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.

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