Well, just like many of my friends back in the States, I too am back to school once again! Well, maybe not just like them...

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.


an eventful ride home

Well, I started work today, and while that is something that I really should and really will tell you about sometime, and was actually intending to tell you about this time, I'm not going to..yet. Because I have been distracted by my very eventful ride home from work, and thought that, while work was great and everything, this ride home was far more humorous.

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.

After Hannah and I had laughed for a sufficient amount of time, we tried our hand at bike petal repair. We failed. But, as you might guess, my predicament drew quite a bit of attention (I mean to say--even more attention than I draw with every move I make). The above picture is of the kind gentlemen who helped me fix my bike (the first time) along with their really enormous pipe. They generously offered me some of whatever they were smoking, but I graciously declined. I felt especially good about this decision when I heard the horrendous cough of one of the men after he took a hit.

Anyways, after my petal was fixed, we continued on our way, until it once again began to wobble, we tried to push through, it wobbled more, etc. The second time the petal fell off, Hannah utilized her excellent Vietnamese to find a bike repair man on the sidewalk. I paid a mere 5,000 VND to have my petal fixed--hopefully for good this time.

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.


biking in ha noi: getting lost is the new found

The above picuture is an example of Ha Noi traffic, although I don't think it really does justice to the chaos, noise, fumes...

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.


milestone! (kilometer-stone?)

I went running all by myself this morning! This was actually the first time I have gone anywhere by myself so far. It was refreshing...especially considering the fact that it was pouring. It was the coolest I have been yet here in Ha Noi.

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.


being a tourist

I'm beginning day 5 of life in Hanoi early; it's 5am and I've been up for an hour because I can't sleep. Considering that I fell asleep, completely exhausted, at 8pm last night makes this not as bad as it sounds; nonetheless, it could be a long day--but one that I am excited about.

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:

rubbing turtle's head "for luck"

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.

by "The Lake"

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.

case in point: I am a giant.


xin chao, hanoi!

Well, I made it!

Alicia and I just arrived in Hanoi after 30 hours of travelling, tired and with swollen ankles, but happy. It is kind of surreal to actually be here after having thought about this day for so long.

Our long flight (from LA to TaiPai) was on one of those double decker planes! (I was really excited about this).

Now we are at Derek (the MCC Viet Nam program director and our boss) and his wife, Ana's house in Hanoi. We will be living with them, touring Hanoi and doing another orientation for a couple weeks before we move in with our host families.

view of Hanoi from the plane window
our excited "we are in viet nam!" faces


well, i guess we'll find out soon!

It is so strange to see that the date is August 15. This date has been on my calendar (or would have been if i was organized enough to keep such a thing) for months. I have been anticipating it, have worried, have been excited, have been scared to death about it...now, it is here. But before I go crazy about today, I should probably say a few words about this past week's orientation.

It has been at the same time very informative and totally vague, incredibly long and terribly fast moving, overwhelming, and fun. Mostly, though, it makes me ready to just GO.
Some highlights:

-Staying at the MCC "Welcoming Center" in Akron, PA; more specifically in the simple but lovely "Asia House," with the SALTers heading to Asia and the IVEP (a different program, kind of the inverse of SALT) participants who are from Asia and coming to stay in the US or Canada.

-Getting to know the IVEPers from Cambodia and Laos, learning about SE Asian culture from them, and laughing hysterically with them.

-Anticipating my upcoming adventure with other people who are getting ready to do the same thing.

-Meeting and getting to know Alicia, the other SALTer to Viet Nam. She will probably pop up on this blog fairly often.

-Meeting the suprising number of Calvin people here, most of whom I didn't know previously.

-The session on peacemaking given by Titus Peachey, who did lots of work toward removing unexploded cluster bombs from Laos (that were dropped there during the Viet Nam War), as well as petitioning for the US to stop producing these weapons.

-Eating homemade wheat bread with applebutter.
-Learning more about the MCC and what it does. It was particularly interesting to visit the MRC (Mennonite Resource Center), which combines recycling with relief efforts in very creative ways. For example, volunteers weave beautiful rugs out of old ties and jeans, which are sold and the money put toward the MCC's relief work abroad. On this note, I also got to try my hand at some quilting in the MRC's "quilt room." I have no idea if the ladies who work on the quilt next will rip out my inadequate stitches; regardless, it was a fun exercize in recalling my roots.

-Meeting the former MCC Viet Nam representatives tonight for dessert and hearing their glowing account of Viet Nam.

Less than amazing aspects (not to be negative but to give a balanced view of the week):

-Saying goodbye to previously-mentioned new Asian friends. :(

-Weighing suitcases and shifting items from one to another before re-weighing.

-Anticipation of a full 24 hours of travelling. (ok, I will admit, this is slightly exciting).

After that, who knows? Will I, the giant American make a complete fool of myself in my new culture? Probably. At least that is one thing that won't be new. With this expectation in mind, Alica and I taught ourselves our first Vietnamese word-- xin loi. Sorry.

Other than that, we have finished nearly every conversation this week with the conclusion, "I don't know. I guess we'll find out soon!"

Please keep Alicia and me and our fellow orientees in your prayers over the next few days as we disperse for various locations around the world.


a few firsts

The last few weeks have been full of firsts. First thought: great practice for millions of imminent firsts in Viet Nam, right? Or not, considering that most of them were very American. Second thought: setting myself up for even more culture shock than I am already bound to experience? Conclusion: Oh well. Its been a blast.

So here they are:

-at Little Eden: Bringing my own friends to Little Eden family camp in Onekema, MI. Also, kayaking, canoeing across Portage Lake, through the channel to Lake Michigan, swimming across the channel. Watching my 8 year old cousin receive a double "snack shop special" (kisses on the cheeks from the snack shop workers).

-In Grand Rapids area: Watching the sunset on the Holland, MI beach. 6-, 7-, and 8-mile runs (ok, not really firsts, but firsts for this summer).

-In the Chicago area: Riding my first roller coaster at Great America with Emily Arkus (documented with an amazing and amazingly over-priced picture), eating a chocolate cake shake (how had I never heard of this before?!), taking a boat tour of Chicago, going to the lounge on the 96th floor of the Hancock building at night.

on the boat tour

Chicago at night from the 96th floor! A little blurry, but still pretty (I think).

Emily and me imitating Bugs Bunny at Great America.

All in all it was a great trip, and I had the opportunity to stay with a number of amazingly hospitable people. It was enough to make me choke back my typical cynical remarks about America's failing levels of hospitality as I was made to feel completely welcome and comfortable, was allowed to lounge by the pool reading and catching up on the tan that I missed while I worked in the library all summer, was fed lots of amazing food, was lent a car, and was assisted in lugging my 50+ lb. suitcase in and out of cars and up and down staircases.

Funny thing I realized more fully though: It is kind of difficult to accept such generous hospitality. Sure, I unloaded a few dishwashers, but otherwise I was, as my friends back in Arizona would have put it "freeloading." And it made me feel guilty sometimes. But I also realized that hospitality has to go both ways. It is easy to talk about "loving our neighbors," and often in our affluent society, fairly easy to act on this ideal. But, at least for me, it is much harder to allow myself to be loved.

Similarly, for all that I am going to Viet Nam to "serve," I have a shrewd little feeling that I am going to take more away from this experience than I could ever hope to give. I will be the blundering, awkward rude American. I will have to ask for help, or more likely, ask for help to ask for help. And sometimes I will hate that. We just had a session at SALT orientation on Meyers-Briggs' personality types and the prayer of my "type" is as follows: "Lord, help me be less independent, but let me do it MY way."

Accepting hospitality can be humbling, I know that; that is not a first. But hopefully I can learn to accept it gracefully.

I wrote this post yesterday, and this morning in devotions we sang a familiar hymn--from a real hymnal, I might note--that expressed more succinctly (as other people's words often do) what I was trying to say earlier:

Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you? Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

Finally, a tribute to my father:

Actually this building didn't look that much like you, Poppy, except for the name. Very ritzy; I don't know if you would be allowed in with your ponytail. But I thought of you nonetheless.



...get it, please!

Given my absurd ineptitude regarding technology combined with my year-long concern that my laptop will die if I download anything else, I have been putting off downloading skype all summer. But tonight I succeeded in dragging myself through the process and in doing so discovered that...it's really not that difficult. In fact I would recommend that you all do it as well.

Of course, this recommendation is quite selfish on my part considering that this will be my only mode of speaking with any of you for the next year! Those of you who anticipate the luxury of cell phones throughout the coming year, downloading skype is probably not a pressing concern, but just think of it as your good deed for the..year.

So, once you have visited www.skype.com, please add me, calah.schlabach. Or let me know if you already have it. I would love to talk with you.