No, Really: I’m Still Here, Still Teaching

Wow, was I so busy teaching that really did let the entire summer slip by without a post?

Wasn’t intentional; just kind of happened. Guess my interest in my blogging hobby waxes and wanes, as does my interest in just about anything. I’ve never been very good at monomania; must be my Gemini rising sign.

So let’s hit the highlights, shall we?

Β Still Teaching the Kids Some English

Teacher's got a posse: Jeff and his teenage students -- the cool ones.

I’m coming up on a year teaching in Viet Nam. I was fortunate that the third time was a charm and did pay for all; in terms of teaching it’s been a great year and I consider myself pretty fortunate to have the experience under my belt. More about this later.

I will say that part of the break from blogging was a matter of necessity, as I taught a summer school class, on top of my usual full-time schedule. I had a choice in this, but not really — I still needed to make up time that I had lost from work because of my quadriceps tendon tear, and this put me back in the black, in terms of hours. Plus, I had a good class and enjoyed them. But it left very little free time for yours truly.

Incidentally, the photos below with the kids in yellow t-shirts looking sleepy or eating ice-cream? That was my summer school class at the Sai Gon Zoo field trip. The one’s pictured above were my good teenage class (not the evil one). I loved these kids, and I was sorry to have to give up this class to a new teacher after a number of months, in order to take on a new adult class. But then my adult class takes me out for Thai food and beer. πŸ˜‰

Teacher Jeff's ILA summer school class at the Sai Gon Zoo. Wake up kids! We'll start having fun soon. I promise!The Joy of Proximity

Plus, I bookended — that’s not really a verb — my summer school class with short vacations back to Thailand. I fear its food and culture has gotten under my skin, in spite of the rough experience teaching in a public school a few years ago. Again, more on this later.

Not Gimping Around Nearly So Much

My leg continues to improve; I can walk up and down steps now like a normal person (almost). Walking down stairs sometimes still proves a little challenging, especially after a long day in the classroom (i.e. Saturdays and Sundays).

But it’s not back to normal. Everyone keeps asking me if it’s back to normal, and when I say not quite then they ask when. I never know what to tell them. My ankle injury in high school, the only injury I’ve suffered close to the magnitude of my severed quadriceps tendon, literally took years before it felt “normal.” Even today, it’s not quite the same as the other ankle.

I need to get on a bike, but I’ve decided against buying one or shipping mine here to Viet Nam, as I’m going to be traveling at the end of October through the first of the year, ultimately relocating back to Thailand for a time. If you’re one of the two regular readers of this blog, you’re thinking “Wait, what? Really? Thought you’d never go back to Thailand.” I know, I know, but never say never, right? Reference above; more later.

P.S. Speaking of cycling, no less than Lucas Brunelle commented on a post I made last year about doping, cycling and Lance Armstrong. You may not know who urban cycling and alleycat proponent Lucas Brunelle is, but if you’re involved with cycling at all, you’ve probably heard the name; he’s a polarizing figure, to be sure. While I don’t agree with everything he does or has to say, he clearly isn’t afraid to march to his own drum, and that always gets respect in my book.

Plus it’s just fucking cool that somewhat like that commented on my blog, particularly when it’s been lying fallow, as of late.

Buying a Real Camera

Lego ninja in the Circle of Death I still haven’t replaced my big boy camera yet, although I’m really feeling the urge to get back into photography again, full time. More on this later, but I think after the first of the year I’m going to embark on a 365 photo-a-day project. I don’t seem to do well without deadlines, in terms of creativity, so I think I need to set myself some deadlines. I was thinking I might do that with blogging as well. I don’t know if I’ll have the bandwidth for both though; we’ll see. If only I was independently wealthy.

On the plus side, I have a decent laptop now with discrete graphics, so I can tinker with 3D modeling and rendering again, as well as use the latest version of Photoshop — which now has a subscription service, thank Dog — and it is effing sweet, let me tell you.

Pictured here, among other things, is a test shot — among many — I made playing around with my Canon G12. The G12 is at the end of the day, a point-and-shoot toy. But, it is a sophisticated, rather grand toy, one that I’m quite happy with as far as having a snapshot type of camera goes. Definitely more on this subject later.

Unfriended the Entire World. Bitches.

Joy of Tech: finding ultimate bliss by deleting your Facebook profileI quit Assbook several months ago and haven’t looked back. Haven’t missed it. In fact the only time I think about it is when I see someone at work on Facebook, or someone asks me to friend them/message them on Facebook. It’s funny, no one asks if you are on Facebook anymore, it’s just assumed.

Perhaps I’ll write more on this later, but then again, maybe not. There’s a lot of interesting things going on in the world at large and in my own little corner of it. Why waste time blathering about Assbook? Long story short, there was no one thing that caused me to leave it; it wasn’t concerns over privacy — which are quite legitimate, however — or anything like that. Just got tired of everything and everyone reduced to the lowest common denominator in a festival of the mundane.

I just don’t give a tinker’s damn what you had for breakfast or that you are leaving to pick up your kids at school. Unless you are having breakfast on top of Kilimanjaro or are picking up your kids from their first day at Juliard, it’s not significant and I don’t care. Beyond mundane updates Facebook has become the email forwarding for the 21st Century; at one point I had all my friends trained not to forward me cat videos and whatnot. Now, of course, they post all that shit to Assbook. Friends I haven’t spoken with in years — strangers, at this point — don’t reply when I send them emails, but they ask me to watch some idiot on YouTube.


Maybe I’m officially old, but that’s okay. I’m happy to say you kids and your social network can get off my lawn. *shakes fist*

As for the few friends that have contacted me wondering where I went, you’ve got my email address and this URL. And now you know that I’m still alive and doing well.

And I’ll sign off with “awwwwwwwwwww” image:

Phuc stuffs his face with ice cream after a hot day at the Sai Gon zoo.

Karma Chameleon, Karma Quadriceps

In Which I Catch A6 and Ruminate on Recovery

No, no, no. Not *that* Karma Chamelon. I don't think Boy George and Culture Club had orthopedic problems and existential angst in mind. So a few days ago I passed the three-month mark: three months since I tore – completely severed, rather – the quadriceps tendon in my right leg, and had surgery to correct it the next day, Christmas Eve.

Has it really been a month since I last posted and laughed in the face of Fate and the Universe? I guess it has. I haven’t had a lot of bandwidth the past few weeks for much else beyond teaching and reading; I’ve had a cold that has persisted for two weeks – persisted in kicking my ass. I’ve compared notes with fellow expats, and it seems they have drawn the same conclusion I have – we don’t have the natural or resistance we would otherwise have back home, where our bodies are familiar with the bugs that get passed around.

Back in the States I typically would get a cold or the flu once or twice a year, and it would last a week or so. In between those times I might get a scratchy throat or a runny nose for a few days here and there, but nothing more than a minor annoyance.

But over here on the other side of the planet, there are bugs floating around that my white blood cells haven’t encountered before, and when you come down with a cold, it’s a bitch kitty, as my old man would have said. Coughing up technicolor snot – or blowing it out of your nose – every twenty minutes or so. Coughing until you sound like a trumpeting, randy elk. Not fun.

Somehow, thanks to my usual pig-headedness and over-the-counter drugs, I managed to keep up my teaching load, which is now back to full time. But as I say, the past few weeks, I haven’t had much bandwidth for aught else.

A technical diagram illustrating where the quadriceps tendon rupture occurred.That has included my therapy exercises, but now that I’m walking unaided, it doesn’t seem to have slowed down my recovery. Of course I make it a point to walk up and down stairs at every opportunity.

I still need a bannister to lean on, but when one is present, I take the stairs. I’ve been able to walk up stairs normally – provided they aren’t too high and there is the aforementioned bannister present – for the past three weeks or so; for the last two weeks or so, I’ve been able to walk down stairs normally.

This tends to make my leg a bit sore at the point of the injury/surgical repair if I do it too much, but then, no pain no gain, at this point. My therapist, Mistress Lien, continues to be pleased with my progress. Although when I showed up last week – having canceled my weekly appointment the previous week because I was barfing up chunks of lung – and I looked like death and was braying like a donkey when I coughed, she politely inquired wtf I was doing there.

I wasn’t going to miss another week of therapy, I said, cold or no. Besides, a little physical activity might help – get the lymph moving around, and whatnot. And I’ve noticed that when my sinuses are swollen, physical activity is one of the few things that relieves them – the blood flows elsewhere, for a bit.

To top it all off I accepted a bit of freelance web development work from an old acquaintance that I know through work, and that’s kept me busy too, lo these past weeks. But I’ve enjoyed getting my hands dirty with CSS, PHP and whatnot again. Nerd is as nerd does. But as I say, no time for anything else.

Karma for Funky Walk: I’m Sorry Larry

I howl with rage and despair, just like this dog. Despair_by_FluffleNeCharkaAs I’ve noted before, I’ve been more than a little obsessed with the existential meaning behind my torn quadriceps tendon. I can’t help but think to some degree that perhaps that it is karma. Maybe not for one thing, but maybe for several little things. Maybe my karmic bank vault was a little too full and some sort of cosmic pressure valve opened – and I suffered a serious injury stepping off a bus.

The other day I was walking through the park – my gate is almost normal, at this point – when my leg buckled and I stumbled and nearly fell before I recovered. In order to walk with a near normal gate I still have to consciously think about it; my leg is still too weak otherwise and I limp noticeably. The buckling happens less and less as my leg gets stronger, but it still happens once in a while.

I found myself drawing stares from other people in the park, stares like I haven’t drawn since I left the crutch at home. It’s funny how quickly I’ve gone from an object of amazement – a foreigner walking with a crutch! In public! Out in the street! – to just another expat walking around Sai Gon. Once again the only people that give me a second glance these days are people that want to sell me something.

But as I regained my balance after my leg buckled that day in the park, I crossed a vast gulf of time, back to grade school and junior high, and in my minds eye I pictured a kid named Larry. Larry – or as a friend and I had dubbed him, as teenagers are wont to be cruel – Funky Walk.

Larry was suffered from what I presume now was some sort of congenital defect; one of his legs was malformed and didn’t quite point in the right direction, and he walked with a noticeable limp. I went to large suburban elementary school and junior high school, and he was one of those kids you see around, in the halls, in the lunch room, but never get to know. Of course, Larry stood out because of his rolling, rocking gate.

In junior high I had a friend; let’s call him “Ralph.” For a year or two we were pretty tight buds, and then in high school we grew apart. It was one of those growing-up kind of things where at some point you stop and think “why was I friends with that guy? He’s an asshole.” Granted, Ralph might very well have thought the same thing about me.

Keep on Truckin' Larry, wherever you are -- sorry we were teenage dicks. Anyway, whenever we saw Larry around school, we always remarked “there goes Funky Walk.” He looked like that iconic “Keep on Trucking” guy drawn by R. Crumb — himself iconic — when he walked. Teenagers can be real dicks, and I was no different, unfortunately.

I haven’t thought about Larry in decades; not since high school, of course. But the other day, I could picture him in my mind’s eye as if it were 1982 and I had just passed him in the halls of Anderson Junior High. His long dishwater blonde hair, black t-shirt and faded boot cut jeans (Larry actually looked pretty hip for a kid in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1982, come to think of it).

Must have been tough growing up with that abnormal gate. He probably went to a lot of doctors and physical therapists, and in the end he was stuck with it – unlike me, who has a light at the end of his gimpy tunnel. I remember at some point in high school, I was hanging out with a girl, and Larry walked by, and I said something like “There goes Funky Walk.”

I guess I wasn’t quite into my more-thoughtful, post-teenage-dick phase yet. She informed me, and rightfully so, that I was an asshole, and that Larry was actually a pretty cool guy.

Larry, wherever you are are now, I owe you an apology. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I was and adolescent dickhead. Having had a small taste of what it’s like, to be stared at because you aren’t as able bodied as everyone else, to say you have my respect would be an understatement.

Fuck Yeah! I can walk! And welcome all you meme googlers.P.S. SEO Funnies

It seems a lot of people are out there are wandering the Vast Series of Tubes in search of things related to the “Fuck Yeah” meme. My previous post has generated a lot of traffic in the month that it’s been up, most of which came from Google searches for “fuck yeah;” it’s become the second most popular landing page on this blog. Notably, it doesn’t contain the words “fuck yeah” anywhere in the post, but it does sport an example of the Fuck Yeah meme in the form of an image, and “fuck yeah” is included in the image tags (’cause I’m a good little search engine optimizer).

Of course I used that image because it adequately conveyed how I felt, being able to walk unaided and ride a bike, albeit a stationary one, for the first time since I ruptured my quad tendon. So for all you folks who landed here, read my meandering prose and all the while wondered “what the hell,” I bid you welcome.

And fuck yeah. I can walk. I may look like an R. Crumb cartoon when I do it, but I can walk.

My Quadriceps Tendon Torn Asunder

Surgery, Quadriceps tendon tear: with my kneecap slipped down below the joint, if you look closely and you can see the end of femur. So the day before the previous entry, December 23rd, I was stepping off the bus around the corner from where I teach English here in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam, when the quadriceps tendon in my right leg completely tore away from my patella – the tissue that connects my thigh muscles to my kneecap.

I was stepping down onto the last step of the bus prior to stepping off onto the pavement when I heard a snap and fell onto the street, landing on my left side. Immediately I thought the bus’ stairs must have broken or otherwise collapsed – this particular Sai Gon bus happened to be pretty ramshackle. I looked over my shoulder back at the bus, but the steps were intact. Then I tried to stand up, and realized something was dreadfully wrong.

I could feel my lower right leg, but I couldn’t move it – nothing happened when I tried to move it, much less put weight on it. What’s more, I could see, even through my pants leg, that my patella was no longer where it should be, that it was in fact now located well below and to the left of the knee joint (if you were looking at my knee) – it was literally resting on top of the ends of my shin bones.

I specifically remember thinking, as I lay there in the gutter: “Oh fuck. That’s not right.”

About this time it started to hurt. Yet it didn’t hurt as much as one might think, thanks to the process of going into shock. I’ve only experienced this twice before, and the last time was more than 10 years ago. I had forgotten just how unpleasant it is – I’d rather deal with the pain than having to alternate between trying not to pass out and trying not to puke.

It was an interesting taxi-ride to the hospital, to say the least.

Now before anyone asks, no, the bus was not moving when this happened; it had actually come to a complete stop before I had descended its steps (this isn’t always the case with public buses here in Viet Nam). And as it turns out there was no organic reason for this to happen, apparently; no heretofore undiagnosed degenerative disease or other orthopedic problem. Rather, it is just chalked up to “one of those things,” i.e. random chance – “I stepped wrong.” Apparently my foot caught in such a way that my forward and downward momentum combined along with the position of my foot to tear my quadriceps tendon in twain.

I suspect it might have something to do with the half sandal/slipper shoe that I wear – make that past tense – wore to class, something that I could easily kick off during class, as I loathe shoes with a passion (one of many reasons to return to this part of the world). Perhaps my foot slipped ever so slightly at just the right moment. But I really don’t know; there seemingly is no reason for this – other than karma, perhaps – and this is the most maddening aspect of this whole experience – one of many, to be sure.

Just a random Yuletide Fuck You from the Universe. Once more: well played, Christmas.

Β But What’re These Gory Pictures? A Few Notes on the Surgery

My surgically repaired quadriceps tendon. Now my patella is where it should be.

Eeewww! Gross! Or, perhaps, cool! Fascinating! It all depends on which end of the squeamish spectrum you reside, I suppose. As you can guess, I live on the latter end. I find stuff like this endlessly fascinating, although I admit, given that it’s my blood and flesh cut open, the first time I viewed these images it did make me somewhat uncomfortable for a brief moment.

Anyway, my orthopedic surgeon here at Ho Chi Minh City’s FV Hosptial, Dr. Phat – cuz Phat is where it’s at — was kind enough, at my request, to snap a few photos during my surgery. These aren’t just any surgery photos, Dear Gentle Reader; that’s the interior of my knee laid open for you to see, in all it’s bloody and torn glory.

If you look closely at the first image above — go ahead, click on it, and enjoy the bloody hi-rez gore — you can actually see into my knee joint, and consequently the end of my femur. That’s because my patella, or kneecap, is nowhere to be seen; it’s still residing below the joint, just beyond the end of the incision (to the right of the image, which is in the direction of my foot; my thigh is oriented to the left). Dr. Phat — or a nurse or some other assistant — has the end of my torn quadriceps tendon in the forceps on the left of the image.

Frankenknee: 36 hours after surgery to repair a quadriceps tendon tear.In the second image, my tendon is all stitched up and reattached to my patella. Note you can no longer see down into the knee joint — that’s the way it is supposed to be. There are actually two different layers of sutures or stitches; again, if you look closely you can see some of these (they happen to be blue). I’ve forgotten to ask Dr. Phat three times now how exactly the sutures are connected to the patella, but from my research into the surgery I gather he likely drilled some holes into the bone.

Neato, huh? This final image over here on the right is my leg, all stitched up and put back together again, about 36-hours after surgery.

Looking Back on a Father’s Death

Sculptor August Rodin's Falling ManWell, Dad, it’s been three years.

I sometimes wonder where I would have to go to escape the trappings and reminders of this time of year. The remote jungles of New Guinea or Argentina? The deserts of Africa? The Moon?

Then I wonder: were I ever to actually find such a place, would it really matter? Would it be enough to keep from thinking about what this time of year means? Would it be enough, when each hour, each minute that ticks by echoes and reverberates in my conscious, making me almost preternaturally aware of the passage of time, as it ticks down to these two black anniversaries looming – each moment resonating in me like the telltale heart that beats under Poe’s floorboards.

No, I suppose it wouldn’t. And as I’ve remarked before, part of me doesn’t want to forget, painful as it is to remember, painful as it is that your last breath lingers in a corner of my mind, and will for as long as I have one.

I did manage to forget about this time of year for awhile yesterday and the day before. I had just moved into my temporary apartment – because my actual apartment that I’m renting (in the same building as the aforementioned room) won’t be available until January 3. Upon moving into this temporary room in the same building I found not one but two roaches. Granted one was dead, and here Southeast Asia, frankly, as in any warm climate, there’s really no avoiding the occasional roach; you’re going to find one in your bathroom sooner or later. Still, it’s not a welcome site on your first day in your new pad.

But Wait, There’s More!

Then I woke up yesterday to find the hot water heater isn’t working. Okay, roaches and no hot water – maybe I should have spent more time apartment hunting, eh Dad? Maybe the extra money I was spending on that guesthouse was money well spent. At least it had hot water and no roaches.

Then last night, I log onto my bank account back in the United States just to verify the funds I believe I have in there, before I buy some plane tickets and hotel reservations for a trip next month. After all, Dad — even though I know you would look askance at my spending habits, being a child of the Depression and whatnot – some of what you and Mom tried to teach me permeated my thick skull: I make it a point never to spend money I don’t have. So a glance upon logging in reveals that there is considerably less money than there should be in my account – specifically about a $1,000 less.

I look closely at the recent transactions and see a bunch of transactions that show up as international ATM withdrawals – withdrawals that I never made. Four of the five of these transactions all appear on the same date as the day that I last used my card myself. I remember specifically when I last used it, as I have a local account with an ATM card here in Viet Nam, which I use for day to day cash needs. Furthermore, I save all my ATM receipts (again the influence of you and Mom).

Yeah, I know, if I would just use banks instead of ATMs, and actually deal with people this wouldn’t have happened. But you know, Dad, I’ve been using ATMs to do my banking since 1988, and this is the first time something like this has happened. Yes, I should probably consider myself fortunate, mucking about in parts foreign, that this hasn’t happened before.

But what’s really odd is that I still have my card in my possession. And no, as I answered to the customer service person I talked to last night, I never let anyone else use it, and it was never out of my possession. While the ATM codes within the transactions listed in my account are somewhat inscrutable, it appears that these transactions took place in Russia – Stalingrad, in fact.

Russian crooks here in Viet Nam have somehow spoofed my ATM card. Fuckers. Not sure how; even if they were able to observe me enter my pin, would my card have been out long enough to capture an image with high enough resolution to see the number on the card? Could they have hacked the ATM machine, either electronically or physically?

Furthermore, is it too late to nuke what remains of the Soviet Union? Where’s Ronald Reagan and Caspar Weinberger when I need them?

Damned if I know. I just know I’m not going to use the ATM’s in the backpacker ghetto of District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City anymore. And since I don’t have access to nuclear weapons, I’ll just have to bend over and take it. Of course I don’t know that they were actually Russian; just because the transactions show up as having taken place at a Russian ATM doesn’t mean the thief or thieves were Russian.

Anyway now those charges are disputed, my card is invalidated, and I have to have a bunch of paperwork and my new card delivered via courier to me here in Viet Nam at my expense. The bank will only ship it to my address of record – that being my address back in the States – so it falls to me to arrange to get it here; one hopes one can trust the employees of Fed Ex.

So yeah, the last thirty six hours have kind of sucked, but such is the life lived abroad. You deal with these sorts of things when they arise or you go home. On the other hand, I had my first observation review with my boss at the school where I’m now teaching – the observation having taken place last week – and that all went well. Even so, it has occupied my thoughts of late. To say that I’ve been preoccupied these days would be an understatement.

And yet, Dad … and yet.

Underneath it all, I’m still acutely aware of the passage of time; acutely aware of just what time of year it is. Despite the fact that temperatures are still approaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and the weather is humid; despite the fact that the trees are green and flowers bloom and local fruit is readily available – despite this I know that it is winter and the time of dread anniversaries.

The trappings of the season one finds in Viet Nam, and indeed much of Southeast Asia – a secular version of Christmas with skinny Santas in flashy gold outfits and sappy versions of Christmas songs I never knew existed until I came here (I hear covers of Wham’s β€œLast Christmas” 10 times a day; it’s a terrible pop song so be glad you haven’t heard of it) – these all serve as reminders as well. The fact that they are almost always seemingly culturally out of place only make them stand out that much more – that and the fact that it’s all unironically and unapologetically consumerist in nature.

So here we are Dad, three years to the day down the road. Well, I’m here, anyway, but you are not.

And that is indeed what this is all about, isn’t it? The fact that you aren’t here, that you are gone, never to return. Actually as I write this it is only the early morning of December 16 back home in the States, so technically the anniversary of your death won’t be for several more hours yet. But here on the other side of the planet, that day is already here.

And even though three years of passed – and what eventful years they’ve been in my life – you’re still never far from my thoughts. It is rare that a day passes and I don’t think of you or Mom, for one reason or another.

A Road Less Traveled?

It seems hard to believe that three years have passed since your death, and that it will be 11 years in January since Mom died; this time of year always makes your deaths seem so close to me in time. Like my memories of her, some of my memories of you have begun to fade, while others sharpen. As my own age begins to catch up with the age you were when my earliest memories were forming, those childhood images I have of you seem to gain clarity.

It boggles my mind to think that when you were 42 – well, in a few weeks I’ll be 43, won’t I? – that I was already two years old, and that you had three older children, two of which were teenagers already. There but for the grace of God (or more precisely, vulcanized rubber) go I.

I suppose it’s somewhat ironic, this, considering the country where I live currently – many if not most of my students have parents my age; often they are even younger than I. Here in Southeast Asia people find it even more incomprehensible than you and Mom did that I have no wish for marriage and family – that someone would chose to be solitary, and happily so. Some of my students got me a piggy bank for Teacher’s Day here in Viet Nam because, according to them, I need to save money in order to get married. Then one of the Vietnamese people I work with asked me the other day If I had ever married; I told him with a smile that I had dodged that bullet. I added that I was engaged once, though, but that I had wised up before it was too late.

He looked mystified and just said β€œOh, I’m sorry,” because in his world view there could be other response to this than condolences. It was one of those β€œToto-we’re-definitely-not-in-Kansas” moments I relish living abroad. I grok a little bit more about the local culture and that of my own, and consequently myself – and this is a wonderful thing; it’s ultimately why we travel, yes?

I only wish you could be here to talk about all this in person. There’s so much I’d like to tell you about the last three years. I count myself fortunate that I at least had a few years to get to know you not as your child but as a fellow adult – albeit one whose life took very different turns than your own (sometimes to your chagrin, I know). I think I was only just beginning to come into my own person as a fully-formed adult – yes, I hear you laughing as you say that when I was in my 20s you didn’t think that day would ever come – when Mom died. I rue the fact that I was only just beginning to get to know here as one adult to another when death took her; if there is any sort of justice in the universe someone will have to answer for that after my own death comes.

In any event Dad, once again know that you are gone but not forgotten – that you never could be. That in some ways, even though life goes on, that time passes, that the ghosts remain quiet for long stretches of time, know that I’m still standing by your bedside watching impotently as entropy takes you away from me, that even as it does this, that I declare that it can be damned along with the entire universe before I will forget

Wherever you are now, know this, Dad.

Even though my siblings and I let you down in such a horrible way, I hope your spirit can find some solace in this.

Back in ‘Nam … and the Classroom

A portrait in ink done by a student and aspiring artist of the Lego school of yours truly, Jeff ChappellSo yeah, I took some time off. I took some time off from pretty much everything.

I know that sounds dark, ominous and sinister and whatnot, which ordinarily might not be entirely surprising for me and mental effluvium receptacle that is this blog. But this is not the case. Rather, after I left Viet Nam and returned to the States in March of this year, I basically just goofed off for the next seven months. I got lazy while I recharged my mental and spiritual batteries. I kicked back and thought about what it was I want to do – that is, when I wasn’t playing video games, building/tinkering with computers, experimenting with barefoot running, and generally loafing about reading in cafes and bars.

Writing – including blogging – as you can see, was not on that list. I thought about writing a lot though, if that counts.

As always, I’m grateful beyond words for my parents having made it possible for me to have this as an option at this point in my life. But on the other hand, while they left me some money, they didn’t make me independently wealthy, at least not to the point where I could continue a Larry Darrell-esque lifestyle indefinitely. This was coupled with the fact that I was only home about three or four months when I began to get itchy feet (which I anticipated would happen).

Hmm … that link should generate some interesting web traffic. But I digress.

So after much thought about the present and the future, today finds me sitting in a cafe in Sai Gon, where it’s pissing down at the moment of this writing. I’ve been back in Viet Nam a little more than a month now, having arrived via Thailand, where I spent three weeks avoiding floods and goofing off while eating Thai food and indulging in light debauchery.

Fiona, a Vietnamese student expounds upon the word "cold."I’m teaching ESL once again, and so far three times has proven once again to be a charm, on the employment front. Several months ago, when I first began entertaining the notion of giving it one more go, I recalled that my journalism career was marked by two unpleasant episodes before a satisfactory situation was found. Thus I reasoned it might be so with teaching English.

So I took what lessons there were to be learned from my previous experiences, and employed them in my search for a job. Thus I find myself once again back where I started: I’m working for the school where I took the CELTA course here in Sai Gon. Is it a metaphorical bed of roses? No. But neither is it a manure-laded bed of thorn bushes either. In fact I’ve managed to avoid the biggest pitfalls of the previous ESL episodes of my short ESL career.

More on all this later. But for now, let it suffice to say that I’m back in Sai Gon – pho and ca phe sua da for breakfast and geckos barking in the middle of the night – and back in the online saddle with the urge to write and blog once again.

Of course the real reason I came back to Southeast Asia, so I wouldn’t have to rename this site.

Postscript: Wondering about the images? Well, the first one is a portrait of me done by one of my students who is an aspiring artist of the Lego school. Then there is teenage Fiona – that being her chosen English moniker for class – who felt my stick figure drawing used to elicit the word β€œcold” needed to be embellished. And last but by no means least are the three elementary artistes, three of my Vietnamese youngsters who are clearly excited by the arrival of Christmas.

As always click ’em to big ’em.


A Vietnamese Christmas, as depicted by Jeff Chappell's elementary ESL students.


Vietnamese kids are excited by Christmas too -- at least those in Jeff Chappell's ESL classes.

Living Abroad: It Ain’t Vacation

*insert voice over* Previously on the Gecko’s Bark:Yearning to Travel Abroad (Again)

Living abroad ain't all double rainbows over Bangkok, you know. So in that last wall of text I was going on about how I found myself with the urge to travel, now that I’ve been home three months. Since I put up that post I’ve talked to a few friends – sadly, they’ve never been beyond the borders of North America – about living abroad vs. traveling abroad.

Keep in mind that this is my experience, and mine alone. Others I’ve talked to that have lived abroad have had similar experiences; others completely different. Your mileage (kilometereage, if you live outside the United States) may vary, of course, should you choose the expat life.

Whaddya Mean, I’m Not on Vacation? Living Abroad …
It’s All Fun and Games, Adventure and Excitement, Isn’t It?

But let’s define living abroad. After all, if you’re alive, and you’re abroad, technically, I suppose, you’re living abroad. Obviously that’s not quite what I mean.

Living abroad, as in you’re living an everyday life: you’ve got a place of employment and permanent place to live (semi-permanent, perhaps, but you get the idea). You become a regular part of a neighborhood; the people that run the corner coffee shop know what you drink without having to ask (although in most parts of Asia, they will anyway as a matter of course). You’re not on an extended vacation or trip; you’ve got a daily routine.

But therein lies the rub of living abroad vs. traveling abroad. The same things that you may not like, or are ambivalent about, at home, don’t really change once you get established abroad. If you have a commute to work, you’ve got traffic to worry about. The same problems you encounter renting an apartment or house in your own country can be the same problems renting in a foreign one.

Routine is routine; the mundane details of everyday life don’t magically disappear because you’re in some far off exotic locale. Novelty only goes so far, and what’s more, it won’t iron your work shirts for you.

Living abroad ain't sipping ca phe sua da in a coffee shop everyday ... well, actually it is, in Viet Nam.Furthermore, living abroad, you have the added layer of not speaking the native tongue or understanding the local culture, except perhaps in a very broad sense. Sure you’ve read the culture chapter in Lonely Planet, and watched a few indie films made in this country, but this will only get you so far (and not very).

Everyday things that you can take for granted back home – driving to work, going to the grocery store, meeting friends for coffee, going shopping for clothes – becomes an adventure abroad. At first, the adventure is fun and stimulating; you’re learning a new language and a new culture in ways you never could otherwise.

This is a good thing; this is what you signed up for.

But on the other hand, after a few months, you just want to buy groceries, as opposed to having an adventure. At some point, after that novelty wears off, not having an adventure everyday starts to sound pretty nice.

And trust me, even after you’ve been there for months, there never is a routine for the expat; every trip to the grocery store has the potential for adventure, if not outright debacle. I suppose if you’ve lived there for years, are fluent in the language and understand the subtle nuances of culture – you can avoid unwanted adventure.

Of course a lot depends on where you choose to live abroad. Speaking of which, I’m going to go off on a tangent, but one neatly encapsulated by a drop-down box, for your reading convenience. Feel free to skip altogether and come back later, if you wish.

[learn_more caption=”Morons Looking for the *Real* Culture”]People – especially those who really don’t have a clue about travel – talk about finding the real culture.

I must have heard it a thousand times before I left, a thousand more while I was there, and a thousand more in the months I’ve been back. But what about the “real” Thailand or the “real” Viet Nam?

You hear it all the time among travelers and would be travelers; it’s a near constant refrain in any backpacker’s ghetto. “I want to experience the real insert country/culture here.”

This attitude is so unbelievably racist and elitist as to boggle one’s mind. You know what? Do Thai people live there? Yeah? Well guess what? That’s the real Thailand. No, Suphanburi isn’t like Nong Khai; neither of those two towns are like Bangkok. But they’re all real Thai cities.

If I could give people traveling or moving abroad for the first time one piece of advice, it would be to get that stuipd idea of what’s real out of your head; lose that mindset that you need to see a quote-unquote real place. You’ll miss the real place, the real culture, and the real people altogether if you do. [/learn_more]

I think the level of everyday adventure you experience as an expat can vary with the type of place you chose to live. If you do live in a more cosmopolitan place abroad – say Bangkok or Hong Kong, Paris or Berlin, for example – you’ll find it easier than living in a smaller town – but not for the reasons you might think. At least if you’re like me.

In these places it’s easier to be anonymous – you’re just one of many foreigners. But in the small town, you will be one of a few, perhaps even the only one. This can be good; it can even be pretty cool – again, you’ll learn things about this foreign culture you wouldn’t otherwise. It can also be bad; you’re always “the foreigner.” Eyes will follow you wherever you go, and you will always be the center of attention – the least detail will be the subject of endless fascination to the locals.

Sometimes you’ll even get treated like you’re their to entertain people, like they expect you to break out into a song and dance routine for their amusement. It’s a rare occurrence, but it does happen. In Thailand, where it happened more often to me than in Viet Nam, I came to think of them as “hey falang!” moments.

Hey! You! Funny Looking Foreigner! Amuse Us!

A hey falang! moment is when you are walking down the street, minding your own business and some guy(s) will literally jump in front of you, get in your face and shout “Hey, falang! HELLO!” and then laugh maniacally with his friends at your nonplussed expression. It’s something that someone would never do to their fellow natives, but don’t think twice about doing it to a foreigner.

Even the Thai Ronald McDonald is mocking you, falang! I keed, I keed ... Again, it’s rare, but it happens. It happened to me a number of times. Sometimes it’s just alcohol and curiosity combined with self consciousness that fuels a hey falang! moment; other times it’s people genuinely being assholes.

But it can happen in any country; I’ve seen my fellow Americans bust out the U.S. version of hey falang! and treat foreigners in a public place, such as a shopping mall or restaurant, in ways they would never even dream of treating another American. I’ve seen it happen the streets of Paris; I’ve seen it happen on the streets of Dublin, too. It can happen anywhere (except maybe Japan) so please don’t get the idea that it’s a Southeast Asian thing. It’s a human thing; we’re dicks like that, homo sapiens.

Ignorance knows no political, social, economic, ethnic or cultural barriers, unfortunately.

But I’d say the hey falang! guys you run into are the exceptions that proves the rule: the large majority of the people you meet in Southeast Asia will be very polite and treat you with courtesy and respect. Once they get over their embarrassment that they don’t speak English, that is.

Can you imagine being in any Western country where people would be embarrassed because they met a foreigner on the street and couldn’t speak that person’s native tongue very well? Me neither.

But the bright side of the hey falang! experience is that it gives you a new found respect and sympathy for immigrants. It isn’t easy always being under the spotlight; it can be particularly unpleasant when you’re just trying to go about your everyday life. In fact, sometimes being the foreigner is just plain depressing.

Being the Big Man on the Foreign Campus

Brando as the Ugly American in not-quite Viet Nam.It can be particularly distressing if you don’t like being the center of attention, that is (like me). Some expats love it, though. They get off on the fact that they are the center of attention wherever they go – that they have de facto rock star status. That they are the big expat fish in the small foreign pond.

And I’m not just talking about the stereotypical fat, ugly old guy who has been there 20 years and still can’t speak the language – the one with the cute local girlfriend young enough to be his daughter. Sometimes you’ll meet expats that have a deep love and respect for the local culture who have gone native to a large degree, while still enjoying and even encouraging the attention derived from their foreign rock star status.

I have trouble comprehending both of those types of expat. But live and let live; to each their own.

For myself, I found that after a year living abroad, I was tired of being the foreigner. I was tired of being a rock star and not being able to set foot outside my apartment without stopping conversations and traffic. I got tired of causing a ruckus at the supermarket or a snarl of traffic, just by mere presence. It made me spiritually tired in a way that doesn’t happen here in my native land, where I can walk down the street and I blend in with the scenery – no one gives me a second thought.

On the other hand, there is that lack of adventure in the life at home. Stimulation – the constant moment-to-moment simulation of the alien that one finds abroad – is lacking. It’s perhaps telling that one of the first things I missed about living in Bien Hoa, Viet Nam was riding my bicycle in in the chaotic maelstrom of potential death that is traffic there.

That’s the beauty of traveling abroad: you get all the benefits without all the hassles of living abroad, aside from the occasional hey falang! moment. Or any inopportune moments you choose to be a dumbass.

I think for me there needs to be balance between travel and home. I don’t think I could be happy staying at home for very long at this point; Β but then I don’t think I can live abroad indefinitely, or even travel, indefinitely, had I the financial resources to do so. If only I could find a way to travel and work in some meaningful way, something that I enjoy that I can do on the road … hmmm …

Balance: the ability to return home to the familiar and process all that I’ve seen and experienced while away, then once that’s done and I’m spiritually rested: it’s time to hit the road again. When the restless sets in – when the passage of time and the sense of motionlessness becomes acute: then it’s time to go.

As for you, well, again, your kilometerage may vary.

Postscript: Almost forgot: “falang” — it’s actually spelled farang, but the “r” is pronounced as an “l” anywhere in Thailand except Bangkok (in my experience). Just like the r in “krap” is usually omitted and pronounced kap (as in cop) seemingly everywhere but in hiso Bangers.

Anyway, it’s a Thai word that means foreigner, but specifically Western, caucasian foreigner, as opposed to say, someone from another Asian country. To my knowledge it has no negative connotation, but like any word, in a certain context I can see how it could be perceived as an insult.

Pizza, Burritos and Guinness, Oh My!

Coming Home:
Reverse Culture Shock, Recalibration of an Expat Mind

Judy Garland: Jeffrey I don't think we're in Oz ... er, Viet Nam anymore!Forgive me Internet for I have been busy; it’s been more than a month since my last confession post.

What can I say? After 14 months abroad, being at home as been an endless distraction. I revel in the mundane of the every-day, middle-class life of Midwestern America; it has been a lot of reverse culture shock, but in largely good ways. My gods, the water pressure in the shower nearly knocks you down. And the water … it is so hot! Hot, hot HOT!

What’s more you can drink the water straight out of the faucet. And sometimes it falls from the sky, but not in drops, but in these strange and beautiful ice crystals, which sometimes accumulate enough to blanket everything in a whisper-sigh of white and silence.

What kind of crazy land is this?

Why, I can walk down the street, and no one pays me the slightest bit of attention; here I’m just another face in the crowd. I’m not the center of attention wherever I go; random passersby aren’t so astonished by my mere presence that their inattention knocks elderly women to ground. I’m just another nondescript citizen.

I like it; I can be the wallflower that I was meant to be.

But even after a month I still catch myself wandering out into the middle of the street in the middle of the block to cross, much to the aggravation of drivers who have little tolerance for my foreign ways. But do you know what happens when they come to an intersection here? Oh my various gods, they … they stop! If you’re turning left, do you know what the drivers behind you do? They either pass your on the right, or they actually just wait.

They wait for you to turn left! They don’t pass you on the left! And if you are the one turning left, you have to wait until no oncoming traffic is present! And get this – drivers generally don’t cut you off! No, really! It’s generally not done!

I know, huh? Crazy, whacky place this America is.

Pizza: Food of the GodsAnd the cheese! They have cheese here! It’s everywhere! In grocery stores, in restaurants, cheese! And cheese in burritos! ZOMG! Burritos! And pizza! And Guinness! My goodness my Guinness. I can actually walk. Walk down the street. Walk two blocks. Two blocks from here there is a bar. It is a bar that servers Guinness.

See what this means? I can have Guinness. I can drink Guinness whenever I want. It is only 1:20 am.; I could stop typing right now, put on my coat, walk those two blocks and have a Guinness. Because many of the bars here have Guinness. And they’re open – open until 2 a.m.

Astonishing. Simply astonishing. Think your Midwestern American city is sleepy? Try living in Southeast Asia for a year outside the tourist ghettos – your hometown will seem ridiculously cosmopolitan.

The Truth About Living Abroad: Is There One?

So what have we learned? We being the royal β€œwe,” as in β€œI” – just because I feel in a third-person plural kind of mood. Giddy, even.

Well, I have learned many things during and from my time abroad. I’m still processing it all, which is somewhat confounded by the fact that I have to recalibrate my psyche to life in my home country and culture. As I’ve remarked before, I think I learned more about myself than anything else. There are certainly truths to be gained by living abroad for a year, but are they universal? I’m not sure.

In fact, the older I get and the more I travel and experience the world, I tend to think they are not; We may not go through life with blinders on, but we certainly do go through life with filters on, whether we realize it or not and whether we want to, or not. Your Viet Nam isn’t my Viet Nam; my Thailand isn’t your Thailand.

The truth is, we shall never be separated again, Guinness, my love.Show me someone who claims that they do see the unvarnished truth of a matter – be it the truth of what their neighbors are like or the truth of what their nation’s culture is like – much less someone else’s culture – and I’ll show you someone that is deluded and biased. That is not to say though that these other truths of other people are not of value or that we can’t glean something from them. As such over the forthcoming days and weeks – I have more time on my hands these days – I hope to elucidate my experiences and what they meant to me – my truths, if you will.

I’ll start with one big one: traveling abroad and living abroad are two very different things. Before I left I suspected it would be; now I know it to be true. Of course living abroad is also an incredible, amazing andΒ  fun adventure. But at times, however, being a stranger in a strange land is a mental bitch-kitty, as my father might have described it.

But that’s all the truth and lessons learned for now; there will be more later.

In the meantime, let it suffice to say that I’m generally happy to be back. One can’t go home again, it’s true, but then half the fun of coming home is seeing what has changed and who has changed – and who and what hasn’t. And one doesn’t truly appreciate one’s own culture and country until you’ve been away a long time – there’s one of those subjective truths, to be sure. But I didn’t realize just how much I had missed some of the more mundane aspects of life here — logical, orderly traffic, pizza whenever the mood strikes, Guinness, fiber optics – the list goes on.

What Do I Miss? Cheating Death Daily

But it’s a two-way street (you’ll see how clever this bon mot is in just a moment). Every few days I catch myself thinking I’d love to get a bowl of phở and aCΓ  phΓͺ sα»―a Δ‘Γ‘ afterward; alas, I can’t do that.

The Boy Who Lived! (the urban bike nerd, Vietnamese edition)And I actually miss riding in traffic in Viet Nam on my bicycle, in much the same way that the seasoned veteran misses the adrenaline-fueled, danger-laden battlefield – happy to be home, perhaps, but the intoxicating lure of danger and violence beckons still. When I would get home from the grocery store or the bank in Bien Hoa, I would feel vibrant and exultant. I would look back on a thousand near-misses as I bobbed and weaved through the chaotic, exhaust-choked ballet of motorbike and taxi-cab death that was traffic that day (and every day) and think β€œAlive! gods, I’m alive! I live to ride another day! Victory! Hell yes!”

Traffic here at home is not nearly so crazy, and I grew up with it here, so I know how it works and what to expect. I don’t wonder if I’m going to buy the proverbial farm every time I leave the house. That’s good, yes, but it’s also not terribly exciting. When I get home, I’m just β€œgetting home” – there is no laughing at having cheated Death once again.

Now see what I mean? How many people who have lived in Viet Nam – or , let’s broaden our scope and say, Southeast Asia – and now that they are back home in the West, would say that one of the things they miss most is riding a bike? Truth and experience – it’s subjective. But if I had to pick one thing I miss most about everyday life in Viet Nam, it would be that.

But then, that probably says more about me than it does about Viet Nam.

P.S. One of the aforementioned distractions is pictured here below; this post was composed on my new desktop rig. One of the common myths about Asia is that you can buy cheap-ass electronics. And you can – but there is a caveat. If you want leading edge technology – and I’m a nerd and I do – you’re going to pay more, at least in Southeast Asia. This same system you see being built here – Intel i7 950, Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti, 6 gigs of DDR3 RAM, coupled with a 24-inch monitor with 2ms response time – would have cost me several hundred dollars more in either Thailand or Viet Nam. I know, because I priced a number of systems and components a number of times, because after about six months I was jonesing for video games – not to mention Photoshop and 3D rendering. And this is actually a generation behind the leading edge.

This is also true for camera equipment – I know that because I’m a dumbass.

Getting my computer and gaming nerd on: building my own rig.

Puzzlement Abroad: the Mysteries of Expat Life, Like Garbage and Monkeys

Garbage piled in the middle of the street in Bien Hoa, Viet Nam.One of the interesting and fun things about traveling abroad or living as an expat is that one sees things for which one has no cultural context; things that are mystifying and therefore fascinating. Beyond the initial shock, it is always an interesting puzzle to figure out the local context in which the seeming anomalies should be placed – the so-called “ah ha!” moment.

It’s gratifying and enlightening when one solves the puzzle. It opens up new perspectives – new ways of looking at the world, and consequently a better understanding of the culture Β you find yourself in.

But it can be frustrating when you can’t find the missing puzzle pieces, particularly when what mystifies you is a frequent occurrence; it adds to one’s sense of alienation. I think I’ve become inured to those sorts of things though; it’s best to just accept it and accept the fact that you don’t understand it, and be content with that, as many others before me have said.

Nevertheless, even after a year of living in Thailand and Viet Nam, I sometimes still see things that cause my jaw to drop, sometimes literally. Take for instance, the picture above, taken with my craptacular phone camera (in the dark, with no flash, in the rain: it’s a miracle there is an image at all, praise be to the levels adjustment in Photoshop).

Nancy Drew and the Case of the Garbage in the Street

Here in BiΓͺn HΓ²a, Saigon and I assume every city in Viet Nam big enough to have municipal garbage collection, people place their garbage in the street, next to the curb. That makes sense the world around, I think.

But then the other evening I was walking home from the coffee shop, and I see all of this garbage piled in the middle of the road – literally, smack-dab in the middle. As you can see judging by the size of the bicycle and the man scavenging said pile, it was of considerable size; certainly a traffic hazard in the dark, to be sure.

And it wasn’t scattered haphazardly, as if it fell off a truck or something. It was stacked up with neat precision. Some one piled it there deliberately.

Why? Why would you do this?

I’m not passing judgment and I’m not putting down my neighbors; I’m sure in their cultural context there is a rational justification for this. I just can’t figure out what that is (but then there are things about my own culture I’ve never been able to fathom adequately).

One could argue that they didn’t want to block the drainage culvert on the corner curb, which you can (barely) make out in the right of the photo; just prior to this it had been raining rather heavily. But then there is a sidewalk area at least 10-feet wide here – wide enough to park motorbikes two deep and then some. So why not pile it on the sidewalk if you don’t want to block the drain? Why pile it in the middle of the street?

I’ve been here long enough that not much catches me by surprise anymore, but this was one of those times. Right after I took the picture some kid came cruising along on his moto with his poncho draped over his headlight; he swerved at the last second to avoid it, wobbled on the wet pavement, and regained his balance at the last moment.

You might chalk this up to the fact that people tend, as a culture, to live in the moment here – at least much more than we do in the West. It’s a Buddhist influence, I suppose. It’s one of the things that many foreigners, myself included, find attractive about the cultures of Southeast Asia. But it also has it’s downside, I’ve noticed: people tend not to think about potential consequences of actions as much as they could and perhaps should.

Again, I’m not trying to judge – simply trying to understand why someone would pile a mound of garbage in the street.

Granted, I’ve been here two months now in this particular neighborhood, and this was the first time I’d seen such a thing. Perhaps there was some sort of extenuating circumstance that I’m not privy too that would explain why someone’s garbage was piled in the middle of the street.

Loudspeakers and Monkeys and a Bear, Oh My!

Loudspeakers and Monkeys and a Bear Oh My! Bien Hoa, Viet Nam street scene.Then there are times when you see things that don’t necessarily mystify you from a cultural anthropology standpoint but are nevertheless stunning because it’s something you just wouldn’t see back home. Case in point are these pickup trucks bearing loudspeakers, monkeys and a bear.

I was sitting at the aforementioned coffee shop working one afternoon when I started hearing a loudspeaker above the usual traffic din; someone was doing their best carny tout routine in Vietnamese. It got louder and louder until the trucks you see here stopped and parked across the street while the loudspeaker guy – by this time it was nearly deafening – continued to prattle on. He seemed to go on for 15 minutes, but I’m sure that is only my perception; in reality it was probably more like five.

This kind of loudspeaker-atop-a-vehicle advertising is not uncommon here, though. What was amazing was the small captive bear and the captive monkeys.

Why are there monkeys held captive with ankle chains in the back of this pickup? Why is there a small, tired looking bear being agitated by a teenage boy? Is the circus in town? A traveling miniature menagerie? And what is this guy prattling on about, seemingly forever?

I’m sure if I could speak Vietnamese beyond being able to order food and tell a cab driver which way to go, I would know and it would all make sense. I tried to ask the girl who works at the coffee shop, but she speaks no English at all.

Thus, it remains a mystery.

Expat Life Passes One Year Mark

A puppy resident of the Sao Mai Hotel, Bien Hoa, Viet Nam
At least there are puppies ...

So, as I write this I imagine a few of my friends back home are still awake, winding down their revels as the first rays of the New Year sun bathe the Midwest of America (in places where it isn’t snowing). Here in Viet Nam it’s New Year’s Day afternoon, which also marks the anniversary of an entire year living abroad, here and in Thailand. In that time I’ve learned less about these two lands and cultures than I would have thought – but then not even life as an expat can keep me long from my appointed navel gazing. In that respect, however, I’ve learned much, much more about myself than I anticipated.

It’s been a crazy, intense year; very exciting, enriching and rewarding, full of adventure and new experiences – all of which I’ve relished. At the same time it’s been a difficult, challenging and even frustrating year at times. There have been days when I just wanted to say to hell with it all and go home to America.

I suppose the most momentous thing in the last 12 months has been my foray into a teaching career; aside from the goal of living abroad, it was my whole raison d’etre for coming here in the first place – a change of careers. But – and it wasn’t completely unexpected – the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Teaching ESL: Not for Me

Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I’ve come to the conclusion that teaching, at least in an ESL context with young learners or otherwise low-level English students, is not for me. I suck at it, to put it bluntly. Furthermore, I didn’t feel any motivation to improve, but rather to just get out of it – it wasn’t fair to the students or myself, otherwise. There are cultural issues involved here, of course, but I think this is at the core of it.

I enjoyed working with adult, advanced students — a situation where I didn’t have to grade my language, and we could actually engage in meaningful discourse. I received largely positive feedback over the brief time I got to do this. But outside of that narrow context, no one was happy with me as a teacher, myself included.

Well, that’s not completely true. The folks in Thailand said they were happy with my performance, and I did establish a rapport with my first grade students that I did enjoy to a degree. Yet on the whole I was abjectly miserable in Thailand – but the how and why are beyond the scope of this particular missive.

I would also add that of all the negative things you hear and read about the ESL industry here in Southeast Asia, they are largely true, to one degree or another, depending on the context. This doesn’t help matters any.

But there is a larger issue at work here. After a decade of telecommuting, setting my own hours and to varying degrees being my own boss, I don’t want a structured work environment anymore. I just can’t — nor do I want — to handle it: one where I have to be at a certain place at a certain time for a specific amount of time, dressed a certain way, blah blah blah. No thanks.

It’s kind of ironic, but the part of the whole ESL adventure I enjoyed the most was getting the CELTA certificate. It was an enjoyable — if intense – course; I couldn’t help but enjoy learning about teaching methodologies, linguistics, and so forth. Like college, for me getting out and applying the knowledge gained wasn’t nearly so much fun or interesting as being exposed to and absorbing that knowledge in the first place. If only I could be a permanent student.

But then, aren’t we all permanent students, really? Well, at least some of us. But I digress.

Of course in my original grand scheme for my expat adventure, I was going to fall in love with teaching, be good at it, and live happily abroad doing it for several years. Alas, that was not to be, but I learned a lot, including some valuable lessons, so I have no regrets.

Living Abroad: Not the Same as Traveling Abroad

I’ve always enjoyed travel – although sometimes business travel could be a pain in the ass – and having a restless soul, I tend to only feel at peace when on the road. Home is always where I lay my head down at night, or so I’ve said. Give me the stimulation and adventure that new places provide, and the accompanying new sites, sounds, smells, and experiences.

But traveling abroad and living abroad are two different things. Being a traveler is not the same as being an expat.

I’ve found that after a time, I tend to want the comforts of home, for awhile – my own place (as opposed to a hotel room), for starters. A coffee shop where they know me and I can hang out for hours on end, writing, reading, or just navel gazing. A place to absorb, ponder, and process what I’ve seen and learned in my travels. A neighborhood where I know where the good restaurants are, and where the grocery store is, and what times it is open. A place where there is a quiet bar with Guinness on tap.

Simple matters, you say. However when you live abroad in a country where you don’t read or speak the language except perhaps a little, and the finer points of the culture escape you, then these simple things become complex matters. Just getting around can be a challenge.

At some point, the stimulation of travel evolves into trials and tribulations of everyday life.

And it is at this point that one misses home. Well, I should clarify and quantify that statement. This applies only to me, of course; your mileage may vary.

But while I do miss friends and family sometimes, what I miss about home is something much more fundamental. I miss being able to get around the neighborhood, buy groceries, or go to a restaurant and order takeout food – without any of it being a grand, epic adventure. Fundamental things, as I say – being able to speak the language, or having an implicit understanding of the cultural norms – a place where I don’t have to pause to consider why the cashier is doing what she’s doing in the manner in which she is doing it.

That’s what I miss most while living abroad: the simple ease of life at home, ease that’s born out of the simple fact that I was raised in that culture, and lived in it for 40 years, and have a native’s intuitive understanding of it, and know how to navigate in it.

At the end of the day, there really is no place like home. Who knew?

And in that sense, I’ve further learned that people really are products of their environment to very large degrees. I’m not discounting the influence of genetics, of course, but environment plays a big part of who we are.

Even if I were to spend the rest of my life abroad, to a certain degree I would always be American. Again, I don’t mean on a political or even a cultural level, but on a fundamental, anthropological level, if you will – my thought processes, the way I see the world at a very basic level – I’m a product of my upbringing in ways I never really considered before.

I used to think I didn’t have much in common with my fellow average American, but compared to the peoples of Southeast Asia, well, I’m a Yankees, beyond doubt.

Confucious Say Take a Picture: It Will Last Longer

Queen Ann of Bien Hoa, Viet Nam
... and pretty girls.

Which brings me to my next point. If you tend to be a bit of a misanthropic loner, then in a Confucian land you will stick out like a neon motel sign on a dark stretch of two-lane highway, ironically enough. If you prefer to keep to yourself more often than not, living in Southeast Asia can be difficult at times, particularly if you live in an area where foreigners are scarce and the people tend to be a bit insular. Community and family are paramount here; here there’s not much cultural room for the individual.

I relish meeting new people and experiencing new cultures; that’s one of the great joys of travel abroad. But there comes a time when I just want to walk to the coffee shop, sit down by myself, relax, read my book, drink my coffee, and not be bothered. When I’m not traveling I want the comforts of home, and that includes being left alone to my own devices. Furthermore, I’ve always been a bit of a wall flower, and happily so – I generally abhor being the center of attention, except on those rare occasions – usually fueled by alcohol – where I might seek the metaphorical spotlight.

Of course, living this way is not much a problem at home in America. But here in Southeast Asia, particularly outside the cosmopolitan centers of the larger cities, it becomes problematic, to say the least. I draw stares wherever I go in Bien Hoa. Complete strangers stop me and want to engage in conversation – some out of simple curiosity, some wanting to practice their English, some with singular motivations of their own that I can’t always divine.

And personal space? Forget about that; that’s a Western concept, and something else I really miss, I must confess.

Again, when one is traveling, this is great. When one is simply living, and dealing with the everyday concerns of day-to-day life, all this gets old – at least it does for the misanthropic loner who is content, more often than not, to keep to himself. The first time teenagers run up to you in the mall to take your picture, it’s amusing. By the third and fourth time, however, it gets fucking annoying.

Okay, there is much more to write about along these lines, but 1,500-some words are enough for now.