Life in Vietnam never feels normal. I have been in Southeast Asia for 64 days, and each day a little something never fails to surprise, confuse, or inspire me. Last Thursday, I met a little pup who was tied to a post outside an auto-mechanic shop where my Motorbike was getting routine work done. I tried to pet him, as my love of puppers in no secret (and honestly the lack of dogs to play with has been the hardest adjustment in Vietnam), but he timidly backed away. I went down the street and brought some bread for 5000 VND (less than 25 cents) from a bakery, and bounded eagerly back to the pup. While I immediately earned his favor by returning with a treat, I did not want him to have it so effortlessly. Over the next twenty minutes while the mechanic was hard at work on my bike, I was hard at work trying to get this pupper to shake my hand. After some time had passed, each of us showed the other the fruits of our labor. The mechanic demonstrated to me that the bike worked perfectly (I had been having some trouble with it dying while I was sitting at red lights), and I demonstrated to his delight his puppy’s new ability to enthusiastically throw it’s paws at any outstretched hand which promises food in return for a shake. We shook hands (the mechanic and I), and I was on my way.
Adorable Puppy who can now shake hands
Teaching doesn’t always go as smoothly as it did with the puppy that afternoon. I recently (and FINALLY) found a job at a Center called Happy Learn English. From 6pm to 9pm every Monday, Wednesday and Friday Night, I become Professor Thatch and try my hardest to impart the language of English onto a bunch of screaming Vietnamese children. Tomorrow (Monday) will mark start of my third full week working at the Center, and it has been, in a single word, overwhelming. My classes range from 4-5 year olds in one group to 9-10 year olds in another. The youngest children are the hardest to teach, as their grasp on their native language is still developing, so attempting to supplement that language development with an entirely foreign one is near impossible. With the older students, they usually have at least a couple years of English classes under their belt, which makes everything infinitely easier. When I ask them to be quiet, they understand. When I ask them to do Exercise C on page 17, they understand. When I instruct them to dance around in a fun game of freeze dancing, they understand and enthusiastically participate. Teaching, like everything in life, is a skill which develops over time. I am much better today at teaching than I was two weeks ago on my first day (which was basically a three hour competition between me and the students about who could scream louder), and two weeks from now I hope to be a much better teacher than I am now. A famous poet Phil Collins, who gave us perhaps one of the finest movie soundtracks of all time in the Tarzan OST, once said “In Learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn”. I have found these words to be infinitely true, as each day teaching I learn new things about myself and the way I communicate with those around me, especially those who look to me to teach them.
Days have slowed down. I need to find more activities to keep myself occupied. I have joined a gym and started doing yoga (HA!) (but actually…), but that still leaves me four hours each afternoon which are unstructured and thus unfruitful, and that’s on the three days a week when I work, though on May 1st those 3 days a week turn into 6 days per week, with only Saturday’s off, so perhaps I ought to cherish my relative boredom more. I continue to make friends and try new experiences, but the wonderment which characterized my first month in the country has faded and I’m looking for new ways to get that back, hopefully without the chaotic ever-frazzled mindset. I look forward to upcoming visits from family and friends.
I have developed a general plan for the remainder of my time in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. The contract I signed with Happy Learn runs through early November. Between now and then, I will have some nice breaks. A week early next month when my parents visit (and I am extremely excited to see them), and a day later in the month when a college friend visits. For the first two weeks in June, one of my oldest friends will join me for a two week, pedal to the metal traversing of Vietnam from North to South, covering some 1500 miles over 14 jam packed days. In late August, two more college friends and hopefully my older brother (and, if anyone who is reading this is thinking about visiting please do in August) will visit, I will show them Hanoi and we will explore the Northern parts of the country together. I will also have to take 2-day trips to Bangkok in early April, July, and October for Visa-run purposes. Outside of those reprieves, I plan to work steadily until early November, at which point I plan to embark on an approximately seven week journey across the parts of Southeast Asia I will not have visited yet (mostly Thailand) (some of Malaysia) (and maybe some Indonesia) before triumphantly returning to the States around Christmastime. Note that this whole plan is very subject to massive change, but right now these dates are the navigational beacons guiding my overall life trajectory.
Some might say having such a long-term plan is antithetical to the mindset of a backpacker in Southeast Asia. Some might even accuse me of “not living in the moment”, one of the worst sins a backpacker can commit. But since developing this plan, my mood has improved dramatically, my ability to get out of bed and go to the gym has increased 100% (from 0% to 100%) (100% may be a little generous, we’ll call it 67%) and it no longer feels as though I am living each day just to get to the next one. I have long term goals, a lighthouse blinking far in the distance which I can use to steady my course and keep it true. I hope to show my parents and friends a great time when they visit. I hope to utilize the extremely cheap gym membership and access to Yoga classes it affords me as much as I can. I hope to use my remaining time in Vietnam to cultivate myself into a more disciplined, outgoing and complete individual. I hope to save up some money I can use to travel around the continent for seven weeks at the end of it all. I hope to be home for Christmas with my family and New Year’s with my friends. All of these factors now are on the table, whereas a month ago I hoped to figure out something to do to entertain myself the next day.
Living in the moment is important, and I try to do as much of that as I can. When I am out with my friends, it is quite easy to live in the moment because my phone doesn’t work in Vietnam. When I am in the classroom, it is easy to live in the moment because I’m trying to figure out how I get these dang kids to learn how to spell “giraffe”. When I first got here, I was living day to day, moment to moment. Forget telling you what I would be hoping to do that August, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what I was hoping to do that afternoon. Distant, long term goals provide motivation and purpose for immediate action. That is perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned so far in Vietnam. I look forward to continuing to learn new lessons, going to the gym, and living in the moment, all while keeping an eye on the horizon.
I know that in the blink of an eye, it will be late December and I’ll find myself on a plane to New York City. I have been looking forward to that day since I arrived in Vietnam. Having such a great contingent of family, friends and dogs to return to, how could I not look forward to it? But, for the first time since my arrival, and as a result of the general framework of a plan I have developed, I genuinely look forward to each of the days between now and when I get on that plane home.
Video from one of my classes can be found below:
The lesson on “Rolling Wave” will be coming up next month.
P.S.: Funny story but I couldn’t find a place for it in the actual blog so I’m gonna put it down here. Kinda gross so don’t read if you don’t like gross things.
I have struggled with Acid Reflux (really bad heartburn) since my early days in High School. I am prescribed the antacid Prevacid, and I could’ve sworn I brought over a lot more than I actually did. About 10 days ago, I ran out. I was beside myself. Perhaps the most dorkish thing about me (or very high on a long list) is that I can’t go even two days without my Acid Reflux medicine before I start feeling incredibly sick, almost to the point of rendering me completely useless (as opposed to my resting state of mostly useless). I went to a Vietnamese pharmacy with the Google-translated words for “Heart Burn”, “Acid Reflux” and “Stomach Medicine” written on a crumpled up piece of paper. The pharmacist spoke to me in Vietnamese about my options, and I chose all three and headed home. I was eager to figure out which, if any, could help sooth the aggressive burning deep in my chest (gonna go ahead and guess that this story is one of the least romantic uses of the phrase “burning deep in my chest” ever). I ripped open the first package and scarfed down three pills. It was thirty minutes later, with my chest in just as much discomfort, when another system further along my digestive tract starting feeling strange that I came to the sullen realization: I had just taken laxatives. The giant pizza I had just eaten to test the efficacy of the Acid Prevention wanted out, and it was going to get out – quite literally – one way or the other. That was not a fun night. Since then, I have found a passable replacement (if you’re ever in Vietnam with heartburn, get Maalox, it is not a laxative) to bide me over until replacements can be shipped in. So, in case you were wondering, I am thriving and living my best life out here.