Girl Meets World
By Ginny Tonkin staff blogger
Girl Meets World is a multimedia look at the sights, sounds, and insights of experiencing a different culture through teaching English as a foreign language.   Read more about this blog.
Posted: February 18th, 2011

3, 2, 1, Happy New Year! Wait a sec… didn’t we just do that?

Gravity-defying rice terraces on Bali, Indonesia.

Gravity-defying rice terraces on Bali, Indonesia.

Tet, or Vietnamese Lunar New Year marks the arrival of spring. The most important holiday in Vietnam, Tet is a time for family, and most Vietnamese return to their hometown to celebrate the new year and to wish each other prosperity for the coming year. Pre-Tet there’s much celebrating, well-wishing, and much mucking around waiting for the holiday to come. It’s like our Christmas holiday. During Tet, not much is open, and for the first time, I saw streets on HCMC quiet.

Businesses give employees time off, and most go travel. With my free time, I went to Indonesia with a few friends, visiting Bali and Jakarta. Watch for updates soon, including photos, on this growing colossus, but until then, enjoy the uploaded videos on my YouTube channel. If you can’t see them, click on the link to GirlMeetsWorld2010 on the video player.

Mount Batur-Bali: Is a 2:30 am wake-up call ever worth it? Can you hike a volcano in flip-flops?

Morning peaking through the fog on Mount Batur, Bali.

Morning peaking through the fog on Mount Batur, Bali.

Yes, to both those answers.

Although sneakers would have been nice.

A friend and I braved an early-morning to hike to the top of a Mount Batur, a volcano, overlooking the largest lake in Bali, Lake Batur.

Flip-flops? Yes (hand-to-forehead), I wore my chaco flip-flops. While shopping around for the best deal on a hiking tour, one woman informed us that the climb would only be an hour, and that it was so easy, you could do it in flip-flops.

Only partially true. It was two hours long. And although you can do it in flip-flops, our guide, Wayan, was so shocked, he offered his own pair of hiking boots.

The sun-rise in the fog was well-worth the hike, although it was colder than we expected. After sweating from the long ascent, we sat in the cool morning air, as our now wet backs prevented us from staying warm. A thin sweater I brought on a whim and a mug of hot tea from make-shift shop at the top saved me from icicle status.

In the video, I reference the small tea shack, then turn to the heat emanating from the volcano. Wayan, our Balinese guide, sticks his cigarette at the opening, highlighting the heat coming from the earth.

On the dissent from the top, we discovered we’d been hiking through farms made fertile by the volcanic soil. Wayan taught us Bahasa Indonesian while we got a chance to look at the lava flows and pumice rocks that formed the landscape.

Motorbikin’ in Mui Ne and  Touch-me-nots: Long over-due videos from my vacation to the Vietnamese beach town of Mui Ne after my CELTA course finished.

Motorbikin’: Everyone, everywhere drives a motorbike in Vietnam, and this sleepy town was a great place to learn. An automatic is an easier vehicle to learn on, despite its heavier build than a manual.

Touch-me-nots: Although known for its beaches, Mui Ne also overs a hike through the Fairy Stream riverbed to end at a waterfall. Trudge through barefoot or with strappy chacos for the best experience. Along the way, you can see unique flora, like banana flowers in banana trees, coconuts on palms, and touch-me-nots that close to the touch. In the video, my friend Angela explains what they’re called in the Philippines.

Check back to GirlMeetsWorld for more pictures and updates on my Tet holiday to Jakarta and Bali!

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Posted: January 20th, 2011

Apparently, it’s not a full day on the job as an English teacher in Asia if you don’t have tears, a fight, and a reference to how fat you are–all in the same day.

Let me explain.

The Young Learners market all over Asia is booming, so I have several kids classes–even at 7:45 Saturdays and Sundays. Since kids have school during the week, parents will send them when they don’t, on the weekend, the time kids in America would consider their precious time away from homework and tests. Teens spend their free time cramming for English language standardized tests that lead to study abroad opportunities.

Tears? It was the last day in class for my “Flyers” group, or my group of advanced 8-12 year-olds, and we were playing games. One of my 8-year-old students is very bright, but can’t sit still and bothers other students by acting out in class. He needed a chair, so he pulled one out from another girl who was about to sit. We sorted the problem out in no time, but it’s never a comforting feeling to suddenly turn around to one of your students in crumpled in tears on the floor.

A fight? I teach an adorable group of 7-8 year-olds for two hours Saturdays and Sundays things like colors, days of the week, and how to ask someone if they like ice cream. We play lots of games to practice language and keep them engaged, and naturally, the kids can get very competitive. After two boys’ turn at a board race, they ended up in a fist fight, arguing over one who had made fun of the other for losing the turn. My TA (Teacher’s Assistant) and I split it up quickly, but we had sullen faces for a couple minutes.

After these morning classes, I return to the teachers room, and relate what happened to my co-workers, one said, “What ’til you have blood in the same class, too.”

That leaves the fat reference. I have to preface this with several explanations. One, at 5’5″, I am taller than most of my Vietnamese counterparts, as are many westerners, so we are naturally larger than most. Two, due to Vietnamese history, as my friend explained to me, being more plump than others is a sign of wealth, thus being told you are fat is a huge compliment. Three, Vietnamese are not shy about telling or asking you for details that may seem rude in western cultures–like telling you that your shirt makes you look fat. In my evening teens class, we were working on physical descriptions, and the thirteen-year-old I called on described me as having blonde hair, being very beautiful, and being fat. Oh, only in Asia.

And if that didn’t make me feel great enough, my third-grade class had input on the subject, too. It’s my last class of the morning at a local primary school, and I’m trying to dismiss the class when one of my more enthusiastic girls sitting in the very back of the room jumps up and down, and says, “Teacher, I have a question!! Do you have baby?! Because your belly very big!”

Ooof. I swear, it was just because I was wearing a dress with an empire waistline! Naw, it doesn’t bother me, but it’s just one of those, “Really??” moments that makes you wince, and then smile.

Day by day, so much to learn. Let’s just hope I never have blood in the classroom.

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Posted: January 7th, 2011

Happy 2011 from HCMC, Vietnam! 12 hours ahead of Erie, PA, I welcomed the New Year while most of folks were eating last lunch 2010.

Did I make a New Year’s Resolution? I tried. Honestly.

Crossing the street in Saigon is not for the faint of heart. Notice the tangle of power lines above the street.

Crossing the street in Saigon is not for the faint of heart. Notice the tangle of power lines above the street.

Here it wast: “Update GirlMeetsWorld on a more consistent basis.” I liked it. Settled in HCMC with a great job and new digs, I felt like it was time to reconnect Stateside with some good ole’ fashioned bloggin’. The problem? My Internet connection at home is, to use a polite term, spotty. A few days ago, we discovered it may have been a less-than-technical issue–we needed to pay the bill. But even afterwards, I thank my lucky stars whenever I actually get a signal. My new housemate, who’s been living in VN at this address for seven months now says that even though we have wifi, a good connection is, at best, 90% chance. C’est la vie, in HCMC.

ASIDE from that, life is fantastic–never boring, to say the least. The past month and a half has been filled with interviews, substitute teaching, job offers, new faces, new friends, bidding farewell to others, and finally… a permanent place to call home. I didn’t want to get a place until I knew where I’d be working, so I crashed at an awesome guest house for a month.

It’s a thrill to say these words–”I LOVE MY JOB.” Summer 2010 will be one I’ll never forget, working a creative job that I loved straight after college. Now halfway around the world, I’ve found the same thing in a very different profession. Teaching at an English Language Center at the top of District 1, my working day is filled variety. I teach teen classes, 7-8 year-old young learner classes, “tween”-agers, a corporate class in a high-rise down the street, and a smattering of ages at two local primary schools. It seemed like a lot my first week, but now that I’ve gotten into a ryhtmn, I feel like I could teach definately teach more classes. Good planning is clutch for good classes, and it’s easy to get sucked into hours of planning. But after a few classes under your belt, you find what works and trim what doesn’t.

It’s amazing the emotional security attained with a steady paycheck and a place to hang your hat. And now that I feel settled with both, I feel like a queen. I’m subletting in a Vietnamese-style house in a clean alley, just a block from the Center, one street away from a park, and a quick 10 minutes from a grocery. My roommates are an interesting cross-section of western society in HCMC: two other English teachers, working at competing centers, and a French girl, fresh from university, an engineer at a French telecommunications company. The other teachers in the house are Americans as well; there aren’t hard feelings in Saigon, just a drive to move forward.

It’s funny, yet truly astounding, the rate of progress here–just in the time I’ve been in Saigon, I’ve already seen buildings rise, stores open, and business flourish. My favorite new restaurant is the “Vegetarian Restaurant,” a vegetarian friendly supply and eatery just a five-minute walk from my house. A bowl of faux Bun Bo Hue, a popular beef dish from Central VN made with “chay” (veg) “meat?” 30.000 VND, or $1.50. Fabulous. But, construction is non-stop, and workers often live on the street under a tarp by the project. The downside to the constant scurry is the awful pollution. My coworkers constantly complain about getting sick because of it. It’s a sad truth, but a face mask is a necessity while on a motorbike and some wear one just walking down the street. Thankfully, my commute is a quick stroll, but the pollution makes prolonged periods in traffic less than enjoyable.

For better or worse, HCMC is on full-throttle forward, and I’m here, witness to this historic period of Vietnam’s growth.

Posted in: Uncategorized
Posted: December 4th, 2010
We took our students to a bakery for a goodbye party on the last day. Needless to say the cake we had went to good use.

We took our students to a bakery for a goodbye party on the last day. Needless to say the cake we had went to good use.

No news is sometimes good news. But sometimes an update is just long overdue. I’ve already started working, but here’s an overview of the past month:

I have so much to be grateful for during this season of cheer. The CELTA course, which I would recommend to anyone up for a challenge and who’s serious about ESL, was fantastic. I received a Pass B, which is good (only 20% of applicants achieve a Pass B). The majority of our students were university-aged and a handful were middle-aged to older women—all the sweetest people imaginable, all interested in improving their English, which really makes a difference as a newbie teacher.

After the end of the course, a one of the ladies invited us to their hometown to do some charity work in Ben Tre, an outlying area that took us more than two hours out of the city with a group of local university students through a program called JumpStart. Started by a Vietnamese woman, JumpStart focuses on improving the educational opportunities for children in the more rural areas.

One of the Canadian teachers talks with the school kids peaking into the room

One of the Canadian teachers talks with the school kids peaking into the room

We spent the morning playing English learning games at a local school with some of our students, paired with some local HCMC university students and teachers from the Canadian International School. At first I was confused why so many students were flooding the school-yard—did that many students go to one school? I found out later that some of the students rode bikes and paddled up river by boat just because they heard foreign teachers were coming.

Another component of the JumpStart program are child sponsorships. For $45 a year, you can send a Vietnamese kid to school, with a uniform, and medical insurance. We visited a couple of the students sponsored by our Canadian friends. I hope to work with JumpStart again, because they are a well-run local charity.

Unfortunately, charity also happens to be big business in developing areas and places often prey on foreigners with little local knowledge, big guilt, and currency with a favorable exchange rate. This article by NYT columnist Nick Kristoff gives some great ideas for charitable giving during the holiday season.

If you’re interested in getting involved with volunteer work while abroad, do your homework first. While in Phnom Phen, I met with a friend working in an NGO, who recommended this article from the Guardian. He says volunteerism is the new colonialism, and explains how western tourist needs to placate their fleeting guilt in the developing world can lead to get rich quick schemes for the scrupulous who can slap the phrase “NGO” or “charity” to their business. That being said, there are some great opportunities to volunteer while abroad, just please, do your homework before you go.

After the CELTA ended, I decided to take the time to travel a bit more before starting work, a trip that took me to two new destinations in Vietnam and week through Cambodia. A group of four of us went to the small town of Mui Ne to be beach bums for a couple days. From a developing standpoint, Mui Ne is a great case study in the affect of tourism on an area. Just “discovered” ten years ago by tourism, the small fishing village is now a bustling destination, and the main street is lined with resorts to fit any kind of budget.

Mui Ne's sand dunes are just one attraction for tourists.

Mui Ne's sand dunes are just one attraction for tourists.

Resorts line the one, long stretch of highway that is the town of Mui Ne. The fishing village at the end of the point has now become a destination stop-over for tour groups wanting an “authentic” Mui Ne experience before they trot back to a fully-loaded buffet lunch at their resort. Banners from the Miss Earth Competition (another interesting case study on the affects the attention from any kind of “international” competition or conference can have on an area) hung on signs by the newly developed golf courses and above the busier strips of street.

The development tourism brings to Mui Ne is quite incredible; the infrastructure being installed is not only good for business, but well-planned, with an eye for expansion. The road just above Mui Ne, which leads to their now-famed red and white sand dunes, is wide, well lit, and has a row of manicured shrubs in the centerline. The coastal town is also known for its wind sports, and kite surfing is developing as an adrenaline-pumping opportunity for both locals and Australians wanting to start a business with Mui Ne’s unique location. I’ll be interested to see the difference just a year makes for the development of this small town.

After our fun in the sun (I got sunburn after running at 9am, so do be careful about covering up.), a friend and I took the next bus to Da Lat, a famed domestic tourist spot. Known as the land of eternal spring-time, Da Lat was the cool mountain getaway for the French colonials. We spent our time hiking and motor biking, appreciating that we actually had to wear layers to stay warm. Next stop: Cambodia.

This country makes the list of places I’ve always wanted to visit, and I wanted to see if what I heard compared to what I saw. My friend and I needed to stop back in Saigon to catch a bus to Phnom Phen, the capital of Cambodia. The first thing I noticed after we crossed the border was the lack of trees and infrastructure. Cambodia makes Vietnam look developed in comparison. For example, the big road we were on NH1, the national highway, was built by NGO money, along with the handful of highways that wind their way through the country.

Phnom Phen felt like a relaxing vacation in comparison to HCMC: streets are wider, less crowded, and the Cambodian people really do have the smiling faces the tourist books tout. That being said, there is a dark side to Cambodia, a sinister past with an unknown future. During the terror of the Khmer Rouge, all people who were against the terrorist political group, educated, had glasses, or otherwise opposed the group were brutally executed. This left what my friend calls Cambodia’s “Nascar generation” to pick up the pieces and move forward.

Piling as many people (and things) as possible into a truck is the way to travel in Cambodia.

Piling as many people (and things) as possible into a truck is the way to travel in Cambodia.

The best description I read came from Lonely Planet, describing the country as a promising teenager on the rise: although everybody wants a piece, not everybody is going act in her best interest. The government is horribly corrupt, and certain members still have links to the Khmer Rouge. Although there many NGOs doing good work in the city, sometimes certain groups can just be a revolving door of interns that don’t stay long enough to make an impact for good.

The sex and drug trade is developing, and some tourists seek out Cambodia for the wrong reasons. In the local paper I read that during the Water Festival, sex workers could expect an increase from 20-30 clients a night to 100. My friend described the city as “a Petri dish of filth” during this time, and booked a weekend vacation away from PP. In retrospect after the stampede during the festival, this was eerily, a good idea. The city has a lot of promise, but it just needs the right direction.

That promise comes from the Cambodian youth: 40% of the population is under the age of 15. One of the coolest things I saw in Cambodia was in one of the town squares in PP, rows of youth dancing in synchronized lines.  With just a laptop, power cord, and amplifier, teens watched a leader work his magic of the makeshift dance floor, following him to create lines of synchronized dancing. Anybody could jump in whenever they wanted, and within the one square at least three groups were dancing, albeit to different kinds of music. You’d never see that kind of impromptu community in the United States.

We also visited a few of the famed temples of Angkor, including Angkor Wat and the Bayon, but I feel that trip deserves its own blog post.

Although I loved my time in Cambodia, coming back to Ho Chi Minh City felt like a homecoming, and in a bizarre way, loaded with amenities. Saigon really is more cosmopolitan than I expected while still back home, and a bustling metropolis, especially in comparison to Cambodia. Shuttling back and forth to interviews and schools on the back of a motorbike, I felt for the first time, like I was really a member of the city, part of the breathing mass that is the population of HCMC.

We came home the week of Thanksgiving. In the expat community, suddenly everybody’s celebrating the American holiday, less a time of thanks and more an opportunity to take advantage of the all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffets at the big hotels in town. I celebrated Thanksgiving the only way I would have wanted to in HCMC, at a nice Vietnamese restaurant with friends I made from the course. Two Brits, an Aussie, a Pilipino, and me, an American, celebrating Thanksgiving for well under $10 a piece.

I’ve already started working now, something to be very grateful for; however, since it’s exam time for Vietnamese schools, my schedule won’t be finalized for a few weeks.

More photos and videos to be uploaded soon from my trip to Cambodia. Thanks for reading and stay in touch.

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Posted: November 23rd, 2010

It’s been too long since I’ve last posted. Fittingly enough, much has happened, and as I settle into a new routine, I’ll be filling in the blanks, telling stories, and posting pictures from the last month finishing my CELTA and following adventure through Vietnam and Cambodia. But a recent event in the region caught my attention, and I wanted to explain what I knew.

“Hundreds Die in Cambodian Stampede” is the current headline on the BBC Asia-Pacific News homepage. While the accident occurred in Phnom Phen, and I celebrated the festival in Siem Reap, I had been in the country’s capital days before and was taken aback by the news. After a concert following the races of the Water Festival, hundreds crammed a bridge and sudden pushing caused a panic that started a crush that has killed over 300, injuring many more.

Long, narrow dragon boats furiously race downriver while crowds jam the riverside to watch the excitement that is Bon Om Tuk, the Water Festival, held in Cambodia this weekend. Thousands come from the countryside to see the festivities either in Phnom Phen or Siem Reap. I was lucky enough to be part of the festivities Saturday in Siem Reap, while visiting the city to tour the legendary temples of Angkor Wat.

While on a Skype call, catching up with my parents after returning from Cambodia to HCMC, my dad told me the count was up to 300. I had to excuse myself from the conversation while overwhelmed with emotion. The festivities I saw in Siem Reap were such a uniquely Cambodian experience. Everything in Siem Reap revolves around tourism since the legendary temples of Angkor Wat lie less than 10 miles away from the city center. But this was a celebration of Cambodia, for Cambodia.

The Tonlé Sap is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia, a crucial life force, providing nearly half of the country with fish and water for irrigation.  The Water Festival marks the time when the Tonlé Sap reverses its flow of water, pouring its resources back into the Mekong Delta after the flooding of the monsoon season. In other words, not only is it a big deal for area ecosystems, but the festival is also a big part of Cambodian culture.

Everybody came out for the party—teens dressed to impress in fashionable jeans and hoodies, vendors selling everything from food to iPod cases, children holding animal-shaped balloons, old women and men wrapped in traditional skirts. Carts filled with street food from every-kind-of-meat-type-item-on-a-stick to freshly cut fruit to ice cream to paper-thin banana chocolate “pancakes” filled with sweetened condensed milk. Carnival rides and bouncy houses provided family-friendly entertainment and everybody shared the grassy banks of the river to watch the races. Fireworks ended the night. It was refreshing to see something not catered to foreign tourists, and the night really represented Cambodia coming to find out who she is on her own.

A friend who works ESL in Siem Reap was going to go to Phnon Phen for the festival, but decided to go to the beach hub of Sihanoukville instead. She warned us about the crowds expected in both locations, and I considered myself lucky to be in Siem Reap where the festivities would be lively, but certainly not as crowded as the capital.

This eyewitness account from the BBC of Australian Sean Ngu, who was visiting friends and family in Phnom Phen, recalls the events from the festival.

“The water festival is one of the most important celebrations in the year and many people arrive from the countryside. The city is full of people. It is very quiet right now, apart from the ambulances. What a tragic end to a wonderful celebration.”

Despite crippling poverty, government corruption, and years of war-plagued misery, Cambodia has promise of recovery. The tourist industry has helped put the country on the map for something other than poverty, and Cambodia is emerging as a major stop on the South East Asian loop. I honestly loved Cambodia, from what I could gain from my weeklong stay. There’s too much to the trip to post here, but I’ll fill in the details in blogs to come.

Stay tuned for pictures and vidoes from the trip.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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