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.

DWA: The Boy Who Lived

Not for the Faint of Heart ISo, I took my life in my hands today and took my first ride out of District 1 solo, all the way to District 7, which sounds farther than it is. It is actually only a few miles — about 5 or 6 kilometers, according to my cyclo driver friend Den. But the only option I had for a route was on major thoroughfares — imagine 3 or 4 lanes of road clogged with motorbikes and the occasional smog belching bus or truck, and the odd cab (and taxi drivers here drive like they do all over the world). Then consider the fact that this is Southeast Asia, where the rules of the road are different and largely unwritten.

Oh, and I forget the odd pedestrian and street vendor pushing their cart along the road.

In fact, you see people doing things all the time that would get them killed in a place like the U.S. But here, everyone does it and everyone expects it, and it works. The trouble for someone like me is, understanding is one thing, putting it into practice is another. For example, you’ll often see people running lights here, and turning left into oncoming traffic — but sussing out when you can do such things and when I can’t is where things get tricky. I suspect it’s just that I’ve been conditioned for years not to do such things; my instincts are the exact opposite of the locals. Furthermore, often times when I react to a situation and ride defensively, it’s usually the wrong thing to do — it’s much better to placidly ride on like the Vietnamese do, and let the other guy doing something crazy just do it.

Here’s an example. I was returning back from my destination — Golden Rose, a Western-style bike shop owned by an Aussie — and cruising down a side street; I was to the far right of the road with a few other cyclists while around us swarmed the omnipresent xe oms (motorbikes/mopeds, Vespas, etc.). It isn’t uncommon to see someone turn left from a side street off to one’s right, and rather than cut off all the traffic, they will just hug the left side of the road, riding into oncoming traffic. This happened right in front of me — a guy on a bicycle with a kid on the back. I reacted without thinking, trying to get out of his way, riding up on the curb — he did the same thing and we both had to come to a screeching halt (fortunately neither one of us was going that fast. And unlike back home, instead of insults and threats, we parted with nods and smiles).

But if I had just kept cruising along, maybe flowing just to the left around him — which is what Vietnamese people do in this situation seemingly without even thinking about it, perhaps with a horn honk thrown in — there wouldn’t have been a problem. I kept telling myself to relax and approach it with Buddha-like calm, accepting, observing and going with the flow whenever possible, maintaining my lane when someone does something unexpected (to me) — which seems to be the best course of action 99 times out of 100 here — but it’s easier said than done.

Don’t get me wrong though; I’m not knocking the Vietnamese; this kind of traffic is seemingly endemic to much of Asia (with Japan being a notable exception, where even the traffic jams are conducted in a calm, orderly fashion). This is their country and their roads, and the indigenous population understands the rules of the road, and it works for them. The problems arise when you drop in a foreigner who is used to a different set of rules — or doesn’t understand how traffic works seemingly with few rules. It’s not “western” traffic, and I’m sure there was more than one Vietnamese person today looking at me, shaking their head, and thinking “Aw jeez, DWA — Driving While American.”

And if you’ve ever lived in the Bay Area of Northern California, you can appreciate the irony here. As I’ve observed before, having first witnessed and blogged about traffic in China, it’s not that foreigners — in this case, Asians — can’t drive, as so many Americans might believe. They can and are perfectly competent — it’s just that driving is that different between the two cultures, and if you don’t realize that, this is when the chaos ensues. If you took an American chef and dropped in a Vietnamese kitchen, she might recognize certain utensils and ingredients, and some of the finished dishes going out the door to the dining room might look familiar — but that doesn’t mean she can cook Vietnamese food. The same goes for driving, or riding a bicycle, motorbike, etc.

But I will persevere. If I can learn to cross the street here — and there is an art to it; just watch how the locals do it — I can ride here. I’m encouraged by the fact that I came back in one piece today, and only had two close calls. I arrived in front of my hotel and threw up my arms and shouted “I’m alive! I did it!” which illicited several uncomprehending stares and unsure smiles. Pretty soon I will become one with the Vietnamese Traffic Absolute, losing my individual soul in the collective unconscious flow of traffic down Nguyễn Thái Học.

She Was Looking Out For My Dong

Further Down Bui VienSo I’ve been in Viet Nam a week, having spent most of that in the backpacker section of District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, which is pretty much an international circus — fun, but rather crazy. I’ve turned down so many touts, xe om drivers, ladies of the evening (and in some cases ladies of the afternoon) and various other peddlers in the neighborhood so often that half of them just look at me and smile and wave and don’t bother with the sales pitch. The other half shake their head and look away in frustration and disgust; it’s inconceivable why a rich American would want to walk somewhere when has a choice to do otherwise.

But I guess I’m like Larry Darrell in Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. I’m content to loaf in the corner cafe with my books and interior monologue; no I don’t need xeroxed pirate copies of the latest Dan Brown opus or Lonely Planet Laos; I don’t need my shoes shined or my sandals repaired. No, I don’t need a xe om ride somewhere. A massage? No thanks, I don’t need a massage with or without a happy ending. Yes, I’m sure she’s very lovely and very young, as you say, but no thanks. No, I don’t need “boom boom” either. Yes, I’m sure she’ll do everything, but no thanks, no boom boom today – some other time, perhaps.

Heck, most of the working girls now ride up to me if they see me walking down the street at night (I’m big enough and tall enough that I must be a foreigner), hop off their motorbike, walk up to me, begin their sales pitch, recognize me, laugh, mock me — “ah, you go with me ‘some other time!'” — and hop back on the bike and ride away. I should add that most people here looking to make a buck off foreign tourists are actually pretty easy going. I always smile when I refuse and say “no thanks” — I’ve even learned to say it in Viet — to show that there’s no hard feelings and no loss of face, and almost always, the smile is returned and they back off (plus it’s cute when the working girls act all pouty and sad). Sure, there’s a few that push the hard sell (and I confess there have been a few lovelies I’ve been hard pressed to say no to), but they are the exception rather than the rule.

And certainly not everyone is on the take, not by any means. I’ve met a few xe om drivers who are great guys (there don’t seem to be any girl motorbike taxi drivers, dammit) and seemingly honest to a fault; then there is my new friend Den, a cyclo driver. A cyclo is the word here for pedicab — the taxi cab cum bicycle. I finally broke down and did the tourist thing the other day and hired Den to peddle me around; I had already met and talked with him prior to this, and he seemed like a good guy (plus he speaks English tolerably well, so he could do double duty as tour guide); my instincts proved correct.

Not for the Faint of Heart IIDen’s been doing this for more than 20 years; this is how he has fed his family (he had four kids; his oldest, a daughter, is currently attending university). It’s also how he learned English. We’ve gotten so tight that if he sees me on the street and I’m going somewhere close by, he’ll offer to take me for free — I’ve tried insisting on giving him some cash, but he won’t take it. As if that weren’t cool enough, today he took me around shopping for a used bicycle, and even did the translating for me as I negotiated prices, then let me follow him back to my neighborhood. When I asked him how much I owed him he hemmed and hawed, so I just crammed a couple hundred thousand dong (that would be the Vietnamese currency) in his hand and told him to take it. All around, a top-notch guy.

Then there is the family at the Kim Hotel. Ideally, I wouldn’t be staying in the backpacker district for long. Granted, it’s seedy in a wild border-town sort of way (although it’s not on a border, per se — although wander a few blocks away from it and it’s almost a different world), which means it’s crazy and fun and there’s a bunch of different kinds of cheap, tasty food available. Were I just visiting here on vacation, it would be fine. But I’m ostensibly here for the long haul, and to begin my career as an English teacher. As such, I briefly considered finding a quieter neighborhood; I could probably have found a furnished apartment outside of the central downtown area for close to what I’m paying at this guest house (but who knows if I’ll find a job here or somewhere else after the course?).

But the family that runs Kim Hotel are wonderful people — the second oldest daughter serves as the manager; the younger siblings clean the rooms. Everyone is warm and friendly; the lobby of the building doubles as the family’s living room. Houm (I’m sure I’ve butchered the spelling), the oldest daughter, takes time to teach me Vietnamese words and phrases when I ask; when I asked where I should go to get a local sim card for my phone, she took me herself and even did the talking when we got to the phone shop. She was skeptical when I told her I had hired a cyclo driver — that would be the aforementioned Den — she wanted to be sure I wasn’t getting scammed. She’s also giving me a modest discount since I’m staying long term, and even let me move into a slightly bigger room than the one I had before.

I could probably find a quieter place. I could probably find a place with a softer mattress and fancier furnishings, a place where the locals are a bit more quiet and reserved (as they seem to be outside of District 1, from what little I’ve seen). But this is close to the school where I’ll be taking my CELTA class, and would I be able to find such a warm, inviting place elsewhere? One where they’ll bring my bike in at night along with the family’s motorbikes? One where I can leave my stuff in my room and not have to worry about it? Plus, my room is always left spotless after Houm’s sister has cleaned it. I’ve stayed in $300-a-night business-class hotels where the maid staff wasn’t as meticulous. Could I do better than that as a stranger in a strange land?

I’m not even gonna try. Besides, there have been other random acts of kindness, right here in District 1, Saigon. Last week when I decided I should try Vietnamese coffee — the traditional way with sweetened, condensed milk, which is OMFG good — when I went to pay my bill, which was 50,000 dong (about $2.70, and I had two of these drinks, which would be about $5 apiece in a Starbucks), I accidentally paid with a 500,000 dong note — about $27. 500,000 dong in a land where you can get a meal on the street for 1,000 dong. Nevertheless my server immediately pointed out my goof. What’s more, she wasn’t annoyed at the idiot foreigner; she smiled, laughed, and said “Oh no, that’s 500! It’s only 50!” (at about 18,500 dong to the U.S. dollar, most prices are discussed in thousands of dong).

She could have fleeced me and I never would have known; all denominations of dong have Ho Chi Minh’s face on them, and the differences in the colors of the larger denominations of bills are subtle — you have to look closely, as I’ve learned.

Fortunately this young girl was looking out for my dong.

And yes, I’ve been waiting this whole time to make that pun.

Yeah, really the only thing I’ve got to complain about, the only trifling glitch so far is that the so-called Irish expat bar in Saigon serves Guinness in a can. Guinness. In a can. In a quote-unquote genuine Irish pub. Guinness in a can is fine when you know at the next bar down the street they have it on tap. Now I’m going to have to go to another country to get it, so no pints on tap for the foreseeable future.

“The horror … the horror.”

Ground Zero, Backpacker CircusOh, you’re probably wondering about these photos (if I ever succeed in actually getting them uploaded).  This is traffic in District 1 — the arty-farty night shots, and the live-action views from the vantage point of Den’s cyclo. I’ll save the traffic topic for another time. Let it suffice to say that what at first seems utter chaos to the Western eyes is actually a complex ballet of internal combustion, rubber, and human instinct. And now I have a bike to ride in it.

“The horror … the horror.”

That’s not me saying that, this time, it’s the people on the road in District 1 when they see me coming on my no-name, cheapie hard-tail that I bought from a local shop after the proper negotiations took place.

P.S. Finally got the shots uploaded — the one’s I’ve taken so far, anyway. The entire set is on Flickr.

You're Gonna Move Where to Do What?

Pho, as created by Flickr user Andrew Dinh: http://www.flickr.com/people/19076153@N00It’s been interesting to note people’s reactions when I tell them I am moving abroad indefinitely, namely Vietnam (yes, I finally decided to say to hell with it all and take off for parts unknown — to me, at any rate — as my heart has been yearning to do for four years now). It’s an interesting reflection of people’s personalities and their fear, knowledge (or lack thereof) and prejudices. Having moved around a lot in my two decades as a more-or-less adult, and having traveled a bit abroad, it hasn’t been surprising, what some people are harboring inside their heads when tell them I’ll be moving to Saigon/Ho Ch Minh City at the end of the year with no specific plans to return in the immediate future. But that’s not to say it is not still an interesting and sometimes amusing window into people’s thoughts.

When the subject of your departure comes up you expect inquiries into why you are moving and when, of course. You expect people that have traveled there or similar places to share their own experiences, discussing the merits/drawbacks to moving to such a place and living in such a culture. These are generally the responses you get. But sometimes the people you least expect are the ones that have excellent advice or otherwise worthwhile observations to make about your destination or its culture, having been there themselves, or having had friends that have visited there or are even from there. Still others surprise you with envy — people you might not expect are harboring dreams of far-away lands and exotic cultures.

Then there are those who offer the odd non-sequitur or reveal a typical bias, the kind that boggles the mind that it still exists in this day and age. Those are the ones that are the most amusing.

When I moved to Arizona, for example, it was warnings about scorpions and rattle snakes. I’m serious. Tell people you are moving to Arizona, and a small-but-not-statistically-insignificant amount of the time you will get a response like “You know they have rattle snakes/scorpions there, don’t you?” Not, “Northern Arizona is so beautiful!” or “I’ve been Phoenix; it’s great if you like golf, but geez is it hot.” As if rattle snakes and scorpions are hiding in every nook and cranny, when they’re not falling from the sky.

No, No, No, not this type of scorpion. ... In 18 months living in rural Northern Arizona, I saw a grand total of two rattlesnakes and three scorpions. And this was because I was often traipsing about in the wilderness, trying to achieve a brief mental respite from Hell on Earth, otherwise known as Sedona. Granted, they have more scorpions and such in the southern part of the state, but I never heard of anyone getting bit by one and having a serious reaction. As for the snakes, they hauled ass the moment they got wind of me and my mountain bike.

Similarly, when I moved to California, the bogeyman was earthquakes. “Aren’t you afraid of earthquakes?” people would ask incredulously, as if they happened constantly and the corresponding death toll climbed with each shaky day. I would – usually to no avail, of course — point out that the odds were much greater of dieing in my native Ohio in a blizzard/tornado/thunderstorm/flood than they are from dieing in an earthquake in Northern California, even if one factors in the proverbial Big One.

In five years in the Bay Area I experienced one piddly 3.2-magnitude earthquake. By the time I realized what was happening, it was over.

Californians are not without their biases too. When I left Northern California for the wilds of West Virginia, many people were incredulous, and not a few brought up Deliverance — probably because I was going there for the whitewater. I must have explained a thousand times that this movie was set and was filmed in Georgia, not WVa, thank you very much. I actually liked living in West ByGawd a lot, and not once the whole time did anyone spontaneously play the banjo or offer to make me squeal like a pig.

When I went to China in 2005 for a month, the bogeyman was sometimes, believe it or not, communism, which seemed rather quaint. Didn’t we leave the fear of the Red Menace behind several decades ago? For others it was China’s growing economic power, which was – and is – arguably a more rational fear to have, if one felt one must fear China for some reason. Of course, one legitimate concern was China’s record on human rights and its tendency to throw journalists that run afoul of the Party in jail. I was traveling across China on a business visa though (a smart tip that came my way lead to my getting a business visa, rather than a journalist visa, which is easier to obtain), and semiconductor technology (which was what I was there to write about) was hardly the stuff of international controversy – not in the way that human rights are (and justifiably so).

Of course, for some China didn’t bring forth reflections on politics, human rights, or economics but food — I experienced this reaction most often upon my return, when I would tell people where I had been, and it still crops up to this day when it comes up in conversation. “Did you eat dog while you were over there?” Or better yet, the inquiry would be about monkey brains. Of course in some parts of China eating dog is not uncommon; monkey brains, on the other hand, is pretty much a myth (but it must be true, because they read it on the Internet). And yes, I did try dog while in northern China; I didn’t want anyone (including me) to lose face, particularly when I was determined to experience every aspect of Chinese culture that I could while I was there, and had said as much to my hosts in Shenyang. And while I understand why people here in the West fixate on that, it gets a little old when, of all the amazing experiences to discuss about month spent traipsing across China, that’s the one thing people always want to discuss, without fail, once it comes up.

Sometimes, when I sense it coming — “Did you eat a lot of exotic foods over there?” — I bring it up myself, just to get it over with; I know that’s what they want to ask.

Southeast Asia: I'll be there. So now it’s onto Vietnam. Reactions are a little different this time around, because I’m not just going there for business or vacation, but to live and pursue a career change. Some people are incredulous that anyone would leave everything they know and move some place where they don’t know anyone and have never even been there. Some people just can’t grasp why anyone would want to do this. I suppose that’s a reasonable reaction, although it’s not a concern I share, obviously. It has made me ponder at length why I’m driven to live in and experience foreign cultures – why living abroad has such appeal and has been in my thoughts since I came back from China four years ago (almost to the day) — not to mention the whole potential career change. But I’ll save that for another post and another day.

There are the usual concerns and biases people have here about Asians in general and Vietnam and the Vietnamese in particular; the subject of eating dog comes up, of course. That’s a big one, naturally. I like to point out that for most Vietnamese it’s considered a delicacy, from what I gather; not every-day food. If you’re interested, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Vietnamese cuisine. In any event, one thing I miss about the West Coast is Vietnamese restaurants; In the years since I’ve left NorCal I’ve often yearned for phở (see the photo at the beginning of this post). There’s another Vietnamese soup that I miss too, bún bò huế — I gladly fell off the vegetarian wagon for this stuff. If Vietnamese food in Vietnam proves as good as Chinese food in China does — ah, Chengdu (see the top of the map), my taste buds miss you still — I won’t have any problems finding good things to eat.

One casual acquaintance even made an outright racist remark when the subject of Vietnam came out while I was out with friends this past weekend. This one caught me off guard — maybe because I was the only sober one in the group – but it came from someone from whom I wouldn’t expect it. It wasn’t some hateful remark; rather it was more akin to some casual remark said in jest that many might not even consider racist; it was more along the subtle lines of Bob Griese’s “he’s out having a taco” remark. It might even well have been some pop-culture reference I totally missed (I’m hopelessly square); perhaps I should have asked. But I was so nonplussed, I didn’t know what to say (a rarity for me). Maybe in my travels domestic and abroad I’ve just become more sensitive to these things.

The Camo-Fatigue-Wearing Elephant in the Room

Apocalypse Then: hopefully I'll fair better in Vietnam than Martin Sheen did in the Phillipines.One topic that surprisingly hasn’t come up yet is the American War — that’s the Vietnamese name for what we American’s call the Vietnam War. But then I suppose most of my friends are my age or younger, and for those of us old enough to remember it at all, the Vietnam War was just a series of images on television with Walter Cronkite’s voice in the background – stuff I didn’t really understand as kid. When you’re six years old, it’s a lot to wrap your brain around and suss out: why the Commies were on our side in WW II but were the bad guys in the Korean War (M*A*S*H was big on TV then) and were the bad guys in this war; the Domino Theory; why the Vietnamese couldn’t just work it for themselves what kind of government they wanted (and for that matter, the Koreans, too, so all the doctors could go home). If they wanted to shoot at each other, that’s bad, but shouldn’t we just let ’em? Didn’t we fight our own Civil War to settle these kind of questions?

I remember getting really confused on this last part, as a child. After all, Vietnam used to be a French colony — but they booted the French out – just like we, the Americans, booted out the English. So, doesn’t that kinda make them good guys? I thought we didn’t like the colonial powers, after all (so why did we save them in WW II?) Okay, they’re communists, and commies are bad – Russians, nukes, Stalin, I grokked that (even a six year old can grasp Armageddon and blowing up the world) — but if a bunch of ’em want to be Communist, and they’re willing to fight a war among themselves and with us to be communist, after they all fought together to kick out the French … again, isn’t that kind of like how we fought the English back in the Revolutionary War? Because we wanted to have self rule? Because we didn’t think the English were giving us a fair shake, and we wanted to be our own country with our own, self-determined government? And wouldn’t we have gotten mad if someone came along and wanted to help in our Civil War?

And the Vietnamese don’t have nukes, right? Okay, but why does it matter if Russia gives them nukes? You already told me the Russians and the U.S. have enough nukes to blow up the world, so why does it matter to us if the Vietnamese want to be commies?

Well, that’s how my six-year-old self saw it back then (I was a bit of a precocious brat, as opposed to now of course). It didn’t make much sense at the time. Furthermore, the more I learned about the war as I got older, the more strange it got. For example, we supported the Viet Minh during World War II against the Japanese (which occupied Vietnam briefly); the Viet Minh being the alliance of Vietnamese nationalists including communists, and a direct precursor of the Viet Cong. Not that I was all that worried about it back then, to be honest; Star Trek reruns (this is pre-Star Wars, which came out in 1977, mind you) and the 6 Million Dollar Man were of much more concern. The only bad guys I was truly worried about then lived across the creek in the woods behind my neighborhood. The Kids Across the Creek — with whom my friends and I would engage in epic mud-ball battles — presented a grave threat that had to be contained. If they succeeded in taking our side of the creek, who knows; all of Rosetree Lane might have been next to fall.

Given what’s happened in the intervening years — the fall of the Soviet Union and China and Vietnam’s embrace of the free market and participation in the World Trade Organization — not to mention the fact that I can go there and live and people will pay for me to teach them English – I’m not sure it makes any sense now. The dominoes didn’t fall, after all.

But the Kids Across the Creek — who used to up the arms race by putting rocks in their mud balls — they are still bastards. No amount of time will soften my resolve against these mortal foes of my childhood. I’ll rush to the defense of Rosetree Lane at a moment’s notice from whatever far-flung corner of the world I happen to be in. Of course the woods are pretty much gone now, and all those kids are probably like the rest of my middle-aged brethren — worried about mortgages, dead-end jobs, and their own kids.

Fortunately I never got mature enough to get involved in all that sort of silliness; I wouldn’t be setting out for Southeast Asia, would I? But I digress.

It’s really tough to imagine what Vietnamese people my age experienced — many risked life and limb to flee Vietnam and make their way to America. I remember a Vietnamese refugee kid that was in my second grade class for a brief time: he spoke almost no English and when we would all draw with Crayons during class, his pictures were always of planes dropping bombs. Of course we kids all thought those pictures were pretty cool, but then gravel embedded in mud balls was the worst we were likely to face. I’m grateful that growing up my worst battle-related fears were of those mud balls, as opposed to bombs falling from the sky. Sure, there was the threat of nuclear war, but that was more of an abstraction; this kid and many others like him dealt with the reality and horror of conventional war. Funny, I haven’t thought about that kid in years until just now, but it was his appearance in class that made me try and understand a little bit more about what Cronkite was going on about whenever Dad watched the news.

I suppose it’s a sign of the times — a good one — that friends and acquaintances are more concerned that I might have to eat dog or learn to speak a funny-sounding (to us) tonal language when I move to Vietnam, rather than with the fact that I’m moving to a country and a people we were engaged in a bloody, brutal war with, not so long ago – a country that many were forced to flee out of necessity.  Of course, I’m sure if I were moving to Afghanistan or Iraq to learn to teach English, it would be a different story. I have no plans to travel or move to either of these places any time soon – but come to think of it, one of my favorite restaurants in San Jose was Afghani House; that was some yummy food. I can only hope that I’ll live long enough to see the day when an American will be able to move to Kabul and eat palao and kebabs in their native setting.

In the meantime, I hope that I can do my part to educate my fellow Americans as to the fact that there is more to Vietnam than Commies, Apocalypse Now and canine main courses. Maybe I’ll even influence a few to step outside their comfort zone — and the borders of North American — and travel abroad.

“It’s easy to hate someone you’ve never met — travel is the enemy of bigotry.” — Francis O’Donnell

P.S. Credit where credit is due. I snagged the phở photo (heh) at the beginning of this post from Wikipedia, which in turn snagged it under a creative commons license from one Andrew Dinh. Check him out on ye olde Flickr; it’s good stuff.

"Travel is the enemy of bigotry."

The road, her siren song calls me; I fear she has become my muse.

Okay, that’s perhaps a bit too melodramatic even if it is apt. Ah, God, why am I still here? Apparently I shouldn’t even watch [tag]PBS[/tag] anymore … it’s too dangerous for someone with wanderlust. It’s been three years since I returned from my month traipsing back and forth across [tag]China[/tag]. There has been some domestic [tag]travel[/tag] back and forth on this continent via jet since then, and a number of car trips. But I haven’t been anywhere beyond the borders of my homeland. I haven’t been anywhere that English wasn’t the native language, or that I stuck out as an obvious foreigner.

And not a day goes by that I don’t dwell on it.

Some days it’s just a passing thought. Other days, I’ll spend hours lingering over images of foreign lands – either my own, or those photographed by someone else – or reread my own journals or passages in well-thumbed Lonely Planet guides, some for countries I’ve been to, some for which I haven’t yet.

In the past three years I’m sure I’ve bored more than one friend to death with my travel talk – regaling them with tales of past journeys, or about half-formed plans to join the Peace Corps in a French-speaking African country, or [tag]teaching English[/tag] in South East Asia, living in a different country every year. One month I plan to start in Thailand; another in Vietnam. Sometimes I think about coupling the Peace Corp with a masters degree program. Or maybe I’m going to go back to China, to teach and eat food in Chengdu restaurants. Or maybe back to Japan. Lately I’ve been seriously thinking about it – I can’t really explain why or what is making me think I’m more serious about it than at any other time in the past three years, but something is different. I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that in little more than a month, I’ll ding 40.

Time passes.

And while I have family here, while I presently have a good job and really can’t complain about my career, the world-not-yet-seen beckons. The things that I gather are supposed to interest or concern me as I pass this mile marker of middle age don’t seem to hold much sway over my restless spirit. Indeed, I often catch myself asking this question more and more frequently, why am I still here? Even if I lived to be 100 and traveled for the rest of my days, I don’t think I’d ever see all of the world that I’d like to see. If I were independently wealthy and a person of leisure, what would I do? In a word, travel. So why am I still here? What is it that is keeping me here?

And then I saw this: A PBS documentary viewed entirely by chance, In the Footsteps of Marco Polo. Two art school pals, [tag]Francis O’Donnell[/tag] and [tag]Denis Belliveau[/tag], with an interest in history and culture, in addition to art, set out to retrace Marco Polo’s travels. It was just the two of them, and some photography equipment. They lined up a few sponsors to help with costs, but it was just them on the road, even leaving their passage up to their own wits (Marco Polo didn’t travel by air, so they kept to land and sea routes).

In the vernacular of two other intrepid adventurers, [tag]In the Footsteps of Marco Polo[/tag] is a most excellent adventure. I won’t recount their travels; you can view the documentary online, or on your own PBS affiliate. But they had an amazing journey that was anything but easy, one that took the better part of two years. And they more or less proved that [tag]Marco Polo[/tag], his father, and his uncle must surely have made the journeys that they wrote about. While I have no desire to undertake diplomatic missions for the khan, I would love to see the steppes of Mongolia – or any place else along their route, for that matter. Even Iran.

Especially [tag]Iran[/tag], perhaps.

O’Donnell and Belliveau found that, even though they were in Iran on the anniversary of the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran following the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian people were the most hospitable of their travels, even more so than the Turks. Even now, the legend of Arab hospitality proves to be not legend, but truth.

O’Donnell noted at one point that as a former U.S. Marine, he had always thought of the Iranians as a potential enemy, the so-called “bad guys.” However, as many who travel abroad discover, the two learn that politics and ideology don’t tend to mean much when you sit across the table from someone, eating their food. “It’s easy to hate someone you’ve never met – travel is the enemy of [tag]bigotry[/tag],” O’Donnell noted.

Belliveau concurred. “I would say that most of the world is full of good people. There’s a lot more good people on the planet than bad,” he said. “Get out there and meet them; they’re good.” Remember, these were guys who parleyed with mujahideen and warlords to get them safely across Afghanistan in order to remain faithful to the Polos’ route. Guys who dared travel in Iran, walking the streets with cameras in hand, even as those around them were celebrating the anniversary of the fall of the American embassy.

As their journey drew to a close, the two felt the melancholy that I’m beginning to suspect that all travelers must feel at the end of the journey, upon reaching home. At least, those who enjoy the road merely for the sake of being on the road feel it at journey’s end. O’Donnell’s words at this point struck a nerve, I have to admit, as they were words I’ve spoken myself, more than once. Even when I’m glad the actual physical part of traveling the leg that takes me home is over, even when I rejoice to see friends and loved ones once again, almost invariably, I feel sad. “I wanted to go back there,” O’Donnell said upon their arrival in Venice, where they had begun their journey two years before, referring to the path that strung out behind them. “I didn’t think I was going to be able to go back to the quote-unquote real world.”

Indeed. Damn you, PBS. Why am I still here?