A Week in Bac Giang: Watermelon Softens All Culture Shock

Bac Giang

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.

Buffaloes are everywhere. But they're nice buffaloes, not the kind that maul people like at Yellowstone.

Buffaloes are everywhere. But they’re nice buffaloes, not the kind that maul people like at Yellowstone.

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.

This is a pretty typical view in Bac Giang. Very different from Hanoi, but very excellent.

This is a pretty typical view in Bac Giang. Very different from Hanoi, but very excellent.

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.

This was not the spider in my bathroom, but there were a bunch of these on a hike we took to a waterfall. It's about the size of my hand.

This was not the spider in my bathroom, but there were a bunch of these on a hike we took to a waterfall. It’s about the size of a small hand.

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.

The road right outside my homestay. Also where I start my runs each morning. Good old country roads.

The road right outside my homestay. Also where I start my runs each morning. Good old country roads.

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.

Yes, it's all as good as it looks.

Yes, it’s all as good as it looks. The mangos were from a tree in their backyard.

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.

Pagoda number 343287492.

Pagoda number 343287492.

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.

Waterfall number one. We climbed a lot of stairs again.

Waterfall number one. We climbed a lot of stairs again.

Waterfall number two. I do not know the people pictured, but I like what they add to the atmosphere.

Waterfall number two. I do not know the people pictured, but I like what they add to the atmosphere.

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.

The journey to and from the waterfalls did not suck.

The journey to and from the waterfalls did not suck.

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2 thoughts on “A Week in Bac Giang: Watermelon Softens All Culture Shock

  1. Monica My Dear,

    Your father, affectionately referred to as Curtiz these days, shared the link to your blog with me tonight in response to my text that read simply, “How is our Monica?”

    Well I see our Monica is fine, indeed. No surprise to me, of course, since you and I (and Leah) have been to battle and back together. When you told me first of Nepal and eventually of Vietnam I didn’t question for a second how you would fare there. You manage, even in the comfortable cocoon that is Eugene, to carry yourself with a quiet air that welcomes all people and circumstances and challenges with a simple grace that says, ‘You have met a friend in me.’

    Things are going well here. The end of this season saw rapid fire of events that foreshadows things to come in a truly unforgiving 2016 schedule. The new team is weathering things well and will certainly be prepared. Your dad and I actually have the chance to work on a couple of pieces together, which is nice, and I’d really love it if he would bring me a Smoky Yum bowl back every once in a while (he can read this, right?). But I digress…

    Eden and Major are well. They enjoy the days of nudity that summer affords them, though Major peed IN my work bag yesterday and pooped in the middle of Eden’s room. I was sitting right there when he began peeing mid stride and settled on my bag as a fitting receptacle, but the poo pile was discovered only as I enterd Eden’s room with arms full of clean laundry and nearly stepped in it. Eden ran in at my shriek, started dry-heaving, and then ran out. Major followed, pointing at it and repeating, “Poo, poo…” in case I had trouble identifying it.

    I have recently decided that I only want to hang original art in my house and have already selected a couple of your photos for my gallery. Are you shooting on a camera or your phone? Thank you for sharing your journey with us, I look forward to spending more nights with you and your stories. Stay safe and continue to make the most of this amazing experience.

    I think it goes without saying that Vietnam has received a gracious guest in you, and we have sent a worthy ambassador.

    xx Sasha

    Like

    1. Sasha,

      This warms my heart. I am certainly getting a little more sleep this summer than last, but I do still miss the World Juniors days. It amazes me that you do that every year. Those two stories about Major are priceless. Poor Eden. My pictures are all from my camera (I still don’t have a smart phone so phone pictures would not be ideal). I hope Oregon is as wonderful as ever. And thank you!

      Like

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