From Teacher Abby Mensing:
Let me start by recapping the journey here to Guest House Seven at Can Tho University, Campus One. My trip began with a standstill; a plane mysteriously needed to be located and so its prospective passengers enjoyed the delights of O’Hare airport for an additional three hours. As the time for boarding approached, I overheard one fellow traveller remark that “we should be boarding in twenty minutes.” His fellow traveler riposted, “we should have been boarding three hours ago.” Well said, fellow traveler.
Upon boarding the plane, I was seated next to two adolescent brothers returning to their home in Singapore. The elder brother (seated next to me) inquired as to my destination and added that “there’s lots of weird stuff to see” in Hong Kong. He informed me that I would see turtles for eating sold on the streets, adding that he found himself wanting to buy them and set them free.
The brothers were agreeable companions on the incredibly long flight. I have no desire to take a 16-hour plane ride again. Perhaps it’s like childbirth and I’ll forget how horrible it was by the time I have to return. I am, perhaps, exaggerating the horridness of the flight; nothing awful happened—it was just long and somewhat uncomfortable and probably worsened by my fear of developing deep vein thrombosis which meant that every time my leg even felt like twitching I was convinced that I was an emergency procedure waiting to happen.
The real travel adventure began once we landed in Hong Kong. The flight circled and the descent was bumpy due to a tropical storm in the area. After landing, I exited the plane and discovered an airline representative right outside the gate calling for passengers to Ho Chi Minh City. A small gaggle of us assembled and we proceeded at a trot to the Cathay Pacific transfer counter since apparently United’s flight to Vietnam was canceled so they’d shuffled us over to Cathay.
An officious and irritated silver-haired gentleman began shouting as us for our passports and baggage claims since, we were left to devise, we had to hurry since our new flight was scheduled to leave sooner than the previous one. Once the ticket situation was sorted, we ran to our gate only to discover that the flight was delayed. Of course it was.
Upon arriving late in Ho Chi Minh City (thanks, storm) and making it through the slowest line in customs, I dragged myself and my bags outside to discover that the driver who was supposed to meet me wasn’t there. A gentleman from another hotel took pity on me and phoned the number I’d been given: the driver had given up waiting and left. I thought he was supposed to be returning to collect me, but half an hour later (and after having refused many taxi-drivers’ offers), I finally succumbed when one of the taxi men came up and had me call the hotel again. At this time I learned that the driver had just gone home and I should just catch a cab. Resigned, I gave in and agreed to go with the driver with the phone.
We did eventually arrive at the hotel; I did make my way to my room and eventually fell asleep before hunger awoke me earlier than I’d planned. The Spring Hotel breakfast is as lovely and delicious as everyone promised it would be.
I awoke with just enough time to throw myself together before the reception desk called to inform me that my ride was there. Descending with baggage in tow, I found Quyên (“When” with a long “e”), a teacher in the English department and the most adorable young woman waiting for me. She was quite concerned that I’d only arrived that morning and suggested that I should have had the day to rest before driving down to the Delta. I tried to assure her that it was fine, adding that since I’m here I may as well just crack on.
The ride down was three and a half hours of pleasant conversation, drowsiness and a break for lunch with the driver. Quyên was dismayed by my lack of competence with chopsticks as I tried to eat my bowl of beef pho (delicious), but by the end of the meal the driver gave me thumbs-up, so perhaps I made a little progress?
It seems bizarre, as I sit here tapping away at the keyboard while listening to dogs howl and horns blare outside, that it’s still Friday evening over there while I’ve already slipped into Saturday morning here. Plans for the day include grocery shopping since I’m in need of many practical things: soap, tissue, house slippers, another towel….
It’s a rather sad state of affairs that my list is still so long, considering the tour of grocery stores Thu took me on yesterday. However, my morning began with Mr. Quan collecting me to head to the university for an orientation of sorts. Quyên drove me over there Thursday evening to make sure that I knew how to get their on my own. Never fear, Mr. Quan was there in the morning.
First we stopped for breakfast at a very pretty café. We ate on the back patio surrounded by stone floors, wading pools, lush vegetation and glorious flowers. Breakfast itself continues to please here: eggs with chili sauce and onions, a baguette and a sea-salt/pepper mixture with fresh lime to squeeze onto before adding the mixture to the eggs.
Mr. Quan apologized for having me picked up the day I arrived in Vietnam, but I reassured him that’s that was fine. If I’m going to be here, I may as well be where I’ll be living/working rather than wandering around Saigon in a jet-lagged stupor. We discussed his upcoming trip to Australia and then proceeded to the university.
I’m here under the auspices of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities and was introduced to administrative staff, the dean, and the head of the department and several of my fellow teachers. I only wish I remembered all their names. I was then introduced to Anh Thu, who was polished and professional in a teal blazer, black trousers, and a sleek bob. My mentor/advisor/tour-guide is a no-nonsense young woman instead of the motherly woman in her fifties that I’d be envisaging.Whatever I needed, she seemed to take as a personal mission to find, and I appreciated her guidance as we wandered around the Vietnamese equivalents of Costco and Super Target. Our shopping day was actually split in half: first we toured the city in the morning, then she went to class, and I lounged at the Guest House until she showed up bearing bread as she was concerned that I hadn’t eaten anything. Thu asked if I’d like to go to her French class with her. I did, and afterwards she helped me find me a gas burner to cook on and a yoga mat. We had success with the burner, but struck out on the mat. Although, as Thu reminded me and as I said to her, “there’s time.” She left me with my groceries and advised me to take some rest, reminding me that I’d just arrived yesterday.
Thu invited me to her French class. She explained that everyone in this small class was a teacher working on their master’s in English. We were a few minutes late to class and our entrance did cause a bit of a stir. The professor was a short, dapper gentleman who permitted me to stay, explained (in his French-from-France accent) that this was a beginners’ class and then allowed his class to ask me questions in an attempt to dissipate the surprise of my arrival and get the class members to practice their French. I fielded questions about why I was there, what I thought of Vietnamese cuisine, and what my hobbies were. The professor kept repeating my answers and at first I thought he was correcting my pronunciation (still a possibility), but it occurred to me that he was repeating them with emphasis to ensure that his students understood.
Mr. Quan (the deputy chair of the department) was apologetic about the Saturday class, but not hopeful that it could be rescheduled. He did give me tacit permission to cancel class for a week or two if I want to take a trip as long as the students have some assignment they’re supposed to be working on. From my conversation with him and the chair of the department, I gathered that this year the volunteer teachers are going to be more integrated into the educational system. There will no more of this lone-cowboy classroom business; there’s a set syllabus to follow. This is supposed to make me feel more involved in the workings of the university and provide me with a support group of colleagues. For example, I will not be allowed to proctor my own exam, but assigned another teacher’s to proctor and mark. How this is all going to shake out, I have no idea.
My concerns about my week-to-week schedule (and worry that my students are already two weeks behind and how to catch them up so that they’re not penalized because I arrived late) are in contrast to the dean’s advice to gently warm them up on the first day and go easy. I don’t know if things were a rousing success this morning, but I wouldn’t call it a complete fail either. The Dean found me before class began. I’d arrived around 6:30, noted that everything was quiet and that all the doors were padlocked, gone for breakfast, and returned to find more of a bustle in the air.
After I quick check in the bathroom mirror to ensure that I didn’t have something stuck in my teeth, I descended to the second floor where I was cornered by the Dean. After inquiring about my living conditions again, he told me to make use of my class monitor (basically a student there to help with anything you don’t know how to do yourself). Then Mr. Dan (?) from the administration came up to unlock the door. The students all filed in, taking off their shoes by the door. In response to my question, the Dean said that I could keep mine on, but I’m not sure if that’s a teacher or Westerner privilege.
I stepped inside and noticed a pile of backpacks/bags jumbled on top of a table just inside the door. With this classroom there isn’t much spatial flexibility: narrow tables are positioned in long, horizontal rows facing the desk at the front. They all have computer equipment on them, so moving furniture around is no go. My “blackboard” consists of a whiteboard that seriously needed to be cleaned, put down my things, and kicked class off.
We began with a session of “two truths and lie” about me, although, upon reflection, I think I got my truths and lie confused. Oh well. I then had the class do the same and shooed them into circulation to see what their classmates had to say.
After that, I may have slowed things down too much, but I did want a minute with each student (there are forty in all of my classes). To that end, I asked them to write a paragraph about why they were learning English, what they hoped to accomplish/improve, and what they’d like to do in class. While that was going on, I had each come up individually and help me pronounce his or her name. Some gave up when confronted with my inability to get it right and gave me an English version. Most of them clucked a bit over my struggles with Vietnamese phonemes.
They were also a bit surprised when I requested that they turn in their work (that’s right, my dears, I’ll keep you on your toes) so that I could read it. Post-class read-through, I’m impressed with the effort and thoughtfulness many of the students put into their work. Some love the language in and of itself (or so they say) but most are learning to get a better job.
After that, I had them play tour guide. They were divided into groups and instructed to choose some part of Can Tho for me to visit and then present their choice to the class (the Floating Market was mentioned several times). One enterprising group interviewed me so that they could make the recommendation best suited to me. We then took a break after the presentations and I had a cluster of students around my desk asking me where I was from, etc.
Thu came through like a champion this morning. She helped me return my faulty iron to the Big C (Vietnam’s answer to Costco) and purchase a new one. Since I’d mentioned needing to get some storage things, she offered to help me shop, so we wandered around the store looking for such thrilling things like towels and garbage containers.
I was utterly charmed by a bright, sky-blue plastic bucket with a lid that to me sang of being a bathroom garbage bin. Thu began by telling me no, that it was for rice or water storage, but ultimately indulged my Western idiosyncrasies. After collecting some towels and house shoes (pink flip flops), we headed to a yoga studio because Thu thought they might have the mat I’d been looking for. They did!
Thu then mentioned that she’d spotted some bike helmets near her house and was going to buy one for me, but there were so many colors so I should choose. We cruised up to the helmet shop and decided that the lower cost option in silver would suit me best. Frankly, I’m not sure that I need a bike helmet since I also have a motorbike helmet. But everyone at the university insisted and Thu had gone to the trouble of finding it, so….I think it rang it at around thirteen dollars (the yoga mat was ten). It was a bit of an expensive morning.
I suspect that I could keep a journal entitled “things learned on the backseat of a motorbike” since Thu likes to chat while we’re cruising around town. Today she told me about her parents who gather coconuts to sell at the market, the various types of coconuts, and the differences between city and country schools (guess where the kids are over-stressed and pressured to perform). Her monologues are always engaging although hearing them can be tricky with the roar of traffic around us and the wind blustering past.
Things were afoot at House Seven today. When I returned home from class this morning, it was apparent that the housekeeper had been in. Mostly, because my mattress had been returned to my room from where I had lugged it upstairs yesterday evening to sleep, away from the whine of the ceiling fan. Since the door to that upstairs sanctuary was now locked, I was a bit concerned … especially with the fan squealing with porcine indignation in the background.
However, later that afternoon, the housekeeper returned with two gentlemen. We all tramped to my room and, the fan was turned on and discussed. After a series of hand gestures from the housekeeper, I grasped that everyone would be returning to solve the problem. They did! My horrid, wretched old fan has been replaced by a lovely, quite new white one. The housekeeper explained that she’d realized that I’d slept upstairs because I couldn’t stand the sound. I confirmed her story. This entire conversation basically took place in gestures and facial expressions.