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Vietnamese Hospitality

Vietnam has some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen, the culture is rich, and the food is delicious. But the thing I’ll most treasure about Vietnam is the people and the hospitality they have shown to me. Throughout my travels here I have been treated like family at the various hotels I've stayed at. My most recent experience was in Cat Ba Island where I stayed in a family run hotel. From the moment we checked in I was made to feel important and valued. They invited us to eat dinner with more than 15 of their friends and family, serving us what seemed like an endless amount of food and making sure our glasses were always full. After dinner we wanted to head into town, so they let us use their personal motorbike. It was a small gesture, but it really meant so much to me. We had a tour booked the next morning and they made sure to wake us up and serve us a Western breakfast (which is somewhat rare to find in Vietnam). Again, seemingly small gestures but it made us feel valued and important.

This experience has not been uncommon for me here. One of the teachers that we work with at the primary school, Jade, has made us feel incredibly welcome and shown us such kindness. She’s invited us out to coffee and dinner, and even had us over to her sister’s house for lunch; cooked by her mom, her sister, and her sister’s friends. It was a very special afternoon. Overall the hospitality I’ve experienced here has been like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I think this is due to the fact that Vietnamese people really value their family and friendships. I love that. A big part of Vietnamese culture is eating together family style. It’s one of my favourite things about being here and I’m going to miss it a lot.

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I'll be there for you

I post this as I have less than three weeks left in Vietnam.  It has been an incredible journey in which I have learned so much and grown immensly.  Being here has shown me how important the people are in my life back home, and how important it is to have a support system here that you can turn to.  The people here have become incredibly important  me, starting with my roommate Adrian.  We started this journy together when we first decided to move in together while we were in Vietnam.  We traveled and faced many delays as Adrian proceeded to inform me that he is bad luck to travel with, and he was right.  We had flight changes, missed connections, delays, and a security hold up where I thought that I would have to bribe Adrian out of a Vietnam prison.

He has been a huge support system for me while being here.  Since day one whenever he leaves the house or goes anywhere, he always checks to see if I need anything while he is gone.  He cuddles me and plays sad songs when I just need to wallow, he brings me food and snacks, puts up with me when I get into my silly grumpy moods, he even bailed on his whole evening plan one time to go with me to the hospital when I got into a motorbike accident.  He is a star pal.  Get yourslef a friend like Adrian.  It is so integral to my happiness here that I am living with Adrian.  He is someone that I can go out with and have a nice dinner and nice conversation, or we can sit in complete silence for six hours and crush six episodes of The Haunting of Hill House.  He has been my constant companion here and I wouldn't have been able to do this without him  

Its also been important to have sisters, like these girls here.  Sure there has been arguemnts and we have needed time alone, but that is what you get when you live like family here, and thats what we have been doing.  We all came here hardly knowing one another, and we leave with these connections and bonds that will not break.  I wish that we could have gotten to know each other a bit more before we all came here though.  That is one piece advice I would have, for future tabers, is try to get to know some of your peers that will be going with you to your country.  They are going to be the people that you talk to when the culture frustrates you (which it will), you miss home and your poeple (which you will), and when you just want to have a silly night.

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Greater access needed

 

 

 

My weeks have been getting progressively more interesting as I’m learning more about Vietnamese culture, and noticing all the differences between Canada and Vietnam. One large difference that I’ve seen is access for people with disabilities. As I walk around the streets I notice large curbs without areas for wheelchairs to go onto, the streets are busy with vehicles that don’t stop for pedestrians, and small sidewalks full of parked motorbikes which are challenging even for an abled bodied person to navigate around.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The schools we teach in are 3 storey buildings with no elevators or ramps. I’ve also noticed that I don’t actually see physically disabled people around, and there are no students with physical disabilities at the schools we’re at. I find myself wondering where these individuals are. I know that these people are highly valued here as I have had conversations with locals and they speak of disabled people in a very loving way. There is a coffee shop near my apartment that employs blind and deaf people, and I know some shops and museums employ agent orange victims, and proceeds of bracelets or other items that kids have made go to support these people. I know that persons with disabilities are cared for, respected and appreciated so I’m assuming there is a lack of access because it would be too expensive to add additional infrastructure to the already existing buildings in this developing country. I have a lot more questions about these things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m really curious as to what uniquely abled people here do in order to navigate these spaces. It’s possible that they have specific schools for physically disabled students, but the fact remains that the sidewalks and streets would be next to impossible to go down. I hope to learn more about how persons with disabilities are supported through these environments, and also have the opportunity to meet some students with disabilities and ask them firsthand how they find traversing through streets and buildings with limited access.

 

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Tradition and family stays

I have just a few more weeks left here, and I have become quite accustom to the lifestyle here.  I have my routine in the mornings that involves coffee and sometimes reading my book on the beach, routines that differ from my more faced paced life back home in Calgary.  We have started a joke amoung us that everything hereis on "Vietnam time", because unlike home, everything happens when it happens here.  People don't seem to rush, which I love, I love doing everything at liesure and not rushing through my day.  While living my life here, I have met so many of the local people, including our liason at the primary school whose name is Jade and whose daughter we teacher.  From my interactions with Jade and her daughter, I have learned so many things about Vietnam and the way of life here.  

 

This past Sunday we had the pleasure of being invited into the home of Jade's sister to have lunch with her and her friends.  It was a pleasure to be invited into their home and see how these strong women interact and live together.  I noticed such a wonderful sense of family, with three generations of women living together under one roof, it shows just how important family is here in Vietnam.  They made us feel so welcome and apart of the family, I felt so humbled to be a part of it.  

Not onyl have I noticed a sense of family here, but I have also seen that their is a sense of tradition and simple living.  Though there is tourism and gentrification that is going on in every city that I visit, there is a relentless sense of culture and tradition that lingers amoungst the rise of modern living.  I have never seen this commitment to the simple way of things as I have in Vietnam and I find it truly beautiful.  Above is a photo of an older woman in a traidtional bamboo fishing boat on her way to hunt for soft shelled crabs.  Although Vietnam is not untouched by the modern world, its people truly believe in family and the traditions of their culture, and I am so happy that I have had this opportunity to emerse myself and learn from this way of life.

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Pedagogic Shock

It’s hard to comprehend that we’ve already been here for almost a month! Teaching and life in Da Nang has definitely taken some getting used to; however, I finally feel like I can call this place home, for now. I love exploring new parts of the city, spending time at the beach, finding new coffee shops to read in, and getting on my motorbike every day to fight the chaotic traffic. I’m not sure if you could say it is routine, but it has some semblance of home and belonging. We have made great friends with our Elementary School teacher liaison, Jade. I find myself looking up to her as she has told us about many hardships in her life; and how she manages to work 7 days a week, but still find time to take us out for dinner I will never know.

The kindness of the people here is incredible, and many are excited to see us around town in our traditional Ao Dai as all teachers and other officials here wear. I don’t think I have had any culture shock since I have been here, in terms of daily life; although, I honestly cannot get over the shock of the culture and practice of education here.

The school system here has its challenges; underfunded, high class sizes (around 45 kids in some classrooms), lack of access to diverse material and technology. However, the kids are so excited. They have so much energy and yet hang on the teachers every word, even when we are teaching. They are also much more engaged and enthusiastic about learning than many students I have met in Canada. Then it is surprising how standardized the pedagogy is here. Although we have been taught differently, the standardized manner of teaching works well in the cultural emphasis on discipline and orderliness.

 

I have never felt more grateful for the way we practice education at home than seeing the way it is done here. I was surprised with the differences between Canadian and Vietnamese education which is usually centralized around a single textbook from which the teachers teach, and the students memorize. There is seemingly less creative thinking, there are few projects, and there are seemingly few authentic learning experiences for these students. I can see them being bored as they are drilled again and again the same pattern of lecture; read and response, repeat after me, chant, practice the sentence with a partner, and repeat more. Yet, as I say they are so thrilled to even be in a classroom (most days) as their parents have likely worked so hard to put them there, and not everyone gets to go to school. I think they are grateful to be taught what they are, but it is often disheartening to see such great children’s minds in places that don’t seem to offer the option for differentiated learning. Of course, it is not all negative; the students still learn, and the teachers still enjoy teaching. But I cannot help to think of the amazing creative and inspiring projects and units I have seen in classrooms back home; I cannot help to wish these kids could have a little more fun learning.

My students at the primary school are amazing and bright, I love seeing them proud of their learning and showing the class their skills. Although I cannot teach in the way I would like here I am still loving being in the classrooms with the kids and spending time learning about teaching practices different from my own.

 

 

My students at the primary school are amazing and bright, I love seeing them proud of their learning and showing the class their skills. Although I cannot teach in the way I would like here I am still loving being in the classrooms with the kids and spending time understanding what I value about my own teaching practice.

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Teacher equals celebrity status

As I have settled in to teaching part time at the Primary school in Da Nang, Vietnam, some starlting differences between the student here and the ones in North America come to my attention.  My students sing me a song when I leave the classroom, they copy every hand gesture and movement that I make, they scream my name and wave franticly when they see me walk by, and they shove paper in my face and ask me to sign autographs.  It is a bizarre role to be in.  I am genuinly baffled by the excitment and the enthusiasim with which my students approach me in.  It is incredible and humbling to see how excited the students are to come to school and to be given the opportunity to learn. 

Julie and I have been partner teaching, which in itself is such a wonderful learning experience for me.  I feel more comfortable having her there with me and I know that she always has my back and that we are there to support each other.  We are mostly teaching a grade five classes, which have been so rewarding.  Our students become so excited when they see us walk into the classroom and are so eager to answer our questions and participate in the lessons.  It is amazing how grateful and appreciative the students are for the opportunity to have an education, and is such a stark juxtaposition to how I find some kids in North America react.  It really makes me realize how truly lucky we are to be living in Canada and to be given the opportunities that we have been given, though it saddens me to realize that it can also make us complacent and ungrateful for what we have been given.  Living here this past month has really given me the time to look at my own privelage and allow for self reflection and introspection, and humbles me truly to be in the position that I am in.  I am so lucky to be able to come here to teach these wonderful students and in turn learn more about myslef and this world that we live in.

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Teaching in Da Nang

After giving myself some personal time to get acquainted with Da Nang, It’s time to finally step into the classroom. Here are my initial notes, impressions and other miscellaneous thoughts over the past few days.

English class for both Primary and Secondary schools is devoted to covering a section of a mandatory English workbook. The workbook covers components of a language: grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc. Games/activities and songs are implemented to make the learning process more enjoyable. Many of the games are competition-based to up the ante and excitement! When answering a question, students are expected to stand up give their response.

Primary School

The classrooms are jam-packed. For each class, there is an average of 35-45 students. Like back home in Canada, primary school students respond well to high energy. If you are enthusiastic about the lesson, the students will be as well! Also, the primary school happens to be located in close proximity to the airport, which means that every 10-15 minutes your eardrums are greeted by the monstrous sound of commercial planes taking off a few kilometers away.

Secondary School

The secondary school is much better equipped than I had anticipated. The teacher owns a laptop with digital copy of the English Learning workbook the students have, which is connected to a flat-screen TV, allowing students in the class to easily follow along. The school is located in a richer area of the city, which would explain the funding of these resources.

 

Overall, the students are so energetic and the staff are incredibly welcoming. Last week the girls and I got invited by our liaison at the primary school to come to the school’s Mid-Autumn festival. There, we examined decorative food displays, story-telling, and several themed dances, including lion dancing!

 

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September 9 - First week of TAB in Vietnam

This week we got to meet with the representatives from the University of Da Nang who set up the exchange for us, as well as the teachers from the primary and secondary schools. We have already attended some classes from the primary school, and we will attend some at the secondary school next week. 

Classes here start at 7am, which is a bit too early for my liking, but waking up early and going to bed early is easy here, because the sun rises by 6am and sets soon after 6pm. All students wear uniforms with little red ties. Early in the morning the all get together and do group chanting and some warms ups before moving to their classrooms. In the primary school, the students stay in the same classroom, while the teachers move class to class. Each class has 40-50 students in it, and they spend all of their time sitting at desks with the teacher talking in front of the class. Teachers have to be very engaging and entertaining, because there isn’t very much time given to independent or group work. While this is vastly different from Canadian schools, it is actually pretty much exactly the same as schools were in Russia when I was growing up. Nowadays, Russian students do not wear uniforms, but the rest of the rituals of school life are extremely similar. 

The opening ceremony we attended at the primary school this week was also very much like the first day of school in Russia. Both countries have the uniforms, the singing of songs, the welcoming of first graders! At the end of the ceremony they even played a classic Russian school song with the lyrics translated into Vietnamese. Fighter jets were loudly flying through the sky every 5-10 minutes for several hours in honour of the first day of school. I was very moved by how much students respected school, and acknowledged its importance. It seems that in Canada many students have the attitude of being forced to go to school, whereas in Vietnam, even students who misbehave seem to be doing it with an attitude of simply wanting to goof around, rather than one of wanting to be anywhere but school. The students were also all very excited to see us, and kept on swarming and saying “HELLO TEACHER!” very loudly, telling us their names, and asking how we were feeling. I am convinced that I have peaked in popularity. Never in my life will I be as famous again!

After the ceremony, Jade the primary school English teacher took us to the fabric store and tailor to get our áo dài orders in. The áo dài is a traditional garment worn by women, especially teachers. Once they are made, this is what we will be wearing to school! I am looking forward to seeing lessons at the secondary school next week!

In non-school news, we explored the super busy streets of Da Nang, went to the big supermarket, drove to the water park in the mountains, spent time at the beach, and found local eats. I have an acute sensitivity to MSG which I fully forgot about before coming here (and spending many an hour crying about stomach pains in my first few days in SE Asia) because MSG is not commonly used in Canada, so I cannot eat any street food, and almost no local cuisine. Having grown up in Russia eating almost exclusively dairy and root vegetables with salt and horseradish, my palate is also very spice-averse. Basically, I have been surviving off of Italian restaurants and a cute French place that makes crepes. 

 

Kids reading while their parents shop in the book section of the Big C supermarket.

The library at the University. I LOVE LIBRARIES.

The band at the opening ceremonies on the first day of school.

Living eidence that after 5 years of going to the ceremony, it really does get boting.

The cloth shop

Us picking out materials for our ao dais

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Today we have arrived in Da Nang after spending the past week travelling through Cambodia. I am excited to meet with the representatives of the Da Nang University as well as the two schools we will be spending time in this week to find out about our placements. We have only been here for several hours, and already we are seeing a big difference between Thailand and Cambodia, which were very tourist-centred countries, and Vietnam, which is not so. In Thailand and Cambodia many more people would approach us on the streets asking where we were from and if we wanted a taxi, a tuk-tuk, or to buy something. In Vietnam, we are not approached nearly as much, and we can wave away unwanted sales with much more ease. 

The week we spent in Cambodia was beautiful and very culturally rich. We spent several days in Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat. I highly recommend bringing books about the region to all travellers that go anywhere in the world! In our first day of being in Cambodia I read “First they Killed My Father”, the story of a Pol Pot regime survivor, and I purchased a history of Angkor Wat. Here are some fun things I learned about Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples: Angkor Thom was the largest known settlement complex of the pre-industrial era. The construction of Bayon, one of the temples in Angkor Thom heralded the rise of Mahayana Buddhism as the state religion of the Khmer Empire. Most of the temples were designed to look grander through proportional reduction architecture - stairs narrow towards the top, carvings reduce in scale. Interestingly enough, the stairs in our hotel are build the same way, with the height of each stair decreasing 1/3 between floors.

While in Siem Reap, we fell in love with Phare, the Cambodian circus! It was intimate, lively, incredibly authentic, and a very wonderful experience. This circus is part of a performing arts school that provides free education for youth from tough life situations. Every year they provide free education to 1,200 youth and graduate 150 professional artists! All the music is live and the performers are so genuinely excited to perform! The shows the circus puts on often discuss challenging topics, such as bullying, alienation, and self-discovery, but they also have very funny shows, and we got to see one of each. The funny show we saw was called Same Same but Different, a phrase commonly used in Thailand and Cambodia to describe the similarities and differences between the culture of locals and that of tourists. I have fully adopted this phrase, and have even purchased a shirt with the saying. It is very useful when comparing cultures in conversation.

We also checked out the Le Chantiers Écoles, a part of the same organization as the Phare circus, which provides students from impoverished villages free education and career opportunities in the arts. All of the artists are trained in more than one craft, and their talent is incredible! We got to tour the workshops and see wood carving of statues out of wood and stone and silk paintings, each of which takes 3-4 weeks to complete. We also saw some metalworking, pottery making, and jewelry making. The school even has a silk farm and artists who weave, dye, and paint on the silk.

Before moving on to Vietnam, we spent several days in Phnom Penh, where we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields to learn about perhaps the most grim period in Cambodian history. Tuol Sleng was a former school where innocents were brutally and systematically tortured, and the killing fields saw tens of thousands of innocents buried in mass graves. One out of every four Cambodians lost their lives during Pol Pot’s regime (approximately 2 out of 8 million citizens). The book “First they killed my father” along with internet research helped me  repare for this visit, so it was not quite as shocking as it would have been while listening to the audio guides on both tours. As the guide said, we now share the responsibility of passing on these stories, so that humanity never forgets the horrors that occurred here. We remember so that it does not happen again.

As a soon-to-be-teacher, I felt a lot of respect for the Cambodian people when I learned that all high school students learn about the Pol Pot regime and the genocide. Many classes from around Cambodia are provided with scholarships to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing fields. I feel that in Canada, we learned about wars, Japanese camps, and residential schools that are part of our history, but we are very distanced from it. Students do not get to experience these locations first hand, and the flexibility of teaching the content means that not all students have a teacher that truly emphasized the importance of knowing about such things. In Canada, I struggle with the notion that we are asked to teach about unjust actions of the past, but the culture of schools and of Canada in general always tends to coat everything in a layer of protective padding because of potential “triggers” and the tendency towards conflict avoidance. I find that we are also quite polarized in terms of our approach to many issues - either we refrain from holding anyone accountable, or we point our finger of blame and assign sole and full responsibility. The attitude of the guide at the museums and the history books when it came to the Cambodian genocide was admirable - atrocities happened, and they were terrible, but they are in the past and we cannot change anything now, so let’s work to make sure they are not forgotten, so that this does not happen again. They are not bitter, they are not vengeful, they are not angry. I am sure that they have such moments, but this is not their root emotion when they talk or teach about it. I think this philosophy of letting go of the past and living well in the present definitely stems from the Buddhist religion prominent here. Coming from Canada, where a lot of issues are always hot-topic and get people on all sides of all debates get very angry and intense, I really appreciate the calm, rational, and constructive mentality of the Cambodians.

View from our hotel in Siem Reap.

Phare, Cambodian Circus.
Angkor Wat.

Artisans of Angkor silk painting workshop

Silk worm coccoons being unwoven

Artist polishing stone carving with water

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

 

 

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Today my partner and I arrived in Cambodia after spending a week traveling through Thailand. I am not yet thinking about my teaching practicum, partly because we do not know too much about the schools we will be attending, and partly because I still have a week of travelling to do in Cambodia. Overall, the culture I have experienced in SE Asia is has not seemed strange or too drastically shocking in any way. I think that being an immigrant and working closely with multicultural ethnic groups in my regular day-to-day makes travelling gives me no more of a foreign-land feeling than when I come back to Canada. The biggest difficulty so far has been not being able to speak or read the language. My basic knowledge of french and spanish has always helped me in the past, or I have been able to decipher Eastern-European languages because they are so similar to Russian, my mother-tongue. Thai script is not one I know, and the language sounds very different from the ones I’m used to. Thankfully, many people can understand some English.

Here is an overview of our trip through Thailand, and the things I have noticed. Our first stop was Bangkok where we stayed the street over from Khaosan - the party street! Because we were so jet lagged, we took a very very long nap, and it was amazing! People were still hanging out on the streets and at restaurants until 4am, which made me feel like home. I am originally from Russia, and have spent a lot of time in Moscow - the city that never sleeps. I find that I often get “culturally” lonely in Calgary because people don’t just sit out on the streets to talk and eat, there aren’t too many cultural attraction to walk to and from, and there aren’t any boulevards to go wandering at night. Bangkok satisfied my big-city itch! Something else I noticed right away - there are SO many plants growing around everywhere in SE Asia. Pots of them on every corner and along every street. People are very friendly, street food is plentiful.

The most exciting park of Bangkok were the temples. We visited the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and Wat Phra. They were only a 20 minute walk from our hotel, but so ridiculously hot! Men and women have to have their shoulders and knees covered when going into the temple, so I wore a long dress and Nathan brought some pants along in the back pack. Crossing the streets in big cities here is also very exciting! I was somewhat disappointed that there were crosswalk lights most of the way to the palace. The most fun I’ve had so far was crossing a many-laned street of traffic very slowly (as my guidebook told me) to give all the drivers time to avoid driving into us. On one of the days we spent exploring Bangkok we found a GIANT flower market, which was this huge network of warehouse-like buildings on one street full of hundreds of stalls of people delivering flowers, drying them, or making the into buddhist garlands. The smell was incredible.

After Bangkok, we made our way to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. Here, we went on a full day visit through the jungle and to a Karen hill tribe village to see their handicrafts, rice fields, and way of life. On the way we stopped by some waterfalls. It was like a scene out of King Kong! At the end of the tour we visited the highest spot in Thailand, which was on a forested hill-mountain, so we were in a jungle with no view (super underwhelming). On our last day in Chiang Mai, we made our way to another Karen hill tribe to visit some elephants! The animals were lovely, and the people were even more so! The clothes we got to wear were traditional Thai pants and Karen tribe shirts lent to us! After our tour we were fed rice and veggies wrapped in banana leaves. At the end of our elephant visit our guide sang us a thank you song and extended and invitation to come live with the Karen tribe and their elephants. He told us that a serious busy life is no good, and that in the village they say “take it easy”. I think that is is particularly interesting that the traditional way of life practiced by the tribes is not seen as too different or separate from that of Thai people living in villages and cities. I think this is because there is not a big of a gap in lifestyle and pastimes between tribe and city people as there is in Canada. On to Cambodia!

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Differences in the North and South

I have been in Vietnam for almost 3 weeks, but I am just starting to settle into my day to day life in Da Nang. I started my journey in Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, exploring it for a few days before flying south to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), the former capital of South Vietnam prior to the reunification of the North and South in 1976. The difference between the two cities was incredibly striking to me. From the layout of the city and its streets, to the people that inhabited them.

 

While I enjoyed both cities it was very clear that Saigon was more welcoming to tourists, from the service I received in restaurants and taxis, to the interactions I had with people in the streets. Saigon appears to have more money being put into it as it is the commercial and financial hub of Vietnam. It is vibrant, very modern and felt like a thriving city full of life and exciting things to come.

 

 

Hanoi was an incredible city to experience as it felt older and somehow more “authentically” Vietnamese. I think Hanoi is exactly what I pictured when hearing everyone’s stories before coming to Vietnam. The streets were absolutely chaotic with motorbikes everywhere, including driving down the wrong way of traffic and on sidewalks. I loved crossing the streets, having to walk out into oncoming traffic and watch the vehicles effortlessly move around me. The food was also a fantastic experience. Everywhere I went I would walk in, point at what I wanted, and food was delivered to me within a minute or two. It was incredible that no verbal communication was required, and that they did that with every customer that came in. I never felt unwelcome anywhere I went, but I definitely felt out of place and sometimes a burden to the people that I interacted with.

 

While the country is united again there are definite distinctions between the North and South which I mainly experienced through hospitality in the two cities. My tour guides in the South also seemed to be more willing to discuss the war and explain how the war effected and continues to influence daily living in Vietnam. However, that might have been because of the tour guides’ knowledge and not an actual reflection of the views on the war of the North and South. I hope to be able to return to both cities to explore them further and learn more about the people and the culture! Such a great way to start my Vietnam adventure.  

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Settling into Da Nang

It’s crazy to think that this journey started almost exactly a year ago, when fellow Teaching Across Borders student David Kang shared his plans to go to China during the Fall 2018 semester, and encouraged me to look into it myself.

Although I knew that TAB would be a wonderful experience, I put little consideration into actually applying. Little by little, those dismissive thoughts turned into action, cumulating into writing this blog post from a cozy little café in Da Nang, Vietnam.

I applied for the Teaching Across Borders program in my lifelong pursuit of growth and self-discovery. I selected Vietnam specifically for the volume of teaching this placement provided, although the delicious, cheap food and pristine beaches helped. Sixteen days into my time here in Vietnam, I still have yet to teach a single lesson. Despite this fact, I’ve grown in other areas. 

Most notably, I have taken strides in overcoming my fear of water. Thanks to the encouragement of some lovely ladies and one gentleman (and the added insurance of two floatation devices) I was able to experience snorkeling for the first time!

 With these eight remaining weeks I have here in Vietnam, I hope to continue to grow as a person and teacher, while I continue to push myself past my comfort-zone.

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Vietnam: the chaotic beauty

I am writing in the kitchen of my apartment here in Da Nang, Vietnam. I arrived in the city a few days ago; after 2 weeks of travelling the country from South to North by motorbike. My butt is sore (from riding for so long on broken roads), but my heart is full of memorable experiences and spectacular sights. This blog will focus on the resilience of the Vietnamese people I have met, witnessed, and experienced.

 

The first day after arriving in Ho Chi Minh city I visited the War Memorial Museum at the heart of the city. The most amazing thing I had found through all the horror of the stories from the war, and pictures of the suffering & atrocities, was the positivity of the nation. Every person we spoke to had nothing but bright stories to tell, and forgiveness for those involved in the war in even the worst of ways. The museum had many sections on remembering the awful parts but also sections on how the people persist and how the future is brighter and stronger than ever. Everywhere you see people working hard and doing their best in an economy that is less than perfect. When speaking with the people I asked, when appropriate, how they view tourists (specifically Americans) and they reply with smiles, understanding, and welcome. The people have suffered the effects from the war and centuries of colonialism; but now are simply happy to be making their way in this world in relative freedom and pursuit of happiness.

 

There are many people still affected by the consequence of a war that ended almost 50 years ago, the land mines and bombs still scattered throughout the country are numerous and the people who were and are affected by the aftermaths of Agent Orange are certainly present. However, every person I had the chance to speak with was kind, courteous, and welcoming to a person who is clearly foreign. I feel comfortable in this chaotic and beautiful country in a way I did not expect. I am excited to meet many more people, form relationships and understand the culture that I would describe as industrious, fiercely positive, and persistently hospitable.

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Settling in

My nameis Holly Ardern, I am a second year student in the after degree teaching program with a specialization in secondary fine arts.  I have been in Da Nang, Vietnam for over two weeks now, giving myself a chance to shed my western lifestyle for my new eastern one.  During our first full day in Da Nang, once the goal of eating a rather large meal was out of the way, my main goal was to go to the sea.  It is so healing to be by the ocean and to have the beach so close to where I am living.  I think this is making my adjustment a little easier, with homesickness and being away from all of my loved ones.

As well as spending most of my afternoons by the sea, Simona and I, one of the other girls who is here for TAB as well, have been exploring and getting to know our new city.  It started off slow with the two of us just roaming where we could walk, until we decided to aquire motorbikes which then solidified our independence.  Having driven our bikes a few times through the city, Simona and I started to gain a bit of confidence and thought that we could take the bike up to the giant Lady Buddha, and the temples in the mountains near us.

With the ride up to the temple being pretty uneventful, this grew our confidence and we tried to take the bike up to monkey mountain, not the best idea.  Half way up the mountain we both started to get a bit freaked out at how steep the road was getting, that we ended up freaking out a bit and having to turn around and ease ourselves down the mountain.  It was quite comical to watch im sure, but a good learning lesson for us.  Despite my growing confidence, I still have so much to learn.  

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Now that it's over...

Having been home for a little bit now, I am beginning to experience many different feelings in regards to our experience in Vietnam. One of my fears was that I would revert back to my old ways when I come back to Canada, and so far I have noticed this concern's relevance. It is easy here - where we have all our needs met - to get wrapped up in things that in Vietnam seemed incredibly trivial. For example, the concept of "public image" is different. In Vietnam, I was looked up to by many. Whether this be due to mislead views of white people, or just an appreciation of foreigners, I found it incredibly shocking that we were such objects of awe in Eastern Asia. It makes me sad, because when back in Canada I interpret most attention or interactions as negative ones, most likely judging the sad state I feel I am in, or trying to tell me how I should better myself for next time. But in Vietnam, this never happened. No one made me feel bad for being myself, and no one made me feel judged - and on the rare occasions where I was judged, I welcomed it with open arms, which usually resulted in some sort of bonding between myself and those who were questioning my actions! Most moments where judgement was occurring towards us, it was delivered with a naive honesty that was based on a concern or compassion of something. Our new found friends were not racist towards our diverse group because they are bad people, but because they didn't know it is considered rude to act that way.

Now do not get me wrong, racism is awful and we should actively work to prevent it. However I realized how sensitive we have become in Canada. We are so scared of offending people in North America now, that everything we say must be filtered. I think this brings up an important notion, because if we are filtering all we say, are we able to be truly honest? Now I do not want people to confuse honesty with cruelty, rudeness. etc. Being honest can be done in a caring way that is evident of the compassion that backs it up. I think a lot of my anxieties are because of all the filtering I am aware is needed before I speak or do anything! Without these concerns in Vietnam I felt I could be more myself. I felt I could express myself genuinely because I knew these people came from a caring place. I don't always feel that back home, but I hope I can continue to feel this way here in Canada. In Vietnam, no one wanted to hurt us. I guarantee our ethnic background had something to do with this, but it also reminded me that this is an option in regards to how we lives our lives. It makes me wonder if Vietnam will grow to become more like Canada's culture as the country develops. Will Asian countries remain collectivist or drift towards the individualist nature of North America? 

I learned a lot about myself on this trip. Ultimately this experience taught me the benefit of taking risks. The missed opportunities that go by when you live in your own little bubble, letting strangers pass you by with regard only for what is on your to do list for that day. We are so wrapped up in our own lives that many of us forget that life isn't anything without having a passion for life itself, for the people, for the world. I have been helped and accommodated so much here, arguably more than I would have been back home. Experiences make life worth living. You might have to do things that feel uncomfortable to get these experiences, but it will not be something you regret. Go with the flow, and don't be hard on yourself when things don't go as planned. There isn't enough love in this world, so let's decide to embody it and enjoy the life we have.

tạm biệt - hẹn gặp lại!

(in English: Goodbye, see you again! )

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Final Reflections!

I can’t believe I’ve been home for 5 days now! It’s definitely been bittersweet, I was incredibly excited to see my family and friends, however, I can’t stop talking about my experiences in Vietnam. From teaching the adorable elementary students to creating bonds with the high school students to the authentic Vietnamese lunches and dinners we’ve had the honour of being invited to. To exploring places such as Ba Na Hills, Marble mountain, Hai Van Pass, Son Tra mountain, etc.

I absolutely miss everything about Vietnam! When we weren’t in the classrooms or working on course work, we would take advantage of the beautiful beaches or opportunity to explore the different areas around Danang! I remember scouting out different restaurants depending on what we were in the mood for that day! I’m going to miss waking up in the morning knowing that everyday would be a new adventure full of confusion and excitement! We would embrace the confusion and take in the excitement that every single day had to offer.

Throughout my stay in Vietnam I have gained a lot of experience, which I believe will help me during my practicum here in Calgary. Although nervous, I am excited to start teaching and applying everything that I learned in Vietnam to my grade 2/3 practicum class!

I am incredibly sad to have left Vietnam but I am very excited to soon return to such an incredible place full of memories and long lasting friendships!

Ps. The jetlag is unreal!

tạm biệt - hẹn gặp lại!

(Good Bye - See you again!)

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Before my adventure ends...

As our time here is coming to and end, the list of things I am grateful for has become larger than expected! I am grateful that Sunaira stayed in a homestay, because we got to experience a family cooked meal to celebrate National women's day here. It was a very interesting time, with lots of rice wine and very good Vietnamese food! We have tried so many new things here, I cannot begin to imagine how it will feel to be back at home. We literally remember thinking about how much time we have to do so many things, but here we are now hearing the end and I feel panicky, as if I can't possibly do everything I want to before we leave. It is a shocking feeling that I didn't expect. Of course I am eager to go home now, but a big part of me wants to stay here!
Today I almost drowned trying to surf. But with some tips from the locals I was successful a handful of times at least! I am constantly shocked at how accommodating and welcoming the people here are. It makes me think that if I saw someone in Canada struggling, would I be willing to throw my own day away to lend a helping hand?
We have been treated so well here. Some of the best experiences I have had here were thanks to people that we connected to by visiting local restaurants. My favourite Pho place ( pronounced 'fa' despite how most Canadians say it!) was somewhere I frequented quite often. I got to know the owner who speaks English only minimally, but enough to become someone I would call a friend. He recently invited my friends and I to his home, where we got to experience a very authentic seafood meal. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget. His family treated us like we were their own, and my last day with Phuong at the restaurant was full of brimming tears. I have added him on Facebook, and hope to maintain a relationship in the future.
The last few weeks have been full of everyone saying how much they will miss us, even students we did not get to teach! It humbles you to know how highly these people see you, when we are only just pre-service teachers hoping to help. My decision here was a bold one, as I was incredibly nervous about my abilities to adapt to a different culture and be able to prosper. But the people here, the learning experiences we have gone through, will change my life for the better. I am looking forward to practicum more than I had before, as I feel more strongly about my ability to adapt and be creative. I hope that I am able to carry this back with me to Canada. I am nervous still, but it has turned from an anxiety ridden nervous, to an excited anticipation, which is an important distinction in a life where I have struggled to see the positives out of past challenges. 
I finally know how to speak a few things in Vietnamese, and am devastated that we are leaving just as I feel comfortable here. It is a strange feeling, but one that I will treasure. In the last week we have gotten to celebrate Halloween with both the high school and primary school students, and it was amazing to see the joy they got in celebrating something that isn't even a typical holiday on this side of the world. Sometimes it made me sad however, as I feel they have many relevant celebrations of their own culture, that I think Canada would benefit in from sharing. For example, we learned on November 25th (my birthday!) it is National Teacher's Day in Vietnam. We were told that typically there is no teaching done on this day, as it is devoted to the students celebrating and doing things for the teachers who guide them. This country also celebrated National women's Day, while in Canada we just have the one International Women's Day, which is hardly celebrated as much as it was here! In Canada I fear we are forgetting many values, like gratitude, appreciation, and an overall sense of love. Their lives here are busy like ours, but filled with different concerns, and thus different ways to obtain and see joyful moments. 
I am feeling such bittersweet emotions at the thought of leaving. I will miss my friends here, but I will not forget how they have influenced my life. We were lucky enough to be able to go see a beautiful Buddha statue prior to it's closing (as Donald Trump is staying at the Intercontinental and it is now currently closed down to all public and even the Vietnamese people that worked there!). It was a wonderful way to wrap up our time here in Vietnam, reminding us of the appreciation these people have for their beliefs, their land, and their people. 
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Back home

I have been back in Calgary for two days now and have spent some time reflecting on my time in Vietnam and the things that have left the biggest impressions on me.  

In these first few days I realized once again how different life is between Canada and Vietnam. One of the first things I noticed once I was back home was the amount of structure and order our lives have in Canada. Everything - the traffic, the streets and houses, even they way people dress - is so incredibly orderly. It almost seems overdone to me now. I noticed I am suddenly more concerned with how I look when I leave the house. I am more self-conscious because I somehow feel it matters more and that people here will judge me. At the same time, this seems paradoxical since what struck me the most about Canada so far is how 'impersonal' my surroundings feel now. Nobody here cares when I walk down the street, whereas in Vietnam I always drew attention and everyone was excited to talk to me. Some people even insisted on taking pictures with me. Even among the locals, there seemed to be more of a connection between the people in Vietnam. The feeling is hard to explain. While I appreciate the privacy and anonymity I have here in Canada, it does feel odd. As a whole, it seems everyone here is operating inside a personal bubble, inside their own private world, even when outside in public. I too feel like I am disconnected and removed from the people around me. I almost feel a bit lonely. It is fascinating to me how different the experiences can be from one place to the next.

My practicum placement here in Canada will start in only a few days and I am curious to see how it will compare to my time in the classrooms in Vietnam. I wonder what new differences I will notice once I am back in a Canadian school. The classroom is where I think my time in Vietnam has affected me the most. Teaching in Vietnam, and living there in general, has been an unpredictable roller coaster and I have constantly been thrown into unexpected situations. This has helped me learn to relax, to not be as stressed as I used to be, and to simply go with the flow. I really hope that I can hang on to this newfound confidence and calm in the future. I have also been forced to work without many of the basic resources that we tend to take for granted here in Canada such as books, space to work in groups, or any sort of technology. I am now much more aware and appreciative of the resources we have here and I hope that I will be more mindful of how I use them to improve my teaching going forward. Most importantly, as mentioned in previous posts, Vietnam has helped me to truly understand the importance of building genuine relationships with my students.

As I think back on my time in Vietnam, I am incredibly thankful that I got to be a part of the Teaching Across Borders Program. This experience has had a significant impact on who I am as a teacher and has helped me grow as a person as well. Vietnam has been amazing!!

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Canada, home sweet home!

It's good to be home,

As I write this it is 5:30 am and minus 15 degrees in Calgary. I arrived home from Vietnam 3 days ago, thankful to have just barely flown out before a Typhoon hit the area. It’s bittersweet to be home. First of all, it’s freezing! I’ve barely worn socks in the past 5 months let alone winter wear. Secondly, I almost had a heart attack grocery shopping in this country again, I can see why people go to South East Asia and never leave. But overall, I am relieved and happy to be home. My first stop on the way home from the airport was Tim Horton's. I sent a picture of my coffee and a picture of the roads covered in snow to my new friends in Vietnam (two Canadian staples: timmies and snowy road conditions). I've been periodically checking updates on the typhoon that hit Vietnam shorty after I left. I was saddened to learn that it caused flooding in Hoi An, a magical town only 40 minutes from where we were staying. Hoi An is a touristy area that left a lasting impression on us. We returned multiple times to enjoy the shops, lanterns and relaxing atmosphere. It is disheartening to think of the damage caused by the flood.

            Being home still doesn’t feel completely real so I haven’t really begun to deeply reflect on the entire experience. I am still trying to catch my bearings in this winter situation. In Vietnam we joked about all the things that would feel weird about being back in Canada, such as the open spaces, the silence and using crosswalks. I haven’t really noticed that anything about Canadian culture feels weird though. It feels as though I never left (apart from the weather and the atrocious price of food). But I suppose that is because Canada is home, it will always feel just right.

As happy as I am to be back in Calgary, I am sad about leaving Vietnam. We met so many wonderful people who helped us along our journey. It’s funny how just as we are getting used to the culture we have to leave. I am so grateful for this trip. I think it's still too soon to fully grasp exactly how valuable this experience has been but I know It will be something that I look back on often.

 Since returning home, I have been thinking a lot about practicum and to be honest I am a little nervous. I had finally gotten used to teaching in Vietnamese schools and now it’s time to teach in Calgary again. The schools we taught at in DaNang were very standardized and simple. Teaching entailed a lot of lecturing and textbook reading, something I find very different from teaching in Calgary. It will also be very different and refreshing to have access to technology in the classroom again. Something that I really missed in Vietnam. 

I can't wait to see how this experience has affected my confidence and creativity as a teacher. I'm hoping I get the chance to share some of my photos and stories with my grade 2/3 practicum class, because it's really all I want to talk about right now. 

cảm ơn và tạm biệt!! 

(Thank you and Goodbye) 

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Tạm biệt!

It is hard to wrap my head around the idea that I will be leaving Vietnam in just a few hours. As I am preparing for my flight, I inevitably have to think back and remember how I felt when I packed this bag to come here so many weeks ago. I remember I was incredibly nervous, to the point where I could hardly sleep. I was worried about what life would look like here in Vietnam, and I had read books and done research to prepare myself as best as I could. I have to say some of the things I read came in handy along the way! I was especially worried about my performance in the local schools, since I had no idea what the expectations would be and if I would be able to fulfill them. When I look back now, I realize how far I have come. I can confidently say that I am comfortable in this environment now. I have learned so much about the culture and way of live and many things that seemed difficult or foreign at the beginning are now a normal part of my life.  

Looking out of my window right now makes me sad, because it shows me what I am leaving behind. While I am excited to go home and see my family, there are many things here that I will miss. I have fallen in love with all the little coffee shops, the beach, the sunshine, and the palm trees. I cannot believe I am saying this, but I think I will miss driving my scooter through the local traffic chaos! I will miss the simple and unstructured lifestyle; the many busy, but happy and friendly people everywhere. Most importantly though, I have formed genuine relationships with many of the people here, especially with my students and partner teachers. Saying goodbye was not easy, but I am taking a lot of fond memories home with me.

Through my stay here, I have gained many valuable insights that will influence me as a teacher going forward. The most important realization I had was that forming genuine relationships with my students was making all the difference to our learning experience in the classroom. For several different reasons it took me over two weeks to truly connect with my grade 10 class, and the impact this had on my teaching was truly shocking to me. The quality and relevance of my lessons, the students' engagement, and my ability to gage their needs in the moment changed drastically once I was able to form genuine relationships with them. My time in Vietnam has also given me some perspective on how fortunate we are in Canada when it comes to the space and resources we have available to us. I have also become much more comfortable with going with the flow, improvising, and adjusting to the needs of my students in the moment. The experiences I have had here will certainly influence my teaching in the future.

It will be interesting to see how I readjust to daily life in Canada - the weather, the traffic rules, and the structure in life in general. What I know for sure is that I will miss Vietnam, and I am determined to come back for a visit!Until then - Tạm biệt Vietnam! See you again!

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