Friday, October 13, 2017

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Time passes quickly.  In a less than a week I will have finished my first year in Vietnam.  One of my classes recently took me out for my birthday.  How am I 37 already?  I never really reflect on age, but it was surreal seeing that number 37 candle alight on top of the cake.  In any case, I would like to share some other memorable moments from Saigon.

Beware of Sharks

A few Sundays ago, the Brothers were supposed to be studying.  However, a number of them got in trouble after they were caught watching a documentary about sharks.  They are only allowed to watch movies on Friday nights.  I asked a Brother some questions.  How do you say “watch” in Vietnamese?  How do you say “movie”?  One day at lunch while sitting next to the Priest in charge I said, (in Vietnamese), "Tonight, I would like to invite everyone to watch a shark movie."  Based on his stern, surprised look I could see my attempt at semi-sarcastic American humor hadn’t broken the cultural barrier.

Sink or Swim

There aren't a lot of people that have the opportunity to take swimming lessons in Vietnam.  Many people grow up not knowing how to swim and drowning is a real danger for young children willing to take wild risks. Many simply jump into a river or lake without any ability.  One story that adults tell children is that if you catch a dragonfly and force it bite you on the belly button you will be able to swim, but not just once.  For boys they say it takes 7 times, for girls, 9.  Some students in my class recalled this practical joke from their childhood and most seemed to be victim of at least 1-2 dragonfly bites in their pursuit of swimming.  A couple of them boasted that they were clever and never allowed themselves to be bitten. One student sadly admitted that he had been bitten 10 times because after 7 he still couldn't swim and his older sister insisted he learn. I asked him if he had the dragonfly bite him while he was around adults.  He said he did for the first five times, but that he did the rest in private because everyone kept laughing at him.

You Can’t Handle the Truth

A 9-yr old girl in one of my classes speaks excellent English.  There have been a couple of occasions that she’s said, “I have a secret, BUT I’M NOT TELLING ANYONE!  DON’T EVEN ASK ME!”.  The rest of the class and I assure that we understand and that she doesn’t have to tell us her secret.  However, she will exclaim within seconds as if she’s been through the most intense interrogation, “OKAY, OKAY!! I’ll tell you, BUT YOU CAN’T TELL ANYONE!!”

The Candy Man Can

Most of the kids here are afraid to speak English.  At times, during my class this summer it was like pulling teeth to get them to participate.  Games and music helped, but there still wasn’t much enthusiasm.  I had given a handout of tongue twisters to practice pronunciation.  I asked one 11-year old boy to begin. 

Me: Could you please read #1?
Boy: “No, I don’t like.”
Me: “Ok, how about I read first and then you can repeat after me?”
Boy: “No, I don’t like.”
Me: “We can just do one word at a time.”
Boy: “No, I don’t like.”

Then I asked one girl in my class who is studying English at university to translate to the class in Vietnamese.  I began my passionate plea: “This class isn’t for a grade.  It’s ok if you make mistakes.  I’m not going to make fun of you.  No one is going to make fun of you here.  If someone does laugh at you because you say something incorrectly, then I will ask that student to leave the class.  We’re going to help each other, but I can’t help you if I can’t hear your pronunciation.  I just want you to feel more comfortable listening and speaking.  If you make a mistake, no problem.  I just want you to try your best.  Do you understand?” 

 I try again...

Me: Could you please try to read #1?
Boy: “No, I don’t like.”

So, it seems the speech didn’t have an effect. 
Eventually, I discovered the secret to get them speaking.  The secret was candy.  I found kids will face off in a battle-royale for candy. 

My hat’s off to you, Mr. Hershey.

Teacher of the Year? Well, maybe 2018…

One class I decided to teach the children about how to describe the food they eat.  I wrote on the board “HOW DOES IT TASTE?” and thought I had adequately explained that question.  I bought a variety of items from the supermarket and passed them around class one at time.

Potato chips:  How do they taste?  Potato chips taste salty
Black coffee:  How does it taste?  Black coffee tastes bitter.
Sugar:  How does it taste?  Sugar tastes sweet.

Over the next hour and a half, we continued with an assortment of flavors; bland, minty, sour, fruity, meaty, fishy, nutty, tangy, spicy, bittersweet, cheesy, buttery, vinegary, etc.”

When we finished, I told them during the last 15 minutes of class I would like them to stand up, tell me the name of their favorite food and try to describe how it tastes.

Me:  What is your favorite food?
1st boy:  Pho Bo. (Vietnamese beef noodle soup)
Me:  How does it taste?
1st boy:  Taste?  What is taste?  I don’t understand.
Me: *deep sigh*

From the Mouths of Babes

During the summer, I was out for coffee one afternoon with the Brother in charge of the children’s summer camp.  He heard someone at a table next to us say, "What the h#ll?!".  He asked what that meant and I said it is a swear when someone is angry or frustrated.  It means something like, "What's going on?!, Why did this happen?!, Why did you do that?!"  The next week at camp he called me on stage.  A crowd of kids was gathered on the floor.  I could feel 200 sets of small eyes staring attentively.  Then the Brother announced, "Today, Brandon is going to teach you about, “What the h#ll?!"”  I quickly cupped my hand over the microphone and said, "No, no. I'm not teaching them that! They don't need to know it.”  He replied, “It’s ok, you can just tell them why it’s bad.” “No, I’m not going to repeat it. They shouldn't even be hearing that.”, I said while walking off stage. The Brother stammered a bit before he uttered to the audience, "Uh, ok, never mind.  Let’s get up and sing a song."  It seems the damage was already done.  The rest of the camp 5-yr old boys kept coming up to me proudly proclaiming, "HELLO! WHAT THE HEY-O?!".  I guess I should be glad that some of the English is sticking.

The Cringeworthy

There are instances when you swear you can hear the squeal of tires and you begin to recoil inside because you know there's about to be a crunch of glass and metal.  I’ve had a couple of those metaphorical car crash moments.

A couple of weeks ago some new students attended my Saturday night class.  It was a family with two young boys, ages 6 and 8.  It was a bit awkward because the Saturday night class is quite advanced.  The majority of the group is made up of professionals in their 20s and 30s, university students, and high school seniors.  We talk about a wide range of topics; the environment, traffic, travel, education, and anything else that is on their minds.  During the last 5 minutes of class we choose a topic for the next week.  One girl stated that she wanted to discuss human rights.  Some students said that the topic of human rights was too broad and they wanted to narrow it down a bit.  One suggested we talk about child rap.  Child rap?, I replied confusedly.  He responded, “Yes, you know child abuse, child rap.  I think it’s called pedo-…pedo-feel-…”  At this point I turned red from embarrassment when I realized that we weren’t talking about the next Snoop Dogg.  I went into stunned silence as I locked eyes with a shocked and wide-eyed mother and her two little children from across the room.  A couple of more students chimed in, “Yes, that’s a good topic.  It’s a big problem.”  I could only stutter, “Uhh…umm…”.  Thankfully a man interjected, “Are we really going to talk about that for a whole hour?  How about we talk about healthy lifestyles instead.” “YES, YES!  Next week let’s discuss healthy living.”, I quickly replied.  The mother fervently nodded in agreement. 

Home Sweet Home

I finished the day late.  It was 9PM.  I had been teaching English since the early morning hours in a downtown district of Saigon.  After pulling into the community on the back of a motorbike taxi, I paid the driver, removed my helmet, slung the backpack over my shoulder, and began a tired trod back to my room.  Along the way I spotted a group of three young boys pointing at me, smiling and waving.  I smiled and waved in return.  Then the boy in the middle gleefully grinned and shouted a salutation, “F- you!”. 

*Ugh. Thanks, kid.  ---And a special thanks to the Hollywood movie industry for their stellar influence on our youth.  It’s good to be home.*

Friday, September 1, 2017

Tears in Heaven

It’s been a fun summer.  I’ve been able to spend much more time teaching and interacting with parishioners and youth from local schools and parishes.  This has given me the opportunity to hear funny stories, family histories, and future dreams from many people living outside the immediate confines of the seminary.  I hope that the longer I stay here the beautiful brushstrokes created by each person I meet continue to paint a more complete picture of the cultural complexity that is Vietnam. 

Now, a new school year is beginning at the school of theology.  The Brothers recently returned from their seasonal assignments at various parishes around the country.  I heard reports that for a few months a statue of Mary had been weeping blood in a poor rural farming village in the south.  The Brother that was assigned to that particular parish is one of my closer friends in the community and we often joke.  As I headed of out of church after Mass, I caught a glimpse of him for the first time since he’d been back:

“Ah *clicking my tongue and shaking my head in disapproval*, what did you do to make Our Mother cry?!”, I jested.

He replied sullenly and without hesitation, “No.  Me, you, all of us.  All of us make her cry.”

*What a wise reply*, I thought.

I reached out to shake his hand and said in agreement, “It’s true.  Me, you, all of us.”

As he shook my hand he said.  “You don’t know what it’s like to see those tears.  I can’t explain the feeling.  Seeing that changed something inside me.”  He was serious when recalling that memory, quite unlike his jovial, care-free self.

I told someone back home this story and they asked, “What does that mean?”

Maybe this is a better way to explain.  Perhaps, the most well-known case of a weeping statue of Mary happened in October of 1973 in Akita, Japan.  A nun at the convent where this was occurring, Sister Sasagawa, received the following message from Mary:

The thought of the loss of so many souls is the cause of my sadness. If sins increase in number and gravity, there will be no longer pardon for them.”

Mary is a mother.  The Mother of God, but also the Mother of us all.  She cries for each soul, each child that is lost.  The pains of losing a child in this life must be devastating.  There are no words to properly express condolences.  I cannot even begin to imagine what grief those parents go through every day.  However, I do have faith.  The faith that that one day that child and those parents will be reunited in heaven.  But, to lose a child for eternity with no hope of reunion, well that suffering is infinitely more incomprehensible.  This is why Mary sheds tears of blood.  For the pain caused by the careless (and not so careless) sins of each one of us.  We must turn from evil and do good while there is still time for reparation.

But before all things have a constant mutual charity among yourselves: for charity covereth a multitude of sins.  1 Peter 4:8. 

While the Brothers have been preparing for classes I’ve had some additional free time to download and devour a number of great books on Kindle.  I was especially inspired and impressed with, The Shed that Fed a Million Children, by Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow.  It’s the story of Mary’s Meals, God’s Providence, and the tremendous transformation tiny tangible acts of love can make in the lives of others.  If you have the time I highly recommend the read, but if you’d like the cliff notes a link to a video showing a brief overview of their work is below:

Maybe you’ll feel compelled to learn more about their mission, get involved in a volunteer effort, or make a monetary donation ($19.50 feeds one child for a whole year).

Let’s pray that our lives are measured in smiles, not tears.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Snippets and Snapshots

It’s been quite a while since my last post, so I thought I would just throw together some pictures and amusing anecdotes from my time here so far.  After Easter, I went on an outing to Da Nang with the community in HCMC and I recently returned from a 2-week class trip with the Brothers that graduated from the philosophy school in Da Lat.  We travelled across Vietnam to visit each of their families and stopped to sightsee at a number of beautiful places in-between.

Caucasians are your comrades.  Many times, if I am with a group of Vietnamese, they are quick to point out anyone with a western look, “Hey, look!  Your friend!”  Occasionally I come across an American, but most of my “friends” here seem to be Russian.

Some of the most common questions I receive:

                                                                                                                  “Why are you so tall?”  An uncle of one Brother made a comment about my larger size, “Ah, this why they (Americans) killed so many of us during the war.”

“Why is your skin so white?” After one little girl asked me this question I replied, “I eat a lot of fish.”  The little girl responded *with crossed arms and a huffy, disappointed look*, “But I eat fish too!!!”

“Why is your hair yellow?”  I try to explain that my hair is brown at best, but I guess if it’s not black it’s considered yellow.

“How old are you?”  When people ask me my age and I tell them that I’m 36 they usually respond with something like, “Oh, you look so young!”  My response: “That’s because I don’t eat dog meat or drink Tiger beer.”

“Are you married?  Do you have a girlfriend?”  One time when I said “No.” to these questions a girl in my class perked up and asked “Would you marry a Vietnamese girl?”  To which I responded, “I don’t know.  That wasn’t something I had intended or planned on doing.”  The Brother helping teach the class with me said “Ah, look, you’ve killed her hopes.”  I turned to him and said, “What do you mean I’ve killed her hopes?” Then I asked her, “How old are you?”.  “19.”, she replied.  I quickly went to the whiteboard and did a math problem with the class: “Let’s see, 36-19=17.  *circling the answer in red marker* “17.  That’s a very big difference.”  To which she replied, “No, problem!” Me: “YES, PROBLEM!”

I’ve always had an, “It’s fine, whatever” attitude, but here you learn that is especially important.  People here can be very blunt and tell it like it is.  Without giving it a second thought, they might blurt out something that a westerner may feel to be rude or insulting.  I also find the opinions are often polar opposite from one person to another, so I’ve learned not to care too much about what others say and let everything roll off my back.  One Brother said he told a European girl that she was fat.  He didn’t understand why she got angry and looked sad.  I had to explain to him that western girls don’t particularly like being told that they’re old, fat, etc., but I’m not sure why Vietnamese girls would appreciate comments like that either.


Sometimes there’s a sense of being a pseudo-celebrity.  Every now and then I feel like a zoo animal when people watch my every move.  One time while I was waiting at a bus station a father crouched down in front of me with his young son and pointing at me said something like, “Look, it’s an American outside of his natural habitat!  Don’t make any sudden moves, we don’t want to scare him”. 

Many people want to take selfies with you.  Not just the people you’ve met before, but random people in random places.  I have found during a number of these occasions that it wasn’t good enough to stand by them and take the picture.  They want to position you properly and get the perfect pose for their future Facebook post. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      At the home of one Brother there was a little boy around the age of 3 or 4 years old that would cry, run and hide every time he saw me.  I didn’t understand why he had such an adverse reaction.  Then his parents said something to the Brother like, “Oh, we always tell him that he must eat his food or the Americans will come and take him away.”  Since he had never seen an American before I guess he thought his parents were finally making good on their threat.  I learned the phrase he kept screaming at me was, “I ATE ALL MY FOOD! I ATE ALL MY FOOD!”.

Another little girl, also about 3 or 4 years old, comes to the community every afternoon with her two sisters to play.  The three of them often ask me questions and I try my best to listen and answer using my extremely limited Vietnamese vocabulary.  The majority of the time I don’t understand what they are saying.  When I can’t find a Brother to translate I usually just shrug my shoulders and say, “Xin lôi. Tôi không hiểu tiếng Việt. (I’m sorry.  I don’t understand Vietnamese.)  I do this so often that now every time the three-year-old sees me she will come up to me shrugging her shoulders and say, “Hello! Hello!  Tôi không hiểu tiếng Việt.” (I don’t understand Vietnamese.)

I was at English camp with the children in Da Lat earlier this week for a couple of days before returning to Ho Chi Minh City.  During this time, I chatted quite a bit with one 11-year-old boy that spoke English very well.  I told him I was leaving soon and he asked me how I was getting back to HCMC. 
Me: “I’m going back by bus.” 
The boy: “Which bus?”. 
Me: “I’m not sure which bus, the Brothers bought the tickets.” 
The boy: “Is it the company that starts with a P, or a T?” 
Me: “I don’t know.  Why does it matter?”
The boy: “Well if it’s the one with the T then you might die.” 
Girl sitting next to us listening in: “Yes, you might die on that bus.” 
They explained that the drivers were a bit reckless for that company. 
The boy: “Well, if they give you a blanket, then you’re on the good one.  If not, you might die.” 

As I boarded the bus later that night I saw blankets on the seats.👍

I went to an end of the school year party at the waterpark with the 6-9th graders from the school.  I had class with a number of these students this past spring (…with much needed support from a Vietnamese translator).   Everything went smoothly when we played charades to communicate with each other, but the students were scared to speak English.  We were sitting around the table eating guava.  I pointed to the guava and asked one of the younger girls from my class, “What is the name of this fruit, in Vietnamese?”.  Immediately she shouted, CHA! CHAAAAAAAA! (FATHER! FATHER!) (She didn’t understand and she knew he was the only one else on the trip that could speak fluent English.)  One of her friends laughed at her and calmed her down by explaining the question I was asking.  To which she answered with a deep sigh of relief, “Oh, ổi.”  After that we didn’t speak anymore English.  And the world was at peace again…
There are some phrases in English that every Vietnamese kid seems to have rehearsed like a script.  The other day when I was introducing myself to a group of about 200 kids I asked them, “How are you?”  To which they all replied in perfect unison, “I’m fine, thank you, and you?”  I’ve only met a few people with an alternative answer to this question.  One kid said, “I’M GREAT!” and another said “I’m still alive…”.

When living in an environment with people that don’t speak much English you sit through a lot of conversations and activities that seem meaningless.  Every few sentences I can pick out a word or two that I understand, but for the most part I have no idea what anyone is talking about.  After a while you begin to tune out completely in these situations and think about something else.  Yesterday, I talked to another volunteer from Scotland that had been on a trip with her community and she described that in those instances she, “Goes to her happy place.”

Here's to finding your happy place...