Leave for Change Blogs
Many Leave for Change participants blog - often before, during, and after their volunteer assignment - capturing the diversity and richness of their volunteer experience, their reactions to being in a new country, how they navigate and negotiate their mandates, and the impact the whole experience has on them personally and professionally.
You can search blogs by person, country, or year. Enjoy!
Chilling center tourMy mandate was to study the existing milk production chain from production to consumer and to identify areas for improvements.
Seeing that tomorrow is my last day in Nepal, my postings are rather like synposis of the project.
To give you an idea of the existing state of affairs, I hope this sentence would suffice. Packaged, pasteurized milk sold in Nepal comes with the following information: boil before use, use within 48 hrs where as pasteurized milk is drunk from the bags and has a shelf life of about 18 days in Canada.
Thats a goal for Lalitpur dairy industry in Nepal.
Many challenges exist, geography, very hilly, big hills, where terracing is practiced and cattle cannot be pastured due to the risk of falling off( they are always tied up), farms are small, 2-9 animals, no refrigeration and awareness of sanitation and milk quality concerns need to get to all stakeholders in the production chain. Farms, collection centers, chilling centers, milk transporters, dairies, milk testing ,retailers and even the consumers.
All farmers practice subsistence agriculture growing corn, rice, garlic, peppers, pumpkins, ginger and a multitude of vegetables. Chickens, goat and pigs are also popular.
Agriculture practices are impressively sustainable. I saw corn, pumkins, cucumbers, pepper and ginger all planted in one field. Manure and compost are used on the farm and many frams have biogas facilities.
The National Dairy Development Board, NDDB has already compiled comprehensive guide biiks and laboratory handbooks for this industry but identified lack of resources to get secure implementation.
With the innovation, optimism and stoic hard working ethics evident in the culture of the Nepalese people, with the proper sustainable tools, I see success.
It is the hope that projects such as this would add momentum to the improvement efforts of this industry.
The last couple of weeks have been a mad whirlwind of activities, meetings, stakeholer visits, training sessions, meetings, reports ( Yeah, I know, not much blogging!) and more info gathering.
It should be the end of this assignment, but I feel as though, it really just started!
Well, I have been absent from this social place for a while, it's time to catch up.
I was dropped of by the team in Chapagaun on the 5th, about 30 km or so from the CECI passage house in Kathmandu. At first , I was rather perplexed as to why I would have to relocate to somewhere that close. But when one experiences Kathmandu traffic situation-vehicles, bikes, pedestrians, potholes, dogs, cows, chickens and bandhas..understanding comes quickly.
So leaving me alone at Chapagaun felt that when you are dropped off at school the first day...not really (I am a bit older now)
The the host family lived about 5 minutes walk from the Lalitpur District Milk Producer Cooperative Union (LDMPCU) office, the partner organization I will be working with. So this was an ideal arrangement.
The office works Sunday to Friday and shares the internet access with a bank. When the bank closes, we no longer have access. One evening i went searching for an internet cafe and came across about 200 people marching on the road holding bamboo sticks on fire and chanting. Shops were all quickly closing their doors, but people just stood by the roadside calmly watching. The group, congregated by the village circle, piled all the sticks into a heap to burn , threw pamphlets about and speeches were heard. I was told that this was to alert people that the bandha the next day will be strictly enforced. I stood by for a few minutes and then left, without looking for an internet cafe.
The picture is a snap of the paddy fields behind the house I stayed at.
Bandhas are like strike efforts by a particular group to garner support for a specific concern and all traffic and work are asked to close when this happens.
The Staff and members of the LDMPCU were very nice and welcoming. The Office manager, Uddhav spoke good enough English for us to communicate well and translate for me. The teenager kids of the host family, Usha, Manoj and their cousin Prakash were also excellent translators for me and certainly contributed to making my stay comfortable.
I did learn a few Nepalese words including, Ghar: house, namaste-good for greeting and byes, ramro: nice or good, meito: tasty, Dhere: very, tato: hot, pani: water or rain
On the Sat morning the kids took me up a hill for a hike. I cannot describe the view, except I can include a pic of the mountains here.
I was mentally and physically ready to leave last June. I'd organized home and work, had my shots, was mostly packed, had gone over details in my head a million times. While at L4C training in Toronto one week before my scheduled departure, I got a call that my mother-in-law had a critical health emergency while alone with my 8 year old son. He was truly a hero and got her the help she needed. This was a scary time for the whole family and I postponed my trip. I'm happy to report that mother-in-law is recovering beautifully. My son has also recovered from this traumatic experience and is enjoying spending time with his grandma. New departure date: September 22 - only 5 days away!!
I am making final preparations and I am relieved to have hired a super UofG student to help out at home while I'm gone. My family has told me to stop fussing - they'll be fine.
I am now trying to focus less on logisical details (which I've covered over and over again) and more on my mandate, the people and places I will get to know, and THIS BLOG! I've really enjoyed reading the posts by my fellow Leave for Change participants and I admit that I will have to work very very hard to be nearly as entertaining.
Must get back to getting ready to get out of here!
Buddist StupaWe arrived at Kathmandu airport at about 11:00 AM on the 3rd. The only plane arriving at that time, the exit time was speedy and nice. Navraj from CECI picked us up and took us to the passage house.
On the 4th, we were all oriented and briefed by the CECI staff. Everyone is very nice with warm welcomes and very well organized sessions. All three of us even visited the doctor for a health awareness chat. Linda said the it was bizarre that she only goes to the doctor alone and now here she was with 2 other guys!
On the 5th, the office organized a city tour with a guide. This was very insightful and helped us get bearings...however little. I know that I am not driving here!
We visited 2 other holy sites along with the Buddha Stupa. Check out this link for an excellent description
Wind beneath my wings.
Hong Kong.....Well beneath the wings of the BOEING 7777-300ER from TO to HK anyways. 398 passengers! I was in row 60. Not really at the back, but close enough that when I looked up the aisle, it felt like I was looking down a long tunnel. Are you curious as to what kind of engine can haul a plane of such a size at about 500 km/hr for 15.3 hrs non stop thru the air? I am!
So, left TO at 1:40 AM, Sept 2nd, arrived at HK airport at 5am Sept 3rd.
Traveler’s tip 1: take an aisle seat so you can get up and walk around without disturbing anyone.
Traveler’s tip #1.1: Drink a lot of water so you have a compelling reason to get up and walk to A specific location.
Washrooms in this aircraft were neat. The mirror arrangement was excellent; I must tip the barber for a job nicely done.
Money sense tid bit #1: With the current prices of houses, hire aircraft lavatory designers to get you that special look within a budget.
Traveler’s question #1: What did people do before in flight movies?
I was able to meet up with John and Linda; two other leave for change volunteers from Canada. Since our next leg of the journey left at 6:00 pm that day, we decided to go into Hong Kong.
What a place, tall buildings, streets very clean and tidy, but......construction. You might think that down town was bad? Think again. The transit system is awesome, the high-speed train from the airport to Kowloon was so fast, my ears were popping.I found it interesting that in one of the malls one might feel as though you were in Eaton’s center. We did a bus tour, took the ferry to Hong Kong Island and went up the PEAK with a cable car. What a ride up the 1400 plus feet above sea level peak. The pic here shows the view from the top. Across the water is Kowloon and downtown Hong Kong is on the same side of the peak.
Isn’t it amazing that one can travel 8323 miles in 22 hours today?
I am trying to get prepared and ready for departure at 01:40AM Sept 02 for Nepal from Toronto and my brain is constantly buzzing with must do’s, should do’s, might as well do’s, for work, house and family. Just imagine what the Vikings would have had to do for a fraction of such a journey. I cannot! In comparison, my “to do’s” at hand is a piece of cake and I bet I will catch some beauty sleep enroute, at that!
In Nepal, I will be partnering with the Lalitpur District Milk producer’s Cooperative Union in Lalitpur District, Chapagaun, outside of Kathmandu as a Dairy Quality Advisor. This assignment is through the University of Guelph’s Leave for Change volunteer program through Uniterra. Uniterra is comprised of CECI, Center for International studies and Cooperation and WUSC, World University Service of Canada.
Isn’t it amazing that people travel half way across the world to share, support and partner with others in development initiatives? Yes, the trip in itself is an adventure but the feeling of making a wee bit of a contribution towards helping others is important for me.
The distance around the earth at the equator is about 25,000 miles, travelling a mere 8,000 miles is a healthy reminder, just how much more is still achievable.
Yes, it is amazing what we are able to do!
Many thanks for the help, training and support from the Leave for Change staff at Guelph and CECI office.
Will keep you posted
I can't believe my time in Hanoi is almost over. But, as I suspected, the time has flown by. I had hoped to do many more blog entries than this but every day has been jammed full. My mandate was very successful. The workshop I presented was attended by 44 people from six different colleges. We had planned on the session going for about an hour and a half which ended up to be two and a half hours. The good people at North Thang Long College had studied my credentials thoroughly before I came and I ended up being put to good use on organizing several initiatives. Everything from designing the layout of the new library, to colour schemes, lighting, and of course, proper installation of artwork and not only the library, but the conference/meeting room and the main office area, as well as including plans for exterior signage. My days were filled with producing floor plans, schematics, concept drawings and accompanying documents and guidelines. I had a wonderful room all to mine own with long tables to produce my rather large scale plans.
The college has a large kitchen where lunch is prepared for the students and I was presented at 11:00 am precisely, each day, with a delicious variety of dishes. I enjoyed grilled fish, eel and squid, pork in an infinite variety of variations (my favourite was thinly sliced pork wrapped around fresh shredded coconut) chicken and beef. Soups, various cold teas, tofu in every shape and form, and a mind boggling variety of vegetables and of course rice. So, while I laboured away, I had the opportunity to taste a different meal of traditional Vietnamese fare each day! Then, my favourite part of the day, after lunch a quick jaunt over to a local cafe for a single cup drip coffee poured over ice. Delicious beyond words.
Wednesday was a wrap up meeting with the college. All parties were extremely pleased with what had been accomplished and promises went all around to stay in touch and follow the progress of the plans that have been made.
I have completed my reports. There is a final debriefing tomorrow before a lunch with the amazing Hanoi WUSC crew and the gracious staff of the college. It will be difficult to say good bye.
Just into week two. It's Tuesday night and everything just keeps falling magically into place. Sunday night I got a message that the driver that had been arranged to take me back and forth to the college was not going to be able to transport me and another driver had already been arranged. Monday morning a taxi arrived at my hotel, and showed me my name on his cell phone so off we went. My placement is north of Hanoi, about a 40 minute drive- so to answer Patty's question, no, I can't walk, it is a bit of a journey and it seems a bit of a journey as well for taxi drivers who have never been there before. So, I actually helped the taxi get me there. A couple of wrong turns... but we made it. At the end of the work day, there was another driver showing me my name on his cell phone as he explained that he was my driver but could not pick me up this morning so he had a friend come for me. It would never occur to anyone here to just leave you hanging.
That said, car rides are almost as heart thumping as trying to cross the street on foot. Rush hour, with all the motorcycles and cars and almost no stop signs or street lights, easily rivals any of the more thrilling rides at Disney World. As an aside, my technique for crossing the street (equally heart thumping) is to feign indifference, step off the curb and keep going until I reach the other side and start breathing again. It's worked so far anyway. Later, in my hotel room, solitary and contemplating poetically about the streets of Hanoi, I imagine the traffic as blood flowing through the veins of the city and if stopped, the city would cease to exist.
At the college, I am focused on preparing for a workshop where about 20 peolpe will be taking part from 4 different institutions. We are going to try and tackle a wide variety issues everything from looking at on-line library management systems, to effective layout of library spaces, to making those spaces engaging places to be in -including my fail safe system for displaying objects (like artworks).
I just got back to my hotel, after going for one last walk through the centre of Ho Chi Minh City, this beautiful and seductive place that I’m very sad to leave. I’ll be taken to the airport at 3 am by taxi, for my marathon of flights back to Toronto.
I couldn’t help thinking about the question Ngoc Ninh Vu asked me yesterday on the phone in our debriefing session. Ngoc is one of the members of the superbly efficient WUSC team in Hanoi that provided me with exactly the right kind of support.
« So, Clive, now that your final report is in, what can you say about your experience of international development in Vietnam ? ».
I muttered something banal about how energizing it’s been for me, how generous with their time the teachers at Binh Thuan Community College were, and how much I want to be kept up to date on the developments over the next year as the college sets up its student counseling centre. And, yes, I said I’d be happy to continue my support for the project and for WUSC in the future. I finished by saying we’ll have to wait and see if my work at the college really changes anything (« Leave for Change », right ?). What I might have added is that I’m sure my experience here will help me to reflect critically on my work at home.
At the end of my « international development » experience, I can honestly say that it feels entirely positive. I do need more time, however, to ponder the lessons. I sincerely hope WUSC will be able to continue sending volunteers to Vietnam.
My sadness this evening has something to do, I suspect, with the messages I’ve been receiving this week from Guelph – administrative messages that say my department will have fewer resources next year than expected and that my colleagues and I will be expected, essentially, to find ways to do even more with even less. I was tempted to write back : « You mean - do more with less than nothing ? » - the title of Zizek’s latest book jumped to mind.
I’ve been in university administration far too long. After witnessing here in Vietnam what appears to be a very different atmosphere in the decision making process, I think I’m fed up with – among other things - the « discourse of leadership » I hear at home. It’s been really exciting and refreshing over the past three weeks to rub shoulders with a bunch of people at the college who are enthusiastic about creating something new. There was give and take in the discussions, and I didn’t notice anyone pushing his or her ideas on anyone else. It looked like a genuinely consensual process.
I didn’t hear anything here like what I heard earlier this summer in a meeting with some colleagues from Guelph who were in the early stages of a new project. One colleague said : « Who’s going to lead the project ? We need a leader, otherwise everything will be disorganized ».
My quick and somewhat blunt response surprised me : « A leader ? It’s precisely because of leaders that we’re always so disorganized ! ».
Over my many years in academia, I’ve noticed how quick we are to complain about the failure of our leaders, to talk about a « leadership vacuum », or, especially in really difficult times, to call in « expert leaders », from Atlanta or wherever, who are said to be specialists in creative downsizing, transformative practices, etc. It’s our love-hate relationship with leaders. Maybe it’s time to stop. Time to think again. Time to take notice of what’s happening in places like Vietnam and Ghana (see Jacqueline’s latest blog where she talks about how people who pull together can get things done without - so it seems - leaders). Time to remember Margaret Mead’s famous line :
« The most important changes made throughout history have only ever been made by groups of people ».
Time to ponder a striking expression I heard here one day when I asked the teachers for suggestions about the qualities they’d like to see in the director for their new student counseling centre :
« We have to be careful », they said. « A fish rots from the head ».
As I said in my first blog :
« Very smart, the people here, with plenty of lessons to teach us ».
Yesterday was actually my first day at the college, but it was more of a welcome and introduction day. We had a special visitor who came along with us to the college, Dr. Can Viet Anh, who is Head of Division for the Hanoi People Committee with the Foreign Affairs Dept. He came out to see the college but also to observe the Leave for Change programme in action. So, it was very special day for everyone. This was also when I got a much clearer idea of how I could be of assistance and everybody was able to get on the same page with respect to my mandate. As Library Management Advisor, I will be showing some library management systems but also, I will be helping to plan a new library area for the college, a currently an underused classroom, that will encourage increased usage of the library by both teachers and students. Along with that, the college is looking for assistance in the redesign of a multi purpose board/conference room, as a well the main office area that has recently been renovated and that they wish to tie into some recent branding that are implementing. It's really very exciting to be part of the growth of a young college, to see limitless possibilities.
At noon today, I noticed swarms of insects that looked as though they were performing a flying dance along the beach just outside the restaurant where I had invited the four English teachers to have lunch with me. I wanted to thank them for taking turns as my very able translators for the past three weeks.
« What are those insects ? », I ask.
« Dragon flies. We have an expression : ‘when the dragon flies dance close to the ground, we know it’s going to rain’ », Nguyen answers.
I point to my umbrella.
« I’ll probably need it later ».
The walk from my hotel to Binh Thuan Community College where I’ve been working for the past three weeks takes ten minutes. As I leave the hotel, I have an important choice to make - cross the street and walk along the beach to the college, or not cross the street and stay on the sidewalk that leads to the college. It’s a big decision because if I take the first option, it means I have to turn myself into a ballet dancer.
On my first day when I was still in Ho Chi Minh City where most streets are a mesmerizing river of fast-moving motorbikes and scooters, I quickly adopted a totally cowardly strategy, when I needed to cross the street. I would wait till I saw a small child about to cross, and then shadow the child, assuming that no driver would hit a kid.
After observing carefully how the locals do it, I realized there’s a very specific street-crossing technique that I had to learn.
The first rule is that you step off the curb confidently and nonchanlantly, looking straight ahead, pretending that there’s no traffic at all. The second rule is that you set a regular pace and just keep walking until you reach the other side. The bike drivers, it turns out, are responsible for not hitting you. At first, it’s terrifying. After a few days, the street traffic starts to look and feel like a ballet. The bikes travel at very different speeds, performing a carefully orchestrated dance where you see the acrobatic drivers who go fast, take risks, and perform fancy manœuvres around the « corps de ballet » drivers who are more ordinary in their slower, more predictable dance movements.
Pedestrian dancers have a limited repertoire of steps. You can walk more or less quickly, remembering of course that you can’t start out slowly and then speed up. That’s a recipe for disaster. You can cross diagonally or go straight across. And there’s a fun hand motion I’ve seen. As you step off the curb, while keeping your arms at your sides and looking straight in front of you, you raise just one hand very slightly for a couple of seconds in the direction of the oncoming traffic. It’s an empowering gesture because it makes you feel like you’re the principal dancer in Stavinsky’s « Rite of Spring » ballet, standing up to the hord of animalistic biker-dancers ready to attack you with their fury.
The body language and costumes of the bike dancers are carnivalesque. I’ve seen a beautiful young woman, perched on her scooter like an elegant bird with perfect posture, dressed to the nines, covered in bling, including her 8-inch silettos. And a father, travelling at high speed, multi-tasking as he drives the motorbike, texts on his cell phone, smokes a cigarette, holds a tiny baby in his lap, with another tiny child seated behind him, and then his wife on the very back of the bike. Bikers can also make a fashion statement by choosing from the seemingly unlimited array of colours, shapes and sizes in anti-pollution face masks.
« People wear masks here so they breath less pollution ? », I ask one of the teachers.
Minh : « Oh no ! We women wear them mostly to protect our complexions from the sun ! »
Before I jump into my adventure this far I just wanted to mention how incredible the WUSC team has been. They have done everything possible to make sure that every aspect of my Leave for Change experience; getting me to Hanoi, into a great place to stay in the heart of the city, and to my placement at North Thang Long College has run as smooth as clockwork. My sincere thanks especially to Sonia in Canada and Ngoc here in Vietnam.
It was about 28 hours of travel from the time I left home in Guelph until I was in my hotel in Hanoi at 1 AM (11 hours ahead of Guelph time) slightly disoriented as my head finally hit a real pillow. The first day of my placement was spent at the WUSC office where I finally got to put faces to names after a spectacularly thrilling ride through the city weaving in and out of thousands of motorcycles, trucks and cars, never stopping (stop lights or signs are almost non-existent) or ceasing the constant bleating of horns as each driver announces their position in the swarm. Ngoc and I went through the logistics of WUSC's programmes, procedures and reporting. Everyone at the offices shared lunch together prepared in the staff kitchen which was a wonderful introduction to Vietnamese cuisine. But, just as exciting, after lunch we took a short walk to a cafe for my first iced coffee ... legendary.
Today, Ngoc escorted me out to the college, along with a special guest, Dr. Can Viet Anh, Head of Division for the Hanoi People Committee with the Department of Foreign Affairs. He was very interested to see how the Leave for Change program works. Today's meeting was essentially for introductions and for me to learn, in more specific terms, how I might be of assistance. More about that later, after I have developed a work plan.
« If life gives you lemons, have your maid make some lemonade ». This is just one of the many ironic lines spoken by the main character in 'Ilustrado', an absolutely brilliant novel by the Philippino writer, Miguel Syjuco. Just finished reading it. It’s the story of a conflicted writer who abandons his well-to-do family in Manila to live in the US. He reflects obsessively about what it means to be an ex-patriate. His « survivor story » made me think of my Philippino friends and family in Toronto, some of whom did have maids who could make lemonade if things got tough, but most didn’t. The novel is a meticulously crafted and cruelly judgmental portrait of Philippino society, where hard-working people learn early that life is full of unexpected trials. You better have a « Plan B » ready at all times, and you better get used to competition. As the novel’s protagonist says : « We’re all crabs pulling each other into the pot ».
The teachers and students here in Phan Thiet have told me many stories of their trials and tribulatons. One teacher, moved to tears, told me she had trouble conceiving a child but did so, with medical support, prayer, and the support of friends. Students tell me of their struggles to stay in school, while holding down part-time jobs. Some parents tell me that two salaries are an absolute must, if a family is going to make ends meet. A few teachers tell me they need to have two jobs, one at the college and another where they give private lessons to high school students who are trying to pass the competitive university or college entrance exams. I recently met some enterprising teachers who have set up a private language school, with evening English classes for elementary and secondary students. I can’t help mentioning other hard-working people, like the mostly elderly women I see cooking and selling shellfish or corn on the cob, at small stands on street corners. From early morning till late evening, in pouring rain and burning sun, they sit on the curb, often looking after small children while doing business.
In spite of the harsh realities depicted in their fictions, both Miguel Syjuco in 'Ilustrado' and Kim Thuy in 'Ru' end up, surprisingly, by emphasizing how important it is to dream. Thuy : « Je me suis avancée dans leurs pas (‘ceux qui ont marché devant moi’) comme dans un rêve éveillé où le parfun d’une pivoine éclose n’est plus une odeur, mais un épanouissment ». And Syjuco finishes his story with this : « All of life is a dream. To attain the impossible we must attempt the absurd ».
I've been back from Ghana for a couple of weeks and settled back into Guelph and home and work. It is interesting how easy it is to move between worlds. I have never experienced so-called "reverse culture shock". I am unsure how common it really is.
Before disappearing into a new semester and the hurry and scurry of students and classes and meetings, I did manage one public engagement activity: a brief article about my trip published in the Guelph Mercury. The online version is plain, but the newspaper included a photograph, that I paste here, along with the url.
Theatre for Development musicians
So this is the end of my blog but not the end of Ghana 2.0 which will always stay in my heart. Leave for Change lets people do amazing and transformative things to make the world a little better..... and it transforms all of us who participate.
Try it sometime. Jacqueline
I’m sitting under a tree in the college courtyard talking to some students. It’s a big day for these students. They’ve just successfully finished all their courses and are waiting to collect their diplomas.
Me : « What programs of study did you do ? ».
Them : « Agriculture, Economics, English, Tourism ».
Me : « Do you have a job to go to now ? ».
Them : « It’s hard to get a job. Our courses are too theoretical, not practical enough ».
Me : « How many of you worked part-time while you studied ? What kind of part-time jobs did you have ? ».
Them : « Most students work part-time, in restaurants, as waiters, or in stores ».
Me : « Do you live in the college dormitory while you’re a student ? ».
Them : « Some do. We all rented rooms in the city ».
Me : « What does it cost ? And tuition ? ».
Them : « About 750,000 dongs ($36) a month for a room, and food is extra. Tuition is 700,000 a month. It’s very expensive to be a student ».
Students here have heavy course loads – from 8 to 11 am, and from 1 to 5 pm, Monday to Friday. Some classes, like Accounting, have over 100 students, or like English, usually with over 60 students. Each class chooses one student to be course leader, and two other students to be the course leader’s assistants. The responsibilities of the course leader and assistants are to help the teachers keep track of attendance and report regularly about students who might be having financial or other problems. A student who needs to be absent for a day has to get a permission form signed by the Student Affairs Department. If a student has to be away for more than three days, a different permission form has to be signed. Student leaders and teachers work together to sort out a situation when a student breaks the strict college rules of behaviour. Students caught playing cards in class are punished.
All students take a compulsory course about Marx and Lenin, given by the teachers from the Faculty of Political Education, with tests and a final exam.
« We have to memorize two thick books to pass that exam. It’s difficult and boring. We also have to take a course on military training. We learn how to fight, how to protect the country », the students tell me.
One of the student’s cell phones rings. Me : « How many of you have cell phones ? »
Them, laughing : « Every student has a cell phone. We can’t live without one ».
Where have I heard that before?
The young boy, anxious to practice his English, asks me a question.
« Three weeks », I reply. The boy and his older teenage brother almost fall on the floor laughing at me.
« My brother asked how are you ? », says the older brother, in perfect English.
« Sorry, I thought he asked me how long I’m staying in Vietnam ». Not my first experience of miscommunication since I arrived. The nice thing is my ineptness invariably provokes peels of laughter.
The two brothers are waiting for their parents who are checking in at the hotel reception.
« Where did you learn to speak such good English ? », I ask.
The teenage son, with pride : « We have good English teachers at our school, a private school. They come from the US or the UK, and we’ve been learning English for a long time. And our parents pay for private lessons at home ».
The kids’ story is consistent with what several parents have told me and with an article I read in the ‘Vietnam Times’ yesterday. If they can afford it, some families send their children to private schools. Others think the public schools are better. Whatever the choice, the parents who have the means often feel private lessons at home are essential for success.
When students go to college, there are scholarships.
« What grades do you need to get a scholarship ? », I ask the Director of Student Affairs this morning in our meeting.
« We give about 300 shcolarships each month to students whose grades are between 7.0 and 7.9. Another 150 scholarships go to students with grades between 8.0 and 8.9 », he replies.
I ask the obvious question : « How many scholarships for students who get the top marks, between 9.0 and 10 ? ».
« None. Such grades are impossible here ».
Now I think I understand the private lessons.
Conversation over lunch with the teachers:
« Try this, it’s dangerous », says one teacher. The others burst into laughter.
« She meant to say it’s delicious », says another teacher. They’re referring to the stinky durian fruit, known in some parts of Asia as the ‘king of fruits’. It turns out to be very tasty, a combination of citrus, peach, and cherries, even though the smell is pretty disgusting. Even more delicious is the dragon fruit that the students also offer me. It’s a refreshing mix of plums, oranges, and apples.
A third student adds : « The durian fruit might affect my beauty ».
« You mean it might make you more beautiful ? » I asked. More hysterical giggling.
« No, Vietnamese women think the durian is bad for their complexions », she answered.
« We don’t know anything about you. Do you have any grandchildren ? » That’s a question I’ve never been asked before. I guess it makes sense, and was bound to happen sooner or later. The question is, of course, a clever way of trying to determine my marital status. And the question fits with my sense of how discrete, modest, and respectful these teachers are, in their attitude toward me.
The teachers then start telling me stories about themselves : how old they were when they got married (most were in their mid-twenties), how many children they have (all have at least two), who does the cooking and housework (the women), who looks after the children (the women).
« Do you know how to cook ? », I ask one of the men. He replies: "I can cook rice with a rice cooker, and make instant noodles." The good-natured laughter continues.
The conversation turns back to the more serious topic we spent the morning discussing – what are the most important personal and family problems that students in the college experience ?
A teacher says : « One of my students got pregnant and her boyfriend decided he didn’t want to marry her. Her family and the boyfriend’s family didn’t want anything to do with her, but she wanted to continue her studies. Can you tell us what a student counselor in a Canadian university would say to such a student ? »
I reply : « We’d probably try to find some community services to support the student, and maybe help the student access financial aid through the government, and then offer the student some individual or group counseling at the counseling centre. » My comments are met with empty looks.
It’s not the first time, since I arrived, that the conversation between me and the teachers grinds to a halt. Totally perplexing questions that I haven’t the slightest idea about how to answer.
Another student, probably sensing my discomfort, adds : « It’s a different culture here ».
It took me four days to learn the lesson here. When my partner Ramon and I were in Manila in March, it took only two days before we noticed we were walking too fast. I described the way people in the street in Manila walk as the « Philippino saunter ». It’s because of the heat and humidity. Here in Phan Thiet where the climate is identical, everyone looks as though they’re walking in slow motion. I should have clued in yesterday when I kept thinking, as I walked to the market, with my usual quick step and purposeful gait – how come I never perspire like this or feel faint when I’m on the street in Toronto ? There’s a saying in French : « I learn quickly, as long as you explain things slowly ».
In my conversations since Tuesday with the psychology teachers (who already feel like good friends) at the college, there’s no need to explain things slowly. They quickly get what I say, and vice versa. We’ve covered a lot of ground in a short time. It’s both because the teachers are really smart and we have Nguyen, a very talented translator who acts as our go-between. The teachers are convinced there is a need for a student counselling service, and they have some clear ideas about what it should look like. The job ahead of us is to craft a report that will propose the centre’s mission, organizational structure, training requirements for counsellors, and, most importantly, an action plan with specific deadlines. I showed the teachers the mission statement on the website for the University of Guelph Counselling Services. « It’s too long, too wordy, and hard to understand », according to the teachers. Yes, really smart, these teachers – with a few good lessons to teach the rest of us.
I am a little under 2 weeks until departure for Vietnam. What I can tell you so far is this- I am becoming totally pre-occupied with the whole adventure. It's probably a good thing I'm leaving soon, I'm sure my family will heave a sigh of relief. Speaking of family though, they have been able to supply me with all manner of help. I'm going to help set up a library system and I have a sister in law who just happens to have a Masters degree in Library Science and has provided some very useful information. My father in law just happens to have a friend who spends 6 months of the year in Vietnam and has a number of acquaintances who work at the University in Hanoi. I also shared a coffee break with Kian, a past U of G participant who was placed at the same college I will be going to. Kian was able to provide some valuable insight into the logistics of staying in Vietnam..Thanks Kian.
I have one shot left...2 days before I go. I have my flight itinerary and my e-ticket. The folks in Vietnam have my profile. Staring to work on the essentials I need to take with me. It's almost like I know what I'm doing!