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America’s soft power is strong

Traveling on a survey trip in the countryside is rewarding in many ways. When you live in a big city, it’s easy to forget that most people in the country don’t enjoy a high standard of living.

Yesterday I had two heartwarming interactions with Vietnamese people. The first was in a very small town in the Mekong Delta. We got a little lost, and were trying to figure out what to do. While we were standing on the side of the road, a young man walked up to me and struck up a conversation in English.

As a matter of principle, I like to engage with people, especially with students. You never know who kids will grow up to be. I’d love to be the American that a future leader remembers talking to, way back when. It’s also good for America when people have a favorable impression of us.

Anyway, this young man said he was 16, and asked where I was from. When I told him I was from America, his face lit up. He was clearly delighted to be talking with an American. His English wasn’t very good, but we managed a brief conversation. I admired his courage to approach a foreigner and try using a language that he was just starting to learn. I don’t think I am that brave.

The other interaction happened later that night, in town. We were on he street, when a small child, about 3 years old, walked by with his mom. With the encouragement of his mother, he smiled, waved, and called out “Hello!” to me. He didn’t speak any English, but he wasn’t self-conscious or shy, he trotted over to me and gave me a high-five.

I’ve had interactions like that in other countries. But Americans seem to enjoy especially high favorability among the Vietnamese people, even (or maybe especially) in rural parts of the country. In the eyes of many people here, America never wasn’t “great.”

I know it’s probably two different things, but…

I kinda want to see what a “motorbike laundry” would be. Especially the automatic kind.

I went to necktie paradise

We spend the holiday weekend in the city of Hoi An (Hội An). It’s a very charming old town with amazing old architecture, and a very nice beach.

The town has a tradition of making clothes. There are a lot of tailor shops, where you can get anything made from just a photograph. My wife had a beautiful formal dress made for her. I didn’t think I needed anything, so I just watched.

Later, we were walking in the old town, when we came across a small shop that sells neckties. The person working in the shop said that it’s a family business.

I picked out five ties, including a bow tie to match my wife’s new dress, and we practiced our Vietnamese with the people in the shop. After I chose the five ties that I wanted, the shopkeepers chose a sixth one for me, asked if I liked it, and said that it was a gift for me, because I spoke Vietnamese.

So I walked out of the store with six new neckties, for a total price of US$22.

I wholeheartedly recommend this shop to everyone. I asked them for a name card, so I could spread the word, but they said they don’t have one. The store doesn’t even have a name, it’s just the front room in their house. But if you want to find it, here’s the address:

Dường Trần Phú 146

Tỉnh Quảng Nam

Hội An

Is it art?

Is it like a Jackson Pollock painting?

Or is it just part of an old and decrepit wall?

Does the truth about the nature of something negate its potential to be art?

Korea is a wonderful and strange place

Korean Music in the Airport

Korea’s Inchon airport is very good. In addition to the shops and food, free showers and rest areas, there are also cultural resources. The government rented a storefront to display art objects. There is also a small stage where I saw a performance of Korean classical music. 

Language Immersion Trip, part 3

We are leaving Vietnam this morning (I’m actually writing this on the airplane).  Yesterday the Consul General hosted a lunch for us in Ho Chi Minh City. Several officers who are will work with us in the Consulate also attended. Despite the torrential storm that swept through in the middle of lunch (or maybe because of it) we had great conversations. I think we will enjoy our tour. 

View from our hotel last night in Ho Chi Minh City. Lots of green in the park.

Although I still am not where I want to be linguistically, this trip has helped a lot. I’m more confident using the language, and I’ve picked up ways of saying things. For example, to get the attention of a waitperson in a restaurant, you say: “em ơi!,” which means something like: “hey, younger sibling!” Little things like that will help us interact with people more naturally. 

There is one sociological factor that will continue to be a challenge to me. Vietnamese people consistently, almost insistently, speak to me in English. I’m sure this is because most foreigners in Vietnam don’t speak Vietnamese.  People here simply don’t expect the Vietnamese language to erupt from a person with a white face. Even when I initiate conversations in Vietnamese, the answers are usually  in English. It’s frustrating to a person who’s trying to practice language. The exceptions seem to be people who have zero English, like many taxi drivers, and very educated people who recognize that I want to interact in their language. 

My wife, who is blessed with an Asian face, has a different problem. She is commonly mistaken for a Vietnamese person, and so people address her in colloquial Vietnamese. That’s great if your Vietnamese language proficiency is where you want it to be. It isn’t so great if you’re still a struggling learner, like we are. We will probably have to deal with this phenomenon throughout our time in Vietnam. But if that’s our biggest problem, we should be fine. 

I still have ten more weeks of language training before I return to Vietnam to begin my tour. I think my language proficiency is where it has to be for my job requirements. I would like it to be higher, though.  I will have to work really hard until June. 

They haven’t accepted this excuse from me yet, but I’ll keep trying.

Dismayed that there is a need to say this.

Want some breafast with your beakrfast?

Glad I’m not an electrician in Nha Trang

I’d probably look at this and just start to cry.