Friday, August 7, 2009

On charting a curriculum

For these four weeks we spent our afternoons teaching. I, along with one other Duke student and two Vietnamese students, were responsible for teaching health/p.e.. That was at times challenging, for the school yard was not ideal for playing typical outdoor games, and the whole first two weeks it rained practically everyday. Another interesting challenge was that we first had to explain our game to the vietnamese roommates who then had to convey the game to the children. Futhermore, sometimes the children were less than enthused about typical american games. Yet, we slowly began to get a better sense of the types of games the children enjoyed. They even sometimes just had fun playing catch with a small soccer ball that we brought everyday.

The health portion of our curriculum was a bit more of a challenge. We generally turned to health when it was raining outside. We attempted to teach about energy, the environment, nutrition, and aids. For the environment lesson we had the children pick up trash in the schoolyard. It is very disconcerting to me, for when the children eat food outside they will simply throw their wrapper on the ground. This is a common practice that is not unique to this one school. Of course there are many explanations for this behavior, one of which is that there simply are very few trash cans around, and that there is no system of trash disposal (at the school we renovated they simply dump the trash in a giant whole--their version of a landfill). So, we talked to the children about picking up trash, the environment, etc. They seemed to have a pretty good understanding on an academic level of the correct trash practices. Then we went outside and had the children pick up trash. The slight hitch in this plan was that as we were picking up trash a bunch of reporters descended upon us, clearly seeing a photo op in "vietnamese children and american volunteers clean up school yard" (a bit wordy of a title, but doesn't it just tug on your heart strings). This was a bit frustrating, especially since I wasn't entirely sure if it was creating the best impression of us all.

Another one of our lessons involved nutrition. We taught the children the food pyramid and had them chart out what categories their daily meals fell into. This doubled as an english lesson, for we taught them how to pronounce the foods and categories in english. They had little knowledge of the food pyramid (actually our vietnamese roommates also seemed unaware of it) ie many of the students thought rice was categorized as a vegetable. As I reflected upon this lesson, I began to doubt whether it was the best choice. For one, it is difficult for many of these students to obtain the foods recommended by the food pyramid ie whole grains and dairy. This is partially a cost factor and partially an availability factor. Furthermore, what can be gained by informing them that white rice, the staple of their diet, has very little nutritional value, especially when it's not within their means to switch to a healthier alternative? Yet, upon discussing this issue with several of the americans, I came to the conclusion that teaching them some of the basics of the food pyramid would at least create a sense of food awareness that could have a positive impact.

On a sense of community and hospitality

We have now finished our time in Định Thủy. Today we return to Saigon. So many impressions, it's really hard to begin to sum them up, but I will try through a series of probably somewhat random posts.

One of the most striking elements of the culture here is the sense of community and hospitality. Once we finished working on the school we helped to build a local road. At times we were unsure how to contribute to the road for there were many workers on the road. These workers consisted entirely of the members of the community who wished to help pitch in to create the road. They were very welcoming of us. The way they welcomed us was through food. We joked that at the road we worked, ate, rested, worked, ate, ate, work, ate again. In one day we were given corn, grapefruit, and watermelon as a snack. Then at the end of the work day we were given "sweet soup." Sweet soup is a vietnamese desert that comes in many forms. We were given a tasty sweet soup at the end of each work day, and I have to admit that sometimes the thought of the sweet soup awaiting us helped get me through lifting ridiculously heavy bags of rocks and sand (admitedly my principles got in the way and in an attempt to work against the local stereotype that women aren't very strong I might have tried to lift bags that were a bit too heavy for me). Also, most days we were given fresh coconut juice (which we drank straight out of the coconuts) for coconuts are the main source of income in ben tre.

Throughout our time here we have constantly experienced hospitality through food. The local people would often give us food, even when it was perhaps above their means to do so. Yesterday was our last day working in the community. We were given two large lunches. Also, one man had become particularly attached to our group. This man was the contractor and had helped us work on both the school and the house. He had invited us over to his house on the first weekend to eat traditional vietnamese food. Yesterday he bought us coconut juice, coffee, and chewing gum. He said that we had become like family to him (especially the girls, for he has no sisters) and since he was unable to express his sentiments through words, it made him happy to buy us food. It was very sweet. Also, it was somewhat suprising to the americans, for people are generally far stingier with that kind of strong emotion in the U.S.

As a side note I'll mention the scene in which I write this post. I'm sitting at an internet cafe, which is always an interesting scene in Vietnam. Most of the patrons are children. Some of them are playing games, some are watching videos, and others are browsing online. Occasionally one of them will stare fixedly at my screen. Also one girl has had some upbeat american techno song playing on loop for the past twenty minutes. Quiet the interesting scene.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Fixing schools and teaching children

whoops old

We have now spent two weeks in the Mekong Delta. The experience has been rather different from our experience in Saigon, and in many ways I feel that I have made a greater contribution. We have almost finished restoring the school. It has been a challenge in that we lack some basic tools. For example, to put primer on the wall we made paint brushes out of straw and bamboo sticks that were cut from outside the school. Luckily, once we began to apply the main paint we were able to secure some paintbrushes. I have to say that it looks better than expected.

There have been a few frustrations during the job. I spent an entire day painting a row of columns. The task took an entire day because I had to perch myself a bit hazardously on a desk. I was afforded with this special task as a result of my height. The next day the contractor informed us that the columns looked ridiculous, that every other school had the columns painted white rather than yellow. Despite my arguments that this was a waste of time, money, and paint, people proceeded to paint over my painstaking work. The last task at the school was to create a path. This was very interesting, for we helped the contractor mix cement. Now that we have almost finished building the school we are moving on to creating a road.

One of the best things about this campaign so far is the children. Each afternoon in between lunch and teaching we all go to a cafe. Many of the children who go to the school come and spend time with us. This is often somewhat exhausting, but they are very sweet. They give us gifts and put flowers in our hair. This is particularly entertaining when they put flowers in the hair of the males in our group. They have been pretty good natured about this.

I am constantly amazed by how much we can communicate with the children using our limited vietnamese and their limited english. My vietnamese is even beginning to improve in an attempt to communicate with the children. I have learned the words for "dirty" and "clean" very well, for the children think it hilarious to point at our mud stained clothes from the morning's tasks and say "dơ" and then point at their own clothes and say "sạch." This actually came in handy one day when i was having a hole sewn up at a store in the market. I was able to figure out that the woman was saying that my shirt was dirty, so I should come back the next day and it would be clean.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

On being white and gender roles

All my life I have known that I am white. However, white identity tends to not be marked by any uniting cultural factors, and thus lends itself more as simply a broad category. Yet, during my time in Mo cay so far I have become acutely aware of my race. While here many reporters and government officials have approached us. Whenever we are at an important ceremony the camera invariably pans in on the faces of the four white girls in the group. As we ride along the streets people yell hello to us. Several times people have rubbed my skin, often people I am simply passing by. The most startling incident was when I was walking through the market and a woman grabbed my wrist.

In the delta, the division between gender roles in Vietnam has become more apparent. One example of this is in the manual labor we are doing. Many of the men seem to believe that women shouldn't perform manual labor. The women in our group have had to fight to be able to help with manual labor tasks that are honestly not entirely arduous, be this with the other vietnamese roommates or the contractors who help us with the jobs. One day we were mixing cement at the school. The males were taking all of the "harder" tasks involved with the cement making. At one point I became frustrated and simply picked up a bucket of rocks. The bucket was not very heavy, yet one of the vietnamese males made a sound of astonishment once I picked up the bucket of rocks.

The feelings of frustration were tempered by a discussion I had later with my roommate. It turns out that the vietnamese females were actually a bit upset about the day's work as well. They were not pleased that many of the American males were helping clean rather than helping do the manual labor. The American males were doing this because they knew that the American females wanted to help with the cement mixing and were being considerate by letting us pitch in. In contrast, the vietnamese students believed that we are working to complete a task as quickly as possible and that everyone should do the task they are most suited for. ie they believe that females are better at more fine detail tasks such as painting details on walls, whereas the males are better suited for heavy lifting.

This conversation led to much deep reflection on my part. On the one hand, given that we are ultimately trying to complete as much for the community as possible, it might make sense to put aside more principle based debates and do the work each person is best suited for. Yet, it is always possible to find an excuse not to stand up for gender equality. If you never make an issue of it, things will never change. Furthermore, the issue I had with this incident is that everyone was assuming that the males were stronger than the females. Just given that I am taller than the vietnamese males, it is certainly possible that I'm stronger than some of them. This incident was simply an interesting facette to examine gender relations in Vietnam, especially since while in Saigon I was surprised that I didn't experience much gender discrimination.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

To the mekong delta we go

We have now arrived in ben tre for the second part of our experience

Our days are long. I roll out of bed at 540. After a short breakfast we all hop on our bikes and head to our morning work sites. In the morning we divide into two groups. One group is working to build a house for a family. The project literally started on an empty plot of land that contained the remainder of the family's house just a few days ago. The jobs there so far have been undertakings such as digging holes for the foundation and using bicycles to cart bags of cement to the house. The family who we are building the house for is there everyday helping out. They are extremely sweet. They constantly offer us coconut juice in the actual coconut--coconuts are one of the main crops in ben tre. The family members try to use their limited knowledge of english to communicate with us and we try to use our limited vietnamese to respond.

The second site is a school. The job at this site is to fix the school up. This includes mostly scrapping and painting walls. Also, at this site there are several children who live in the community who help us. They are all around ten and are very eager to help us. I am constantly amazed how much can be communicated through simple gestures.

In the afternoon we are running a summer camp/school for the local children. They are very eager to learn because normally they would have no activities in the afternoon. We have divided the days into subjects and are teaching english, p.e./health, science, and art.

Ben Tre itself is a very interesting area. Our commute is almost unreal. We ride bicycles along streets lined with coconut trees with livestock wandering on the side of the road. Yet, despite this beauty, it is clear that life is hard here for many people. For example, at the house the family has a small girl. She is very sweet and eager to play with us. Yet, her front teeth have rotted out because of a lack of calcium. Despite the diffiult life that some people lead, they are very friendly. As we ride to work with our matching blue shirts and hats we constantly hear shouts of "hello!" I'm still trying to master the art of one handed bike riding so that I can wave to them.

Monday, July 6, 2009

bubble revealed

last old one!

So all of the members in our group feel proud of ourselves for having adjusted to life in Vietnam, a life that seems somewhat different from our own. Yet, today a few of us had a rude awakening to that concept. Today we wandered further than we normally do. We turned down a side ally and began to walk. At first it appeared to be a small quaint street filled with vendors. As we traveled further, we began to realize that not many foreigners wandered this way given all the stares we were getting. Near the middle of the ally there was a metal bridge. As we approached it I noticed it was over a bit of water and it appeared that there were lily pads floating in it. There was a sign on the bridge which I can only interpret indicated a warning about littering. The girl in front of me made a sound, and then I got a better look at the area. The water was literally a solid mass of disposed products. Plastic food containors, styrofoam containors, cans, you name it. There was a house suspended above this water and it was clear that they too dump things directly into it.

It seems that living in district one we have only been exposed to the more gentrified areas. During my internship I go to what is a poorer area. Yet, that is more of a rural poor area. This area was literally the slums of Vietnam. We began to wonder how much of Saigon is like this. How could we not have found this until now? Perhaps it's our fault for not wandering far enough and not wanting to see the full range of life in Vietnam. Should encorage people to wander more? Yet, is this encouraging a kind of voyeuristic insensitivy akin to the guided tours of the slums now being offered in India? Is taking a photograph of this area also voyeurism? Where does one draw the line?

todaywealso treated the roommates to "black cat" which is a burger place. As soon as you walk in it is clear that the clinetel is all white people. The decor is funky leopard print couches and walls covered with rather corny depictions of scenes in Saigon. The burgers are expensive by vietnamese standards ie about $5 per burger. I was very surprised at the way in which our roommates approached the meal. A few of them did not like the food, and told us so. Also, none of them thanked us for the meal. I really don't think this reflects on the quality of their character. I like them all very much and they've been so helpful to us all. It is simply not ingrained in them like it is in the U.S. to constantly thank people for things. Furthermore, bluntness is far more culturally appropriate in Vietnam. W've encountered this before, such as when the roommates will say "you look tired because you have marks under your eyes" and point to the bags under our eyes. This is clearly meant well, but simply would not be considered polite in the U.S.

Central Vietnam

also old! Sorry!

We spent the past four days traveling through Central Vietnam. Central Vietnam is much more what most people picture when they imagine Vietnam. Our Vietnamese roommates refer to this area as the "real Vietnam." We traveled by bus between cities and the views out the window were characterized by rice fields, bodies of water, and mountains--a view all the more enhanced by the bumpy journey on the largest road in Vietnam. One particularly spectacular view was when we were traveling from Dannag and Hue. This was a road that wound up the side of a mountain revealing views of the China sea, sandly beaches, and green mountains.

We spent most of our time in Hue and Hoi An. We took a trip to My Son and Son My. At these places we saw the My lei massacre memorial and the champa ruins. The My Lei massacre memorial was a truly haunting place. The memorial was filled with everyday items from the village, the sadest of which was a small shirt that belonged to a girl in the village. The photos of the massacre taken by a bold american photographer were scattered throughout the memorial. On the actual site of the massacre there is a "reconstruction " of the village. In addition, there were survivors of the massacre who still wandered the area. One woman was 80, and at the time of the massacre she pretended to be dead, hid in a ditch with her children, and escaped. Yet, she still returns daily to the site of this tragedy and said that everyday she wishes she were dead.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

internship renegotiation

sorry this is a little old! I never published it!

This has been an interesting week at my internship. For one, we have started to teach the staff english. We have had very intruiging conversations about the internet, identity theft, and internet gaming.

At the internship one issue we've come across is how far too extend politeness. The first day that we were teaching english the staff at little rose bought us cafe sua da because we had mentioned that we liked it. This was a very sweet gesture. Unfortunately, the coffee contained the dreaded crushed ice--the ice that is carted in open trucks in a large block form, the ice we had been warned to avoid like the plague. Yet, it would have been incredibly rude to refuse the drink and would have chipped away at the tenuous bond we were beginning to build with the staff.

This experience has also taught me that incredible gap in communication that can easily occur. For the first few weeks we communicated with the staff at Little Rose entirely through proxies. Because of this, they may have felt somewhat distanced from us and personally insulted. Consequently, they were not overly helpful in having the girls cooperate with us. Yet, now that we are teaching the staff english, we have developed a nice relationship with them. Consequently, they help us gather the attention of the girls and interact with them while we are there.

Secondly, today the staff declared that the girls were going to give us manicures. This felt very uncomfortable to me on several levels. For one, it is in a way child labor, for the girls are under 18. Yet, throughout the trip i have eaten at restaurants with child servers. Another level on which it made me uncomfortable was that, given the language barrier, I was unsure whether or not she truly wanted to give me a manicure to get practice, or whether she simply felt pressured by the staff to do it. I tried to refuse but the girl looked hurt. It also felt like I was playing into certain stereotypes. As I look down at my beautifully painted nails (red with a a tree design) typing on the keyboard I can't help but feel a twinge of guilt. This experience has certainly led me to question many of my established notions.

I have to admit that with the balance of spending half the time with the staff and half the time with the girls I feel as if we are finally maximizing our time at the center.

Monday, June 29, 2009

body space

The concept of body space appears to be quite different in Vietnam. It is of course rather difficult to say if this is intrinsic to the whole country, or more specifically to Saigon. One place this concept becomes glaringly clear is when one is at the market. Ben Than market is a rather touristy market. If you are a westerner, many of the sellers will tug at your arm, tap your shoulder, etc. in an effort to direct your attention towards their products. Child beggars are also quite likely to tap you to solicit funds. Furthermore, as you are getting on and off the bus the person in charge of collecting fares will generally pull or push you to make sure that you exit or enter the bus at the appropriate time--this is especially important given that the bus tends to continue to glide forward rather than stop completely.

This concept of personal space was most glaring when I went to a roller disco a few days ago. The first time we went the experience wasn't particularly remarkable. What stood out a little bit was the layout of the place, for around the center ring there was a series of concrete slopes that one could go up or down if one had sufficient momentum. I highly doubt these would even begin to pass safety standards in the U.S. The other slightly intruiging thing was that many of the individuals who frequented the roller rink were simply sitting around the edges and smoking. The second time we went to the rink, we made the mistake of going at 8 on a Sunday evening--apparently the most popular time of the week. The rink was absoultely packed. The skaters were extremely good, and because of this attempting all sorts of stunts--skating backwards, doing jumps, even forming large chains that would whip around the egde of the rink at a terrifying speed. Some of these individuals were also smoking while skating. What made this scene all the more terrifying was that the skaters appeared to view it as acceptable to use the others around them for impromtu balance support. Now, all of the people in our group are good enough to stay standing while making our way slowly around the rink. However, we are certainly not stable enough to remain standing when someone either crashes into us or pulls onto our shoulders from behind. In fact, at times it felt like these young skaters were targeting us as the only westerners, for they thought it was amusing to see us fall. Then again, we were going much slower than the others in the group. A final interesting note from this evening was that at one point strobe lights started up and people formed a ring around people who were dancing on a small platform in the center of the stage.


This weekend we went to the Cu Chi tunnels. This consisted of a series of tunnels that were used by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam war (or as they call it here, the American War). As we toured the tunnels, many questions were raised for me about the appropriate way to commemorate tragic events. At first, the site felt a bit like a glorified tourist attraction. For example, much of the tour consisted of the group crawling through the narrow tunnels, and then reaching rooms with wax figurines. The guide proclaimed that we could take our pictures with the Vietcong figurines if we so desired. My initial reaction was that this was somewhat irreverent. Yet, perhaps crawling through the tunnels is an appropriate way to commemorate the space, for it allows you to truly begin to picture what the experience was like (bats, creepy crawlies, minimal lighting and all). Also, the experience was strange because we watched what was essentially a propaganda film and contained many phrases such as "the americans killed the citizens with american weapons" "american killers were rewarded" etc. etc. that made the americans feel a bit uncomfortable sitting next to our vietnamese roommates.

Yet, what is the best way to commemorate these events? How was this any different than the way we choose to commemorate events in the U.S.? Was it just the foreign setting that got to us? It was very odd to walk through the rubber plant jungle and realize that this was truly one of the places where the Vietnam war happened.

One final part of the trip that was surprising to me was that there was a three year old or so Vietnamese girl who was posing for a picture with a giant machine gun. Her mom was taking this picture.This was entirely shocking to my western ideologies. Yet, I believe this may once again point to the concept that childhood is not nearly as distinct of a time period in Vietnamese culture as it is in Western culture.

internship challenges and reflections

So far our internship has been a bit rocky. First of all, it is rather difficult to acclimate to the rhythm of the center. We sometimes come in the morning and other times in the afternoon. However, no matter when we come, there is a chance that all or most of the girls will be busy. For example, the other day we arrived at the center and found that all of the girls were cleaning. This was a bit frustrating, for we have a one hour commute by bus each way to get to the center. It is also an uncomfortable feeling to have a sense that you are being ineffective and possibly not spending your time in the best way.

My roommate made a good point about our presence at the center. She said that the girls are hesitant to interact with us because it is common for foreigners to come for a brief time, do very little, and leave. This led me to begin to question the validity of our service there. Previously, I had considered the possibility that our presence there would not be entirely helpful. However, this led me to question whether or not our presence could be harmful. To develop a relationship and then leave after a short time could be harmful. Furthermore, since we are there for such a short amount of time, we might see something that we think should change, change it, and then find that in fact it is a harmful change.

This issue of change has been very much on my mind. I was hoping to make some kind of change to the psychological care. However, though I might be able to offer the assessment tools, without having any treatment solution, I simply might be making the situation work. Also, coming in and questioning the manner in which they conduct their care would show an incredible amount of hubris. Before even beginning to try and make a change, I would have to spend awhile carefully assessing the manner in which the care is conducted. I found out today that there are social workers at the center. However, it is unclear how much training they have. Perhaps this experience is also teaching me that sometimes you have to be realistic about how much can get done in a limited amount of time. Yet, this will be a valuable experience if it gives me a better sense of how I could work to make such changes in the future.

In interacting with the girls, we have found that slowly but surely we can keep their interests with certain activities. For one, they enjoy learning songs in english. We have also taken pictures of them, printed them out, and then let them decorate frames. This is something special for them, for they rarely have pictures to remember their time at the shelter. This is especially true for the girl who is leaving the center at the end of the month.

In inquiring further about what we can do to help, we discovered that the staff wanted to practice english. This was a bit surprising to us, for we had been using our vietnamese roommates as intermidiaries to communicate with the staff this whole time. We found today that they actually speak rather impressive english. Hopefully practicing english with them will help build their confidence to better communicate with outsiders who may be able to help give funding or volunteer at the center in the future.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Capitalism accented socialism and motorbike culture

I have noticed that Vietnam is very much a country driven by buisness. All of our Vietnamese roommates are majoring in areas such as international buisness, buisness, marketing etc. As you walk around you are constantly surrounded by people selling their wares-- wind-up toys, all kinds of food, sunglasses-- anything you could wish to buy is only a short look away. Today I experienced one of the more interesting examples of marketing in Vietnam so far. On the bus two men stood up and began to talk. I was a bit perplexed at first, but caught on as soon as one man pulled necklaces out of his bag. After talking for quite awhile he extracted one necklace out of the bag. He then very skillfully used the bus as a prop--he tied the necklace to one of the ceiling hand holds. He then rubbed the chain vigourously with a metal object, in what I can only imagine was an attempt to show the incredible strength of the chain. If that was not enough to assure the buyer of the quality of the merchandise, they would certainly be convinced by the next test. This test involved utilizing a lighter to presumably show that the necklace is flame-resitant, clearly a quality I always look for when purchasing my jewlrey. Another interesting side note about the buses--all of the buses contain buddha statues and food offerings in the front, a hint of the buddhist influence that still lingers beneath the surface.

Another concept we've talked about is the so-called knock-off goods that are available here. We read an article about how here goods are defined differently. There are model goods, which are the real goods. Then there are model goods, which are goods that everyone knows are not the "real" products. These goods are cheaper and people willingly buy it. People consider that these are not in anyway deceiving the buyer. A product that actively deceives the buyer, such as shampoo filled with cooking oil, is known as a "fake" product.

These distinctions become clear when you shop at places such as "Saigon Square" which is a place absolutely teeming with all kinds of goods--north face backpacks, victoria secret clothing, and american eagle shirts. All these products shimmer invitingly at up to 1/4 of the cost in the U.S. It becomes hard to know whether these are our definition of "real" goods, especially given that many of the factories are actually located in Vietnam. What it turns out, is that most of these goods are "mimic" goods. Some of these goods are very close to the "model goods." It's just a fascinating way to conceptualize products.

I am constantly fascinated by the motorbike culture. First of all, people are able to balance the most impressive array of objects on these small bikes. The most impressive sight i've seen is two men carrying a full size matress behind them. It is not uncommon to see sheets of glass, strange metal wiring, and groceries being carted along the streets. Furthermore, there is a fascinating array of people on these bikes. There are buisness women and men decked out in dress clothes. The sight of high heels on the pedals of the bike is truly striking. In additon, everyone covers up from the sun as much as possible. It is not uncommon to see a woman wearing jeans, a sweatshirt, gloves, a mask, a helment, and sunglasses.

To watch motorbike traffic is almost to watch a stream. People weave around each other. It is amazing that there are not constant collisions. In all the time I've been here, today was the first day I've seen an accident. This accident was a man who went around a corner too fast, and he seemd to be unharmed. Today was also, ironically enough, my first journey on a motorbike. I am the only member of my group who has held out riding the motorbike. I have to admit that I was frightened of the experience. Yet, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Riding through the streets on a motorbike truly gives you a chance to explore the city. It feels as if you are truly experiencing the culture. Furthermore, on the way back it was storming. It was very dramatic to see everyone covered by rain ponchos zooming through the streets with the thunder and lightening going across the sky. I truly believe that the motorbike culture requires you to place a lot of trust in your fellow human beings. When you cross a street you simply walk slowly and trust that the drivers will be able to go around you. At times you simply have to pause in the middle of the street as the motorbikes zoom around you. At first this was a very uncomfortable mentality to embrace. Slowly but surely, I have begun to be able to cross streets without feeling utterly terrified. Ironically enough, what you need to watch out for is the cars and the buses, for they surely will not stop for you.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

I didn't want to swamp everyone else's thoughts with my long posts so I created my own blog which I'm linking below. My posts are essentially my journal entries transcribed. It's not entirely up to date because of spotty internet access, but it's getting there.

random musings

I have a few random reflections to offer on things I've observed during the course of daily life here.

One thing that intruiged me at the shelter is the way in which the girls structure their games. Many of their games are similar to our own but with a small twist. One particularly intruiging element is how they distinguish between the winners and the losers. In the U.S. we have been raised to praise excellence and direct the focus towards the winner. In contrast, in Vietnam there is an emphasis on the relationship between the winner and the loser--perhaps this relates to the enhanced focus on group relationships that exists in many asian countries. In the shelter, the winner gets to essentially punish the losers. This punishment generally comes in the form of shame, in that the losers are directed by the winner to perform actions that would make them appear a bit ridiculous i.e. holding your ears and doing squats (i didn't mind because it gave me a chance to get a bit of exercise) or having to use your body to draw the various accent symbols that the winner will call out. Of course this precendent could be more specific to the girls at the shelter, but individuals at another shelter have also witnessed a similar incident.

Another challenging thing about daily life here is what to do about child beggars. These beggars are everywhere and are rather aggressive. Many of them have realized that it is profitable to know a few words in english such as "you want to buy?" or"bad man" in order to better approach foreigners. These child beggars are often selling random goods such as feathers or roses. The hardest sight for me so far has been a three year old boy selling lottery tickets. It is very hard to know how to react to these children. Many of our Vietnamese roommates refuse to give these individuals money, for they say that this supports the system of child begging and the money is going to the parents rather than the child. Thus this approach would involve simply ignoring the children, for if they sense hesitation they will continue to approach you and will often resort to tapping you. Yet, 18,000 dong would be equivalent to one dollar and would buy the child a meal. It is hard to justify not giving the child money when there is such a gap between the value. This has been the topic of much debate and moral uncertainty among the Duke students.

A final random thought is the role of outsiders in Vietnam. There are some tourists in Vietnam. However, a lot of them are from Australia, for there is a developing relationship between the two countries. Tourists are uncommon enough that at this point when I see a white person I often stare at them and wonder what they are doing in Vietnam. I suppose this reflects the degree of my integration to a certain extent. I have found that I do stick out a bit as a white person. This is more prevalent when I go to my internship, for it is located in a more remote part of the city where few tourists venture. The attention I get tends to be in stares or often in random english phrases being yelled from cars and motor bikes ("hihihihi" or "1,2,3"). That being said in other parts of the city you can find tourists and expats. However, there are many expats here who do not set the most positive example of western civilization. It is also extremely rare to see families of tourist. Furthermore, the tourists tend to cluster in certain areas. The other night we had indian food in what turned out to be the "backpackers area." I was shocked to see so many white people! It does seem a bit of a shame to me to come visit another country and then insulate yourself in a less than authentic part of the city and surround yourself with other tourists. Yet, I can understand that expats may sometimes become homesick and wish to talk with others in the same situation.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Tourism and Family Events

This weekend we made a trip to Dalat. It was quite an interesting journey. First of all, our transportation was a night bus that left at 11 pm. As we began our drive it became clear that the roads in Vietnam are still developing. The ride was beautiful because we wound our way through many small towns. Also, the final part of our journey consisted of climbing a mountain path--slightly terrifying at night, but starkly beautiful.

Dalat itself is one of the most interesting areas I have been to in Vietnam so far. The town was used by the french as a resort town. It was chosen because the climate is much more mild--a fact that became clear when our bus arrived there at 4 am (2 hours earlier than predicted...I don't quite want to imagine how the duration of the trip was shortened). The french even built a mini iffel tower in the form of a radio tower like structure with a flag at the top. It is a clearly visible landmark in all the areas of the town--a striking sight against the backdrop of the hills.

The town itself is a tourist attraction. Yet it is aimed more at Vietnamese tourists, for it is considered the honeymoon spot of Vietnam. This reputation becomes clear given the popular available activities: a mellow swanboat ride on the river, a visit to the valley of love, or a slightly harrowing yet beautiful two-seated bicycle ride arond the river. The town is filled with perfectly constructed and somewhat over the top tourism. For example, guests can take a cable car ride boasting spectacular views which will take you to a pagoda where you can pose for pictures with a monk who is practicing in one of the many buildings. We also visited the "crazy house" which is a b & b like venue that appears to be somewhat modeled after Alice in Wonderland and features many bizarre rooms with unusual statues (such as a giant kangaroo) as well as artistic mirrors placed above beds.

While we were in Da Lat we went to the house of one of our vietnamese roommates's uncle. The home was essentially in a gated community. The home was in a newly built housing development and had spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. Yet, once again the juxtaposition that is Vietnam surfaced--as you look out to the hills just below this raised housing complex you can see the metallic and not fully patched roofs on the houses of the farmers who work the fields below.

We also were able to attend the uncle's birthday dinner. It was a lavish affair involving many courses and food imported from Hue, another town in central vietnam. During this meal, I ate the most I had in a long time, for I was told that we had to show respect to the family by finishing all of the food. The meal also involved much alcohol, including what I later learned was a mix of rhinocorous horn and smirnoff vodka. Apparently such a drink is known to enhance strength. Throughout dinner you could hear the familiar sounds of "mot hi ba yo" (one two three cheers) as the family members all toasted to the health of the uncle. The evening was framed by two events familiar to western sensibilities-the singing of happy birthday in english (a very popular song that is even played quite frequently in the most popular bars in Vietnam) as well as birthday cake at the end of the meal (a cake decorated with the zodiac symbols).

On a final note I was once again amazed by how small this world can seem at times, if you'll pardon the cliche. At the dinner we met the owner of the newly built housing complex. This man had gone and made is fortune in the U.S. and had returned home. Conincidently, his daughter had just graduated from Duke two years ago.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Facebook Page

We've created a facebook page for the little rose shelter as an attempt to help spread the word about the shelter. This page will hopefully also be a way in which the center can update information about the supplies that are needed.

To become a fan of the shelter go here:

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Internship Familiarization

It's hard to believe that we have now been in Ho Chi Minh City for over a week. We have all slowly begun to adapt to living in the environment.

Molly and I have had some interesting experiences at our internship. We are working at the little rose shelter. It is very different from any equivalent shelter in the U.S. The shelter aims to provide a home for girls who are either at risk for sexual abuse, victims of sexual abuse, or victims of human trafficking. The girls range from ages 12-18 and appear to be from all walks of life. The center itself is located in District 7, an area nearer to the edge of the city that is known for prostitution. The center itself is tucked in an narrow ally that contains small stores (such as a small gaming cafe) as well as smaller homes.

One concept at the center that is difficult for the western sensibilities is that these girls are receiving education, yet they are also receiving vocational training. For example, one girl is living in the center and training to become a bartender. The center is also equipped with a sewing room as well as a "beauty salon" room where the girls learn to paint nails, fix hair, etc. In some ways, one might wish that these girls could be encouraged to strive to reach a higher level of education. Yet, perhaps it is a more realistic strategy to give these girls profitable skills that can keep them from having to turn to prostitution. These are the kinds of debates that require us to reexamine our philosophies as well as the concepts that have been ingrained in us from having grown up in the U.S. The girls at the center are also extremely self-sufficient. They do most of the cooking and the cleaning at the center.

Molly and I are working to create an updated website for the center. This is proving somewhat more difficult than expected, for there are many levels of bureaucracy. that we are unfamiliar with, especially given that the bureaucracy of Vietnam is very different from that of Vietnam. At the moment we are trying to determine basic details such as how the center is funded as well as which organizations help oversee the center. Hopefully as we become more familiar with the center we will be able to create a website which will provide a forum in which people can learn about and donate to the center.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Greetings from Vietnam!

We have landed and started our first day. The journey here was long but interesting. As we traveled I noted some of the ways in which the airline attempted to ease our transition into a new country. Food was one crucial way to do this. Our first meal consisted of a choice of a more typically asian dish--terriayke or a classic american dish--meat loaf. Our next meal was "chinese noodles in a bowl."

Another interesting travel note--Vietnam and China both appear to still be concerned about the risk of swine flu. We flew through Hong Kong. In both locations many individuals were wearing masks and health declaration forms were required.

Our first full day in Vietnam begun with a traditional breakfast of pho. We have spent most of our day beginning to explore the city. It is such an interesting mix of diverse elements--very much a city of contrasts. In one distric there are upscale stores such as Coach, while just a street over there are buildings that have seen better days. Furthermore, their is quite the mix of tradition and modernity--Vietnamese women wear traditional hats yet also wear jeans. One of the biggest adjustments so far has been to the traffic. There are traffic lights, yet these seem to be more of a guidline than a rule. The common strategy for crossing a street appears to be to walk forward with confidence when there is a bit of a lull, or simply walk forward and trust that the traffic will avoid you. The drivers are highly skilled at avoiding pedestrians. Most people appear to drive motor bikes, often with up to three people on one bike.

This afternoon most of the group is finding out more about their service placements. I will find out about mine tomorrow.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

T-minus 64 hours and counting..... (approximately)

I've been slowly packing away things for this trip for the past week - hopefully I'll be done by the time I go to the airport. The biggest problem, as Kendra mentioned, is deciding whether if certain things are necessary. 

Other than packing, I have also spent some time pondering what I'll be doing exactly in Vietnam. I know that I will be in the ESL program while in Ho Chi Minh City, but that won't be all that I will be doing. I look forward to absorbing Vietnamese culture (except I hope I won't be pick-pocketed, be bitten by numerous bugs, and being involved in other dangerous activities) and improving my language skills. I am not a guy that particularly likes to take pictures, but I will try to take as many pictures as possible to keep track of my journey in Vietnam. 

To my Vietnamese readers, xin chào và tôi mong được gặp bạn.
To my fellow Duke travelers, I look forward to meeting ya'll on the plane and I hope that we will all have a good time.
To everyone else, I hope that you will enjoy our blogs; hopefully you'll learn something from our experience.


To pack or not to pack...that is the truly tricky question

Chào ahn!.  My name is Kendra and I’m a rising junior.  I am majoring in psychology and French as well as pursuing a certificate in human development.  With this I hope to someday become a cross-cultural psychologist.  Enter my interest in engaging across cultures.

            In just over two days I will board a plane which will take me on a 20-some hour journey that will eventually lead me to Vietnam.  As the time has drawn closer to departure, the emails between my group members have grown from a trickle to a flurry.  As we prepare to leave, the queries have shifted from largely philosophical in nature to the minute pragmatic details necessary to prepare for a trip.  Packing can be an important way to process before a trip––to organize your thoughts and expectations as you organize the possessions that will keep you company during your trip.  This process is filled with elusive questions such as “to pack it or not to pack it.”  Will you truly need that second long sleeve shirt in case the first, which you might not even wear given the blissfully breezy temperature range of 80-85 degrees, has a tragic encounter with a precarious glass of punch?

            What might we be doing on this DukeEngage project you ask?  Well, over the course of this blog I hope to inform you of this, hopefully in not particularly painful detail.  But now for a bare bones overview: 7 other Duke students and I will be spending 9 weeks in Vietnam.  The first five or so weeks will be spent in Ho Chi Minh City, more commonly referred to as Saigon, a city in the Southern region of the country.  During this time each of us will engage in internships in three different tracks: the environment, children’s issues, and ESL.  I will be participating in the children’s issues portion.  As of now, I believe that the internship will be at a shelter for sexually abused girl. However, I’ve been told that things in Vietnam are often fluid, and that I should prepare myself for the possibility of an entirely unexpected project.  The final portion of our project will take place in Ben Tre province, in the Mekong delta, and we will be renovating schools and running camps for local children.

            As we prepare for departure, many questions swirl in our heads. Some of these questions are specific to the project while others are age old questions all volunteers as well as travelers to other countries ask themselves.  Yet, one thing is certain.  We will not be the same people after these 9 weeks.  Some may change in big ways while others in more subtle ways.  Regardless, each one of us will in someway be forced to examine ourselves, our own culture, Vietnamese culture, as well as our larger world-views. 

            Through this blog I hope you can follow our adventures and get a sense of what life is like on a day-to-day basis.  This blog will give you a chance to hear the voices of the others in the group as well as access more detailed entries.  If you wish to read blogs from other DukeEngagers go to  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and decide whether or not to pack that second long-sleeve shirt.