Friday, July 17, 2009

My future life...

...For the next month and a half! So I step on the plane tomorrow night. Yikes! The past few weeks have been very good for the most part as I've done all those last goodbyes with people, places and things in Ha Noi. Recently I've been feeling very happy to be in Viet Nam at the mom

So, my dear readers around the globe, this is roughly where I'll be for the foreseeable future. If we are in the same place at the same time, we should probably hang out!

July 18 - leave Viet Nam (tear)

July 19-24 - Akron for Re-Entry Retreat (can't wait!) + visiting Hannah's fam in Maryland (yay!)

July 25 - arrive home in Goshen!! (finally!) ...and will be there for the most part until...

2nd week-ish of Sept - go to Waterloo to start year #3 at UW (so excited about being a student again!)

I've said it before, but THANK YOU, everyone who has commented on this blog, emailed me, written me letters, visited me, skyped me and prayed for me over the past year. It has truly been a wonderful (full of wonders, though not always in the happy way) year. And now it's wonderful (in the happy way and also in the I wonder what it will be like way) that I'm coming home. I so look forward to seeing many of you very soon!

With much love and gratitude,


Monday, July 13, 2009

My bicyle

Goodbye, my bicycle.

I feel saying goodbye to my bicycle here is kind of an understatement. I think that more than most anything else, by trusty blue bike embodies Viet Nam for me. As I was biking along the other day and thinking about writing this blog post (a lot of thinking has gotten done on that bike), I was asking myself why it is I feel so strongly about my bicycle. Here is some of what I came up with…

Biking has probably been about the most consistent part of my life in Ha Noi. Along with eating rice every day and sleeping every night. A lot of things have been inconsistent over the course of this year: my job changed, my host-family changed, my relationships changed, my social patterns changed, my self-understanding changed. Growth and change are all well and good, of course, but often difficult and painful. I don’t really enjoy inconsistency. However, 98% of the days I lived in Viet Nam, I biked somewhere. I enjoy this.

Biking gave me independence. Daily bike commutes were some of my most independent times. I could stop and go without asking my parents’ permission. In the unaccountable time between work and home, I could meet a friend for coffee or stop to buy something. I could also get myself around in the evenings and on weekends without have to ask my host-family for help or negotiate the often unenjoyable services of a motorbike taxi driver.

Despite countless well-deserved complaints against Ha Noi traffic, I actually enjoyed being a part of it most of the time, and at the least, I appreciated it for its metaphorical value. Let me explain. Maybe the reason my bicycle seems so “Viet Nam” to me is because the traffic that constantly surrounded it (and me) seems so “Viet Nam” to me. It has everything—it’s gracious and rude, chaotic and ordered, passive and aggressive, selfish and generous. These contradictions baffle me. But I really believe if you look deeply at any culture, including your own, you are bound to find at least as many contradictions as consistencies. Culture is baffling.

Above all, traffic in Ha Noi is functional to the people who create and maintain it. I feel that (based on 11 whole months of study) maybe this is what culture is about—it is a system that serves its members. If you follow most of the system’s rules, you are a member; if not, you are an outsider, a “foreigner,” and you will not be served. You will go crazy if you’re a foreigner but you expect others to understand your culture and follow its rules. Or if you expect others to appreciate your unsuccessful efforts to act out their culture; you don’t get points for effort.

Better to just give up a little bit of yourself. Go ahead, give some of yourself away, and see what happens. In fact, you have a surprising amount of self. And if you relax your hold on a small piece of it, you may just find that through that new gap in your soul, you can reach much more than you had before. Because if you expect a foreign culture to give up anything up for you… you will spend a lot of time crying.

(I just said “you” a lot, and I don’t mean to be giving advice. Really, I’m just talking about me.)

This is kind of how I feel about traffic in Ha Noi—if I applied North American rules of road etiquette to it or if I expect other travelers to give me a pat on the shoulder and an encouraging smile when I almost got the turn right… well, I would just get really mad all the time (and probably cry), and nothing else would change.

Giving up your sense of being “wronged” on the road is really hard. In North America, I get mad when someone cuts me off and even madder if I don’t see their embarrassed and alarmed eyes in their rear-view mirror. They should at least be ashamed of themselves. This reaction of anger and condemnation gives me meaning, locates me in the matrix of social relations that shape my existence. I am an individual with certain rights (as is everyone else), and it is wrong for others to violate them. I have the right to space, to safety, to an enjoyable driving experience. These are not necessarily enshrined in a constitution, but the notion of individual “rights” documented there totally permeates the Western mindset.

Traffic in Ha Noi (from a Western perspective) is crazy. However, people rarely get angry. I found this astonishing at first, as my initial reaction was to start boiling with road rage within seconds. But before too long, I started to feel… I’m not sure exactly… like my angry was unnecessary. No one else was upset by the traffic patterns and, in fact, once I calmed down, I began to notice how truly functional it was. And actually enjoy the constant negotiation, the constant relationship you’re forced into with other travelers because no one is protected by “proper” rights, laws and traffic lights.

I’ve begun to wonder if the whole concept of rights is just an excuse for not having to get along with people around you—“We don’t have to talk because I’m suin’ yur ass!” But I digress. Another discussion for another time.

So on the road, I’ve let go of my right of way, my righteous indignation, my right to being anything but functional within this particular system. I’ve lost the sense of meaning that those “rights” gave me. Which can feel scary. But now I’ve gained this wonderful respect, affection and understanding for a way of being that at first was so upsetting. I really I think that biking the streets of Ha Noi is one of the things I will miss most about Viet Nam.

Compared to other upsetting systems I have attempted to adjust to, traffic was one of the easier ones really. But like I said, it creates perhaps the best metaphor—for losing yourself to find a new (and better) self. I hope that this is the self I will bring home with me… where I hope to loose it again. And again. And again.

My bicycle, thank you for giving me consistency, independence and helping me understand how to lose and find a self. I appreciate you and will miss you very much.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Bun cha

Goodbye, bun cha.

"Bun" means a vermicelli-like noodle and "cha" means a kind of ground meat, in this case, pork. So when you order "bun cha" at a street food shop, you will get (1) a big plate of noodles, (2) a bowl (Morgan, thanks for the spell check!) of sweet and sour fish sauce with barbequed pork meatballs and usually some sliced kohlrabi and carrot, and (3) a basket for fresh herbs along the lines of mint, basil and bean sprouts. You add the noodles and herbs into the bowl's contents and proceed to eat chop stick fulls(?) until all your dishes are empty.

This dish is probably in about the #1 position on my "fav foods" list. Also probably at the top of the "reasons why I'm glad I decided not to be a vegetarian in Viet Nam" list. I can imagine waking up in the middle of the night, deciding in my half-dream state that I will definitly be walking down to the bun cha place for lunch today... and then crying when realize the closest bun cha shop is... well, too far for me to walk. Maybe Toronto? I'll have to check that out.

The picture above, taken a couple weeks ago, actually comes from the very shop where I ate my first bowl of bun cha during my first week in Viet Nam. It was a magical experience. I've been trying duplicate that ecstasy ever since. But, like cocaine, you only get your first hit once. Luckily, I don't think you'd die trying with bun cha.

So it's never quite the same, but especially in the last few weeks, I've been trying to eat as much bun cha as possible. I'd say I average one bowl a week. It's still pretty yummy the 30th time.

This post includes no reflections on Vietnamese culture and my collision with it--it is purely an ode of love to my dearest bun cha. I believe omnvioures across the globe can agree: it's ridiculously delicious.

Thank you, bun cha, for being perfect. My day is brighter when you're on the lunch menu. I appreciate you and will miss you very much.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Big trees

Goodbye, big trees.

In the older part of the city, Ha Noi has some wonderful wide, (relatively) quite streets lined with these big old wonderful trees. Several times a week on my way to and from the Action for the City office, I bike along the street pictured above. Especially in the hot afternoon, I look forward to turning onto this street where the traffic is less intense and where at points the foliage forms a shady canopy over the road. Everything seems a little quieter and calmer when you're around ancient trees.

There was one afternoon when it was super hot and sunny around my office, but as I entered this part of town on my way home, I came on the heels of a rain shower. Abruptly, the pavement was wet with no sign of dust and the air was cool and clean. And the trees seemed to insulate this random bubble of fresh air, holding it for a just a moment so that we mortals might enjoy a few gulps before it ascends back into the mouth of God from whence it came. I was so surprised by my sudden good fortune to exist in such a sweet and wonderful bit of earth and time.

Apparently these trees are the work of French colonial city planners... well, perhaps one of their better ideas. Or maybe I should hate the trees because they are linked to occupation and oppression. When I first arrived in Viet Nam, I think if I'd known where they came from, I would have tried to hate the trees. For what they represent. These days, after almost a year here, I don't tie my mind and heart in idealist knots so much. I don't really have a counter-argument for why I shouldn't hate the trees. But I think that's kind of the point. I do, however, regularly revel in filling my lungs with their shady, green, cool, breezy breath whenever I pass through their realm.

Thank you, big trees, for cooling and refreshing my (and everyone's) commute. I appreciate you and will miss you very much.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Coffee shops everywhere

Goodbye, coffee shops everywhere.

One thing I will sorely miss is the coffee shop culture of Ha Noi. There are seriously little coffee shops on every street in the city. You can suggest, "Hey, let's go for a coffee" anywhere at anytime of day and it will be immediately possible. There are a few chains, but most shops are family-run affairs. However, they somehow manage to be ridiculously uniform. You can pretty much count on the same menu, flavours, tables with pictures of movietars' faces on their tops, wicker chairs, fonts on the sign out front, and flimsy metal spoons wherever you go. Many of the shops don't even really have names; they just go by their street number. You can't see very clearly in the picture above, but it features Cafe 101, Cafe 99 and Cafe 97. Wow, so original...

But I think my initial nonplused reaction points to a really central and interesting value difference between Western and Vietnamese cultures--in the West, if you're not totally unique and innovative, you get scorned and left behind, while here, being original is... just not that important. This is evident in the way people dress and do their hair, the fact that half the motorbikes on the road are the same make, the repetitive style of houses and interior decoration, etc., etc. There is a margin for difference, but it's very small compared to what I'm used to in North America. It's so easy to pick out young Vietnamese people who have lived abroad of have ambition to... they just look different.

So it does seem ridiculous to my Westerner sensibilities that the coffee shops are almost all so generic and nondescript. However, they are almost all generically and nondescriptly delicious and satisfying. See, those English words hardly make sense in that sentence. We are not supposed to be impressed by anything less than "the one and only." But I am impressed by the coffee shops in Ha Noi. It's like having the quality assurance of a big chain, but without the corporate control. How does that happen? It's a wonderful mystery to my foreign little soul.

Coffee shops everywhere, thank you for being unoriginally wonderful. Always there and always refreshing. I appreciate you and will miss you very much.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Goodbyes... lac ran

So all this re-entry stuff from MCC I've been reading keeps emphasizing: good goodbyes = good re-entry. And, of course, the opposite as well: bad goodbyes = death to your re-entry experience. Therefore, I have started making a lot of lists to make sure I get all my good goodbyes in before I go: people to see, activities to do, things to buy. I've also recently started thinking in colons a lot: obviously.

Along with people and places, apparently it's also important to say goodbye to things. With that in mind, I've decided to devote a few blog posts to these farewells. If all goes as planned, this will aid me in my detachment process and will also help me share with you some of the lovely mundane bits of my experience here, which do not usually make it onto the blog. It seems these everyday little joys are what I will miss most when I am not here anymore. So without further adieu...

Goodbye "lac ran" (fried peanuts)

You would not believe how delightful these little roasted nuts are. They are a regular dish at the MCC office, and I do believe that no one in Viet Nam makes better lac ran than Co Tu (the MCC cook featured in the post about my work at MCC). They add a fabulous nutty crunch to any bowel of steamed rice (wow, I feel like a commercial) and are also good for snacking on before the meal (when you're waiting hungrily for everyone to sit down) or after (when you're feeling nicely satisfied but don't mind munching on something while you continue to chat with you fellow diners). And I would have to say, eating them with sliced pumpkin friend with garlic and scallions is probably in the top 5 of my favourite dishes in Viet Nam. More on those other dishes to come!

I have asked Co Tu to call me down to the kitchen the next time she makes them so I can watch and learn. She assures me it's very easy: just fry the raw peanuts in a little bit of oil, stirring constantly, then wait for them to cool before lightly salting. So it does sound pretty easy... I'm still a little dubious about my ability to reproduce this delicacy independently on the other side of the world. You can buy raw peanuts in North America, right? I've just never tried. For now, I am just trying to eat as many as possible here. Even if I can make them by myself back home, I'm sure it just won't be quite the same.

Lac ran, thank you for livening up my lunches. So simple, yet so wholesomely delicious. I appreciate you and will miss you very much.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


In honour of today, June 18: exactly one month before I return home(?)

From The Art of Coming Home, suggested reading from MCC:

Usual definition of HOME: "the place where you are known and trusted and where you know and trust others; where you are accepted, understood, indulged and forgiven; a place of rituals and routine interactions, of entirely predictable events and people and very few surprises; the place where you belong and feel safe and secure and where you can accordingly trust your instincts, relax and be yourself" (15).

However, this is a very high standard, "a standard, in fact, that any such place cannot possibly meet. As you will see, this very realization, that home is not really home, is at the core of the experience of re-entry" (16).

Oh dear.