humbled by a mango

Sometimes I am not sure why I am in Viet Nam; other times, however, it is perfectly clear: I have come to Viet Nam for a long, painful lesson in humility.

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.

pretty much perfect

Monday night I arrived back from a quick, busy, crazy vacation with my parents that was just about as perfect as it could have been. They were, as I anticipated in my last entry, the most appropriate Christmas present I could have received, and the trip was a much-needed break. Now, its back to normal life in Ha Noi--with a greater appreciation for how incredible it is that I have started calling this "normal."

I plan to write a detailed entry about our trip, but have decided to wait until I have uploaded some pictures--hopefully soon!



The obvious remark I will make, and that I'm sure you're expecting, is that being stripped of many of my favorite parts of Christmas has given me time to reflect on what Christmas is really about. This is in line with my frustrations before coming to Viet Nam about how often the true meaning of Christmas often gets lost in the consumerism and busyness of the season.

Yet, to be entirely honest, any extra thinking about the true meaning of Christmas has been forced. Most of the time I just forget that it's even Christmastime. So, this has brought me, yet again, to another realization about my ideals.

While I still think that America's version of Christmas has gone off the consumerist deep-end, I have come to a greater appreciation of all the little--and yes, often "meaningless" at the most basic level--traditions that make Christmas what we know it to be. Just as we celebrate birthdays in order to make our loved ones realize how special they are--as well as to selfishly indulge our love of cake and ice cream (or mostly just the ice cream)--it is right for us to celebrate Jesus' birth, even if some of our methods are a bit selfish. The important thing is that the traditions and celebrations do indeed serve to remind us of what his birth means.

And sure, we always say that, but is that really what our celebrations remind us of? Well, the things I miss about Christmas are not so much the things--or if they are, I think what I really miss is what the things represent to me: People. Family. Friends. Community. Knowing that I am loved.

I think I thought it was wrong to miss these things...but really, there can't be anything better to miss, can there? For wasn't Jesus' birth (as a necessary step towards his death) really the ultimate sign that we are loved--by none other than our creator? And shouldn't our right response to that love be to extend it to others? And isn't the way Jesus taught us to remember him the act of gathering together to eat?

Thus, my biggest reminders of Christmas in the past few weeks have not been the plethora of tacky decorations on the shop windows. Rather, they have been some times of gathering--whether expressly for the purpose of celebrating Christmas or not--together
with the people I have grown to love here in Ha Noi.

The engagement party I wrote about in my previous post actually made me think of Christmas, because it was a big family gathering. And everyone clearly enjoyed being together so much--aren't most events like that really just an excuse to be together?

The other night I had a great meal with my host family. Nothing special, but it was one of the times when I felt a bit less invisible sitting at the table.

Sunday, we had a Christmas potluck after church. It was fabulous, really. Chocolate cheesecake. Need I say more?

And last Wednesday we had a Christmas party at small group, which included a "White Elephant" gift exchange. If you're wondering if I have changed completely during my time thus far in Ha Noi, note the expression of glee that a box of chocolate still brings to my face, and wonder no longer...

However, much as I love these guys ^, I still miss all of you.

Which brings me to the thing that is making Christmas feel most like Christmas...

MY PARENTS, quite possibly the best Christmas present ever, flying toward me even as I write this!

Can you really blame me for struggling to focus on editing the bio of a dead Vietnamese author?



ao dai and an hoi with a liberal sprinkling of glitter.

A couple of interesting events this week:

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.


sometimes insomnia is a great way to start to the day.

I slept terribly last night. I had a pretty rough week last week (for multiple reasons, nothing terrible, don't worry!) and now I have all these thoughts and emotions and this random excess energy roiling around inside, and for someone prone to insomnia that usually gives you...insomnia.

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.


a love poem, or how ideals are...well, idealistic.

The other day I wrote the following poem at work:

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
Explanations abound—
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.. ). :)