Alyce, our super awesome and smiley on-site coordinator, warned us on the first day that the Vietnamese culture tends to have a more flexible attitude toward arranged meeting times. That is, if you arrange to meet with someone at 6 pm, your buddy probably won’t show up until half an hour later. We actually watched a documentary about a Vietnam/US theater troupe collaboration that touched on this idea. The analogy someone used in the film is that the Vietnamese are like a soccer player who adjusts the play to his opponent; the idea of scripting the game move by move to be ridiculous. Flexibility is key.
Allison and I suspect we must have been secretly born Vietnamese. Unlike many of the other people in our group who have been getting up naturally at 5 or 6 am, we got over the jet lag very quickly. Excluding the first day, we have been getting up at 7:40 am every morning and barely making it to our 8 am Vietnamese class. Obviously, this will have to change once we start getting up at 4 am for our construction projects in Quang Tri this Monday.
2. One Day’s Worth of Food in Saigon < 10.00 US Dollar
Other than the discovery that exchanging 100 US dollars made me an instant millionaire in Vietnam, this is probably the most mind-numbing thing for me thus far. Not only is the food here divine, it is amazingly inexpensive. Street food will usually cost no more than two US dollars. For instance, yesterday I spent approximately 50 cents on steamed pork buns for lunch, and that was 25 cents more than I intended only because I accidentally dropped an entire bun on the ground and had to buy another one.
Although I’m not as “culturally-shocked” here as some of my peers might be — (my Taiwanese heritage has quite a few overlaps with the Vietnamese culture) — there are still many Vietnamese dishes that blow my mind. Furthermore, I am becoming addicted to the sinh to (fruit smoothies) here, which you can find almost everywhere in all sorts of flavors. It doesn’t help that they cost me about 75 cents each for one. You can’t even buy a bottle of water in the States for that sort of price.
3. Turn Your Haggle On.
Even if you’re a foreigner with limited grasp of the Vietnamese language, you must haggle for your dignity’s sake. Unless, of course, you’re perfectly fine with being majorly gypped. Your dignity might appreciate some effort though.
It’s not as bad as it sounds. In the wise words of Alyce, “If you’re a foreigner and you can speak some Vietnamese, you’re pretty much a hotshot.” The saleswoman will laugh along, probably because you used the wrong tones and said something horribly atrocious instead, but at the end of the day if you’re good-humored about the whole business, they will most likely lower the price for you if you ask reasonably. It’s probably in exchange for the great source of entertainment you just provided for them. But really, the Vietnamese are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet.
4. Do Not Stop or You Will be Roadkill.
When we visited the US Consulate this afternoon, one of the officers told us that each morning she asks the taxi driver to drop her off on the other side of the street so that she has to cross through Saigon traffic. It wakes her up every time.
The trick is, when the swarm of motorbikes and cars dissipates somewhat before the next wave of vehicles, you start walking across the street like the Emperor marching around in his New Clothes. Even though you probably feel just as naked walking straight into incoming traffic, you must show no sign of fear. Motor bikes yield to you, not the other way around (though cars might be a different story).
And whatever you do, you must not stop. Imagine yourself driving your car back at home when a deer walks onto the road and freezes at the sight of your approaching headlights. Same idea.
5. Hello just might be the hardest word.
Unlike the States where asking one’s age is a taboo topic akin to asking one’s one weight or salary, in Vietnam it is one of the first questions you ask a new acquaintance. Instead of our English pronouns for you/me that make no distinction for gender or age, simply saying “Hello” to someone in Vietnamese will cause your brain to do all sorts of calisthenics.
Here is a typical example of the thought process. Let’s say you go to a restaurant and a waitress greets you. You’re about to say Chao… but then you stop. Are you supposed to call her chi (“older sister”)? Co (younger aunt)? Bac (around your mom’s age)? You take a better look at her, but you can’t tell how old she is — even I will admit that Asians often look younger than they actually are. Should you play it safe and call her chi? But since age is revered in this Confucian society, will she be offended if you refer to her with a younger term?
By then, you’ve probably given up and just smile and nod dumbly as best you can. Nevertheless, the food will be delicious, and when you’re done, you can simply say Cam on (thank you) without necessarily going through the same hassle.
Tomorrow morning at 5 am, we depart for Quang Tri. Internet access may be limited, but considering my blogging patterns thus far, we shall see what sort of impact this may have.
Have you ever had the feeling that you haven’t breathed for a prolonged period? It is kind of like when you purposely put your head underwater, knowing full well that you can’t breathe, but enjoying the rush the moment your lungs are free to inhale again when you come back up?
That was a long sentence, I apologize… I haven’t written a long sentence in a while…my Japanese is not quite good enough for complex sentences structure (you have no idea how much I miss semicolons and big ol’ adult words)…However…
That, in essence, is my current life.
The daily work is difficult, and the tests, stressful. I have never been, and will never be, a test person. I also am not the type that can really cold memorize 50 vocabulary words a day… repeatedly. I will learn it, yes, but it takes about 2 days for me to connect with the words and for them to sink in. Sadly…I am not given that time. And trust me, you cannot derive the Japanese word for “plane” in 30 seconds. At least not as a native romance language speaker that enjoys figuring out words by playing with Latin roots… Japanese has no Latin roots. Furthermore, you can’t figure out a word with diligent creativity and problem-solving. Trust me. I tried. Vocab does not work like a math problem. Haha—they said intensive…No joke. Don’t get me wrong. I love it here. I have learned a lot…. a lot a lot. I can communicate simple wants, desires, and thoughts. It’s all sorts of freeing and exciting. I mentally read advertisements on the train like an excited 5 year old. “THAT SAYS ‘JAPAN’ kanjiIdon’tknowkanjikanji ‘BEER’ morekanjiIdon’tknowkanjikanji ‘TOGETHER’!” I apparently do not need to fully understand the advertisement to feel accomplished. It’s the little things in life….
Seeing that I am half-way done with my Japanese experience, I think it is about time I give a small blurb on life and how I am feeling. First, I think I’ll share a few highlights and pictures with fast-paced comments. Ready? Go!
Written by Parker Hine (The George Washington University),
This past weekend CET took us on an eye-opening tour of the ancient cities of Jerash, Ajloun and Umm Qais. This was my first exposure to Jordan’s rich history, which spans over 3000 years. Early on Friday morning, all the students and their language partners packed into a bus headed toward our first destination: Umm Qais. Situated near the Golan Heights, Palestine, and the Sea of Galilee, Umm Qais was once a Roman city that eventually came under Muslim control. Umm Qais boasts the remains of a basilica, a Roman theatre, numerous houses, and the remains of an old souq. As we explored the area, I was surprised at how much we could see and touch. I had just visited Europe’s most famous landmarks a few months prior, where you are only allowed to take pictures from a distance. It was the opposite here! I was allowed to wander through the timeworn houses, climb the archeological remains, and even venture into the dark, underground caverns. My favorite part of Umm Qais was the basilica. The basilica was built during the third century and marks the spot where Jesus preformed one of the miracles recorded in the bible, thus making it a pilgrimage site for early Christians. However, it was converted into a mosque after Muslims conquered the area. It was fascinating to see the seamless transition between two distinct periods of time in one location.
After a quick bus ride through a valley that borders Palestine, we arrived at Ajloun Castle. We rode in the back of a modified pickup truck to reach the base of this stunning landmark. The Castle is situated atop a hill that has a commanding view of the area. As such, it was an important location for the various empires in the region and highlights the extensive layers of history that characterizes the Middle East. Ajloun started as a meager Roman hilltop fort, was expanded by Saladin to defend against the Crusaders, was conquered and partially destroyed by Mongol invaders, then occupied by Ottoman troops, and is now a tourist attraction in the Kingdom of Jordan. Talk about historical significance! It is incredible that this one spot incorporates every major period of the Middle East and highlights the significance of the region throughout time.
As we departed for Jerash, our bus was filled with Arabic conversations, songs by Nancy Ajram, and a mix of Jordanian and American humor. When our bus pulled up to the ancient city, I immediately spotted the gigantic city gate that towered majestically over the area. I was expecting to see ruins similar to Umm Qais or Ajloun, but clearly CET had saved the best for last. As I stepped through the gates of the ancient city I immediately felt as if I had entered another world. I have visited Italy and other ancient Roman sites in the past, but nothing compares to the scale of preservation and size of Jerash. We spent the better part of the next two hours wandering through ancient streets lined with countless colossal columns, a flawless circular town center, the decorative entrance to a large basilica, and two full-sized theaters that probably looked the same way 2000 years ago. It did not take much imagination to picture a legion of the Praetorian Guard marching down the street, Senators conversing at the theatre’s entrance, or merchants selling their wares in the market. As the day drew to a close, I thought about the untold number of people who had walked the same streets over the past two millennium, and was humbled by the depth and magnitude of the empires that came before me. My summer in Jordan is not only exposing me to Arabic and modern Arab culture, but is also enabling me to discover and appreciate the history of the oldest inhabited region on Earth.