Monday, March 22, 2010

Tam Biet, Vietnam [So long for now, Vietnam]

It is Monday, March 22. Today is a cloudy, breezy day in Hanoi, perfect for us to walk around doing errands before leaving. To recap Quang Ngai:

After spending Thursday visiting compassion houses MQI had helped build we returned 'home' to our hotel. The evaluation forms we had distributed to teachers and administrators had been filled out and returned. We looked them over and then began to think about our final conference with Tinh Khe middle school personnel and representatives from the District Education Office. However, we also had an appointment with a journalist who wanted to interview us so most of our planning got put off until morning.

Nonetheless, we had our comments ready. All six English teachers as well as the principal and the vice-principal in charge of curriculum were there. Also, Mr Khoi, a retired history teacher who had sat in on some of our classes. I think he is on the District school board. The head of the District Education office was there as well as Mr. Do for MQI. Appropriate comments were made by teachers and officials. We gave our assessment and said we'd write a report to the MQI board back home. Do gave an eloquent speech saying that we had come not only to help teach English but to advance peace and reconciliation between Americans and Vietnamese. The three of us were presented with a gift each from the school and we presented a gift: a metal turtle of Haitian make and a gift of money for the library to help offset the library's expenses. The library rents textbooks at a reduced rate to children whose families are too poor to be able to buy their own textbooks. Some families are too poor to even pay the reduced rental rate. Based on figures the librarian gave us for this year, we think we gave enough to cover that deficit for next year. Then the school invited us to go to a seaside restaurant for a final meal together. What fun! By now the teachers are much more relaxed and less shy about talking with us. We all hope Margaret and I will be able to raise the funds to return next year.

Saturday we left Tinh Khe at 8 AM. A couple of teachers came by to bid us "Tam Biet": See you later, expressing the hope that we will return. En route to Danang we stopped in Tam Ky to visit a former patient and subsequent employee of the Quaker Service program some 40 years ago. Both Margaret and I had worked in that program. Chi Mai was delighted to see us and excited to talk about her upcoming trip to the USA next June. Some of the former US volunteers of Quaker Service raised the money and arranged tourist visas for her and her daughter to come for a reunion of those she knew while we worked in Quang Ngai.

Sunday morning I went to the protestant church not far from our hotel. It is Lenten season and the church was quite full. The church is fitted with computer and a large projection screen so power point is used to show the words of hymns and later the main points of the sermon. With help of my own English Bible I was able to follow quite well. I walked back to the hotel, stopping to buy some cashew nuts in the market en route.

Sunday afternoon Margaret and I went with our travel agent to visit the Buddhist pagoda near her home. The monks there have taken in quite a number of orphaned or abandoned children. One of the women 'caretakers' of these children is unable to walk. Originally, I thought the travel agent said she was an amputee but it turned out she had polio as a child with both legs severely affected. I'd promised to visit and evaluate her. So I did a fairly detailed exam then went back to the travel agent's office, wrote up my notes and downloaded the pictures I'd taken of her legs so this report could be forwarded to Red Cross who may help her get needed treatment (probably some surgery and physical therapy) then braces. It seemed a wonderful day to spend a Sunday. Now we are doing last minute things before I leave for San Francisco tomorrow AM. So: Tam Biet, Vietnam, for this year.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Final Days in Quang Ngai

On March 17, we participated in teaching the final class of seventh graders for this year. The teacher, Mrs. Tam, has been very enthusiastic about our visit and our help. That day the lesson was about sports. Margaret and I read the introductory paragraphs on a survey of US teenagers about their favorite sports. Number one was 'baseball'. Now, baseball is an unfamiliar game in Vietnam, as I discovered last year. So as we went up to read the vocabulary list, I walked with my cane and a rubber 'baseball' I had brought. I pointed to the word 'baseball' and held up the baseball. Then when Margaret read the vocabulary list again I tossed her the baseball and held up my cane like a bat. She tossed it to me and I hit it with the handle of my cane. It bounced around the room and one little boy in the front row scrambled out of his seat to retrieve it and hand it back. I think that class will remember the word 'baseball'!
When we gathered with the teachers after that class in the break room, we used the small glasses of tea they serve to outline a baseball diamond and gave them a simple lesson in the game of baseball. They are eager to learn more about the United States - all aspects. We gave the teachers and the three administrators evaluation forms we'd drawn up and asked them to give us their evaluations of our work. "Should we sign this?" one teacher asked. "That's optional." I replied,"We want your honest opinions and often that is easier if you don't have to sign."
Thursday, 18th, we spent in Binh Son District, the district just north of Son Tinh, visiting compassion houses that Madison Quakers had built since our visit last year. Mike Boehm and Mr. Do always do followup visits to ensure that the houses have been completed as promised. One thing I always do is look at the toilet. Madison Quakers stipulate that each house they help build must have a toilet - for sanitation and to help protect the environment. It makes me happy as a physician concerned about public health! A vignette from one of those houses visited: a 48 year old woman who was wounded in the war. She suffered an injury at the base of her head which left her with a right-sided hemiplegia (weakness of entire right side of her body). She told me that for months she could only crawl around. Finally, after about 10-12 months she gradually regained her use of arm and leg on that side. I briefly examined her: hand strength in both hands is equal and she had good strength in her right leg. One of the things I learned during my work in Quang Ngai hospital is that such war injuries often do resolve over time. The initial paralysis or weakness is due to swelling and as it resolves, many of the nerves regain their function. This woman and her husband have four children. The two older ones have finished high school. We met the two younger ones: a boy in middle school and a boy in primary school. The boy in middle school is studying English and spoke to us in very clear English. We told him to tell his teacher she has taught him well. The door and windows for the front room have not yet been installed but the rest of the house is beautiful, including the toilet which both Margaret and I used. The whole family is extremely grateful to Madison Quakers, Inc. for their grant of money which made this beautiful home possible.
I hope I can get some help to get more pictures posted along with these entries but we haven't managed to connect with the internet cafe owner since I got that first picture posted. Now we are in Hanoi and I shall be returning to US in a couple of day. Hope to get at least one or two more posts up. Margaret will be staying a few days longer and I'm sure you'll hear from her too.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Annual My Lai Memorial Service

At 7:30 AM, March 16, Margaret, Tinh, and I climbed on behind our faithful motorcyle transporters from our hotel and went to the My Lai Memorial Site and Museum for the annual memorial service for the 504 people massacred by American soldiers here 42 years ago. Contingents of school children were lined up along with officials from province, district, and local offices, survivors, and others come to pay their respects. Mr. Do escorted us to our place in line behind Mike Boehm clad in his customary traditional red Vietnamese robe. On the ground beside him lay his violin case. For over 10 years he has played his violin as part of the ceremony. On one side of our line stood a succesion of floral displays accompanied by pairs of young women in purple ao-dais. These displays would be placed before the large stone sculpture of a group of people, living and dead, to signify the event at My Lai. On the other side of us stood a quiet, patient line of old women in simple peasant dress: some of the remaining survivors of the massacre. After the various officials had escorted their floral offerings plus baskets of fruit which were placed before the statue, we of Madison Quakers were invited to advance and pay our respects. Each person coming up to the statue was handed some incense to place before it. I was handed three sticks. As I stood before the altar holding incense pots, I said softly to our Creator: "Here's one for the people of My Lai, here's one for Mr. Nam, the cadre who was so kind to me in the mountains and who died there, and here's one for all those who died in this war on all sides. Receive their souls and help us to work for justice and peace." My tears flowed freely then and later as I gathered with the old women survivors and talked with them in Vietnamese. It amazes and humbles me that these women seem to harbor no hatred considering that all lost family members, in some cases their entire family. I am so grateful that through Madison Quakers, Inc. I am able to volunteer to help in some small way the current and future generation of the gentle people of Tinh Khe.
Today, Wednesday, we will participate in our last class - seventh graders. Then we will meet with teachers and administrators giving them our evaluation forms on which they will give us feedback on our contribution here. We will have our final meeting with them on Friday and early Saturday, we bid farewell to Tinh Khe for this year and head back to Hanoi. It's been a good three weeks.

Friday, March 12, 2010

At the Library

Today Marge and I walked to the Middle School to visit the school library. Even though it's Saturday, there are classes and the library was open. We spent some time visiting with the librarian and learning about her situation.

Professional librarians in Viet Nam don't have a post-graduate degree. It's basically a 2 year certification program after graduation from high school. This librarian also doesn't have access to many of the tools that make life so much easier for librarians in the U.S. There's no money in the school budget for a computer for her, so accessioning new books for the collection is a long and labor-intensive procedure, done by hand. Similarly, the log of checked out books is kept by hand in a notebook. I wasn't able to figure out if there's a national standard that all libraries must follow for accessioning material, but it's only logical that there must be. The library is open 5 days a week, Monday-Tuesday, Thursday-Friday-Saturday. The librarian is also the school bookkeeper, so presumably she's wearing her bookkeeping hat on Wednesday.

The rules say each student must have a library card with their photo on it, but they have to pay for this themselves. Since this is a very poor district, the librarian just keeps the records by hand instead of requiring cards from those who couldn't afford it. Similarly, the students are supposed to buy their own school books for the year, but this can cost more than 100,000 VND for a year's worth of school books, so the library purchases sets of school books and rents them out to poorer students for between 40,000 and 50,000 VND for the year. Our librarian, however, has been known to simply allow the poorest of the poor children to take out the textbooks at no charge. She uses the money brought in by book rentals to purchase more supplies for the library.

Some of the English teachers we work with saw we were at the school this morning, so they came in and sat with us. We discussed with them the tricky problem of providing assistance to the poorest students without offending a family's pride. For example, one teacher said she had some clothes that her children had outgrown, but were still in good condition, and she wanted to give them to one of her students. So she told the student to ask permission from her mother, and only after permission was given did give the child the clothes. Another teacher said it's tradition at Tet (Vietnamese New Year) for every child to get new clothes, but some of the very poor children still had to come to school in their ragged old clothes. So she took up a collection and took the children to the market to buy them new clothes. All was well until Tet was over, and then the families came to her to repay her all the money that had been spent!

These teachers aren't very highly paid (which seems to be a universal problem!) but they care deeply about their students and work very hard for them. They teach 5 and a half days a week, including Saturdays. Thursday afternoons are scheduled for inservices. In addition, they teach classes outside of regular school hours, both for students who excel and want accelerated help, and those who are falling behind and need to catch up. Those teachers who aren't teaching a class while we're in another teacher's class often come to sit in and listen to what we have to share. We're so impressed by their hard work and devotion to their students.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hot Lemonade for Breakfast

Margaret and I have been enjoying Quang Ngai cuisine for over a week now. But I still yearn for some familiar foods as well. I usually have orange juice as part of my breakfast. The closest I can come here is 'nuoc chanh' - lemonade. That is, unless I want to buy oranges in the local market and have fresh squeezed orange juice. Haven't felt the need to do that yet. The last two days we were buffeted by strong winds from the north. If it had been hurricane season, I would have been seriously worried. So for the past two mornings, I ordered my nuoc chanh hot.
We can get shrimp [the tiny ones and also large ones] freshly harvested from the sea in front of our restaurant the night before. Also squid. Now when I lived in Quang Ngai 40 years ago we had squid but it wasn't nearly as tender and tasty as what we get here at seaside now. Another favorite dish is 'sour fish soup'. The fish used is a small relative of tuna and very tasty. We sometimes eat rice and sometimes rice noodles or wheat noodles with vegetables and seafood. Of course, I have brought my own decaf coffee because no one here has heard of such a ridiculous thing...why drink coffee if you don't want caffeine?
We can buy shelf-stable milk in single serving boxes and single serving cups of yogurt which also fill another niche of 'back home' food. But the fruit! Mangoes that melt in your mouth. Several kinds of bananas; I especially like the little tiny fat ones. They are so sweet. Custard apples that also melt in your mouth and right now is watermelon harvest time so there are lots of them in the market and for sale along the roadside.
On an entirely different note: this morning we had an In-Service session with the six English teachers we have been working with this past week. We spent half a day yesterday working on our presentation then doing a 'trial run' to make sure it would fit in the time we had available. No students in school on Thursday mornings so we could use an empty classroom. When we arrived, Mrs. Kim Thach had decorated the board with a beautiful drawing of a flower and a quote from Ho Chi Minh that I had not heard before: "Unite, unite, great unity, success,success, great success!" Margaret and I went through the three units we had designed: Word Endings, Word Beginnings, and Middle of Words Problems. We used words we had heard teachers, students, and others we encountered stumble over. We drilled pronunciation and then asked individual teachers to use the problem word in a sentence. In between each section, we introduced them to "Tongue Twisters"; e.g. 'Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. How many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?' We explained that American children also sometimes had problems with pronunciation and this was a fun game for them to use to practice pronunciation. As we had hoped the teachers were tickled by these. We were also pleased that the Vice Principal for Curriculum sat in on part of this session and seemed pleased with what he saw and heard.
At the end we opened it up for questions on any topic related to English that they wished to ask. There were lots of good question. One was: A sentence in a textbook says, "They were in P.E. class." That led into a discussion of how to handle abbreviations. Then they stumped us with e.g.! I said that this stood for an abbreviation of two Latin words and most people nowdays don't know those two words (including me, although I had studied Latin in school) so we just say, "Eee Gee" Another: "Washington, D.C. -is it correct that this stands for District of Columbia and what does that mean?" Their middle school texts cover a myriad of pertinent subjects ranging from good health practices to information about other countries to need to protect the environment. We closed the session by singing three songs: two in Vietnamese and one in Vietnamese then English. Now we are midway in our teaching visit here and look forward to the second half.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sights and Sounds

I had hoped to start posting some pictures with my blog, but it's proving to be more complicated than my meager skills can manage. After I return home I'll see about posting a photo album here.

Just imagine this one: On our first day in Tinh Khe, we check into our hotel and are standing on the balcony looking out to the sea. We're seeing a beautiful row of shady pines and ambling through them a small herd of the beautiful brown cows here. Beyond them is the soft, powdery sand, then the ocean, looking a little rough.

Here's another one: The local fishermen use large round woven basket-boats, something like the Irish coracle (did I spell that correctly?). Early in the mornings we'll see them bobbing on the waves, fishing for shrimp or very small fish--maybe anchovies or smelt. As Marjorie noted, they're quite good in Quang Ngai sushi. There are other, larger boats that go out at night with very strong lights to attract the squid to the surface.

We haven't tried to go swimming. The sea has been rough every day, and I'm not a very strong swimmer. I think in other seasons it might be possible, but not now.

I told Marjorie and Tinh this morning that I usually lose weight when I travel, but I don't think it will happen this year. Our English teachers from the Tinh Khe Middle School must think we're hungry all the time, because they keep bringing us food. Not that we're complaining! One day it was banh xeo for our dinner, a kind of pancake made with rice flour, shrimp, onion and other seasonings, wrapped in a special kind of rice paper and dipped in a special sauce. Another time it was banh beo, a different kind of rice "porridge" that had been allowed to set in small bowls. Then another delicious seafood sauce is poured in and mixed with the rice. Also we've been given some wonderful homemade cookies and ginger candy, special for Tet (Lunar New Year). And I can't forget the banh Tet, sticky rice with a filling of sweet mung beans, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed, with pork marinated in nuoc mam (fish sauce) to eat with it. It's really past the time for banh Tet, but our teacher didn't want us to miss this special treat. When we aren't feasting on these goodies, we have dinner at the seaside restaurant across the street. Seafood is a specialty all around here, and we're three very happy ladies. Today Marjorie and I got our new pairs of quan (Vietnamese pants). They're very comfortable, and fortunately they have lots of room for expansion!

Everyone at the school has been so kind and welcoming! The teachers are very friendly and eager to have our help with things like proper pronunciation. They will ask us to read the day's passage to the class, and later, in the teachers' break room over Vietnamese green tea, they'll gather around and have us help them with their listening and pronunciation. This is exactly the kind of thing we're here for, so although we're having a wonderful time and enjoying ourselves, we're also so happy to feel we're really being useful.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Quang Ngai Sushi

Margaret and I decided we each wanted a pair of 'quan' made while here in Tinh Khe so we set out to find the mother of a student I had taught last year. She was a tailor and had made a blouse for Tinh, our translator. Tinh led us to the house with no hesitation. A young boy was playing on the front porch/parking area. He went in and called his mother. We sat down and talked a bit. She said she was no longer doing tailoring - not enough business. Currently she is working as a cook at the Veterans Respite Center which opened here in Tinh Khe last year. Her husband works there also as a watchman.
While we were talking, My, her daughter, came home from school and greeted us happily. She had been in tears when she bid Pat, Tinh, and I goodbye last year thinking that she'd never see us again. Her mother said, "I've just been to market and bought fresh fish for us to have for lunch. Would you stay and join us for lunch?" We agreed. My and her younger brother, Ti, entertained us on the porch while her mother went to the kitchen. Soon their father came in and joined his wife in the kitchen.
My showed us her history book with a lot of pictures of Ho Chi Minh and places he lived or visited during his life. I pointed to one taken in Tuyen Quang and said that I had visited that place. Ti, not wanting to be overlooked, brought out his math homework book. He is 8 and in third grade. In his notebook were some simple algebra problems he had solved. These two kids are very intelligent. After a bit another woman arrived on motorcycle. It turns out she had been invited to lunch earlier so we were just joining a planned luncheon which made us feel better. Soon the bowls and food were brought out and set on the table. My's mother explained that the dish we were having for lunch was made from small fingerling fish - about the size of minnows. Their bones were removed and then the RAW fish were chopped very fine, mixed with a kind of rice cracker, peanuts, herbs and spices. We then placed this on a flat piece of rice 'paper' with some greens and rolled it up. This was dipped into the wonderful, creamy sauce she poured into our bowls.
"Hmm." I commented, "Quang Ngai sushi."
This brought a laugh from everyone - as they all knew what sushi is. It was delicious. Even Tinh, who is from Quang Ngai but from one of the inner mountainous districts, had never eaten this dish before. We all ate quite a bit. Thoughtfully, My's mom had fixed a small bowl of the 'sushi' for My and me without 'ut'(hot pepper) which gives me severe heartburn.
After lunch we discussed our mutual hopes that My and 'Ti' would continue to be at the top of their classes and someday be able to go to university. I told them about the UWS scholarship program and encouraged them to keep that in mind. As we prepared to leave, Margaret asked if they could recommend another tailor for our quans.
"Oh, for you I will do it;" My's mom said, "because you are going to be here for a couple of weeks yet." We went into her sewing room and she took our measurements. So we left expecting to come back later to pick up our new quans.
Next morning I greeted Margaret and Tinh, "Well, how are your stomachs?"
"Fine." None of us suffered any aftereffects from our Quang Ngai sushi.

Monday, March 1, 2010

First Days in Tinh Khe

Margaret, Tinh and I came to Tinh Khe last Thursday by taxi. We checked into the same hotel where Pat and I stayed last year. I'm even in the same room. Some of the staff from last year are still here and greeted us happily. Walking around the beachfront and in town we do not see much damage from Typhoon Ketsana which hit late last year. Lots of trees were downed or lost their tops, especially near the beach. We see occasional damage to houses. However, one of the receptionists at our hotel assured us that no lives were lost -for which we are all thankful! The young man, Tho, who worked at the hotel last year has now moved his family to Danang where he has opened a computer shop. His wife was pregnant last spring and now they have a healthy baby boy. He must be jubilant.

Mrs. Luu, the English teacher we worked with last year in the primary school is on maternity leave, having just given birth to her second child, a girl. They have a boy already. So I think they must be happy too.

After checking in to the hotel we awaited our 'transport' to the middle school. Right on time at 2 PM, three teachers from the school arrived to take us on their motorbikes. We strapped on our new motorcycle helmets, climbed on, and I, at least, sent up a quick prayer that we'd be safe from whizzing trucks and busses. We had a meeting with the principal, Mr. Tanh, two representatives from the District Board of Education, a vice principal, and several English teachers.

Tinh Khe Middle School was split off from the high school in 2000 and currently has an enrollment of 1075 students in 6th thru 9th grade. Half of these students come in the morning and half in the afternoon. This is a common pattern throughout much of Vietnam as most places do not have the resources to permit students to attend school for a full day. The school has a staff of 62, 54 of whom are teachers. Subjects taught are: math, physics, literature, history, chemistry, biology, English, and physical education. There are 6 English teachers. We have met all of them and have participated in a class or two with three of them. All the students are very excited to have foreign teachers in their school. We have already met a couple of students whom we taught last year in Tinh Khe Primary School.

We finished our first day by strolling home from school, past the market, the nursery school, and one of the town's small sawmills. After we crossed the bridge over the estuary where many fishing boats are anchored, we saw two women roasting ears of corn over a small charcoal stove. It smelled good and whetted our appetites. The restaurant attached to our hotel, East Sea Restaurant, which was closed last year is open so we gave it a try. As dusk fell, we seated ourselved at a table in the open air pavillion. The breeze from the ocean was picking up. The waitress took our order and disappeared into the restaurant building. When she brought our food, she was accompanied by a frisky male cat who proceeded to rub against our legs hopefully; reminding us with clear 'meows' that dropped morsels would be promptly dealt with. When we proved impervious to such clear hints, he wandered off to the only other occupied table to try his luck there. Our meal finished, we crossed the street back to our hotel, hot showers, and welcome beds.