Last night after supper, Co Van asked me to peel and cut a mango. As I revel in any small task that makes me feel useful--makes me, moreover, feel like myself again--I immediately obeyed.
After staring blankly at the array of knives in the drawer, seeing none that appeared suitable for my task, I gladly accepted the peeler that Chi Hai handed me. Whether Vietnamese peelers are sub-par or whether the skin of a mango--which is quite thick and strangely rubbery--is simply more difficult than some, I don't know. What I do know is that the skin of that particular mango was loath to part with the fruit in any more than fingernail-sized chunks at a time. However, I persevered, hoping that no one would notice how long it was taking me to perform this task. No such luck. After both Co Van and Chi Hai showed me how to do it properly and everyone else had noticed and laughed, I still could not get the hang of it. Finally, Co Van finished peeling and handed the now-naked mango back to me. Ok, I thought, just cut it, surely you can do that much. What a prime example of speaking too soon! Next thing I knew, I was experiencing surprisingly acute pain in my left pointer finger, which was bleeding rather profusely, and Nga was running for a band-aid.
The thing that drove me crazy (!) was this: I have cut a mango before. In fact, last summer I cut a whole bunch of them--very successfully--for a fruit tray that I served at a small party that my parents had on their ranch. That was only one of the many domestic tasks that I performed quite excellently that day. But people here don't know that.
At home, I am capable of taking care of myself: I can do my own laundry, cook for myself, and cut a cake--or even a mango. Here, I spend my time longing to be useful and to prove myself, and then even the smallest tasks elude my skill and leave me feeling quite inept. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am an intelligent and capable adult; if I don't, I feel like I have regressed back to childhood.
And while I suppose a good dose of humility is not an inherently bad thing--I think I'm supposed to say that it is good for me, and maybe it is--I can't quite bring myself to believe it all the time. The fact is that in in some ways I am just a child here; I can't speak Vietnamese as well as a five-year-old, afterall. But instead of recognizing and accepting this fact--being humble, in other words--I start boiling inside and want to scream at my host family and the country, "I am good at some things!!"
But now I have this band-aid around my finger that serves as a constant reminder of...something. I'm not exactly sure what.
For while it is imortant to accept our weaknesses humbly, I believe that it is also important to recognize our strengths. And even though I fail often, I am good at some things, even if mango-peeling is not always among them. That being said, the point of being good at things is not who knows I am good at them, but what I do with those skills. And also that, no matter how skilled any of us is, we really can't do everything on our own. We all rely on others--even if those of us stubbornly independent types hate to admit it.
Because I love mangos, but I also love my fingers. Clearly, I need a little help.
I plan to write a detailed entry about our trip, but have decided to wait until I have uploaded some pictures--hopefully soon!
On Tuesday, after my fourth trip to the tailor, I picked up my new ao dai--traditional Vietnamese dress. I was very excited when The Gioi Publishers first said they would buy me one, but by the end of the process, I had almost decided it was more trouble than it was worth. First there was the initial trip to the tailor to pick out fabric and be fitted. It was amazing how difficult it was for me to find one fabric I liked--an opaque fabric without sequins, glitter, large flowers, or LOUD patterns--even in a shop entirely devoted to cloth. "Simple elegance" is something few people strive for in Vietnamese fashion. Here, glitter does not serve as an accent; its role is more along the lines of "the more the better." Secondly, it was interesting that, for a shop that specialized in making ao dai, this did not seem to be its forte...
But! I got it. And I already got to wear it, which leads me to the second interesting event of the week...
On Thursday, I took leave from work to attend the engagement party of my host cousin, who I had met one time previously. Interestingly, I'm pretty sure that this is the cousin whose mom was anxious to set me up with him during my first month in Hanoi; turns out he's been in love with his now-fiance for about ten years! Although the couple has been as good as engaged for quite some time, the official engagement had to wait for a lucky day--as indicated by the fortuneteller. The same is true for the wedding, which takes place a week from tomorrow. Now that's what I call a short engagement!
The Vietnamese name for the engagement ceremony is an hoi (an=eat, hoi=ask). The groom's family takes an odd number of gifts (apparently odd numbers are luckier than even ones)--in our case, seven--and present them to the bride's family at their home. The bride's family sets up space for tea and light refreshment. Some words are exchanged, then the bride's family takes the gifts up to the family altar to inform the ancestors of the engagement and petition for their blessing. There may also be confetti, women in very flashy ao dai, men in suits, lots of the color red (also generally lucky), lots of glitter, and lots of pictures (which I will post sometime!).
After the ceremony, which didn't take more than a half hour, we went back to the groom's family's house for lunch. I received many compliments on my ao dai; I'm not sure if people actually liked it (I mean, it doesn't have any glitter!), or if they were just surprised to see a foriegner wearing one. Either way is ok with me. I received a similar complement about my chopstick skills. I have found that these large family gatherings exhaust me, even when I spend most of them sitting/standing around.
However, I had a nice opportunity for refreshment at the end of my tiring day--I received free tickets from work to go to a concert by the Hanoi Philharmonic Orchestra, which featured a guest Spanish conductor. The vocals weren't great, but I thoroughly enjoyed the instrumentals, not to mention the gold glitter covering the soprano's face.
So, if you've ever had trouble sleeping, you know that, at some point, you just have to stop trying. That point came for me at 5:45 am, after 45 minutes of tossing and an hour of reading Annie Dillard before that.
So, now I was up, what to do with myself?
Making surprisingly quick and intelligent decisions considering the time and my lack of rest, I got ready in about 15 minutes, had a brief conversation with Ba, and left the house on my bicycle.
As I rode toward Ho Hoan Kiem (the lake close to The Gioi Publishers) I made an astounding discovery:
I like Ha Noi so much better before 8 am.
First of all, traffic was amazing. Second of all, I just had a great time. I wandered around the Old Quarter, found a pho shop, and had breakfast. Then I walked briskly around the lake a few times, entertained all the while by the people out in hoards exercising. I mailed some post cards. Sat on a bench by the water. Then I went to work.
It was a great morning. One I wouldn't mind repeating. I know myself too well to expect this to be a regular occurance, considering that I've never been a morning person, but hey, you never know. Props to spontaneity, anyways.
Oh why, oh why would you torture me so?
You tease me over and over
confirming the notion that, yes—
Absence by all means makes the heart grow fonder.
I cannot focus for thinking of you
wondering when you will return
and what thrilling gifts may accompany you.
I know in my head that I’m bound to be disappointed
but, as ever, my heart is not so easily persuaded.
I ponder especially the reason for your absence
governmental decrees and mean prohibitions—
but one option I refuse to accept:
the possibilty of permanent neglect.
Perhaps your absence is a humbling scheme
to put to the test my ideals
my oft-spoken declaration
that I don’t need you, don’t want you,
that perhaps—I would even be better off without you.
I guess I can’t blame you for belaboring your point
but I get it now:
Without you my days would be endless
boring, expensive, lacking interest.
Other people just don’t do it for me anymore—
so limited in knowledge, so unentertaining, so dreadfully slow.
So come back please!
I understand now I can’t live without you!
Oh internet, internet—
I’m lost without you.
It's terribly cheesy, I know; I guess that was the point. This parody of a love poem, which I titled--very originally--"Ode to the Internet," not only mocks the melodramatic speech of lovers and our society's love of technology, but also myself.
The day I wrote the poem, the internet was down all day. While I enjoyed reading on the porch during my lunch break--a time that I usually spend writing emails and wasting time online--I also found myself going crazy by about 3:30. As I edited my articles, I missed the convenience of dictionary.com and even--gasp!--wikipedia (which, I might add, contains facts far more reliable than those of many of the articles I am given!); furthermore, I discovered--by their lack--how many breaks I must really take throughout my usual workday and how short my attention span has grown as a result. In fact, I was so bored, so unable to focus, that I resorted to writing sappy poetry.
This is where the self-mockery comes in: I have a self-professed loathing of modern technology.
"Technology," I often rant, "is the downfall of modern society. It is supposed to make life more convenient--but often complicates it. While modern technology enables us to communicate at the mere click of a mouse, it cheapens our relationships; furthermore, it takes away precious time from real relationships.....etc.....etc......(only slightly exaggerated)."
Well, I guess we are all hypocrites sometimes (or I would like to hope I am not the only one)--and this fact has provided me with considerable self-reflection during my already more-than-three-month stay in Ha Noi.
Ideals are great--surely the world would be in (even more) trouble if no one had any--but being here has made me realize how necessary it is to re-evaluate ideals, and maybe even change them, based on one's present context...
In other words: are there ever times when it is right to give up one's ideal for the sake of something else--like building a relationship?
Like making a goal to watch TV with my host sisters (instead of reading a book in my room) because it is one of the few things I can think to do with them, even though my general stance towards TV is that it is a useless and even negative device that is rendering our children incapable of creative thought...
Or, similarly, giving up a ticket to see "A Christmas Carol," at the opera house with my Western friends to watch "New Moon" at the Vincom Towers (i.e. the very Westernized Ha Noi version of a shopping mall) with my host sister and four of her 12-year-old friends...
Or going shopping with my host mom even though--aside from the fact that I hate shopping to begin with--I am disturbed by how much Western consumerism has already taken over in the 20 years since Viet Nam has opened its doors, and I try not to advocate it...
Don't get me wrong: I'm not advocating hypocrisy. Or giving up ideals because they are unpopular, old-fashioned, or "unrealistic"--I am a pacifist, after all.
Rather, I suppose I am warning against having ideals for ideal's sake alone. Because sometimes we unknowingly build walls with our ideals, or judge other people based on them, and forget that we are not called to judge others, or even to uphold ideals per se; we are called to love, and if our ideals inhibit that, then maybe they need to be re-considered.
Besides, even technology has its merits: I recently discovered a cool example of technology being used for a good cause (this good cause being more than my amusement when I need a break from poorly translated English): World Next Door.
And without it, you wouldn't be reading this right now (I'll leave it up to you to decide whether this is a benefit or a flaw.. ). :)
Thursday, we left early early early to head to a mountain outside Hanoi for an (overnight) MCC workshop. We, the ten or so MCC Vietnam people, met about forty people from our partner organizations. The workshop consisted of a hotel without heat; meetings focused on the topic of the environmental situation in Vietnam; a Vietnamese style "hike" (ie--on a paved trail, arm-in-arm with a Vietnamese woman, slow, and with lots of breaks) up to a pagoda; and of course some singing. It was nice to get a better idea of what MCC does and plans to do in the future, and to meet the people it works with!
The star of the workshop was, without a doubt, Derek's one-and-a-half-year-old son, Chase. Also known as the most adorable child alive (I know that those of you who know me might be startled by this comment, so I made sure to have this picture taken, just to increase the shock value). Chase and Lukas (Derek's other son) have given me hope, not for any maternal endeavors of my own, but for the possibility that I may be able to develop a greater appreciation for others' children. Encouraging, especially considering the rapid rate of engagement among my friends...
So, knowing that I'm going to forget some things, here's a glimpse of my week's excitement/adventure/..life:
-Taking the bus to work. Always an adventure. My family moved last weekend, and I am still deciding how I will get to work...this weekend was the bus experiement. It takes about an hour total, including about fifteen minutes of walking. Twice, I got lost and just got off the bus and took xe ôm (this is like a motorbike taxi. Pretty much any man who has a xe máy and decides to sit on a corner with an extra helmet, yelling obnoxiously at passers-by. Prices are negotiable... MCC does not encourage regular use of xe ôm, but sometimes you just gotta do it. I like to think of it as two-fold practice: Vietnamese and bargaining. I need lots of practice at both!).
-A day at work when my boss sent me four articles that were "urgent" and needed to be done by the end of the day. I'm not used to deadlines any more. It was quite a lot of pressure, but Hannah and I teamed up and tackled the job...
-Getting locked out of the house for a half hour after my morning run. Bà and Chị Hải went to the market. Yes, they knew I was out running. It was perfect shorts-and-a-long-sleeve running weather, but not perfect shorts-and-a-long-sleeve standing-around-in-front-of-the-gate-thinking-bad-words weather. So, I ran accross the street and begged the woman at the tea stand for a cup of chà xang nóng (hot tea) even though I didn't have any money. Another chance to practice Vietnamese...and see how fast I could get ready and bike to school (I exceeded my expectations and arrived a mere 3 minutes late!). And now I have a new friend who I get to wave to every time I leave the house!
-Teacher Day! Teachers are highly respected in Vietnamese culture, and on this occasion, they get lots of gifts and a few days off. On Thursday, Ali and I took our amazing teacher, Co Giang out for coffee to celebrate. We even documented the occasion.
-A WALK WITH MY HOST SISTERS! Seriously, trying to get them to do any remote form of exercise is like pulling all their teeth. But, they had two days off school for Teacher's Day, had slept till eleven that morning, nothing good was on TV (we found out later), the new neighborhood is nicer for walking, and they were bribed with money to buy snacks on the way. Or maybe they are sick of their weight-loss tea, I don't know. Anyways, I thought I would be doing well to get them to go for 15 minutes, but they wanted to keep going! I think we might have walked (slowly, yeah, but whatever) for 45 minutes! It was actually quite fun.
-Supper out at "Hot Rock Cafe" in honor of Bà, a former teacher. The restaurant was the most American one I have yet been to. They didn't even bother giving us chopsticks; I felt very clumsy with my knife and fork. I ate pizza, pasta, and garlic bread...I was very happy. Its funny because I don't really think about missing American food, but eating it that night reminded me of home (until...I was greatly amused by the fact that, after we finished stuffing ourselves with all this foreign food, Chú Hùng ordered a plate of fried rice...I had no trouble passing this up, but apparently he just can't feel full without rice, no matter how much other food he eats). Also, I felt at home with my family. I genuinely had a good time and didn't feel super awkward. I got into bed that night thinking, "I like my family!"
-Coat shopping with Cô Vân. The weather went from really hot to really cold--literally overnight. And I realized that I did not bring enough warm clothing. So on Saturday, Cô Vân took me out shopping for pretty much the entire day. Shopping is even more frustrating for me here than it is at home (yeah, who would have thought it could get worse?!) because I am about a foot taller than everyone. However, it was a great opportunity to hang out with my host mom, to ride xe máy (always a treat), and to sample some new street food, namely: Bún Ốc (breakfast noodle soup with snails) and Bánh Trôi (hot, sweet soup with sesame-and-coconut-filled rice dumplings--perfect for a cold day!!!).
-Sunday lunch by the lake. After church yesterday we strayed from our usual Indian fare, instead taking advantage of the beautiful weather and enjoying lảu (hot pot) while sitting on mats on the ground at the edge of the lake. Lảu is a meal that takes a long time and encourages loitering and conversation, so loiter and converse we did...
Ended up being what I guess I would call a good week (although I try not to rate everything in my head all the time, because I do that a lot here and usually end up frustrated), but crazy. I feel so much busier these days--so much so that one of my aunts assumed I must have a boyfriend now because I "đi chơi (go play)" so much. The business is a spectacular change from the boredom I felt when I first came here, but also accounts for the piling in my inbox (Sorry!)
I was impressed with myself because, especially early in the week, there were a few things that could have been really frustrating (and were) and that I would have expected myself to dissolve into tears about (given my tendency to cry not when I'm sad but when I'm frustrated). However, I found my self frustrated-and-laughing instead of frustrated-and-crying; I think/hope I'm getting better at relaxing and not worrying so much. I also think/hope that, when I return to the States, I will use the word "inconvenient" far less often...
As my tea-bag tag told me the other day at an appropriate moment, Happiness is taking things as they are.
I have never really understood why people think motorcycles are so great. Or why you would seriously consider buying one. I think I always thought it was a macho guy thing...
...but now I get it.
This weekend I escaped the fumes, noise, and crowds of Ha Noi to the idyllic village of Mai Chau (idyllic being a loose term, considering its touristy nature). My church organized a group trip to this White Thai (Viet Nam ethinc minority) village in the mountains a few hours from Ha Noi. Most of the group (about 35 people) took a tour bus to Mai Chau, but some of us resigned ourselves to having sore butts and decided to ride xe may (motorbike) there instead. I fully expected to enjoy riding xe may for the first couple hours, then to be sick of it, but actually, I think the rides there and back were my favorite parts of the trip!
At Mai Chau, the group did "home-stay." We slept on the floors of a couple of traditional stilt houses, draped with mosquito nets, and a family cooked for us. Other highlights included making it all the way to the top of the longest flight of stairs I have ever climbed that went right up the side of a mountain, talking with various people from church, and even playing a game of Euchre.
Sunday morning, a few of us explored a cave where wise, gentle Ho Chi Minh planned a famous epic battle (so famous that I can't remember the name of it). It was the type of place that, at home, you would have to pay a guide to take you through, and even then, you probably wouldn't get to see the best parts. We, on the other hand, just walked into pitch blackness with a couple of very questionable flashlights....it was spectacular!
After flying back over the mountain, we...took a detour, let's say, on our way back to Ha Noi--a two-hour detour. So the five hour trip took us seven, but it was totally worth it. We ended up on a much smaller (much rougher) road that wound through the countryside. I saw a completely random, gorgeous cathedral on top of a mountain, about a million ornery-looking water buffalo, continuous National Geographic views, and a bunch of kids who waved wildly as we passed. Trying to describe all this really makes me wish I was a better picture-taker (as in, makes me wish I actually took pictures--ever).
It's not that easy to talk while riding xe may, so, though Joel and I had some great conversation and I soaked in the scenery a lot, I also had quite a bit of time to think. As we flew down the mountains I thought about my homesickness, about how some days I wish I was in Chicago or somewhere like that, with a normal job, hanging out with my friends every weekend, going to watch the Chicago Marathon, dancing at the Radpad Halloween party...I thought about the moments when, even though I know deep down that Viet Nam is where I'm supposed to be, I don't actually feel that way at all...and at one moment I thought, very clearly, I'm in Viet Nam, flying down a mountain on a motorbike, with people who aren't my best friends, but who are pretty cool. This is the life. Why would I want to be anywhere else?
Well, I guess I've come back down a bit from that high by now (Mondays will do that to you), and I can think of a few reasons I might want to be elsewhere. But even though I arrived home tired, sore, caked in dirt, with lungs probably half-full of soot, smog, dirt, and all kinds of nastiness, I didn't regret the trip--or the detour--in the slightest. And even though every day isn't a trip to Mai Chau, I'm moving on Saturday, I find living with a host family stressful most days, I still can't figure out how to dress for the weather, I still can't ask a question in Vietnamese without raising my tone at the end, the article at work is translated horribly, I still almost cry every time I look at cross country results, my friends at home are getting engaged and/or moving on with life without me, and I sometimes don't even feel like myself...
What am I complaining about? It's not like I thought it would be easy. Moreover,...
I'm in Viet Nam. And I'm glad I came.
Get up at 5:30. Run to tennis court (don't be impressed--it takes about 5 minutes). Alternate playing tennis and watching Cô Vân and Chú Hùng play until 7:00. Run home.
Eat breakfast, provided by Chị Hải (house helper) or Bà (Grandma). While sometimes I wish I could just make my own breakfast, I usually enjoy being surprised each morning (the last three days, breakfast has included corn-on-the-cob. Why not? I don't mind.)
Ride bike about 25 minutes to Thế Giới Publishers. Change from sweaty biking clothes to professional work clothes.
Edit English translations, with occasional breaks for chatting with Hannah or drinking coffee at the cafe next door.
Lunch at Thế Giới canteen.
Nap/Rest time. Yeah, we even have fold-out cots!
Supper with the family.
Leave at about 7:45 for the 40 min bike ride to school.
Morning: Vietnamese class with Alicia and our teacher, Cô Giang. We have a book that we use for about half of the 3-hour session. For the other half we maunder through various subjects using what I like to call "Vinglish." Boyfriends are a hot topic; Twilight came up once, as did American Girl Dolls; Cô Giang often recommends the best places to eat phở and mỳ vằn than, and informs us which Friday of the month is the ice cream buffet at Fanny's (on my list of things to do before I leave Hà Nội)!!
Lunch at MCC Office.
Work at Thế Giới in the afternoon.
Ditto Monday, minus the tennis.
Also, after supper I go to Bible Study at the home of a family from church.
Early-morning tennis, then ditto Tuesday.
Morning at MCC Office: This is a time for me do things that I need to do (ie--financial reports, check email, write blog entries for you...) and build relationships at the office. Last Friday I went with Cô Thu, the MCC cook, to the market to buy food for lunch. I loved it! It reminded me of going to the farmers' market in Grand Rapids, except for the raw meat being carved up all around and the live snakes, fish, and caterpillars wriggling around in their tubs of water...
Lunch at MCC.
About half the time I go home after class. Other times I meet friends at the Bia Hơi across the street for cheap, good food and entertainment (this is the site of the rat incident I mentioned in a previous entry).
At first, this was my least favorite day of the week. My whole family is gone most of the day (my sisters have school), and I pretty much sat around the house. I discovered that too much inactivity leads Calah to too many longing thoughts of home and to what I guess might be called...homesickness? So now I try to fill up at least half of my day. Examples:
-Last Saturday Derek and Ana invited Hannah, Ali, Joel, and me over for an evening of gluttony and card games--it was glorious.
-Often I bike along my favorite road, a very scenic and--for Hà Nội--quiet one next to West Lake. It is home to a plethora of cafes, so I usually pick one and get my whole less-than-a-dollar coffee's worth by sitting and reading for hours.
-One Saturday, I headed downtown and met Alicia to peruse various hotels in preparation for our parents' upcoming visits. Then we met Hannah for delicious bowls of my favorite kind of Vietnamese soup, got ice cream, looked around the shops. Good times.
-I recently discovered a running club that meets on Saturday afternoons. I have only gone once so far, but this may become a regular addition to my Saturday schedule.
Sleep in (for me) or go for a run.
Eat lunch with friends from church--usually at Foodshop 45, a great Indian restaurant close to church (and my house)--unless my family is having a special extended-family lunch, which they often do on Sundays.
Participate in the last half hour of my sisters' 3-hour English lesson in the evening. Their tutor usually gives us a topic to discuss in English. Then my sisters write short essays in English while I write one in Vietnamese.
So, there you have it: A small glimpse of my typical week in Việt Nam. Of course, my schedule may change considerably when:
1) my family moves (on Saturday!).
2) my Vietnamese classes decrease to once weekly I begin working 4 full days a week at Thế Giới.
However, I seem to be falling behind in Vietnamese class, and we all know how competitive I am...
The latest of my attempts was tonight at supper when I informed Co Van--in Vietnamese--that "Tomorrow...I go...eat breakfast...with Hannah and..mom...Hannah. I go play tennis...but I go home at.........6 (hours)...........4......5 (minutes)." Whew.
Co Van--after clarifying a few details--said ok.
THEN she said, "Your Vietnamese is better." !!!!!!! (these are my added exclamation points. Vietnamese tend to speak English with quite a flat affect because of the language's lack of tonal-ness. Similarly, I have not yet figured out how to express any emotion in Vietnamese without saying something completely different than I intend.)
Outside, I smiled and said, "I hope so!"
Inside, I jumped around with joy.
The other Sunday we had an extended-family lunch in honor of Chu Hung's father's death anniversary. I purposely positioned myself next to the younger of my two sisters, Nga, intending to make a point to converse with her. My first question was about whether she thought her cousin and his girlfriend will get married soon (I really want to go to a wedding while I'm here). My second question: "Why do random people come to look at our house sometimes?"
It was something I had been wondering for a while. One time the following thought crossed my mind: "Its like our house is for sale or something." But I immediatly rejected this half-formed idea with another, "It can't be. Surely I would know about that."
I learned how wrong I was when Nga responded with, "We sell the house." Obviously, her tone seemed to add, quite helpfully. After I managed to close my gaping mouth, I gleaned as much information as I could...Moving. In about a month. Clearly.
I've learned a bit more since then. My family is planning to buy land and build a house (a bigger, nicer one, apparently). Until then, they will rent a house on the other side of West Lake. I have heard that we will move by November 15, but I haven't noticed any preparations unless you count buying a new car. I'm interested to see what the Vietnamese process of moving will look like.
The anticipated move has one particular perk--It will put me much closer to the homes of Ali and Hannah. However, it also means a longer bike ride to work at The Gioi Publishers, as well re-settling into a new place and routine. But it's ok--those of you who know me well know that I am excellent at dealing with change. (And those of you who don't know me so well but have been reading this blog are probably learning to detect my always-subtle sarcasm)
If nothing else, I expect that I will gain a few interesting stories and extensive knowledge of the roads in another part of Hanoi. And I will have learned to make less assumptions about the sort of information that families necessarily tell each other.
I think I may have had a breakthrough in the area of relating to my teenage sister with whom I struggle to feel that I have anything in common with. At. All.
Last week I was still lounging around the house in the wake of dengue fever. I anticipated being bored out of my mind--and often was--but managed a few preventative measures that made the week bearable....
...like baking chocolate chip cookies! I made them to take to Bible Study and, as an afterthought, invited my sister, Quynh to "help" me.
There are a few things that make baking chocolate chip cookies in Viet Nam--baking anything actually--more of an adventure than at home.
1) It is difficult to find even the most basic and essential ingredients. I went to a large supermarket close to my house that, being in a touristy area, I assumed would have at least some of the ingredients I needed. You would think I've been in Viet Nam long enough to not make such silly assumptions. They did have white sugar there (of course!), which my family already has anyways. And butter. However, even after searching aisles full of pre-packaged cookies and cakes--all of which are made of flour!--I failed to find a bag of flour. So, I took a trip to a little "foreigner grocery store" where I tried to read labels in a variety of languages I didn't know (like German) and to discern whether I was buying flour or something very different that closely resembled it. All that being said--I managed to find everything I needed.
2) The ingredients are very expensive, as one might guess considering their rarity. There goes my month's spending money...
3) My family does not have measuring cups...oh well, guesstimation is my favorite method, anyways.
4) Last, but most certainly not least--like most Vietnamese kitchens, ours does not have an oven. This is still very strange to me, although it actually makes a lot of sense considering that Vietnamese really don't bake. Ever. Solution? The toaster oven!
After impatiently waiting for Quynh to finish her "extra" class before we could make cookies--and even regretting that I had invited her to join--I was so glad that I had waited.
She loved it.
Quynh was not a good batter stir-er at all, and I could have made the cookies much more easily without her "help." But it was worth it to hear her squeal. Yes, squeal. She showed far more emotion over those cookies than I have seen her show about anything in the month and a half that I've known her.
The best word I can think of to describe what this experience was for me (and what I hope it was for her) is humanizing. Prior to this, I just could not find anything that I had in common with Quynh; thus, even though I wanted to make an effort to get to know her, I was at a complete loss as to how to do so. Now I know that, if nothing else, we both love chocolate chip cookies. And that this 15-year-old girl has feelings. Moreover, having experienced this connection once makes me want to find other ways to encourage its repetition.
Everyone knows that chocolate chip cookies are delicious and fun to make, but who ever knew their potential?
If Obama really did decide to send more troops to Afghanistan but armed them with chocolate chips instead of guns (or whatever they use to kill people these days) and planned a cookie-making party instead of an ambush, then, if such decisions were mine to make, I would award him the Nobel Peace Prize...
But since even I recognize the idealism of the above scenerio, I'll just keep looking for ways to remind myself that my sisters aren't as different from me as I usually think and--I hope--show them that I'm not as intimidating as I (apparently) look.
I commented on some of them for you all so you might have some idea of what you're looking at.
Vietnamese Morning Exercise Video Clip
Anyway, I took some pictures of this--probably one of the most beautiful areas of Hanoi. (And added comments) Enjoy!
The ice cream shop on the road between the lakes.
My favorite restaurant in Hanoi!!! Foodshop 45, home of amazing Indian food for a very reasonable price. And they deliver (for free!). Although I usually prefer to get out of the house and sit on the cool cushions on the floor...
View from the coffee shop where I enjoyed a yogurt coffee.
Where I turn to go to my house.
And if you happen to have dengue fever, you may leave said clinic with terribly ugly, bright red, spotted, itchy feet and legs...yet another reason to stay away.
If you have been wondering about my lack of blog posts and have not heard rumors from an alternate source..., last Thursday I developed a mystery fever that turned out to be Dengue Fever and culminated in a two-day, two-night stay in the clinic with an IV stuck in my arm. Not my favorite part of my Vietnamese experience as of yet, but an experience worth telling about nonetheless.
While the clinic could hardly be commended for its stellar selection of TV channels (STAR Movies played Shallow Hal not once, but twice! but nothing else particularly desireable) or for the small child screaming in the next room, it did have a few saving graces, namely:
-the fact that I was able to choose whatever I wanted to eat, something I am rapidly growing to appreciate. However, even this was less than pleasant considering that I had absolutely no appetite.
-the gracious visits of my friends, who bore me many gifts (including more oranges than I could ever hope to eat and beautiful lilies in an aluminum keg from Bia Hoi 38!)...I even had the priviledge of entertaining my MCC Country Rep, something I have heard is a great privilege not to be taken lightly.
-the medical care. It was quite good, I think, this being the first time I remember ever staying in the hospital overnight.
-also, the attractive French nurse was an added bonus. Unfortunately, I wasn't looking my best, so he didn't even ask for my phone number. I guess he doesn't go for the red, spotted type, with strangely sticking-up hair. That's what I'll tell myself, anyways, in order to keep my spirits up...
I was discharged on Thursday and have not had a fever since. However, I am not supposed to work for a week and am thus in the process of going slowly--no, I shouldn't even lie--rapidly crazy from boredom. When I went to the clinic for my check-up yesterday, I told the doctor that I could not take a whole week off because I am very bored. His response? "Good! You should be bored! That is your job--to be as bored as possible. It will help you get better faster!" I replied, "At the end of the week I will have to come back to the clinic for a new problem--I will no longer have a fever; instead, you will have to treat me for psychosis."
No pity. Just laughter.
The biggest lesson I have learned through this experience is that, in Vietnam, sickness--nay! feelings of bloating, nasea, and temperatures of 39+C--none of these symptoms constitude a valid excuse to skip a meal. Actually, I have yet to find any valid excuse to skip any meal. Moreover, the idea that eating (or the smells associated with the act) might make one feel EVEN MORE SICK appears to be a foriegn concept....
Thanks so very much to all of you who have written me emails during this time!! It has actually been quite a trying time for me (being locked up and unable to sleep in a clinic room in a foriegn country may lead to silly tears, not that I would know), and I have really, really, really appreciated everyone's notes of encouragement, and have, I am sure, felt all your thoughts and prayers!!
My own personal prayer for you all in return--avoid mosquitoes (especially the daytime variety) at all costs!!!
It isn't about me at all, but might give you a better understanding about the SALT program and what it's all about.
We caused quite a commotion when we left the restaurant--all the servers waved us off, saying, "See you later!" and watched us walk down the street.
This (Sunday) afternoon, Anh Vang (my father-figure) invites me into the living room to watch TV with him. Sure, why not?
I sit down to observe his TV tastes--VERY LOUD salsa dancing. He is sitting on the floor, organizing the family's collection of DVDs. Chooses one and puts it in, starts it, turns the volume up, leaves. So I sit, by myself in this very trendy room in VIET NAM watching none other than "VH1 Divas Live in Las Vegas." Featuring Celine Dion, Cher, the Dixie Chicks, Shakira, Anastasia. All in ridiculous outfits, of course. Beginning with a rendition of ACDC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" by Celine Dion and Anastasia.
So I sat there. I watched the whole thing. Laughed a lot. I may have sang along to a few select songs. And the whole time I was thinking, What am I doing here?!
Yeah, "sometimes I fill like a figment of my own imagination."
My family consists of Grandma (Ba), uncle/"older brother"/dad (Anh --), aunt/"older sister"/mom (Co Van), and two younger sisters, 12/13 and 14/15 years old (Vietnamese add a year to their ages...). One of my sisters is obsessed with Michael Jackson, the other with Miley Cyrus--clearly we have lots in common. The other night I watched (a terrible quality DVD) Twilight with my younger sister. She was shocked that I had not yet seen it, particularly since she had already seen it at least three times. I have a funny suspicion that I may learn more about American pop culture here in Viet Nam than I knew previously, having lived a somewhat pop culture-deprived life up till this point.
Co Van and my sisters speak English quite well, which has been very nice but could be a little too easy and potentially interfere with learning Vietnamese.
The house is quite nice, other than its lack of toilet paper (I have now rectified this situation). I have my own room, which is complete with a brand-new, matching, bright pink sheet set; a baby blue curtain; a pastel-colored windchime hanging in the middle of the doorway that I hit my head on every time; and, of course, a few christmas decorations for good measure.
My favorite thing about the location of my new house is that it is on the edge of Ha Noi; thus, it is in a relatively quiet neighborhood (other than the nearby construction that sounds, to me, like someone is pouring an endless bowl of lead cereal in the kitchen). Furthermore, it is close to fields, something I had forgotten the existence of since coming to Ha Noi! I have a had a few nice runs on the road next to the fields, where there is minimal traffic and less than half as many staring, "hallo!"-yelling people. In addition, I feel like I can breathe; apparently I can handle the smell of manure much better than that of bus fumes, cigarette smoke, and general pollution.
The downside to my location is that it is very far from everything except church. It's about a 25-minute bike ride to The Gioi, and about 40 minutes to school/MCC. Guess I'll be getting my exercize, which is great considering my family always seems to think that either
a) I cannot pick up food items with my chopsticks or
b)I am too shy to eat as much as my giantish stature requires;
therefore, they feel the need to pick up food items with their chopsticks and deposit them in my bowl, to try to convince me to take another heaping bowl of rice, and to buy me random pastries.
My favorite thing so far is seeing what's for breakfast. Ba prepares this meal for me, and so far I have had something different every morning: eggs, floating in oil, and a loaf of french bread; some kind of pastry with meat and tiny hardboiled eggs inside; grilled ground-meat sandwiches on very square, very white bread; milk from paper pouches--you name it.
So far, I have spent a lot of time here being, well...bored. My sisters seem to go to school/do homework pretty much all the time. I feel constantly torn between not wanting to seclude myself in my room, but not really knowing what else to do with myself. It is a challenge to be in a place where I do not know exactly what my place is; it is difficult to play a role when I do not know my lines.
However, it is a relief to be finally rid of the suitcases I have been living out of for the past month and a half. And even though I do not yet know what my role in this household is going to be, now that I am here I can at least begin the long process of discovering it.
The whole idea struck me as funny--I don't know a whole lot of companies that load up 60ish people into two charter buses, hire two tourguides, and go up to a park/resort in the mountains for a day.
This trip was fun, though overwhelming:
1. It was a relief for this country girl to get out of the city, even if only for a day. The mountains are beautiful. We walked up to a waterfall--also very nice.
2. The bus-ride to our destination was hilarious. The tourguide on our bus was very high-energy and started a singing competition in which we were supposed to think of songs with a particular word in them (and sing them, of course). People who either couldn't do this, or sang songs with the wrong word had to pay a small fee....it will be shocking to those of you who know anything about my singing abilities to know that I did participate (with Ali and under extreme pressure) in the competition (maybe less suprising to those of you who have witnessed displays of my competitive nature). Everyone especially liked our rendition of "You Are My Sunshine."
3. This was my first time being around people who spoke primarily Vietnamese for that long. It was overwhelming and exhausting. Also a bit discouraging as when I did try some Vietnamese, the victim of my attempt didn't have the faintest idea what I was trying to say. On the brighter side, I recognized numbers when the tourguide counted down to the end of the bus competition.
Ali and I responded to the fun but strange day by returning to Derek's and making ourselves some good ol' (gourmet) grilled cheese.
Hopefully looking at these pictures will give you a glimpse of what my new life actually looks like (something that I have been receiving lots of questions about in emails).
...Today I (and everyone else) have the day off work because it is a National Holiday (Independence Day). Last night Ana, Ali, Derek, and I stayed up far too late playing a card game they taught me (yay for learning new games!) called "Hand and Foot." So I slept quite late this morning, then sampled a Vietnamese delicacy that Ana brought home for me: A hard-boiled duck egg, complete with bones and feathers. Ana was impressed with me. She said she has never seen a foriegner--particularly an American--eat a whole duck egg! It wasn't bad--I would probably eat another one... (Sorry Arkus!)
On Friday, Ali and I had our first long-anticipated day of language school. We are our class of two, and our teacher wears lots of glitter and laughs a lot. The laughter is interesting...sometimes it means that I've said something correctly (I think), and sometimes it clearly means that I've screwed something up.
Friday we mostly worked on pronunciation. So, basically, we we re-learned the ABCs. Except that in Vietnamese, the letters do not sound at all the way I think they should. Actually, most of them sound remarkably similar to each other. For example, "gi," "d," and "r" all make the "z" sound. Once we had all the letters down(ish), we started learning the tones. Vietnamese has 6 tones, which are indicated by markings above and below the vowels. The three-hour lesson was, to put it in a nutshell, overwhelming. However, I did have one small victory:
During our break, I went downstairs to get some coffee. The women in the kitchen asked me what I wanted, whether I wanted it hot or cold, and whether I wanted sugar. I shook my head to the sugar, but then I had a brilliant idea! "Sua!" I said (this is the word for milk, minus the marks that go above it that I don't know how to make on my computer. We had just learned this word). They all looked shocked, then burst out laughing--which, I'm beginning to be convinced, can only be a good thing.
It's amazing how exhausted I was after our three-hour session. I thought I would be really gung-ho about studying after that; rather, I felt like I never wanted to hear Vietnamese again in my life. I should recover before Tuesday, I expect, and hopefully even manage to prod myself into studying a bit!..
For now, though, I will go continue making peanut butter cookies (special request of Derek's). And maybe I will dunk them in sua.
So, I was riding my beautiful, afore mentioned bike home from work, following Hannah as closely as possible (as I do not yet know the way home on my own) through the curb-to-curb traffic at rush hour and I noticed that my bike petal seemed more wobbly than usual. I considered the fact that my bike is not exactly up to Lance Armstrong-standard, and that I frequently wonder if it will all come clattering apart around me when I ride over particularly brutal pot holes and decided that it was probably nothing to worry about. However, when a few stoplights later the wobbling had worsened considerably, I yelled at Hannah and pulled over. I said, "my bike petal feels weird," leaned down to examine it, pushed it ever so slightly...and it fell off.
The bike repairman's wife offered me this very helpful stool to sit on as I waited. I'm sure it must have been highly entertaining to observe my attempts to sit on and rise from the stool, although it was actually suprisingly comfortable once I got down there.
End of story: I'm very glad Hannah was with me. We made it home just fine, supper was waiting, and there was pineapple for dessert. That's happily ever after if there ever was such a thing.
Yesterday I was given my own bike. This will most likely be my primary method of transportation around Ha Noi. Here I am before my first bike trip. I was dressed a bit inappropriately, so I had to adjust...but I look pretty much ridiculous no matter how well prepared I am for an excursion.
The primary rule for biking in traffic is as follows: don't pay attention to anything behind you; your only concern is what is going on in front of you.
Other rules I have picked up on in my day of experience:
-it is only sometimes mandatory to stop at red lights
-if you are a smaller vehicle, squeeze into any space possible
-use your horn as often as possible
-if you don't have very far to go, you might as well ride against traffic if that's the side your turn is on
-if you have to stop, try to stop in shade
Anyways. today Ali and I biked--all by ourselves!--to get our second installment of the Japanese something-or-another vaccine. Then, we went downtown to explore, with the intention of returning to the MCC office for lunch.
We left downtown with a whole hour to spare (a journey that I would estimate to take 30 minutes by an experienced Hanoian cyclist). Long story short, we were 15 minutes late for lunch. We got there, we just have no idea how. Doesn't help there is no such thing as straight, parallel, or perpendicular as far as Ha Noi roads are concerned.
However, getting lost really wasn't such a bad thing; we now recognize a few streets we did not know before.
I went out at 6:30 this morning (sidenote: I actually managed to sleep for 8 hours straight last night!) and, as Derek put it, there was "hardly anyone out." This made me laugh as I dodged through traffic--as a country girl whose biggest city of residence has been Grand Rapids, I am continually amazed by the sheer number of people. All the time.
However, I thoroghly enjoyed my run this morning. I actually like crossing the streets here. As a runner, it is very sensible to me--its the way I try to cross streets at home. There, however, I scare the drivers to death; here, they dodge me (or honk), I dodge them, it works very smoothly.
One thing I did notice, however, was the many low-hanging branches. And the low-slung tarps (people stretch these over their food stands by the side of the street, and groups of men sit under them for hours in the middle of the day, smoking and drinking coffee). I nearly got clothes-lined multiple times. I attracted many stares, and a few comments, even a thumbs-up from a little old man.
All in all, it felt good to go out and make it back all by myself. I think it is these kinds of little confidence-boosters that will make all the difference here.
Alicia and I have been spending our mornings this week being, essentially, tourists. We have gone to points of interest throughout the city, learning as we do so about the various forms of transportation that we will use throughout the coming year (so far, walking is my favorite).
We have two of the best tourguides possible for our situation--Chi Ouah and Hannah. Chi Ouah (prounounced like "wine" with a "g" at the end. Chi is a form of address used for someone older than myself, but younger than my parents...i think.) is the receptionist at the MCC office. She is quite knowledgeable about everything from the Temple of Literature's construction date to which taxis are real and which are fake to which kind of ice cream is the best (!). She speaks English quite well and is also very sweet. Hannah is one of last year's SALTers who is back for another year. She works at The Gioi (where I will work) and at the MCC. She speaks Vietnamese quite well (was actually on a Vietnamese talk show this spring!) and is the perfect person to answer Alicia and my many questions. Hannah also happens to be a Calvin grad.
So, Tuesday we visited the Temple of Literature, built (the first time) in 1070:
Wednesday was Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, house, and museum. As we walked past his body, I was reprimanded by a soldier for holding my hands behind my back. By doing this, I apparently implied that I held a position of authority over Ho Chi Minh, which I clearly do not. Walking demurely with my hands held at my sides was deemed much more respectful. Something I thought was interesting about this visit was that, although there was a magnificent palace on the grounds, Ho Chi Minh chose to live in a small stilt house because he wanted to put himself on the level of his subjects.
Thursday we went to the Museum of Ethnology, where we learned about the many different ethnic groups of Viet Nam and toured replicas of their traditional dwellings.
Today we are going to explore downtown, around "The Lake" and the old French Quarter. In the afternoon we are going to a water puppet production.
After our sight-seeing excursions, we arrive to the MCC office in time to partake in the communal lunch prepared by the office cook. These communal meals are one of my favorite things so far: we each get a bowl of rice, and then grab with our chopsticks from the various dishes of meat, beansprout salads, fried peanuts, etc. that reside in the center of the table. Passing dishes is rare, as are, apparently, germs. I love this; it coinsides so well with my anti-germaphobic outlook on life (hopefully this attitude won't get me in trouble when I want to buy food from street vendors). After every meal, we sit around and eat fruit of new and exotic varieties: dragonfruit, jackfruit, asian pears, the one-I-can't-remember-the-name-of that I call "eye-ball fruit."
We spend the afternoons in Derek's gloriously air-conditioned office doing orientation--talking about some logistics of our new life and of MCC Viet Nam, about the tensison between attempting to adjust and to be culturally sensitive--to fit in--and the fact that we will always, no matter how well we learn to speak Vietnamese or navigate traffic, stick out. Essentially, even after this week of planned tourist activities is over, I will still be a tourist, something that still rubs me the wrong way, but to which I will just have to concede defeat.