04 January 2010

January 2010 Update


After a three month absence from the Blogosphere due to various reasons, I’m back! I’d say it was one of my New Years’ resolutions, but I don’t do those since I inevitably break them about three weeks into January. Instead, I feel like I’ve been selfishly hoarding this experience and it’s time that I started sharing it with those of you at home who have made it possible for me to be here in the first place.
1. Thanksgiving in Vietnam: I know I mentioned it in my most recent update, but Thanksgiving in Vietnam proved to be both a challenge and a blessing, although more of the former. The blessing came in the form of the 20 or so students and fellow volunteers that joined us for dinner. It was rewarding to see that the hours spend in the kitchen in 90 degree heat were not in vain as everyone ate with gusto. But, all the effort to make it feel like Thanksgiving at home only served to remind me how far short my efforts were going to fall. So, important lesson learned: It is better to make the best with what you have than to try to recreate something only to disappoint yourself with the results.
2. Phu Quoc Island: To celebrate the end of the first semester and to recuperate adequately for the start of the second, a fellow volunteer and I traveled to Phu Quoc Island for five days. While not all that far from An Giang, it took us 8 hours to get to the Island. Tropical breezes, the calm waters of the Gulf of Thailand, and a bungalow with a thatched roof and a hammock made the perfect backdrop for our vacation. The beach was just steps away from the bungalow and the weather was gorgeous. It was an utterly self-indulgent vacation where I did nothing but swim, sleep, read, and eat.
3. Final Exams: Never before have I been on the ‘teacher’ side of final exams and it was quite an eye-opening experience. If nothing else, the experience was an instructive look at the Vietnamese educational bureaucracy, and it is not a pretty sight. Test creating, proctoring and grading is an oppressive and soul-draining process that strips both students and teachers from any motivation. The Vietnamese education system has long valued rote memorization and that is how students are tested, by reciting exactly what they were taught during the semester. The pressure is intense, yet there is little or no critical thinking or analysis of what has been taught. Likewise, the teachers despite claiming to be shifting to ‘student-centered learning’ are reluctant to embrace new methods of teaching or testing. It’s been frustrating to observe this and know that there’s no way I can change it.
4. Christmas in Long Xuyen: Given the frustration I experienced trying to make Thanksgiving feel like it does at home, I approached Christmas with no small amount of trepidation. But, it actually turned out to be a very enjoyable time. The University went to great lengths to ensure we volunteers had a good Christmas. The celebrations began on December 23 with the University sponsored party that included karaoke with the ‘bigwigs’ from many of the departments and thoughtful gifts. Christmas Eve meant dinner and a river cruise with the volunteers and assorted guests as well as an impromptu gathering of foreigners at the local watering-hole. Christmas Day was a pretty quiet day during which I talked to my family and attended Mass in the afternoon. The day concluded with wine and cheese and conversation with the Aussies, Joan, Rafaella, and me. While nothing like the Christmas’s at home, this felt right and good and I realized that it’s much easier to embrace the new setting for a celebration than it is to transplant unrealistic expectations from home.
5. New Year’s in Dalat: One of the adult students in my writing class invited a fellow volunteer and one of the staff members to spend a long weekend with her family in Dalat. Separately, another friend who manages one of the volunteer agencies here had planned to spend New Years in Dalat with her volunteer and invited me to join them. So, after a 13 hour bus ride with a brief stop in Saigon, I arrived in Dalat. My Lonely Planet Guide refers to Dalat as “bizarro Vietnam” and it’s completely correct. In the central highlands, Dalat is well known for its vineyards, strawberries and artichokes. It is also home to an annual flower festival that boasts some spectacular displays and draws insanely large crowds. While there, we visited and had lunch with monks at a Buddhist pagoda, paddled swan boats on the lake, toured the flower gardens, gazed at the city skyline from atop the highest hotel’s rooftop coffee shop, ate incredible food, got sunburned while hiking, drank real (non-UHT) milk, and rode motorbikes through countryside that looked like it could have been anywhere in Europe. It was an incredibly busy few days, but totally worth it for the change of pace and temperature from here in the delta. I’ve already made plans to return in April because Linh (the student who invited us) has a nine-year old daughter and our birthdays are only two days apart, so we’re going to have a joint party.
So, that’s a brief recap of life here in the past few months. It’s hard to believe that as I write this I’ve been here nearly five months, yet it is starting to feel more like home each day. There’s a rhythm and routine to the days and weeks. But there are also unexpected moments of challenge and joy each and every day. Sometimes I catch my breath as the reality of what I’m doing hits me once again and I am in awe of the providence that has led me to this place at this time. I know, in spite of the challenges, this is exactly where I am supposed to be and I’m so thankful for those who pushed me to embrace this opportunity and make it a reality. I acknowledge that without the support and encouragement of countless people from home I wouldn’t be here, or would have turned back long ago. Therefore, I just want to say once again, Thanks!
Blessings to you all,