I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude for all the mail that I have received. I adore checking my mailbox at school!!! Since my magic day of 5 pieces of mail at one time, I have opened 2 cards from Grandma, another letter from Aunt Lois, a letterish drawing from Mom and the kids, a card from Christyn, a gel pen extravaganza of a card from Liza, a sweet letter from my childhood librarian Diane Klena, a post card from Kate, and cards plus a long letter from Nicole Sandretto! Amazing! I am beyond lucky to have you all in my life.
I know that I haven’t been quite so good at mail in return. I promise that I am on the prowl for a stationary shop or some better looking postcards. The selection is scant. This week alone, I had birthdays of 3 beloved friends who will receive belated birthday wishes via the post. Today’s birthday shout out goes to the lovely and talented K Myers! Obviously, I adore people born the end of August, and without Colleen, Rachel, and K who celebrated their births this week, my life at Penn State would have been a different experience and I might not have become the woman that I am today. I am so glad that you were all born!
I did pack the few postcards that I have left in my beach bag. They will be leaving with me at 4:30am for the airport, and I WILL have them all filled out prior to my flight back to “home.”
As a special treat for my most frequent mailbox filler, Nicole Sandretto, I would like to answer some excellent questions that she posed. I promise to address whatever is not covered in this post in my next letter back to you!
1. What kinds of things do they put in your smoothies?
Smoothies, which are ubiquitous and delicious, can be made with anything. There is so much fruit here! The only danger is that Vietnamese people LOVE sugar. They put sweetened condensed milk in just about everything – including smoothies. This means that I have to try to communicate that I don’t want that. Sometimes the message is received. Other times my smoothies are wildly sweet. At school, the smoothies at the smoothie kiosk are pre made. They have less sugar than if you buy them elsewhere, but still a little something extra. This week, I didn’t even indulge my love for them, but most weeks at work, I succumb to the temptation at least a couple of times. I just realized that I said that after only working 3 weeks. Haha. I feel like it has been months. The strangest smoothie I have tried was a durian smoothie. Durian is a stinky and sweet fruit that is banned from public places like trains in China because of its strong smell. I had it mixed with mango, apple, and avocado, so I am still not quite sure what durian alone tastes like, but people say that I don’t need to know. Avacado smoothies are my favorite, but once I managed to order one with NO sugar, and it wasn’t so good. I guess I will reserve that flavor selection for the school stand.
2. What is the flavor profile of Vietnamese food? Is it more rice or noodles?
I feel as though I am still learning the answer to this question. There are so many different cuisines in the city that it is hard to separate what is Vietnamese and what is fusion. Unlike super spicy Thai food, Vietnamese food is a bit subtle. Sometimes. But bottles of chili sauces and sriracha are on every table. Basil is the most common spice, but it is a little different from our basil. Lemongrass and cinnamon also seem common. My favorite discovery so far has been how delicious a mix of pepper and salt is when you squeeze fresh lime on it and use it as seafood dip. I know Marylanders will protest, but I dare to say it is better than Old Bay for seasoning crabs. Don’t believe me? Come and see. I am told that there are great pepper farms on Phu Quoc, my island for the weekend, and I plan on coming back with enough peppercorns to grind on every dish I make! Rice and noodles are both plentiful. Noodles are beloved and obviously the staple of pho, so I think they might win.
3. What’s up with the huge sprawling lawn? (on campus)
The expanse between the buildings is our “field.” This is where kids play soccer and take gym class. I love looking out at the field and seeing it full of activities, but walking across it for lunch duty is not always the greatest. There is a covered walkway if you stay along the buildings to protect me on rainy days, but it is the long way around. Most days, I brave the beating rays of the sun and the hoards of soccer players to cut across. The cafeteria is on the ground floor of building A; I am on the 4th floor of building C, so it is about as far from me as anything on campus can be. However, its good looks make up for a bit of inconvenience.
4. Who attends the school?
Most of our students have parents who work in HCMC. About 20% of our students are Vietnamese, and most of the rest of the school is made up of Asian expats. There is a large Korean and Taiwanese population. I am not sure exactly what kind of work most parents do. I think some of them must work for Phu My Hung Corporation. PMH built our school and all of the district where I live. Of course, it is diverse, but I am still putting together where are kids are from and why they are in Vietnam. Many of my students have been here all their lives or significant portions of it. Only a few seem like kids who move around a lot, except the teachers’ kids. We do not have diplomat’s kids as they might in the UN school in Hanoi, our capital. Or, whoever is in Vietnam, must go to one of the schools downtown which would be closer to all the embassies.
5. Are the 9th and 10th graders like the 9th and 10th graders here?
Yes and no. They are still kids. They are silly and adorable and emotional and a bit unfocused at times. They are intensely interested in each other and not super excited about school always. They like to have fun and socialize. They are typical kids. However, they are unlike the 9th graders that I taught in the States in terms of discipline and politeness. Even though they know how to have fun, they do take education seriously and are eager to succeed. There are no disciplinary problems at the school. However, some of the kids are under a lot of pressure. Some of them leave school in the afternoon and then attend academies where they take more classes in their home language. There is social pressure to succeed and keep up academically with everyone else. Some people describe the kids as very competitive with each other, and I have seen a few hints of that, but mostly they seem cooperative and caring. Of course, I do have at least 10 fewer students per class than in the States (from the years I taught 9th grade – about 20 less than my AP classes the past 5 years), so it might not be fair to compare their behavior.
What is the vacation schedule like at work?
This long weekend is because Tuesday is a Vietnamese National holiday. Other than that, we get a week off for fall break in November, 3 weeks off for Christmas, 10 days off for Tet (Vietnamese New Year) in Feb, a week off for spring break the end of April/beginning of May which falls over Reunification Day and International Labor Day, and then school is out for summer on June 12th. I will be coming home for about 2 weeks of June and all of July! I already know that I get to attend one wedding, and I am hoping to have many other gatherings with family and friends. On the rest of these breaks, I will do my best to explore Southeast Asia! This weekend’s island getaway is my first attempt, and in 2 weeks I am taking just a short Friday night to Sunday afternoon trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand to meet up with my beloved Baltimore friends Kristen and Brooklyn. I am joining the honeymooners for a couple of days of temples, markets, and street food. They take street food really seriously even in Baltimore, so I am concerned that I might not be able to keep up with their spirit of adventure, but I will try. I haven’t ruled out the snake blood soup that Brooklyn is eager to find. I do love soup. Is it possible that this love is great enough to encompass snake blood?
I still haven’t figured out what I am doing for fall break yet. It is tricky because it is still rainy season all over, and I would like to do some hiking, but it is all subject to weather. I might still try to make it up to Hanoi and Sapa in northern Vietnam, but I also might wait to see if I have any company coming that would like to explore that area. I have at least one Christmas visitor (Yay, Kate) coming, and if she wanted to do the tallest peak on the Indochina peninsula, I could wait to do Sapa and the night train to the mountain with her. However, I should probably think about booking something soon. The fact that one of my hardest “problems” is deciding which country to explore first makes me realize that I am ridiculously lucky to live and work here.
There is also a strong chance that I will be chaperoning one of the Week Without Walls trips that our school is taking in November. All of the 9th graders are going to Bintan, Indonesia, and all of 10th graders are going to Malacca, Malaysia. I would be thrilled to do either of these trips. I hope I get chosen! I do teach more than half of both of these grades, so I think that I have a good chance. If I stayed here, I would only have 3 students to teach. Sad. Or maybe the best chance to catch up on work.
Well, that didn’t even get me through the first page of Nicole’s three page letter, so perhaps I can do another installment another day if you all think that she asks wonderfully insightful questions. If you have questions of your own or suggestions about what you want to learn from the blog, send them my way by envelope or email or blog comment.