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...