I thought that I had evaded culture shock, but it was just delayed. When I left my bustling and convenient city life in Hanoi for the actual countryside via a three-hour bus ride, I did not have time to process the change because I was distracted by Once a Runner the entire time. Upon arrival, I thought to myself, “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” then remembered that I’ve never been to Kansas, and then realized that I have been talking to myself in full sentences (in my head) quite frequently since no one speaks English and I need to converse.
That evening, at my homestay, while everyone prepared dinner, I glanced over to see two of my host relatives crouched around something. Upon further inspection, I recognized one of the chickens from out back and watched the blood drain from its neck. Linh, my program coordinator, informed me that the chickens, doves, and ducks are all family pets so they can be eaten someday.
We all (three generations of my host family, Linh, my local buddy Chinh, and various neighbors) ate dinner that night on the living room floor, where I demonstrated my steadily improving chopstick technique and participated in the Vietnamese tradition of meeting someone: drinking all the beer in your respective glasses in “one shot,” then introducing yourselves and shaking hands. A lot of people wanted to meet me that dinner. Exhausted, I went to bed by 9 p.m., but not before a massive spider greeted me in the bathroom and several lizards scurried around the sink.
Since it would be a waste to come to Bac Giang (pronounced bock zong) and only be known as the foreigner (I am the only one here) I have already made a name for myself as the runner and the vegetarian. Each morning, when I traverse country roads and rice paddy trails, people stare and later ask about me. Yesterday, a neighbor visited my homestay and squeezed my arm and leg because she had watched me run every morning and wondered what my running body felt like. Linh assured me that this is totally normal. At meals, people usually provide either plain or fried tofu and push all the vegetables my way. To answer the forever question, yes, I would and do eat eggs if they come from chickens that are raised and treated well, but only if I live with the chickens, which I currently do.
I have acquired several habits this week. I nap, or “take a rest” as they call it, every day after lunch. But lunch isn’t always at my homestay, so I have napped in several beds graciously offered to me by my lunch hosts. People are truly hospitable here. I also average about a watermelon a day, and often complement that with mango or pineapple. The same people who offer me their beds for napping are often impressed with my fruit-eating abilities. I don’t think American fruit will satisfy me ever again.
Even though Vietnam is a predominantly atheist country, pagodas and temples abound. On Friday, we went to the local pagoda for the annual festival to drink tea and eat lunch. We arrived at 10 a.m. and while most people had come and left already, I (and Linh) was invited to dine in the area usually reserved for the most generous donors. So, we had a slightly better lunch at 10:30 served by the Buddhist monks and also received a bottle of fresh tea. Foreign perks.
I’ve adjusted quite a bit through the week, and the slow-paced, nature life really is the one for me. We went to a waterfall yesterday that reminded me of home, but I guess this strange, beautiful place is my actual home for the next two months.
It feels like I’ve been here for much longer than two weeks, and my actual teaching finally starts tomorrow, so I have a long journey left. Many more places to see and people to meet. Much more Vietnamese to become.