A Place Called Home?

  • A typical larger Sai Gon apartment building.
  • Graffiti on the side of the cafe that I usually visit.
  • The students at Smile Group.
  • An old colonial home next to more modern buildings.

If there are any avid readers out there, I have to apologize for the large gap in posts. It has nearly been three weeks! But do not fret! I have not abandoned the blog!

The past few weeks have been that point in my experience between novelty and this second emerging part where I attempt to figure out a regular schedule in a place that is now familiar but not quite home. Since Cambodia, I have started to fill my days with some weekly activities; however, this calm is not going to last long since March is filled with trips and visits. Overall, I have a routine but the fact that this than pho is so different still takes a lot out of me everyday. It is definitely no Chicago or Saint Paul and I imagine it would take years to fully adjust to life here. One of my professor’s has been here off and on for 15 years and even he described still having “why moments”, where you just ask why things have to be so difficult.

Part of the reason I haven’t been writing as much is that I actually have a somewhat full week now! Besides class, which I have Monday through Wednesday, I also go to yoga on Monday evenings, a recreational expatriate dodgeball league on Wednesday nights, and my service learning placement on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Yoga is taught by Elisabeth, the woman who helps manage my service learning site. I have only gone once so far but I have thoroughly enjoyed the relaxing, yet physically demanding sessions. Elisabeth is very talented at the traditional style in which she was trained. By the end of the semester I hope to be able to do a meditative headstand, which is apparently very good for you because it allows the blood in your body to flow in the opposite direction for a while.

The dodgeball league is called Sai Gon Dodgeball and it is organized by a group of British and American citizens living in Viet Nam. Everyone pays a small fee to play, the money going to the renting of a court, and the games usually go on for a good two hours. The people there every week are fun and welcoming for the most part. (A few of the guys have an alpha complex and put way too much into what is usually a children’s game.) Lately, the group has been attracting a good mix of expats and their Vietnamese friends. All of the Loyola students have been encouraging their roommates to come and it has been pretty hilarious teaching our friends how to play the game, of which they know nothing about.

Finally, I have my service-learning placement for the semester. I asked to and was given the opportunity to work with Smile Group, an NGO that serves as a community center for children and young adult affected by HIV/AIDS in Sai Gon. Elisabeth and some other committed volunteers work to keep up a small house in the middle of District Three for their clients to come play games, take lessons and eat meals together. I just started last week but I am looking forward to helping out with their valuable mission. You can read more about Smile and the service-learning process in this section of my blog.

It is simultaneously a relief and strange that being here is starting to make sense. I no longer am startled by the traffic, sites and smells of this large, ever-moving city. In fact, some of the aspects of living here are even wearing on me a bit. It’s hard to constantly have to fight past bikes, carts, chairs, tables, and other people on the sidewalk and the temperature increases a bit every day.

Also, it’s been difficult to negotiate with some of the cultural paradigms we are working with in class, especially my gender studies course. There are wonderful aspects of being a family-oriented society, but it can also create situations that seem impossible for individuals who do not quite fit. Learning about how potentially abusive age and gender hierarchies are has made me very appreciative of my cultures’ strong emphasis on the individual perspective; but, then I return to all the problems American society has because of that very perspective. Somewhere between the Vietnamese tendency towards fatalism and the blind American belief in the power of specific men and women, there is a healthy balance. I am just still trying to figure out where it lies.


A City of Surprises

  • The best meal I’ve had so far: crunchy noodles with pork and shrimp and a glass of salted plum juice.
  • A busy alley near our guest house that has a large number of restaurants and cafes. A lot of Westerners live on this block.
  • Iced coffee or ca phe sua da from a nearby cafe. Vietnamese coffee is now my favorite.

At our orientation dinner a few nights ago Chris, the program coordinator, said that he loved Saigon because there are so many little surprises hiding behind every corner in the city. At first this place can be a little overwhelming. It is incredibly noisy, with motorcyclists and taxis constantly sounding their horns from early in the morning until late at night. (There are really no traffic laws per se.) There are so many smells from food of every imaginable type, to the not so pleasant aroma of sewage and bus fumes. Coming from Chicago and St. Paul, the air even feels incredibly heavy because of the humidity and simply walking down the street is an adventure.

There are no standard sidewalks. Telephone towers, the few traffic lights that do exist, random blocks of concrete and large holes are all found all over every sidewalk. On some corners the path narrows to the point that only one person can walk it as the never-ending rush hour swooshes by only inches away. The buildings are just as chaotic. Stores, apartments, some small factories, restaurants and hotels are stacked on top of each other, everyone taking as little space as possible while trying to attract the maximum amount of customers. Strung between is a continuous and giant web of electrical wires that are woven between 40 foot trees and pulled into bunches two feet in diameter.

Crossing the street is fun because even when there is a red light there are close to 30 bikes, each with anywhere from one to four passengers, trying to make the right turn. As you slowly walk across the street (or sometimes Frogger hop like I do) the motor bikes swerve around you, all honking and waving their hands to alert the other drivers. On the busiest of streets I just let Nghiem take the lead and walk on the side that is not facing the traffic.

With all of this going on there are still places of incredible quiet and beauty. Yesterday, as part of an orientation activity I managed to visit a Hindu temple, a Buddhist Pagoda and a Catholic Cathedral within one afternoon. All of them were pretty tranquil and it was easy to forget that we were in the middle of such a huge and active place. Another surprise is that Saigon is truly an international city. I thought that there would be some districts with Chinese, Indian and European restaurants and bars but they are found everywhere! The racial diversity is no where near Chicago or even Minneapolis but the number of Westerners here has still shocked me.

Basically, Ho Chi Minh City is bursting at the seams with activity. Just walking down the street is a demanding venture but also incredibly thrilling. There is so much going on just within a square city block that I do not expect to ever explore the entire city, but that really makes sense. In nearly three years of living in Chicago I still have a great deal to learn about that city as well.