Plans

This blog’s been quiet for far too long! There are seasons when it feels good to hole up, live from a place of intuition –not getting too analytical or separated from direct experience. I spent summer sinking into safari tent living at Yellowstone Under Canvas. There were big Montana mountains to bike in, restore in, and a dock on Hebgen Lake for yoga. The best counter to winter ski life.

Add to that ski touring in the Tetons into June and pow days starting up in October. The season was starting off good and promising. I felt natural on my skis right from the start.

Good bye for now to Montana, I moved to the Tetons indefinitely, started up a relationship with JHMR and found myself in a slopeside condo at Teton Village. My first winter on the Freeride World Tour was about to start, my body was taking hits –flat landings, hidden rocks–and feeling strong and up for it! An impressive community of lady shredders; new, exciting lines; shooting photos; film opportunity with Salomon FreeskiTV… positivity kept falling into place.

So airing out of a chute into a treed-in landing, bouncing off a rock wall onto a downed tree trunk -days before my flight to Europe -was an abrupt surprise.

The week intended for touring the French Alps had me in pain getting in and out of bed. Sneezing was enough force to set me back in tears. I sat as a spectator at the FWT comp in Chamonix. This was not my plan.

But plans don’t serve to stay too attached to. And neither does ego. I keep hoping: tomorrow? next week I’ll be 100% right? But the message from those who have gone before with separated/broken ribs (the same really as far as pain and healing is concerned –cartilage/bone only difference) is that it just takes time. I want the process to speed up because I have a competition deadline. I keep hoping my healing can be unique… I meditate, my mind can go above pain, this was all an exaggerated diagnosis, right? It’s all muscular and massage can work that away, you’re whole again, oops sorry, we messed up. Go ahead and do what your mind has always known your body able to do.

I’ve never felt more NOT like an athlete while heading into a competition. It kills me to think that on comp day I won’t be at 100%. My legs and arms work so it seems like I should be fine to go. But your core is your entire center of balance and mine is tense on alarm protecting my ribs, and the entire left side of my body from feet to neck is knotted muscle. I can grit my teeth and fake the gross approximations of skiing, but the subtleties of movement –recoveries, absorption, can throw me. What a confusing mindset to enter competition with.

Vitamin I, a strong mind and a true understanding of what my body is up for on this given day is the game plan for tomorrow. In Fieberbrunn I was picking lines I’d ski at 100%, luckily I had time with the delay and move to Kappl to pay a bit more attention to what these different messages of pain mean. Some pain truly says “not ready”, some is just white noise, and some is your over-protective mother. And the extraneous pain can be bypassed with a solid mindset because skiing is something my body knows how to do.

Read More

On opportunity and spirit

It was a day for red meat. My energy stores have been feeling so depleted in this downtime week between the Freeride World Qualifiers at Moonlight Basin and Crested Butte -for whatever reason, that after massage therapy I doubled up: I'll take the beef chili with a half Yellowstone topped with shaved beef.

It was an R & R Sunday for me. Then I opened my inbox and the simple: "thanks so much for replying me. I'm still studying...but my life has changed so much since my dad died."

My heart jolted. And off it sprinted, pulling me fully back into what has become an increasingly alternate universe.

In Vietnam. We had grown close and I had known the resolve of this spirited student who quietly did her best in my classes and sometimes broke into tears in my kitchen at night. Her dad had been dying and she had been dreaming big dreams and working her hardest. Completely unassuming, having to choose practicality over passion -an English degree in place of her social work dreams, she rejoiced when I told her that development initiatives need locals with strong English skills. She stated with the shyest of smiles on her face, "I hope that someday we will be colleagues". My heart broke.

And now it mourns for what it must feel like to lose your father. For how many stories of family members lost to cancer I heard in Vietnam. For the paths my students' and friends' lives have taken since I've left, that I imagine are full of challenges and I believe deserve much much more given the opportunity.

It's so easy to forget when I'm here and I'm comfortable, and I make enough money to survive and then some, and my family is healthy, and I spend most of my time traveling around skiing... and then some glimmer of another life catapults me back.

IMG_6992.JPG

Montana talent was showcased at the Tedx Bozeman "Dreamers Who Do" event last Friday. Ryan set the stage with a fantastic set design. It was 4 hours of inspiration across a range of fields: physics, music, dance, conservation...

The moments that broke away from being rehearsed, that felt raw and honest were the most appreciated -this is when the messages shone through strongest. I felt an appreciation for the talent, because Montana needs it too, and this reaffirmation: for success talent cannot be discounted, but the opportunities that allowed for it are completely crucial. There are talented, spirited people who face life at a disadvantage -for whatever reason. There are countries that get stuck in poverty -for various reasons. In a free market system, these people, these countries cannot keep up. We can see it in a widening divide between the population of our own country. Talent is lost unless additional services are in place to intervene and support. 

At the end of the event, the audience was asked to envision what they wished to see in both their community and their world. I have the same response for the two. I wish for a life where we get sporadic alarm calls that remind us how we are all connected. This insight fuels the good (and challenging) work.

Solo road trippin

When I was living in Vinh, Vietnam one of my best friends was a French expat. We would have girl dinners, $5 massages on Sundays, and escape to the beach on her company motorbike every afternoon that we could sneak beach shack seafood and a swim into the midday work siesta.

Good morning world! This solo traveler passed a lot of early morning semis to get here.

Good morning world! This solo traveler passed a lot of early morning semis to get here.

She had lived in Thailand working at the embassy and, at the time I was working in Vinh, was the manager of a French cultural center in Vietnam- independent and clear in her vision for herself. 

I remember her telling me, as she was feeling unsure about embarking alone on a trip to the mountains of Sapa, that it’s good to keep traveling alone. You have to every once in a while. Because if you stop and don’t for a stretch of time, then you become too afraid when it’s time to go. You ask your friend or see what your boyfriend’s schedule is… you fall into the fear that going alone requires you to be brave, flexible, open to experience. Even just riding a bus or train by yourself and showing up someplace new on your own makes you much more open to experiencing and reaching out to people when you get there. Solo travel reinvigorates. Especially for a female, for whom the world can feel unsafe going alone, solo reveals how strong and independent you can be.

So I had this in mind as I took off on a solo drive down to Salt Lake City, UT for OR (the Outdoor Retailer tradeshow). This was only three days after returning from ten days in British Columbia, Canada with my boyfriend and friends in the BombSnow crew, and relaxing in Bozeman was feeling like such a nice alternative…

I would have preferred going by train, like the night train of Vietnam’s North-South Reunification line; I love to fall asleep in one place and wake up in another completely new. But for this trip: a 4 am wakeup, driving through the dark and willing deer and big horn sheep to stay in their place... to an end destination of the Alta parking lot would be my solo journey.

How does it feel

Last Christmas my student took me home. By bus and then by motorbike, I huddled into her sister’s sweatshirt, blind and tucked under the back flap of her poncho. 40 degrees of clammy, drizzling weather felt freezing in Vietnam. With no indoor heating and concrete block homes that radiated the cold, I spent most of Christmas huddled under blankets in a shared bed. The girls would slip under the covers with me for body heat, in-between preparing daily meals.

The night my student brought me to her village, we drove in under a pitch black sky. In one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam, (for reference, I’d guess an annual income in this area to be around $300?), she tapped me and slipped the poncho off my head. I’d later see families washing dishes in the muddy creek and the entire Christian town convening for a 4 am church service before farmers went to the fields. We drove in and, to my astonishment, in every modest concrete courtyard were the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree.

---

This Christmas was a morning skin across a Montana lake, up to down with my brother and some friends. 

To distract myself from the mental chatter, I played a game of pretending my skis were another sense organ. Just another extension like my fingers or my nose, I focused on how does it feel? to slide my skis across the skin track. The information of oh this feels good registered in my brain to release some endorphins and prevent the mind from forming its own impression of how painful, how tired, how slow.

There’s so much self-judgment tied into this return to skiing. Up at Bridger skiing solo the other day, I felt tip crossing, tail crossing, just about. On came… Am I leaning in? Sitting back? Can the people on the chair tell I haven’t skied for a year and a half? At some point soon I’m going to be judged for how I ski. Am I ready?

But this Christmas, with the crisp of some mountain air and uphill travel, 23 years of ski muscle memory and the familiar feeling of frosted eyelashes and nose flooded back. It’s not so much how it looks, but how does it feel?

Light and sweet and grin-inducing. Happy new year from Montana.

And then there were 4...

The Fulbright grant is officially over. Some of us are back in the U.S., some traveling; a large group is waiting at the airport in Ha Noi to begin their 30 hour return.

Whether we made close friendships for life, whether our group of 15 strained each other's nerves, or whether we were the greatest source to lean on during a tumultuous year, the fact is that we started and ended this time together. 

The 2011-2012 Viet Nam ETA cohort represented Viet Kieu, rural, urban, female, male, gay, straight, gregarious, reserved, authors/lawyers/teachers/editors/artists/skiers/clinical psychologists/and who-knows-what-else to be. Living ten months in a quite homogenous society, our diversity taught about one of the greatest strengths of U.S. culture: the complete inability to define it in any single way. 

The Rising Dragon hotel feels empty. Four floors above where I spent all of August adjusting to life in Ha Noi, I am finding that this crowded city no longer intimidates me. Actually, it now seems like the perfect western/Vietnamese mix for when I return again to live and work in Viet Nam. At the earliest, one year from now, is what I told everyone in Vinh. I need my winters back in the U.S.

Thank you Taylor, Tanner, Quyen, Kelly, Maria, Andrea, MJ, Allision, Violet, Adelina, Ben, Lam, Brittanye and Melissa (It will be strange not to hear our names listed anymore in one big long stream). Good luck on the next part of the voyage. Hen gap lai nhe.

Reintegration Station

I hid my emotions from myself pretty well. I pushed it catching my flight, so that the knots in my stomach were mistaken for anxiety (7 minutes to departure and just getting through security; yet, no problem. I love that Viet Nam is as last minute as I am). I cooked lunch for 10, slooowly packed up my room and cleaned, overbooked myself so that I was sprinting through any good byes that had to be made.

But I just blew up in the taxi on the way from Ha Noi airport to the city center: I opened the door and threatened to get out twice, my driver and I yelled at each other in Vietnamese, he blared the music full blast for 3 seconds, and I grumbled back frustrations about minor lies to convince me to take that cab... then I realized that I was being irrational; pressure built up behind my eyeballs and caught in my throat and I was finally feeling sad about leaving Vinh City.

Vinh is challenging and full of stressors by the day, but I've found my rhythm. It can feel a bit lonely or I can open myself up to the richest relationships because I am living alone. I relish my solo train travel and rolling-in in the early hours of the morning; after class, climbing five flights of stairs to relax in a space that is only mine. I am not always comfortable, but this has been my life

And again, I am in transition from one place to another. In Vinh, I can count on always being an outsider. What if, after this time, I find that I am an outsider in my own country? My friends have continued moving along without me. Some whose lives were so tightly wrapped around mine have added new people who will need to be introduced. I will need to be introduced to my own life, and that is a very disconcerting thought.

Two months to be a traveler in Viet Nam and time with Mom, Dad, Adrian, and Ryan to help pull my disoriented self back to life in the U.S.

Convo Culture

The first night I arrived in Vinh, I was taken to a Vietnamese-German restaurant with courtyard seating amongst a garden of trees and Disney Land-style fake stone waterfalls. 

I remember driving out through the alleyways after that meal, seeing concrete walls topped with barbed wire and shards of glass, and wondering what it would mean to live in a developing country.

---

I've just returned from that same restaurant, from a farewell meal with my dean, hosts, and vice rector. I can now enter the conversation, despite bumbling my way through humorous mistranslations of story retellings and dirty jokes. I have a comfortable place among these relationships that have supported me. 

---

I now see that it's not only women who have their roles here. We all have a responsibility to each other. It can be as simple as offering the best pieces of meat, or filling one another's bowls with rice, encouraging "an di", "eat more" ie. "I care about you". There is comfort in simple gestures and having a responsibility to someone else in the complicated network of society. It can feel stifling or it can feel comforting. Your choice. 

---

What will I miss most about Viet Nam? The first thing that comes to mind is the noi chuyen culture. Vietnamese people are skilled in the art of bullshitting/chem gio/speaking about nothing... I mean this in the most positive way. 

Your xoi seller will pull up a plastic stool on the pavement and remark about your health (Are you thinner or fatter today? Perhaps, blacker/tan?), inquire about your family, what did you do today, where are you going? I have true relationships with the family at my general store and the women whose seafood restaurant I visit. Again, it can feel intrusive or it can feel like caring. 

It's been great for language learning because random people on the streets are up for a chat. Frequently, the same small talk questions are asked or, to get a good listening session in, just wait for a long monologue.

I needed this lesson. Never before would I stop in on my neighbors just to relish some conversation, never before would meals and conversation be enough to keep me engaged for long. I used to despise just making noise, but I now see that these minor exchanges build relationship. In Viet Nam it's important to show your hosts that you are comfortable-you sing, you eat, you toast in order to do so. We entertain each other with our voices and we noi chuyen.

Saying good bye

Cracked sunflower seeds between my teeth and drank sugarcane juice outside the university front gate, while watching a dubbed version of Jurassic Park on a sidewalk projector. 

Back in Vinh, I'm starting the rounds of good byes.

On Sunday, my last evening in town, I will open my doors to all friends and students to swing by. I never like good byes; only do good-bye-for-nows, so luckily chao means both hello and goodbye. Sending out a round of phone texts to pass the invite along. It pulls at my heart to I think of all my students who all the time in the world would not be enough time with them... so sad to leave, but hoping the best for them and their futures. 

Yesterday I realized that my students don't need to go abroad to expand their worlds. They can do it just by going to Ha Noi or Ho Chi Minh City/Sai Gon where there is more contact with a mix of cultures and ideas. This is more hopeful, more reachable. I can't stop thinking about what they have stacked against them and what they have in their favor.

Very much on my mind, clearly my time in Viet Nam does not end here.

"I Grow" Youth Development

Le Ton Vinh Sinh Vien. Award ceremony to honor top achieving students at FPT university. Winner by silhouette.

 Inspiring... Vietnamese university students organizing development summer camps for high school and middle school students. 

Teaching in Nghe An province has been rewarding in that these are the students who need encounters with foreign teachers and more educational/professional opportunities. It's also been nice, however, to kick back with a cushy expat life this past week in Ha Noi, interact with some dynamic and motivated students at the American center, and be impressed by all the hope and big ideas that are moving into action (mainly because 20-30 years ago, big ideas were discouraged by an "Old Guard" government and remnants still linger in my conservative home in Viet Nam).

My boyfriend sounds a bit worried that I've grown too big for life here, so to ease all doubts that it's anything but a mix of professional and kicking back, see previous post of the hooligans I choose to spend my time with.

---

Vietnamese students are building their own future. A student crafted invitation to guest present at the "I Grow" youth development program this summer:

Dear Ms Dingle,

I want to say another time to you that I was really inspired by your speech about leadership and moderator toolkit today. As I said to you before, I come from AIESEC Hanoi - the international platform for young student to explore and develop their leadership potential and we have intention of carrying out a project this summer for the purpose of providing a comprehensive learning environment for the youth. I attach importance to the development of the young generation therefore we pull out all the stops to make it reality and hope that we can corporate with each other to bring about the best to Vietnamese students through training courses in our project. 
I attached a file including the proposal of our project to this mail. Hope that you find it detailed and useful to have a deep look towards our project and our organization as a whole. After reading the attached file, I would like you to tell us which skill in our project that you really want to deliver speech to our attendees. Therefore, I will arrange the schedule and tell you about the specific time of your own session. Please feel free to contact us if you are concerned about anything relating to our project. I am willing to answer all questions of yours and will reply to your mail as soon as possible. 
Best regards,

 

Ha Long Deepin'

Backkie into Ha Long Bay. Not me, Dad - I wish.

Glad I saved my energy for the weekend. Boat/bay life with a crew of Australians and associates... some deep water soloing, starlit dancing and, again, the dives off the roof into glowing plankton waters. Advertised as a thousand star hotel room by my friend, Lien; once again Ha Long Bay delivers.

The end

Little fashionista. Da Nang, Viet Nam, April.

At approximately 10:30 am tomorrow my nine months as an adjunct instructor at a Vietnamese university will come to an end. 

Unbelievably, I think I'm actually at a point where 5 minute interviews with each student, with the 15 weeks of interaction in class to refer to, can give me a pretty fair evaluation of their language level (and preparation, or lack there of). 

Today alternated sleeping and interviewing students. My entire body aches, and I'm hoping its food poisoning instead of the flu -or anything that will keep me away from my weekend climbing trip to Ha Long Bay.

The good thing about living alone, in a 5th floor apartment with stairs and only a bicycle is that you have to lean on your friends for help when you're sick. Introverted to recharge my energy, and working a very extroverted job persona, I've kept my apartment as my private personal space. Students and others are discouraged from visiting unannounced, which makes my home so un-Vietnamese.

Now, with barely enough energy to drag my body to the exam room and back, I've let myself ask for help. Three food deliveries, some short company before being encouraged to rest, kleenex, vitamins, (word travels quickly when a teacher of hundreds gets sick), a few moments sitting on the mat with my neighbor and her boyfriend while they eat dinner... in Viet Nam to live alone means to be lonely. My students, friends, neighbor and randoms really just want to take care of me. Most times, I shrug it off, but today it feels good to just give and receive the quiet gift of presence. Nice to shake off that outer shell and agree that 10 months of taking care of myself can be a bit lonely; just as I'm starting to acknowledge that, yes, I miss my family and my boyfriend, now that the possibility of actually seeing them is coming up. 

Four embryonic duck eggs and 3/4 of a giant grapefruit to put me on the path to strength... we'll see how I feel for the 6:30 am first period of class tomorrow morning.

A pukingly bad time

Sorry for the photo spin, someone needs to teach me how to format my own website... The traditional family-style meal at the foot of our climbing crags in Huu Luu.This meal did not involve any naseau.

I've been told to beware oranges, (rose) apples and pears that may originate in China. These too gorgeous to be true fruits may contain toxic preservatives to help them hold their gleam.

But I didn't know to look out for tomatoes that when sliced, have an alien lack of seeds. This poison is causing turbulence in my stomach still and had me ejecting it back out the top within an hour of eating my meal.

 Sidewalk culture. Hue, April.

Another rewarding email

My students are smart. They know how to make me want to come back and teach them again.
Dear, Sasha
  what 's a pity if u do not continue teaching at Vinh Uni. Studying with a foreign teacher. especially to major-English students, is very marvelous. Not me but all of us always want to study with a foreigners, bcz when we make mistakes they can correct it which we have hardy seen in a native teachers, may be it's minimum.
For me marks are not important than what I have gained after examinations, It may be ridiculous. Only a short-term i study with u i feel that my speaking skill a little bit improves. i feel that my pronounciation is better, thanks to you I can be more self-confident than b4, U know the way to motivate everyone to participate in group activities. B4, i dislike working in group with girls, it may be my personal character, but now, i'm a talktive person. U can see that i'm quite silent in class & rarely pay attention to volunteer, It is the weakness that i must overcome in the future.
I completely appreciate the lessons U gave us which make us more and more like speaking E although have some mistake. It can be said that you have changed the way we speak English and the way we learn it.
Thanks you a lot, Hope that in the future you will come back Viet Nam to teach and can help every major-English students can improve E skills like you tought us.
I'm not goot at writing and convey the ideas, hope you can get it.

 

Through my lens, at the American Center

The Huynh girls in Viet Nam... Mom's two older sisters and cousins

Yesterday Quyen and I did a joint presentation at the American Center of the U.S. Embassy in Ha Noi, titled "Vietnam through a Vietnamese American Lens". We spent a lot of time sharing our very different stories of being Vietnamese heritage in the U.S., then opened the discussion up to questions from the audience. 

Two weeks ago I led a workshop presentation at the AC on "How to Host an Effective Meeting". In audition to university students, the audience of 130 included professional lecturers, human resource personnel and others. They were overwhelmingly interested in what I had to say. The presentation wrote itself (on the overnight train -it was a busy week leading into it) because I spoke from my experience participating in board meetings, staff meetings, and the last 3 years of researching and living "what makes a leader?" "how can we dialogue well together?".

I had lived a lot of it. It was a milestone moment to think that I could be considered a resource for other professionals, older than me.

This presentation was much more personal. The story of our lives, and our perspectives of our time in Vietnam. I wish I had the opportunity to clean it up and present again. Personal was almost more difficult because I had to make statements about things I had probably spent a lot of my life ignoring -That I am different? That I am a minority? Who are you to tell me how to construct my identity? And co-presenting required some coordination. 

--

The most special part is that now I am relaxing in Ha Noi with 3 of my students. I found sponsorship for a 2-day trip for these very active students who have been assisting me in organizing English extracurricular events all year. (Thank you to the Rising Dragon for free hotel rooms and breakfast). They got all dressed up to come to the embassy, then yelled at for taking photos outside. They researched the best food in Ha Noi for us to try last night, and are telling me we should stay here forever in this gorgeous hotel, like fancy ladies. I agree.

 Field trippin' Ha Noi

A surprise email thank you

Dear, Miss Sasha

I am ******. I come from 50A class. I am your student of the class on morning Thursday. I really like to study with the foreign teacher. Because I have a better environment to practice English. I really felt happy when I knew you would teach me in this term. Your voice is easy to listen, your Vietnamese is good and your English is perfect . It is a pity that you do not have more time to stay here and I have only one term to study with you.
Thank you for coming my university. The life in here does not have a lot of conveniences, the weather is maybe discomfort with you and periods start quite soon. Nghe An province is the hotest place in Vietnam. The temperature in Vinh city is not the highest but it is very hot because of the influence of the southwest wind.
Thank you for well-prepared lessons. I thought you spent much time finding documents to give us useful information. You prepared hand-out, large paper and colour pens.
Thank you for your enthusiasm. You always ask us if we had difficulties in each lesson about vocabulary or content. Although you were very busy, you spent time talking with us out class - coffee dates. It is a good chance for me to pratice speaking and listening skills. It also help us understand each other better and become friendlier. I actually wanted to join in it but I could not arrange time. That is a thing make me regret.
Thank you for your encouragement. Despite of the fact that we make many mistakes during speaking and have less ideas to contribute to lessons, you often find good something to commend. It is great.
We were not active in some lessons. I hope you were not sad about this and not disappointed about our ability of English. 
My mail certainly has some stupid mistakes. I feel sorry about them. I will try to improve my English.
When you have time, welcome back to Vietnam.
Have a lucky day!

 

 

Always make time for your students...

...They are the reason you are here.
My students took me out for coffee tonight. Immediately upon sitting down they instructed me to only speak Vietnamese, since I make them speak English every day. Fair enough. Very happy to have such energetic and patient teachers.

Rollback: April 2012 Vinh, VN - A bientot

  The  smallest of expat communities and friends - I think at our peak we were 10 of 400,000 -bidding Julien "a bientot".

Starting the good byes. Julien was the first to return back home. I've never had so many international friends before this time in Viet Nam.

For the last 2 months in Vinh my lunch has been in French and my dinner in Vietnamese, or vice versa. I do a lot of listening, but my brain is opening up to all this language immersion.

It's also very special to realize close connections made without full language capabilities. Shared experience, running away to the beach at lunch time, supporting each other's work here in Viet Nam...and friendships are made. I am proud of these people -realizing the necessary role we play in each other's lives here in our separate spheres of Vinh, proud to consider them my friends... going to miss this time together.

 Please, somebody, note the severe juxtaposition with Ho Chi Minh in the background. Cognitive dissonance in Viet Nam? This is mild compared to some of the scandalous dances that have appeared in various family friendly events across self-proclaimed conservative, traditional Vinh City.

Vinh City View

 

Just put Maria on the train to continue her way onto Ha Noi after showing her some of the best Vinh City has to offer. Here is the view from the 18th floor coffee bar in Tecco Tower.

Sights beyond: green rice paddies and sizeable mountains that rise up almost to the coastline. Bleached fine sand to rocky black beaches with battered Dr. Seuss pines that bend in every gnarled direction. This is my Vinh home.

Respect and a rant


I just let some Thai students dump two rice cooker buckets of water down the back of my shirt.

We’re in three days of the Thai and Laotian New Year. Apparently, direct hits with water buckets are good luck for the coming year. Navigating around the dormitories these days, it’s best to look up.

Walking through their floor tonight, I crossed a makeshift bar. “It’s our New Year; please drink a beer with me.” I protested against even one glass. Gluten has been so cut from my diet that just one beer will knock my immune system down for days. So, I traded the beer for the water bucket.

Soaked like a wet t-shirt contestent, I received grateful blessings and bows. My grin infected my entire head, and cleared away clouds of negativity that had been trying to push their way in throughout the day.

__

The heat has been oppresively rising, also pushing the limits of my temper. Crossing the bucket bomb zone, I had been coming home from a pool hall. The clouds have been building from this: I can’t go anywhere in this city without being stared at, called foreign/mistaken for Laotian, having some commentary made about me (right in front of me!), despite my putting forth multiple sentences in Vietnamese. Especially now that the sun’s out and I’m worshipping it as most other Americans do, I have an asthetic  division between me and all Vietnamese women who desperately fear getting tan.

The yelling out of “Tay! Tay!” (westerner/foreigner) is not meant to be malicious. It’s merely an exclamation of surprise, from a generally homogenous community with little contact with “different” -but it feels rude.

The more Vietnamese I understand, the more I feel offended. The constant difficulties of living in a language that you do not completely understand, make me question myself and feel like I am failing at learning Vietnamese.

“I speak Vietnamese, so talk to me directly”.

A woman abducted me to have lunch at her home and insisted I call her mama, while talking around me in Vietnamese. Excuse me? No! I already have a Vietnamese mother.

Men making comments, blatantly staring, arrogantly assuming I have to give them my time. Perhaps, as Louis and I cynically joke, hoping for the slutty western stereotype.

__

One interesting example of the social hierarchy created by language: A high school student at the pool hall referred to me as “em”, which is blatant disrespect, since I am at least 5 years her senior. If unknown, you always offer the pronoun of seniority. In addition, she mentioned that she is a student at the Vinh University high school where I taught last semester, so she knew better –that I am “chi” (older sister) , if not “cô” (teacher, aunt). It’s hard to convey the insult of this, without an understanding of the Vietnamese language/social hierarchy, but she sunk the 8-ball with an equivalent of “go back to the U.S.”, so you get the idea. Not yet Vietnamese enough to keep track of the proper address to use,  I am feeling the pronouns.

It’s wearing to always be on the offensive. I’ve made a scene before over getting overcharged for bánh xèo (Vietnamese crêpe), thinking I was getting the foreigner price when, really, that’s the price. At the pool hall, I had just retaliated to obnoxious commentary and jokes about how attractive I am from some arrogant guy, so my response time in Vietnamese was not quick enough to respond more than “I understand you.”

And that’s what friends are for. As we left tonight, Louis walked over to the girl. “How old are you? 19? She is 24. You call her chi,” so that my pride could at least remain intact. 
__

After a morning of being gawked at, Thanh, Louis and I spent the late afternoon at the pool teeming with Vietnamese boys. My frustrations are not merely over being called “Laos!” because I like to keep my skin dark. It’s bigger than that. In the culture I originally come from, you don’t point, you don’t stare, you don’t give your blunt commentary when not asked; even more so, it's a matter of the patriarchal culture that irks me here.

If it really were a health question of protecting yourself from the tropical sun, I would happily do as the Romans do: don a jacket, cover my face to my toes, and stay inside throughout most of the day. But since the divide between who gets to enjoy the weather and who has to fear the sun is based strongly on gender, sorry, better luck next time.

There is no kiddie pool at the Vinh City pool. There is a women’s pool –large signs dictate this small, shallow area, next to but separate from the beautiful Olympic sized lap pool.

There are men only fitness centers, and I’ve said “no thanks” to suggestions to relocate to the women’s side of my together, but separate fitness center. I have at least 10 years of weight lifting experience on any of these guys, why can’t I go there? Although shifting quickly, statements I've overheard include: women aren’t supposed to drink, smoke, make their husbands cook and clean, use birth control before marriage, and are believed to be the only sex with virginity to lose. Yet alongside that, we are supposed to inhale the cigarette smoke that men blow into our faces, marry if we accidentally get pregnant, and hide the shame of too common adultery (I still can't tell which are uncomfortable jokes and which are real suggestions) -maybe because marriage here happens early and how can a woman financially and socially acceptably raise a child on her own?

I stood above the edge of the pool and backflipped into the water for the gaping males and their expectations of what a woman can and cannot do.

I love Vinh City. I love my work, colleagues, life, friends and rhythm here, but I am so tired of hearing indoctrinated statements about equality blah blah when certain realities suggest that my gender is less than.

I'm not a raging feminist. What I have been is a semi-pro athlete in multiple sports. Athletic excellence is one of the greatest equalizers. I was at the top of my class. I don’t do well with any subordination. I am happy to be a Vietnamese half-man, foreign anomaly, but I will not be a Vietnamese woman. This isn’t a stab at the incredible Vietnamese females who I am proud to call my friends; their stoicism, patience, and ability to balance family and work success is beyond me. Many of them are modeling the way, pushing themselves into the roles they deserve. I don’t dictate that I am an other, my lifestyle does. I frequently feel like I do not belong here. In a lot of ways, it is true.

Now is probably a good time to issue the reminder that my views and words are only my own and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. State Department. They also don’t even reflect my own opinions on a day when the sun’s out, I’ve just been inspired by my students’ work, I’m in the shade, overlook the rooftops of this city and see ingenuity and palm trees. 9 and ½ months of making daily concessions to a foreign culture occasionally demand some time for people to respect my foreign culture, but on most days, Vit Nam is a brilliant place to be.