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.