not my typical thanksgiving week

At the beginning of the week, I told Co Van that I wouldn't be home all week, and it turned out to be a valid warning.

Tuesday, I went to Hannah's house to celebrate her birthday with her host family. After stuffing ourselves with pizza, crispy-fried noodles, and watermelon (and coming to the conclusion that, yes, her uncle did just make a dirty joke in Vietnamese; guess my Vietnamese is better than I thought...)we went to the park near her house and I had my first experience with Vietnamese "dancercize."

Wednesday (Hannah's real birthday), we had a party for her at The Gioi in the morning. This was fun because our co-workers all seemed to be in goofy moods, and because I found myself understanding a surprising amoung of Vietnamese...that is, I was able to correctly translate my collegue's sketchy joke...(does it say something bad about me that the only Vietnamese I understand is the off-color jokes?) Then we headed to MCC for a lunch party...then we had a supper party with our friends from church and had an epic excursion out on the swan-shaped paddle boats (in Vietnamese they call them "duck boats.") before Bible study.

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...

I finished out the weekend with a spectacular Thanksgiving meal at the home of some very generous people from church. This was a nice touch of home (even though it was by far the fanciest Thanksgiving party I have ever been to). It is strange, and a little bittersweet, to think that it is now "the holiday season."However, before I know it, my parents will be here for a whirlwind Christmas visit!


happiness is taking things as they are...

Well. What a week! One where I have to just make myself write a post--realizing that I can't possibly write about it all--or I never will.
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.


fresh air

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.


weekly schedule

In response to various questions, I have decided that it might be helpful for me to write a brief overview of what a typical week looks like for me in Hà Nội.


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!

More editing.

Bike home.

Supper with the family.

Study Vietnamese/read/etc.


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.

Afternoon class.

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.


a glimpse of hope!...a.k.a. Calah needs more affirmation than she thinks she does.

I have been making an--in my opinion valient--attempt to speak more Vietnamese at home. This has been difficult for me not only because of my poor Vietnamese vocabulary, but also because Co Van and both my sisters speak English well enough that it is the default language they use to address me. While this has made my first two months easier in many ways, it doesn't help me learn to speak Vietnamese...especially when I have a sneaking suspicion that they would rather me speak in English because it is easier for them to understand than my poor Vietnamese is.

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.