Christmas has come and gone and in a few hours it will be New Year’s Eve. Jon and I sit around and listen to radio shows on the internet sometimes and this evening was one of them. Or some evenings he translates his book on his laptop and I sit and read. But this evening he was translating and we started listening to “A Prairie Home Companion.” It was a Christmasy show and put me in the spirit a little bit. I heard the song “White Christmas” and we both recalled the half-forgotten lyrics to “Good King Wenceslas”; he sang harmony to “Silent Night.” For the first time I missed home and cold a snow a little bit.
January will be an interesting month for me. Nearly all of the foreigners will be gone from the University and I’ll be here with Jota and Duc, one of my language teachers, will be around. I’ll be forced to go out to breakfast by myself and be doing a little more fending for myself. I just don’t feel very comfortable with my Vietnamese. People tell me I’m pretty good for a beginner, but there are just some sounds that I can’t hear clearly. I’m a child again. It’s an entirely new feeling for me. Being around other English speakers and in my room is like my pre-oedipal stage: I can communicate clearly. Being by myself on the street, that comfort has been severed and I can feel quite lost in communicating. However, I know that no matter what the discomfort, it will be a benefit me in the long run.
The sensation of being warm, but not hot–of not having to wear a jacket in December. This is all something that I couldn’t have imagined. Days seem to be falling into some kind of a routine now. I chat with people on the internet and they tell me how cold it is back in Ohio and how much they hate the snow. The only cold I have to worry about is stuff I can control: the shower and the air conditioner.
We sit in the cafes in slow motion and watch the traffic go by and the dust fly. At times the horns and faulty mufflers drown out our conversations. I receive informal lessons at the coffee shop and try to hear the words as they come out of the waitress’ mouth. At lunch the food is devoured quickly, then the tea flows freely and the conversation too. Then sometimes we start to yawn and head back home for our respective naps.
I had my first Vietnamese lesson today. I learned how to write out the alphabet and I also learned several new words, not bad for a first lesson I think. Christmas is approaching and I see on the televisions in the cafes that a blizzard is hitting the midwest rather hard. That seems so far away from me right now. This is one year where I have no hope whatsoever for a white Christmas. Oh well, absence makes the heart grow fonder, right?
Although I keep the AC off in my main room, the shower with its sun-warmed water still has the capacity to take my breath away. My feet are cases in recovering, as they still bear the well-scratched scars from my first few days here. They also happen to be the dirtiest part of me, and the water turns brown when I wash them.
Jon’s dog, Jota, is gradually becoming more accustomed to being around me, and now he even has a bed in my room. Sometimes he even plays with me and we jump and prance around the room while dodging furniture.
The other evening, Jon took me out to the spot where he and Jota run. Jon drove, and I sat behind him holding Jota. He squirmed when he saw other dogs running around, but otherwise he sat nicely and enjoyed the wind. When we got out to the spot, Jon gave me a few pointers and then ran off with Jota on his leash. Then I drove. I drove a motorbike for the first time in my life. I’ve spent enough time on the back of them, but this was the first time I was in control. It was dusk and I never pushed it too fast for a couple reasons: first, this was my first time driving one of these things and wasn’t completely comfortable. And secondly, the faster I drove the more bugs I felt hitting my face and shirt. It felt wonderful to cruise the wide and nearly empty roads, but when I eventually get to traffic, it’ll be a whole new scenario. That day will be some time off.
“Who will be your first visitor?” asked Julie the day before she headed out to Saigon and then back home to England for Christmas.
“I have no idea,” I told her. I find myself saying that a lot lately. I don’t know a lot about what I will be doing here. Some things that I do know are very limited in scope.
Yesterday Jon and I got up early and went on a day trip. Jon had received an invitation and I was lucky enough to get worked in too. We went and visited a tiny hole in a mountain that was also the head on the Peoples Committee in An Giang Province from 1962-67. We went on this trip with Jon’s friend who invited us, and four VC veterans. I still don’t know how to properly describe the whole situation. We climbed the cement steps up to the tiny hole that was between huge rocks and the oldest person there walked ahead of everyone. Jon translated for me and told me that he said he used to climb the mountain with a 35 kg pack on his back. I found myself gasping for breath and sweating a lot. After going up the mountain and looking around and talking, we went back down. Then it was time for lunch.
This was perhaps the most surreal time of the day. We sat around and ate with some VC veterans. Jon translated some for me and told me some of their experiences. One of them had joined the army in the north in 1968 and then spent six months walking the Ho Chi Minh Trail with a heavy pack on. And we were having lunch with these men. We sat around for hours. They talked, Jon translated some. Every once in a while Jon and I would look at each other and say something like, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
The past few days I’ve just been doing mostly nothing–meeting people, having meals with people, getting to know some of the cafes and restaurants in Long Xuyen.
However, this morning I did some actual work for the university. Jon and Julie (or July) and myself had breakfast with a man who works for the Center for Foreign Languages. After breakfast Julie and myself went back to the Center and recorded for the listening exams that are coming up soon. It wasn’t very difficult at all and there was still some of the morning left when we were done.
I’ve been in Long Xuyen for two full days now. My suitcase is mostly unpacked and my room is finding some sort of order. I’m enjoying myself here in the sun and warm weather. The last couple of days here have been full of meetings; setting up language school, trying to find a computer monitor, how much will I teach next semester, etc.
I woke up a little late this morning and went out to the coffee shop where I usually have had breakfast every time that I’ve been here. I was looking for an empty table when someone waved me over to his. It was the driver that had picked Lowell and myself up from the airport in Ho Chi Minh City. He spoke perhaps two words of English, but we fumbled around and communicated a bit. I thought it was a slight bit strange. Here I was, I didn’t really know this man at all, we couldn’t communicate properly, yet he was inviting me to sit and have coffee with him. Everyone at the table was smiling.
On Wednesday I went out to a province where MCC is helping to sponsor a project. I happened to be there on the day when a workshop was being held concerning rice farming with a new kind of hybrid seed which had a higher yield, but required different planting, slightly more care, and more fertilizer than what was being used presently. It was all in Vietnamese and luckily the MCCer who took me was sitting next to me and translating the major points. Looking back at the day now, I think that I was mainly just frustrated a lot of the time. There were so many people who wanted to communicate with me and tell me stories and joke (I could see it in their eyes and faces), but all I could do was smile back and feel like an idiot. I need to begin some real study of this language.
Yesterday I had two rather impromptu Vietnamese lessons, one with the maintenance/security person at the MCC office and the other with the cook at Ruth and Lowell’s house. With the cook I even had the aid of a Vietnamese-English (or Viet-Anh) dictionary, yet I misunderstood her question and answered completely wrong–this mistake was pointed out by Ruth right when she was finished with her Vietnamese language lesson.
Dinner was nice last evening as Tra came over to Ruth and Lowell’s. Tra was at Bluffton for a semester, but she also traveled with our group the first time I came to Vietnam in 2003. After dinner we sat around the table and laughed and ate little tangerines.
I hear that this afternoon the staff here at the MCC office are having some little thing to say goodbye to me. I find this interesting. I’ve only been here a week, yet these people want to acknowledge my presence by getting some food and drink together in the afternoon.
Oh well, despite all that, I’m looking forward to heading down south to Long Xuyen on Sunday. I’ll be able to unpack my suitcase, finally. I’ve been living out of it since October 25 or so.