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.