Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Vietnam, A Summer Worth Remembering

Before the journey…. My English Summer Camp

August 4th, 2009

As I am struggling to sleep, I decided to read my old diary entries from the beginning of my arrival to Korea nearly 7 months ago. I realized that I’ve already accomplished many of my early goals thus far I have been able to make wonderful friends, I have established a solid rapport with my school and students, I am learning more and more Korean, and now starting to travel outside of Busan, and having the opportunity to finally visit my family homeland for the first time ever.

My English summer camp was a personal success for me. It got off to an uneasy start as many of my students were too uncomfortable speaking in front of the class, and because students from different grade levels were in the class, this caused a lot of anxiety due to the class difference. Not to mention, summer camp started immediately after school had just ended the day before. This meant a lack of classroom motivation and classroom management issues for me. Both these issues became an ongoing problem since June. So to counter these issues, I added some games which this semester I had largely avoided because of the time it takes to explain the directions, place more time on my lesson plans, and figure out how to implement it from our English textbook. All of these can get rather chaotic. However, games are the kinds of activities that can stimulate students’ positive behavior, subject motivation, and encourage students to use their English skills amongst each other.

For classroom management, I had no co-teacher to watch over me during class. My co-teachers would normally serve as the disciplinarian, but this time, there was no need for them to be there because of the smaller class size, and the fact that I felt confident in managing the classroom. First, I selected a captain for my class. Sang-Min, who I chose as captain, is not only from the 3rd year group, but the most proficient English speaker in the classroom. It also helps the fact that he has a respectful, yet commanding presence that would grab his peers’ attention. I would often have him be my translator if the class could not understand my speaking, and he can also police the classroom when necessary. Other ideas I chose to implement are cutting break time, and making a student do a leg squats for several minutes. Both of these have worked very well, and the leg squats have provided me with quite a bit of entertainment. 

If there was a favorite summer camp moment, I would say the fashion show lesson, and music day would stand out for me the most. For the fashion show, I created a mini-runway in my classroom, and had students grouped into 4’s. Two students would be the supermodels. The other two would serve as the speakers and describe what their partners are wearing. I would even cue up the music, and help them choreograph the runway walk. Silly, indeed, but each group did very well with this lesson, and I couldn’t be more proud that day.

For music day, I had students do Beatles songs, and Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone”. I also had them dance to the “Cha-Cha Slide” which they had dreaded for days prior to the lesson. Eventually, they gave in as they always do! I had them do various activities like charades, Guess Who?, Truth or Lie, Simon Says, and even had an activity using a basketball. I’d be happy to share my ideas with all of the other English teachers.

I believe that experience rejuvenated my enthusiasm as a teacher, and being around my students. I became very close with all 20 of my students during those two weeks. As I have been running into my students outside of school, I have felt comfortable being noticed for the first time in awhile. I think with school on break, it has helped me relax, and of course, be completely myself with my students.

Sunday, August 9th, 2009 8:50 am

I had just hopped aboard the KTX train several minutes ago. It’s heading towards Seoul from Gupo. The ride will last approximately 2 1/2 hours which is fast considering from Seoul to Busan by bus or a commuter train, it would take about 6 hours. I have all my stuff ready for my weeklong getaway to Vietnam. Once I arrive at Seoul Station, I will have my lunch, and then take the subway to Incheon International Airport. The subway ride will take about an hour and a half with a few transfers. So all in all, I will have a 5 hour commute. My uncle will arrive around 4 pm, and we will leave for Saigon at 7 pm aboard Korean Air Flight 682.

My summer break so far has been relatively peaceful and relaxing. The torrential downpours that was plaguing Korea throughout July has about reached its end. With school over, I am more comfortable seeing my students around the Deokcheon-Sukdeung neighborhood, and even been able to hang around with them.

There was one particular memory that stood out for me. I was on my way to Nakdong High School to play basketball, and ran into my students who were playing soccer. They, of course, wanted to play basketball with me instead. Later on, a group of high school boys came over and started picking on them. One of them issued a challenge to me to play against them with my students. It was a challenge I couldn’t refuse. By the time we started playing, I knew I wasn’t going to let those high schoolers bask in the glory of my defeat especially in front of my own students. I was taking it to the rim at every opportunity, and my kids were playing some tenacious defense. When it was said and done, the high school kids were mercilessly smoked, and we celebrated our win. I bought my kids ice cream afterwards, and of course, I became the hero. So there’s my little narcissistic, feel-good “Hoosiers” story for ya’ll.

I was supposed to be in school that first week in August making courtesy phone calls to my students. Thankfully, they gave me the rest of that week off after Tuesday. Construction was going on at my school. The incessant sounds of jackhammers drilling loudly like the sounds of a million cicadas punctured my ear drums. Luckily, my vice-principal understood my concerns, and granted me the entire week off much to my pleasure.

Besides having dinner with my friends on Thursday evening, I spent most of that week preparing and relaxing. Most of my friends have already left Korea on vacation.

I am finally excited that it’s my turn to leave Korea for a week, and take advantage of the time I have to travel abroad. Since starting school back at the beginning of March, I have only been outside of Busan twice. Korea’s been the only country I have traveled to. Unfortunately, I have never been to Vietnam or Cambodia, the family motherland. 26 years later, I will finally have that opportunity to see Vietnam in a matter of hours. I will reunite with my uncle who is flying from Florida. He recently remarried after my aunt’s death a few years ago. I will meet his new wife for the first time. It will be a surreal moment as I have always held the memory of my aunt near and dear to my heart. I hadn’t seen my uncle in two years, and it will finally be nice to see him again. I have plenty of relatives, many of them unknown to me, whom I’ll be soon visiting. I have another uncle who is the youngest of my dad’s siblings, as well as my aunt who is the oldest in the family that live there. I have many cousins and 2nd cousins there also. My youngest uncle is unfortunately not doing too well health-wise. From what I heard, my uncle’s condition has been deteriorating to the point where this could be the only opportunity I’ll ever have seeing him. I think all in all, this will be an emotional visit, and a lot of nerves will be running high, probably more so since the time I left Chicago. I wish I could stay in Vietnam longer, but my school can only allow me a certain amount of days. Due to my fairly brief stay in Vietnam, I think my travel opportunities are quite limited there since it’s a rather long country. The transportation infrastructure there is a far cry from Korea’s highly coveted Korail system. It’s very weak, lacks a subway, the traffic is highly congested, the roads and bridges are highly neglected, and in need of an overhaul. The economy there, however, is growing rapidly since the fall of Soviet communism, but it’s still in 3rd world poverty throughout much of the country. Saigon, otherwise known as Ho Chi Minh City today, will have its vices and glaring environmental/health concerns, a much larger contrast than what I’m accustomed to in Korea and Chicago. I won’t be able to visit the tourist hotspot, Nha Trang or Hoi An because of the time constraints. My family village which is by the Mekong Delta, is a 6-7 hour bus ride from Saigon. Despite the time limitations I will have, I believe that any time you get to visit a land that you have yet to discover, anything that you do and encounter will be an adventure and an opportunity. I do miss my family back home in the states, but at least having my favorite uncle with me will make things much easier, and of course, having real Vietnamese food for the first time in months will give me a euphoric spark. Lately, it has been a bit sad not eating dinner with my family when everyone in Korea around me has family to eat with. Sometimes, my students will ask me if I eat alone, and when I tell them that I do, they cannot fathom that idea because many Koreans almost never eat alone.

With the school semester ready to begin son, I can honestly hope that I will have more preparation, better activities for my students, and get along with my new co-teachers. Though I see my students from time-to-time, I do miss being around all of them. I am also eager to see what my school will look like once the construction has concluded.

In the meantime, it’s very sunny outside, and I’m sitting comfortably on the KTX train overlooking the beautiful landscape near Daejeon (대전) with less than an hour to go. Only a couple more hours before I arrive at the airport.

Sunday, August 9th, 2009. 4:00 pm

I arrived at the airport about half an hour ago. My KTX ride plus the subway ride was long, yet very peaceful. I did, however, have an unfortunate mishap. I briefly left my passport in front of the check-out counter, but thankfully the airline personnel alerted me. That would have been a disastrous way to begin my vacation. I had a huge lunch at Bennigans by Seoul Station. Though Bennigans no longer has any restaurant chains functioning in the U.S, there are still plenty in Korea. Despite the chaos that is normally associated with the Seoul subway system, I had little trouble getting to my destination. The trains were lightly-packed, and the airport is relatively quiet on a Sunday afternoon. I am waiting for m uncle who should be arriving momentarily. Right now, the weather in Incheon is about 90 F, much hotter when I left Busan, which their high was 77 F. I reckon Vietnam will be just as hot, if not hotter than at Incheon/Seoul. I’ll be wearing jeans or long pants during my vacation stay because of the mosquitoes that plague all of Southeast Asia around this time of year. I bought some Buddhism bracelets for my uncle’s family, and hopefully looking to buy a few souvenirs for my friends, family, school, and for myself to take back from Vietnam.

August 9th, 2009. 6:40 pm

As I was waiting for my uncle, I had a conversation with one of the waiting passengers, who is Vietnamese, and from Ft. Worth, Texas. The airport is incredible and filled with amenities. It’s not as overpriced as other countries. I met up with my uncle around 5 pm, and had a quick dinner with him. It’s nice to see him looking much more relaxed than in recent years when he was taking care of my aunt. The plane will arrive at midnight which translates to 10 pm, Vietnam local time, which then translates to…..well sometime in the early afternoon CST in the U.S. As my plane is ready to take off, I am eagerly awaiting what I’ll see once I get off the plane. Right now, I’m a little worn out from the train ride and wonder if I can even sleep on the plane. Chances are, given my history of plane rides, it’s unlikely that it’ll happen. Last time out, I couldn’t even sleep for a second on a 17-hour plane ride.

Ready for takeoff!!!! 

August 9th, 2009. 11:15 pm

My flight is ready to land at Tan Son Nhat airport at any given moment. Taking Korean Air was a pretty darn good decision (well in credit to my uncle who booked his flight first). They served us free wine, a halfway decent dinner, a decent selection of English/Korean music, and more importantly, the plane ride was very smooth. I’m not a fan of flying but this is one of the few times I’ve been this satisfied.

During the flight, they’ve made us fill out the customs form, and a brief health questionnaire in response to the current H1N1 epidemic. Korea is 2 hours ahead of Vietnam.

August 10th, 2009 Vietnam: An Oxymoronic Culture

After my arrival in Saigon on Friday night, I find myself in deep solitude, in awe of the hectic, oxymoronic city that lies right in front of me. Historic landmarks, such as communist hero, Ho Chi Minh are surrounded by recently new urban/commercial developments. Companies from Japan, China, Korea, and the US have invested their businesses in this bustling city. Businesses such as Samsung, Sony, Yamaha, Pizza Hut, KFC, and even Korea’s fast food chain, Lotteria are easily visible in a city that was taken over by the North Vietnamese over 30 years ago.

State-of-the-art traffic lights are put in use, yet all commuters especially the motorcyclists are oblivious to it. A population nearly in the double-digit millions have yet to embrace the pedestrian lifestyle, and abandoned the bicycle life, but instead, adopt a nice Yamaha to get them from place to place. The fumes emanating from the motorbikes are an unfortunate reminder of the deteriorating state that the environment is in today, and how suffocating it is for many tourists that visit there. Strangely enough, the motorbike sounds are very harmonic, and follow a rhythmic pattern, much in the way that motorcyclists seemingly drive together in collaboration. Think of it as synchronized motorbike riding. The madness of the city streets filled with the soundtrack of the motorbikes and vehicles can also be weirdly soothing, nothing that evokes confrontation and fear.

During my stay at Saigon, I would sit inside the taxi watching our drivers maneuver around motorbikes crossing our paths. 99% of the times, the motorcyclists are almost always within an inch or two from each other. Frightening as that may sound to others back home, and even in Korea, there are hardly any speed demons. They drive at about the same speed in unison.

On the first night after arriving from the airport, it was surprisingly breezy. My step-aunt, and her niece forgot about our arrival that night. What makes it more significant about their no-show was the fact that they live 6 hours away from the city. This didn’t ease my uncle’s growing impatience that night. He was on the phone giving them a hard time about it, while I stood around in awe knowing that I am finally at the motherland, and soaking in the first few moments of this revelation. Despite my step-aunt and her niece’s obvious late arrival, my uncle and I went into an SUV to take us to our hotel at Nhu Phuong. I quietly observed the night scene around the districts, watching the packs of motorcyclists gather around at a gas station, locals chatting with outdoor vendors. Most of the stores have already closed for the night. Our driver wanted to start a conversation with me, but I nervously cracked a few Vietnamese words. I was much too intimidated already by the city, and its culture, a culture that shouldn’t be foreign to me.

Finally after arriving at the hotel, we settled in. My dad’s friend swung on by, and got us some banh bao. Banh Bao is ground beef with onions stuffed inside a white flour dough. It was my first real Vietnamese food in 7 months. I was able to sleep in, and the next morning, my uncle’s new wife and her niece had arrived. It was a bit strange at first to see the two together for the first time after being used to seeing my uncle with my aunt for years and years. However, it was the first time in years that my uncle has felt this happy and relaxed. Coming into Vietnam had long eluded me my entire life. Money, school, my father’s reluctance, and my own apprehension prevented me from going. The opportunity luckily presented itself with my uncle choosing the departure date at a convenient time that my school is on vacation, and the fact that it’s only a 5 hour plane ride from Korea, opposed to a 20+hour flight from Chicago. There would be no excuse to miss this grand opportunity.

We went to a Pho restaurant first thing in the morning, and the Pho soup tasted great. We later took a taxi as we explored different districts in the city. The traffic was severely congested as motorbikes clogged the small, narrow avenues. Crossing the street was another adventure. Tip: Don’t run or even wait for them to stop. Walk one step at a time and give the motorcyclists enough time to change direction and speed. We later went to a travel agent so they could book my uncle’s upcoming flight to Beijing. In the meantime, I was scoping out the area and taking many pictures as I could. We then drove around some more, and visited one of my uncle’s friend right outside the city. It was there that I saw the heavy-ridden urban poverty. Shacks barely holding up, garbage strewn about along the busy streets, shirtless old men exposing their dark skin to the penetrating UV rays, kids are scattered everywhere wearing tattered shirts and shorts walking barefoot. The urban countryside is even more glaring with poverty, not surprisingly. It’s very common to see kids there as young as 4 selling lotto tickets. It’s a sad sight to see my fellow brothers and sisters be tied down to this oppressive lifestyle. We arrived at the house, and we were served a cornucopia of wonderful Vietnamese food (fried shrimp, shrimp fried rice, beef and vegetable noodles, chips, dried fish, and papayas). It was amazingly delicious, and it certainly continued to make up for the lack of authentic Viet food in months We later came back to the hotel, and my uncle needed me to help him write a petition to the Vietnamese immigration service to get his new wife sponsored to the US. I had spent the rest of the evening trying to get that done for him, albeit a little frustrating on my end. I took advantage of the Internet from the hotel, and checked my emails that my students have sent me for their summer homework. My uncle rented a hotel for himself and his wife, and I was thankfully able to have a room to myself.

August 11, 2009

The next morning, we had breakfast. We ate at a trendy restaurant near the Pham Ngo Lam district. We had “Banh Mi” sandwich, one of my personal favorites. This was my #1 craving that I had since being in Korea. Unfortunately in the days that would soon lie ahead, it was my ultimate undoing. This one that we had in particular wasn’t so great. Even my uncle was grumbling about it, saying that the ones he had in Chicago were far more superior. We went through another part of the Saigon district. My step-aunt’s niece kept making sure I was alright, and kept assisting me whenever we sat down to eat. I felt like a little boy, and it would only continue that way when I met my family. In the meantime, my uncle needed to have his marriage documentation faxed over to his lawyer. While waiting for it to get done, I decided to brave the congested area and take a look for myself. The lack of clear sidewalks made it tougher to simply have a brisk walk, let alone the combination of carbon monoxide fumes and humidity permeating the air. I walked around a few blocks, and glanced briefly at the open air shops. I was carrying my backpack and wore clothes that would make many Vietnamese locals there insist I am rich. With that said, I attracted a lot of long stares, and motorcycle taxi drivers kept asking me if I needed a lift, or shop clerks standing within an eyelash away from me while I was attempting to shop. Needless to say, I didn’t feel confident about going any further. Oftentimes, I feel like a foreigner despite my family’s heritage. It reinforced a lot of my past frustrations with the language barrier, and needless to say, I found it deeply embarrassing when I can’t properly communicate with the native speakers, and more importantly with several members of my family.

However, by making this visit, I believe it will at least give me a small, yet important step in making myself more immerse with the culture. We headed out to lunch to grab some tasty fried rice. We later came back to the hotel to freshen up. My uncle and step-aunt had gone out of the way to take care of me at that point, and almost wouldn’t let me pay a dime. Most of the time that was spent in Saigon was sight-seeing. I had no need for any new clothes or electronics, but just added curiosity about the cultural behavior. My step-aunt and her niece decided to take us out to one of the best buffets in town. It was about $10 per person which is far expensive than the average Vietnamese person could afford. Upon entering the restaurant, many Vietnamese were well-dressed, and wore shoes (most locals only wear sandals), and it was a pretty lively atmosphere. The food was quite disappointing, as some of the fried shrimps and scallops, and banh xeo tasted fairly dry. I was being cautious in not drinking the water, or the ice. Many of the beverages are unfortunately served warm, and almost always come with a cup of ice which doesn’t help my cause. After our dinner, we took a cab and drove around the higher-end district in Saigon. I was amazed to see the higher-end 5 star hotels, luxury department stores, a huge movie cinema, and some of the fancy French architecture along the way. In some ways, Saigon reminds me a little like Busan, and if things continue to grow rapidly in the next 15-20 years, I believe that it can turn into Busan or Bangkok, especially if they have a subway up and running by then.

August 12, 2009

The next morning, we had breakfast at a café. I had some delicious orange smoothie called “Sinh To Cam,” and got ready for our 6-7 hour journey to the family village. I wasn’t necessarily eager about being on a bus for this long of a time. We left our hotel around 1 pm. We had a bus taxi take us to the bus station. Unfortunately, the bus taxi happened to be a mid-1980s Toyota van which was ready to break down. My uncle was muttering himself in displeasure. They were picking up other people along the way. We got there in about 15 minutes. The bus station was a complete, disheveled mess. Potholes were the size of South Korea. Trash was purposely thrown into the ground. The station looked like it had already fallen apart. It was like the messy aftermath of a rodeo show there. There were people trying to sell fruit and goods to us. We got inside our bus, which was actually an older Korean Hyundai bus used for the Kumgangsan Tour. It’s a bit of a relic. The seats were small, and banged up. The window curtains were torn and discolored. There was air conditioning though. We were jam-packed on the bus, as there were a few little kids that also hopped aboard. The bus soon departed, and I was eager enough to have my camera ready and snap any random shots that come to mind. We passed smaller cities like Ben Luc, My Tho, Long Xuyen. The bright, green grass and tiny river banks captured my imagination. The broken, down shacks were visible, but every now and then, you would see a well-designed house, or a recently-built government building. As we got further away from the urban cities, the highway roads that we were on became narrower, rougher, and somewhat reclusive. We were crossing smaller bridges, and by the small river banks, there were floating houses, if you will, sitting alongside the banks. The rivers are virtually muddied up. The bridges are not necessarily deemed safe, as the metal clanking sounds could be heard ricocheting off the bus’ tires.
Our bus driver made two rest stops along the way. The second that the bus driver swung the door open, a group of vendors stormed into the bus selling fruits and baked goods. The vendors were young boys and middle-aged women. They were fairly aggressive in trying to sell their products. A few passengers finally bit the bullet. I chose not to purchase anything as I was more concerned about getting food poisoning during the bus ride. I opted to stay inside the bus for a little bit, while my uncle went with my step-aunt to purchase some fruit. After about an hour, we headed off. My step-aunt’s niece was busy making sure I was comfortable during the ride, offering me fruit and water. As I will soon notice, my family made sure I was taken care of, sometimes to the point of extremity.

About an hour after we left the 2nd time, we finally crossed the ferry point. It was already 7 pm, and the sun had been long gone for the past hour. We were waiting about half an hour before we were allowed to cross into the ferry boat. There were numerous motorcyclists waiting at the checkpoint. Meanwhile, we had more fruit vendors storming into the bus during the wait. Our bus finally entered inside the ferry. It was unusual. I had never taken a ferry ride, let alone being on a vehicle that’s inside one. We crossed the dark, Mekong River. I decided to record the little ferry ride. Crossing the river took about 15 minutes. Once we landed, we continued our journey. We finally reached the An-giang province. The downtown area looked beautiful as there were colorful flags on top of the bridge. It was beautifully lit, and it looked fairly modernized with a few fashion stores, cell phone and electronic stores. My uncle had told me that our family lives in the An-giang province, so I had thought that this would be our stop. Unfortunately, that was not the case. We had about another 2 hours before we would reach our destination. I became increasingly impatient. The bus ride was an eternity. I found it impossible to sleep, it was hard to see at night, it was very noisy inside the bus, and we were going through a path that was seemingly rougher and more rugged. The bridges that we were crossing seemed quite dangerous and possibly unable to withhold any gravitational pressure. Also, what concerned me was the fact that the pathway was very close to the riverbanks. This can cause possible flooding, and may make it much harder to come back home. Of course, despite those concerns, I was nonetheless interested in seeing what was in front of me. As we got further and further away from the downtown area, I saw people living in broken-down shacks. Villages were mostly dark, and low-lit. We were in the heart of the rural countryside. One place caught my attention; I saw a PC room with several kids inside. I was astonished to see that this kind of technology can somehow reach into the deep jungle of the countryside.

As we got closer to our destination, passengers were getting dropped off at their respective locations. I was eagerly awaiting our stop. We had finally reached our destination. The ride was about a good 7 1/2 hours. We were clearly exhausted. We walked towards the gate of my relatives’ house, and was amazed at the beautiful, French-styled architecture of their home. I nervously followed my uncle into the house, and there, I would meet my long-lost relatives. I saw my aunt first. I gave her a hug, and did not realize how diminutive she was until now. She was walking gingerly with her back hunched up. She was in awe of how tall I was, and the fact that she doesn’t have to rely on old photos to see how I look like. Shortly afterwards, I would soon meet my two older male cousins, and pretty much the rest of my family that night. My younger uncle who is sick was standing outside in the corner, silently greeting me. He said very little. I noticed that he was also walking gingerly, and exchanged very few words with anyone that night.

My aunt had prepared a little dinner for me to eat. I was walking around the house, and looked at all the family photo frames they had on the wall. I saw old photos of me and my brothers when we were little. There were quite a few photos of my relatives back in Florida that reminded me of the good times. I saw many photos of my late-aunt, and it became a little emotional for me. This was the place that my uncle and aunt were to retire in. This neighborhood had meant so much to her, and her presence in those photos kept her spirit alive in this house. We had arrived at their house around 10 pm that night, so I was pretty exhausted. Since one of the rooms did not have air-conditioning, they decided to take me to a nearby hotel down the street and stay overnight during my stay. My cousins took me there. It was more of a guesthouse. Walking into the hotel room, there was the basic necessities. The bathroom wasn’t necessarily something to brag about. There were dead mosquitoes on top of the toilet head. The bathroom looked terribly aged, yet the room wasn’t bad for the fact that it’s in a small, busy village out in the rural countryside. So after making due with what was in front of me, I bid goodnight.

The next morning I woke up, my older cousin picked me up, and I hopped aboard his motorcycle. It was my first experience being on a motorcycle. I had trouble getting my helmet on until my cousin nicely adjusted it for me. Once I had gotten on, I could feel the smooth, low vibrating sound beneath the seat. As it took off, I instantly felt the excitement building up. This is fun….a lot of fun. I saw the village in action. Villagers are out and about on their motorbikes, or on foot on a sunny, light breeze morning. I came back into the house, and had some tasty Vietnamese sandwiches (notice the plural in sandwich). Vietnamese sandwiches are my absolute favorite from back home. I would oftentimes go to Bale Sandwich in Chicago to get my quick fix there. These sandwiches that my step-aunt brought over tasted better than the one I had in Saigon.

My uncle took me to the Buddhist village cemetery where my aunt’s ashes lie. My aunt had passed away 2 years ago, and her ashes were brought to our family hometown. We took a 15 minute walk to the cemetery, and by the time we arrived, I saw the steps that reminded me of Beomeosa Temple back in Busan. The Khmer-writing engraved on the entrance, along with the Cambodian-style painting and design made it seem more like I was in Cambodia, rather than Vietnam.

My uncle greeted one of the monks who happen to be working on the landscape. I looked around, and noticed the beautiful scenery. We were on top of a hill that was overlooking the mountains, the family village, and the rice fields. This is the kind of place that my aunt can finally rest in peace, and more fitting for the kind of person she was in my life and everybody else’s. My uncle and I said a small prayer, and as we laid the incense, it started to rain for a good 30 seconds. What made it awkward was the sunshine that hovered over us the entire time. Perhaps, it was a good omen, but whatever it was, that moment felt reassuring, and I knew my late aunt would have been happy with what she is seeing right now.

I went with my uncle to visit one of my cousin’s parents. My cousin, Khiem lives in Chicago, and I met his mom a year ago when she made a visit there. I had never met his dad before. It was nice to see them again.

After getting back, I went with my cousin, Phuong, and my uncle and step-aunt to eat at various restaurants along the way. We got on the motorbikes, and I got to see and feel the countryside. There were mountains to look at, the greener pastures, farmers working on the rice crops, little kids walking out of school, and villagers roaming out and about on wagons, mules, and oxen. The roads were a bit bumpy, but offered the kind of view that is truly authentic, and untouched by tourists.

We visited various family friends, and each way, I was able to stop by and took additional photos of the countryside. I was quite exhausted as the evening began. I visited my step-aunt’s home and store shop. The mosquitoes were in full spread, and the insect repellent failed to do its job at keeping them from attacking me. So, I found myself itching constantly. On our way to the family house, I met up with one of my cousin, Sang for the first time. He is 16 years old, and is the son of my youngest uncle in the family. He is a bright student, and is currently at one of the top high schools in the An Giang Province.

I came back to the hotel, and called it a night.

The next morning, my step-aunt provided me with more food to eat for lunch. By this point, she has been very generous towards me. She wanted to make me a nice dress shirt as a souvenir, so she had me visit one of the tailors. She is actually a co-owner of a clothing store there. I went to her store, and visited the crowded marketplace. There were handcraft souvenir shops, drug store, bakery shops, and meat market. It was intensely condensed, but it was rather lively and friendly. There was one point where I saw a rooster (there are many of them) wailing in agony as it’s being taken somewhere, perhaps to a slaughterhouse. Quite depressing to hear that. I bought some tiny cup souvenirs along the way.

After spending the entire morning and part of the afternoon in the marketplace, we came back to the house. I met up with my cousin Sang and his two sisters. I had never met any of them before, and to be quite honest, I had very little knowledge about all of my cousins there. So, I was very shy when it came to initiating conversation with them. My Vietnamese speaking is broken, and oftentimes, I found myself feeling very embarrassed about not being able to speak fluently Ironically, my cousins tried to attempt to speak to me English at the same time. It was quite amusing to say the least. We were trading English/Viet dictionaries back and forth as we were trying to find the appropriate word to convey our message to each other. Despite the communication barrier, it was truly a great moment for me as I was really connecting with my relatives for the first time ever.

I started to have some stomach issues throughout the trip. I had avoided getting sick in Saigon, but in my family hometown, it was a bit of a struggle. I was already being vigilant with what I was eating, but soon afterwards, it got to the point where I was turning down more food for fear that I would become even sicker. This was a major concern of mine since the Korean public schools have enforced new rules and regulations regarding teachers traveling in and out of Korea due to the H1N1 Influenza. Several of my colleagues had to undergo a weeklong quarantine, and I didn’t really want to go through that kind of hassle.

Later in the evening, my cousins took me to the family temple behind our house. There, I saw the tombstones of my grandma, grandpa, great-grandpa, great-grandma, and other long-lost relatives. Their tombstones were built like royalty. They looked like miniature temples, a shrine if you will. There was a large Buddhist statue overlooking the man-made water pool. It’s inexplicably beautiful, and it’s quite hard to conjure up the appropriate words to describe this place. I said my prayers, and was taken inside the temple. It was there that I saw another large Buddha statue. I snapped photos inside, including the gorgeous mural paintings inside. There were young Buddhist monks, presumably no older than 12 years old, together. My cousin had me greet them, and I was able to take snapshots of them. I visited some of the elder monks by the temple. I was taken aback by their pleasant spirit, their generosity and kindness. Again, I was much too shy to initiate further dialogue with them, but was enamored to be in their presence.

I went back to the house. I ran into the neighborhood kids. They were incredibly adorable and cunning. They were giggling and curiously watching my every move. I went back with my uncle to have dinner at my step-aunt’s house. When the night was over, my cousin Phuong took me back to the hotel. After taking a quick shower, my cousin Sang knocked on my door, and wanted to hop right into my bed.

With that said, I noticed the lack of privacy I had the entire time I was in Vietnam. I think the fact that this was my first visit to the homeland, let alone the fact that my relatives had never seen me before, nor are familiar with the way Westerners are, made them more conscious about how I would view them. My relatives and family friends went out of their way to make sure that I was alright. I found it very endearing, and it made me feel comfortable knowing that they are helpful and accommodating. I could not help but feel as if they have to go to such lengths to please me. There are times when the only privacy I had was in the bathroom! Still, I had to convince them that I was okay, and that despite the luxuries I’ve been given from living in the US and Korea, I am more than content with what’s in front of me.

The next morning, one of my cousins took me out for coffee. It was delicious. The café shop was in a large wooden hut. It was really cozy and hidden in the jungle. It started to rain somewhat. My face was already covered in dirt from being on the motorbike all morning.
Afterwards, I joined my younger cousins to visit one of the famous battlegrounds near the family village. I went with Phuong, Sang, and Sacl. The battleground we were visiting holds an important meaning for my family, not only because of how close it was to my family village, but also this is where my dad was battling at when he was a young soldier.

Once we had arrived, I took notice of the long, mountainous hill of rocks close-by. It was a small, low-key park that did not resemble anything of a battleground. Walking into the park, I saw a small pond which had a tiny zoo of alligators. The park was beautiful as there were flowers, hammocks, and a large pond. We climbed on the tall rocks. It was a bit dangerous as they were all un-even, and I found myself having to assist one of my cousins up there a few times. I snapped photo shots of the country view. It was more beautiful than the one I took near my aunt’s grave. The large rice fields, the mountains from an adjacent angle, the forest and pond captured the beauty essence of Vietnam. “Natural” is the key word, no sign of the province being oversaturated with, or even a trace of commercial tourism. The rain clouds were hovering over, and we soon climbed down from the rocks. In the rocks, we went underneath a very narrow tunnel where it was known for hideouts. We then walked into a war museum which held military artifacts and photos from the battle site. There were leftover mini missiles, AK-47s, and booby traps.

As we walked into the gazebo by the pond, it started to rain, which later turned into a downpour. For the next hour and a half, we were inside the gazebo seeking shelter from the endless rain. I was beginning to wonder how long the rain was going to last because in Vietnam, we were in the middle of the rainy season. It also became a little windy which pushed the rain into our direction. There was a wagon conveniently inside the gazebo. It was one of the museum artifacts, and it didn’t cross our minds when we huddled inside there during the duration of our refuge. In the meantime, we were busy talking to each other, and I was showing pictures to my cousins about my life in Korea, my school, and students. Despite being in the least economically developed part of Busan, this type of life is almost like paradise to my relatives and for many Vietnamese inhabitants. They looked at envy as they saw the clothes that my students were wearing, the places I visited throughout Korea. Being in Vietnam has made me appreciate my life so much more in both Korea and in the US. I was given a very special privilege to have lived in two countries where the standard of living is much higher, and the opportunities quite limitless. Yet at the same time, I was blessed to have family that lived in such a beautiful, natural countryside, and knowing that I wouldn’t have to rely on tour operators to take me through the most desired, and popular places in that country.

After the rain ended, we went over to the shooting range where you can shoot off an AK-47. It was dirt cheap ($1 USD per bullet). My cousin Phuong took the first dibs. My other two cousins were frightened by the explosive sounds. The gunshots could probably be heard for a good mile, and it nearly blew my eardrums out. We were not given any earphones, or even a small earplug. I decided to give it my first try. I was staring at the bullseye target for a minute before pulling the trigger. I warned everybody to stay behind me for fear that the force of the AK will drag me into a different direction. The millisecond that I pulled the trigger, my right arm lifted the gun halfway in the air as my body jerked back. It was quite difficult to grasp, but what made it more difficult was the lack of earplugs to soften the violent force of that weaponry.

Afterwards, we headed back to the village. During the ride back, the roads were often muddy and bumpier. My pants were nearly soaked in mud, my face covered in soot, and my shirt stained with sweat and dirt. I was in dire need of a good shower, not to mention, a good laundry time.

Heading back to the house, I hopped along with my uncle for dinner at my step-aunt’s house. We had another cornucopia round of Vietnamese seafood. We were served “Can Chui” which is a tangerine-flavored catfish soup with bean sprouts, tomatoes, and rice. It was delicious. It’s also one of my favorites. We were also served fried fish and fresh fruit. The mosquitoes were out in full force that night so I spent a good majority of the evening swatting away the little, blood-sucking creatures. We came home later that night, and I was packing my things up to leave the next morning to Saigon. I sent some money to my relatives, including my sick uncle. I had my uncle tell him about how concerned I was for his health, and urged him to take care of himself. I told my cousins to make sure that the money I gave him was to be used for his medical treatment.

I slept at the hotel that night, and got ready for the next morning. I said my goodbyes to my relatives. It was bittersweet that my time with them had already concluded, but I was determined to see them again, and not wait another 26 years to be there. Our bus had arrived to pick us up, and we were off and running. The morning was beautiful, and I took photos of the mountains and the creek along the way. We arrived at the ferry dock again, and I had a daytime view of the Mekong. The water is brown and polluted, but the beauty is still hardly unnoticeable. The mountains and forest that provide the background to this river is dreamy and exotic.

We arrived in Saigon in the early afternoon. We went back to the same hotel we stayed in. I checked my email and Facebook in the meantime. We relaxed for a little bit before we went out and had some Pho. We went around the marketplace to get some fruit and fresh roast barbecue and duck. My stomach had been hurting me throughout the remainder of the trip so I opted not to go out any further.

It was almost time for me to leave. It started to rain that night. We got in the cab and headed to the airport. My flight was to leave right at midnight. Once we had arrived, I said my goodbyes and went to the check-out desk. There, I met a Vietnam veteran who was visiting there for the 2nd time since the war. I had a great discussion with him, and his younger daughter. He was there for a month, and visited throughout the country meeting with former South Vietnamese soldiers, even some North Vietnamese soldiers who were once their enemies. I envied the fact that he came back to visit a country which had been under so much violence and turmoil, and then to see the progress and peace that the country has now made in the last 20 years.

I bought some souvenirs for my vice-principal, and a few of my friends at the tax-free duty shop. I got myself some snacks before I headed to my gate. I was pretty sad that I won’t be having real Vietnamese cuisine for a little while, but in the meantime, I was happy that I got a chance to spend time with my family. It does beat eating alone at dinner sometimes.

Once my flight had arrived in Incheon, reality finally settled in. All the craziness I’ve had experienced in Vietnam has now turned into a “business as usual” world in Korea. Through it all, I managed to reconnect my roots, and more ready to plant the seeds for my next trip there.

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