Thursday, December 15, 2011

Phu Quoc, Hoi An and Hue, Oh My!

I can't believe it has been a month since I have written. I keep thinking about writing and have been collecting a list of subjects. I can't wait for a new camera so I can be more efficient with photos to supplement. Stay tuned for more visuals coming soon! The past month has kept us pretty busy. Asher has had a big project for school - Change Agents of the 20th Century. He focused on The Beatles and how they altered music history. I have been kept busy subbing at SSIS - 4th grade, 4 year-olds, and back in the middle school. Subbing continues to be fun and I am so grateful for this opportunity to explore all the different age groups. I am focusing in on the 4th through 8th grade range. Old enough to know what they are supposed to be doing, but still young enough to listen attentively and enthusiastically. I flirted with a PT art teaching job for the early childhood classes at SSIS, but found out this week that they offered it to someone else. It would have been fun and also difficult. The steady schedule and income would certainly have been nice, but hopefully they found someone who might be a longer term solution to this position, which I guess has been difficult to fill. Andrew has been through his first round of finals with his high school students. There have been Holiday extravaganzas and Staff parties and plenty of late nights. We are all looking forward to a little down time.

We are also super excited to see a little more of this Country that we are living in. Tomorrow, SUPER early in the morning, we fly on a little plane (trying not to think about it!) to an island off the south coast of Vietnam. Phu Quoc, "is everything a tropical island is supposed to be" (Lonely Planet, 2009). 70% of the island has been declared a National Park by the Vietnamese government and 90% of the island is forested. The rest is supposedly white sand beaches with the blue-green tropical waters that we have not yet seen off the coast of Vietnam. We'll probably visit the Pearl Farm, but other wise, we are looking forward to lounging and teaching the kids about the wonders of snorkeling.

Then we are back with a day to spare to await the arrival of Andrew's mother, Barbara. We are so excited to have our second visitor and can't wait to see her ---- and NOT just because she brings with her a suitcase full of our Amazon shopping! With Barbara, we will take some time to explore the history of Vietnam with a visit to central Vietnam. Hoi An and Hue have been the seats of power for almost all regimes claiming Vietnam. We'll travel back as far as the 2nd century and the Champa Dynasty at the ruins of My Son and visit the Imperial Palace, home to the last Emperor of Vietnam, who peacefully handed his reign to the French in order to avoid a war which would have devastated the people and country which he so loved. Also in this region is the divide between North and South Vietnam and one of the areas that was heavily fought during the Vietnam-America War.

We return to Ho Chi Minh City in time to bring in the New Year. In our last days with Barbara, we look forward to exploring some of the sights our own city has to offer - none of which we have yet done! Stay tuned for more pictures and detailed posts about our travels in the weeks ahead.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Last weekend, I was trapped in a taxi. I use the word "trapped" because there seemed to be a lot of complaining going on around me. I don't know if complaining is even the right word. Suspicion, maybe, or just a general air of "Vietnam is out to get me". It upset and disturbed me. I know we haven't been here long and I'm not saying that I don't understand how life here can be hard some days, but we are loving our experience here. I came home from this outing feeling heavy and burdened. In processing with Andrew later in the night after I got home, we agreed that if we get to the point where we cannot stay mostly focused on the good things about our life here, it will be time to move on.

A few days before this taxi ride, I was on the public bus. Struck by how lucky I was and wanting to make sure that I remembered this feeling, I had started a list of the things I love about Vietnam. This seems like a good time to share it.

Things I love about Vietnam

  • How friendly and helpful the Vietnamese people are
  • Trying to speak Vietnamese
  • Extravagant thunderstorms with super sharp lightening and hard bursts of rain – especially when I’m indoors
  • Sun, sun, sun
  • Wearing tank tops and flip flops in the rain
  •  Flowers in November
  • Crazy, crazy traffic
  • Riding my bike and walking most everywhere
  • Not having a car
  • CafĂ© sua da
  • Cha da
  • Ice
  • Outdoor swimming - year round!
  • Open air, open every day markets
  • Tropical plants
  • Starlight Bridge at the park near our house
  • The public bus
  • Good-natured bargaining
  • Velvet and silk
  • How diverse the kids’ school is
  • Getting caught outside in a huge downpour, kicking up our feet in the insta-puddles and LAUGHING out loud
  • Flocks of dragonflies
  • Naming the Geckos in the house
  •  Hanging our laundry outside every day
  •  Kids saying “hello!” to us in English with great enthusiasm
  • Beaches
Do I love these things every day and every moment (see crazy, crazy traffic)? No, of course not.  But,they are experiences that are new and different and valuable and I don't want us to forget them.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Andrew came home from an all-school meeting last night with the news that there are 11 confirmed teacher departures for next year and 14 more still "on the fence". Once we learned that the Head of School was stepping down, we were guessing that there may be more departures. Why not? A new Head is no more or less unknown than a new school, right?

But 25?? If all those people leave, that is 25% of the Faculty. Of course, we don't know anything. This could be a completely normal part of the cycle of things here in the International School World and we are interpreting it from our staid, Western point of view. But it sure seems like a lot. And last year, there were only about 8 openings. But maybe that's because people were in their initial 2-year contracts.

Whatever, we feel a little sobered by the facts.

Meanwhile, today I go for an interview with Family Medical Practice - the result of a blind resume send. Not completely blind, I suppose, this is the clinic where we have been receiving our immunizations and medical care since arriving in Vietnam. One day I asked the Pediatrician if she had any job search ideas for me and explained a little bit about my background. She said, "Send your resume in. You never know." So I did.

Next week, I have an informational interview with a woman that our Head of School knows who works for a Foundation to raise money for heart surgeries for Vietnamese children. And, I have just about finished my application for an on-line Masters in Information Science (Library) for an Australian University.

Who knows what our future will bring. It is unsettling AND exciting.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

But we just got here.....

Believe it or not, people at school are having to decide now whether or not they plan to renew their contracts for the 2012-13 school year.

It started a couple of weeks ago with the Head of School sending out a letter announcing that he is resigning at the end of this school year for health and personal reasons. Whatever happens, this man has instrumentally altered the fabric of our family's life by hiring Andrew. We will forever be grateful to him - whether we continue to live and work overseas for these 2 years or for 20 more.

Last night, we found out that the Jackson Family, who has acted as our "buddy" since the interviewing process will also not be returning. We feel so sad by both of these losses (to us), decisions to the people making them.

And yet, this is a reminder that this is a part of this way of life. People come and go. Students leave as their parents are transferred, teachers and their children leave at the end of the school year. In some ways, it's a very transient life that we have embarked upon. In a year, we will be struggling to make this decision.

For now, we are healthy, we have a good home, we're riding our bikes and getting plenty of Vitamin D, we're having a chance to see Vietnam - a place we might never have come to without this opportunity, the kids are loving school, Andrew loves his teaching situation, and I am starting to explore options for myself.  It's not perfect, but we're here and we're happy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

There's a dog on our doorstep

This morning, Andrew woke me up.

"There's a dog on our doorstep", he says.

I wave my hand blearily, thinking I am still dreaming. I mean, did you read yesterday's post?!

Sure enough, there was a dog on our doorstep. A small, mostly white, cutest brown spots, warm brown eyes, dog with puppy teeth. And a collar. Must be somebody's, right? There was a HUGE thunder and lightening storm yesterday in the late afternoon. I'm thinking it got scared and slipped it's fence. Our lobby doors are always open and the stairwell is open so it must have just dashed in and kept climbing until there was no place left to go. Andrew found it when he went out to run stairs.

The poor thing was definitely skittish and a little trembly. He seemed to be favoring one of his back legs a little. I put out some water and cleaned up its poop. I tried to herd it down the stairs, he let me get him down to the 6th floor before he dashed past me back up to our floor (we live on the 8th). I tried to go first and call him down, no go. After every unsuccessful attempt, he would curl up in the corner between our door and the wall. So cute, really.

I would go inside and get ready for the day, but peek back out at him. By the time the kids were up, he was coming toward me when I called. I put out some water for him.

By the time I took the kids to school, he was letting me pet him and we almost got him in the elevator.

When I came back from school, he was curled up on our door mat. Awwwww.

Then I had a couple of phone calls. I checked on him once in the middle and he had ripped into his poop bag and had one of my shoes off our shoe rack - whoops. When I just went out to try and leash him up (with our clothesline) to take him for a walk, he was gone. I walked down all 8 flights of stairs and looked around the courtyard, no sign. When I barked at the Security Guard (communication, remember?), he waved an arm broadly.

I hope that means he has been found by those who lost him. I'm going to try and believe that. I kinda miss him....

Just when I thought....

The other day, I saw two big and hairy Huskies being walked down the street. I have been missing our dogs so much, I had a pang of "ugh (sock-in-the-gut feeling), WHY didn't we bring them?"

And then this: in the local equivalent of Willamette Week  (for you Oregonians).

We have also heard stories of dogs belonging to foreigners being stolen and ransomed. Once we were riding our bikes to school and we saw a Cocker Spaniel running loose. It was being chased by two men on a motorbike and only just managed to escape being flattened by a taxi. At the time, I thought the men were trying to collect their pet, but I wonder. Meanwhile, around the corner from our apartment, there is a pet shop selling fluffy, small dogs for 12 million vietnamese dong and up. The highest price I've seen is 20 million. This equates to a price between $600 and $1000 US dollars.

Most of the dogs we see that appear to be pets are small and easily transportable - think chihuahua, Llahsa Apso, Bichon Frisee, and other such breeds. And we do see a lot of dogs - in all parts of the city. Certainly on the ends of fancy leashes with collars heavy with Bling, but also at just about every hole in the wall establishment - regardless of how well appointed it seems to be. Of course, I have assumed that all these dogs are pets. For the most part, they do not appear to be mistreated and they seem well-behaved. But are they just waiting to be somebody's dinner? The thought makes me even more glad that I am staunchly vegetarian. But my husband and children eat meat. How would we know if they were being served dog? What does dog taste like? Is the penchant here towards small dogs a result of the fact that they don't have much meat on their bones or some other, less sinister, reason?

Having parted with all of our pets to make this move, we (especially Andrew) are not anxious to bring a pet into our home. And yet we miss the companionship of animals. This may be the first time in my entire life that I have not had some sort of animal companion. It certainly is for my children. I am tempted nearly every day. Lately, there is a young kitten with three legs hanging out in our courtyard. He is small and flea-ridden, but oh-so-cute. Ginger-colored with hazel eyes and an endearing sidewalk rub when I talk to him. Luckily (though I'm not sure whether it is more lucky for me or for Andrew), he appears to be getting fed and the missing leg is obviously healing from a neat surgery. Someone is looking out for him (her?).

It might be true that we will welcome a pet to our home while we are overseas. If we do, one thing is certain. It will be small enough to join us for the travel home.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Communication is everything.

On the days when I do not receive a call to substitute, my days are filled with errands and Chores. Chores gets a capital letter because, when you can't communicate, the doing of chores rises to a whole other level. A couple of days ago, I had my first "bitter" day. This is the first time I have felt while here that internal "everyone is out to get me" feeling that I do hear from some other expatriates.

The day started out fine. Then the washing machine broke. It really has never worked quite right since we moved in. The repairperson has been out a few times, but we have never understood exactly what is wrong. Because we don't speak Vietnamese and, so far, the repairpeople don't speak English. So we are trying to pantomime at what point the washer seems to be breaking down. What's needed is a computer like most cars have now. The repairperson could come in, hook up the computer, "read" the problem and fix it. All I would need to do is answer the door. But in the absence of that, I am trying to think up how to show physically that the washer fills with water, starts to agitate, stops before finishing the wash cycle, resets to 45 minutes, starts beeping and then drips out the bottom until all the water is gone. It's complicated. Can you do it? Sure you can. Go on, give it a try.

But now we have a household helper. A Vietnamese woman who works for another teacher is coming in to clean for us 3 mornings a week for a couple hours. But she doesn't have English and I still don't have Vietnamese so, really, the problem is still the same. Except that I decide to try to call the landlord myself. Usually Andrew does it. So I go to our file and pull out our rental agreement. We have a copy in English, but for some reason, I can only find the copy that is in Vietnamese. I take it to Ms. Hoang and try to get her to tell me who I should call. She reads the contract (now I am realizing that I do not know if she can read. Vietnam has a very high literacy rate (reported at 90 - 93%) so it is not too gross of an assumption), dials her phone and hands it to me. While my brain is saying, "Wait - I thought YOU would call", a man answers the phone against a very busy, industrial, noisy backdrop.

I think I confirm that it is Mr. Le, our landlord. His English is not sounding as good as it usually is, but it is noisy and he does not like to talk to me. In person, if I ask him a question, his face looks as though he has just taken a big bite of moldy bread while his gaze drifts as far away from my face as possible. Then there is a deliberate pause before Andrew re-phrases whatever it is that I just said, which then, miraculously, is understood and answered. If this were the dark ages, I am quite certain that he would determine that I have "hysteria". Just because I speak.

But, back to the phone call. After many long pauses, I ask if Vietnamese would be better. Whoever I am talking to I think says yes so I find Ms. Hoang and thrust her phone back at her. A rapid conversation in Vietnamese ensues after which she informs me via pantomime that someone is coming. I am already so exhausted that I can't think to ask when and I leave the apartment hoping that it is while she is still there.

I head into town to do some shopping. I need a watch on the days that I am subbing, I have a gift certificate for a British department store that is supposed to have some higher quality items (last time I tried to go, they were moving and not yet open in their new location) - I am really hoping for some sheets, and there is a grocery store that other teachers keep raving about that supposedly has good prices on US brand foods.

I did not go out with the proper spirit of adventure.

I came back wishing I had never gone out at all. I paid way too much for a watch just so I could pay a fixed price and not have to bargain. The British department store was super expensive ($50 usd) for a t-shirt and I never did find housegoods. The glitzy shopping center was having a promotion for 100,000 vnd vouchers for every 1 million vnd spent and I earned two of them with my watch, but then had to wait in line to receive them. As I am waiting for them, I'm wondering why, on earth, because I could leave and never enter this shopping center again and be really quite happy. And, I have not spent my department store certificate.

The grocery store had no lights and super narrow aisles. Prices were no better than the stores within walking distance of our apartment and the items were not what I would buy anyway. They did have Froot Loops. And I got to be escorted around the shop by a woman holding a flashlight so I had any chance of seeing what was on the shelves.  If I want Froot Loops and Pringles - that is indeed the place to go. Only proving that what I see in my head when someone says "Western" food and what other people see are very different. To be fair, I did get Maple Syrup and I found quite an impressive stash of Indian foods that will be worth going back for if I can't find anything closer. I do so want to learn how to cook Indian foods.

I grab the nearest taxi and head home where I promptly put an email out to SSIS staff offering my gift certificates to the first responder. Something good might as well come out of this day.

There is a knock on the door and a guy with a tool box comes in. Ah-ha, I think, the washing machine repairperson. He's wearing a uniform-type shirt, has a tool box, nods when I ask him if he's here for the washer and so I lead him off. He looks and starts to take things apart. I go back to work on the computer. He emerges after a bit with a part and says we need a new one, it will be 320,000 vnd, is that ok? Just before coming to me, I heard him speaking in Vietnamese with someone, who I assume is Mr. Le, the landlord. That is usually how it goes. At first a woman came along and supervised the workers when we called Mr. Le for a repair. Then sometimes Mr. Le himself would come, but there have been a few times when just the repairperson has come. So, I shrug and make some joke about how it's ok with me if it's ok with Mr. Le. He looks quizzical, but I just assume it is a language thing. He leaves and indicates he'll be back with the part. It's close to the time for me to go collect the kids so I ask when. Somehow, we make it clear that I have to go out at 3:00 and he'll have to come back after that.

When I leave to run and get the kids, he is downstairs chatting and laughing with the guard. I feel terrible, making him sit around and bike like crazy down to school, get Elia situated with her Girl's Club group and then turn around and bike like crazy back home. Somewhere during the bike ride, something starts to tickle my brain about how he asked me if the cost was going to be ok and I start to wonder just who this guy is. I am a little on edge due to some incidents that have been talked about at school in the last few weeks. A teacher couple had their house broke into while they were upstairs asleep, a friend had someone fly by on a motorbike and try to grab her purse, and there have been a couple of incidents of an attempted abduction of an International School student in another District.

Meanwhile, our security, both at school and at our apartment has recently changed. At school, it is all explained, but at home, we have no idea why. We just know that the guy we have come to know and feel comfortable with is suddenly gone and this new guy is on the scene - a little brasher, and much less helpful. We have received notice that our maid must register with the new security and have an ID card issued. Why do I feel less safe?

All this is in my head as I get back to the apartment to find the repair guy yakking it up with the Security Guard. He follows me up in the elevator and goes to work. While he is on the back porch, I surreptitiously move my purse and put some money in my skirt pocket - the 320,000 vnd he mentioned earlier, plus just a little extra. He finishes, appears to have replaced the part he said needed to be replaced and tests the machine.  I say my thanks and usher him to the door, barely able to wait until I can shut and lock the door behind him, when he turns to me and asks who will pay. I make some remark about Mr. Le?? The landlord?? He looks at me somewhat apologetically. I ask him if he has an invoice? No.

It hits me in the gut. I REALLY have no idea who this guy is. He is not from Mr. Le. I ask how much. He says 320,000vnd. I quickly get the money out of my skirt pocket, pull out an extra 50,000 vnd and tell him it is for all the time he had to wait. He makes some remark about how maybe I can get the landlord to pay me back. No, I say, probably not without an invoice, thank you, thank you, bye-bye, shut, LOCK. Phew.

The washing machine is not fixed.

I freak.

In telling Andrew about the day later, I feel so grateful that it was fairly benign. I mean, really, I don't even have enough ability to communicate to know if I have been taken advantage of. All I really know is that I am out 370,000 (about $17 usd) and that the washing machine is not fixed. At my worst moment, I am thinking it is all a plot in which Ms. Hoang is involved. Andrew, of course, feels awful because I asked him days ago to contact Mr. Le about the washing machine.  We have to keep coming back to the fact that Ms. Hoang has worked for this other teacher for 6 years now and came with a very high recommendation. We'll try to do some talking through interpreters about who she called and where he came from.

Andrew texted Mr. Le and "someone" is coming.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Rosh Hashanah, Part 2..... FINALLY

So there we were, in the lobby of the Hotel Continental, Asher doing his broken body routine and Elia screaming her head off. The lovely, older couples sitting across from us get up and move off (heavens knows why?!). A man comes in, spies Elia's kippah, takes two steps toward us and starts spouting Hebrew. Which none of us speaks. I stand, trying to unpeel Elia from behind my back and start giving him directions in English to where the room is (and now that I have been to services on Kol Nidre, I know that this man is the Cantor and, therefore, most probably, was not needing me to direct him toward the room).

He says, rather brusquely, "Oh. You don't speak Hebrew." Then turns on his heel and moves off. I'm thinking we can still make it out the door when a youngish woman and her husband, obviously Orthodox come in the door with their children. She is smartly dressed in a white dress (barely below the knee) and the highest black heels I have seen since the 1980's. She is sporting a mane of big, fluffy, long black hair. She is DRESSED. She rattles off some Hebrew in my direction. I'm still trying to unpeel Elia so that I might be ale to stand straight and I must be looking at her with a combination of great relief - here is another woman showing some leg, AND she has two young boys with her, and a look of extreme consternation.

"Oh", (rather brusquely), "You don't speak Hebrew" she states sadly.

"No", I say. "I'm sorry."

"You're from America?"


"It's ok", smiling wistfully, "You Americans. None of you speak Hebrew."

I smile and nod, my instinct to be offended, but really, how can I be? I have no one to offer to prove otherwise. We talk a little more and ascertain that they have met Andrew.

The whole while we are exchanging pleasantries, the husband, all in black, round Orthodox hat, white tallit peeking out from beneath his jacket, is standing six steps back. I can tell he is listening and his body movement is engaged in a forward manner, but his feet are anchored. Their two young sons, dressed in exact miniature of their father, are running excitedly around the room. I am trying to introduce Asher and Elia and myself as a Vietnamese nanny comes in the door, pushing a stroller. The woman turns and says, "This is our youngest."

And this is when it hits me. THIS is the Rabbi and his wife. There will be no sneaking out.

And so it goes. I successfully anchor my arm to my side, going against all natural instincts to reach out to the Rabbi for a handshake. Too late, I have already done so with the Rabbi's wife. We follow them into the room, where it is now us, the Rabbi and his wife, and the Cantor. Elia tries to engage the little boys in play, but they are laughing at the fact that she is wearing a kippah. I try not to clutch the Vietnamese nanny's arm too hard and have a little internal, ironic laughter about the fact that I am more sure of a warm reception from her than from the current population of Jews in the room. Asher sits down and promptly devours the apples, honey and small plate of "appetizers" - later to be ritually blessed by everyone else in the room as directed by the Rabbi.

At candle lighting time, Asher insists on lighting a candle and then promptly unintentionally throws the matchstick across the table as he is trying to shake out the flame. Neither I nor Elia cover our heads when we light candles.

More people come in and suddenly the room is full and the evening begins. Just as the Rabbi is about to open with the blessings on the meal, there is a loud WHOOSH and smoke and flames erupt in the back room from whence the food has been coming. The Rabbi runs back, things calm, there is a little relieved laughter from all of us and off we go once more. Except for the individually sized, round challah, there is nothing that anyone in my family will eat. We do meet two young women who are here for a couple of months as part of a college program and have some interesting conversation with them. After the blessings ("whoops", says Asher, I think a little proudly), even more people join us.

Note to self: Ah-ha. The non-religious Jews show up after. And no one seems to mind.

The After group includes an older Vietnamese woman who sits across from us with two of her relatives. She seamlessly speaks to them in rapid Vietnamese, switches to English to address us and the college girls, and, to all of our astonishment, turns and addresses the Rabbi in fluent Hebrew. After talking with her more, she is here to check on her businesses (real estate). She met her husband, an Israeli, in Vietnam, converted to Judaism, and they have been living in Israel for the past 8 years.

These stories should not surprise me anymore, but they do. The range of people who are here and where they come from and the languages they acquire along the way boggle my mind. I have a new friend who is originally from Honduras. She has lived in Honduras, Europe, America, and now Vietnam. Her English is better than my Spanish and now she is taking Vietnamese. There is a 3-year old at school (Father is from Cuba, Mother from Vietnam), she speaks Spanish, Vietnamese, and now is learning English, quite well, I might add, at school. We have no excuses! Family language lessons are in our very near future. I am thinking Vietnamese and Hebrew.....

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rosh Hashanah in Ho Chi Minh City or, Laugh WITH me, not AT me

Wednesday night the kids and I trekked into the Continental Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City for Rosh Hashanah dinner sponsored by the Chabad Vietnam.  This despite, the fact that I realized (hindsight being what it is), that in my exchanges with the Rabbi, I, in expressing my concern about payment, had repeatedly asked if I could pay at the dinner. They had a whole online system set up for payment, but it required you to use a Visa. The only Visa we have is tied to our US bank account and we don't really want to use it. Since we have no money (to speak of) in the US, we have to transfer money there to pay it - costing fees, time spent in line at the bank, etc. So, I really wanted to pay cash. Which I'm sure would be acceptable. IF it wasn't a Holy Day. The Hasidim, you see, don't use money on Shabbat or other Holy Days. It being FORBIDDEN in the Torah and all.

I laid out my clothes ahead of time. Skirt and tank top. It's hot here, maybe I've mentioned. Whoops, I think - uncovered arms, not such a good idea. Which, of course, is when I realize that I have repeatedly tried to insist that the Rabbi take my money on a holy day. Quick email off to our home Rabbi to unburden myself of my errors. Realize that she may be just as horrified and disown me. Realize that maybe I better not mention that the Rabbi in our home congregation is a woman. Almost give up the whole endeavor in the face of trying to keep all these contradictions straight. Resolve to carry forward. Carefully select the children's clothing and iron everything in preparation.

Gather kids from school. Talk (again, we have been talking about it a little bit all week) about the differences we might experience - this as much or more for myself than for the kids. Get home and get dressed. Elia gets dressed in a dress with short sleeves, puts on her bright pink, capri pants with rainbow peace signs all over them. She very clearly points out that they cover her knee to show that she is thoughtfully trying to play the game. I decide I can live with that. Meanwhile, Asher is throwing a fit in his room because I picked out his one pair of long pants. He will die of heat exhaustion he says, if he has to wear those pants. Too bad, I say, put them on. He SLAMS his door, crying and sobbing. Elia comes to me with Andrew's kippah (of course, worn only by men in the Hasidic world) and asks for my help clipping it on to her head. That way her dad can come with us.

 Asher stomps out of his room wearing his blue, striped shirt that I carefully selected and pre-ironed and a brown, plaid pair of shorts.

I decide to let go of the Kippah in favor of the fight over the long pants. In response to me telling Asher that he MUST put on his long pants "or else", he says, "Or else WHAT? We won't go?"

I mean, really, who is this child?

"No" I say, "We are going. I don't know what the 'or else' will be. Because, really, I didn't think an 'or else' would be needed. And REALLY, is this how we want to be approaching our new year together? I know it's hot here. Look at me - do you REALLY think I want to wear a long-sleeve jacket? No. I don't. But I am wearing it out of respect. Because that's what you do when you are in someone else's home."



Finally we're all dressed. I bribe the kids out the door with a promise to stop at Ga Ran Kentucky (yes, it is who you think it is) for popcorn chicken. A little protein before we go has to be a good thing, right? Can't hurt, might help. Asher throws another fit because he can't have a sandwich -they are pretty gloopy and they will be eating in a taxi. More crying, lip pouting and this in public! I am paying now, I tell you what, for the fact that he NEVER had tantrums as a child. I am so ruining his life and it is starting right here on Rosh Hashanah. This is just the beginning and I am already exhausted.

We get the chicken and catch a taxi. Traffic is pretty smooth, for a change and we actually get to the Continental Hotel terrifically early. Early enough that the Information Desk doesn't know who we are or why we are there. All attempts - Chabad Vietnam? Jewish group? Rosh Hashanah? Jewish New Year? Happy New Year? - are met with blank stares and quizzical looks. The third employee summoned finally consults the schedule book and manages to say the rabbi's name in a form that we can recognize. I practically leap over the counter in recognition, having begun to doubt myself that I have the right night and wouldn't THAT just frost my cupcake?

The room is still being set up by the Vietnamese staff and nobody official is there yet. It being somehow an hour before the dinner is set to start. Hopeful that I can pay my money before sundown, which according to the Chabad website is 5:32 pm, I want to linger until someone Jewish looking comes. I contemplate leaving it on the table outside, but my worries about the rabbi forever thinking we ate a free dinner stop me. The kids are bored in about two minutes. Having never read Graham Greene's, The Quiet American, they are not sharing my awe at the architecture and history of the Hotel. They want to go outside. So we go.

Elia wants to go shopping. Elia can't go shopping without wanting everything in sight. And I am still spent by the pants and the money and the taxi. I am SO not going into services with shopping bags.

We go towards a park that is about a block away and sit by a fountain. That's good for about 5 minutes before they are bored again. I try to get them interested in a "spy the Jew" game, but they are having none of it. We get up and start walking through the display of interpretive signs about environmental initiatives around Ho Chi Minh City. I try to engage them in the signage. So not having it. Until we find the Dam Sen Waterpark sign. And then it is all about where is it and why haven't we gone there yet? I very cleverly do not let on that I have know about this park since February so we can extend the conversation with speculation about the where and the why and the how-do-you-get-there and who-can-we-ask's. That takes up 3 more minutes.

We see a bunch of tourists taking pictures of a fancy building across the street so we decide to investigate. Asher gets yelled at by the local police for something. We're not sure what. Walking on the stairs? Having weird hair? Being white at a National Monument? After a group of boys who are trying to take a photo on the stairs also get yelled at, we decide with clarity, "Ah". It's for being on the stairs. Well, or for being a boy.

"Hey", I say enthusiastically, "let's walk around the block and see if we can figure out what this building is."

"My pants....." Asher whines.

"NO!" Elia yells. "My feeeeeteet," she whines.

I keep walking and smiling, hoping no one is noticing my ill-behaved children. In a dark alley behind the building, we decide that it's the Opera House. The kids are unimpressed. We drag around the block and return to the lobby of the hotel. Asher is by now scuffing his shoes along the floor and flops into a chair like the boy with no bones, his head hanging down over his knees and making not-so-small groaning noises. Across from us on another couch are some older, white people speaking English. I smile politely, trying not to interrupt while surreptitiously trying to crane my neck to see if the man is sporting a kippah behind his head. One of the women tries to engage Elia in conversation. Elia groans disgustedly and throws herself behind my back, bonking her skull on one of my vertebrae. "OUCH", I erupt. Elia bursts into tears, rubbing her head as though it's all my fault. Asher looks up briefly, before flopping over his knees again (with no small amount of dramatic flair) and groaning in an exaggerated fashion.

I so wish I was kidding.

It did get better from there. Sort of. More on that in the next post.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Middle Age

You know you are a middle-aged, white woman when you move to a foreign country and every time you get a haircut, you end up looking like Hillary Clinton.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Jewish in a Strange Land

Tonight (it's Wednesday here already), is the first night of Rosh Hashanah. Andrew is away (still in Bali, all reports good. You might know more than I know if you are on facebook). As you might imagine, there aren't so many Jews here in Ho Chi Minh City. But there are some. The children and I will join them tonight at the Continental Hotel to celebrate the first night of Rosh Hashanah.

 We are fortunate that there is a Chabad group here. Chabad is part of the Hasidic faction (word may be offensive to some) of Judaism, which is much more observant to the letter of the Law than the groups we, as a family, tend to favor. In fact, our usual congregations classify themselves as "Reform", "Reconstructionist", or refuse to classify themselves at all - not out of spiritual ambivalence, but out of Principle. 

Chabad was formed to minister to Jews worldwide and to provide a Jewish home to Jews no matter where they might be. According to, their goal is to provide outreach to Jews throughout the world,
                     "Because of what they already are, not because of what they may become; not so that he or she may one day become “orthodox,” but because right now they are already Jewish, and tefillin and Shabbat-candles belong to them; it is their right and their obligation to perform the mitzvah, and it is our privilege, honor and obligation to respectfully help them do so, with the same fervor and compassion that I would provide a warm meal and a place to sleep for a passerby whom I have never seen before and may never see again."

It sounds so welcoming, why do I feel nervous? It's that word, "orthodox". Our family is not orthodox. We barely know any Hebrew. Neither Andrew nor I grew up with much (if any) religious observance in our house. I'm converted in a way that most Hasidim would probably not accept or recognize. We barely observe Shabbat, attend services, study Torah, Andrew never had Hebrew School as a child. See the names of the movements above that we tend to favor as a family, and make all the inherent implications. At our usual services, there is music and singing and dancing. Families sit together and share together. There is Hebrew and English.

The orthodox do not sit together as families - women are separated from men, Hebrew is rarely transliterated to the Roman alphabet, and we don't really know where children are at services, but we are fairly sure they're not sitting on the Rabbi's lap. In our early days here, Andrew joined another teacher at Shabbat Services. It was at a time when Elia, in particular, was having a hard time adjusting. In our thinking and talking about going to services beforehand, she came completely unglued about these differences. And, quite honestly, I was having my own struggle with whether or not I could "swallow" and be positive about the fact that I was "relegated" to the back room. Ultimately, we decided that just Andrew would go and suss it out, which I think was a good decision for the time.

But, now it's High Holy Days. We simply cannot start off our Jewish life in Vietnam by ignoring High Holy Days. I have had an opportunity to talk with our Home Rabbi via email and so appreciated her guidance in helping me reframe to "We're all part of the same family. Go check out how the relatives do it". Maybe, just maybe, I was inserting judgement from my worldview and not spending enough energy "wearing their shoes".

And, I am learning much here about how our own perceptions color our responses. For example, I have heard many ex-pats talk about getting "constantly cheated" by the Vietnamese. Sometimes they are talking about getting charged 35,000 Vietnamese Dong (vnd) for a coffee. That's the equivalent of $1.50 usd, which most of the complainers probably would not think twice about paying double or triple that amount at their home Starbucks. 

Today, I needed air in my bike tires so I went to the corner where the tire fixers hang out. It wasn't long before both tires were off, tubes were getting replaced, and the guy was trying to tell me it would be 500,000 vnd ($25), which would, in fact, probably have been overpaying. So I could choose to look at it as that guy was trying to rip me off. Or, I could recognize that I am here as a visitor. I don't know the language, I have much to learn about usual & customary prices and I have a responsibility to learn more Vietnamese so I can help myself in these situations. Is it his job to take care of me in HIS country or to get what he can while he can to take care of himself and his family? I ended up having a pleasant exchange, paid 350,000 vnd and rode off. Did I still overpay? Probably, because he didn't push me too much for more. Did I even need my tubes replaced? I think the back one probably did need replacing. The front? Maybe, maybe not. Am I going to ruin my day over it? Definitely not. And I learned a few things. Agree on a price first with the tire fixers. Be clear about what you want.

The kids and I are going to do our darndest to apply those same principles to our brush with the Hasidim tonight. What if we accept Chabad at their word? They are here to accept us as we are, not for what they hope we might become. We are Jewish, they are Jewish. They might do things differently. We might do things differently. We might learn. They might learn. We don't feel Jewish enough? No better way to learn "Jewish" than to hang out with the Orthodox for awhile.

We're going to meet some new relatives. As Elia said hopefully last night, "I might make some new friends".

Monday, September 26, 2011

I'm a Writer?

Since my middle school days have ended and I have caught up on laundry, groceries and household things, I have had some time to think (and panic) about what my role is here. When I was subbing, my world was narrowed to that of school. While I am not at all opposed to pursuing some sort of certification which would allow me to work in a school setting, this time away from school has helped me to realize that there may be other options.

So today I tried out being a writer. Like many would-be writers, I am big on ideas and short on production. Today I decided to focus. What would my days look like if I was a writer. Here's how it went.

Get up. Cheerily (it's a new day, possibilities dawn) get the kids breakfast and get us all out the door, helmets in hand for the bike ride to school. Kiss and wave, hop back on bike (no dawdling!) to get back home and begin. Arrive home. Put away helmet, put on house shoes. Mop sweat off face. Look in mirror, wonder if this shirt needs a camisole under it to be worn in public. Fill up coffee cup. Turn on computer. While computer warms, water plants and fountain. Turn on fountain. While watering outdoor plants, discover that it's not too hot out and there's a little breeze. Remember electric bill. Open all windows that have screens. Stand for a few minutes and gaze into the courtyard. Return gaze to window screen and wonder if a bird could fit through that gap. Decide that a bird could fit, but would they try? Leave window alone. Return to computer. Type in password.

While waiting, check phone that is on desk for battery. Wonder again why Andrew took the phone charger to Bali (who, exactly, does he think he is going to call there?) and, why in the world, we only seem to have one. Decide that each phone must have come with its own charger and that it must be here somewhere, even though I haven't been able to find it the last three times I've looked. Get up and start looking again. Feel quite pleased when I find it in the drawer. Plug phone in to charge and feel better that I can now be reached in case I am away from home and Andrew's plane crashes or the kids fall out a window at school - cross that worry off the list.

Return to computer. Open Word. Start recording family secrets. Mine and Andrew's. Fill up two pages. Review. Cringe when I think what my mother will say. Save document. Consider writer ethics about fictionalizing real, family events that others really might prefer were not shared. Internal struggle. Close document.

Open new document. Start character and setting development. Open Safari to research location facts. While, there, might as well check my email. Read long, warm email from friend, Jane. Hungry. Get up for snack. See dry laundry on balcony. Put bread in oven to toast, start folding laundry. Realize that I might as well start some laundry since I'm soon to have all this empty laundry line. Imagine Andrew's loving embrace and cared-for feelings when he returns from Bali and finds clean clothes. Smile in anticipation. Separate  Andrew's laundry. Whites are bigger - in they go.

Whew. It's hot. Go to bathroom and wipe sweat off face. Go to kitchen, fill up glass with ice & water. Drink. Repeat. Check on toast.  Go to bathroom (to pee). Wash hands. Return to kitchen. Take toast out, spread peanut butter and jam, put on plate. Can't eat at the computer (crumbs and ants) - sit at dining table. Might as well read. Read Asher's book. Eat toast. Finish toast. Might as well finish the chapter. Notice how in the book the characters research facts about the game they are making up.

Oh yeah - research. What time is it? Maybe I will go to that PTA meeting at 1:00 pm. Plenty of time. Go back to computer. Sit down. Check email. Check pages. Hey - got 2 down and some research sites bookmarked. Not bad. Or is it?

Since I'm here, might as well blog (people want to KNOW).

Real writers out there - is this how it goes?!

Me, laughing at my own jokes.

Go to Safari to

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Scenes from the Streets

Typical "traditional" house - tucked in everywhere

Morning on the river near school

Eel & snake at the market near our house

Escape attempt!
On closer inspection, they are all bound together by plastic "rope".
 She/he won't get far...
It is impossible to describe what we see every day here in Vietnam. The traffic is like we have never seen before and things that boggle our mind appear to be the norm. Here are some shots from our travels in and around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

Ciclo drivers in District 1

There ARE gas stations here - self serve

A small crowd, NOT waiting for the light

Momma w/babes crossing the street - why DID the chicken cross the road?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Stuck at Home

And so very happy about it!

With me working full-time at the middle school the past few weeks, we have gained some insight into why so many people here have household helpers. Things take a long time here. To pay a bill requires a trip to the bank (waiting in line), a trip to the place where you pay the bill (waiting in line), paying the bill and then the return trip home. Paying the electric bill can take half the day! Banks and bill-paying places are generally open from 9:00 am - 4:30 pm and, additionally, deliveries and repairs all happen between those same hours. Andrew has meetings almost every night after school, which makes it very difficult to get anything done.

Until recently, I didn't even have access to our bank account. That requiring a special form, filled out and signed, presented in person with passport in hand, by Andrew. And I won't even mention how long it took to get a debit card so EITHER of us could get money out of our account - okay, I would, but I have blocked it from my mind. I might be exaggerating, but I think it was around 6 weeks from our arrival date.

When I started subbing a few weeks ago, our hot water heater in one bathroom had just gone out, we were almost out of drinking water, there were VAT receipts all over town that needed to be collected so we could submit expenses to the school for reimbursement, and things STILL needed a thorough cleaning.

At the start of this week, the woman I have been subbing for was released to come back to school half-time. And then I got sick (nothing serious - chesty cough and no voice). Being sick allowed me to stay home. I know, huh, the sub calling for a sub! Being home allowed me to rest AND get BUSY!

Yesterday, all I could manage was a trip out for a few groceries and some cash. But I did mange some phone calls and online ordering..... So far today, I have received 3 large containers of drinking water, received and paid for a delivery of baked goods,  rounded up and recorded more than half of our VAT receipts, cleaned the kitchen, and have laundry in process. 

I am waiting for a delivery of groceries and, the hot water repair people. I don't know when they'll get here, but I'll be happy to see them when they do.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday, Friday, Friday is my Favorite Day

Andrew is in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The kids are downstairs playing in the courtyard. I survived another week of Middle School. The rains are about to pour down. Ants are crawling across my keyboard. I received so many sweet messages from home after my homesick blurb yesterday. We just received word that Andrew's brother and his wife are coming to visit us in October. David and Shari have been in India all year and are going to stop in on their way back to the U.S.

We have so much to be grateful for.  

The kids and I are hunkering in tonight. Chess class for Asher tomorrow morning and some pool time in the afternoon for all of us with new friends. Bunco with SSIS women for me tomorrow night and a high school babysitter for the kids. "Every little thing's gonna' be alright....."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

I'm tired and I wanna go Home.

I've been working a lot lately. It's good. And, it's exhausting. As the spouse and friend of many a teacher, of course I have seen the time and energy that teacher's put into their work. And now I am experiencing it firsthand. It's exhausting. Oh... did I say that already?

I feel so bad for this teacher who is sick. It is all completely unplanned. She was at school through Back-to-School night and then dropped. Almost literally. Into a hospital bed. First they thought Dengue Fever (you can bet we looked that RIGHT up on webMD), then they didn't know but were running tests. Now they think mononucleosis. And, just like a snap, my one day of subbing has turned into three straight weeks of middle schoolers. Who are so fun and goofy when they are. And so not when they're not. I think we are all getting sick of each other by now. I did hear from the teacher today. She is feeling a little better.... but only enough to check her email once per day. I'm not holding out great hopes for being home next week.

Andrew is away for a long weekend to attend International Baccalaureate (IB) training in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Later this month, he goes to Bali for a Week without Walls trip with sophomores from the high school. I get the kids and the middle school. Don't get me wrong. I am so grateful for all of these opportunities. In ALL their fullness.

And, quite frankly, I am homesick. Andrew is away and summer is ending in Oregon, which makes it harder to Skype and stay in touch with friends who are heading back to school.

I miss the sounds of frogs, crickets and creeks as I fall asleep at night. I miss the wag and greet of my dog's tail when she welcomed us home and the plunk of her head on my thigh when she wanted to go out and I was trying to get through that one more page. I miss our cat, Captain Whizbang, and how he would follow me around in the house every morning, just waiting for me to sit down so he could curl up on my green, fleece bathrobe. I miss writing to all of you. I miss talking to all of you. I miss good beer. I miss homemade pickles. I miss the sound of chickens scritch, scratching and cluck-clucking, calling out their pride when an egg is laid.

Everyone's fine. Everyone's good. Everyone's healthy. The water is running. And I just want you to know that I miss you.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

You don't always get what you want......

but you might need it .....sometime.

Tonight after dinner, the kids and I walked next door to Co-op Mart. I know what you are thinking. "Wow! A co-op right next door, how lucky is that?!" I know that you are thinking it because that's what I was thinking/hoping beyond hope for. But, no. Co-op Mart, the Reality, is a cross between Dollar Tree and Grocery Outlet. But 80 times busier. Skinnier aisles.  TV's hang from the ceiling about every 5 aisles, blaring (really, BLARING) advertising jingles. And everything is either in Vietnamese or Korean.

So there we were. On the search for glue for Asher's school project. Due tomorrow. Requiring glue. Or tape. Or at least something sticky.

After walking the aisles numerous times, we went to the checker.

Me: "Do you have glue?"

Her: leans forward, swanky haircut inclined in a listening position, eyebrows poised in the "Hm?" position.

Me: "Glue?", pantomiming spreading motions on my palm with one hand and then sticking them together with exaggerated expressions of great satisfaction when, in fact, I cannot get my hands to part.

Her: one finger up, puts out the closed sign at her register and departs.

Me: Smiles sheepishly, lifting one shoulder at the Korean woman next to me who huffs in disgust, grabs her basket and moves off in search of another checker.

Her: returns with a small slip of paper, which she thrusts at me. Pulls the pen out from behind her ear and inspects fingernails.

Me: writes g-l-u-e on the paper and hands it back with a quizzical wrinkle in the middle of my forehead.

Her: Intently studying. Holds out one hand. Chases off the person who is trying to get in line despite the closed sign. "You. Wait."

Elia: "Where is she going?"

Me: (confidently) "She's going to get help."

Her: Walks to the next checker, holds out the paper. Shake of head. Proceeds to the next checker and, in her increasing desperation, we see her begin to accost the customers as well with my slip of paper. She disappears into the crowd.

Me: Turn to kids, smiling feebly.

Her: Returns. Chases off customer by defiantly pointing out the close sign. Says something to me in Vietnamese.

Me: Shrugs with an "sorry, I'm an idiot" look.

Her: Sighs audibly, holds out one hand. "You. Wait."

Me: Watch her head toward the Customer Service desk. Smile feebly at the children. "Maybe yogurt?"

Asher: Straightens up in excitement. "Do you think that will work?"

Me: "No."

(All sink into a slouch until Checker enters station. Then stand straight with expectant smiles on our faces.)

Her: Says something in Vietnamese.

Us: Expectant smiles fade to confusion. Out of our periphery, a Manager appears.

Manager: "How I help, Madame." (in very good English)

Me: "Do you have glue?"

Him: blank look.

Me: "Glue?" I grab a Frequent Shopper application from the rack and make a big show of folding the paper, spreading my glue, sticking the two sides together. Once they are clearly stuck, I do it again. "Glue", I say proudly.

Him: "Ahhh." Goes briskly off to the customer service desk.

Me: Smile apologetically at the Checker.

Her: Smiles in a "whatever" way and inspects fingernails.

Manager: Returns with Frequent Shopper brochure, which he efficiently hands me, pointing out a few of the finer details. Presses the brochure into my hands, "OK?" he says.

Me: "Da, Ok", tucking the brochure under my arm.

Checker: rolls her eyes in disgust and gives me an inquiring look.

Me: waving my hand, "Ok, ok" I say, waving my hand in the air.

In the elevator back at our complex, I burst into laughter.

Asher and Elia: "What's so funny?"

I have just realized that the folded brochure is the exact size of my well glued Frequent Shopper application. And, it is written entirely in Vietnamese.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Scenes from Shopping in Vietnam

EscaRamp at LotteMart -
think Target on steroids
When we came to Vietnam, we brought only luggage with us. Our personal allowances of 2 checked bags and 2 carry-on bags each. In addition, we paid the excess baggage fee for 2 bags and sent 2 bags with teachers who were in Seattle for the summer. Once it all arrived, we had 20 bags worth of "stuff". Some of it, laughably, has been re-packed and sits in our store room, which we thankfully have in our apartment. Some stuff we bravely left at home, we really wish we would have brought.

Here are some of the "funnier" ones. We brought (2) full sets of sheets from all our home beds. At home in Oregon we have two twin beds and a queen. So we arrived in Vietnam with (4) sets of twin sheets and (2) sets of Queen, PLUS (due to a certain adult females peccadillo about sharing mattresses with strangers) a queen size, pillow top mattress cover.

Our apartment in Vietnam has (2) queen beds and (1) king bed. The equivalent of (1) suitcase wasted.

Choosing baked goods
We all brought long-sleeve shirts and our lightest weight rain coats. Truly, I cannot even imagine wearing them except for perhaps when, at some point in the future, we might throw an Oregon party and turn the air conditioner up REALLY high for atmospheric effect.

I brought a small selection of yarn, but left all my knitting needles at home. I left all my needle felting supplies at home and wish I had brought them - it would be fun to offer an after school class and, frankly, there are days when it would just be nice to be stabbing something.

Discovering new foods - Rambutan
Asher left all his legos. We are all regretting that decision. There are true legos here, if you have a spare $600.00. Asher has found a couple lego-like sets in a stationery store around the corner from the school that say something else on the box, although Asher swears they are TRUE legos. It is all about the shape, he says and not the box label. At the price of $600.00, hey, I say run with that! He has, unfortunately, bought them all out already.

Ben Thanh Market
All of us are missing books. My Kindle kept me going for awhile, but now that it is broken, I'm a little cranky at bed time. I have to wait for Asher to fall asleep before I can crawl into his bedroom and ease his book of his night table. He always catches me in the morning. Either I leave my bookmark in or he wakes up and (gasp!!) finds his book has gone missing. "Book Trolls", I tell him.

All this means that we have spent a lot of our initial time in Ho Chi Minh City shopping. Here's some scenes from some big and not-so-big markets of things we've found to buy in Vietnam.
Come for a drink?
Snake & Scorpion preserved in alcohol.
Drink it down "like a man"!
Inside Ben Thanh 

Vital skills for navigating the market:
I can't hear you,
I can't see you,
I can't talk to you.
Or perhaps preserved fawn is more to your taste?

Things are bigger here

With heat and humidity comes rapid growth. We have all been amazed at the differences we have seen in the local flora and fauna.

Garden snail on sidewalk

Imagine that guy eating your Oregon greens! On the other hand, the pollinators are also large. Here is a bee that we found (dead) on our balcony.

Dead Bee - toes for sizing purposes
And the cockroaches! Yikesa. Thankfully, we have not yet seen one of these inside our apartment. 

Dead Cockroach - toes for sizing purposes

Saturday, August 13, 2011

water in the desert

And the management company said, "Let there be water."  And the water ran from the faucets and spigots.  It ran across the backs of those that had been unwashed, and they were purified.  And also their children.  It flowed in all fixtures, and the unspeakable waste was vanquished from the land.  The water came in two forms, both hot and cold, and it washed the defiled plates and bowls which had sat for many weeks without washing.  And also the chopsticks.  The water flowed, and there was much rejoicing throughout the land.  

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Moving - Vietnamese Style

Although our water is not yet back on, we have decided to move back into our apartment. We are all falling apart from living in two places, not having all we need, and trying to get ourselves organized and situated for the new school year. Elia has been crying herself to sleep the past two days, "I want to go Home."

And we met with our landlord the other day. He won't even talk about giving our deposits back until our Realtor is sitting at the table with us. She is away. In England. For 3 more weeks. We haven't given it enough time he says. He doesn't know if the realtor will give him back his fee, he says. Talking to her on the phone won't be acceptable, he says.


It's his way of putting us off, of course. The realtor will give him his money back. She'd have to be crazy not to. She has done a lot of business with SSIS in the past and, I'm sure, wants to continue that relationship. We know that. He knows that.

So today when Andrew and the kids were at school, I moved us back from the hotel - Vietnamese style. Here's what I had on my back or on my bike.

Have I mentioned that I LOVE my bike?! It's very funny to think about the status of vehicles here. Cars are very expensive - 30% or more than the same car would be to purchase in America. Consequently, there are very few cars that are privately owned. Expats may work for companies that provide a car and driver and wealthy Vietnamese might own a car. Everyone else, except for the very poor are on motorbikes. And EVERYTHING is moved about the city by motorbike. We have seen multiple, large sheets of glass, desks, big screen tv's and much more being delicately balanced on the seat by a passenger.

What do local people think of us expat's happily gliding around the city on our bikes? Do they feel sorry for us? Of course I think I should get respect hauling my big load across town. I certainly get a lot of stares and some smiles. They might be thinking "Crazy white girl - moving here where she doesn't belong, taking our money AND too cheap to hire help."  

So here we are in our apartment. No running water, no refrigerator, but maybe we can start to feel a little more at home.

Monday, August 8, 2011

New Bike

Last week, one of the new Teacher Orientation activities was to go bike shopping. The school took us in the bus with the school driver. Turns out that our family was the only new family that went. And I was the only lucky purchaser that day!

My bike team

 I love my new bike. It is one speed and simple. It's my favorite color green, it has a padded seat for passengers and a wire basket, and it came with a free rain poncho. Traffic here is a bit crazy. There are very few lights, and nobody obeys them anyway. My days of urban riding in Portland will really pay off. The only way to get respect around here whether you are on foot or bike is to plow in and take up space.

The Guard
Shopping in Ho Chi Minh City is a funny experience. Nearly every place has a guard. Mostly you see the guard doing what the bike shop guard is doing in this picture - standing back, observing, giving unsolicited advice, and every now and then emitting a disgusted grunt before snatching the screwdriver away and doing it themselves. Compared to American employment standards, we commonly see three employees to every one you would expect doing the same job in America. It's good for employment, but can be daunting if you're a customer. The other day I went to look at sheets - I entered the store and was immediately approached and intimately followed around the store by three teenage sales people. I couldn't look at something without one of them grabbing it and ripping it out of its package for my closer inspection. It was so overwhelming and I felt so bad about the mess that I left without buying anything. 

It wasn't until bike shopping that I realized this is just how its done here - TIV.

Drip, drip, drip

I wish I could say that is the sound of our water running in our house. But, no. It is the sound of my sweat dripping. I have never thought of myself as having much cleavage, but in this humid climate, I appear to be well endowed - at least the sweat thinks so. I find myself wanting to stop Vietnamese women on the street and ask them what they are wearing under their shirts. I'm not sure, but I don't think this falls in the category of culturally appropriate conversation.

Clean Laundry - by Elia
We have been promised, "by three independent sources" as Andrew likes to say, that the water will be back on in our apartment by tonight. Though I have been here since 1:00 pm and jumping up every 30 minutes or so to alternately peek out the window (where I might expect to see water workers) or to try the tap, there is nothing. HA, I say. "TIV" (for This Is Vietnam) say the teachers at Andrew's school.

Since I last wrote, our refrigerator has also stopped working, discovered by arriving home from the hotel on Saturday to the overwhelming stench of rotten food. On the bright side, the cabbage was well on its way to sauerkraut and the milk miraculously was cheese. The kids' nintendo and my Kindle have also acquired some mysterious malady - neither working and for no immediately discernible reason. And our renters back home are having difficulty making their first rent payment.

We are working very hard, and harder every day, to not see this as some great sign from the Universe that we are supposed to be someplace else.

Friday, July 29, 2011


With our tail between our legs and our bags of dirty laundry, we have beat a retreat back to the Hoang Yen Hotel. I am reclining on the bed in our suite (we even got the same room back), luxuriating after a long, hot shower.

Two nights ago, the kids and I went down to the Guard's latrine to fill up our garbage cans with water. We barely made it in the front door before Elia lost her grip. The container she was carrying lost its lid and water spilled everywhere. We were all frozen, watching the water pump out - over our shoes, over the dining room table legs, over the floor. We had no towels to clean it up. Sobbing, Elia said, "I only wanted to help!"  Of course she did.

The kids have been great with the whole situation.They've been helping fill buckets at the guard shack and running back and forth with dishes from the bathroom to the kitchen all week. But today, it's nice to leave that behind for a bit and to feel clean, shaven, and ready for the week.

We have been fortunate in the support offered us by Andrew's school. Staff there have been helping us to interpret the water situation this entire week. Many have offered their swimming pools and showers. The Principals at both the Elementary and High School offered the return to the hotel as a possibility earlier this week. We have been making it all work with trips to the swim pool and sponge baths. But last night, we got word that it may be another entire week before the situation is remedied. Andrew starts work tomorrow and we are out of clean underwear. When the School Director called us last night to offer us the hotel, we gratefully accepted.

Andrew starts New Teacher Orientation tomorrow. We will all join in for a kick-off brunch and there will be many opportunities for the kids and I to join in throughout the week. On Wednesday, all the teachers return and the kids will join in for children's activities. We are all looking forward to meeting some of the people who will be filling our days in the year ahead.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Cash Economy

We are almost out of money until Andrew gets paid in a few days.

Things here cost more than we expected. Andrew received an advance on his first paycheck, which was delivered to us in Vietnamese dong at the airport. And, of course, we brought some money with us to tide us over. But, we didn't bring enough. I'm trying to think back on how we calculated, but the fact remains that we just didn't bring enough.

Our apartment required two months rent as deposit, and then we needed to pay two months rent up front. That took the bulk - $3600.00. We certainly didn't understand that before we came. Andrew and I had a good laugh when we discovered that we had both misunderstood, but in different ways. I thought we paid two months rent up front - one month as deposit, one month as rent ($1800 for this apartment, by my calculations). Andrew thought we paid two months rent as deposit, and then paid our first month's rent (for a total of $2700). In the future, we will pay three month's rent at one time, requiring careful budgeting. And all of this is paid in cash.

As always, there are ironies. The school was willing to pay for the hotel (including breakfast, refrigerator bar, laundry, running water) for up to 10 days. We were there 5. We wanted to move in to our apartment as quick as possible so we could start to settle. Then the water went off and we were out more cash than we planned for. Cards are not accepted readily here as they are in the States. We could use our debit card to access our cash back home, but only the really fancy places accept them. Of course, we don't want to go to the fancy store and pay $10 for something we know we can get from the local market for $1..... once we have cash.

  So we can't clean and we can't shop. We can walk only as far as we can entice our 7-year old, generally requiring a paid treat somewhere in the outing. We don't have enough quite yet to buy our bikes, although we would save a lot of taxi fare if we had them. We have found electronics here to be exceptionally expensive compared to US prices, so we can buy a lot of cafe sua da's from Ms. Mai's shop around the corner before it will become cost effective to purchase a coffee maker.

And, of course, all the stuff we "need", we have in a box at home. Now, why didn't we ship our stuff? Oh yes, Andrew has to be here and working for 3-4 months before he can get his work permit. And you can't receive a shipment in Vietnam unless you have a work permit!

We profess to a "green" lifestyle, but here we are buying coffee every day in bad plastic cups, with plastic lids, plastic straws and plastic carry bags included and re-purchasing almost everything that we left in a box or gave away back home.

And we know that this is how most people here are doing it. We joined a google group of neighbors in this area. 95% of the posts are from people trying to sell their stuff because they are leaving Vietnam. We went to one "garage sale" and picked up a few things. We don't want to do that too much though because we can get reimbursed by Andrew's school up to a certain amount for Settling In expenses. Requiring a receipt. Requiring you to buy things from a place that can give receipts. Requiring you to do most of your shopping in a store, away from the open markets where things are the least expensive and your dollar goes directly to the person selling to you.

In our good moments, it's all very strange and laughable.