Wednesday, December 3, 2014


It's my last day in Can Tho. I had a hard time sleeping last night. There has been so much to think about these past few days. I'm going to miss all of my friends here. They've become an extended family to me and they share this experience of studying abroad with me. I plan to head out to Cambodia tomorrow with some friends from the program. I'll be visiting Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. After that I head to Thailand alone. I'm scared to be traveling by myself, but I'll use this experience as a personal test to myself. I'll be in Chiang Mai and Bangkok before heading home on the 18th. For our final we were instructed to write a paper about our projects and experiences. I want to share this with all of you, as it is very personal and close to my heart. Until next time Vietnam.
Hẹn gặp lại ,

Studying Abroad in Vietnam: A Look Within
            I came to Vietnam looking for a study abroad experience that would allow me the freedom to explore on my own and to better understand a culture that was so foreign to me. I hoped to work with victims of human trafficking at a local NGO in Can Tho. At least, that's what I told all my peers when I first arrived in the country. To some extent all of that was true, but they weren't my main reasons for coming to Vietnam. In actuality I was looking for a place to run away to, and Vietnam seemed  like the perfect spot to hide. With its dense jungles and developing landscapes I romanticized Vietnam to be this exotic new world where I could find some peace within myself. I signed up for the program a month before my Mom passed away from two years of cancer. I knew that I would need some time to myself after she passed away, but that I also wanted to stay enrolled in school. I had already taken so many quarters with reduced workloads that I felt rushed to graduate before I became a sixth year senior. I also wanted to distance myself from my family. During my Mom's sickness I had to shoulder a lot of responsibility that made me feel overwhelmed after her death. I wasn't really angry with my family as much as I was angry with the situations I felt forced into. Going to Vietnam allowed me to create this new life for myself. This freedom to tell whatever narrative I wanted to about myself to my new classmates felt empowering. I knew that I would eventually tell my friends about my past, but I was happy to finally have the ability to choose when I would tell them. There was no time constraint, unlike the past where everything was dictated by time. I landed in Ho Chi Minh City feeling excited and confident about my decision to study abroad. As free as I felt from the past, the past was able to catch up with me a lot sooner than I intended.

            The first few weeks in Vietnam flew by. I remember being warned about having culture shock during the orientation, but I felt more at ease in this foreign country than I had been feeling at home. When I heard my fellow students talk about home and missing their families I felt a twinge of guilt. I couldn't relate to them. For me, Vietnam was the ultimate vacation away from home and responsibilities. I felt balanced in my new environment, no longer being torn between school and family. I naively thought that it would be easy to assimilate to the Vietnamese way of life. I thought that by the end of the program I could be considered a local. I attempted to dress conservatively and eat only from the cafeteria in an attempt to act like my fellow students. Within a couple of weeks my body still hadn't adjusted to the weather so I went back to dressing like I had been back home. A severe food poisoning put me of off cafeteria food and I starting cooking in the dorms. Every time I left my dorms I felt like an outsider. Women stared at me and pointed me out to their friends, while the men ogled my body and followed me on my evening runs. It felt like everything I did seemed foreign to the Vietnamese students, and in fairness it probably was. I know my whiteness attracted all of the attention and that made me even more uncomfortable. Being a white person in America, I have the privilege of not being reminded of my own race. However, in Can Tho I was the minority and a privileged minority at that. Although I felt pretty hopeless about making friends during the first couple weeks in Can Tho I still tried to introduce myself to as many students as possible. The interaction didn't feel organic by any means. Our conversations always consisted of the same topics of family, academic major, and relationship status. I was relieved to discover that we had a vacation within the first month of the program.
            We spent Vietnamese Reunification Day on Phu Quoc island. This was the first trip where we were unsupervised by our professors. Almost every day it rained on the island and we spent much of our time indoors. The second day of the trip I received an email from a man I didn't know. He was my Mom's ex husband's son. I didn't find out that my Mom had been married before she met my Dad until I was fifteen. I don't think she ever intended for me to know about him. She had married her first husband in a black dress, because the wedding had been a joke to begin with. All I know about her first husband is that he was an alcoholic who had cheated on my mother shortly after their marriage. To receive an email from this man's son completely threw me off. In the email he said he wanted to get to know me and considered me family. He said he remembered my Mom fondly and that he had so many great stories to tell me of his father and my mother. I felt thrown off balance and I didn't know how to respond. I didn't share the same affection for his father as he did my mother. I was confused as to why Mom had stayed in contact with her ex husband's son all these years, and had never mentioned it to my brother or I. In a way it felt like a bit of a betrayal. This secret that my Mom had kept from me, my brother, and maybe my father. I felt like I couldn't go to my father with this new piece of information about my Mom. I still felt the raw pain of talking about her, especially to my Dad. I knew I had to confide in my friends about what was going on and how I should reply to the email. I was so reluctant to tell everyone, because I still wanted to pretend that my life was normal. That my Mom hadn't just died. When I confided in my friends I felt relieved. I now had people who I could talk to about my problems. It only took a month until my life back home caught up with my life in Vietnam. I didn't expect it to happen that fast. You really can't run away from your problems. Running away doesn't help you life your life.
            Once we were back in Can Tho after the vacation it was time to start thinking about what to do for my final project. Initially, I had wanted to work with victims of human trafficking in the city. The selling of internet brides was starting to become a common practice in Vietnam due to the opening of its many borders. Unfortunately,  I was unable to get involved with anything pertaining to human rights because of the bureaucracy of the Communist party. Like many countries, Vietnam does not want to admit that they have human rights issues.
                        I preoccupied the rest of my time in Can Tho by volunteering at an orphanage. The Sisters of Providence Orphanage was opened in the early 1980's and is the only state funded orphanage in Can Tho for children affected by agent orange. There are about seventy children living in the orphanage and two adults with severe learning disabilities. Most of the children living at the orphanage have special needs for their physical or mental disabilities. There are forty three staff members, twenty three of whom are nurses. Apart from monthly funding from the government, the orphanage receives monetary and physical support from the community and outside volunteers (Anonymous).
            I felt apprehensive the night before working at the orphanage. Throughout college I rarely had any interactions with kids and a part of me was worried that I wouldn't know how to interact with the children. Regardless of age, I was also worried about the language barrier. I was supposed to teach these kids English when my Vietnamese proficiency was anything but proficient. I think my main concern was how I was going to react to the kids with apparent physical disabilities. I was scared of the unknown and scared of the infinite possibilities of accidents occurring.
            Once I arrived at the orphanage with three other volunteers I noticed how there was a complete lack of security. Without signing any papers or requesting back ground checks we were allowed to immediately start teaching the children. We were put into a room filled with about twelve kids, ranging in ages five to ten, with one nurse sitting in the corner. I thought I would start off the lesson by teaching the children the English words for different colors. Out of the twelve kids only six had books and pens to write with. Four out of the twelve children in the room had physical disabilities such as missing limbs or enlarged tumors. One of the girls in the room had a type of learning disability. The English lesson quickly fell apart with twelve kids in the room all seeking attention. I was surprised how trustworthy the kids were. I'm used to American children who hide behind their parents when being introduced to strangers. The children at the orphanage craved physical closeness. It seemed as if the nurses were there to raise the children, but not to nurture them. I found it very easy to get along with the kids on the first day. I was able to make them laugh at my amateur attempts at juggling.
            After the English lesson we went to the toddler and baby wing of the orphanage. The first little boy I met had shrunken limbs, but he could crawl faster than any of the other kids. Some of the toddlers had respiratory issues, so all I could do was sit there and hold their hands. When I was playing with the babies I noticed how unresponsive some of them were. Most babies react to peek-a-boo or other baby games. These babies seemed to either look confused or stare past me. I don't think the babies get enough attention from the nurses, because there are usually two nurses for ten or more kids. Another thing that bothered me that day was seeing how the toddlers were taken care of. They spent most of their day in cradles that were too small for them, and in order to keep the children in their beds the staff would tie a foot to the bed post. I thought that if there were more nurses maybe they wouldn't have to tie the kids down. While the older kids room had a few toys to play with the toddlers and babies only had a few stuff animals to keep them entertained.
            After that first day, I spent the rest of my two months in Can Tho volunteering at the orphanage. I was happy that I was able to get along with the children, but I was unsure about how much I was helping them. The English lessons always ended up turning into play time and the majority of play time was keeping the children from hitting each other. I was surprised to see how violent some of these kids were. Most of the time the children were left to figure out crime and punishment on their own.
            At the end of my time at the orphanage I wanted to write a research paper about my experiences. However, because I didn't have government approval, the director of the orphanage requested that I not write one and declined a professional interview. Yet again the party's bureaucracy and secrecy stopped me from conducting further research on a topic concerning human rights.
            When I first arrived in Vietnam I had these preconceived ideas of what I wanted to do and what I was going to accomplish. Now that I'm at the end of the program I don't have a publishable research paper and I didn't help any trafficked victims. I've come to realize that this trip has turned into a quest for personal growth rather than academic achievement. Before Vietnam I felt lost, because the most important person in my life had just left me. I thought that doing something spectacular for human right in Vietnam would academically re-energize me. In reality, having all of the experiences I've had has made me reinvigorated for school. I'm excited to graduate and I feel ready for the real world, whether that means graduate school or a job. Most importantly I feel like I'm ready to go back home and see my Dad and brother. I needed this experience of living in Vietnam so that I could find clarity and understanding in something that seemed so infallible to me four months ago. I don' feel like I have to run away from my Mom's death anymore. Her life and death has helped to shape who I am as a person and she will continue to be a part of my story.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

They Call Me Crazy

There are few times in your life where you meet someone for the first time and they tell you their complete life story with such openness that you feel as if you've known them for much longer than an evening. We've been in Central Vietnam for 5 days now and its been a confusing time. Da Nang was the central base for US forces during the war and many of their bases and tanks are still there. We've visited historical sites such as the DMZ, 17th parallel, the ancient city of Hue, the merchant city of Hoi An, the Marble Mountains, and Vinh Moc tunnels. During all of this time our tour guides have told us a very one sided history. Much of Vietnam today seems like a one sided history. The story of the war is told along the lines of the US caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, divided the country, and destroyed the land. I cannot completely disagree with those statements, but what the new generations of Vietnamese are also told is that it was Communism and Ho Chi Minh that saved the country and reunited the people. The majority of Vietnamese I have met have told me that the war is over and that the country is okay. We shouldn't think about the war, because it is sad and in the past. Last night I heard a very different story. A story I think a lot of Vietnamese Americans on this trip wanted to hear. A few of us went to a burger shop on the beach in Da Nang. Weird right? Who would imagine such a place in Vietnam? We went to the small shop with the intentions of grabbing a quick bite and heading to the beach. Instead we spent four hours hearing the life story of the owner. I am in a country that watches our internet activity and punishes those who criticize the government, so I don't feel comfortable tell you his/her name or his/her shop's name. The owner started their story with his/her relocation as a child. When the VC began to take power, his/her family was kicked out if their home and sent into the mountains, because they were southern. They spent a year in the mountains, living with a mountain tribe. When they returned to Da Nang they found Northerners living in their house. They had to live on the street and work small jobs to make enough money to eat. As the war intensified and the Americans set up base in Da Nang he/she began interacting with the US troops. At the age of 12 he/she became and interpreter for an American doctor. The two would go to villages distributing medicine and taking the very ill to a hospital in Da Nang. His/her stories of that time period are incredible. After the war he/she was sent to prison for a year, like the majority of Southerners who had interaction with US troops. After the war he/she raised 8 adopted children and opened up his/her own restaurant. He/she gives individual tours of Central Vietnam that are completely different than what I've experienced. He/she tells the his/her story of the war from a pro American Vietnamese side. Much of what I've experienced is a lie told to tourists. Every tour I take I have to analyze what I'm being told. This person told me his/her opinions of the government and that in itself is something that rarely happens in Vietnam. Last night was my favorite experience in Vietnam. I've never met a person like who I met last night. He/she is brave, compassionate, and open in a country where these attributes are not supported or taught. Here is one story he/she told me.

"At the age of fourteen I was spending most of my days on the American army compound in Da Nang. It wasn't safe for me to live at home where I would be recruited to fight for the Viet Cong. I would wash clothes and cook food for the GI's. At first I looked up to them as adults, but as I spent more time with them I realized they were children like me. Most of them were eighteen years old. Still kids. When they got scared they would call for their mothers into the night. At this age I still didn't know which side I was on. The way the war was going it seemed as if I would have a pick a side soon. I made good friends with an eighteen year old GI named Charlie in the camp. It was around Christmas time and his parent's had sent him a big package from home. Christmas was a foreign thing to me and I was very interested in the big box filled with red, green, and blue presents. Charlie's parents had sent a box full of presents for all the children in the village that he patrolled every week. Before leaving the base to deliver the gifts to the children, Charlie gave me a small red present filled with candy. The last image I have of Charlie is walking out of the army base holding a huge box of presents. A day passed and Charlie didn't come back to the base. A patrol troop was sent to the village to go look for him. When they got to the village the villagers told the soldiers that they had seen Charlie with the presents, but that they hadn't seen him since. A few days passed and the general of the camp had found a new tunnel that was right outside the village. The soldiers smoked out the tunnel and found 8 VC men. After questioning and probably torturing the men the general found out what had happened to Charlie. The general knew we were good friends so he told me when I ask him about it. During this time more and more VC fighters were going into the villages trying to recruit more fighters. The villagers couldn't resist the VC or they would be killed. Well, it turns out that Charlie had gotten to the village and was able to deliver the presents to the kids. Charlie was invited into a hut of a villager. He was sitting on a chair with a small child on his lap, watching the little guy opening his present. A VC member was standing right behind Charlie and slit his throat while Charlie was distracted with the kid. They tied Charlie to the chair and weighed him down with a large rock and threw him into the river. The general found Charlie the same day he interrogated the VC soldiers. I was heartbroken. I would loose many friends during the war. One week, one month, two months. I never forget them. One thing I admired about the US soldiers is that they never left a man behind. The VC would sometimes use their own men as bait, and hundreds of bodies were never discovered after the war. The day Charlie died I knew I could never support the VC. I don't feel Vietnamese. Not one hundred percent. I'm somethinpg else, I don't know. Crazy. They used to call me that all the time on the army base, because I was so young and so involved. Crazy."
Photo credit: Kelsey Eiland

Before coming to Vietnam I considered myself to be very anti US involvement in the Vietnam war. Now that I'm nearing the end of my journey I feel a bit different. I think a lot of actions of some American soldiers and a lot of US policy was bad during the war. However, I think there were those soldiers who were actually fighting for a better Vietnam and a freer people. The country had been divided long before the Americans arrived. More Vietnamese died after the war than during it, due to famine and incarceration. After the war the people did not have a choice. It was Communism or die. Forty years later Vietnam is a different country. Many more people are educated, there is international economic cooperation, development is booming, and hey, there's even a Burger King 15 minutes from my dorm. However, Vietnam is still a place where you could be killed for criticizing the government, where there is a huge amount of political corruption, and where the concept of freedom is defined by the party. People don't talk about the government here, even in private spaces. At first I thought it was strange, but after  hearing my new friend's story I finally understand why. Fear is like a genetic trait. It can be ingrained into a person's being, passed down generation to generation through stories and memory.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Visitors and Travels

I had the privilege of spending my week with Spence. At 4:30am I jumped the dorm fence to walk to the main gate to catch a ride to the bus station. My ride to the station never came so I hailed a taxi and made it to the station just in time. I really dislike traveling within Vietnam, because I'm a target for getting ripped off. If a foreigner came to Vietnam for the first time with no knowledge of what things actually cos,t they would end up paying quadruple the price. I was approached at the station for a cheaper bus fair if only I followed a man around the corner to his bus. Knowingly I just went inside the station and got on my bus. I reached Saigon's main station and was again rushed by taxi drivers. There are two reputable taxi companies in the South. You have to be sure that their meter works and that the car is clearly marked with the correct labeling. Since I was by myself I made sure to get a small cab rather than the larger cab that was offered to me. I picked up Spence from the airport. His flight was running a bit late so I got a ca phe sua da (iced coffee) and waited with my Spence sign. He arrived energized and a lot harrier than I last saw him. It was great to finally be together. Typically, Spence and I spend a few weeks in between seeing each other because we live 6 hours apart. Two and a half months felt pretty long. To get to our first destination Spence and I had to take a cab to downtown to catch a ferry. The first cab offered us 900,000vnd (45usd) for a ride. We ended up taking a VinaSun cab for 150,000vnd (7.50usd). Like I said, major scam artists here. When we got to the ferry we learned that it had burned down last year. I had tried calling the company earlier in the week. Their phone lines and website were still in service, but I hadn't been able to contact anyone. Luckily for us there was a bus leaving for Vung Tau. The ride took a couple hours and once we arrived it was time for dinner. We had whole fried grouper, morning glory, and rice and a local spot. Vung Tau is the most pristine place I've traveled to thus far in Vietnam. We were welcomed by clear weather and a not so busy atmosphere. Our hotel was right on the beach and it was mostly filled with families visiting from Saigon. The first day we woke up early and decided to hit the religious spots first. We crossed a man made rock bridge that becomes hidden by the afternoon tide to a small pagoda on an island. we hung out there for a bit to enjoy the view and peacefulness of the pagoda. 

Our next location was a walk up about 200 steps to a large statue of Jesus. Funny to think of Jesus being on a Vietnamese island, but there are actually quite a bit of Catholics here. The statue is hallowed out so you can go inside the statue and take pictures on the arms.

We had a great lunch of steamed clams and crab fried rice. After a quick nap and round of card wars we went down to the beach to enjoy the last rays of sun. Spence got to see his first Vietnam sunset, which is something quite special to see. That night we decided to grab various sea food from vendors on the beach. We had some of the best grilled octopus I've ever had, some whole grilled shrimp, and more seafood fried rice. The food was cheaper than Saigon, so we were paying about 5 dollars each for every meal.

Early Monday morning we took a six hour bus ride to Can Tho. At night Spence and some of the people from my program went out for pho. That week Spence came to all of my classes, even the two and a half hour Vietnamese classes. He got the opportunity to try a lot of street food, see the floating market, visit my campus, visit a Khmer pagoda, visit a Chinese pagoda, see Can Tho Ancient House, and be there for me on my birthday. We started to day off with the floating market, pho for breakfast, a seminar on human trafficking, Vietnamese class, dinner of banh xeo, a party with cake, and dancing at the club.

Thursday afternoon we left for Saigon after class. During class we talked about Vietnamese government and the concept of freedom within the lines of the law. People can't really talk about government here and they definitely can't criticize it. I was happy to leave for Saigon afterward, because there are some terrific restaurants  and we went to my favorite one Thursday night. It’s a grill restaurant on a rooftop in district one. We had fried frog, grilled whole shrimp, grilled squid, veggies, and drinks, all for about twelve dollars each (which is quite expensive for Vietnam). On Friday we went sightseeing and went to the war remnants museum (my third time now). Halloween night Spence and I were Wilson and Tom Hanks from castaway (I was Wilson). The street we were staying on Bui Vien, was packed shoulder to shoulder and scooter to scooter. We went to clubs and play a round of pool with another person from my program.  On Saturday we had the whole day to explore Ben Thahn market and haggle with sales people so Spence could find some good gifts. We spent our last night going to a very good Japanese pizza place. I never have cheese, so this was quite a treat! It was sad saying goodbye to Spence on Sunday, but I was still so appreciative and happy for the time we got to spend together. Spence reminded me of how much I miss home.
Until next time,

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Vocational Training: Garment Factories and Souvenir Handicraft

Hello All!
So this week in lecture we focused on vocational training. High school students who don't get a high enough score to enter college or university have the option to go to vocational school for vocational education training (VET). Many of these workers come from the countryside. This is partly due to the cost of higher education and the extra cost for tutors in high school who help to improve testing scores. Rural families encourage their children to fallow the path of vocational training, because the schooling is shorter and training usually results in immediate employment. In contrast, a university education is a four year investment that does not guarantee a job right after graduation. Vocational training is a good option for people who don't have the option of going to the University  and need a fast, steady income.

On Wednesday our Vietnamese class went to a handicraft store where all the products are made by people with mobility handicaps. Almost all of the souvenirs are made out of coconuts. Within an hour we were all taught to make heart key chains by carving a heart out of a coconut and polishing it several times. I used a small detailing hand saw with the help of my teacher to carve out the heart. Then one of the workers showed me how to polish the heart with three different sanders before I finished it with wood polish. It was fun getting to do a bit of carpentry. I went to carpentry camp for a few summers when I was younger and I enjoyed our Wednesday lesson as much as I did those classes. The business is able to provide jobs and income to those who are usually not able to work because of their disability. The owner of the company told us that her business is a good way for handicapped people to meet each other and make new friendships, and even relationships.

We went to a garment factory on Thursday. I was really surprised that the conditions inside the factory were so good. The factory floor was cool, clean, bright, and the employees were organized. We met with a company manager who told us that the average employee makes between $150 to $200 every month. To put things in perspective, teachers make around $300 a month. So it would seem that garment factory workers can make a livable wage, depending on their family size. Sweat shops do exist in Vietnam and I realize that the factory we saw is one of the best. We wouldn't have been allowed to see it otherwise.

Spence is spending this next weekend with me! More pictures and stories to come!!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

We had our last week of classes for Stephanie and my's American culture course. We finished up the class with a discussion on media influence in American on Tuesday, and on Wednesday the students gave their presentations. I was really proud of our students for presenting on Wednesday. I knew all of them were nervous to stand in front of the whole class and talk in English. Stephanie and I attempted to do a musical performance for our class, because our boss is very musically inclined and suggested we perform. Steph and I decided to do the cup song from the movie Pitch Perfect. We practiced all weekend to try and learn to movements and song for the class. Let's just say it took us three times to even finish it for the students. After the second try I wanted to hide under the desk, but luckily I had Stephanie there to force me to finish. I've really enjoyed teaching this class. I learned a bit about my own culture and I was able to compare it to my student's knowledge of Vietnamese culture. I also learned that it takes a lot of time and energy to be a teacher. I am a fairly introverted person, so it takes a lot of energy to "perform" for students for an hour and a half. Even though it was a lot of work, I'm glad I got to experience what it is like to teach on a somewhat professional level.

This week in class we got to learn about the economic development plans for Can Tho.The Mekong Delta is rich in natural resources and is the largest provider of fish, rice, and agriculture for Vietnam. Labor is cheap and there is plenty of land available for development. The Delta seems like the perfect place to develop, except for the fact that there is little to no established infrastructure. Investing money in the Mekong would be very unprofitable, because there is very little to invest in. However, once the Mekong Delta becomes established this area will be the new hot spot for development. Can Tho City plans to create many more manufacturing factories and companies in order to increase land profit. By the year 2020 Vietnam plans to be an industrialized nation. Among other things, this means being able to produce their own technology to create their own products, rather than importing most of their technological products from other countries. From the information I've gathered it sounds like Can Tho is going to change drastically in the next 5-10 years. With all this growth comes new product and product waste. I worry that Vietnam will cut environmental corners to reach their lofty goal of industrialization by 2020. Educated locals no longer swim in the Mekong that runs through Can Tho City. This was not the case ten years ago. There is a clear trash issue already evident in the Mekong river. Waste management seems to be one of the City's largest problems. When I'm out in town I usually carry my trash around with me until I return to my dormitory, because it is so difficult to find a trash can on the street. Most waste is either thrown into the river or streets, where is it later burned. I am scared to think what will become of Vietnam's contribution to environmental pollution once they ramp up their industrial sector. There are environmental laws in place to regulate businesses' pollution, but inspectors can be bought off and visits are scheduled. In an attempt to educate the public the government is implementing environmental awareness topics to be taught in early primary school. Children are taught to reduce, reuse, and recycle. The problem for Can Tho is that there is no recycling plant or system in place for these children to put into practice the theory of recycling. I do not think Vietnam is prepared to deal with the impending environmental implications that will come along with a fast growing industrial sector.  

Friday, October 10, 2014

Vietnam's Educational System

This week was a slow one at CTU. Professor Cary left on Tuesday and our new teacher Professor Glen should arrive sometime next week. So for the time being we are in the capable hands of our program adviser Hung. A new development on campus is that we have about 15 new students living in the international dorms. We have two boys from Denmark and everyone else is from all over the US. I got to say, its pretty nice having more English speakers around and even nicer to have some of the attention taken off of our group. I had another week of classes for the American culture class. The students have really come out of their shells and they are much more willing to participate. We had the topic of social interactions and dating on Wednesday. Everyone in the class was very excited to learn about what dating culture is like in the states. In Vietnam people usually start dating around the age of 18. Before a couple is dating they are boyfriend and girlfriend. There are very few casual relationships in Can Tho. Once students have graduated they begin to seriously consider marriage. It was difficult to explain all of the different kind of relationships that exist in the United States. The students were most perplexed by the concept of "friends with benefits".  I was asked twice if I was going to be marrying and starting a family with my current boyfriend. To be honest I didn't know how to answer the question. As a 22 year old living in California I don't think about marriage and family being in my immediate future. By the end of the class I think what most surprised me was the Vietnamese students' willingness to commit to marriage and a family at such a young age and after having so few partners in their life.

We focused our class research on education this week. On Thursday we had a meeting with an expert on Vietnam's new policies to revamp the education system. It seems as if Vietnam is moving away from an authoritarian system to an authoritative system. The difference between the two teaching styles is that authoritarian teaching favors blind submission to the teacher, while authoritative teachers have a set of rules and boundaries, but are responsive to the students needs.  The Vietnamese government is looking at the US and UK school systems and they are seeing which aspects can be applied in Vietnam. After our lecture on Thursday we went to visit a high school to see what a typical day is like for the students, High school students go to school for four hours rather than the US eight hours. During those four hours the students are just lectured at. In order to practice what they've learned they have to pay for extra classes or private tutoring. I found this to be completely unfair, because obviously only the more well to do students can afford tutoring. Senior high schoolers need to take a test to graduate and they need to take a second test to get into college. Depending on their score they will get into a university or college. A college here is like a junior college in the states. Similar to the US, it is possible to transfer to a university from a college. There is an issue with overcrowding for higher education here and not enough teachers to teach the students. To my surprise teachers have one of the lowest paying salaries. I suppose I thought that in a socialist system that teachers would have a higher pay wage because they have such a large influence in the shaping of the future generation. To compensate for their low wage, teachers need to have multiple teaching jobs. Through this system the students become more of a commodity to the teachers rather than pupils to teach. Vietnam's educational system has a lot of problems to face and I don't think that applying certain practices from the Western system will improve it. Nor does it seem as if there is a clear plan to revamp the system, because every outline I have seen just uses broad explanations for improvement. Regardless, if Vietnam wants to make the next step to join the international arena they need to improve their educational system and accredit their universities.   

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Candy Colored Land

This week was quite busy for me. I had two lessons to teach for my American culture class. My roommate and I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to teach this course to a group of 25 college students. Stephanie and I created the rubric for the course, so we have a lot of freedom to teach the topics which we feel best describe American culture. This past week we taught history and politics. Our students started out as a very shy bunch and its nice to see them open up as the weeks progress. I don't think I want to become a teacher in the future, but I am greatly enjoying the experience.
 Something else that I have recently started doing is volunteering at an orphanage that is close to my school. I am thinking that I will do my independent research project on this. Many of the children in the orphanage are affected by agent orange, autism, down syndrome, and other disabilities. I've always been interested in the Vietnam War since I read "The Things They Carried" in my sophomore year of high school. I am well aware of the chemical destruction that the U.S. government devastated this country and its people with. What surprises me is how prevalent the amount of people who are still affected by dioxin. Orphanages throughout the country are filled with kids suffering genetic defects due to the chemicals that were dropped during the war. It wasn't until this April that the U.S. government finished its first decontamination site in Da Nang, but over 20 sites still exist today. At the orphanage I spend time with the children. I teach the older kids English and I act as goofy as possible to get a smile. The toddlers love snuggling and the babies just want someone to hold their hand. I was so surprised to see how trusting and ready for love these kids are. Usually, when I babysit a child for the first time they are hesitant to leave their parents and distrustful of me. When I walked into the orphanage a little girl immediately jumped into my arms for a snuggle. I will try to spend as many Sundays as I can at the orphanage in order to spend time with these kids and learn a little bit more about Vietnam's programs for orphans.
On Thursday of this week our class went into the countryside of Can Tho to see a particular type of farming system. The farm we visited was using a closed system farming method which means that the farm was sustaining itself within itself. The farm was using the manure from the pigs to collect into gas and fertilize the plants. In turn the pigs were fed the plants. The only thing that made this system imperfect was that the farmer was also feeding the pigs grain from an outside source. I can see how this type of farming can work for one farm, but it would be very hard to implement this method on a broader scale, because it requires a lot of land. One of our professors works for the agricultural department at Davis, so he likes taking us to farms in order to see the different farming methods.
After the trip to the farm I hopped on a bus to Saigon to visit with my best friend Robin. Robin is teaching English in China for the next year and is only a four hour plane ride from me. I will be going to visit Robin at the end of my trip. We stayed in the backpackers district on a very touristy street. There are very few foreigners in Can Tho, so it was a bit strange to be around so many western faces. Robin and I filled our bellies with delicious Saigon food and we checked out the night scene. Robin was very happy with the availability of fresh produce and the "candy colored" Saigon buildings. I was just happy to see a face from home.
Love love,