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Teacher Journal: Thomas

Vietnam, February

Last evening, our class had an end of course dinner on a floating restaurant on the Saigon River. The food was delicious. Of course, here they don't call it Vietnamese cuisine. They just call it food. At night, there was a cooling breeze on the river coming up from the China Sea. The lights of the Majestic Hotel, the Riverside Hotel and further up Dong Khoi Street, the Caravelle, could be seen as shimmering reflections on the water. We cruised down the river passing docks where ships from the US, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and small barges were being loaded with containers and commodities. Even at night there is a busy-ness of the people here. Further down we floated past riverside residential areas decorated for Tet with flags banners and flowers. Strings of lights accentuated a dark sky, their reflections as well floating on the river alongside our boat. Even in the darkness, one can see the coconut palm groves towering above the homes and shops.

Opposite the embarkation point and across the river from the Riverside and Majestic, are giant neon billboards that seem to float in the darkness, their supports invisible in the dark. The south side of the river is one place I have yet to explore, but recall flying over it over 3 decades ago during a more turbulent time. Last night during dinner, I suddenly recalled a more chilling scene in the heat. I remember once being downtown and helicopter gun ships flying over head on the south side of the river. Freezing for a moment, I forced myself back to 2005 and the forgiveness the Vietnamese have for Americans. The Vietnamese knew war for a thousand years; the Chinese, the French and then the Americans. I love this country because it is at peace with itself and the world. How much more wonderful it could be if more countries were the same.

A major part of the course was teaching English classes at a local university in the Go Vap District of HCMC. Everyday, we would arrive at the technical university and teach basic and intermediate English classes to very motivated students. I find the students here in Viet Nam are very dedicated to their education. Generally, they have full loads of about 4 or 5 classes every day, some two hours, and each class usually assigns an hour or two of homework each night. These students stay up until midnight, and then get up at 6 AM to make it to their first 7:15 AM class. And they do this 6 days a week. Their educational focus is admirable. Knowing they know much more about grammar than I, I asked a Vietnamese student to help with a difficult grammar questions and the answer was very immediate and correct.

Viet Nam is now moving into the Tet Holiday. This is celebration of the Lunar New Year and the beginning of spring. The national flag of the yellow star on a red field is displayed on shops, homes and cars. "Lucky Money" envelopes are being sold on every street corner as are the red and gold lanterns, and the most beautiful handcrafted scrolls one can imagine - complete with wishes for a Happy New Year in beautiful hand written calligraphy. My own house will have two flags flying. Why? one may ask would an American fly the Vietnamese flag. The answer is, because I can. To me, they are very beautiful and my neighbors become excited to see me, the nguoi nuoc ngoai (foreigner) among them to be assimilating quite well into the Asian milieu and joining in the celebrations.

Everyone is cleaning their homes, cutting back shrubs and buying gift baskets. What the winter holiday is to America and the west, Tet is to the Vietnamese, but more so. At times, I wish the feeling or a specific characteristic of a country could be described adequately, but the English language lacks some of the essence of what can be felt. Heinrich Zimmer, the philosopher once said - and I am paraphrasing - "The best things in life cannot be talked about because they are about things we cannot describe." That is how I feel at times. Tet is not just a day or a week of celebrating. It's a cultural feeling of interconnectedness with family, friends, strangers and spiritual beliefs. New clothes are bought, homes are cleaned, "Lucky Money" is given to children and gift baskets are taken to family and friends. The country literally shuts down for a week as people go to their villages in the country or travel to other cities. One of the practices is to invite people who are happy to your home as they will, by their happiness, bestow luck on the home for the New Year. Needless to say, I have invitations to visit many homes on the New Year. But, this also brings a commitment to take a gift basket and "Lucky Money" envelopes to give the children. If one is Buddhist, and even that is not a prerequisite, in order to have good luck for the New Year, one must visit at least 10 pagodas. Being Buddhist myself, this is something I am excited about. I have many friends who will take me by motobike (little 110 cc two wheel motorcycles) to each of them.

While I am mentioning motobikes, I have decided that as my residency in Viet Nam is now considered indefinite, I will be purchasing a motobike immediately after the holiday Season. Vietnamese friends have encouraged me to buy a Honda Future as this is most suitable for my size. I have been getting experience riding motobikes in the city traffic recently and have not spilled myself or any passengers, though those who are willing to ride with me are few and far between and prefer someone more experienced. They caution me, one and all, that as an experienced rider of larger-engined Nortons, BSAs and Triumphs, the ability to ride in HCMC traffic is one that locals have been acculturated to. That is my disadvantage. However, they have noticed my "Zen of Motobike Driving" is something they have never seen before. But they are still cautious.

Now that the intensive course is over and I have three weeks off from my private English tutoring and the school where I teach, a more relaxed schedule will begin. Notes on the novel I am writing have to be collected and put onto a disk at the internet shop where email is accessed. Once again, I will return to my routine of taking hot, dense, black coffee in the morning outside the small corner store in the labyrinthine neighborhood where I live. The preschool children will be brought to me by the teachers to say "hello," and I'll watch the neighborhood song of life play out with all of its different melodies and chords. The white-haired 94 year old woman will walk by on her way to breakfast and I'll say hello and ask how she's doing (quite nice and strong for a 94 year old, she replies) and other friends will stop by to have coffee and play Chinese chess. The seamstresses across the alley will hang out their daily washing to dry and their caged bird will sing its song. Motobikes will zip by, vendors with coconuts, mangoes, sugar, salt, apples and dragonfruit will sing out their wares and the metal worker will receive his orders and materials and begin crafting intricate doors, window grill work and custom orders. High school girls in their long white flowing silk dresses and trousers will float by on their bicycles and the woman nearby will water her plants, the overflow water falling into the alleyway. It is a peaceful rhythm.

Life here is just life. It has a routine, a smell, a nod, a smile and children laughing. Life here is close and connected. I didn't realize it, but it seems the entire area of Nguyen Kiem Street (of which my neighborhood lies behind) knows where this foreigner lives. I have assimilated into a life here by mutual selection. The people now laugh when I point out a non-Vietnamese person and say "Look, a foreigner" - in their native tongue - as they have partially accepted me as one of their own. It is a comforting feeling, yes it is; life here in Indochina.

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