Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Was that "tasty," "testes," or "intestine"?


After the visit to the school, 0ur little party of visiting dignitaries prepares to leave Son Hai and repair to Pho Lu for lunch, and the children walk back down the hill to their home, from which Tuyen had fetched them up, picking her way through the mud and dung in her tight skirt and heels. We’ve left the huge bag of candy at the village center, but I remember I have my stash of Kind Bars, so we hand one to each child, and the oldest one asks if she can get one for her younger brother who is one month old. Good try. I don’t know if I like myself for doing this, but I do it anyway. It wasn’t my idea, and at least they’re nutritious.

I am so hungry at this point that my eyes are crossing and I forget that on these kinds of occasions I will have almost no control over what food is put in front of me. Food in these small villages can range from homey and very good, to weird, to downright septic in my experience. I know this will be a high-stakes lunch, but still I am unprepared for what is to come. The obligatory meeting in the village center earlier that morning is a preview. I’ve screwed this part up before, first by disappointing with my female-ness and then by failing utterly to charm the grumpy and resentful local chairman. I need and want things to go better this time, and I know Le will be a better and more sympathetic diplomat and translator. And I will need all her help. We convene in the village center, with its U-shaped tables covered with blue acetate cloth that sticks to sweaty arms like napalm, under the watchful eyes not just the ubiquitous Uncle Ho, but Uncles Karl and Vladimir as well. Awkward conversation made much more awkward by this arrangement, it’s just minutes before the awkward foods arrive. First, huge and beautiful grapes with a pronounced pesticide flavor to the skin and enormous pits that I don’t know how to get out of my mouth. I swallow them. Next, very appealing warm peanuts. Great, I know how to eat these. But, no, the shells resist all my ballgame and barroom skills and refuse to give up their nuts. Tuyen eagerly cracks them for me and delivers a little pile of pale, larval, unsalted, and I guess, raw nuts that taste awful. The warmth is from the sun of the road on which they were probably drying. I eat. Next, bowls of the legendary Bac Ha plums, little round ones in Impressionist shades of green and magenta. They are trying to trick me, I know, but I have to bite and praise. The first note is chemical again, followed by astringency so powerful that makes your tongue feel like it’s been dry-cleaned and your face draw up in a cartoonish pucker. The finish is sweet and lovely and welcome, but by now you have a slippery magenta pit in your fingers and juice on your chin and nothing but a sad little Kleenex to help you. Thank god you don’t have to swallow the pit. Later, I discover purple dots far down on my arm, and I say aside to Le, “how did I get this all the way there,” and she says, “I think that’s from me; I squirted juice onto you,” and I feel better. I tell her I will always remember her and this day every time I put on this shirt and see the stain. The final course is watermelon, which is delicious, but comes with yet another pit problem. I swallow some more before I notice everyone else is extracting the seeds with toothpicks before they eat the fruit. Still, the meeting goes well, and there are warm handshakes and photographs of me presenting notebooks and pens.

Lunch will be like this, except I will have to be even more alert to secret codes and, ha, pitfalls. Be the open-minded and grateful eater you say you want to be, I counsel myself in the car. Not “adventurous,” because other peoples’ food isn’t a theme park or an test of strength; it’s food, and it is meant to be shared – and appreciated. We pull into the restaurant in dusty Pho Lu to find that behind the usual craptacular faƧade is a stunning old beamed Chinese-style house. Promising. Let the impenetrable tea rituals begin. And they do. Somewhere among the pouring and the rinsing and more pouring, Le says to me, “you don’t mind dog, do you?” I’m mortified to report that my actual, thoughtful response was, “Well, I don’t much care for it, but I don’t mind if other people eat it.” Much to her infinite credit she does not say, “You don’t ‘mind’? What kind of fucking answer is that, and who the fuck do you think you are?” Just gives me the Vietnamese smile and nod.

We move to a semi-air-conditioned chamber for lunch and the plates start arriving, the first a plate of sliced roast something. “Is that duck?” I ask Le, and we get so confused with the similarities between the words that I ask “quack quack or ruff ruff?” “Yes, ruff ruff,” she confirms. Nothing to do but have the smallest bite possible and hope other foods come soon so I can distract attention by eating them instead of the dog, which is, in fact, not vile, And what a spread it is: another dog dish, and three goat dishes. The curried goat is pretty good, but since no rice has arrived yet, it’s not very easy to eat. One of the other goats is okay, so I decide to try the third, and my luck runs out. Halfway through a chewing marathon, which was, regrettably, beginning to yield up some flavor, Le says, “it’s tasty.” No, it most certainly is not. Oh, no, I realize, she didn’t say “tasty,” it was either “testes,” or “intestines.” It hardly matters which at this point, and dear reader, I had swallowed the fruit pits, the sour plum, several shots of grain alcohol, and the slice of dog, but I did not swallow that bite of goat unmentionable. I really tried, but I knew if I did it would come up with everything else in a rainbow of plum and curry and watermelon and pumpkin vine. I almost pulled a Seinfeld and put the Kleenex of goat-whatever in my bag, but, alas, I just dropped on the floor behind me, and raised another toast in my half-assed Vietnamese, downed it in a single shot, and charmed the living shit out of the robustly drinking female teachers and male local leaders. You gotta play to your strengths.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Two Schools & and the Hunger for Literacy



I would say Sunday was a long day, but it’s hard to say when one day ended and another began. I’m sure meth-heads and emergency surgeons and bipolar people on the ragged edge of a manic binge know the feeling of going days without sleep. I know I used to dabble in it when I was younger for schoolwork and partying, and more usually my inability to balance the two. But when you add the elements of physical travel through space, language barriers, and encounters with unfamiliar and troubling food, you find yourself in a strange psychological state, one that’s not entirely unpleasant. Clumsy, unable to keep track of my belongings (I lost and found my sunglasses three times, and my readers and my camera once each, in the space of twenty-four hours), I crawl into my bed at 8:30 on Sunday night, the first bed I’d slept in since Wednesday in Austin, Texas. Woke up at 1:00, took a Lunesta and slept until 5:30.

So, it is with a marginally clearer head that I start the real work of this trip this morning: teaching English classes at Sapa O’Chau to H’Mong girls who have had to drop out of school to make money for their families in the villages by coming to town and selling handicrafts to tourists on the street. It turns out that about a third of the students are boys and young men, some well into their twenties. Those who learn to speak English and Vietnamese move up to jobs as tour guides, which is better than street-selling, but since many of those cannot read and write in H’Mong, English, or Vietnamese, the next rung on the career ladder, slippery and rickety at best, is just too far a reach. According to Tan Shi Su, Sapa O’Chau’s indomitable 25-yr old 4’6” creator and director, there are 88 students currently enrolled, with ages ranging from 10-30. Thirty of the girls sleep at the Center, some as many as 10 to a room so that they can continue to study, and work on the street, without having to walk miles a day through the mountains to their home villages each day. I suspect those who work as tour guides and walk as much as 30-40k a day are especially grateful. On the drizzly Sunday afternoon when Le and I visited to center, Su led us to the top floor classroom, and we sat and talked about curriculum and logistics (me, quietly panicking) while three small girls with waist-length silken hair wearing a motley mix of modern and traditional H’mong clothing tended a huge pot of rice they were cooking for their dinner in the open fireplace in the corner. They talked and giggled and occasionally poked at another girl curled up asleep on the sofa. On the front steps when we came in, we had passed another three girls, at work on exquisite pieces of traditional embroidery. I’ll write more details about Su and Sapa O’Chau, H’mong, Sa Pa, tourism, education, and the complex nexus of them all in future posts. For now, I just want to add that I’ve never felt more humbled by what people – children, mostly -- will do to get an education. I’ll be teaching from 8:30-11:00 and 2-4 Monday through Friday.

Earlier on that longest of Sundays we visited another classroom, empty of students for the summer save for the three little emissaries summoned from their home down the road. This is the school that Phil Deering and I raised the money to build, and I’ve come to see if everything is as it should be and to meet with the local officials and teachers. We crouched in the classroom on the kindergarten in Son Hai, its wall decorated with a combination of the universal semiotics of early childhood education (talking animals, letters, numbers, etc) and communist dogma (picture of Ho, pledges of obedience), tiny chairs with imprints of cat faces on the backs lined up along the walls, heat and humidity kicking the ass of the ceiling fan, talking to three tiny local girls. In my case, talking is a huge exaggeration because both they and I can barely speak Vietnamese, and share few if any vocabulary words. They were barefoot, small even for their ages, bright-eyed and curious, but deeply skeptical of me. And they were filthy. Dirty faces, visible boogers, matted hair, torn and mud-crusted clothing. Does that matter, I wonder? Is cleanliness an indicator of quality of life? If one of your jobs in your family is tending water buffalo, then I reckon you’re going to be pretty dirty, and you’re going to stay that way in a house without running water. In our world, we would read these children’s appearance as an indicator of neglect, if not abuse, but I don’t know if that’s true. Of course, I think the runny noses and bare feet and skin conditions are signs of health issues that should be addressed, but there’s no way to say they aren’t loved and cherished even if their childhood contains much more hard work and much more primitive conditions than we would find acceptable. I don’t know. Shoes, though, I’m drawing the line on shoes. I’m sending a box of those cheap, ugly Chinese sandals.