Marriage, Hair, Bridge

Bac Giang

“When will you get married?” Bich, an English teacher at my school, asked me. I laughed and said not for a very long time. On the ride home, Chung, the other English teacher, articulated my reasoning.

“You want to live freely and independently?” she said.

“Exactly,” I said.

Even though I am only 20 (or 21 in Vietnamese years), people ask me about marriage all the time. Here, people often marry around age 25, which is similar to America, but marriage is a topic I do not plan to be involved in personally for quite awhile. I can’t even commit to brushing my hair, let alone another human being.

Speaking of hair, humidity officially took its toll on mine when I neglected to brush it for almost two weeks. The nest I grew in that time required almost an hour to sort through, and when I finished, I decided to make the responsible choice and cut it all off, lest some creatures burrow in it the next week. So, on Saturday, Chung took me to U.S.A. International Academy, a Vietnamese hair salon that has never actually cut a foreigner’s hair before. This was also my first haircut not done by Patti, who has cut my hair pretty much since birth.

I instantly became a celebrity there and the whole two-hour ordeal was also a photoshoot. In the end, I obtained liberation from my mane and a new Facebook friend. Then they had to bring up marriage again.

“The boy who is cutting my hair says that because you are so beautiful, a lot of boys will cry when you get married,” Chung said.

After that, we went directly to a wedding, where, like American weddings, people got a little drunk and, unlike American weddings, really wanted to take pictures with me. One man even introduced himself by saying “I love you.” I swear, if anyone needs a confidence boost or wants to feel like Taylor Swift for a day, just go to a rural area in a developing country and be yourself. That’s all it takes.

So colorful. This was maybe their first kiss ever (???). Go wedding.

So colorful. This was maybe their first kiss ever (???). Go wedding.

The Vietnamese wedding took place over two days, both at homes. On Saturday, people ate and drank and talked. On Sunday, the festivities began at the bride’s house, where the newlyweds allegedly kissed for the first time, and then transitioned to the groom’s house, where the celebration concluded. The only cultural difference that saddened me was the complete lack of dancing (the best part of American weddings).

The very photogenic newlyweds.

The very photogenic newlyweds.

To complete my rhyme scheme, I must talk about a bridge. I have learned that here, when people invite you to their home, it is often a 24-hour ordeal. So, when Bich invited me to her home on Friday, I knew that I would be there Saturday morning, when I would also need to run. She offered to bike alongside me, which elated me because I have been alone on every single run; my spirits only got higher when I awoke Saturday morning to wet ground and a sprinkle in the air. Nothing makes me happier here than rain. I wish it rained every day. We went on to have a marvelous long run on a trail that crossed a bridge. That’s all I have to say about the bridge.

So, I end this week (almost a month in!) unmarried, with shorter hair, and on the same side of the bridge where I began. And with less than 100 pages left until I have finished all six books I brought.

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Week Two in Bac Giang in Four Parts

Bac Giang

This week’s installment arrives in four important, mostly unrelated, parts.

Part I: Teaching

After two weeks in Vietnam, I finally got to start teaching. Beforehand, my occasionally-induced anxiety peaked, but I left my first three-hour class on Monday full of adrenaline, motivation, and inspiration. Schedule-wise, I teach seventh graders on Monday and Thursday, sixth graders on Tuesday and Friday, and eighth graders on Wednesday. People-wise, I teach around 80 or 90 enthusiastic, high-quality students who may or may not understand any words I say. Luckily, I have support and translation abilities from the school’s two English teachers and from my local buddy Chinh.

On Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, class begins at 7 a.m. (on Tuesday and Friday it begins at 8), which means I wake up at 5 a.m. to run (and am still the last one up in my homestay). This also means I go to bed around 8:30 p.m. every night, which would reduce past Monica to tears of laughter and disbelief.

Like the things I love most in life (running, writing, reading), teaching is at once challenging and arduous, yet rewarding and soul-fulfilling. I think I will like my job here.

Part II: Disaster in Do Moi Village

On Thursday, I returned from my run to an abandoned homestay around 6 a.m. and hurried to the bathroom. Somehow, all the fates aligned and when I accidentally tapped the water pipe that connects the toilet to the wall, disaster struck. Water sprayed everywhere; or, water surged directly at me. All attempts to reconnect the pipe failed; so, frantic, I pranced around the property looking for the magic switch that would halt all water flows. When I also failed to locate that magic switch, I texted two of my host relatives, neither of whom speak English, asking for help, and called Chinh. Nobody answered me, but I knew that my ride to school would arrive at 6:30, so I decided to ignore the situation for five minutes and shower (because priorities).

Marginally clean, I then engineered a method to slow the flow using several cloths and some rubber material that I found in the bathroom. A neighbor showed up and I gestured toward the bathroom, but once she saw the problem, she left, either uninterested or gathering backup. Finally, my ride arrived at 6:30 and when I showed her, she cackled and told me to get dressed for school. By the time I returned outside, my host father was home and my ride assured me that everything was fine, so we motorbiked off to class, I still sweaty and wondering how long until the situation would become funny rather than embarrassing.

Part III: Independence Weekend

At the precise minute that my friends and family in Eugene began the Butte to Butte—a run I have done every Independence Day for as long as I can remember—I serenaded Chinh and two of his cousins with an incredible karaoke rendition of Sweet Caroline. Okay, it could have been a different song, but Sweet Caroline seems patriotic. Karaoke is the thing to do here (there are signs for it every block), but my first attempt was the night before, again with Chinh and another cousin. Of course, I had to go back for another round. This time, we all belted My Heart Will Go On in cross-cultural unison. Titanic knows no boundaries.

Saturday in the daylight featured all-day celebration in Chinh’s hometown—I celebrated the fourth of July and everyone else celebrated my visit. We drank beer, ate giant tropical fruits, cheered to homemade alcohol that Chinh claimed was “wine,” and visited another pagoda nestled in the mountains. The next day, I visited my other local buddy, Hang, in Bac Giang City. Two hometowns in the same province, but an observation in the contrast between rural and urban Bac Giang.

In short, for this Independence Day, I did both American and Vietnamese things, but I feel lucky to have spent it here rather than there.

Part IV: Pictures

Karaoke selfie--one of the few socially acceptable selfie types.

Karaoke selfie–one of the few socially acceptable selfie types.

This kid found us so we put my sunglasses on him and took pictures. He's a rockstar.

This kid found us so we put my sunglasses on him and took pictures. He’s a rockstar.

This is what a Vietnamese meal looks like. Note the homemade alcohol to the left of the bia.

This is what a Vietnamese meal looks like. Note the homemade alcohol to the left of the bia.

The crew (minus one) at the pagoda.

The crew (minus one) at the pagoda.

These two matched perfectly (brands and all). All denim everything.

These two matched perfectly (brands and all). All denim everything.

Sometimes it's necessary to stop on the side of the road and pet some cows.

Sometimes it’s necessary to stop on the side of the road and pet some cows.

Typical Vietnam.

Typical Vietnam.

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.