Monday, December 26, 2011

Reflections on a great year

I'm a sucker for resolutions and reflections. Even though many people talk about it only being a date in the calendar, for me New Years is a hugely symbolic time to do both of these R's.

In just under a month in Vietnam we'll be experiencing 'Tet', the Vietnamese lunar new year. This new moon'll be a much more auspicious time to manifest I'm sure, so perhaps I'll leave my resolution making until that time. However, I feel the time is ripe for a fair bit of reflection on this amazing year.

I do believe that this year has been the best year of my life so far. The older I get, the more amazing the world seems to me. Is this normal? Who knows... normality's never been a favourite word of mine anyway. Here are some other words to sum up 2011:

Seemingly endless Kiwi summer - lazy barefoot days, two months of farewells, tear-jerking weddings and music making.

Snakes in the bushes in Queensland - time spent with my nephew and niece reading Richard Scarry on repeat and running Thomas the Tank Engine endlessly around on his tracks.

Finding a Sanctuary in Thailand - literally - 'The Sanctuary' of Haad Tien beach (on Ko Pha Ngan island), an incredible getaway filled with yogic delights.

Cambodian compassion - the beauty of Siem Reap contrasting with gritty Phnom Penh and that haunting museum of torture that reminded me just how little the world has learnt from war.

Saigon the first. I kinda liked it actually... I seemed to gloss over the pollution and traffic congestion.. funny how things are always different when you're on holiday.

Return to India...

Geez, you can NEVER Write about India in a sentence. My words are: annoying-as-hell-at-first, I'd-changed-a-lot-in-the-five-years-since-I'd-been-here, big-lack-of-peace-within, HIMALAYA, transformative, PEACE again, Russian and Ukranian whanau, Bhagsu community - alchemical...

Holland and Germany (Bavaria). Old friends and their families, enjoying the luxury of the first world again - fresh sheets and clean air never felt so good...

Ljubljana. Even writing the name makes me romantic. One of my favourite places on the planet. I don't know why... quiet river, good memories, bridges to play music on, lovely Slovenian folk... I would love to find a teaching job in this place one day...

Croatia. Alternately masculine and meaty, and beautiful and gentle. Best and worst busking experiences (best = Korcula. Worst = money hungry Dubrovnik)

Italia. Bella bella! Bari, Roma, Siena, Verona, Venizia. Pizza! Spaghetti Pomodoro! Bellissimo!

Austria - gallavanting with a fire pixie from my past. Fun times! And swanky busking near a touristic lake polluted with yachts. Good for my pockets though, so, can't complain.

London town - Vauxhall, Clapham, Chiswick... and some other places I've forgotten. Beautiful reconnections with friends, especially my Russian soulmate.

Brighton for three weeks - well, HOVE, actually... good busking, unwanted attention from all the mad hatters on George Street, and a home away from home at 'Small World' festival. Living off my earnings and totally close to the edge of life... wondrous but scary at times.

Portugal - roadtripping without a map with Vladi, both literally and figuratively, barefeet on the dashboard and arms out the window. It's HOT HOT HOT. And an amazing two weeks together, writing music in the parks and drinking endless cups of tea.

London, Brighton, Scotland again. More cups of tea, and my final goodbyes because the money has more than run out this time and it's high time to get a job somewhere in the world. I'm choosing SAIGON, and two months in, I'm happy with my choice.

In the present again, at my office desk in Saigon. Working through the Christmas holiday but I don't mind too much because it's been a good year, a damn fine one actually, and although I've glossed over the details there is much in my heart that I will never succeed in translating. I love where I'm at in my life and I look forward to 2012 whole heartedly. And if I could choose a few words for the coming year, I would choose: CONSCIOUSNESS, MOTIVATION and MOJO. I've been such a cruiser for ages, I think it's time to get a bit more hip to the possibilities of being alive. They are limitless...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Just getting along.

It's so much easier to write when you're travelling. There are new things to see every day, interesting anecdotes, chance encounters with new friends... all of the same things that are possible wherever you are in fact. Now that I've been here (Saigon) for two months, things are becoming more ordinary and I sometimes struggle for new material.

That's why I love travelling. With no ties or responsibilities, the world is limitless once more - there are no deadlines and few decisions to make other than what to eat for lunch every day.

But this is not how life is all the time necessarily, or how I would even like it to be - I love working and feeling more settled (from time to time). I have noticed lately however, that with this settled feeling comes a kind of complacency and a sense of 'just getting along'. There's nothing wrong with this, but I do sometimes miss the creative outbursts that used to colour my days in India earlier this year. I guess this means I just have to try harder, right?

Earlier this year I decided to turn this blog into a book, at some point. The idea seemed so simple back then, but I have not even begun to put that process in motion - I don't even have my own computer! I am sure there will be a time for more serious writing in the next few months and am under no illusion about the work and discipline involved in it... until that more committed time, my posts will probably continue to be sporadic.

But! I DO have something to write about today! I have really turned my Saigon situation around in the last two weeks, going from my tiny $8/night hotel room in the noisy soup of Bui Vien (backpackers area) to my beloved alleyway at 18a Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. I am finally enjoying walking around the streets in the weekends - midday on Saturday or Sunday is a perfect time to do this as most people are sleeping off their lunch. Yesterday, as I was walking into town from my alleyway (a 40 minute walk), I passed by the beautiful Notre-Dame-esque cathedral, the widely paved streets and green parks, and began to realise that... heaven forbid... that I have not just learnt to 'put up' with this place but am in fact starting to be wooed by its urban charm. Part of me almost doesn't want to admit this to myself, as if clinging to the sense of not liking a place would inflate my ego and sense of righteousness or something... as if starting to enjoy this place would serve as a complicit acceptance of Saigon's shocking pollution and traffic problems... all very interesting observations. I think that whenever we oppose something in life, it's to do with defending our false sense of our own 'identity' (which is actually ever changing and doesn't really exist!)... the reason why neighbouring countries are rivals is always about making themselevs right and others wrong... when you think about it, it's kind of ridiculous...

Anyways, I'm getting off track with all this philosophising... So I was walking yeterday at lunchtime, watching the blue shirted cyclo drivers snooze in their carriages and the even more impressive balancing acts of xe om (motorbike) drivers managing to sleep with one eye open, perfectly balanced on their steeds whilst still managing to offer their services to any would-be tourist who happened to be passing. I love it how people here seem to sleep anywhere... the woman in her hammock on the side of a busy road... my co-workers on their office desks with their heads crooked in their office sleeves at lunchtime... my students who pile 30+ in a room on the floor for a quick kip before another 4 hours of lessons... and as well as being able to enjoy my face-masked city walks, I've also become used to the weather - wither that or it's actually cooled down since I've got here. Gone are the days of overly sweaty foreheads and attractive pit-stains - yuss!

And last night I even managed to get out of the city, quite spontaneously. It was after a friend's 21st and we'd all heard tell of a music festival going on somewhere near the city. After jumping in a taxi adn managing to somehow help our driver navigate the forty minute journey, we got there - I have no idea where it actually was geographicaly, but I just know that being in a palce with so much grass and breathing the clean air felt amazing!

The music was allright as well - I'm not massively into house or trance and know very little about all the different sub-genres, but I just know that I loved the last guy's set anyway, and at 4am we were still up for more. It felt kind of nice to recognise certain faces in the crowd - lots of long-terms travellers/teachers/ex-pats - as wel as spot a few hippy types in there as well. Made me feel at home...

We got lost on the way back into town afterwards, thanks to our Irish friend who didn't know the way to his own house so we ended up back in sleazy Bui Vien again for breakfast. I tell you, fried rice had never tasted so good... and instead of xe-omming it up I opted to walk home in the breaking dawn and watch Saigon wake up around me.

You wouldn't have guessed that some poeple were still up from the night before - at 6 am the parks were filled with ladies doing their morning exercises. As I heard the exercise tape from a hidden speaker I realised I could count to 20 in Vietnamese with them. I passed the school I teach at every weekday and saw full fledged games of badmington going on in a court opposite, the participants full of energy at this early hour. The street cart owners wre just beginning to lay out their magazines / coconuts / sandwich fillings and I saw lots of men crouching low at plastic tables slurping their breakfast Pho. The streets were almost empty and a;though I still clutched my bag tightly to me, the thought of getting my purse stolen seemed less of a possibility at this gentle hour. Once home, after smiling at the early monring flower sellers and fruit merchants, I fell asleep straight away in my room with a clear and happy heart.

I remember just a few weeks ago despairing and wondering where the sense of peace and contentment that came so easy to me for much of this year had gone. I really wondered what was wrong with me - why I was struggling to meditate and even to simply feel happy. Now that it's over, it doesn't seem so bad and I'm beginning to get some of the sense of peace and mystery of the world back again. Really, there is beauty everywhere - even in this urban jungle. I may curse capitalism and Western influence at times, but really - we are all still people and all of us still connect to this at times, whether we realise it or not. The best glimpses of humanity I've seen lately have been at these quiet times - the early dawn and the sleepy afternoons, where people are just doing the things that make them human. Not trying to be anything other than what they are, not wanting for anything - 'just getting along' I suppose, which is what I'm learning to do: get on with things, and to enjoy every minute of a life which is becoming more normal every day, but no less beautiful.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A New Neighbourhood Makes All the Difference

It only took me seven weeks... but I really do think that my negative opinion and experience of Saigon is beginning to change. Overnight.

On Friday afternoon, after battling to be heard over the ceiling fans and general noisy school atmosphere (and smoky school atmosphere - I saw one of the teachers climbing the stairs to his classroom with a lit fag in his hand - a far cry from NZ's smoke free schools!) my throat is wrecked from teaching 12 year olds how to punctuate correctly. Despite my desire to go back to my hotel and sleep off the week, I allow myself to get pulled out for a 50c can of beer down an alleyway ten minutes from work that I never knew existed. We arrive in a swarm, five female whiteys all working for the same company and each pull up a plastic chair at the local 'bar' while Emma (the ringleader in the know) opens the fridge herself and begins handing out the 'BaBaBa' beers. A Vietnamese fella in a singlet is hanging around smiling while his three beautiful young daughters flounce about, climbing on and off the laps of the ones who got there before us, who all seem to live in this strangely quiet alleyway.

There are four of us all completely sick of living in the land of backpacker sleaze known as Pham Ngu Lao. Now that I've moved and been gone a day, I wonder how I could have stayed there so long, but I suppose it was because a) it was what I knew how to do b) it was easy and cheap, which I needed at the time and c) I really hate hotel / house hunting. But in hindsight, I now know that this was what was making me so miserable about being here.

Besides the traffic and the pollution, that is - moving hasn't changed those things, although they are much less noticeable down my new alleyway, which is too narrow and filled with roadside juice/beer/noodle soup joints for bikes to drive too quickly. The alley is also void of hawkers trying to sell you sunglasses every two minutes, or pester you about motorbike rides, and you are much less likely to get ripped off.

Most long term ex-pats in Saigon tend to opt for apartments because of the lounge factor, but from now on our lounge would be the plastic chaired roadside bar where everyone seemed to meet in the evenings ater work - within ten minutes we had made five new friends and gained valuable information about where to go for everything we needed - except vegetarian food. However, thanks to international veggie website I soon found three decent local places to chow down in my new 'hood. With a shop selling guitars and pick-ups (which I need in order to do any more gigs here), 50 cent baguette stands, laundromats where a kilo of laundry will cost you 40 cents and where all shopowners will bring out complementary iced tea, this is a local alley in which prices have remained thus. Apparently there have been a handful of foreigners here for a year or so, but not too many to create another Pham Ngu Lao - the alley is too small for that anyway.

It's amazing how much a new home has changed me - I feel like I have an entirely new perspective on where I'm living. Until now I'd been hating on my city in a major way, and it's interesting that things just seemed to be going wrong for me again and again - in hindsight I know it's because I was attracting that kind of business - losing my wallet (or getting it pickpocketed - still don't know...), getting shortchanged and nearly run over - with my attitude. I hope I never forget this again. I probably will, but if so, I hope I can manage to maintain a better balance and acceptance of everything - all of a sudden I am somewhat ashamed of my feelings of helplessness in the past weeks. It's astounding what can change in just an evening...

Now that I'm away from the tourists I'm experiencing a different kind of behaviour from the locals as well. Yesterday, as I explored my new surroundings and tried to find somewhere to eat I was having my usual difficulty crossing the road, until a local man came up and gestured that I should follow him as he stepped out and wove his way through the moving bikes. I think I was much better at this when I first arrived actually, but for some reason I've developed a bit of anxiety about it lately and always sigh with relief when I finally get across safe. Sometimes I feel like living here has taken years off my life! So, the roads haven't changed, but the kindness of strangers has.

Last night, sitting around the plastic table littered with cans one of my new neighbours, a New Yorker named Chris, asked me how long I was planning on staying here. I told him definitely no longer than May when the school year finished, and he just looked at me, smiled and said he looked forward to having this conversation again in May to see how things had changed. I still don't know what makes so many people fall in love with this place - it hasn't QUITE happened to me yet - but let me say that Saigon and I are now in a 'courting' phase. Who knows - maybe we'll discover that we do like each other after all.

Friday, November 18, 2011

'sbeen something of a rough week. Getting ripped off in my local shop, having my wallet disappear within a matter of minutes on a quiet(er) street the following night (I'll never know what really happened),realising I'm almost maxed out on my credit card and that my first proper pay check will only just cover the repayments, leaving nothing left for a deposit on an apartment... financially, it's not been a great time for me lately! But tonight, Friday, 'teacher's day' (which is actually on Sunday although kids and schools have been celebrating all week),I'm post five-course dinner at the school for the gifted where I work in which I could only eat sticky rice and lettuce, drink beer and represent the pasty faced teachers in the karaoke, and I'm actually feelin' okay! (They tell me the deer, squid and other meaty delicacies were delicious. Pretty amazing treatment in a third world country, don't you think?!)

This leads me to wonder if my problem with Saigon up until now has, in fact, been not enough beer?! For, two nights ago, after all my financial woes were woven, I went for a beer with a workmate in the same restaurant that saved my ass after my wallet went missing on Tuesday (they took me in, made me drink iced tea, waited for my hysteria to calm the hell down). As we walked home afterwards, I noticed that the traffic didn't even make me flinch. Oh, the numbing beer factor... so good at the time, although within an hour I'd lost my sense of taste and smell and wanted to fall asleep by 8.30 - just can't drink very much these days. It's a good thing.

Anyway, tonight I feel some sort of majesty and sense of the mystery of it all returning to my life. I ate my favourite dish of vermicilli noodles with spring rolls (rice and lettuce not really cutting it to be honest...) and stared at the lizards climbing the peeling walls, looked out at the makeshift kitchen twenty metres from where I sat with crates of local produce hanging in baskets form the bamboo ceiling, and realised that actually, life's not too bad after all... Even though I love to complain about this place - and wouldn't choose to live here again given the chance - I look around me and see xe om (motorbike) drivers earning a few dollars per day, children going to school for ten hours a day, six days a week without a complaint, and Vietnamese teachers earning a tenth of what I earn. It all kinda puts things into perspective and all of a sudden I feel ashamed for my hysterical rants about the polluted, maniacal motorcycling nature of this place. Yeah, it's true that it isn't really the place for me, and that I should have known better before buying a ticket here, but the truth is that I can't really afford to leave just yet, having got myself into this rather crap financial situation by choosing to have the year of a lifetime and gallavanting around the world until the very last minute (and cent), credit card be damned...

So, I suppose I'm learning to live with the consequence of my actions just now. And, slowly slowly, learning to deal with the noise of 10,000 motorbikes screaming around the streets at 2 a.m when Vietnam has won the football, learning to cope with the corruption of this place and the sleazy backpacker scene - learning to ADAPT, really... It really is the best thing one can do.

I'm excited about possible future ventures. Working in Jordan or Lebanon or another part of the Middle East.. or even India (just caught the end of a documentary on Indian private schools)... and visiting my homeland sometime after May next year for a while... There are definitely things to work towards at the moment, while I learn to live IN the moment and ENJOY the moment more... it has been so easy all year to do this and it is only now, when I am struggling again for the first time in a long while, that I remember how easy it is to preach presence and peace and harmony, but how much harder it is to practise these things in times of despair. BUT... I know I am strong enough to do so.

SO, I'm off to sleep off this beer haze and dream of brighter and more positive futures... and to do my best to appreciate what I do have rather than moan about what I'm missing. All very humbling stuff.

Enough said. It's bedtime. Time to climb the stairs back up to my fourth floor hotel room and earplug out the nighttime concerto of bikes, dogs and hawkers. Night night everyone xx

Friday, November 11, 2011

One month in... (still in Saigon, Vietnam)

I reached my month's anniversary of being here the other day. Can't say I've fallen in love with the city yet, and don't know if I ever will, but I am starting to live with certain aspects of Saigon life a wee bit better.. like the noise, for example...

Whether it be a whole class of Vietnamese 11 year olds performing an ear-splitting dance routine in their breaks, or another teacher making himself heard over the tug-of-war by shouting into a microphone, or the incessant hooting, tooting, throttling, pulsating cacophony of motorbikes 24 hours of the day and night, there is rarely a peaceful moment in this city, it seems...

Except during lunchbreak. Here, the city stops sometime between 11.30 and 2, eats their main meal of the day, and SLEEPS... Shops close... shop keepers ignore you.. even the men selling sunglasses on the street (8 of them approached me as I ate breakfast this morning! EIGHT!!!) take a break. Even our air conditioned office is eerily quiet after we pick through the dubious yellow lunch trays (tofu for the vegetarians every bloody day of the week - I've gone off it for good now) and settle in for a rest. My Vietnamese co-workers all pull their soft toys out, use them as pillows on their desks or just slump down into their seats, put their heads back and open their mouths for a sleep they're used to having since birth.

My afternoon classes begin at 1.50 pm, right after nap time is over. It takes a while to get the classrooms back to normal - for all the sleeping mats to be folded away into the cupboard, the desks to be put back, the heavy teacher's desk to be dragged back into the room... and while the children are rubbing sleep from their eyes and devouring their leftover lunch, some are frantically memorising their spelling words so they'll get ten out of ten, even if they have no idea what the words mean... I'm struggling with this cultural love of memorising and rote learning. When I ask for volunteers to read aloud something we're studying, I get a seas of hands and a show of reading as quickly as they can to prove their cleverness. When I stop the kids after every paragraph and ask them what has just happened in the story, the sea of eager faces suddenly turns blank. It seems they know their letters and how to read, but have no idea what the words mean.

I have to hand it to them though. At school 9 hours a day, 6 days a week, and learning in a language foreign to them. Keeping all this in mind, they're doing amazingly! And yet, I wonder how they'll cope with the Cabridge English exams they'll eventually sit. Even at the gifted school where I teach every afternoon, regurgitating knowledge has been given paramount importance. Frustrating to say the least, but we'll get there...

I teach at one other school three mornings a week, with kids at a much lower level. They greet me every morning with a "GOOD MORNING MISS SHARON" spoken very mindlessly and in unison, to which I reply "Good morning class, how are you?" before a very collective "WE ARE FINE THANK YOU, AND YOU?" comes back at me. This class doesn't understand much of what I'm saying, but there are small victories - like the kid who has been named 'Harry Potter' being able to string a few letters together on his own. As I congratulate him he looks up at me with big hopeful eyes and asks 'Stick-er?' , a most important word for these kids who work so hard and get little acknowledgement from their Vietnamese teachers who control with the cane alone(in general, I'm sure there are some exceptions...). At first I wondered why the kids were sitting stock still and listening while their other teachers wrote in perfect cursive letters on the blackboard with their backs turned, and where I was going wrong, until someone told me about the quality of the punishments.

I've taken to teaching through a microphone myself sometimes when my voice is tired and I love it, no longer competing with the noise from the ceiling fans or drills going off in various parts of the school, OR the monsoon - it hit the other day halfway through an afternoon class and the noise was deafening as sheets of rain pounded the open air school, past the three floors and down onto the stone courtyard where teachers conduct activities (through microphones) in breaktimes.

It hit last night too as I ate, the gunfire of the thunder no longer making me jump. After waiting for half an hour and failing to hail down a taxi, I decided to leg it and had my clothes clinging to me within seconds. I eventually found a roadside stall who sold me a flimsy polkadotted plastic raincover for 7000 dong (about 40 US cents). No raincoat could prepare me for crossing the streets though - the water was halfway up my calves and I tried not to think about cockroaches (one ran up my arm the other day!!!) or the rats whose sewer homes had been flushed out once again.

Anyway, being here is still a valid experience even if I'm not having the time of my life. Career wise it's fantastic, I'm still loving the job and the teaching - but lifestyle-wise, gimme clean green New Zealand any day. I'm hungering for some BEAUTY and REAL greenery, not the skinny parks filled with exercise machines and statues. Someone told me that every foreigner here is here for a reason and I'm certainly not here to enjoy the aroma of pollution, or risk my life crossing the road every day or fight off the cockroaches. I'm going to stick it out until May, learn as much as I can about teaching English as a foreign language, enjoy simple pleasures such as fresh coconuts and origami cranes from students, and practise being content...

Monday, October 31, 2011

Little pieces of Saigon


I'm feeling pleasantly upbeat tonight, after almost three weeks of internally moaning to myself about being here. Just ain't my city, ultimately, although I do really think that me and Saigon can learn to get on once I adjust to the heat and learn to ignore the pollution. It doesn't help that I'm living in a hotel room and have to wait another month for a full paycheck to be able to afford a deposit for a better place. Oh well. Serves me right for living on a dream so long in Asia and Europe this summer, surviving off of human kindness and my credit card. Wouldn't change a thing about it. Anyway it seems that the little things, this week at least, are paying off. A gig to go to tomorrow (on a school night!!) and a muso to meet that wants to put a band together (it might go nowhere, but it could go somewhere...), a nice day at work... good music in my ears as always (listening to lots of Beatles and Lennon at the moment). A papaya for breakfast. I thought it was high time I wrote about some of the things, little and big, that are making my world what it is at the moment...


I live on a small side street off of Bui Vien, which is Saigon's answer to Khao San road in Bangkok. It's actually pretty quiet, and has no chickens on it as far as the eye can see - I overheard a work mate's conversation about getting woken every morning at 4am by his neighbour's roosters, and I don't envy him... Every morning at 7.30 I walk out, grab my shoes from the rack downstairs and wait for my local 'xe om' driver (motorbike taxi) to finish his smoke (as if the pollution ain't enough, right??) and whisk me off to work, expertly weaving through the traffic, driving on the footpath against the flow on a one way street if need be - it's just what you do here... I keep meaning to take some photos of all the beautiful high heeled women riding to work every morning, but I'm not that balanced yet - don't want to stop traffic by making an ass of myself and falling... We fly by various parks with their early morning jazzercise classes and locals with their limbs flying on the free-for-all cross training machines that line the precious green spaces, until he drops me at the door of 41 Duong Nguyen Thi Minh Khai about ten minutes later (luckily I live pretty close to my work).


I never thought I'd be working in an office again, but I suppose it's just like a really big teacher's work room, with little cubicles and photocopiers and the like. It's not bad at all really, and we get free lunch (of questionable quality) every day - mine usually consists of some fake meat substitute with rice, only slightly wilted greens and this kind of clear soup thing in a sealed plastic bag which I'm still not sure what to do with - I just mix it in with my rice and hope none of the Viets are looking strangely at me... where I sit I am surrounded by them and they are sweet, always smiling and doing their best to include us in their celebrations - offering us their gelatinous desserts coated in coffee flavoured jelly (weird...) or plasticky rice paper to chew before the yellow lunch trays are delivered. Everyone eats at their cubicles (the kitchen is tiny) before the Vietnamese in the room drop their heads onto their desks for an hour or so and take their accustomed siesta. I usually try to attempt a walk in a park nearby but just end up sweating and that's never a good look for a teacher...


All the teachers work in various schools across town and I'm lucky enough to be limited to two, one of which is designed for gifted children. We either climb in the company minibus or get taxied to the door, although most of the people I work with have joined the motorbike squad and make their own way there. As far as teaching goes, it's really so cruisy - every afternoon (and three mornings a week) I teach a 2 1/2 hour class to 11 or 12 year olds, all with English names. I have no idea where they got them but I do wonder, teaching two boys called 'Messy', one 'Strawberry' and one 'Harry Potter'. Seriously!!! If I'm lucky my classroom will have air conditioning, but sadly, not a whiteboard in sight - it's chalk all the way baby... my hands feel disgusting by the end of 2 1/2 hours.

The kids are mostly really well behaved although I'm still learning to get used to the sheer amount of surrounding noise - as I teach, various gongs are being hit for classes to have their breaks at different times, and teachers are speaking through loud speakers, and drills are going off... I found out today that I could ask for a microphone if I wanted to, and as crazy as it may sound, I'm considering doing it - it's just really hard to be heard over the cacophony. I've noticed that the kids I teach are really good at rote learning, and can read whole pages aloud without understanding a bit of them, so I'm constantly stopping to explain this or that. Thinking for themselves seems to be a problem, which is worrying considering the schools will be putting them through Cambridge English exams eventually.. oh well! We do the best we can... They call me 'Miss Sharon' mostly, or 'teeee-cher!' and I'm hoping to have the same classes until the end of the school year in May. The best thing is that I never have to take work home with me - the scheduled hours are plenty, especially considering I never teach two classes in a row - I don't know if anybody does?


To be honest, the afterwards is still what I'm figuring it out at the moment - after working all day I'm either exhausted or unsure of where to go in this fumy city so I usually head back to my hotel warren. I miss walking, actually! Not really something I want to do much here... but I know there are places that do yoga classes and the like, I just need to muster the energy to find them. I can honestly say that this is the most physically alone I have felt in my life, in a city of 6 million people! But it's not necessarily a bad thing - its just the beginning of a new phase. And everything changes so quickly - ridiculously quickly - that it's useless to feel any kind of up or down, really... things transform in an instant. What's the point of labelling onesself as being lonely or unhappy - or ecstatic and over the moon for that matter? More and more these days, I'm discovering equilibrium, and being content to be on the outskirts for a short while. George Bernard Shaw once said "Just do what must be done. This may not be happiness, but it is greatness" and I've always admired that quote - right now, what must be done for me is get outta debt, and any fun I might have I'm going to see as an added bonus. Simultaneously in my ears as I write, a folk singer named Peter Mulvey is singing "It's just your tender blindspot, and from that tender blindspot you will grooowww..." Perfectly put I think - for there is a time for everything - to be broke, to be rolling in it, to be partying, to be monk-like, to sleep, to dream... and I am happy, or rather, content with this strange period of my life, which will probably change the minute I walk out of this internet cafe. Bring it on, I say - life, and whatever it holds...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Here and Now - Saigon at last...

This blog entry is named after the fact that for the past few weeks I've been attempting to catch up with all I didn't write about over the past months. Twas an admirable effort, but one which I'm abandoning as of HERE AND NOW , BABY! Cause it's time to put the presence back in the present, dig?

SO... for the past two weeks I've been learning to like Saigon after a rough start here, arriving half heartbroke and... well, broke, actually. Totally void of any 'real' money, a fact which I have been lucky enough to fix straight away with a job offer that came flying in at exactly the right time. Anyway, it was hot, the pollution gave me asthma, I knew absolutely nobody here... and coming as I did from the summer of my life, I didn't take to it too well...

But enough of that! I am here NOW and started teaching in local schools today, employed through a well paying company who taxis me to my classes and gives everyone free lunch (admittedly of varying quality...). After three days of induction and loads of time to plan I walked into my first classroom of smiling bespectacled Vietnamese faces (about a third of the kids in my class wear glasses, and another third need to - I've been told it's the lack of Vitamin A in the diet because eyesight is pretty bad in general... correct me if I'm wrong here!) and taught a two and half hour session on Frankenstein. Such a cool and gory tale, particularly the graphic novel the kids have been doing...

Surprisingly enough, it IS actually 'real teaching' that I'm doing. I had imagined myself teaching 5 years olds how to sing the alphabet, but I've been put with kids aged about 11-13, most of whom have a pretty good grasp of the English language. SO I'm teaching what I would teach to a normal intermediate age. Horror, folk tales, non fiction, autobiography... exciting stuff, particularly as I've now tested my brain function and am happy to say that after a ten month break from teaching, my brain does still work! And I'm so glad now that I'm back in the classroom. It wasn't until I got back here that I realised how much I missed it.

Because, to be honest, I've hardly given it a second thought these past few months, completely on holiday on all levels and loving it. And although I adored my last school and my three years there, I did suffer from stress quite a lot. It's my personality - intense and somewhat highly strung, brain going 100 miles a minute and stopping me sleeping at night with thoughts about how I could modify lessons for my five classes, what I could do, some behavioral issue that was going on and how I could fix it... All of this stuff has been coming back for me this week, all of the waking up in the middle of the night too unfortunately.. but thankfully the work I am doing here is so stress-free that I am gradually learning that there's nothing to wake up for.

I've also realised that I really love teaching - I love it! But seriously, I don't know if I would go back to full-time teaching in New Zealand or any other Westernised nation again. I'd do it part time of course... but I don't know if I could 'fulltime myself' again. Some things are just not suited to some people, and I just feel like I compromised my own enjoyment of life too much when I was working 60 hours a week. Honestly, I've still been having the same old anxiety dreams of not being able to control students and missing classes for the past ten months of holidaying! It's unbelievable...

So here I am in this nice air-conditioned office, planning my lessons before I am chaffeured across town to teach. I never teach more than one class at a time, which means that even though I often teach 2 1/2 hour sessions, at least I have time after each class to go back and debrief with myself. I teach 8 long sessions a week to four different classes in two different schools, always with a Vietnamese assistant in the class which I don't use cause the kids are all well behaved, if a little noisy. And they WANT TO LEARN!! It's so wonderful... even though they have difficulty thinking for themselves, they are total sweethearts and call me 'Miss Sharon' or 'Teeecher!'

So, even though this city is disgustingly smoggy from the thousands of motorbikes that crowd the roads... I think I can learn to like it more and more. Exhausted after work every day, I catch a 'xe om' (motorbike taxi) home each day and am whizzed through the rush hour traffic, getting an adrenalin rush through my face mask (you need one here, believe me...). And when the monsoon hits, I love it...

The Vietnamese staff in our office are so cute, all curling up and going to sleep on their lunchbreaks despite the airconditioning (old habits die hard...) and they seem so happy with their lives. Outside perspective of course, but I see it in the kids I teach too - there is none of the surliness I was used to, or the refusal to work... there are many many reasons for this of course, and they're not all good - I bet some of them are threatened if their marks aren't good enough... but my point is, in a nation that has been so screwed over in the past, people still seem happy with what they've got, which is much less than what we Westernites have come to expect and whine about when we don't receive. None of my students complain about being given homework, or having 2 1/2 hour classes, or about going to school from 7- 4.30, six days a week! It's just an accepted part of 'the way things are' here, one which I think everyone could learn from - not that quantity equals quality by any means, I'm more getting at the ability to just get on with things whilst still keeping a smile on ones face...

Anyway, it's the end of my first week of full time work and I'm exhausted so am going to sign off. I've been in bed before 9pm every night this week and, besides waking up in the early hours of the morning (old habits die hard...) am having no problems falling asleep even with the traffic noise coming through the toilet paper stuffed into my ears (note to self: buy proper ear plugs this weekend). I'm yawning as I write this, so I know it's time to get back to my cute little top-floor $8 a night hotel room.