounded by geckos that bark and other strange, exotic critters (not to mention the strange, exotic, people, culture, and food)?

Ay caramba. I’m too tired for a lengthy, meaningful entry. A city-wide water fight — this is how the Thais celebrate their New Year — that lasts for hours throughout the heat of the day and on into the early evening, well, it takes it out of ya, even if it is hellafun. Let me just say that while protests in Bangkok have lead to bloodshed, out here in the Thai hinterlands, it’s life as usual.

Also, a reminder: GO to Isara and make it your homepage, as well as the start of all your google searches; your clicks help fund this most worthy of charities. Better yet, come over here and volunteer your time; it is free to volunteer at Isara, unlike all of these other places that make you pay to “volunteer” (at that point, you’re a customer, not a volunteer). And yet, Isara still manages to give you a comfy place to stay, and Ming will show you all of the good Thai (as in non-farang-catering) places to eat. She’ll even go with you to the optometrist to help you buy new contact lenses.

Now here’s some interesting photos in lieu of my usual prattling on at length:

Celebrating the New Year Thai Style:

Songkran 1

A Barking Gecko

No, That Wasn't Me Barking ...

Tokay Under Glass

Noisy Tokay

Big Momma and her Brood

Big Momma and the Kids

Funky Thai Spider

World's Oddest-Looking Spider

The Deck at Isara (HDR Makes Everything Look Fab)

Isara's Jungle Oasis in HDR

Mali and the Sarnelli House Kids

Mali and the Sarnelli Kids

English Camp at Isara

More

May You Live in Interesting Times (in Thailand)

So things have a way of working out – for ill or naught – and often in ways we don’t anticipate. And I suppose life would be rather dull and boring if it were otherwise. With that in mind, I’m headed to Thailand to work – a country I’ve never been to, but always wanted to see. Now I’m going to get a good seven months or so of it, perhaps longer – if things work out that way.

So what happened to remaining in Viet Nam for a time? Well, long story short: when I started applying for jobs, I noticed that there were a lot more jobs listed in Thailand – this has to do with the time of year, more than anything else — so I dashed off a few resumes to places that had decent reputations. An agency that places native English speakers in Thai public schools was the first to get back to me; it is with this agency that I eventually accepted a position (and no, I don’t know where yet; the school year doesn’t start until mid May, and the agency is still parsing its schools and available teachers and whatnot).

Of course, after I accepted the position I got a couple of offers for part-time work in Viet Nam, including an opportunity that almost caused me to recant my acceptance of the Thai job. But I figured a) I have always wanted to go to Thailand; b) I had given them my word and vice versa (and knowing that I would want to go there someday anyway, if I stayed in Viet Nam, it might not be good to leave a flaky impression with this agency); c) I had already arranged to do some volunteer teaching at a non-profit in northeast Thailand; and finally, d) breaking my word twice just seems like bad ju-ju, or karma as it were, these being primarily Buddhist lands.

So it’s off to Thailand I go. Yes, I know I’m heading there at an interesting time. But, as a Thai person recently said to me, “Thais are a passionate people. That’s why it seems to outsiders that our politics are constantly in upheaval. But it rarely gets violent.” I would hasten to add that there was one notable exception in 1992, in which several hundred protesters were killed — but that does seem to be the exception rather than the rule. So there you go. And coming from a country that is supposedly the guiding light for democracy and freedom on earth, and having watched conservative elements literally steal the 2000 election out from under the rest of that country while it sat and watched and DID NOTHING — and we all know how that turned out for us — well, good on the Thais for taking their government seriously. But don’t get me wrong; I’m not taking sides here. While I’ve followed the story since Thaksin’s ouster in 2006, I don’t feel qualified to offer an opinion on who is right and who is wrong, not being Thai and not having ever lived there.

I do want to come back here to Viet Nam and live and work someday, and the contract is only for six months, or one school semester, with an option for a second if I’m so inclined at the end of six months (and a tidy little signing bonus if I do). So I figure if I don’t like where I end up – and never having been to Thailand, I really have no preference – it will only last six months. And I’m not too worried about it; everyone I’ve talked to who has actually spent a significant amount of time there tells me I will love it. The only placement request I made of the agency was that I didn’t want to be placed in an extremely small, rural village, as I’m a new teacher and I don’t speak a word of Thai yet (Rosetta Stone, here I come).

For a beginning teacher in Thailand, the contract is pretty reasonable. The biggest plus in my eyes is a regular schedule with weekends and evenings off, as well as all public holidays and the weeks between semesters (which comes to two-months a year – of course one isn’t paid when school isn’t in session). Considering most new teachers in Asia end up at private schools, which means working evenings, weekends and holidays, public school becomes attractive. Plus, the agency offers a housing stipend. I’ll still be making very modest money by western standards, and would be able to make a little more, relatively speaking, here in Viet Nam, most likely – but I think I’ll be able to live reasonably well in Thailand on what they are paying me, particularly if I’m outside of Bangkok (which I hope to be). This is provided all my research and what people who have taught there tell me proves accurate, but I have no reason to believe it isn’t.

I’m going to miss Vietnamese coffee and food, but then I’ll have the solace of Thai food, and I hear the Thai’s have their own coffee that’s pretty good. I’m sure I can find someone to put sweetened condensed milk in it for me – that is, If I can’t find Vietnamese coffee there; there are a lot of Vietnamese immigrants in Thailand, particularly in the eastern portion of the country, according to ye olde Lonely Planet.

But all this goes to show, one should always keep one’s plans malleable. One could argue this was fate or predestination (or karma); others could argue that I made my own future by applying for a job in Thailand in the first place, and accepting it in turn (or even getting on the plane from America with a one-way ticket in the first place). I’m enough of a pragmatist that I’m inclined to believe in the latter, but enough of a romantic to ponder the former. For one such as I, a stranger wondering at will in strange lands where kingdoms were rising and falling and empires waxing and waning while my my European ancestors were wallowing in the Dark Ages, where the predominant religion was already ancient when Christianity was born, I suppose it is easy to believe that is indeed a bit of both.

In any event, in a few days time I will be eating Thai food … in Thailand. And regardless of how or why I got there, this momentous occasion has been a long time coming, as far as my palate is concerned. After all, the palate and the stomach do not concern themselves with matters of the spirit, philosophy and the existential, but rather the immediate appetites and their fulfillment.

Which reminds me … ye gods, I still would kill for a burrito.

Tête-à-Tet, And Various Other Miscellanea

Cafe Sai GonI’ve now been abroad longer than I ever have before, by about two weeks and a few days. No homesickness, per se — the opposite, in fact — although I do miss friends and family, naturally, and I would happily murder a random stranger if I thought it would make a proper burrito spontaneously spawn in my general vicinity. I’ve finished the CELTA successfully, and have partied like a rock star (which is easy to do in Sai Gon) this past week with my fellow CELToids and Tet revelers, both foreign and local. As I write this Tet, as the Chinese or lunar new year is called here in Viet Nam, has more or less wound down — businesses are reopening and the streets, while still not as crowded as normal, are getting busier. And I’ll probably spend a nice, quiet Saturday night tonight reading a book (actually it is now officially over, and I did spend Saturday night at “home” reading).

This is going to be a long, meandering post, as there is much I wish to reflect upon for my own edification. Between meeting so many different people, the borderline insane intensity of the CELTA and the borderline insane intensity of the ensuing celebratory debauchery – I’m too old to be watching the sun come up several days in a row, dammit – I feel the need to unburden my mind and make some sort of linear sense of it all, if that’s possible. I’ve crammed more living into the last six weeks than I’m accustomed to – and I think that’s a good thing (although I probably overdid the debauchery a bit, but what the hell) – but now I need to step back and ponder things.

Plus it’s a good excuse to loaf all afternoon in a café, not that one needs an excuse to do that in Viet Nam, as café culture is flourishing here (thank you French colonialism) even as it fades away elsewhere — kind of ironic, that. In fact, loafing in a café is what I was doing last weekend in the picture above, recovering one steamy afternoon from the second of several post-CELTA all-night revels. What you see on the left is the sublime taste of nirvana that is Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk. When it is served traditionally like this, you have to wait until the coffee stops dripping from the grounds suspended above the glass, and the anticipation is sweet, sweet torture.

But I digress. So since I’ve already brought up Tet, let us start with that. As in much of Asia where there is an historical Chinese influence, this is a major holiday. To put it in context for a Western mind, Tet is more akin to Christmas or Hanukkah than our calendar New Year holiday (although there is a midnight countdown and whatnot) in terms of how it is celebrated; it is a time to spend with loved ones, and many return to their ancestral villages and reconnect with extended family. Shops are closed, often for the week. It is also a time to remember one’s ancestors and family that are no longer here; incense and paper offerings are burned in their honor, as well as that of Buddha. I presume that this is traditionally done in front of or near the family altar, although here in the seedy backpacker ward, where not everyone may have a family altar or may be far from it, one sees offerings being made on the sidewalk and in the street. Even bar girls stop at the stroke of midnight to usher in the New Year with prayers, offerings and incense.

But it is not a somber time; indeed the end of the old year and the beginning of the new is marked with revelry and fireworks. Throughout the week it is not uncommon to see troupes of performers in the streets dancing to the beat of drums in the guise of a Chinese dragon. Homes, shops and even the streets of Sai Gon themselves are adorned with banners and flowers, and in the days leading up to the New Year the parks of District 1 (and I presume elsewhere in the city) are transformed into enormous flower markets. Birds and fish are also available to be bought and then released, as Buddhist custom dictates that purchasing their freedom provides merit and good luck for the New Year (not sure about the (de)merit of those who actually put them in bags/cages, though). Then there is the custom of lucky money; people give gifts of money stuffed into festive red envelopes in return for wishes of good fortune and luck. I gather that traditionally these are given to children, although I saw my share of adults receiving red envelopes as well; in fact I drank at least one round on the first evening of Tet bought with lucky money.

One more thing I might note about Tet — I was warned repeatedly by locals, both expats and Vietnamese, that Ho Chi Minh City would empty out after the initial Tet hoopla (which took place Feb. 14 this year). Some of my fellow newbie expats were worried that we might have a tough time scavenging for food in the ensuing desolation. While from what I understand the outlying districts of Sai Gon did indeed become ghost towns, District 1, which encompasses the backpacker/budget traveler ward and much of the city center, maintained it’s 24/7 buzz. Granted, traffic lessened and many shops were closed, but finding open restaurants and cafés was not a problem, and traffic was even worse in the evenings as streets in the city center would be clogged with people visiting the flower displays or just out and about celebrating. I rode my bike to District 5 and back on Monday (and lived to tell about it once again) and there were still plenty of motorbikes on the road, not to mention buses and the odd car.

I also added a new phrase to my still-minuscule Vietnamese lexicon: chúc mừng năm mới (happy new year). I can now say hello, order phở with lean beef, fried eggs with a baguette (which comes with veggies), bottled water (either small or large), iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk, beer and say thank you – all in Vietnamese. I’m also working on “good night,” and “vegetarian spring rolls” but haven’t cemented them in my head yet.

As is true elsewhere in the world, and as I discovered on my first trip to Japan, showing that you’re making an effort to learn the local tongue instead of resorting to the lingua franca of English inevitably brings a smile and warms up the locals — even some of the hardened hearts one finds in Phạm Ngũ Lão, the street that lends its name to the seedy backpacker district it borders. Phạm Ngũ Lão, incidentally, is named for a noted general from Vietnamese history who lived during Nhà Trần dynasty here centuries ago. I wonder what he would think of this honor; probably mixed feelings at best.

British Grammar is Right … Because It’s British

I Passed, Bizzatches!But enough about Tet. Let’s talk about the CELTA, the reason I came to Vietnam, or at least the immediate reason. After four long, grueling weeks comprising eight-hours a day of class time, and an average of 3 to 4 hours each night outside of class (not to mention more than half the waking hours of the weekends), it is over. I both survived and passed. For the benefit of anyone reading who hasn’t heard me go on about it already, the CELTA is the most widely accepted certification for teaching English as a foreign language. In some countries it is a requirement to teach; in others it is not but often can net one a better job or better pay.

As anyone who has survived will tell you — or the institution offering the class should tell you — this isn’t some fly-by-night, hang-out-on-the-beach, pay-your-money-and-here’s-your-certificate kind of thing. It’s like finals week during college — a quarter/semester in which you took 18 credit hours with no blow-off classes – only it lasts a freakin’ month. Needless to say I fell off the caffeine-free bandwagon repeatedly, and contemplated resorting to the drastic pharmacological methodology I sometimes employed in my college days to get through difficult finals weeks. In the end, however, such measures were not necessary, as I’m older and wiser — well, the latter is debatable, but I’m definitely longer in the tooth (although I certainly didn’t act like it this past week).

So in essence it’s a month-long hell. On the plus side, Cambridge University, which developed and overseas the CELTA programs around the globe, stuffs a lot of practical learning into that month; on the second day you find yourself in front of real students teaching. I now feel like I have some small clue as to what to do when I stand up in front of ESL students, and in the midst of all the practical things I learned, the CELTA exposed me to some interesting theory about how students learn and whatnot. I also discovered that I find linguistics rather fascinating, particularly phonemics – didn’t see that one coming — I’m seriously contemplating getting an MA in this rather than journalism or TEFL (but I’m going to try on this teaching career for a few years first).

The CELTA course is not without its immense frustration, however. More or less by design, it sets you up to fail, or at least flail, during your teaching practice: there is so much information thrown at you so fast you can’t possible absorb it all and use it all effectively in the classroom. But then one quickly discovers one’s strengths and weaknesses this way, and during feedback and a tutorial with one’s instructors you learn/reinforce what you need to know/do. It’s kind of a sink-or-swim/trial-by-fire situation, which is rather stressful, to say the least; if you don’t thrive or can’t at least handle the pressure well, it can be downright brutal at times.

School's Out for Tet ...But as I say, once you get through it, you have some tools in place to do the job. Granted I still have a lot to learn — no substitute for experience — and much of what I learned during the CELTA course will only get cemented with time and practice. But I feel that I now have the foundation that I need to begin teaching English as a foreign language, and can step into a classroom and actually teach, as opposed to being an entertainer – entertainment being a method that many ESL teachers apparently resort to, particularly those like me that come to it from other professional backgrounds.

And I discovered that I like teaching. At least I like teaching Vietnamese students. I suspect that by starting a teaching career in Viet Nam I might be spoiling myself when and if I move on to other countries. I was aware going into this that I might discover teaching wasn’t for me, and that may still prove to be the case in the long run. But I further suspect that If I still want to teach after going through CELTA hell, that I’m in it for the long haul. And as I mentioned above I found some of the theory behind language and teaching endlessly fascinating (but then I am a nerd, loud and proud).

Brothers and Sisters in Arms … or Was that Bondage?

One aspect of the CELTA that surprised me was the camaraderie among my student group. It is really quite remarkable when you think about it: what are the odds that 16 people from disparate backgrounds, ages and countries would all get along so well (with one notable exception, but I’m not going to go into details on that). Indeed, while some got along more than others, and there was some drama on the interpersonal relationship front, on the whole, we all got along surprisingly well. In fact, one of the things we all remarked on at the end of the course was that we would all miss those moving on to other countries or returning to their (current) home countries, and glad that those remaining in Viet Nam for a time would be close at hand.

Even crusty ole’ anti-social me grew fond of nearly everyone on the course to one degree or another, and I suspect that in some cases may have even made life-long friendships. At the very least I hope to keep in touch with everyone as the years pass and we diverge across the globe.

I think there is a larger truth to be known, here too. Sure, part of the bonding of my classmates and I arose simply from the fact that we all went through a stressful situation together. But I think there is perhaps more to it than that. One of the things I’ve always loved about traveling abroad is meeting fellow travelers. I don’t mean the people on a two-week vacation or what have you, but the people that travel long-term or choose to live abroad. One still meets a certain percentage of assholes and assorted tools among this population, but the percentage of really cool people that one meets abroad is much higher than say, the percentage of cool people one meets back home, dramatically so. I’m not sure why this is exactly, but theorize that it has to do with the mindset that drives one to travel long-term or live abroad. I’ve discussed my theory with other travelers and other expats (other expats … God I love the sound of that) and they tend to agree.

High TeaMy CELTA class is a case in point. That’s the beauty of this lifestyle — when and where else could I have made new friends from Poland, South Africa, France, England, Ireland, Australia, Canada, as well as the United States (one from a small town near Houma, LA of all places – Geaux Saints!)? Not to mention my new Vietnamese friends, and other travelers and expats that have been well met. I’ve even met a girl from Nova Scotia who may be an even bigger nerd than me (of course I was too drunk and tired to ask for her number at the end of the night; I’m an ignorant dumbass when it comes to these things). If I hadn’t of taken the CELTA class here in Vietnam, I doubt my paths would ever have crossed with any of these people. Furthermore, if you took 16 random people from around the world ranging in age from early 20s to late 50s who weren’t long-term travelers or expats and who knowingly only had one thing in common to bring them together for a month, would 15 of them become fast friends? I really doubt it.

I don’t miss the CELTA and I’m glad it’s over — ecstatic even, as evidenced by my revelry this past week. But I miss seeing my fellow students every day already, but take solace in the fact that our paths crossed, even for just a little while. For those not remaining in Sai Gon, well met and fare thee well, CELToids; may our paths cross again, and sooner rather than later (I seem to be channeling Tolkien all of a sudden; would that this happen more often).

So Now I’ve Got to Get a Job

Four weeks of intense study (and there were a few moments when I wondered if I would get to the end successfully, but by and large was confident of the outcome) followed by a week of intense celebration and goofing off, with a day trip to the Mekong Delta thrown in. Now it’s time to find a job in my chosen course of study. Yes, it feels like I crammed a whole second college career in the span of five weeks or so, replete with the “year off” for travel and wild oat sowing. Ay carumba.

I plan to stay here in Viet Nam and teach, provided I can find a job in the near future now that Tet is over. I’m reasonably confident that I can, as there is a high demand for ESL teachers here, and the economy has continued to grow here, even as it stagnates in much of the world. But now that I have my CELTA certification, there are so many more jobs in other places that I qualify for now (and I feel that I can actually do) that I admit my wanderlust gets piqued when I look at ESL job boards, and I’m not sure where I may end up. I could return to Japan or China — I could conceivably get a university job in China; there’s an opening advertised right now in my beloved Chengdu — or go someplace I haven’t been to yet but yearn to experience — Thailand or somewhere else in Southeast Asia, South or Central America, or Eastern Europe.

I’m like a kid in a candy store; in that respect this situation also feels like I just graduated from college: for the first in too many years I’m excited about life and the world beckons; the entire globe is my oyster and it’s full of potential pearls waiting for me to discover them.

I Shall Not, I WILL Not Forget

Another unforeseen aspect of this whole experience so far is the fact that for the first time since she died nine years ago, the anniversary of my mother’s death came and went and I didn’t even realize it. It wasn’t until after the course was over that it occurred to me; I think it was watching someone burn an offering for Tet, and it suddenly popped into my head, that the sad and bitter significance of January 19 had escaped me for the first time. It was the second day of the CELTA course, and really the first full day of it; that was our first teaching practice day. To say I was preoccupied would be an understatement.

I have mixed emotions about this. On one hand, I suppose I should be glad. I can still picture my mother in my mind’s eye, whole and healthy; I still have my memories and they haven’t faded much with time. Furthermore, dwelling on the circumstances of her death accomplishes nothing; brooding in the dark can’t change the past or raise the dead. This I well know. Yet I still feel saddened by the fact that the day came and went unmarked by me. As terrible as it was, I don’t want to forget it; I don’t want to forget anything about her, even being mad with grief at her death. I don’t want my mother to become just a series of half-faded memories and snapshot images in my head as time flows on, carrying me farther and farther from the time she was alive. It is inevitable I suppose – the nature of things.

But I shall pound my fists against the wall of inevitability, just as I did in her dieing days, and do what little I can. That is the nature of me, dark and stubborn to the end. Some might say it is perhaps a good thing to temper the elation of the past week with a small undercurrent of sorrow – a balance, of sorts. Perhaps it is living in a Buddhist land, that engenders these thoughts. I wonder.

P.S.: New Roommate

Obligatory Gecko Shot

If you’ve ever perused the blog of a western expat who resides anywhere in Southeast Asia, there is always a post with a shot of a gecko in their room. It’s like a rule to get a long-term visa or something, that one has to post a picture of a gecko. Here in Viet Nam (in Ho Chi Minh City, anyway), these cute little buggers are everywhere. It’s not like you see them all the time, but then it’s not uncommon to see one hanging out on the ceiling of a restaurant or the wall of a bar, scuttling across a rock in the park, or in one’s apartment/hotel room. They eat bugs and they don’t seem to, er, “leave anything behind” so they are welcome as I far as I’m concerned.

Anyway, here is my gecko shot. I think maybe he was gunning for that bug around the corner. Sorry for the crap quality; took it with my camera phone in low light.

And thus concludes the longest blog post by anyone, ever.

If Only Graham Greene Were Here With Me …

But I don’t think he would recognize the Saigon I’m coming to know.

So, I’ve been here three days and a few odd hours, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around what I’ve experienced of Ho Chi Minh City a.ka. Saigon. I’ve tried a couple of times now, but there is just too much going on — the food, the history, the people (both the lovely, amazing Vietnamese and the 20-something backpacker crowd, not to mention the assorted goofy tourists), the sing-song language (which I find alternately soothing and fetching when women speak it and amusingly odd sounding when men speak it), the omnipresent motorbikes, the city that’s awake and partying to the wee hours and yet awake and moving before the sun — it’s too much to absorb and elucidate effectively in such a short time.

We should also bear in mind that I arrived on the weekend of celebrations for the calendar New Year (Tet, the lunar new year celebration here, isn’t for a month or too yet). In short, I landed in the middle of a huge party/circus. At least that is what it felt like. Or perhaps I fell through Hunter S. Thompson’s looking glass (this is what it felt like my first night here, wandering around). Furthermore, I know that what I’ve seen of Saigon so far — District 1, essentially — is not representative of the city as a whole, much less of Viet Nam (from what I gather Hanoi, for example, is very different — as much as Atlanta is from New York, or LA from San Francisco, for example).

So I guess for now I’ll stick to an interior monologue for now. Getting ready to come here was even more overwhelming than what I found on upon arrival; who would have thought getting rid of all of one’s worldly possessions would be so hard? It turned out to be exceedingly difficult, and even involved getting screwed over by a charitable organization (not to mention T-Mobile). For the rest of my life I’m going to do my best not to acquire anything more than what I can carry on my person. Stuff = complication, one way or the other. No baggage of either the physical or mental variety is my motto for life.

But it was good to get on the plane feeling unfettered and untethered, for the most part. But the anticipation of my travels was not without trepidation; in fact I was a little more anxious than I would have anticipated. This was different than previous trips. After all, I had no immediate plans to come back; my flights were all one way (although I could easily buy a ticket and return home if I had to). There was no translator waiting for me to run around with me, this time around — no expense account and business class hotels.

That bit of anxiety went away the moment I set foot outside the Saigon airport — arriving planes still taxi past fortified hangars left over from the American War (as it’s call here), incidentally. I don’t know what it is, but I feel at home in a throng of people that don’t look like me and speak a language I don’t understand. Not sure why that is; it just makes me happy in a way that nothing else does. Like sex, it is a  feeling I suspect will never get old for me, no matter how many times I experience it.

The last three days I’ve caught myself many times randomly smiling for no apparent reason. And trust me, I’m not one for spontaneous smiles. I guess I just like the experience of being in a foreign land — it’s a huge challenge, a colossal mind fuck, an enormous riddle to be solved, grokking a foreign culture, one that is enormous amounts of fun. That’s why I love to travel, ultimately, I suppose. It’s a unique high that nothing else provides.

Then there is the larger issue of me becoming a teacher; I know myself well enough to know that I may crank out the CELTA certification class only to realize this isn’t what I want to do (*cough* raft guiding *cough*). Only time will tell on that score. But after just three short days, I can say this: I’m so glad I’m finally here, doing this and making it happen, after dreaming of it for more than four years. I can’t recall the last time I felt this happy and excited about life — I think the last time I felt something like this was watching my parents drive away after they dropped me off on my first day at college — there’s a whole new world laid out at my feet, waiting for me to explore.

And Then the World Changed

Dear Jeffrey,

It was a pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you for applying to do a CELTA course with ILA and I am happy to offer you a place on the January course.

How much is fate or luck, and how much is self-determination? It matters not;  I feel a joie de vivre today that I have not felt in some time. Phở — it’s what’s for breakfast. Or soon will be.

Is Someone Trying to Tell Me Something?

So, since I recently became an economic statistic, I’ve been updating ye olde resume and clip file, in preparation for seeking gainful employment. While I have a current gig at GPS Maniac, I only get a chunk of the advertising revenue from that; I draw no monthly salary. So until such time as that happens, i.e, the advertising reps at sister pub and former employer GPS World sell some ads on the Maniac, I need to pay some bills and feed myself.

I was looking for some clips from my trip to [tag]China[/tag] on behalf of E-News back in 2005 today when I came across the blog I kept as part of that project. I had thought that this was long gone. I have a PDF of the entire microsite that housed the blog, and my stories filed from China, among other things involved with this China trip project, but had thought Reed Business had taken down the blog long ago, along with the microsite. But the blog is still there, tucked into a dusty little corner of EDN (Electronic Design News, the pub that eventually absorbed what was left of Electronic News Online when Reed pulled the plug).

This was a relief, because I wasn’t looking forward to editing more than 1,000 pages in the PDF file I made from the microsite once upon a time and making it presentable. Anyway, you can read more about the China/Silicon Road project here, and read some of the stories and blog entries produced from my memorable month in the midst of this 5,000-year-old culture, if you are so inclined.

This seemed a bit coincidental, as I had just been talking on the phone previously with a former colleague; among other things we had talked about was my eventual return to China — as this is a frequent topic with me, anyway — and her son, who used to teach English at a university in Kunming, in central China, for some years. Naturally I’ve been thinking about pursuing a career in [tag]TEFL[/tag] — teaching English as a foreign language — ever since I came back from China.

Didn’t give it much thought though, until I was at the gym tonight, doing run/walk intervals on the treadmill (because I’m in such sad shape these days I can’t even run 30 minutes on the treadmill). What do I stumble across on the vast wasteland of the idiot box on my machine (it’s one of those kinds of gyms) but an episode of Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations, in which he travels to China, dining on duck in Beijing and hot pot in Chengdu, among other Chinese culinary delicacies. God, it about killed me. Between reading my old clips and watching this show, it all came back to me; I think if I had the money right now I’d be on a plane to China tonight, and I would fly straight through to Chengdu, the capital of Szechuan province and the best damn food in the world.

I have to admit, [tag]Anthony Bourdain[/tag], given the constraints of a one-hour television program, did China and its cuisine justice, I thought. And I couldn’t help but think, as I drove home from the gym, that someone is trying to tell me something. …