Monday, October 19, 2009

Getting Married - The Vietnamese Way

I'm sure you've all been eagerly waiting my long overdue post and finally my writing inspiration has returned! For all of you single guys, and girls, who fancy a trip over to Vietnam, end up falling in love and staying, here is a guide on how to get married in this wonderful country!

For those of you I've kept in touch with a little better than others, you'll know that I'm technically married, even though we haven't actually celebrated our wedding party. How can that be? I hear you ask....Well, let me tell you!

In Vietnam, there are 2 steps to the marriage process. One is the legal side, which goes through the local courts, and the 2nd stage is having the family ceremony (wedding party from now on), where the family officially recognise the joining of the families and the new son/daughter in law is accepted into the family. As not to tempt fate, I'll write about the legal side today, and the wedding party with pictures, shall appear in the next couple of weeks.

So the legal stuff. This was rather tiresome but as I don't speak much Vietnamese, most the pressure was on my wife. On the face of it, the list of documents required didn't appear to strenuous, but I forgot about one thing, this aren't as easy as they first appear.

The list comprised of:

1) Single Papers - stamped by the British Embassy
2) A Mental Health Check - issued by a hospital
3) Marriage Application and Fee
4) Certificated Copy of my passport and Visa
5) Proof of address in VN

So, first of all I went to the British Embassy to ask them for a form, I filled it out, I pay the fee and true to their word I received my single papers 3 weeks later. Simple. Great. Next I needed a mental health check. When I say mental health check what I mean is go to a hospital and answer a few questions after paying the nice doctor a couple of quid. So, we rock up at hospital and the doctor asks my name (toughie) and then for my address. So far 100% . Then my occupation... I'm on a roll! 3 from 3. Then the killer....to check my mental state....'Do you like beer?'. I'm stomped! How do you answer that question. Several answers went through my head:

1) Well dur, I'm British - What do you think?
2) No, I'm tea total
3) I think the occasional pint at the weekend

I'll go for 3, correct, I passed!

The certified copy of my passport and proof of address were 5 minute affairs. In VN your landlord/lady is required to keep a book of tenants and she had it, so that was the matter of a phone. The passport copy was also easy. Hanh took my passport to the solicitor and got it copied and stamped. Now in the UK this would cost about £70. In Vietnam it cost £1. Bargain, I'll take 5.

So the final part was the Marriage Application. Firstly, to apply you needed all of the afore mentioned documents, which we now had. I also needed numerous passport photos. This form needed to be filled out correctly to the letter. When I say to the letter, if you used a correction pen to correct something and the clerk noticed, you'd have to fill it out again, unless of course you paid a small fee. Now, I don't like paying for anything, so again we filled out the form. 5 times in the end. And when I say we, I mean Hanh. But it was relatively painless.

We live in HCMC but Hanh's from a small town called Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta, 2.5 hours from the city. Hanh went to her hometown and filed the application. Now we had to wait for an appointment to be interviewed through the courts. Firstly they check the docs and once they're satisfied they're correctly completed, they invited us for interview. When invited, being a Government office, they told us when we had to go and it was anytime during the week, 9-5. At the time, I'd just started my new job and taking time off wasn't really on the cards. What to do! Well fortunately my school closed during that week because of H1N1 so someone was obviously taking care of me! On the Friday of that week we drove to Ben-Tre for an interview. Firstly, Hanh's dad was interviewed. I'm not sure what about. Presumably about his daughter and about my frequent visits to their home. Then Hanh was interviewed about our relationship and myself likewise (with the help of a translator who didn't appear to speak that much English, certainly not enough to understand what I said - God knows how she translated). I kinda liked the process to stop false marriages but at the time it was a bit annoying. It was the final test....had we passed.

You might think I'm being a touch sarcastic but I'm not. It was an anxious month wait. I'd heard stories of marriage between Vietnamese and Vietnamese let alone Vietnamese wuth a foreigner being denied so it certainly wasn't a foregone conclusion. However, one month later we received a call inviting us to Ben-Tre to sign our marriage certificate. We were legally married, but not so in the eyes of the family. For that we needed the wedding party and family ceremony which I'll write about soon.

This is the process as it should be. However I've heard horror stories from others. We managed to get everything through first time without meeting any obstacles or corruption from greedy officials. Others haven't been quite so lucky and have spent a lot of time and money trying to get to this stage. It took us about 3 months and that's pretty swift to collect the documents together and the interviews over and done with.

I started writing this in September and finished today (Feb 21st) so we've been through the whole process. The legal side is a pretty simple process which has been made difficult by bureaucracy and the unavoidable human elements. However, it's not as complex as it first appears. Let's hope marriage is so simple!!!


Monday, September 28, 2009

Househunting - I spoke too soon!!

After feeling so positive about house hunting yesterday, I might have known I'd put the mockers on it! So, let me tell you a story...

The Beginning

So, Hanh finds a nice looking house which is halfway between her work and my work. A three bedroom house which was said to have a lot of mod-cons and to be new. What's more, the price was very reasonable! Too good to be true. Anyways, Hanh called the landlady, arranged a viewing for a couple of hours later and we set off in search of the house. Needless to say, it started to rain en route but that didn't dampen our spirits. After getting lost multiple times, several through rather small alleyways that are so typically in Vietnamese back roads, we found our new dream home. :-)

The Middle

We pulled upto the house and it really did look beautiful. There was a freshly painted gate out front to meet us with a small patio area leading to the front door. Perfect for keeping bikes out during the day without having to bring them into the house. We walked into the house and the living area had a 3 piece suite, tv and cabinet....ideal I thought! Later I slumped into the chair and thought to myself: "I could be happy here!". Further in was the kitchen. Whilst not equiped with anything more than a gas stove and AC, it was very large with an ample sized table and 4 chairs. I was starting to think that we wouldn't be looking much further. Upstairs were 2 very large bedrooms with AC, bed frames (with no mattresses) and usually bedroom brigadier such as wardrobes and chest-of-drawers. Oh yeh, I forgot to mention they were both en suite. Anyhows, we went back downstairs and Hanh spoke with the landlady. We both (Hanh and I) that we liked the place, relayed that to the landlady and she told Hanh the price.

The beginning of the end

The price quoted was $110 higher than agreed. (I wasn't aware of this at that point) Hanh told her that we would think about it and we drove home. I knew that the price would be higher (the foreigner tax) and for the house, the price wasn't unwholly unreasonable. Besides, I really liked the house so I was willing to pay it. On the drive home, my better half started to have doubts about the safety of the area. I hadn't really considered it. Since the house was down a smallish alleyway it would be difficult to take a taxi and she didn't really feel comfortable with either of us driving there too late at night. So with that in mind we visited the place late one night and found the area to be family friendly, not too difficult to get to and we felt it would be a safe place to live as the other surrounding houses were also similar to what we had just seen. We put the initial fears down to the fact that when we first went it was raining pretty heavily and we hadn't really been looking around at the area as conditions weren't conducive to it!

What happened next?

Don't get me wrong, the landlady seemed pretty nice and for all I know is an honest and trustworthy person. We just went on a hunch. Since she would be taking our deposit (a sizeable amount of money, especially in Vietnam) we needed to feel absolutely safe with our money. The small event which followed created enough doubt for both of us to pull the plug.

After the inital rent requirement, we decided that we wouldn't pay anymore than the original agreed rent. The landlady (LL) pondered it for a while, and accepted, we thought we had a deal. However, then some strange things started to happen. I wasn't party to them since my Vietnamese is bordering on non-existent. First, the LL since reluctant to meet at the house to sign the contract and hand over the deposit. She said that we'd already since the place so why did we want to see it again? Hmmm, what is there to hide? Secondly, she was pushing Hanh to sign the Vietnamese contract and pay the deposit before I had the contract translated into English so I could understand it. Again, alarm bells. Thirdly, she removed 2 of the ACs to put them into her own house. Surely a lowering of rent should be required....apparently not. Additionally in the contract there were numerous crimes for which we could lose the deposit, half of which I'm sure are completely illegal and to be frank just unreasonable. For instance, our friends couldn't stay overnight...a complete joke if you ask me. Finally, I never mentioned the 3rd bedroom because apparently she wanted to keep that locked for herself. She stated that she wanted to come from time to time to clean it. Again, we smelt a rat. Seems like someone wanted to spy and what the hell is there to clean in a locked and unused room? Needless to say, plug pulled, on with the search!

The aftermath

Well tonight we've looked at another furnished apartment. Again it's on the 13th floor of a highrise. The place is very clean, modern and the furniture is all great. We were allowed to stay there are long as we wanted to check everything out and the LL's daughter spoke good English which put my mind at ease somewhat. I'm currently waiting for the contract and more importantly agreement on the rent. This time the price was paid down out front and there was no bumping it up after seeing a foreign face. Time will tell, but I have a good feeling about it...but we know what happened last time!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

News from September

It's an overcast Sunday morning in Saigon. The temperature is relatively cool for this part of the world and it's been the first time I haven't had morning plans for the last 4 weeks. It feels a little strange having time to relax and I'm a bit restless. Life has been going at full speed for the last couple of months and I don't think that's going to stop anytime soon. Well, not until the wedding is done and dusted! So, let me fill you in on the last few weeks.

Work

Work doesn't really change. I'm lucky that I have some very good students, coworkers and support at the university that I work at. I have a really nice schedule which allows me to plan around it. I generally arrive at work at 8am and do any last minute preparation that might be required for my 9:30 start. There's not often an awful lot that I need to do so I usually have a couple of cups of tea and coco pops for breakfast before checking my emails and facebook. I then teach for a couple of hours before a 2 hour lunch break. We have several options for nourishment including the staff cafe, a sandwich shop and Thai place. I'm a fan of the staff cafe as it does some fantastic cakes! After lunch I teach again until 3:30 and I leave the building at about 4.

I enjoy my job. We are lucky enough to have a lot of good resources to supplement our text book which means lesson planning takes a little less time than at other schools I've worked at in the past. We also have a lot of high quality and experienced teachers who I can pick the brains of when I'm at a loss. Additionally, our students are generally very motivated and ambitious meaning that they have desire and drive making teaching them a joy.

Sport

My sports calender is pretty full at the moment and it has made a massive difference to my life. I now have a couple of regular commitments which are keeping the belly at bay for another couple of years! On Wednesday night I play football at a wonderful all weather facility for a couple of hours. I'm hoping to get my skill and fitness up to a high enough level to become a regular fixture in their 11 a side team when the league kicks off in a couple of weeks. I did myself no harm a week ago in a friendly when I scored against them while playing for our University team. Football has never been a passion of mine but I'm starting to get into it.

There's also cricket! Unfortunately there aren't a lot of games, but we have a net session every Saturday morning and monthly games. It was strange picking up a bat again after a 2 year break from the sport. I was surprised how easy it was to get into the flow and it appears that my bowling is improving too! I hope to get back to the UK again for a summer sometime soon so I can play properly again, but until then the current arrangement will have to suffice.

Additionally, I've started playing tennis on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. My serve is horrible but my forehand, backhand and volleying is solid enough. I'm considering taking some lessons to try to get some power on my serve as I'll never improve without it. Further sport I've been able to partake in is screen golf and a few runs. I've not been for a run in about 3 weeks now as tennis and football have taken up most of my time, but I'm going to be running a half marathon in Cambodia in December. I have set myself a target of 2 hours which is a bit ambitious given the heat and the fact it's very difficult to road run where I am right now due to the traffic and severe lack of pavements. That being said, when I ran my first half marathon in 2003, I carried a lot more weight and was much unfitter than I am right now so I think it's possible!

Wedding

I will make a separate posting on this after the Wedding Party, explaining the process we went through and I'll probably do it in a commentary fashion. However, I'll touch on the time aspect of it now. The honest truth....it hasn't taken that much of my time! I'm pretty surprised by that considering all there is to organise. Granted, I'm a foreigner in Vietnam and my Vietnamese is embarrassingly poor so I can't actually help out that much but I'm still amazed that it's not that stressful (for me) and I'm not sure why people seem to get worked up about everything at home! (heehee) The paperwork (which we completed in late July) was probably the hardest part. We needed to fill in various documents and take countless passport photos! For those of you who don't know, you generally go to a photo studio for these in VN. This results in them being heavily photoshopped unless you specifically ask them not to. I actually look like a boyband member in some of mine which is pretty cool.

We've both had traditional Vietnamese clothes made, Hanh's wedding dress will be finished on Monday and my suit should be finished on Tuesday so the clothes are all sorted! I'm not sure about a wedding cake (I love cake so there better be one!!) but the venue for the event has been booked. That being said, we haven't formally invited anyone yet! The invitations are now in our possession so they will be distributed in due course, but in VN these aren't generally handed out until 2 weeks before the date so we're actually ahead on that front! I have a few more things to buy but it's all proceeding scarily smoothly so fingers crossed that I haven't just put the mockers on it!


Finally, about a month ago, we went down to Hanh's hometown, Ben-Tre, for a photoshoot. In VN couples usually dress-up in Wedding clothes and take pictures in romantic places. I don't really like the concept of it because I don't think it's particularly natural but when I got into it, it was actually pretty fun. We have a lot of good photos, some cringable ones, and some that are just bizarre. I think the shoot lasted for about 8 hours in total, and believe me when I tell you it's difficult to keep smiling! All this is in aid of creating a photo album. I'm not supposed to show any one the pictures until after the wedding party but I'll put one on here for fun!

House Hunting

Again, something that should take a lot of time which has actually been relatively stress free from my side. Hanh, my perfect wife, has been busy finding potential houses on the internet and anything that she thinks would be suitable we've gone to see. So far, we've only seen 3 places. The first was a highrise apartment close to the centre of town. It was pretty spacious, reasonable priced and had a truly wonderful view of the city. Unfortunately it also had the smallest bathroom I've ever seen! I didn't really like the idea of having to sit on the toilet whilst taking a shower so a resounding no for that one. The second, frankly, was horrible. It was big enough but seemed like the builders never quite finished the job and the floor was terribly uneven. It was a 2 floor affair and the stairs to get upto the 2nd level scared the life out of me. I was terrified that I'd fall through them! I made up my mind with half a second it wasn't the place for us so on to option number 3.

Number 3 is a beautiful 2 bedroom house. It's furnished, spacious, new and in a great location for both Hanh and I to get to work. I took one look at the place and decided I wanted to live there. Hanh was less sure because you have to negotiate a small alley before arriving there. When we went to view the house, it was raining so we didn't get a proper look at the area as we were more concerned with the weather. Therefore we went there again a few days later at night to get a feel for the area and how safe we think it would be. I'm never really bothered about safety as I'm pretty oblivious to most things that go on around me but if Hanh had any doubt at all then we would look for somewhere else. Ngan, Hanh's sister, also came for a second opinion. I think we were all pleasantly surprised about the area and how nice it appears. It seemed like a family area and there was little noise. We are now in the process of signing the contract. Hanh has seen it in Vietnamese but I have refused to sign anything until I see it translated into English. We took the contract to the agency on Friday and it should be with us on Monday. With any luck I'll like the look of it, sign it, and Hanh and I can live together properly which will mark the start of our married life. Of course, I'll get one or two piccys up once we've moved in!

There you have it. Not much interesting has been going on really. I've been having a great time, but I like a simple life. Work, sport and a few beers at the weekend....long may it continue!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Stupid Things I've done - Part 3 - Football Tournament (without applying suncream)

The Pre-Match Hype

So it all started on Monday. I get a text message from my student asking me if I could join his team for a 5 aside football tournament on Saturday. I thought why not so I signed and paid up. Later that day I asked my coworker if he was playing. He told me that he'd thought about getting a team together and lo and behold, on Tuesday he'd got a team together with many of these players being friends of mine. Game on! Needless to say that the rest of the week involved various pre-tournament predictions and come Friday, the buzz of excitement was immeasurable.

The Pre-Match Talk

So Saturday morning rolls up. It's 7:20am and I receive a text message from my student tell me to be at the venue by 8am to discuss our plan. However, this is all a little too serious, and more importantly, too early so I arrive at 8:30am via the corner shop and my favourite breakfast stop off. Armed with a couple of isotonic drinks, 2 doughnuts and some pizza bread I'm ready for combat. It's at precisely the moment I get off the motorbike that the banter starts with my coworkers. I had the feeling it was going to be an entertaining day! I was looking forward to playing against them, but there was one problem, we both had to win our first two games to get to the final....

The First Two Rounds

We had a very attacking side. I was up top, we had 5 attacking midfielders and a goal keeper. We actually played some good football. We flooded forward well and created numurous chances. In the first game we were playing against an inspired keeper who made a number of fantastic saves and somehow we found ourselves 0-2 down at half time. We couldn't understand how as we'd dominated the game. Fortunately the games were 15 minutes a half so we still had time to turn it around! And that's exactly what we did. 3-2 was the final score. How did the staff team do? They squeaked through on the same scoreline....

The second round was far more convincing for us, even if once again we were down at half time. This time our wasteful finishing was why we were losing. We also went down 0-1 after 14 seconds as our non existent defense was torn apart. However, in the second half we really did play some good football. Our skipper curled in a class goal into the top righthand corner from just outside the area to bring us back onto level terms, we were awarded a penalty immediately after a similar claim was rejected and I completed to victory by racing through there defense before slotting home with the left peg. 3-1. Of course the staff team won to bring us the final we all wanted!

The Final

If there was ever a great injustice in football I would like to see it. We dominated. How we didn't win in normal time I'll never know. We had the pace, fitness and played good attacking football. We must have created 3 or 4 clear cut chances and hit the wood work 3 times during the game. Their keeper was inspired! However once we took the lead in the 2nd half there heads dropped a little and then we had our chance. The game changed with a fantastic triple save. Our best player (in my opinion) Minh took a bobbling shot which Dan (the Keeper) fumbled, I drilled the rebound into his body (when I should've done better) and the follow up fell nicely into his hands. It was at this point I believe the footballing God had decided that we had just been too wasteful infront of goal. With the final whistle approaching, the inevitable happened. They literally had no shots on goal or clear cut chances the whole game. Everybody on the pitch was tired, and I watched from the touchline as an incredible one-two lead to Steve being one on one with our keeper. However, I'd failed to notice Simon to his left. Two on one. Steven squared the ball to Simon who slammed the ball home and with that, penalties ensued.

Penalties

Well the less said about this the better. We missed all three and they scored all three end of story. I was particularly disappointed as I missed our first and set the tone. I tamely planted it down the middle. I don't think I'll ever try to put it in the top centre of the goal again as I'm just not comfortable with that shot, but we live and learn as the expression goes!

The Aftermath

Well what do most British sports people do after a sports match? We go to the pub! The staff, and their trophy, and one loser (me) enjoyed a well earned pint and some tucker. Of course I took a lot of stick, which I thought I dealt with well, and was asked if I would be joining the staff team next time. The truth is they hadn't approached me and I would've played had a team been in the offing. However, I must admit I enjoyed playing against them and at least I can draw some consolation that my team did dominate the game. The old saving that football is a funny old game couldn't have been any more true!

So why was it one the stupidest things I've done?

Well for 2 reasons:

1) It's never a good idea to play against your work colleagues. There's always the chance you'll end up playing against them and that they will win. If they do win it will result in days of mocking and ridiculing! Fortunately I'm big enough and ugly enough to look after myself and I give it back as good as I've got, but having some of my students laughing at me because my coteacher was on the winning side is a little annoying I have to admit! (in a totally positive way!) Also, had we won, there are a lot more of them than there are me....do the maths!

2) I forgot to apply sun cream! We were out for 6 hours in the blazing sun. And Saturday was hot. No I mean it! And come the evening I was as red as the giant tomato man! (I'm sure he's a real person!!) On Sunday I couldn't move. In particular, the back of my knees were in serious pain and walking was difficult. How could I be so stupid?!?! Well one answer to that question is that I am indeed....stupid. The second answer is that when sport is involved, I rarely remember that I'm getting burned and that the sun is (apparently) so hot! Oh well! I have some amazing after sun location so all is not lost!

For any of the lads who may read this...I don't know which team I'll play for next time and I know that you are enjoying being the champions but if I am on the opposite side of the field....Game on!!!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Stupid Things I've done - Part 2 - Accounting Degree

At school, I achieved well. I got 4 A*s and 8 A's in my GSCEs. In my AS Levels I got 4 A's. Then it was time to apply to university. I was lucky because I wasn't really restricted in what I could apply to do, but some things were influenced by weird and strange events at school and government level which lead to my academic career taking a different path to what it might have done. So lets go down memory lane and see what happened...

Early Entry GCSEs - Age 15

At my school I was lucky enough to sit my some of my GSCEs one year early. For those of you new to the English education system, GCSEs are the public exam that we sit at 16 years old. At this time I was really into my Mathematics and Science and was planning on taking these as A Level (the equivalent to University entrance exams we take at 18). However, after the successful completion of my early entry, I (along with students in the same boat as me) we had a year of literally doing nothing in our science classes. Yes nothing! Ok, we had to go to class to learn about 1 page of A4 of new material over the course of a year some we could sit a pointless exam at exactly the same level as we'd already taken. Did we have any motivation? No. What is all a big waste of time? Yes. Did it kill any desire to study science I had? Yes. You see, at 15, I really liked Biology and Physics. I liked learning about living things and how they interact and adapt to conditions and changes. I like the real life mathematics in physics. But that year killed any enthusiasm I had for those subjects.

Why did we have a year 'off'?

Well, that's a combination of the government and the incompetence of the headteacher at our school. Our year was somewhat of a 'Guinea Pig' year. Lots of changes occurred. Ours was the first year where the SATS were compulsory at 11 years old. The A Level system was also changed from sitting one exam at the end of year two, to sitting exams at the end of each year. Because we took the early entry and the transition between the 2 systems, we couldn't study for the old A-Level or the new AS Level. This left the school with a choice between giving us 2 years to study for the new AS exam, which we all wanted to do because it would give us an advantage, we'd be learning new material and we'd get a free insight into the subject before we actually had to decide or to make us sit more GSCEs to make the school's results seem that much better. We the powers that be decided that the league tables were more important than the learning of the students so we went to class and did nothing but play cards.

Making the decision for Uni

After all that nonsense, I decided to study Maths, Economics and History at A-Levels. Whilst I enjoyed Maths, I liked it to be more related to real life. I also couldn't grasp all of the concepts 100% so I knew fairly early on that I wouldn't study pure mathematics at university. Where the decision lay was between business and history. A Levels were my first exposure to a business related subject. I was also lucky enough to have an excellent teacher and I loved it. I excelled in a couple of the exams and I developed a genuine interest in the economy, the decisions made by the treasury and global markets. However, the second year of A-Level saw our teacher moved on to be replaced with a far than adequate replacement. I think I learnt at this time that having a good teacher can inspire you, but having a dire teacher can really put you off a subject. The fruits of this turn out were borne out when I was selecting my course. Previously I was trying to decide between which type of economics to choose, but as the decision had to be made in the first term of the 2nd year of A-Level my attention switched to more general business related fields and to cut a boring story short, I chose Accounting and Finance.

Why do I regret the decision and regard it as a stupid thing to do?

Well, as pure subjects I really enjoyed studying History and Economics. I love learning about History as a hobby so I thought that I should leave it that way believing that studying may kill my love for it. Also, the only job I could think of was teaching if I took it at Uni at that didn't really appeal at that time. (Ironically I'm a teacher now....) Economics was killed for me by a poor teacher. Therefore I decided to try something new. The practical sounding nature of the course 'Accounting and Finance' appealed as it sounded job related. Did I think about the potential money of a job in finance? Yes. Did I think about how boring it would be to study? No.

The result

I had 3 years of boredom. I hated it. Well, the courses that were related to accounting and finance anyway! I had some fun studying law and general business. Anything that required me to write an essay or write a report I enjoyed. This actually surprised me as at school I never realised that I was good at writing essays or that I actually liked them more than mathematics. Bizarre. Isn't hindsight a wonderful thing! If I had my time again, I probably would've studied History and more than likely become a history teacher at secondary school. Studying Accounting was a complete mistake. I learned nothing from my course, I haven't found any of it useful and that time killed my desire to study. Funny how teachers can influence your decision making isn't it!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Inside the mind of a runner

9.58 seconds! Wow - that's pretty fast....I'm almost sure that Mr Bolt can run a 100 metres faster than I can down a pint and I'm no slouch! Whilst I'm no Asain or Paula Radcliffe, mainly because I'm slow, a little on the round side and can't run 26 miles, I want to share with you what goes through my mind when I'm running. There's the preparation for the run, the run itself and the postmortem after - largely because I'm knackered and want to collapse! Not to mention selecting the playlist on my iPod and choosing the distance and route I'll run.

What makes us do it?

Well for me, running is one of the only times of the day where I have complete control over what I'm doing. Due to the weather here in Vietnam, I have to run late to avoid the worst of the heat and humidity. That being said, I'm usually running at a heat of 30 degrees C, or 86 for the Americans, at 10-11pm which is the time I venture out. When I'm pounding the street I decide the speed I run at, the length of the run and how hard I'll push myself. On most occasions I run within myself. I run at a comfortable speed, occasionally increasing it should I feel like raising the tempo. As I'm not a competitive runner, the time doesn't really bother me. When I was running in Korea, there were organised events every weekend and I was always seeking to improve my time over 10km. In the future I hope to run a sub 50 minute 10k run which would be a great personal achievement. However, as there aren't any timed events in VN, I'm now running purely for the endorphin feel good factor at the end of the run! Also, there's nothing better than feeling physically exhausted after doing something that you know not many other people do in the temperatures and conditions out here.

Running is more than about weight control and fitness for me. Ever since I was young, I've loved sports. In my early teens I was very active and was involved in nearly of the sports teams at school. Invariably, when you get older you stop playing sports and the weight piles on. I'm not sure whether it's the competitive side, goal for constant improvement in performance or the camaraderie with other people but I've never felt more comfortable than I do in a team. Whilst playing in a team has great benefits, it can also be frustrating! As a cricketer, there's no worse feeling than scoring a 50 or ton but to go on and lose the game. You can perform well as an individual but if your team mates have a bad day at the office you'll lose. Conversely, in a team you can be lifted or have your deficiencies papered over by those if form. Running, however, is different as your alone.

Mind games

I usually run about 7km when I go out. I think this represents a good workout and is sometimes a challenge or comfortable distance depending on how well I've conditioned myself. As I'm most often alone, why do I not stop and walk when the going get tough? And what strategies do I use to keep going? Well, to answer the first question I'm stubborn. I hate stopping during a run. I see it as a failure. As my mindset is that it's wrong to stop it drives me on to run just that little bit further. I don't run to impress my friends and the only person I do it for is myself. Therefore the only person I need to justify stopping to is me. I'm a pretty tough judge on myself so I need to have a good reason for taking a breather!

When I feel really tired there are several things I try to keep placing one foot after the other. The first is playing with my ever faithful companion, my iPod. It common for me to feel really tired after 7km. During 10km runs, I tend to have a lull between 7km-9km before picking it up for the final push. At this time, I need upbeat songs to pick up my pace and my mindset. If you're anything like me, you'll have certain songs that always give you a lift, no matter what you're doing. I like to call these my 'power' songs. Unfortunately I can't tell you what these are but I'll tell you it's a sorry mix between boyband tunes, songs from a certain musical and (maybe surprisingly) Scandinavian metal. The next thing I do is to set myself small targets. For example, 'just run to the end of this song' or 'get to that set of traffic lights'. Finally, there's a point in every run where you know you can make it home regardless of how tired you are. I've found mine to be 1km from my target. When I get to that point of a run, suddenly my mentality changes. I know I can do it. Any questions of walking evapourate, and the heaviness in my legs lifts and I'm able to finish on a high.

What do you do when you can't be bothered to run?

I try to run 4 times a week. However, the heat can be draining in VN and as 10pm is pretty late in the day I often don't have the urge to go out. Therefore going for a run isn't always on the top of my list of priorities. That being said, I get an overpowering sense of guilt on weeks where I don't run. It's almost like an addiction. Smokers will tell you that they can't give up and they get a buzz everytime they draw from a cigarette. Well running is the same for me. I feel so good after a run that I want to go again! If I don't get the endorphin buzz for a while, my body craves it. The more runs I go on, the more I want to run! So if I can't be bothered to run, I just remember how good I usually feel after and that gives me the spur. Failing that I try to set a target or sign up for a run. If I sign up to do something, I'll generally take it seriously and as I hate failing I'll put the required effort into it. This fear of underachieving will then drive me to go for a jog, even if I don't have a particularly strong urge to do so.

Tips

A few final words. Not everyone enjoys running. However, I know a lot of people who like it but don't do it for whatever reason. I just want to get a few suggestions that may inspire (or put you off) digging out your trainers, slinging on some shorts and running a couple of kms.
  • Be realistic - On your first couple of runs, just run what you feel comfortable with. After that will understand what your current limitations are and you can start to build from there.

  • Do increase the distance you run too quickly. Maybe an increase of 500m a week if you want to increase it would be good. It all depends on what your goals are, but you needn't lengthen your route unnecessarily and you shouldn't expect to be able to complete a marathon after a couple of months. Remember running is a psychological sport and setting unrealistic goals will put you off it.

  • Choose a run that gives you options to extend or shorten it depending on how you feel. My current run is about 7km. However, I can easily turn it into a 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9km run should I be having a good or bad day. This can be psychologically beneficial as completing a 6km run without walking is better than finishing a 9km run when I've had to stop because I didn't feel great.

  • Try to make sure you eat and drink well throughout the day. It may sound obvious by I always run much better if I've taken onboard a lot of water and eaten a couple of decent meals in the day. Basic, but important.

  • I'm certainly not in great shape. When I started running I was pretty fat. A few people pointed and laughed at me as I trundled past them. However, I bet none of them do exercise as if they did they'd understand what you're doing. Don't let the fear of embarrassment stop you. Many people don't like going to the gym for that very reason and I find it sad where people are put off doing something they enjoy because of the prejudices of other people.
So now you have no excuses! For those of you in HCMC, there is a 5km run coming up in early September. Come and join me for a gentle jog! I promise you, you'll be hooked! Running with a crowd of a couple of thousand people is great fun and is a great way to start your running career as running alone can be difficult when you first go! Happy running!!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Stupid Things I've done ... Part 1 - Bungee Jumping

So folks, you've had a bit about of culture, musings and descriptions of various aspects of life in Vietnam and South Korea. Now it's time to hear about some of the experiences I've had over the past 22 months, when I took the plunge and left my Trainee Financial Controller position in the UK. This will be the first installment of I don't know how many parts! However, I've done numerous stupid things over the last couple of years, so I'm hoping to make this a weekly, maybe monthly, feature on my blog. It just depends on how many more stupid things I do!!

When the decision was made


For those of you who don't know me well, drinking plays an essential part of my social life and often it entails more than the recommended dose specified by the NHS. I can't remember the exact time, but I think it was in the small wee hours on Saturday 4th October 2008, James and I felt that we hadn't achieved everything that we had wanted to in Korea. Something was missing. We had previously spoken about white water rafting and various other activities, but this would've been too difficult to organise at short notice! Then it struck us! Let's Bungee! At about 2a.m., fueled with enough beer and soju to propel a rocket into space, it seemed like a great idea! Game on, let's pen it in for Sunday afternoon.

The next morning


Having slept in an alcohol induced coma, I woke up on a much needed day off from the rigorous work schedule. This was indeed most unusual as I think it was one of the only Saturdays I hadn't worked in my entire year there! The idea of the previous night was completely forgotten. Or so I thought. I walked out in the living room, where I found James on his laptop grinning away like a Cheshire Cat. I started to get an ominous feeling....what had I agreed to last night? On his computer I saw what looked to be a tower, with a bungee cord and some man jumping off it! What's more, it was only about an hour from our house and we could make it there on the subway. 'Still on for jumping tomorrow?' my scarily active housemate asked. 'Sure' I replied trying not to portray any fear! Little did he know that I was planning on getting us so drunk in the evening that we would oversleep and feel so terrible that bungeeing wouldn't be an option the next day.....so what went wrong?

Sunday (Jump Day) Morning


Saturday night was fun! I can't remember now exactly what we did. But it was almost certainly in Hongdae, going out central in Seoul, and involved yet more Soju, Cass and Hite (awful Korean lagers for those not in the know!). I'm also guessing we went to our favourite club, the appalling named, Funky Funky or FF for short. This club is great for live music and there are usually some pretty good local and ex-pat bands performing. The atmosphere is also great and the prices are decent so it's always good for a night out! This was preconceived my plan, I stuck to it, we got drunk so where was the flaw in my plan?

Well that would be my stubborn housemate! At about midday he poked his head through the door: 'Ready to go in 10'. WHAT! And it was at this precise point that I realised I might actually have to do this. Trying not to show any weakness or lack of resolve to James so I threw some clothes on and prepared for the off. We both looked, felt and probably smelt like crap but we staggered our way to the bus stop. The bus ride entailed muted conversation due to the heavy heads and nervous anticipation. I think we were both having second and maybe even third thoughts about the whole malarkey, but I for one wasn't going to be the first to speak these thoughts! After the bus journey we had a 6 step walk to the subway station. At this juncture we were both hungry and darted into the convenience store to get a sandwich, ice cream and pepsi. Feeling a bit better we completed the subway trip and 2nd bus ride to Bundang Park where the jump was to take place. At this point we were talking excitedly about the leap and I almost convinced myself that I was actually looking forward to this folly.

Arrival at Bundang Park

We must have arrived at about 12:45. We walked through the car park, over the hill and saw this:


Hang on, look up:


Well it wasn't immediately in front of us, but this is the view from beneath the tower. 45metres may not sound high, but when you're stood on top of the platform I can assure you that it is! At this point I have to say 'I don't care' to those who have done higher! Anyways, we approached the booth - 'closed for lunch, please return at 1:30'. So that's exactly what we did.

After about 15 minutes we were standing in the lift taking us up to the top of the platform. James (in my opinion) was showing more outward nerves than I was at this point. He was also ruing the fact that I had won the right to jump first by winning Rock, Paper, Scissors on the bus earlier. We had to decide matters in this adult way as we both wanted to go first. Mainly because it would require less time standing on the platform and it would place enormous pressure on the other to jump. At the time that issue was resolved we also wrote our final requests on a napkin in case the worst should befall. Back to the point, the elevator (I'm only using an American word to show my range of vocabulary) reached the top with my housemate, 4 Koreans and I eagerly, or nauseously, waiting to jump from a perfectly safe steel structure.

The Platform - Jump Time!

This was the view from the top. Me being the gentleman that I am, offered J my privilege of jumping first. He couldn't have accepted any quicker! Whilst it was undoubtedly my kind nature that gave compelled me, I think it was more from the hope that he would bottle it, then even if I decided to pull out, I could take the piss out of him for backing out first! I also think his motive was to pile pressure on me and that I could take pictures of him jumping as proof, something that I regret not having! After waiting for the locals to jump, 1 of whom refused the count of 5 four times - kudos to her for that, it was the time of the westerners. J slowly edged his way to cusp of the platform. FIVE...FOUR...THREE...TWO - he jumped! AAARRRGGGHHHH!!!!!!!!!! He threw his arms open and hurtled his way towards the lake. After what seemed like an age, but was actually 3 seconds, he bounced back up, not from the water, but safely from the harness and bungee cord. Oh bugger, now it's my turn I said out loud knowing there was no one there to hear me.

The final few seconds


To cut a short story shorter, I pretty much jumped on the count of 5. I didn't want to and all of my body apart from my legs was opposing the leap, but I couldn't not jump! I would never have been able to live with the shame, embarrassment and J's gloating had he been the only one to complete the feat! I was as stiff as a pencil as I fell and braced myself for the snap. I was getting closer and closer to the ground and still no tug. Ouch! It came, and I was surprised at how much it hurt. Pain went through my backside and lower back as the cord tensed and released. I was more prepared for the second bounce, but that still hurt given the magnitude of the torque from the first bounce! On the fifth bounce, the journey was over and I was lowered to the boat which took me back to land. Trying to stand up from the boat was a mission! My legs were shaking and my whole body was trebling. Not from fear, but sheer relief! The few seconds free falling towards certain death, were without doubt, the most terrifying of my life and I can't say that I'm desperate to do it again. I think only if I were with James, and we were drunk, and nearby a much bigger jump would the possibility arise, but that's not on the cards for now!

Final thoughts


I don't think I've ever told my ever influential former housemate exactly how close I was to not jumping, how scared I was before the leap of faith or that I never really wanted to do it. Sure, bungee jumping sounds fun but I much prefer watching other people do it, while I watch from the safety of earth. That being said, I'm glad that I can say I've done it! The adrenaline rush from jumping didn't wear off for days and I still get a bit shuddery just thinking about! But despite the things that could've gone wrong, I just have to say, I didn't bottle it, and on that occasion, J didn't get one - up on me!!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Mr Hendicott

One of my closest friends, James Hendicott, has just launched his new website. His writing covers a number of issues such as music, travel and various cultural issues. Take a look at his site and let him know what you think! I'm sure he'd greatly appreciate it!

www.hendicottwriting.com


Cheers!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

I've found things to do!

About 6 weeks ago (I can't remember exactly when) I changed my facebook status to something like 'is there a more boring city than Saigon?!?!'. At that time I was unhappy with my work and feeling pretty negative towards life in Vietnam. However, as they say, time is a great healer and after a month my attitude has almost turned full circle and spending the foreseeable future here may not be completely out of the question or such a daunting prospect. Perhaps the title of this posting might be misleading, but I've been surprised how one aspect of my life changing has lead to me gaining a completely outlook on life here, and many of the things that I found boring before are leaving me a great sense of enjoyment and satisfaction!

Karaoke

This weekend has been a lot of fun! First, for those of you not familiar with the concept, karaoke in the East isn't the same as the embarrassing, drunken, attention seeking as 'Karaoke Night' at home. In fact, Karaoke in this part of the world is an essential part of any party. Here, people love to sing. I'm not sure why, but very few lads and ladies are embarrassed or nervous when it comes to performing in front of their friends. Maybe this is because there are specific Karaoke buildings with private rooms for one to prove they don't have the voice of an angel. These rooms can accommodate 20 people comfortably (probably more but you wouldn't want more) and you can sing, eat and drink your heart away! The more liquid lubrication you get, the better the night becomes! And on top of that, most Koreans and Vietnamese can sing pretty well! It might be because there songs generally don't use the same range that many English songs do, but I can't help but be impressed by them - especially after I humiliate myself trying to sing epics which are way out of my modest talent and capability.

Bars / Pubs / Street Drinking

Ok, there's a slight alcohol bias so far, but bare with me. After Karaoke on Friday, I headed to a pretty western style pub. On my arrival I was greeted to a rather depressing cricket score (I don't want to give the Aussies any satisfaction by stating the score) but nevertheless I enjoyed a few beers with my colleagues to celebrate the end of exams. It's was nice to let off a bit of steam after a challenging week of meeting deadlines, moderating and just the logistics of exams. It was my first time round, but I think I settled into my new role of marker and invigilator without too many problems so I could have a beer knowing that my mission was accomplished! It was also nice to talk to some people who actually knew something about cricket as most of my conversations recently have been trying to explain the rules of my beloved sport to the uneducated!

In VN, there are 3 types of places that you will find to relieve stress and unwind. First, there are western style bars. These are very much like home. The prices are also similar to home, which is a little annoying but they are usually very clean, comfortable and have several largish TVs which will generally be showing some 2nd rate movies on HBO or sport. (As a sports lover, I always hope it's the later!) The second venue can be found on the street. Street drinking, unlike the UK where I think it's illegal, is an important part of life in Vietnam. When you think of street drinking, you probably think of a rowdy bunch of teens, walking along the street, swigging a can of Stella. And that's what you'd find at home. However, here it involves sitting on ridiculously small and uncomfortable chairs, with an equally ridiculously low table. If you're lucky, the table might be covered by canopy of sorts. It may sound like your idea of luxury, but it does have its charms! The service is usually very good and fast. The food is always of a decent quality and the beer is drinkable unlike 'Cass' and 'Hite' in Korea. It's always a very social occasion and if you're lucky you'll see a couple of drunken man doing 20 paces at dawn. The third common water holes are restaurant/bars. I'm never totally sure what they're supposed to be. They always have an extensive menu which contains food from America to Europe to all parts of Asia but the establishments tend to attract people who want to have 5 or 6 beers. Again, the food is usually pretty tasty and the atmosphere is generally less rowdy than the street places.

Bowling / Cinema / Random Fun

I don't usually like hanging around arcades with stupid 'Shoot 'em up' video games, but completely unexpectedly I found myself at one on Saturday. And it was great fun! As it was my fiancee's birthday, I decided to take her to the cinema (among other things) to get out of the house. We went to a shopping centre that I believe to be the nicest in the city. While we were waiting for the film to start, we thought we'd waste some money playing some mindless, but entertaining games! To my amazement, it costs 70p for 10 plays! Bargain! It was nice being there with someone who hasn't been exposed to these places too often before as her face lit up and it rubbed off on me. We played 'Street Basketball' and she surprised me with how good she was at shooting hoops. In fact, we liked that game so much we must have played it about 7 times! Other highlights were the whacking 'strength test' where you bash a metal thing with a mallet and the time old favourite, air hockey! In the nearby vacinity, there is also a pool hall, screen golf and 10 pin bowling so it's a fun time every so often! It's also alcohol free fun - well if you want it to be!

Driving around the City


Or 'vong vong' as the natives would call it! This involves getting on your motorbike and just driving around. Ok, usually I hate driving around the city. There are too many bikes, with too many boy racers, Sunday drivers and rickshaws to avoid. The pollution and fumes at times are also intolerable. However, the other day when I was showing a new friend around the city we had an adventure. I have to tell you, it was really terrifying, fun, enlightening, educational and heart wretching all at the same time as you see how the poorest and most affluent of people live. The roads also went from skinny dirt tracks to rickity old bridges to nicely tarmacked and smooth roads. The houses from luxurious 2 bedroom apartments overlooking the river to nothing more than some bricks with a corrigated iron roof that is in danger of (and presumably not for the first time) being flooded by the same stretch of water. I will tell you more about this particular trip at another time when I have pictures which will start to pay some justice to the tale! Usually 'vong vong' just involves driving around the various parks and landmarks of the city. Most of the time, people occasionally stop to have a chat, grab a bite or go for a coffee before continuing on their merry way around the city.

Running and football

To my amazement, I received an email today about an organised 5km run! It's the first I've heard about and I must say that I'm really excited about it! I hope that if this one is a success that they will organise more runs in the future which will give me something to look forward to! Also, although there's little in the way of organised football, one of my students introduced me to his friends and the little league that they've organised themselves. I played with them for the first time yesterday and I ache in areas that I didn't realise were part of the footy process, but such is life! I was just nice to stretch my legs. We played on artificial pitches, of pretty decent quality, and the standard of play was also good!

So all in all
I've had a complete change of heart. It all stems from being much happier in my work and now having a schedule that allows me to plan around it. I now run about 3 times a week with the option of also playing football on Sunday evenings! If my housemates and I are bored, we can go bowling, to play screen golf or go street drinking. On reflection, HCMC isn't so bad...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

5 things I miss about Korea

Korea is a beautiful part of the world. It's mountainous terrain, gorgeous coastline, modern buildings and wonderful food only touches the surface about what I miss. For those of you thinking about going to Korea on holiday or working there, here are some of my highlights!!

1) The Food

I love food! This isn't restricted to western, oriental or any other kind of food either! However, Korean food offers a variety that, in my opinion, isn't common in many other countries. I don't mean this in terms of which types of restaurants there are, I'm talking about dishes that are staple nourishment in the peninsula. My favourite dishes are generally those containing a substantial amount of meat. Pork, beef or chicken are the most common in SK as Lamb is too expensive. Of the Korean dishes, Galbi, Dakgalbi and Samgapsel are the pick for me. There is also a rich variety of other dishes to :-) As you are probably aware, Kimchi accompanies most meals. Kimchi soup is also a staple among those who live or have been in Korea for any length of time. Then there is Gimbab (rice, meat, some veg wrapped in seaweed) that I compared to our lunchtime favourite...the sandwich! There is also Bibimbap (rice usually fried,vegetables, maybe some meat with hot sauce) and I mustn't forgot Bulgogi (a beef dish) and Jeyukbokkeum (another beef dish). I could go on, but I wont....


2) The Mountains

Ok, the picture below isn't the best but it should give you some idea of what you can see from the mountains. Seoul is surrounded by them (I think about 7 but I may be terribly wrong) and this shot was taken about 1 hour from the capital. You can reach many of the climbs using the subways which is ridiculously convenient, you can also capture some wonderful scenery and they represent a good workout. If you are a serious hiker then you won't break sweat in these mountains, but in other parts of the country (e.g. Seolak Mountain) there are a much bigger challenges for those who fancy it! The advantage of the peaks around the city is that you forget how close you are to the 20 million other people who live in the capital!



3) The Coastline


I don't know an awful lot about coastlines. I come from the coast in England and although it's not the most beautiful site in the world, i find it a wonderful place to think and reflect on life. Although I can't swim and have a healthy respect and fear of the sea, I love being by water. I'm not sure why that it, but there's something about the power of the waves that clears my mind and allows me to see the world and my woes more clearly! When I was in Korea, I only visited the coast 3 times, but each time I vowed to return more frequently....did I?.....No! However, this picture gives you an idea of the stunning bay in the southwest of the penisula. In my opinion, the sea line in Korea is underrated, and depending on whether you go East, South or West (apparently North's not an option - I can't think why) you will enjoy a different experience! The south is the best place for beach bums for those who are interested.



4) The Heated Floors

This one is probably just a quirk of mine! However, there's nothing better than getting out of bed at 5 am in the bitter, bitter cold in Seoul in January and stepping onto heated floors! If you're anything like me, you won't mind the cold too much. However, that all changes when your feet get cold! When my toes are cold, I really hate the world and all things in it! Therefore the lovely, warm, heated floors in Korea ensure that I never have to feel this way inside my own home! I have no idea if there are heated floors in other countries, though I'm pretty sure Japan will have something similar, but I think they're great and it's pretty hard getting used to life without with on a cold winter's day!



5) ATMs / Vending Machines

This might sound a little strange, but you can almost do anything using atms! I was most impressed when I could order something online, print the receipt, take it to the atm and pay it on the atm by entering the appropriate details. This is particularly great as it's not easy for a foreigner get a credit card or buy things online! I also paid all my bills and rent by using a hole in the wall which is amazingly convenient. There are also vending machines everywhere! (Ok, I've heard there are millions in Japan, but I've never been there.) You can buy hot and cold drinks, chocolate, newspapers and books - perfect for the subway ride. Regardless of the fact the books and newspapers are in Hangul, that's not the point!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

When cultures collide

Culture is a funny thing. Differences in customs, traditions and thinking are deeply set within all of our societies. However we never quite appreciate them until we are caught in the midst of circumstances where our own tolerance, understanding and acceptance are called into question. You have probably guessed by now, I've had a few occasions where my patience has been tried, and let me be honest, it's far from easy to deal with.

I don't really respond to conflict well. I like to consider myself as a reflective type, who over analyses the simplest of situations. I listen to what other people are saying and try to understand their point of view and way of thinking. Usually this is very easy as it doesn't often directly impact on my immediate situation, let alone for the rest of my life. Over the past couple of years, I've had to start questioning just how compassionate and tolerant I am of other cultures. When I first went to Korea, I was keen to learn and adapt to the society I found myself in, but more and more recently I've developed a reluctance to embrace the Vietnamese culture as I feel I should and I don't know why.

When you over analyse things as I tend to, it can lead to an internal battle. We've all seen the films where the Devil and Angel appear on the main character shoulders telling him or her what the best course of action should be. Well this is how my world is operating right now. I know what the right thing to do is, and what the correct way of thinking should be (given I'm now in Vietnam) but the core of me is strongly opposing it due to my core Western values. By this I mean the ability to determine the direction and timing of my decisions free from the constraints of tradition and society. This, in my mind, is where the fundamental difference comes between East and West. Don't take this the wrong way. I'm not saying ones' right and the other is wrong. Again, I'm reflecting from a westerner's point of view of the difficulties of fully integrating into a culture that I can understand but not fully accept.

Now, cliche time. I have been blessed with amazing luck throughout my life. I have amazing parents who have always been there to support me. And it's here I want ground this posting. When you have a son and he falls over, what do you do? Do you run over to him, pick him up and cuddle him? Do you run over to him, pick him up and let him try again? Do you sit and watch. Watch your child try to pick himself up. He struggles, but he does it! He now learns that walking is difficult, he will fall over but he can stand again and continue. Option 3 was my parents. They let me live and learn by my decisions. They were always watching for if I couldn't get up on my own or if I needed advice. But largely they left me to my own devices and supported me, even if they didn't necessarily agree with them. With this in mind, I've always chosen my own direction which has lead to being here in Vietnam.

In the East, parents don't tend to opt for option 3. It's option 1. Again, I'm not saying it's right or wrong, just different. It just explains a lot about the culture and in particular, respect for parents and therefore traditions, customs and values.

I've found that most major decisions in this part of the world have to verified and approved by the parents. Whether that be for education, work or love. In contrast, I inform my parents about the decision I made probably a couple of weeks after. The former occurence leads to the situation where a lot of decisions made by the offspring are largely based on what will make their parents happy. Overall, I don't have a problem with this, I think. However, invariably, you have to make decisions which may or may not please the elders. And this is where the Devil and the Angel appears.

Keeping the family happy plays an important part of life here. Of course, most of us don't want to do things that we know will upset our loved ones, but we're also prepared to make those decisions when they come along. And I guess this takes me back to my core western values. We live in an individualistic society where I only really consider what's best for me and those who are immediately affected by actions. My happiness, of course, is the most important thing. I guess this has lead me to become a touch self centred and selfish in my outlook on life. My rationale behind my decisions is based on, primilarly, my happiness and then other factors such as logistics and finances.

In the East, the decision making is a lot more family orientated. Relationships need the approval of parents, kids should take the advice of their parents about subjects of study and thier eventual profession. However, this runs a lot deeper than first appears. Given this respect, many of the old customs have been past down from generation to generation, which has somehow been lost at home. I've never really studied our culture properly to see what customs we used to have but have now been forgotten. I'm sure we must have had rituals on New Year and weddings and funerals which are now long forgotten. I guess that a decreased level of respect or obedience (perhaps stemming from freer, but individualistic, thinking) has lead to customs becoming lost.

This links me back to my conflict. I will shortly be married to a Vietnamese girl. She is equally as lucky as I to come from a happy, loving and thoroughly supportive family. I've been sold on many of the rituals and customs that accompany certain aspects of life. However, I can't change my personality completely. I've accepted what I can accept and I'm trying to understand what seems a little strange and alien to me. Hopefully I've grown as a person and become more rounded and tolerant. There are bound to be times where either my future wife and I disagree and conflict over decisions that we need to make, but thus far they've brought us closer together. Who knows, maybe we'll develop a middle ground which merges parts that we both consider to be the best parts of our upbringing and perspectives.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Think you've got what it takes?

I'm currently sitting at my desk. It's break time and my students are about to write a timed essay for me: 'a letter to the editor'. I'll hand out the lined paper and ask the students to start writing the letter based on the previous hour that we spent going through how to write it. Hopefully I'll receive some really good pieces of work which will massage my ego as an EFL teacher. This brings me the subject of this entry....do you have the ideal characteristics to become a good EFL instructor. I'm not claiming to be a guru here, I just want to pass on some of my experience and thoughts on the desirable characteristics of a TESOL instructor.

1) Thick-skin!

Particularly when teaching lower ability groups, expressions such as 'teacher fat' or 'do you want a cock (coke)' are common. Don't take it personally! If you don't you'll be going home crying more often than not. Always remember that it's that they have a low English level and they are just trying to express themselves with the limited language that they have available to them. You'll also be asked about your salary and other such personal questions. Just remember that you're no longer playing by western rules and it's probably a standard question in your new environment.

2) Patience!

If you teach adults, remember that they've probably been learning English for many years and that the mistakes they make are ingrained into their speech. You will be correcting the same mistakes over and over again. Bare in mind that if you learn something correctly the first time, you'll probably use it and apply it correctly for life. Many of our students, unfortunately, have been taught English erroneously. Their pronunciation, use of plurals and prepositions may be completely off, but never forget that they probably speak a damn site more English than we do their mother tongue! If you can't get over the fact that people won't apply what you teach them first, second or even twentieth time, this isn't the job for you!

3) Honesty!

If you don't know a grammar rule, a spelling or an Americanism, just own up to it and say. Don't be arrogant and assume you know. Our students probably have a far better grasp of the grammar rules than we do and unless you are really clued up on our grammar, it's best not to get involved in a discussion about the uses of the passive past progressive and when it should be used! What we can do best is educate our students about natural English. A grammar book can't teach you the many idioms and peculiar uses of our beautiful language and that's where we come in. Most of the time we don't know why we use language in the way we do, I just reply 'because we do!' and reiterate that if they want to be understood at home, this is the language they need to be using.

4) Flexibility!

And I don't mean being able to put your legs behind your head, although that would be cool! I'm not sure about the EFL scene in Europe, but, unless you're extremely lucky, if you're teaching in Asia you'll probably find yourself working all sorts of weird and wonderful hours! In Korea I started work at 6:45a.m! It's also common to work split shifts with a crazy long break in the middle, so be prepared! You'll probably not get the average 9-5 Monday through Friday gig so you need to be willing to eat at all hours of the day. For the past 2 years my main meal has come at 9:30/10:00p.m. due to my schedule....it's just the way it is!

5) Understanding!

I know this is completely the wrong word for what I'm about to say but it's eluding me at the moment. Our students are generally studying English for a reason. Whether that be for promotion, future studies, relocation abroad or simply to improve a skill as one might with any hobby. We always need to bare their goal in mind and provide them with stepping stones to reach their target. Also, we can become frustrated with a perceived lack of progress and improvement of some our students. However, how must they be feeling? They're trying so hard to correct habits they've had for years and must be infinity more frustrated than we are. I've finally stopped biting my fingernails after 20 years of trying!

So all being said....do you think you've got what it takes?!!?!?!!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Undying Love

Well guys and girls, I've been asked why I haven't written about relationships on my blog yet, so I thought I'd give you an insight into my head and my heart. The thing that has captured my heart is warm, wet and lives in a cup! Yes, you've got it TEA!


For those of you who've known me for a while, or even for a couple of hours where there's been a kettle handy will know that TEA has played an important part of my life since I can remember. I can't remember my first cup and I don't even know if I immediately liked it. Did I take it with sugar? Or was I only drinking it to make me feel older than I really was? For those of you who don't know what I mean, think back to your first beer. Did you really like it? I mean really, I hated beer the first time, but only drank it because I might get drunk and that was supposedly the coolest and best thing you could do at the impressionable young age of XX.

My previous entry talked about my daily routine and only the most unobservant of you won't have noticed that the liquid gold has an essential part in my becoming human in the morning. In fact, without it I'm a quivering wreck! If I'm hungover, all I want is a strong cup of Yorkshire TEA! Failing that, Tetley's will do. If it's cold, I like to cradle my cup and woe betide anyone who tries to prize it from my hands! When I feel upset, happy, confused or exhausted, the brown stuff comes to my rescue and makes the clouds disappear! For God's sake, when Freddie and Swanny completed our first victory at Lords for 75 years, I went to the kitchen, put on a brew and sipped with a satisfied smile on my face.


At it's worst, my addiction was about 20 cups a day. This was approaching my finals at University. My close friend and I had a system where whenever one of our cups was empty, we'd pop on the kettle and refill! I dread to think about how many tea bags we got through in a week, but it was either impressive or sickening depending on your take on it. I guess in the UK I averaged about 12 cups but since I've been abroad it's fallen markedly.

That's not to say my 20 year love affair with TEA is waning, far from it! I'd say it's that my standards have remained high and the availability of good tea in Korea and Vietnam is severely limited. Ok, I could arrange for regular aid packages to be sent across, but I don't overly trust the postal service with something so precious! For example, I'm still waiting for my Christmas present from my parents which I'm lead to believe was sent in December 2007 to arrive! In the East, Lipton Tea is about the only option and although it's better than nothing, I still resent having to drink it! Maybe I'm just a snob, but it's not a patch on Tetley, PG or Yorkshire!

So what's it about Cha that makes it so essential to life? It could be the taste. It could be the warmth. It could even be the instant caffeine buzz that gets me through even the most tiring and trying times. I think it's because (to coin a phrase) it's 'a hug in mug' whenever I need it. It doesn't get jealous. I don't have to remember it's birthday! I'm not required to take it for dinner, or pick it up from work! It's just there, remains faithful and it doesn't ridicule, even when it's totally justified. It doesn't tell you 'I told you so' and just sits there in silence when I'm too tired or mad to talk! To sum up, it's the best friend you could wish for!

So I invite you all! Go to your kettle, put on a brew and even in the darkest and deepest of places remember 'While there's TEA, there's hope!'

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Meet 3 People

I'd like to introduce you to 3 people:


Name: Mark Jones

Age: 22 years old.

City: Southampton, The United Kingdom

Occupation: Trainee Financial Controller

Interests: Cricket, Drinking and listening to live music


Name: Mark Jones

Age: 23 years old.

City: Seoul, South Korea

Occupation: English Teacher, Private Institution

Interests: Running, Drinking and listening to live music


Name: Mark Jones

Age: 25 years old.

City: Saigon, Vietnam

Occupation: English Teacher, International University

Interests: Running, Drinking and blogging

Now these 3 different people may share the same name, even the same job but their daily life is much more different than you might think. So, let me talk you through the daily life of each. Draw your conclusions on which life style you'd prefer....

Mark Jones - aged 22

Beep Beep Beep - This is the joyous sound of my radio alarm clock! Why does it always go off so early in the morning! 6:30. Of course I hit snooze and feel like shit. At 7:00 a.m. my phone alarm starts screaming at me and at which point I decide that my day really does have to start. Half dressed and half in a daze I stagger to the kitchen to make my first cup of tea of the day. If I'm fortunate, I will have ironed a shirt the night before, but that's a rare occurrence so I stoke up the iron and do the necessary while, of course, demolishing my second tea. About 45 minutes after I rise from bed I'm ready and after my 3rd cup of tea I'm safe to attempt the drive to work.

The drive to work is relatively easy. A short 25 minutes on the motorway to Petersfield. I'm a car singer, so I enjoy my self performed concert and roll up to work at about 8:30 and pop the kettle on. As the office junior, I know my place. I fire up the computer and attempt to clear some space on my cluttered desk for my tea. As Norway is an hour ahead, and they start work an hour earlier than we do in the UK, I check my emails and reply to anything that in red. If it's in red it must be important right?

At work I'm left mostly alone to get on with my accounts. Most of the time I'm playing around with invoices and spreadsheets. Occasionally I'll get up to get a round in, or answer the odd call from the Nigerian accountant. However, the day is largely uneventful. I do my work, get stressed because I haven't got a clue where the difference is in my accounts, and where possible I chat on msn messenger which is difficult because of the central location of my desk. I take a short half an hour break to buy a bread roll, cake and some fruit and roll back into the office to continue staring into a computer screen until 5:00 when I jump back into my car and the concert continues!

The traffic on the way home is disearnably heavier than it was on the way, but I patiently wait in line and inch my way up the slip road which is an agonising 3 minutes from my house but takes me 15 minutes to get to. However, safely negotiated, I jump onto my computer to put on some music and chat to people on messenger as in Southampton I have absolutely no social life until my housemate gets home. I wait.... Eventually he gets home, and the first thing (well actually the third after 'Hey' and 'Fancy a brew?') is 'Pub?'.

At about 6:30-7:00ish we're in the pub (which is about 5 minutes from our flat) catching up and having the same conversation about which barmaid is the fittest and kidding ourselves that we actually have a chance with any of them. As the hours drift on, and 8/9 pints later, I get goded that I can't drink as much as him and true to form, I rise to the challenge and suggest continuing to drink at home after closing time (which is 11:00p.m). However, we invariably stop at the burger van to get double cheese burgers and chips before punishing our livers further.

At home we switch on the TV and wait for 2 pints to come on tv. At this point I have a Baileys (or cheap supermarket equivalent) in my hand and promptly fall asleep clutching my drink. My bemused housemate mutters to himself before retiring for the night, leaving me cradling my drink non the wiser. At about 2/3 I wake up, finish my drink, which is remarkably still safe in my hand and stagger to bed to wake up the next day to do it all over again.

Mark Jones - aged 23

Beep Beep Beep - This is the joyous sound of my radio alarm clock! Why does it always go off so early in the morning! 5:00. I'm a zombie. If I wake up great, if I don't I have another 6 alarms programmed 5 minutes apart that should do the trick! Instinctively I put the kettle on before jumping into the shower to wash some life into me. This time I do have ironed shirts so I throw on some clothes and race out the door to catch the subway.

5:45 I'm at the subway station listening to music and hop on the train. After making the necessary change I eventually reach my destination and crawl up the steps onto the street. I stop at my favourite sandwich lady's stand and wait for my egg and salad butty and make my way into school with 20 minutes to prepare for my first class. At about 6:40 the other teachers rock up, all looking like death warmed up, and we all complain that 6:45 is an ungodly hour to start teaching (welcome to Korea) and wait for the dreaded sound of death...the bell for the class to begin.

At 9:45 I'm done. Class taught, students and teachers feeling much more awake after several rounds of caffeine, and the 5:00 a.m. start paling into insignificance (until tomorrow). Happy times. My next class starts at 12:00 so I have enough time to go to the gym which is 2 minutes from work. I get changed and hop onto the running machine to run for 40 minutes and watch the TV which is conveniently placed directly above my treadmill. At about 11:30 I shower and get ready to teach.

At 13:00, class successfully completed, I have about 4 hours until I need to be on the bus to my next class. What to do? Well, I could go for coffee, prepare for class or try to learn Korean. However, I think I'll choose the easy option, I'll do nothing! So I proceed to waste the next 4 hours pissing around on the internet, annoying my manager and watching dvds.

At 21:00 we eventually finish for the night, feeling exhausted as the split shift is pretty draining. However, I'm hungry now and the inner socialite means that dinner and a beer and/or soju is required. At about 22:30-23:00 I get home and go to bed, dreading the 5:00 sound of doom!

Mark Jones - aged 25

ZZZZ ZZZZ zzzz - I wake up when I naturally regain consciousness. These days it's about 7:30, but how nice it is to wake up of my own accord and I actually feel good! I purposefully go into the kitchen for the morning ritual and hop into the shower, singing or humming the song which is stuck in my head. As my shirts have already been ironed for me I get dressed and contemplate the motorbike ride to University. As my class doesn't begin until 13:00 there's no hurry, but I like to get there early to prepare so I leave home at about 8:30 and am at my desk by about 9:00 via the bakery where I pick up some bread and various cakes.

At work I talk with my coworkers, who help me enormously with my planning, and do some marking. I also play on the internet and wait for 13:00 to come and I teach my class. At 17:40 I leave the building and return home with nothing to complain about, musing over what I should have for dinner. After watching England pommel (I hope I'm not counting my chickens) Australia in the Ashes, I get changed and go for a run. 7km later I return sweaty but satisfied after stretching my legs.

At 22:00 when my housemates return, we go for a quick beer and some tucker before going to bed at about midnight with a full belly.

Simplicity at it's best!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Seoul vs HCMC

My year in Korea shaped my life in a number of ways. Firstly, it cured my anxiety about living and working in Cities. Secondly, it set me on the teaching path, and finally it's left a huge hole in my heart that HCMC is trying to replace....so how's it doing?!

Food

The food in Vietnam isn't actually too bad. I might actually concede that it's pretty good, especially for the price! First of all, foreign food in Nam isn't great and it's over priced which is a little disappointing as variety is the spice of life so they say. However, the local food is tasty. The noodles (with or without water) with vegetables and meat is a staple here, along with rice accompanied with the same duo and it's satisfying. Seafood hotpots are also popular, particularly when eating with friends. Unfortunately for me, most of the seafood comes with the heads still on, and I really can't be bothered deboning food before I eat it. In contrast, Korea has a much larger selection of local foods. Barbequed pork and beef are popular choices for large groups, but all kinds of meat and vegetable dishes are available. On top of the selection, the side dishes at Korean restaurants puts them above most overs in my book. When I first arrived in Seoul I was sure that I'd have to pay for the 6 bowls of food presented in front of me. Fortunately that is all part of the service...happy days! Foreign food is also cooked at a better quality and (comparatively) more reasonable price than Saigon. Sorry HCMC, Seoul opens it's account!

Seoul 1 - 0 HCMC

Transportation


Public transport in Seoul is quite remarkable! The subway runs efficiently, the buses leave regularly and have a wide coverage to all areas of the city and high speed trains take you to any other cities on the peninsula. Failing that, it's easy enough to find a taxi to take you wherever you need to go at a pretty decent rate! So how does HCMC fare? Again, not so great. The only form of public transport are the buses. If you've ever been on a Vietnamese bus, you'll know that I'm not joking when I say that the drivers are crazy! The buses are old and uncomfortable and it's not unusual to have to jump off a moving bus when you arrive at where you want to go to. Most people (who don't drive a motorbike) will take a motorbike taxi, which are both cheap and convenient. Foreigners should be careful not to get ripped off, but to be fair, most of the drivers are decent, honest chaps. Taxi's are also widely available although my advice would be to avoid small, independent cars and stick to the larger firms (it's obvious which and which by looking at the quality of the cabs). Seoul extends its' advantage...

Seoul 2 - 0 HCMC

Pollution

Let's be honest, pollution in both cities is pretty dire. Air pollution is the major issue which I guess originates from Korea recently joining the developed countries and Vietnam being very much in the middle of it's development. I'd say the air is slightly better in Seoul but there's not much in it.

Where the major difference comes is in the sewage system and water pollution. If I'm honest with you, I can't remember pollution of the River Han being a particular problem in Seoul but water pollution is rife in HCMC. With numerous factories located on the banks of the Saigon River, it's only going to get worse until the government takes decent measures to stop it. However, with corruption being what it is, the current situation isn't likely to improve any time soon. Please don't have a go at me, as I know we did exactly the same thing when we were developing, I'm just stating the situation as it is.

Back to Sewage. Here I'd say the advantage lies with HCMC since I've never noticed it as being a problem. On the other hand, (again in my humble opinion backed up with nothing more than my thoughts), Seoul grew very quickly as a city and the sewage system wasn't designed to sustain the number of people it's currently supporting. Occasionally (I'm not saying overly frequently), there is the sweet aroma of waste if you standing close enough to various manholes. Again, don't take it the wrong way, it's not overwhelming or particularly unpleasant and after a while you don't even notice it.

So who wins? This time I'll award the point to HCMC as I think the Korean government could've done more and be outwardly seen to be doing more to tackle the problems in Seoul.

Seoul 2 - 1 HCMC

Friendliness

This is a difficult one to call. In Korea, I made a lot of wonderful friends that I keep in regular touch with, and I know that we will remain close for many years to come. The process of making friends in SK takes longer than in VN. From my experience in Seoul, starting a conversation and maintaining an interest from someone took some time. Initial encounters didn't always bare the fruits you might expect. However, after a few meetings trust would start to build and pretty soon afterwards you have made a firm friend. I found most Koreans to be extremely warm, generous and understanding individuals once a relationship has been established. This is a little in contrast to HCMC where the front of friendship can be built almost instantly. Obviously this is a great thing for the traveler and tourist to make them feel at home and spend money (oh the cynic in me), but establishing a deeper relationship in my experience so far has been much more difficult. Of course I'm generalising here, and I don't want anyone to feel offended. I'm the sort of person who's not interested in a popularity contest and I'd much rather have a few close friends than 1000's of acquaintances so....HCMC has scored an own goal

Seoul 3 - 1 HCMC

Apartments, buildings and toilet facilities

For me this is a no-brainer. I'm used to my home comforts and whilst the most modern Vietnamese buildings are perfectly (I hate to say it) western, others aren't up to the standards that we are accustomed to at home. Again, I do realise that I'm in a developing country and it's not England. I'm just reflecting on my thoughts and preferences, which is something you don't always learn about until you experience something different. Anyhows, back to the point .... Seoul is in many ways a spectacularly modern city. I never felt uncomfortable there and rarely saw anything that made me think 'what the hell am I doing here?!!'. Also, Korea has the heated floors which are amazing! Seoul, emphatically, takes the spoils here!

Seoul 4 - 1 HCMC

Things to do

If you follow 'facebook', a few weeks back I posted: 'Is there a more boring city than Saigon?' and from time to time I still feel like that. As I've said before, HCMC is a great place to visit but I wouldn't recommend living here if you're after fun and games every moment when you have free time. I enjoy getting involved in sports, learning about culture and generally doing boyish things. In Saigon, getting drunk, meeting friends for coffee and eating are about the only things available. Organised sport isn't that widely available and the heat makes it pretty difficult to become motivated and committed to it on a regular basis. Live music is also pretty sparse. I've taken to writing this blog and doing jigsaws in my free time which I think says it all.

For me, Seoul is a different kettle of fish. Every other weekend I started running in organised 10km running events, I could go to watch live music every week should I so desire and cycling alongside the River was also an option. Bungee jumping, watching baseball games, playing organised football, ice skating, learning traditional archery and climbing one of the various mountains that surround Seoul are all available. Now don't get me wrong, I didn't do all of these things, let alone on a regular basis, but just the fact that are all accessible means I have no excuse for being bored!

Seoul 5 - 1 HCMC

A resounding victory for Seoul and is a sound reflection on my desire to return to Korea when the appropriate moment comes and the right opportunity presents itself. This is not intended to paint a negative picture of Vietnam. Far from it. I merely wish to talk about why Seoul has left a mark with me that is proving very difficult, if not impossible to shake!