First post from Elena Robertson, who is teaching at An Giang University:
I have officially been in Long Xuyen for an entire month. I thought that, for my first blog, I’d talk about something other than teaching or the volunteer work that I do. Instead, I wanted to try and give you an idea of what being in Vietnam has been like–the weird things I’ve become accustomed to, the surprising aspects of life here and the hilarity I find in 99% of my life’s activities.
- Talking about eating dogs in a serious, non-joking manner. I’m not bringing this up first to perpetuate a weird ‘othering’ stereotype, but to emphasize how often it happens and how alarming it was at first. People here really do eat dog, and it’s even considered a delicacy. Did you know we eat something pathetic like 0.25% of edible foods in America? Some people don’t have the luxury of being so picky and so dog might show up on a plate once in a while. While I eat dog? It depends on the circumstance, but I don’t think so. I’d prefer to be terrified of living dogs instead of terrified about the ramifications of eating a dead one.
- The traffic. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are famous for their mesmerizing traffic: I don’t really mind it, because you have to pay attention and I’ve never been so aware of the space my physical being occupies. Crossing the street in the big cities is an adventure, a feat of bravery, a game of chicken where the threat of death is all too real. The traffic in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City I can deal with–it’s the traffic in Long Xuyen that really scares me. The traffic in Hanoi and HCMC is undeniably bad, but the drivers are undeniably good. The traffic in Long Xuyen isn’t too bad, but people here are just straight up bad at driving. I’ve been partially hit by a motorbike when I was slowly meandering down the road (on my side, mind you) and the driver didn’t even blink. People are bad at driving and I think it is 500% scarier to cross the street in Long Xuyen than anywhere else in the whole wide world. I would rather take on Mumbai than Long Xuyen, and that’s saying something.
- Hearing noises in the night and pretending that it’s “just the wind,” while knowing full well that these noises are made by living creatures other than myself. I don’t mind the geckos–they eat the more terrifying creatures. It’s cockroaches I’m truly afraid of. These monsters simply don’t exist on the West Coast, and I nearly faint with fear every time I see one. So, bring on the geckos, I say. Except for this really loud gecko that has literally chirped me awake on multiple occasions. Gecko chirping is really weird and I suggest you google it.
- In a related vein, I now close my eyes every time I turn on the lights when it’s dark, thus giving the creatures inhabiting my room time to hide before I see them. Out of sight, out of mind. I’d rather not know you’re here.
- Being asked if I have a boyfriend/am married/have children/why not?/why I have blonde hair/why I’m so tall/why I’m so ‘strong’ (read: fat)/if I’m Catholic (because, of course, all white people are).
- Time as a suggestion instead of an important marker of daily activities. ‘Oh, you showed up 40 minutes late to class? By all means, sit down.’ ‘Oh, you’d like me to teach English at an undisclosed location for an unknown group of people in 15 minutes? I’m sorry, what’s your name again?’ etc etc. All of these things are more surprising than annoying–I am a very scheduled person and the idea of being late to something, or showing up unprepared, causes me physical pain. This does not seem to be the case for anyone in the whole of Vietnam.
- Feeling personally responsible for every physically and mentally disabled person I see. Even though the Vietnam War ended long before my parents had even met, I feel responsible for the atrocities committed during this war simply because I am American. It’s heart-breaking, and I wish there were something I could do to fix all of the social, economic and environmental problems that America caused but, sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much unless I get into the de-mining business.
- Looking at my food and realizing I have about a 0% idea of what it is, and then remembering that, if I wanted to be eating food of whose origin I was sure, I wouldn’t have left America in the first place.
- The overwhelming kindness of so many Vietnamese people. I have actually cried on multiple occasions because people have been so astoundingly nice to me that I have no other way to cope with it. I cried after being taken to the grocery store for the first time, I cried when I was lent a brand new, never before opened, laptop from the fabulous NGO I’m volunteering with, and I nearly cried when the co-founder of this NGO offered to bring me anything I needed from the US. I never thought I could encounter so much generosity in my daily life, but I guess the nicest people in the world seem to live in Long Xuyen. (It’s not all fun and games, however.)
10. Sweating. I am a sweaty person, Vietnam is a hot and humid place, and my body just refuses to acclimate. I am probably by far the sweatiest person to ever have set foot in Long Xuyen, and there is not a thing I can do about it.
So, those are some of the notable things I’ve experienced in Vietnam.
I am absolutely loving my time here and am so excited to see what the coming months have in store for me–my classes are going well, and I have a group of truly excellent students whom I look forward to becoming closer to. I am volunteering with the single most amazing group of women I have ever encountered, at the Pacific Links Foundation, and am learning so much about myself and my place in the world as a woman and a human being.