Saturday, June 29, 2013

Seen, Heard, & Overheard

I wake up early here, sometimes really early, but I doze in the canopy bed of mosquito netting and look out my open windows at the mountains and the mist, lately mostly at the fog and rain. If I fall back asleep I am sometimes awakened at about 7:30 by the soft voices of the Hmong girls talking to each other and sweeping the terrace outside my window. Where Vietnamese is clangorous and sharp elbowed, and always sounds urgent and impatient, Hmong is rounded, patient, and well-worn, its syllabic repetitions as comforting and they are mysterious. The other day one of the girls was sweeping under the table right outside my window and singing. I like to think it was an ancient traditional tune, but more likely it was a pop song that I didn’t recognize. When I look up from my bed, we exchange smiles and good mornings, which I should learn how to say in Hmong and surprise her one day.

Downstairs at breakfast I check the email and Facebook posts that have come through from the American day while I was sleeping. Sometimes I chat with other guests, but mostly I just like to observe them. Every morning busses from Lao Cai disgorge tourists into the hotel lobby fresh off the (often literally) nauseating ride from the night train from Hanoi. Often they are tired and cranky, and lately the weather has been so rainy that this has made them worse. Today, I watched a woman put on a world-class pouty-face performance so dramatic that I couldn’t turn away. I think she saw me watching her, but since her own friends refused to notice her, my attention was probably better than no one’s. I couldn’t tell her nationality since her disdain was as mute as it was theatrical. She stared at her bowl of fruit and yogurt like it was road kill, and nibbled resentfully on a corner of dry toast. Then she picked up her mug of tea laboriously with both hands and bent her whole body over it like it was the hemlock she’d been hoping for all along. Occasionally, she lowered her face into both hands. I wonder if she went trekking today, and her companions and guides just left her in a village by the way somewhere.

After wolfing down my perfect vibrant orange-yolked local free-range runny eggs with French bread and butter, I usually write and read on the terrace all morning and head up to the SOC café and offices after lunch. Today I had an early meeting and walked out into the rain and up the hills shortly after 9:00.

Arriving at the café, I first see Colin, whose skinny pitifulness is exacerbated by the stripes of hickey-like marks on his neck, a sign that he’s sought out local folk healing methods for some malady. He tells me he’s had food poisoning for several days. When I ask what from, he says, of all things, “sushi.” Let me remind you that we are far from the ocean in a mountain with intermittent electricity, which is a night train from Hanoi and does not have an airport. When he swears that he’ll “never eat sushi again,” I get the feeling that the lessons of rehab may actually stick when it comes to raw fish.

My meeting with Jaya goes okay, but I am baffled by her assertion that I should go back and teach the ABCs to my fledgling adult ELLs. She says they need to learn the letters for their sounds so they can learn to pronounce English better. I then suggest that I put the words “though,” “through,” and “tough” up on the board and see how that goes.

It is deafening out on the front porch of the café, with the trucks and motorbikes, and inexplicable morning karaoke sounds, but it’s ear-splitting inside the café with the tile-cutters working on the new bathroom. I’m glad I stay out on the porch, however, so I can overhear the much more absurd and acrimonious meeting that Ann has with Jaya. The conversation they’re having has a history, as Ann has told me, but hearing it live still surprises me. What Jaya wants Ann to do is create a lesson-by-lesson record of everything she teaches in the classroom. She’s concerned, deeply concerned, as she says, that as a teacher, Ann isn’t accountable to anyone else in the organization. Naturally, she thinks it’s herself that Ann (and her successors), should be accountable to. She tries every way she knows how to get Ann to see things from her, self-described management point of view. “Why don’t you write a log entry for every day of teaching,” she suggests. Ann says, that’s absurd, that’s not a reasonable request of a teacher, and concedes that she might be persuaded to write weekly progress reports, but adds that since she’s not the paid volunteer coordinator she can’t exactly be responsible for who succeeds her. Score. Not good enough, says Jaya, “Then why don’t you just send me your lesson plans for everyday?”  To this, Ann snorts, “Lesson plans? I just come up with an idea and a theme at breakfast or in the shower,” which makes Jaya’s hair stand on end.”  Jaya makes one last futile pass at it, asking Ann to at least write out the grammar lessons she teaches. Ann’s response that that’s impossible because she doesn’t teach grammar lessons leaves Jaya fuming, and she finally goes meta and pleads, “why are you so difficult to talk to?”

It gives me no small amount of satisfaction that all the while this is going on, I’m dutifully drafting the handbook for adult ELL learners that Jaya has asked me to write, and going on at some length about Whole Language theory and zones of proximal development and the demonstrated pointlessness of atomized grammar lessons as a way of acquiring basic speaking ability in another language. I completely share Ann’s belief that a professional educator – and a volunteer one at that –  should not have to report someone with no experience in or knowledge of educational theory and method, but in a small way, I understand Jaya’s frustration, too, because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.  At the end of her rope, Jaya asks, “how will I know what’s happening in the classroom?” to which I almost interject, “I guess you just won’t.”

They each holster their dueling pistols and walk away. For now.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Try Not to Be the Asshole in the Story

WARNING: I use the word "asshole" in this post. A lot.
This is one of the guiding principles of this trip, and for writing about it: try not to be The Asshole in the Story. I formed this ambition in part by re-reading my work from previous years and seeing that I seem to spend a lot of time telling tales in which I am the aggrieved victim of various forms of stupidity. Upon reflection, however, I see that there’s one common denominator in these stories: me. I may be The Asshole. Nobody likes a relentlessly cheery travel writer, but no one likes an unreflective lunkhead, either. And so it is that I’m making a conscious effort to run a little asshole heuristic before I write anything. Of course, this may be the very definition of Asshole: being certain that you’re not The Asshole.
I had really worked myself into a froth over several incidents so far at SOC. First, there was the manipulative and puerile way that Ian organized the Friday Night Social. Here’s how it worked: email goes out to say there will be an event at an undisclosed location, to which Ian will “lead us through town like the pied piper.” Uh, how about you just tell me when and where, and I can turn up? Trying to be a team player, I hike up to at the café at the assigned time and we wait, and wait, and wait for every last person to arrive with Ian gathering us up and taking roll like we’re church campers. Then Bruce is instructed to lead us all to the store so we can each buy what we want to drink, in accordance to the BYOB policy Ian has negotiated. About 16 people crowd into this warren-like store and begin complaining bitterly about the prices, dusty bottles of Vietnamese red wine, Vang Dalat, being $5 instead of $3 (the horror!). We have to wait until every single person makes their miserly purchase before Ian arrives – on his motorbike! – to lead us on foot 3 blocks to the restaurant where we will have a pre-arranged Italian dinner. There follows even more chaos as we are instructed to sit in the lounge seating area and enjoy a drink, with no wine openers or glasses. Eventually that’s sorted, and then the garlic bread appetizer comes. I really do appreciate that you’ve managed the money and ordered the food, Ian, but I don’t need to be told how many pieces of garlic bread I’m allowed to eat (one, as it happens). If you know me, how I like to entertain, how I don’t like to travel and dine in packs, you know how berserk I am going right now. Plus, at this point I haven’t slept in about four nights, so I’m becoming even more bratty than usual. 
After the garlic bread has been parsed, the ersatz-penurious young people drink copiously of their overpriced wine and their now tepid beers in plastic bags, and eat like wolves from the buffet of gloppy pasta and soggy pizza. My night was saved by Bruce and Ann, the retired Australian couple who could see me sitting there fidgety like a caged animal and trying not to be an asshole, and invite me to sit at a table with them. I veered dangerously close to asshole territory one more time when Ian got up and rapped on his glass with a spoon and made a series of meaningless and self-serving toasts, but mostly I acquitted myself fairly well despite a simmering rage at being treated like a summer-camper. Have to say, however, that my crankiness helped form a bond, now a friendship, with Bruce and Ann, no-nonsense retired professionals in their 60s who also have no taste for this kind of pied-piper performance.
What is it about the population of people, especially the young ones, who want to do this kind of work that makes them self-involved, bossy, control freaks? Probably they were like that to start with, but I think it’s also that so few of them have had actual jobs in which some of these habits would have been censured, or at least tempered. I was about to get really furious with Jaya, the volunteer coordinator, however, when it occurred to me that I might be The Asshole in the Story. Yes, I have a job, but not in the ordinary sense where people, you know, tell you what to do. 
I had asked Jaya if I could observe Ann teaching the Hmong children in their regular classes, because I wanted to see how an expert did that, she told me no, I couldn’t, because they had a hard and fast closed-door policy against classroom visitors. This rationale I totally understand because I know that these children have been an exoticized spectacle their whole lives, with people asking their names are and how old they are and patting them on the head and taking their pictures. I get it. And one of the reasons I get it is that I’ve worked with this organization for several years and have even been the teacher in the classroom where well-meaning but disruptive visitors would arrive unannounced regularly. I say that letting me in the classroom still honors that policy, but she keeps insisting that you can’t have one rule for one person and another for everyone else. When my argument boils down to, “but it’s me; can’t you see I’m an exception?” I realize I might me The Asshole, and let it drop. It also occurs to me that I might have a problem with being told what to do, and with working and playing well with others.
“But it’s ME” is an asshole argument, to be sure, but Jaya wasn’t exactly telling the truth, as it turns out. I learned from Ann yesterday that Jaya let Kate come in and teach an entire morning’s lesson just so she could put on her resume that she had experience teaching ELLs. What was the first thing she did in class? “What is your name, and how old are you?” Ann was fit to be tied, outraged that her 40 years of professional experience and judgment counted for nothing against a 20-something British woman looking for a way to finance the rest of her trip around the world. It was all Ann could do to stop Kate from teaching her planned lessons on the history of Malta and the importance of cod (I swear I am not making this up). Kate is the same woman who, Ann says, is asking for compensation for the trekking guide handbook that she volunteered to write, threatening not to hand it over unless they pay her. Her reason? If she doesn’t get paid, then she can’t continue the next 6 months of travel. When Ann told me this story, we said in unison: Then go home and get a job.

Looks like I may not be The Asshole in this particular story, after all, but there’s plenty of time left.s

Cast of Characters Using Pseudonyms

Ian: Alternately charming and infuriating, a 30-yr old university educated Brit in a relationship with a 20-yr old illiterate – and now preening – Hmong girl. I first met him 2 years ago when he was the lead teacher in the school, where his narcissistic and needy teacher-centered teaching drove me to distraction. The only jobs he’s ever had are seasonal ski-instructor in Japan, and international vagabond volunteer teacher. His paid position at SOC represents his first “real” job.
Jaya: First, this is obviously not her given name, but an Indian name she has taken for herself to better reflect her yoga and religious practice. She, too, is a fair-haired Brit who has spent a few years traveling the underdeveloped regions of the world, and helping them by just showing up and offering yoga classes. She has professional experience working in NGOs and is now Interim Volunteer Coordinator, busy seriously bossing people around for a few more weeks until she socks away enough from her meager salary to make her way back to India.
Colin: Looking and sounding like a man who just wandered off the set of that Gordon Ramsey reality show where he teaches British prisoners to cook, Colin turned up here just a few days before I did with some money, a dream, and at least part of a Program to work. Skinny, nicotine-stained, stooped, and fidgety, Colin is a 20-something recent rehab graduate with years of experience in the hospitality business. Apparently, the story is that his father sold his café, and Colin decided to travel the world until he found the right place to give his money and expertise to. He talks about giving back to the world and making amends; everything about rehab seems to have stuck except the part about not drinking.
Bruce and his wife Ann: Wiry, stentorian, 68-yr old from Perth, Western Australia, Bruce is bald and be-spectacled, with the rake’s lifetime habit of flirtation, and the engineer’s decisive certainty. He and Ann will spend 4 months of this year volunteering in two different locations in Vietnam. They both approach their work as though it were their full-time salaried gig. Ann brings 40 years of experience in elementary education to her task, and she is at the school from 8-4 4 days a week. Bruce is in the office, kicking ass, taking names, and reading people the riot act like a new boss who just got transferred in from the main office.
Cu: The 30-something Hmong woman who started this whole thing, Cu has been my friend since we met in 2009. She’s inspirational and maddening, a visionary with a 5th-grade education, Cu can do a lot of things, and, unfortunately, she usually wants to do them all at the same time. Tight-fisted, emotional, and impulsive, Cu is the heart and soul of SOC, but drives everyone crazy. She is a former street-seller herself, and has a 6-yr old spoiled and beautiful daughter. She hopes someday before too long to hand over the reins of SOC and go abroad to study.
Becca: Oh, my god, why are they all British? Becca is my teaching partner for the adult education class. She loves doing research on the intuhnet about curriculum and teaching, but other than a volunteer for walk-in English classes in a café down the street for a week or so, she has no experience actually teaching. Nonetheless, she’s convinced that she should be paid to teach in order to finance her travels around the world, a point of view that Ann, with her decades of professional experience, finds especially irksome. She likes to paint a streak of shiny pale green eyeliner across her lids and wears the studied motley of the young traveler. She is very young. We disagree about how important correctness is for English language acquisition in adult learners.
 Kate:  Cut from same cloth as Becca. Her signature feature is bells on her sandals instead of green eyeliner.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ummmm.... seaweed Pringles ....

Sunrise from my balcony in Sapa. One advantage of not sleeping.

Rough Landings & Good Signs

This trip has had a rough take-off and landing, not literally, but in all other ways. The flights were long but fine, except for the 12-hour leg in the middle seat with the gum-chewing fat man encroaching on one side and the old Vietnamese nose-picking man on the other, but I drugged myself like a crated puppy and got through it. The turbulence started the night before when the student who was supposed to come with me, Paige, reported from Dallas that she wasn’t feeling well. High hopes for her rebound battled it out with increasingly serious updates about her condition, and by very late Saturday night, hours before we were to leave for the airport in Austin, news came that she had acute appendicitis and would need surgery. Not knowing what else to do, but worrying fiercely if  my decision was ethical and in keeping with the spirit of the university funding of the trip, and holding out hope that the procedure would go smoothly and Paige would join me in a few days, and got on the plane and left.  We had lost money on her ticket, and would have lost more on mine, plus the various hotel reservations, and train tickets. But the anxiety and stress wasn’t exactly about the money, it was about uncertainty: I didn’t know what to do, what the university expected me to do, what the ethical thing to do was. I got on the plane.

But I came anyway, and I also departed Hanoi for Sapa, each day and night not knowing if I needed to rearrange our itinerary or take the night train back round-trip to Hanoi to fetch her, or would it be okay to have the hotel take care of her? I confess it was with some measure of relief that I read the news in an email late Thursday night in Sapa that she was not going to get medical clearance for this year’s trip after all. I also began to realize how fortunate we all are – Paige, mostly – that he symptoms presented 12 hours before we began a 29-hour trip to a place with sub-standard medical care. Next year, Paige, I promise, next year: I literally still have a plane ticket with your name on it.

Still seeking my traveler’s angle of repose as I prepared to travel by night train north, some early signs, if you believe in such things, began to appear that I might be in the right place in the world after all. The very nice man at the Hanoi Elegance Ruby found a woman who wanted a train ticket and sold her Paige’s, so I now had a traveling companion and bunkmate. She also lucked into Paige’s gorgeous hotel room next door to me on the top floor of the Boutique Sapa hotel. A professor at BYU, currently working with students in China, she was charming and reassuring company and really grateful for my help and local knowledge. That was sign #1, I guess. Sign #2 came at the end of a sub-optimal van ride from Lao Cai to Sapa. They kept us waiting in one van for nearly an hour before moving us to another crowded one to make the twisting and turning ride. That was bad enough, but then people actually barfed in the van into little plastic bags. An inauspicious entry to Sapa, for sure. Then we pulled up in front of the hotel, and the owners Huyen and Son literally ran out of the door to embrace me and welcome us: sign #2. My BYU friend was in love with the place and the people at first sight. This was Thursday morning, and I still didn’t know if I’d have to travel back to Hanoi to get Paige. By Thursday night I was co-teaching the first session of the new Sapa O’Chau adult staff English class, which was really fun and exciting, and I felt like I knew what I was doing – sign #3.
At this point in the yarn, I should interject that except for a few fitful intervals, I hadn’t slept since Friday night in Austin.

Thurday night brings that news that Paige isn’t coming, and I should feel better and be able to sleep, but I don’t. Trying to find the right path, Friday morning I decide to cancel our excursions to Hue and Hoi An and just stay here another week and work. The minute I make this choice I feel better and hope sleep will come tonight at last. It does, but it takes more than a few days’ rum rations (in the form of Vang Dalat, semi-skanky Vietnamese red wine) to summon it.

Coming up: A gaggle of US professors, including a guy who’s read my so-called “work” on VN, a terrifying walk up stairs in the rain and fog, strange fruit and seaweed Pringles.