Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Across Time Zones (Sandy)

We agreed to meet our friend at 3 p.m. to go for a walk and take some photos. I got down to the lobby at 2.55 according to my watch, handed my key to Reception, and noted that the clock on the lobby wall said about 2.50.

Our friend was waiting. She asked where Ms. Lee was, and I said it was still a few minutes before 3, according to my watch, and maybe even 8 or 10 minutes before 3, according to the clock in the lobby.

She looked at me. "You measure time in minutes?"


That was one of the most interesting questions I have heard in a while. Certainly she knows that Vietnamese have "rubber time" and that Americans do not. Whether she was exposed to this time-in-minutes concept as a student or she came up with the idea herself doesn't matter.

And when I asked how Vietnamese measure time, she laughed.

Yes, we measure time in minutes. Tick tock. Sands in the hourglass. Fashion today, obsolete tomorrow. New friends become old friends; experience fades into memory. Memory fades -- or becomes more selective. Here today, gone tomorrow. You can't step in the same river -- the Mekong! -- twice. Time and space. Time zones. The wheel goes round and around. The odometer clicks over. 

On time, in time, out of time.

And so it will shortly be time to go home -- to check out, pay the cab driver for the one-way ride to the airport, check in at least 2 hours before the international flight, go through security and more security, and then fly east across at least 10 time zones to almost exactly the other side of the earth (although significantly more northerly). The flight will last over 24 hours but I will land on the same date that I took off from  the other side of the world.

Time flies and has flown again.

Hello. Goodbye.

And hello again.


Time and No Time (Sandy)

If you're not up and functioning by 7 a.m., the locals may think that you are sick. Look out at 5 a.m. and see people going for a walk, playing badminton, doing calisthenics in the street. And then they eat their morning soup (usually it is soup) either at work or on their way to work. Slurping and burping are acceptable.

At 11 a.m., almost religiously, the place roars to a halt for lunch and a nap, waking up again between 1 and 2 to zoom forward until 4 or 5, at which point the motorbike roar starts again: home. But dinner, too, may be away from home, depending on how much time has been spent to stock the larders. And then at night: the young especially go to coffee bars to meet friends and talk and sit with a cafe sua da, a Tiger Beer, a fruity smoothie, or a Coke (but just as noodles in the U.S. do not taste the same as noodles here, so too Coke does not taste the same here as at home). Pennywort juice, watermelon juice, an avocado smoothie. 

Time moves slowly at night.

No rush.

Here you have to ask for the bill; there is no trying to move you out so others can occupy your seat and make the owner more money. Vietnam runs on "rubber time" -- nothing scheduled on the hour starts on the hour. And here it somehow doesn't matter that the clock in the $15-a-night hotel room, most likely battery-run (and batteries here tend not to be terribly sturdy), has said 5:05 since we checked in 9 days ago.

Unlike in the U.S., where we measure time in minutes, Vietnam speaks of time (and everything else) in terms of custom and relationship, redefining the phrase "taking the time". For people, here how they treat time is neither an investment nor a choice; how they treat time is just the way they do things.

Why Vietnam? (Sandy)

Why Vietnam? I am asked from time to time. I don't like heat, crowds or loud noises. Vietnam is roaring hot, crowded, and operates at high volume. (There is no "indoor voice".) The place is also relentlessly social, and I tend not to be so. 

In the fashion of David Letterman, here are my top 10 reasons:

10. The smell of the tropics, from the moment I step off the plane at Tan Son Nhat Airport.

9. The bang for the tourist buck. The hotel I am staying in as I write this is costing maybe $40 a night, and that includes a breakfast buffet. Last week, in a slightly remote area, the hotel was $15 a night, and that included AC, hot water AND a fan.

8. Good place to sit and watch life on the street. (More bang for the buck.) The eye never rests, and I say that having seen a lot here in the past. But the place is changing. This place is movement.

7. Change is in the air. I have been visiting for a number of years, and it is true as far as I am concerned that the country has changed more in the last 10 years than in the previous 100. There are now cell phone towers everywhere, and thus far, on this visit, I have experienced only one 15-second blackout.

6. The food. Healthy, tasty. GREAT baguettes that never sog despite the humidity. Soup, soup, and more soup. Dragonfruit, pomelo, rambutan, watermelon, fresh (and I mean FRESH) sliced pineapple. Rice. The Vietnamese have quite the sweet tooth and so do I.

5. The consistent resourcefulness and practicality, and often self-effacing (but proud, in a way) modesty of the people I know. They can make anything.

4. Tiger Beer and cafe sua da (expresso over ice with sweetened condensed milk), not necessarily in that order.

3. The necessity of being Zen. The place teaches patience; you can't impose yourself on it. You have no choice but to be zen if you want to come here. Try to impose your idea of order on what you see and you will meet with frustration. You ain't in Kansas anymore. Get over your Western, American self and enjoy.

2. The traffic. Even with some traffic lights and one-way streets, there is still nothing like it. It is the ultimate self-organizing system. It is amazing every time I look at it -- every time I have to learn to cross the street again and again. (Google "Global Nomads" and "Ho Chi Minh City" to see what "crossing the street" means here ...)

1. The people I encounter: the gracious, hustling people whose hospitality puts that of other countries to shame. And their great smiles.

Why Vietnam?

Why not?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Presentation Day by Lee

Hello again,
Thursday was my big day of presentations. I had prepared two presentations and had to give them one right after the other starting bright and early at 8:00 AM. When I arrived in Vietnam I thought they were pretty much done. I had my trusty USB port, my mini net book and some lovely color copied handouts, but I was told they were too long. It was my fault. I had forgotten to figure in the time it would take to have everything I said interpreted into Vietnamese.

As you may have noticed I am not very good at being brief. Every day for three days I fussed and worried about what should be left in and what should be taken out. I am a good fusser and worrier. Eventually, after lots of editing, they both felt right and I was ready to rock and roll.

The first presentation was about the health care system in the United States. When I arrived the room was all set up and ready with a big screen, projector, microphone etc. I had a lovely and talented interpreter who made everything feel easy and fun.

The second presentation was about risk factors for breast cancer and how to perform breast self exam (BSE). I had the traditional power point presentations, but I also demonstrated BSE on myself (through clothes) and I brought some props and models. I had a whole bag of big pink cloth breasts with a variety of different types of lumps. The attendees all laughed and giggled and passed them around the room with each one palpating for the lumps. Some had more trouble than others finding the lumps, and they eagerly helped each other.

I also brought two very realistic looking breast models with lumps to be palpated. Each of those breasts had four lumps you could find by palpation and four that were so small they couldn't be found unless you shined a flashlight through them. The point being that you must do BSE every month to catch those small lumps as soon as they are big enough to feel and schedule those mammograms regularly too!

One question at the end of the presentation came as a surprise. Someone asked why I had different color breasts with me. I hadn't given it much thought, but one of the realistic breast models was caucasian and one was black. I paused for a moment to think of the best way to say it and decided to keep things light, answering with a smile that we have different color people in the United States. I hadn't noticed up till then that I wasn't really seeing any minorities. Everyone looks Vietnamese except Sandy and me. I certainly noticed that I was a minority and there was no one else like us, but where are all the other minorities and why aren't they here in Vietnam? Diversity brings new and exciting ideas and perspectives...

There are no photos of the presentation that I can attach at this time--maybe later. My good friend who has been taking pictures with his Ipad is very dignified and would have been too uncomfortable to be amongst us as we passed breasts around the room. This is very different than in the States where a bag of fake breasts would be no biggie, but I respect and understand his feelings completely.

The breast cancer presentation turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things I have done in Vietnam. As the women relaxed and began to laugh and giggle and do silly things with the models, barriers were broken down and I wasn't Lee from the US and they weren't faculty and students from Vietnam--we were just women.

I know that the women had a good time, but I also know they learned. As I demonstrated BSE on myself at the front of the room, I could see many in the room also practicing discretely on themselves. At the end, after all the fun-- many very thoughtful questions were asked. I will never know how much of an impact this will have. Will they teach their sisters, Mom's, and friends how to do BSE? I hope so! Will the teachers in attendance see that there are more ways than just straight lecturing to teach? I hope so! I have thrown a pebble in the ocean. I do not know to what shores the ripples will go... Good night, Lee

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Picture Says A Thousand Words by Lee

Hello Everyone,
it's a bit late here and I have to get up very early in the morning for the long ride back to Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow. I am going to try something different and we'll see how it goes. Now that I have pictures flowing into my email regularly from my good friend Mr. Thong, I'll try to post more pictures and say less.

On Wednesday we had a very full schedule. We visited the Medical College and were given a presentation and tour. The director had an excellent interpreter and answered all my many questions. Here are some pictures from the Medical College.

Presentation by the Director at the Medical College

Group picture after the presentation at the Medical College

Lee visits the computer lab at the Medical College

Sandy, Ms. Tanh & Lee At the Medical College

Lee talks with the interpreter at the Medical College

Lee Meets the doctor who runs the A&P Lab at the Medical College

Lee Meets one of the Nursing Instructors at the Medical College

Big group picture at the Medical College

Next we went to the temple in Rach Gia.

I just LOVE this "dragon bush"

The temple is beautiful!!

Right next to the Temple there was a free clinic that I was so happy to be able to visit.  Volunteers did all the work at the free clinic. Several elderly women were sitting outside chopping and grinding medicinal plants for making the traditional medicines. Inside the clinic additional volunteers mixed the medicinal plant ingredients in the right proportions to make a wide variety of traditional medicine prescriptions.

Volunteers working hard in the hot sun.

Volunteers preparing medicinal plant-based prescriptions.

After the visit to the free clinic we continued on to the Kien Giang Museum to learn a little community history.

Kien Giang Museum Entrance
A very big sea turtle and traditional hats at the museum.

At the end of the day I am enjoying some Sarsi (Vietnamese version of root beer) with friends.

This is the restaurant where I learned to "pop" the hand towels--good fun!!
 Wednesday was a very full day!!!  It ended with a very relaxing dinner with our friends from Kien Giang Community College.  Sandy and I are learning so much and building wonderful friendships!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Sorry I've Been Away! by Lee

Hello Everyone,
so sorry that I haven't been blogging as regularly lately. Things got a little hectic as I began my "working days". On Tuesday June 5th we began touring health care facilities. First we went to Bin An Hospital, which is the western hospital. The director was very hospitable. He spent some time telling us some general information about the facility and then allowed me to ask him many questions. The hospital was very bright and clean and is making good use of modern technology for medical testing. I have many photos to share once I get home.

Next we went to the traditional hospital which was a bit smaller and quite a bit older, but they are doing some construction for some additional space. One of the most fascinating things about the tour of the traditional hospital was when they showed us the room where they "cook the medicine". They have a room full of what looks like clear pressure cookers and you can see the medicinal plants simmering away, and the whole room smells delicious. They seal some of the liquid medicine in little pouches and they bottle some of it too. We were able to see how they do everything start to finish!

Then we went to the pharmacy where the traditional pharmacists were wrapping up the dried plant medications in little paper parcels. They were following a prescription that looked more like a recipe. They would weigh a big handful of one type of dried plant and then put a little onto each of about 8 big pieces of butcher paper. Then do the same for each ingredient. Once all elements of the prescription were piled onto the paper they wrapped it all up and moved on to the next prescription type. I think they boil it all up together like tea, but I'm not sure.

The pharmacists at the traditional hospital gave me a package of some thin pieces of a tree trunk (yes, wood) and told me it was for the next time I got a sore throat. Then they invited me to try a little right then, so I bit a little piece off. It was strangely sweet, and as you might imagine, very chewy and hard! They said several times "like chewing gum", which I think means don't swallow it. Can't say I was even tempted to swallow it  ;-0

After that we visited the orphans in Mong Tho and the "Old People's Home" which is on the same grounds as the orphanage. The orphans and elderly are clean, well fed, and appear well cared for--and cared about. The women providing care were very kind and gentle. The food is simple, but enough. I was very saddened to see so many children who will probably never get the opportunity to be raised in a home with parents of their own--and elderly people who seem to have few family connections or visitors. They are all in it together.

It was a very busy day that ended with "coffee" with our friends from the local community college. Going to a coffee bar in Vietnam does not mean you are going to drink coffee. They serve a wide variety of nonalcoholic drinks. One of my favorites is Pennywort and coconut combined together in a drink that is sort of like a smoothie. It is a terrible shade of dark green and smells strange, but it tastes sort of spearminty and is very good. Goodnight, Lee

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Hotpot Blog #2 (Sandy)

At the Vietcombank ATM, my First Niagara checking account balance was in Vietnamese dong ... and I am Donald Trump, Warren Buffett, and Oprah all in one! (20,000 VNese dong to one dollar.)
Walked out of the $15 a-night hotel, took a left, and saw my laundry drying on the clothesline next to the street.

"Party animal" is not the same as "animal party."

Very bald tires. Very.

KFC in Coop Mart near the school. Yes, KFC.

The "Saigon bread" baguettes that should be sogging in the outdoor sauna buit that never do.

Dragon-shaped topiary at Nguyen Trung Truc temple. Pass the camera.

Kung Fu Panda in 3-D is in town.

Steak and egg breakfast is served sizzling on a cast iron plate in the shape of a cow -- one cow plate per person.

Boyfriend #1 is Mr. AC, and boyfriend #2 is Mr. Hot Water (even in a $15/night hotel).

Rumble strips that everybody ignores.

I still hear the same rooster that has been following me for years, every time I get here.

There may be something to this: know how someone sings karaoke, and you know who they are. Some prefer sad-sounding ballads, and others prefer snazzy finger-popping songs. One person sings with a microphone in one hand and a mug of Tiger beer (complete with chunk of ice in it) in the other. The one thing it has in common: it is all loud. There are no soft, quiet songs in the karaoke repertoire. None! And it happens while people are finishing dinner, so attention need not be paid, really, but there is no way you cannot hear it.

And then: a stop at a coffee shop to hang out for a while around a table for four, to check email and play with the iPad, to get caught up on even more news -- to sit around in a public place with your friends, with people some of whom you wish you knew better -- all while you slide your shoes off and make yourself at home.