HCMC Dining Guide

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Life Update

This post is geared towards friends and family that I haven't talked to in a while. I'm approaching the 6-month mark of living in Saigon, and boy does time fly. It does not feel like I've been here for half a year already. I'm still really enjoying the city: I love the food more every day, and driving is much less terrifying now that I've been at it since October. Also, having the solid group of friends that I have really helps to make life here enjoyable.

Southern Vietnam is in the dry season right now, so most days are brilliantly sunny and brutally hot. I haven't seen a drop of rain since January. On the plus side, I'm probably getting a nice tan without even trying. One negative at the moment is that the dong is tanking. Inflation is high and the government devalued the currency against the dollar a few weeks ago, so prices for almost everything are going up. For example, a restaurant that we all like used to have an awesome set lunch for 36,000 dong, now it's 45-50,000. An amazing smoothie stand nearby raised their prices from 18,000 to 22,000. Grocery stores are going to raise their prices starting March 1, and the horrific exchange rate means paying rent will be more painful than usual for the forseeable future. Hopefully the government and the central bank can get things calmed down shortly, otherwise we could be in for an expensive summer.

I'm also still trying to get my work permit so that I can get a year-long visa and stop worrying about renewing the damn thing every three months. Unfortunately, there is a mind-boggling amount of bureaucratic red tape to go through to get the permit. Every document needs to be stamped, notarized, legalized, authenticated, translated, scanned, copied, signed in duplicate, maybe even triplicate, sniffed by a bomb dog, signed by Obama, and finally rubbed across the bottom of a newborn child before it can be sent to whatever office processes those types of things. If you think the U.S. is bureaucratic, you should see this place.

Since returning from Thailand the majority of my time has been spent teaching. I work seven days a week, adding up to 30 hours a week, which is quite a lot by teaching standards. I'm not complaining, though, since I need to make up the money I spent on all of the trips I've taken recently. Speaking of travel, I think I'll be a bit more stable for a while. I'm going to Singapore with a friend from March 10-12, and that's the only trip I have planned right now. I do have two friends from New Orleans coming to visit the first week of April, but I don't think we'll go too far afield.

Anyway, back to teaching. I'll be doing the every-day-of-the-week thing until mid-May. Back in December I wrote about my highly entertaining class of four geniuses. That turned out to be more permanent than I originally thought. The teacher that was supposed to take the class ended up staying in the U.S., so I now have them until the school year ends in a few months. Bill and Lucas, the two boys, are as entertaining as ever. We've had conversations about mercenaries, robbers, and all kinds of other things. One day showed me just how different their worldviews are: Bill mentioned the Twin Towers as if they were still standing, and I mentioned that they no longer exist. No one in the class seemed to realize this, and they asked why. I said they were destroyed on 9/11, but none of the four knew what I was talking about. This was shocking to me, since the event is burned into my memory, as I'm sure is true for any American that was cognizant that day. It's true that two of them weren't even alive at that point, but I was still surprised: something that can be world-changing for citizens of one country can have little meaning to others.

We've developed a routine of doing classwork for an hour and then sort of just hanging out for the remaining 45 minutes. Oftentimes this results in Bill challenging me to a game of Scrabble. I usually beat him, but he still brags about the times he spelled "dandelion", "gasoline", and "quotations".

I'm still "teaching" a pre-school class as well. I put teaching in quotation marks because it's more like babysitting for 90 minutes: I teach them a few words, we color for 20 minutes, and then everyone runs around beating each other for the remainder.

My other classes run the range from Kindergarten-age up to adults taking TOEIC test-prep classes, and I've learned a good bit about young Vietnamese by now. It's fascinating to see where they get their cultural influences from. For example, in one of my classes earlier today, the lesson discussed Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino, and their movies "The Birds" and "Kill Bill," respectively. None of the students, who range from around 15 to early-20's, had heard of either director or any of their movies. This upset me, since Tarantino is one of my favorite directors. I'm thinking about bringing in one of his movies next week so we can watch part of it, although I'm not sure how pleased their parents would be about that. Later in the lesson, the book mentioned Mick Jagger. I didn't expect them to know who he was, and they didn't. They hadn't even heard of The Rolling Stones. Sigh, kids these days...

What my students do know, however, are Korean pop bands and European football (soccer) stars and teams. The English Premier League, the world's most prominent football league, is hugely popular with boys here.  A popular classroom game we often play is "Stop the bus," where I write down a few categories on the board, for example "Animals," "Places," and "Food". I then give the class two letters, say "A" and "T", and the teams have to come up with a word starting with each letter under each category. My class of 8-year olds, many of whom can't even name a country that borders Vietnam, were spitting out names like Liverpool, Manchester, and Southampton, gritty cities in England that are famous largely because of their football clubs. (Actually, I'm not sure how they know Southampton, there's not even a good team there.) If I add the category "Famous People," I can expect to see names like Christiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, and Lionel Messi. (For you Americans, those are three of the best footballers in the world.)

If the boys are obsessed with football, the girls are equally enamored with Korean pop music, which is uniformly horrible. I've heard names like "Super Junior" and "Big Bang" more times than I can count, and the girls always seem disappointed when I say I have no idea what they are talking about when they mention names like that. Many do like some American music - when I let them choose music videos to watch at the end of class Katy Perry and Lady Gaga are popular choices, but are still no match for the Korean behemoths. A few times they've allowed me to pick a song, and they end up looking at me funny after I play something by Muse or another one of my favorites. Oh well, I'll keep the good music, they can have their Korean garbage.

It's also funny to see how some students react to me. Every class seems to be obsessed with how young I look, especially the adult or young adult classes. I've actually started to lie and say I'm 25 when they ask my age since, according to them, 22 is too young to be a teacher. (Although I turn 23 on Friday!) One of my classes this week actually told me they thought I was still a teenager. This is like the pot calling the kettle black, because many Vietnamese look a good decade younger than they actually are. Some of the girls blatantly flirt with me, and I usually feel bad for the guys in the class because I'm not even trying and I'm still getting hit on, while they sit in the corner totally ignored. In fact, here is the order of questions when a female student wants to know more about me: "Teacher, where are you from?", followed by the age question, followed by "Do you have a girlfriend?" That is the big question here, and I can almost always see it coming.

Overall, then, I'd say I like teaching, but I don't love it. I was pretty certain I didn't want to make a career out of it coming in, and I now know for sure that I don't want to do it long term. I don't have the best personality for it, and the occasional awful class really takes a lot out of you. There also isn't really any upward mobility in this field. I have ambitions, but there isn't any goal you can set with teaching. I'm doing the exact same thing and getting paid the exact same amount as teachers that are 30 years older than me. (I don't mean to insult them at all, I'm just saying.) So, someday this will end, but I hope to see the rest of Southeast Asia before that happens, and then figure out what the hell I'm supposed to do in the real world. Until then, I'll keep dodging yo-yo's (This year's holiday gift of choice, apparently Vietnamese youth culture runs about 10 years behind American Standard Time in some cases.) in the hallway and fielding awkward questions about love and marriage.

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