Stories of a Boat Person

In 1989, my great aunt escaped Vietnam with two of her sons in tow. She had a couple of false starts, and was caught and would get thrown in prison. She had invited my mom to run as well, but my mom was afraid of encountering pirates who were known for raping women.

My great aunt was 39 at the time and her sons were 14, 12, and 6. The 6 year-old was too young to take on the trip, and so she had to leave him behind in Vietnam with her husband. She didn’t want him to cry when she and his brothers left so she gave him a 500 bill. Nowadays, the 500 has no spending power. But then, the 500 could buy a day’s worth of food. He was so ecstatic and went to buy a bánh mì that he didn’t notice them leaving.

They left by cyclo to the bus station. From there, it took them a week to get to Cà Mau, the southernmost province of Vietnam. They left on a dinghy for 6 people. After an hour, they transferred onto another dinghy. At this point, two more kids were added to my great aunt’s care, the children of the people who operated the first boat. After another 7 hours, they boarded a much larger vessel that carried 89 people. She parted with a suitcase along the way, but still carried with her a bottle of water, medicine, and papers. Some people were able to bring rice so they ate that while supplies lasted. There wasn’t enough water either, and those who drank seawater would throw up. They had tied a tarp to catch the rainfall.

After boarding, the people learned that the boat had no navigation systems or map. Luckily, there were a few men aboard the boat who served in the South Vietnamese Army and they used the constellations to help steer the boat in international waters. The 14 year-old hung out with the crew above deck but it was too dangerous for my great aunt and the 12 year-old. Below deck, people sat with their knees pulled up, side by side one another, relieving themselves where they sat. It was 20 days before they reached Malaysia.

4 Malaysian policemen with machetes boarded the boat. They said it was impossible to dock the boat so people had to jump into the water to swim to shore. My great aunt couldn’t swim, so 2 men about my age hoisted her up and brought her to shore. They were sent into the jungle for 4 days. And weren’t given food until the second day.

However, Malaysia would not be their last stop. The refugees were forced back onto the boat; they were told to return to Vietnam. The policemen followed on both sides to steer their boat back to Vietnam. They were told if they strayed from the path, the policemen would open fire.

Once the Malaysian police left them, they turned course and headed southward again, in hopes of landing somewhere that’ll take them in. If they returned to Vietnam, they’d surely be sent to prison. And a lot of money had already been invested into this trip. When boat people left, they’d sell all of their possessions and kept their money in gold; something that’s portable that’ll help them start their lives in their new countries. The gold attracted the pirates.

The next 4 days, they weathered a monstrous storm. Below deck, they laid down like sardines to prevent the boat from capsizing. The man captaining the boat left the helm unmanned because it was safer to not fight the waves. They saw another boat in flames but did not stop to help because taking on more people would result in their boat’s demise as well.

When they reached Indonesian waters, the storm still hadn’t let up. The rain was so strong, that you couldn’t see where the sky ended and the sea began. Indonesian policemen boarded and indicated that they needed to pay their way onto the island. People gave what money and jewelry they had. In truth, the supervisor of the island did not want to take in more people. But because he knew there were children aboard and because of the storm, he allowed them in. The next morning, the policemen guided their boat through the rocks onto shore. When people got off, they were fainting left and right from exhaustion and starvation.

They harvested plants, papayas, and potatoes on the island. And people harvested crabs; in fact they overharvested and there were no more crabs after a year. But people were happy to be at Galang Refugee Camp. My great aunt and her sons lived there for 2 years and 6 months.

After they were approved for resettlement in the United States, they were moved to the Philippine Refugee Processing Center where they stayed for another 7 months. While there, she received English lessons and cultural training. Part of the bureaucratic requirements was an interview and they interviewed my great aunt for 4 hours.

My great aunt’s father was a serviceman for the South Vietnamese Army, hence her family faced discrimination from the new regime. She told them that until she was 8 years-old, she had lived in Saigon. Then she had moved to the countryside. But when she moved back, she had residency issues. Her sons couldn’t attend school. She didn’t have a ration card and couldn’t buy food. When asked why she wanted to go to America, she answered that all she wanted was for her sons to have the opportunity to get an education.

She arrived to the United States in June of 1992, 3 years after she took off in that boat in Cà Mau. Her youngest son later joined her in California, while her husband stayed in Vietnam.

This was the part of the story that surprised me the most: In 1986, my great aunt found the remains of an American pilot who crashed over Bến Tre. She burned the remains so that all that was left was the bones. She buried them among other new graves but was later told that no graves were allowed in that land so she exhumed the bones. She kept them in her house even though she ran the risk of being discovered. When she left Vietnam, she brought with her the skull and a few of the bones from the rib cage. After a month in Indonesia, the authorities asked them if any had any American remains since it was a high priority at the time to account for those who went missing in action. She turned over the bones and told them where the remaining bones could be found. She didn’t learn this until much later from her husband, but about 10 years later, 2 Americans and the Vietnamese police came to retrieve the remaining bones. (Remember, relations weren’t normalized until 1995.) The police said the remains were not Americans, but she doesn’t understand why the 2 Americans would come out all that way if that were the case. My great aunt wished she had gotten the name of the official at Gulang so she could have some lead to find out what really happened.


This is the story of my kinda sorta great aunt from Sacramento. I’ve also kinda sorta already mentioned her in my blog. My mom’s visit last August was to say goodbye to one of her uncles who was terminally ill, this great aunt’s husband. He passed away and left the property to my great aunt and to a few other people. And unfortunately, it is a very long process to transfer the title solely to my great aunt and she can not leave the country until the paperwork is done or she forfeits the property. Doubly unfortunate, the end is no where in sight and she’s been living by herself for months now. (She has family outside of the city, but she can’t leave the house for long, or else she forfeits the property… Vietnamese government has no chill.)

And shout out to my 11th grade AP U.S. history teacher, Mr. MacKay, who taught me so much about the war and who assigned us to conduct oral history interviews. I had interviewed my father and learned that there were so many untold stories to be discover within my own family. Six years later and I’m still so inspired by that assignment. Thank you.

7 year-old Diane, mom, Henry, and my great aunt in California. This was the first time I met my great aunt.
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The Vietnamese + Nail Salons

I took a weeklong nail art course while I was in Saigon.

If you remember, my mom was in Vietnam for a few weeks in August. She lamented, wishing she could’ve had the time to take a nail art course while she was in Saigon. Then, my mom being the brilliant woman she is sometimes, suggested that take the nail art course and reteach it to her when I got back.

I told her she was crazy.

There’s no way I could do that, and it’s also not quite how I pictured spending a week of my Tết vacation. But I kept thinking about it. One, I guess this is like my mom’s version of professional development. Who am I to get in her way? Two, I can sacrifice a week of my time if it makes my mom happy. She wasn’t in a position to actualize this dream, but I was.

I paid 2,562,000₫ / $115 for the course and materials and I jumped down the rabbit hole.

Easter 1999. I am 2 months away from 6 in this picture.

My Mom, Her Friends, and Their Kids All Do Nails

For as long as I can remember, my mom has done nails. I asked her when she started and she said it was just after Easter the year Henry was not even one year-old. My mom has been doing nails for 17 years.

And for just as long, my mom has always discouraged me from being xí xọn. (Slang describing someone who spends a lot of time and effort in their appearance, derived from sửa soạn meaning prepare or get ready.) So no make-up unless it was for special occasions. And despite it being her profession, she rarely allowed me to paint my nails. So rarely that I remember one of the first times she painted my nails was for the winter concert when I was in the 4th grade. I played the violin and my nails were a glittery, frosted blue.

It wasn’t until middle school that I was seriously conscious that my mom and just about everyone in the Vietnamese-American community in Jax did nails. It was meeting a whole new group of classmates, some who are curious about what your parents do. And at that age, I was halfway between embarrassed of my parents’ jobs and trying not to be embarrassed by it. I remember at one point, I would answer that question by calling my mom a cosmetologist instead of nail technician.

Around that time, there was Dat Phan’s 2004 Vietnamese bit (after he won Last Comic Standing) and Anjelah Johnson’s 2007 stand-up routine (she went on to create Bon Qui Qui).

And that really got me wondering, why do the majority of Vietnamese-Americans do nails?!

Tippi Hedren in 1963, promoting Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures Company, Inc.

Tippi Hedren, the Godmother of Nails

So the story goes: in 1975, Tippi Hedren was an international relief coordinator with Food for the Hungry when she visited Hope Village, a refugee camp outside of Sacramento for Vietnamese people who fled their country. She wanted to find vocations for the women and they were fascinated by her manicured nails. Then, in the 1970s, manicures were costly and for rich women, costing about $50; affordable nail care was a niche market ready to grow. Tippi lent her personal manicurist to teach the women and enlisted the help of a nearby beauty school. This job was great for the Vietnamese, as it required very little English. Now, half of the licensed nail technicians in the United States are Vietnamese-Americans and manicures cost about $12, in large part because of the influx of nail technicians.

The 61 Trần Hưng Đạo location of Kelly Pang’s Nail Academy i.e. where I spent approximately 45 hours of my life.

Kelly Pang and her Nail Empire

Kelly Pang is a family business started in 2003 by Linh Pang, who in 2008, won first place in the Asia Nail Competition in Malaysia. (Her younger sister went on to win first place the next year in Singapore.) They have three locations in the city, they have graduated tens of thousands of students, and they host their own nail competition for their students every year.

I arrived to Saigon on a Sunday and the next day I began my 8 to 12, 1 to 5 days. I did the class for 6 days. The first day was interesting because the learning curve was incredibly steep for me. I started the class at the same time as John, a Vietnamese-American man living in Tennessee. And it was comforting to have a partner in all of this craziness.

By day 2, I motivated myself by thinking I could have a future in miniature painting. That maybe the skills were transferable to cosplay. By day 4, I fancied myself as an amateur anthropologist to pass the time i.e. eavesdropping on the surrounding conversations.

There was a man from Houston, an older woman who’s worked in Florida, a 17 year-old whose father owns a nail salon in Philly and he was about to move to the U.S. in a month, and a girl who’s worked 2 years in the United Arab Emirates and is possibly going to Nigeria to work.

What I accomplished in a week. The top row is the instructor’s and the bottom row is mine.

On the Corner of Hùng Vương and Bà Triệu

This was my absolute favorite shopping destination while in Vietnam. Big C is a Thailand company. And you’ll also see Lotteria and Lotte Cinema in the video. The supermarket within that chain is Lotte Mart, and they are a Korean company. And there are two Vietnamese equivalents, Co.opmart and VinMart.

I have spent far too much time in Big C, and I’ll miss walking around aimlessly there.

Parking is 1,000₫ for bikes and 2,000₫ for motorbikes. They write your number on your vehicle but they never really check to see if I’m actually riding off with my bike or someone else’s. In addition to the parking garage, there’s also parking on the basement level. On the ground floor, you’ll see some storefronts, tons of kiosks, and Lotteria. My standard order at Lotteria is the Premium Chicken Burger Combo for 69,000₫. (Just over 3 dollars.) Which means I’ve gotten that exact order 10+ times while I’ve gotten the Bulgogi Burger Combo twice because someone incorrectly took my order. Also, check out the cool English they’ve got on the walls. Head on up to the 2nd and 3rd floors is the main attraction, Big C. You can leave your bag in a locker. Or, if you have a small purse, you have have it wrapped in plastic and sealed. This is to prevent shoplifting. Finally on the 4th floor is Lotte Cinema where they serve sweet popcorn instead of buttery popcorn, a food court, and an arcade.

The song playing in the video is Soái Ca by Bảo Uyên, released while I was in Vietnam.

The Land of Thịt Chó

This was way back in January. But let’s go farther back than that. Back at Pre-Departure Orientation in D.C., when I had met Olivia and Josh, and warmed up to Daniel, I was so envious that the three of them would get to hang out together in their own little corner of Vietnam.

Well, I quickly got over that because I thanked my lucky stars that I wouldn’t have to suffer through a winter in Northern Vietnam without central heating and insulation. However, I still wanted to pay them a visit. After some video calls with Alvin and some excellent planning on his part, our expedition began after I wrapped up my grading duties for the first semester.

After a 13-hour bus ride from Huế to Hà Nội, I wandered around the Hoàn Kiếm lake area until I met up with Anya and Alvin at Joma Bakery Cafe (22 Lý Quốc Sư). We had a delicious lunch at Jalus Vegan Kitchen (46 Hàng Trống) before Anya had to return back for her class. After purchasing our tickets, Alvin and I preceded to camp out at The KAfe (18 Điện Biên Phủ). All three places come highly recommended when you’ll need a Western day future ETAs.

PRO TIP: either buy your train tickets in person (you can do this weeks ahead of time) or buy them from dsvn.vn. Do not get them from vietnam-railway.com because they’ll charge you probably triple the cost AND they don’t even show you all possible stops. The website looks legit but they’re just the middle man and it’ll cost you to use them.
My first time taking the train in Vietnam i.e. my first time taking the train ever!

Unfortunately, my memory isn’t that sharp that I can regale you with stories from four and a half months ago. The photos only bring back the bare bones of this trip. So fortunately, that means I’ll write a bit about each of the ETAs we visited.

It’s always an odd experience for me when one of my friends become a part of a new group. These people in their photos are real and seemingly amazing people who I’ve never met before. But who are they? And how did they come to be so important?

Our first stop: Lào Cai. I first met Daniel when I walked into Karen and Aubrey’s hotel room at the Marriott. Since Daniel wasn’t included in the first e-mail and consequently wasn’t a part of our Facebook group at that point, he gave us a brief introduction that was like a condensed version of his résumé. I was far from impressed. Not because his résumé wasn’t impressive, but rather because it was way too impressive and I didn’t like that that was the first impression he gave. I remember sitting next to him at the sushi place and listening to him talk about Semester at Sea (all while he was struggling with his chopsticks). Daniel is very polished. And as someone who feels that she is always a few inches shy from meeting that standard, I didn’t think we’d make good friends.

To add to his list of accomplishments, Daniel had interned in D.C. so since it was his home turf, he offered to guide us around. Daniel was obsessed about showing us his favorite memorial: the Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Seeing him nerd out about it and insisting that we should tell him that it was the coolest memorial ever even if we didn’t feel that way made me realize he was going to be a great friend.

Fast-forward to Vietnam. Daniel is nonstop curious about Vietnamese. I had never met someone who cared about my first language so much. We all had difficulties adjusting to our placements, but Daniel was really good about being open and vulnerable about that. And that helped put me at ease about having a hard time here. And that’s how Daniel came to be important to me.

Daniel was a guest judge at the provincial science fair and so we got to see some really interesting inventions and meet some of his students.
Photo courtesy of Daniel. The view from behind Lào Cai Gifted High School.
Daniel treated us to lunch at his canteen which were rice bowls with my and Alvin’s favorite side dishes. And I have to admit, the nước chanh (lemonade) was really good.
On the Vietnam-China border! We were just a short walk away from China but no visas, no entry.

Our next stop: Yên Bái. Olivia was my roommate at Pre-Departure Orientation. Olivia can either talk a lot, or be very observant and quiet. We went through the day meeting tons of people and having tons of information dumped on us. When we finally retired to bed, we stayed up talking for at least an hour, deconstructing our first impressions of everyone and how we all fit into the larger group dynamic. Instant best friend material.

When I met Mirabelle, she described being friends with Olivia like being sucked up in a tornado. And it’s true. Olivia makes everything exciting. She struggles with body image but adamantly fights to love her body the way it is. It’s inspiring. When I was unsure of what to do, Olivia told me to put myself first. And I think that was something I really needed to hear. It was pretty life-changing actually. And that’s how Olivia became important to me.

The rain can’t stop us. Olivia taking us on a tour of her city.
And we got to sit in on band practice, how cool is that?
Olivia is like a superstar at her school. Look at how her students look at her.
The food at Olivia’s canteen is also so good. Those fried bánh baos were the bomb.

Our final stop: Tuyên Quang. My first conversation with Josh was at the bar in Adams Morgan that first night. We saw this large dog on the street and he brought up how large dogs were the trend right now in Hanoi. And I speculated that maybe it was to deter dog-nappers because of the thịt chó (dog meat) industry. It was trivial, but nice to have something to laugh about. I liked Josh. But it was short-lived and one-sided haha.

Josh, the resident anthropologist/beatnik bumpkin, made a great friend because he showed me there’s more than one kind of Fulbrighter. You don’t have be a diplomat-in-the-making to be a good Fulbrighter. (Though admittedly, we’re all pretty good at it when we want to be.) And he told amazing stories of California and Portland and pair that with the fact that Alvin, James, Josh, and Erik are all from California, it made me realize how small my world is. Never before had I ever considered the west coast being a viable place to live. Or really, anywhere that isn’t Florida. Josh helps expand my worldview, so that’s why he’s important to me.

Josh is also like a celebrity at his school. (Also at other schools too haha.)
Major construction everywhere. TQ was recently categorized as a city so I wonder what it’ll look like in the future.
It’s so interesting to see Daniel’s, Olivia’s, and Josh’s city squares because in Huế, there’s no room to build one.
Looks like Bác Hồ is throwing up a peace sign.

Alvin and I were talking about how cool it was to participate in the Fulbright because without it, neither of us probably would’ve made the trip to Lào Cai, Yên Bái, or Tuyên Quang. The north is notorious for thịt chó (dog meat) but none of my friends tried to feed me any to their credit. In fact, they introduced me to some Northern Vietnamese cuisine that I already dearly miss.

Why I Write and Why I Haven’t Been

Some people have noticed that I haven’t updated this blog in over 2 months. I am very aware of this fact, and I do have a growing list in my head of all of the blog posts I want to write.

This blog was meant to be travelogue, a time capsule of my experiences in Vietnam. Something that my friends stateside could read occasionally to know what’s going on with me. (Because I will have a difficult time condensing these wacky, though remarkable, 10 months when I’ll inevitably be asked, “How was it? What is Vietnam like?”) Something for future ETAs to read while they’re contemplating applying or waiting to arrive in country themselves. And something for me. I’ll forget a lot of these stories (I already am), until I read about ’em here. What started out as a simple blog quickly evolved into a place for me to process the difficulties that accompany living and working halfway across the world.

Then, the need to share and connect with other people was very strong and that helped me maintain a consistent posting schedule.

Now, for the most part, the experience has gotten a lot easier. And I don’t need to write. I want to. But it’s a blessing and a curse that I’ve gotten a lot busier. Blessing because I certainly feel like I’m getting more out of my time here now that less of it is spent binge-watching TV shows, and that more it is spent in the company of other people. And curse because so much more has transpired in the past 3 months and I haven’t shared a huge chunk of it.

My intention is that by writing this, I will make more time in the very near future to catch y’all up to speed. Here’s a snapshot of the stories I’ll be telling:

  • the northern expedition with Alvin to see Daniel, Olivia, and Josh
  • I took a weeklong nail art course in Saigon
  • my dad’s family
  • Saigon as an adult
  • my kinda sorta great aunt who left Vietnam by boat
  • teaching schedule and just teaching in general
  • Daniel’s visit
  • the English conference held by 6 of the ETAs
  • THE HỒ DYNASTY CITADEL
  • Chin-Yee’s visit
  • camping
  • Tam Kỳ / Mỹ Sơn / Đà Nẵng and my current existential crisis

I gotta run to class now, but you’ll be hearing more from me soon!

LAST TIME on Girl Overseas

Here’s a 100-word account of every major event that I haven’t blog about yet.


Knights
Posing for pictures by the Cầu Rồng (Dragon Bridge) in Đà Nẵng. It breathes fire every Saturday and Sunday night!

Rose visited me in Huế. I met Rose during her last semester as an undergrad at UCF. And she’s been like a role model for me; always one step ahead. She did her ETA in Malaysia, I’m doing my ETA in Vietnam. She’s killing the blogging game, and I’m giving it a go too. And although this sounds overly simplistic: Rose is the first role model I have that looks like me. In Jax, it seems like all there is for Vietnamese-Americans is nail salons. Rose is a graduate teaching assistant in a TESOL program, and a writer to boot.


Thang Long
Check out the Han characters! Reading right to left: 正 (chính) 北 (bắc) 門 (môn), or Main Northern Gate. Han characters were adopted for official purposes since 1010. But like Japanese kanji, although the symbols are Chinese hanzi, the pronunciation is unique to Vietnam.

14. Walk over to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long(Thăng Long → Rising Dragon.) Mid-October, we had a partial ETA meet-up. It was a much-needed breather and my first time seeing the other ETAs since departing for Huế. Daniel and I wasted no time and sought out the 6th UNESCO World Heritage Site to be recognized in Vietnam. Lý Thái Tổ moved the capital from Hoa Lư to what is now present-day Hà Nội in 1010. Supposedly, the citadel’s World Heritage Site designation in 2010 was a one thousandth birthday gift to Hà Nội.


On Deck
Waking up at 5 to see the sunrise. Plus tai chi at 6:30.

15. Sail on Ha Long Bay. (Hạ Long → Descending Dragon.) Hands-down, the coolest thing I’ve done in Vietnam. The $117 cruise package may have also been the priciest thing I’ve done in Vietnam, but I’ll stand by that it was worth it. If I squeeze my eyes shut tight and think about the ship’s deck and karsts, it’s like I’m there again. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed, or will ever enjoy, waking up early as much as I did the night we stayed on the boat.


Halloween
A layer of dust had collected in that room so my students and I had to sweep and mop before getting started with decorations. Also my students had zero input on decorations until I bought all of the art supplies and left them on their own the day before Halloween.

I was stressed for weeks leading up to a small Halloween gathering. This party was a huge deal to me; it’s what I wrote about in my statement of grant purpose. But every step of the way… *sigh* The largest room was at the second campus. But the department there wouldn’t let me borrow chairs for Musical Chairs. So I had to ransack abandoned classrooms for chairs. And it poured that night, deterring people from driving out to the second campus. But the 35 people who came had a fun time and that’s really all I could’ve hoped for.


Mirabelle visited me in Huế. Mirabelle is Olivia’s friend from a study abroad program, and I met Mirabelle during the Ha Long Bay trip. Unfortunately for us, it was raining nonstop the day we hung out. But we made the best of it by camping out at my favorite coffee shop. We talked on and on about everything from job searching to manga, as we sipped on passion fruit smoothies. It was absolutely wonderful being able to decompress after the Halloween party. And now Mirabelle can back me up when I say it rains in Huế.


Motorbike

3. Ride a motorcycle. This has been a lifelong dream of mine. Since I was 3 years old, I’ve loved being on motorcycles. It’s part of the magic of Vietnam. And finally, I am adult enough, fearless enough, and reckless enough to hop on one of these solo. I even got to practice on a Dream II, the model my dad drove. Driving a really old manual is tricky because the display for the gears might not light up anymore, which means you have to remember which gear you’re in so you don’t switch to the wrong gear.


Lanterns

20. Stroll through Hoi An at night. Hội An is much less magically when you realized it is filled to the brink with throngs of tourists. But nevertheless, it’s pretty cool to see a place lit up with lanterns. Plus, Daniel and Erik made great travel partners. Plenty of the best lemonade, coconuts, and sugar donuts to be had in Hội An. I plan on returning on a night of the full moon. On the 14th of every lunar month, the ancient town of Hội An powers down all of its electric lights and runs purely on lanterns.


Opening Ceremony
At the opening ceremony for the school year, which took place on November 19th at my school because the enrollment period for first year students stretch a couple months into the first semester. The two students flanking me were each awarded a meager 800,000 VND merit scholarship—that’s $36—when tuition costs 5,400,000 VND for the year. It’s not even 15%. If it’s not evident yet, I’ve grown cynical about the Vietnamese education system.

4. Have an áo dài tailored. In recent memory, I’d always felt semi-uncomfortable in áo dàis. Tight-fitting silk is super unflattering on a less than thin middle-schooler. But I feel pretty awesome in an áo dài nowadays. It’s a blast to have one made too: you select your choice of fabric, have your measurements taken, and voilà! An áo dài tailored specifically for you. It costed me only 20 bucks so not bad.


Turkey
Turkey in Vietnamese is “gà tây,” which translates to western chicken.

At first, I was unsure how to celebrate Thanksgiving. The only way I’ve ever celebrated Thanksgiving is with mashed potatoes and gravy with my family. And this year, I didn’t have my family. Actually, this was my first real wave of homesickness. But I decided to make the best of it by going out and buying a cake in the shape of a chicken and inviting my students over for a slice. It wasn’t the same without my mom and brothers, but at least I wasn’t alone.


McNamee

The McNamees visited me in Huế. Alan is a professor at Lyon College, Chin-Yee’s alma mater, and was a Fulbrighter in Poland. Alan and Kathleen were passing through Huế on their Southeast Asia trip, and I was delighted to show them around. I really enjoyed telling stories of my teaching experience, and hearing Alan’s stories about teaching in Poland.


Quang Binh

I visited James and Stephanie in Đồng Hới. Early December, Stephanie hosted the Innovative English Language Teaching for Provincial Universities Conference at her ELF placement, Quảng Bình University. It was cool to get a peek into James’s placement. For us, the placements are completely arbitrary; we’ll never know why 8 months of our lives were spent in a particular city. So it’s definitely interesting to imagine what could have been. But of course, the grass is always greener on the other side, yada yada yada. My visit was short, and I plan on visiting another time to see the caves.


Christmas
For all future ETAs tasked with throwing parties, I have five words for you: Minute to Win It competitions. Watch the blueprints online and decide which would work best for you depending on the materials you need to get your hands on. I used Ready Spaghetti, Movin’ On Up, Separation Anxiety, This Blows, and Candelier.

So Christmas was a week after Đà Lạt. And by Đà Lạt, I had done zero preparation for this Christmas party because I was so burnt out from stressing over Halloween. I learned that there was an UNUSED DANCE ROOM at the first campus (that no one told me about) and I fought tooth and nail to be able to use it. Honestly, Christmas turned out beautifully. It’s a little disappointing though that I’ve kinda stopped turning to others for support with generating ideas. But it’s either seek out help that’s not there, or do it on my own.


Brenna Bryce Erik

Brenna, Bryce, and Erik visited me in Huế. I don’t get out much on my own. It doesn’t matter if I’m in my hometown or a-whole-nother country: I don’t get out much on my own. So I was pumped when Brenna and Bryce visited me and we rented miniature light-up cyclos. THEN, the next day, team Svedberg visited as well and I saw Minh Mạng’s tomb a second time, and Khải Định’s tomb for the first time. I’m looking forward to meeting up with Brenna again in Sài Gòn (very soon!) and Erik in Tam Kỳ (when Daniel plans it).


Veggies
I was lucky because Huế caters to vegetarians which made the challenge possible without having to cook at home.

7. Eat vegetarian for one month. I chose December to test out a vegetarian diet. The conclusion: vegetarian food from restaurants that solely serve vegetarian food is SO GOOD. The dishes were not only good, but also cheaper than its meat counterparts. And for someone who has a shellfish allergy in a country that likes to put shrimp and crab in everything (I’ll tell people I have a shellfish allergy and they’ll still serve me a noodle soup dish that used crab in the broth), eating vegetarian is a safe way to not aggravate my allergies.


11. Sing at a wedding school function. My university throws a party at the end of every year. Unbeknownst to me, there’s karaoke at the party. It wasn’t until I got there that people encouraged me to sign up to sing. I figured okay, yeah. Check off another goal. I probably won’t get the chance to sing at a wedding. Old karaoke systems never have the English songs that I know, so I did a nerves-filled, a cappella rendition of Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love.” I really wished I had prepped more by practicing songs to add to my repertoire.


11. Sing at a wedding. Joke’s on me! Literally 3 days later I was invited to a wedding and encouraged to sing there as well. Still had done no prep. Just got up there and sang Nat Cole King’s “L-O-V-E.” The goal was to sing at a wedding, I never said well.


Lotus
Photo courtesy of Josh’s dad, Stephen.

Paul and Josh visited me in Huế. If you haven’t noticed, I’m really lucky to have so many people visit me. With these hooligans I visited Minh Mạng’s tomb a third time, Khải Định’s tomb a second time, and Tự Đức’s tomb for the first time. Our tomb raid came up empty-handed but I’m sure future tomb raids will be more fruitful. I’m glad I got to show them a tour of my school and give them some insight into what teaching at a Vietnamese university is like. I’ll see these two again in Quy Nhơn (whenever Daniel plans it).


NEXT TIME on Girl Overseas: our protagonist backpacks through northwest Vietnam, meeting up with old friends along the way. (I’m almost caught up y’all!)

22 Years, 7 Months, 10 Days

Yesterday, I reached a milestone that goes ignored for most people.
Yesterday, I reached the age my mom was when she had me.

I was always aware that my mom was a young mom, but I never appreciated how young until now. If I were my mom, at this point I would have been married for two years. I would have moved halfway across the world. And of course, I’d be a mom. This is so far from what my life actually is, I can’t even conceptualize the alternate universe where I’m a mom at 22.

I’m fortunate that our lives took such different paths. My mom grew up in war-torn Vietnam. She was terrorized by neighborhood kids for her half-American complexion. She didn’t graduate elementary school. She married at 20 because of financial troubles.

I was born a citizen of a developed country. I had the privilege of attending a visual and performing arts school for elementary school, a gifted program for middle school, and one of the top ranking public schools in the nation for high school. I’m a college graduate. And I’ll be damned if financial troubles ever affected my marrying decisions.

I get to ponder the purpose of life and worry about finding my passion, where the answers to these questions have a good chance of being positive. I get to have a quarter-life crisis without having negative consequences on y’know, a husband or a beautiful newborn daughter.

So despite all of my purported struggles, I am so lucky. This isn’t to say that my mom’s life is any less than my own. She was just given a very different hand. But judging from the photo, she was very happy at 22 years, 7 months, and 10 days.