Saturday, September 14, 2013

Some First Impressions

I made the mistake of not articulating many of my early impressions about South Korea. This time I want to make it right. If I wait too long these strange quirks begin to fade into normalcy. In no particular order, here are some observations I have made upon arriving in Vietnam. I am sure I will have more.

  • There are cards in the street. Most often, I'll see a joker card just lying in the street all alone. I think once I saw an ace of spades as well. That card, you might know, has some history in Vietnam. The U.S. Army used to drop the ace of spades from planes as part of a psi-ops campaign to demoralize the Vietnamese. They believed the Vietnamese thought they were bad luck, but there isn't much evidence to support that. Regardless, it was good for American morale. It's more likely that American troops saw the cards on the ground and thought they were discarded for being bad luck when instead they were thrown out because they were unnecessary in the games they were playing. Such is the case with the cards littering the ground today.

  • Koreans are beautiful. This is my fourth Asian nation and Koreans beat them all so far. Part of the reason is that people try really hard in Korea. For better or worse, in Seoul there is a high standard for beauty.

  • There is a smaller replica of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City. I'm not sure why, but then again, there is a replica of the Parthenon in Nashville. 

  • Crossing the street is insane at first glance. Traffic almost never stops. You have to just go for it. Take a step into the road and stare down the oncoming traffic. They will go around you as long as you move at a slow but steady pace. Don't try to pass in front of buses or taxis as they do not slow down.

  • Work and play are mixed here. This was the case in Korea as well, but here it is to a much greater extent. Most people live in their places of business, or they work from home depending on how you choose to look at it. The line is blurry. Business hours are hazy. Shop owners will sleep on the job until their dog barks to wake them up. Families will sit down for dinner at their own restaurant which is just in front of their beds. An apartment will double as an elastic band wholesale dealer. People work long hours with breaks interspersed throughout the day. The afternoon siesta is still practiced here. It's my feeling that this lifestyle is more traditional and perhaps a bit healthier in some ways. Families are together more hours of the day. Work seems less like work.

  • Food is cheap and delicious. In my old alleyway I could find a meal for under a dollar and this is not all that uncommon. Still, I usually spring for something nicer and pay a little under two dollars. Food is delicious. Unlike Korea where everything is spicy, here all the spices are on the side and I can add them to my liking. Food seems to be greener and hopefully healthier too. I haven't gotten sick yet, but I know that's coming. There's a lot of strange food here and I've only really scratched the surface. Many times I only have a vague idea as to what I might be eating. I'm told some food can be dangerous too. Others have told me antifreeze might be mixed in some cocktails and the iced coffee isn't always exactly iced coffee.
Cơm tấm, or broken rice. Often comes with pork. Delicious.
The staff had a heyday. This guy was about to be food.

  • People love America here. The American flag is a fashion symbol. I see it on face masks, throw pillows, blankets, t-shirts, etc. A security guard proudly told me about his friend who served in the war on the American side. In Saigon, by and large there does not seem to be much of a grudge. I'm told this is not the case in Hanoi and that airport security is a huge hassle should I choose to fly there.

  • I do get a lot of looks. In Korea, I did not get too many people staring at me. Here, I get stares all the time. Kids always want to say “Hello” and little girls giggle. Today I ate down an alleyway and I could tell I was the talk of the street.

  • Sometimes people aren't so nice. I feel like sometimes there are people that try to make fun of me for being an American. A group of guys at a coffee shop called me over and started joking about “America”, “apple pie”, and so on. It could be chalked up to poor language skills, but I feel like if I started shouting random stereotypes at a Frenchmen people would think I was being rude. It's hard sometimes to tell who is laughing with you and who is laughing at you.

  • Those conical Vietnamese hats (nón lá) are worn without any irony. Unlike the Korean hanbok, they are not something worn traditionally or to be patriotic or only at festivals. They are just worn. It is as if the Dutch all still wore wooden shoes. Still, with the high heat and frequent and intermittent rain, it makes good sense to wear one.

  • Communist symbolism is all over the place. Ho Chi Minh's picture is everywhere. There is a common one of him reading a book that I rather like.
    Street where I did some apartment hunting. One of the guys living
    there said they should probably get a flag so they match the neighbors.

    • Rock, Paper, Scissors is not such a big deal here. It was huge in Korea, but here it seems so far to be at the same level of interest that it is in America.

    • The language is really difficult. There are six tones. People that have been here for years still struggle immensely. At least it uses the alphabet and not characters like Chinese. We had a series of interviews last Saturday to find Vietnamese tutors. At least I have some contact info for when I am ready to get a tutor. If interested, apply here.

    • I walk a lot more here. Every day, whether or not it is my intention, I get lost. I walk block after block and try to find patterns and places to revisit. Today I found a copy shop that will be useful for school. Copyright doesn't really exist here, nor do English book stores.

    • It rains almost every day. It is just like Forrest Gump or CCR. I was surprised by how cool the air usually is, but it is expected to get very hot and dry in a few months. If it's anything like Cambodia, I'm not exactly looking forward to it.

    • Koreans made you pay for almost any bags you used at the grocery store. Vietnam is more in line with America and gives them away for free. I still cringe when the clerk gives me a bag I really don't need.

    • Apple logos are everywhere here, even more so than in Korea and China. I'm not sure what the deal is. I see old men wearing Apple logos on baseball caps that I doubt ever touched an Apple product. I still see Detroit Tigers hats as well. Same phenomenon, really.

    • This country likes Oreos. I bought a two pack and got a free Oreo pencil. I think I will do just fine here.

    International Transient

    My flight had been delayed on the runway in Beijing. The couple sitting next to me told me that happens a lot in China. Lisa and Finton, from America and Ireland respectively, lived and worked in Beijing but were on their way to Vietnam for a much needed vacation. They too had been EFL teachers, but now they work in media and journalism. It is good to see expats are able to carve a life out in Southeast Asia without teaching.

    My friend Gra (The First King of Muii-do) picked me up at the airport in Ho Chi Minh at around 12:30am. He had brought along another friend who was there to ride with my things by taxi while I was introduced to Saigon the proper way: by motorbike. I hopped on the back of his Yamaha Nuovo III and we flew off. It had been years since I had been on a motorbike and I had never gotten used to it. Now I was in a strange land on a strange bike riding down streets that were dark and mostly empty. Everything was a dirty gray-blue. On the bike ride to where I was staying I was told the plan had fallen through; at the last minute I was given a place to stay with another set of friends. It would only be temporary. On the 10th I would have to sign a lease or find a new place.

    We arrived at an alleyway that in the darkness looked like every other scummy alleyway next to closed-up shops. We unpacked my things and walked down to the apartment. Outside the door we talked about the situation for a while, about how this was a last minute switch and how before I know it I will be out and on my own but for the moment I can stay here. I'm not sure what else was said really, I was distracted by the rat the size of a Pringles can openly wandering around just behind my friends. They told me another one was behind me as well. As I have learned since, the rats of Saigon own the night.

    We stepped inside. A cockroach scurried away. I kept my shoes on. I was given the last empty room. It had no AC and the fan was broken, but I wasn't bothered. I was also introduced to the rooftop of our apartment, which overlooked the street below and the surrounding poverty. I began to wonder if this was a mistake.
    The view at night.
    My first few days were just for getting used to Vietnam. My Scottish friend showed me around our neighborhood, bought me some ice coffee, and got me a copy of my door keys. I was also able to get my laundry done at the photocopy/laundry shop just down from our alleyway.

    The view during the day.

    Our alleyway I found to be really warm. Families open up little food carts and sell meals to each other. I've yet to pay more than a dollar for anything in that alleyway and it's all been delicious. Of course, as the only foreigners in the area we do not go unnoticed. My first time visiting the apartment after my friends had moved out I didn't know exactly which door was mine yet, but luckily the neighborhood women knew exactly which door it was and pointed me in the right direction. A day or two later we had a meal together outside my place. I went to sit down on a tiny plastic stool only to have it snap below me. The entire street was watching. We all laughed. After that I refused to sit in another one and another food table let me borrow their metal stools.

    My first weekend in Vietnam turned out to be a holiday. Gra, who had just secured a job as a financial adviser, had Friday off and drove me out to his place in the suburbs, District 7. It was nice to get out of the city. He feels if he didn't live outside of the city he would never leave the city, and living out here forces him to take time to relax. Together with other foreigners he rents a large house, almost a miniature mansion in some regards. There's a large spiked gate, a big-screen TV in the living room, a dining room, a spiral staircase, several large bedrooms, and a splendid rooftop balcony area. On the balcony is a pool table and a fish pond. But all that glitters is not gold: I'm told the landlord is kind of awful, there's a bat that lives above the pool table, the TV doesn't work, and overall it is not in the best shape considering the house is maybe only five years old. Still, what a relaxing and long weekend it was sitting upstairs, listening to music, playing pool, getting rained in, and having no commitments and nowhere to be.

    But we did leave sometimes. I traveled to the expat area of District 7, Phu My Hung, which oddly enough is mostly Korean. Weekends in Vietnam seem to pass over drinks. It usually starts with jasmine tea. Almost every restaurant offers jasmine tea (trà nhài) complimentary and many obsessively refill it regardless of how long it's been since you've bought anything. I suppose when it's as hot as it is here one can never be too careful. Next we might move on to a fruit smoothie or more likely some iced coffee. Vietnamese like it with condensed milk, which makes it extra sugary. Most expats seem to like it black, but I'm more of a milk guy anyway so I like the sugary stuff. And of course, the day ends with beers. Beer can be had almost anywhere for the equivalent of about fifty cents, but at bars and restaurants they often charge a whole dollar. Of course, on the expat street of Bui Vien things tend to cost slightly more and as an added bonus you constantly get asked to buy hand-made bracelets and photocopied novels. And so the weekend went: sitting, drinking, discussing, staying out of the sun or rain, and wondering what I was doing.

    When I arrived back in the city, I set to work on getting my resume updated and ready to send out to the schools. I was given a few job leads from friends. Everyone told me with my teaching certificate and English Major I was set for anything. I decided to be picky. I wanted to teach high school. I wanted to teach Science or English. Sure, I had a few interviews with primary school jobs, but pay doesn't matter if you don't really want to do it. One was with interactive white boards. Steven, the Englishman who interviewed me, was forthright enough to acknowledge that I was way overqualified and instead we talked about life in Vietnam and the quirks of the language. Turns out he used to live just down the road from my place. And in Vietnamese, it is better to learn to say phrases than words. It's a tonal language and words can easily be mispronounced. For instance, if you ask for “sugar” in just the wrong tone, you will ask for “penis” instead. I just may be in over my head here.

    But I was also interviewed by a couple “International schools,” one for primary and one for secondary. Steven had told me there are true international schools like British International School and Australia International School, and then there are a hive of copycats with slightly altered names. A good sign you are at a real international school are international students. Many of them only have international teachers. And then there are institutes, not schools, that have international in the title. These are mostly after-school supplemental learning places, once again, without a single foreign student. The first school I was interviewed by was a primary school. The principal was American and seemed on the level. He wanted an English teacher to teach EFL Science and English. Would have been a good fit, beautiful schoolgrounds, but it was outside the city, didn't pay well and wasn't at the secondary level.

    I was recommended another school as well, one that taught using an American curriculum on top of the required Vietnamese curriculum. Looking at their website, most of their teachers either have a Masters or P.h.D. Many of their students reportedly go abroad to America to study after high school. Their application was nine pages long, so they didn't get a lot of applicants. It was quite impressive and covered everything. By the time I attached my resume I felt it was almost completely redundant. Within fifteen minutes of sending the application I got a response asking for an interview. I was stunned, and a little disappointed. Did they even read my nine page masterpiece?

    Even so, I went in for the interview. The school was not located in an expat area, which means it probably didn't have foreign students, but that was okay with me. After all, I liked living in areas that weren't so used to foreigners. The interviewer was friendly and eager. I think within ten minutes I was offered a job as a Language Arts teacher, not EFL. No questions were asked about teaching practices or philosophy (these things were covered on the application). The pay he offered was much lower than expected, but he did offer free housing. I saw the housing. It was okay, more spacious than Korea but definitely not as posh. I left thinking I would take the job, but disappointed that it was not everything I had hoped for. The interview was a little insulting in that it made me wonder how much he cared about my credentials. He didn't seem to know much about the academic side of things, so he wasn't helpful in answering my questions about the curriculum or any other teaching questions. The pay wasn't even as good as the primary school job, and far lower than most expats with only a TEFL degree can make in this country.

    I wandered the community after the interview, mulling over my thoughts and texting people for advice. I was quickly talked out of my excitement and started second guessing whether or not I would accept. There were some nasty things written about the school on the internet. I had lunch, and then texted the interviewer saying I would like to speak with some teachers at the school. He agreed and I returned to the school, this time not well-dressed but instead in shorts and my “Reservoir Dogs” t-shirt. The teachers were friendly, smart, and motivated. One was a young Sri Lankan-Canadian economics major or something who had been there more than a year now. The other was an older Social Studies teacher from North Carolina who had started over the summer. Both seemed really content. I asked them about their challenges. They said most of the struggles came from bureaucracy. Students were wonderful. I asked them about the high turnover rate. They said some people just want other things. I asked them about the pay. They were unaware you could make more. I think they were recruited from abroad and had never bothered looking elsewhere for work. Is that a good sign? The North Carolinan had been in Kuwait the previous year and hated it, even if he was being paid more than double what he is now. That made me feel better. Him and I, we could relate. Quality of life is far more important than money.

    Next, to my surprise I was ushered into the principal's office. He introduced himself as John and we proceeded to just shoot the shit. We didn't talk about my role at the school at all, just life in Vietnam and the corrupt government.

    I sat on the decision a while and then late Friday night I emailed my interviewer telling him what I felt: I liked the school, I wanted to teach Language Arts, but that I was unsatisfied with the pay. I said that I could get much more at many other schools. I stared at the message for a long time. Never had I ever complained to the person I wanted to hire me about how much I was being paid. It seemed like a risk, but it felt like a necessary one. I would hate working there from the beginning if I was being insulted monthly by my paycheck. I hit send.

    Another weekend passed at the miniature mansion. Pool. Beer. Music. Rainstorms. Sleeping on the couch. An engagement party. Jasmine tea. Iced coffee. Iced coffee again. Beer. I spoke to my friends about the pace of life in Vietnam. Everything seemed slower and more casual. Just sitting and drinking something, either keeping out of the sun or the rain. They told me that I was just jobless.

    Monday I went to an interview in the morning. A primary school job, another waste of time. I looked at my phone. The zoo was on the way to my 4 o'clock appointment. I had a motorbike driver, or xe om (Steven told me it literally translates to “moto-hug”), drive me there instead.

    Two moon bears
    I wandered the small zoo, seeing what I could. I learned quickly there are an inordinate number of pheasants and/or pheasant-like birds in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Now that I think of it, the pheasants in America actually come from China. I got to see the moon bears and the lonely sun bear. Both are strange. You probably know the sun bear from a meme. The moon bear is important in Chinese medicine for its stomach bile. They are farmed in cruel ways. I won't go into detail.

    Of course, it rained hard. Some Vietnamese high school kids were playing a group song game under the pavilion. They sang and laughed and made their own fun. I was jealous of their ability to do that. I believe it a lost art in America to make your own fun with songs and games. From what I have seen of the Koreans, Chinese, and Vietnamese so far, they are all capable. Why not us? And why weren't these kids in school? There is so much I have yet to learn about this place.

    I went to my last interview and it was the most thorough. I liked him. I felt almost unprepared for questions I received, but it went well. Part-time with students of all ages, night time and secondary are possibilities. I told him I could do a few hours at night.

    I got home and received an email from the high school. They were willing to negotiate on my wages. I didn't get what I asked, but they met me in the middle. I told him I'd take it but I needed to read the contract first. Tomorrow is my last day in the temporary apartment. Tomorrow I leave for the high school's accommodations. Hopefully things work out and I don't have to turn down the contract. I'm excited to start at a teaching job that will utilize the skills I trained to use. It may even count towards further certification, but I haven't looked into it yet.
    The beef-wrapped cheese was delicious as well (left)

    Tonight I'm celebrating by spending my last night at the microbrewery near my place. Yep, there's a Belgian microbrewery near my slummy apartment. They sell 1-liter mugs of black lager or Hefeweizen for about three dollars each. I've been sitting here tonight writing and enjoying the last time I'll be able to walk home from this. Almost done with two at this point. If my international transience has to end, it should end the way it was spent: with a good drink.

    POST-SCRIPT – On the way back to my apartment, I met a group of Vietnamese men on the side of the road drinking and eating at a series of tables. I gave them high-fives and they offered me a Tiger beer and a seat. I told them I was from America. Someone said “I love America!” I said I love Vietnam. They taught me how to toast in Vietnamese and began offering me food, starting with chicken feet. I had seen these on the street but had not yet gathered the courage to try them. The skin is rubbery and most of the meat or whatever it is I was eating was on the sole.

    Next they held up a bowl of dark brown meat. “Dog meat!” they shouted. Now, I'm not so opposed to eating dog, in theory. Different strokes for different folks, you know? But I am against the treatment of the dogs before they are killed. Once again, it has to do with Chinese medicine. Dogs are traditionally a summer food because they are considered “hot”, a great coincidence considering we refer to the hottest months as the “Dog Days.” Anyway, dog helps you beat the heat among other things. It is also believed that the meat tastes better if it is full of adrenaline. How do you fill it with adrenaline? Easy, just kill the dogs in the most horrific and brutal ways you can think of and let if suffer immensely before it dies. Boiling alive, for one. Now, this doesn't happen to all dogs but I've heard it's pretty common in the more old school places. So anyway, in principle I'm against dog meat. That night, in practice, not so much. They gave me the same line as usual that these are food dogs not pet dogs and that there's a difference. I had had a few, so I hammed up my disgust and we had good fun making light of the cultural gap here. And, after a lot of drama, I took a bite. They cheered. I ate a few pieces of dog. It had a smell that reminded me of homemade chicken somehow, but I can't really place it. The taste was bland, kind of dry and chewy. Not bad, not good either. I think there is far better meat to be had without the ethical crisis.

    The beers kept coming and so did the food. Next I tried a piece of lower chicken leg. Like the foot, not really worth it, just rubber. After that, they passed me a bowl and said “Have you ever had this?!” I told them yes, that I had eaten oysters before. But there was one more food challenge they told me I had to try that night. Duck egg. Just as they described it, it so happened the lady on our street that sells them wheeled her cart by. We each were given one. Some only opened the top of the egg and scooped out the inside with their chop sticks. I was given a peeled one. Essentially, this hard-boiled egg was half-formed, with what looked to be the dark innards of a fetus offset by the gooey yoke. I was drunk and it was dark, so I knew I could do it. Still, I made a dramatic show of it, acting really distressed and disgusted. The egg white near the tip was chewy and crunchy, like eating an eraser with tiny nuts stuck inside. That was actually the worst part. The yoke was softer than usual, and actually not too bad. The fetus, despite looking like something coughed up during an exorcism, was actually similar in taste to the yoke. It was surprisingly soft, went down smoothly, and wasn't terrible. For the experience, I actually recommend trying this sort of duck egg, but maybe do it in the dark.

    It's a shame that I only met those men as I was leaving the neighborhood, because we got to be friends. A few added me on Facebook that night. Thuan who sat next to me was a construction worker with fine English. He spoke to me the most. Vo had to head home early because his wife would get upset. An sat across from me and told me he was “Forever Alone.” I laughed pretty hard. I love when I see memes in other countries. An kept challenging me to drink, and like a true IRL troll, he would then take his time with his glass.

    Towards the end of the night we started singing songs to each other. Someone started on “Hotel California” which made me flash back to China. Was drinking with a bunch of strangers on the street really such a good idea? Bear in mind I had my laptop with me in my backpack the whole time. I decided this case was different but it gave me pause. We continued to sing. I did “Yellow Submarine” as always. They sang some Vietnamese songs that I liked. One was a war song I think. It made them all laugh but it was about tanks shooting I guess. They sang their national anthem. It had a beautiful sound. I tried to sing mine. I usually pride myself on my ability to remember all the words, but that night my memory failed me. The “Star Spangled Banner” is a song I love, but it's not much of a Song of the People. Few can remember all the words and far fewer can actually sing it well. An anthem should be less elitist.

    I went home happy at my new friends. I may have fallen asleep on the toilet.