I haven't traveled much in the past month. My aggressive tour of Vietnam's National Parks in July kind of wiped me out and spending August in one place sounded very appealing to me. The advantage of sticking around in one place is that you start to create routines and build on projects or relationships. The constant making and breaking of ephemeral contact while you travel can make one feel lonely. Staying in Saigon for just a month has been good for my soul.
First, I resumed Vietnamese class earlier this month. When I first got to Saigon, I was doing 20 hours a week. I've cut back to 12 and am enjoying it a little more. I've hit the point in my language studies where I'm starting to learn special vocabulary. This past week, I learned how to talk about a trip to the doctor's office and explain what hurt. This is great stuff to learn, but I won't use it everyday (hopefully) and so I won't have many opportunities to reinforce it. It's helpful that I now know how to say "I have a cough", but by the time I have a cough and need to say it, I will have surely forgotten it. Regardless, just applying myself to Vietnamese several hours a day helps keep up what I have learned and do use everyday. My latest project is to learn the lyrics to a Vietnamese pop song. My teacher suggested this one by who seems to be the Vietnamese equivalent of Jack Johnson. I can sing the first two verses so far, which has come in handy a few times.
One of the times I used my limited Vietnamese singing ability was during a presentation I recently gave at the American Center. The American cultural center here hosts all sorts of English speaking events and I've been pretty active there recently. During a series they did on American states, I presented Texas, naturally. In an attempt to make the presentation a little more interactive, I included a little segment where we all learned and sang the first verse of "Deep In the Heart of Texas". The audience was a little shy about singing at first, though, so I was able to loosen them up with my own rendition of the first verse of the Vietnamese Jack Johnson song. It was enough to make everyone laugh and break up the ice a bit. After that, they were much more enthusiastic with the singing and clapping. You have to give a little to get what you want and me singing a Vietnamese pop song seems to be good collateral when asking others to embarrass themselves.
I've also been spending my Monday nights in August at the American Center leading a Massive Open Online Class, or MOOC. The class watches the lecture video online over the weekend and then we all get together on Monday evening to answer questions, go over examples and just talk about the topic of Problem Solving and Decision Making. Granted, it's a pretty broad subject, but I've had a lot of fun doing it. I hadn't ever really taken a MOOC before I led the discussion for this one and, I have to say, I'm a fan. I think learning at your own speed and doing it on your own time can really serve students better than the traditional, rigid class schedule. One of my favorite moments from the MOOC was during the class on group decision making. We had a hypothetical situation in which someone walked through the door and offered the class $10 million if they could make a unanimous decision on what to do with that money. The class was split between investing it, creating a scholarship fund and donating it to charity. They all presented their cases, debated the points and even were able to convince a few people to change sides, but in the end, we didn't reach a consensus and so the fictitious benefactor had to leave us and find another group to donate his money to. It was fun to watch them engage with each other and all make really valid arguments.
For those keeping count, I'm now on the fourth activity that has been keeping me busy in general. Earlier in the month, I started a little chess club that meets up every Wednesday at a local university. I've never really been part of a chess club, so it's cool to be able to play people face-to-face. Vietnamese people in general are not comfortable with direct confrontation, so it's been interesting to watch them deal with chess, which doesn't have any pretext of passive aggressiveness - it's all out there on the wide open board. In one game in particular, once things started getting heated, the guy I was playing started making small talk, as if to reaffirm our mutual humanity while we slay each other mercilessly on the chess board. At least, I assume he was trying to diffuse the tension. Maybe he was trying to appeal to my humanist side in an effort to get me to cut him some slack. He ended up winning, so maybe he's playing a more conniving game than I gave him credit for... Anyways, a couple of kids have been in regular attendance and they don't seem to have any pretensions about being "nice" on the chess board. I've played the ten year old twice and both times just barely escaped with a win, only because he's made crucial mistakes in the end game. All the extra play seems to be paying off. I've been playing chess with my uncle on a regular basis since 2007 and of the hundreds of games we've played over all of those years, I've managed to win maybe 10 times. However, just last week, I managed to beat him three times in a row - an unprecedented feat in my budding chess career. I'm not necessarily ready to take on the Russians yet, but at least I have evidence that my game is improving.
On the more social, less confrontational side of things, we've found a good swing dance community here and have really been getting involved with that. Bryn and I have even taken it to the next level and taught a few classes. The scene in Saigon is pretty small and mostly beginners, but that just means that Bryn and I can actually make a difference here. I'm hoping to get even more involved and maybe start teaching a regular beginner's class. This sounds ridiculous to me, because in Austin or DC, I'm not nearly good enough to consider teaching, but since the scene is so young here, even if I can just teach people the basic step and a few simple moves, we will have made a big improvement. The perks associated with teaching swing dance have already started trickling down, too. Just last night I was invited to teach a class up on the 43rd floor of the highest building in town! I could barely even recognize the city from way up there. Swing dance has opened so many doors for me all around the world and I'm sure it will continue to create opportunities for me here in Saigon.
Sixth, and finally, is my solo project that I started when I first got to Vietnam. This one doesn't actually require me to be in Saigon to keep up, but I don't know when I'll ever get another chance to write about my rubber band ball. I know, this may not seem exciting, but ever since the days of Pee Wee Herman's gigantic ball of aluminum foil, I've had a dream of making ridiculously large balls out of a household commodity. Vietnam is a great place to start a rubber band ball because I swear this country is actually held together by rubber bands. They're everywhere. Any food you order take-away involves at least four rubber bands and the ubiquitous, disposable rain ponchos use rubber bands to seal at the wrists and waist. Just walking down the street, you see them all over the place. Although I'm tempted to pick them up off the sidewalk, I've made a rule for myself to only pick them up off of the ground if I find them in my building (which I do all the time) since the ones on the street probably aren't hygienic. Considering that I've only been collecting since May, I think I'll be able to grow this ball pretty large by the time we leave.