Good Morning Vietnam

After leaving Shanghai the other day I traveled south to Hanoi, Vietnam.  My Sydney school has an “arrangement” with a Vietnamese school here.  The school is called the Vietnam Australia School, or VAS Hanoi, and the arrangement is that as well as the school offering a standard Vietnamese curriculum it also offers a scaled down and modified Australian curriculum focusing on English and Commerce.  This Australian component is taught by native English-speaking teachers, using courseware and textbooks developed by staff back at PLC Sydney, and the goal is to get the kids leaving school with qualifications in two languages and two countries.  I’ve been keen to get to VAS for a while to see what it’s all about, so when I asked my principal for permission to attend Learning 2.010 in Shanghai he suggested that I drop into VAS Hanoi on the way home and do some training and support for the staff here.

So for the past few days I’ve been at the school, seeing how it operates, talking to staff, meeting the kids, and generally trying to offer some support where I can.  There are certainly places where that support is needed, so it’s rewarding to be able to offer it.  Now that I have a clearer understanding of what’s going on here at VAS Hanoi I’d like to visit again at some point to really follow through on a few things.  For now though, that’s a decision that’s out of my hands.

I can’t say I’ve fallen in love with Hanoi though.  Don’t get me wrong, it has a definite charm, if charm is the right word.  Perhaps ‘character’ would be a better word.  The city of Hanoi is celebrating its 1000th birthday this year, so although I don’t know much else about its history, 1000 years is a long time, and it’s had plenty of time to cultivate that character.  The people are generally friendly, the food is excellent and inexpensive, there’s plenty of interesting culture, and the Vietnamese women are amongst the most beautiful in the world.  So what’s not to love?

While I’m enjoying seeing a new place and experiencing a new culture, there are a few things about Hanoi that I simply couldn’t deal with long term.  The obvious one is the traffic.  It’s crazy.  I mean, seriously crazy.  It’s one of those places where people can tell you it’s crazy, but until you see it for yourself you just have no idea.  I made a little video below to give you a look at what I mean.

The traffic also creates another problem… air quality.  The pollution from all those millions of bikes is frightening. I’ve had a hacking sore throat from almost the minute I stepped off the plane. At times it’s been hard to speak and hard to swallow, and I really don’t think I could live here for an extended period because if it.  In heavy traffic, the swarm of bikes also kick up a cloud of dust that further dirties the air.  I just couldn’t live with it long term.

The other thing that tarnished Hanoi a little for me is the fact that my iPhone was stolen the first night I got here.  I went for a walk along the streets to do some sightseeing, and a couple of rather pretty local girls pulled up on a motorcycle and asked me if i wanted to go for a ride around the block with them.  Naturally I said no… I wouldn’t jump on a bike with total strangers in a city with sane traffic, but especially not in Hanoi!  One of the girls was standing next to me, and started to rub me on the arms and shoulders and was trying to convince me to get on the bike, while the other talked to me. I basically said thanks but no thanks, spoke them to them for another minute or so, and then started to walk away.  As they rode off, I reached into my pocket to see what time it was, and there was no iPhone in my pocket.  I was so pissed off!

Luckily, I’d taken out travel insurance for this trip.  I don’t normally take insurance, but it seemed like a good idea for travelling in South East Asia just for the medical coverage so I ticked the box for that option when I booked the plane tickets.  I was a little less pissed off when I remembered that I had the insurance because it meant that the phone would probably be replaced, probably with an iPhone 4, so given that the insurance cost me all of $10, I’m very glad I took it out!  However, what won’t be replaced is the data added to my phone since the last sync, including a few very special podcast recordings and photos, etc.  Gone for good! So annoyed!!!

The insurance company said I needed to fill out a police report before they could process the claim, so I went to the local station, conveniently just across the road from my hotel. What a pack of losers. I’m told there is massive corruption in the police force here, and while I can’t personally vouch for the truth of that, I can certainly say there is massive unprofessionalism. The police on duty were a bunch of slobs; dirty, lazy, slow, unsure about how to fill out a report, and they treated the whole thing as a bit of a joke.  They seemed more than a little put out that I was actually making them do some work instead of leaving them alone to sit and watch television. Of course, they didn’t speak a single word of English, so I had to go back across the road and get the hotel concierge to come over and try and translate for me; this seemed to annoy them even more, since when they thought there was a language barrier they figured they could just fob me off. I think the concierge did an ok job of the translation, but really, who would know?  Overall though, if that’s the level of service and professionalism you got from official bodies like the police, I could never enjoy living here.

The other big reason I’m probably not enjoying Hanoi as much as I should be is just the fact that I’m on my own here.  Shanghai was fun because I had so much to look forward to, meeting people that I was genuinely excited to be hanging out with.  When you’re “hangin’ with your peeps” things are always lots more fun.  In Hanoi I don’t really know anyone, so it means eating meals on my own, sightseeing on my own, spending time on my own. Not a whole lot of fun really.  At this stage I’m just really looking forward to going home to my Linda.

Anyway, here’s a bunch of photos I took on my walk tonight if you’re interested. I took them with the new Nikon S4000 I picked up duty free as I left Sydney airport, and for a camera without any manual controls (and the fact that I didn’t have a tripod with me) they aren’t too bad for night time shots.  The traffic is particularly bad because today is the day of the annual Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations, so it’s somewhat crazier than usual!

Oh, and here’s the video…

Travelling Freak Show

Chinese people, as a general rule, have dark hair.  As a race of people, they also tend to not be quite as tall as some other races of people.  And you could be forgiven for thinking that most Chinese people adhere to fairly strict diets because they tend to be fairly slim in build.

Now before you accuse me of making racist remarks, I’m simply making an observation on what I’ve seen.  And apparently the Chinese people themselves would concur with these observations because whenever they see a westerner (or “big nose” as they call us) who is tall, heavily built or has non-black hair, they tend to stare and talk.  Because I’m fairly tall, in some cases I even had some of the Shanghai locals come up and ask to have their photo taken with me, such is their interest in these strange “big nose” visitors.

So you can imagine the attention we drew when myself, Wes Fryer, Gail Lovely and Melinda Alford decided to spend a day of sightseeing in Suzhou, (苏州市) a city to the west of Shanghai.  Wes is as tall as I am, but with blonde hair. Gail has hair that is blonde bordering on redhead. And Melinda has a wild shock of long dark hair and a stocky frame.  Together as a group, we must have looked like a travelling freak show.

Our day started with a taxi ride from Pudong to Puxi and the local railway station.  The railway station was amazing… more like an airport.  People were lined up to buy tickets at the many vending machines outside the terminal, and you do need to specify exactly what train you plan to catch as all seating is allocated. Once a train is full you can’t get a seat.

The trains themselves are high speed, and we got one of the brand new G-series trains that covers the 120km (75 miles) from Shanghai to Suzhou in a mere 25 minutes.  At one point we clocked our speed at over 270km/h.  I don’t think any of us realised just how fast we were going until we got off the train at Suzhou station and another train went through on a different line. It was a bit of a blur!

Once out of the massive Suzhou railway station, Melinda, who speaks some Chinese, managed to do some negotiations with a local driver to transport us around for the day.  For a very small fee he was to be our guide (well, our driver… with little English, he didn’t really say a lot!) and take us around to some of the sights of the city.  To be honest, we had no idea where he would be taking us, but we just trusted him to do it.

As it turns out, I thought we got a great snapshot into some of the sights of Suzhou.  We started out at the Beisi Pagoda, a 9-story temple with a history that goes back some 1700 years.  Wes and I climbed to the very top for photos and to marvel at the view.

We then visited a silk factory.  China is known for its silk production and Suzhou was one of the main cities on the famous Silk Road.  It was interesting to see how they spin the silk into threads, quite literally just unravelling the silkworm cocoon and using machinery to spin the very fine silk threads into a fibre. They also used some interesting techniques that stretched the cocoons over a bamboo frame to produce a silk web that was then stretched out over a bed-sized frame in layers to produce a silk blanket.  Of course, no visit to any sort of factory such as this would be complete without exiting via the giftshop!  I started to video inside the giftshop but was very quickly told to turn off the camera because it was not allowed.  At first I thought that was odd until I realised how many products they had that used Disney characters… I’m guessing that they aren’t paying Disney a whole lot of licensing fees for the use of Donald and Mickey?

By the way, as we entered the silk factory a little Chinese guy with no real English came up to me and started pointing at my arms and touching them… I think he was making comment on my height and build, implying that I had big arms (I don’t think I do, but he seemed to think so) and this was fairly typical of the sort of attention that our little “gang of four” got as we traveled around.

Our driver decided that he would do a little “side job” while we in the silk factory, so we went and had lunch while we waiting for him.  We found a fast food noodle and dumpling place where Melinda placed an order in Chinese (thank goodness we had Melinda with us…  this would have all been so much harder otherwise!) and we soon has a fast food feast on the table.  It was kind of funny, because the food was all soups and dumplings and noodles, but the store felt exactly like a McDonalds or KFC.  The menus were all in Chinese of course.

After lunch we kept touring around, getting plenty of sideways glanced from the locals who seemed to think that we were a bit of a novelty.  Our driver picked us up and took us down by the river where we struck a deal with a barge owner to take us into the water city.  It was a bit of a highlight of the day, as we had our own private barge to show us the city from the water. Melinda said she’d been to the city many times but always on foot, and thought that seeing it from the water was the way to go.  It would have been nice to get off the barge at some point and go exploring a little, but instead we navigated our way into the central part of the canal system before turning around and going back to our waiting driver.  We all laughed when our boat captain got on the phone and rang our driver to ask (translated thanks to Melinda) “Where are you?  I’ve got your Big Noses here”.

To finish our day, we went to a silk embroidery factory and saw some silk artwork being made. Our guide was very informative, with quite good English, and he explained the finer points of silk embroidery… it’s quite an artform!

After that we visited a lovely traditional Chinese garden.  Well, I guess it was kind of traditional if you don’t count the animatronic figures in the displays! Some of them were pretty funny.  Overall though, the gardens were very nice and we all went for a walk up and down the river, taking photos and talking.

Back at the railway station waiting for our train, we were still getting checked out by the locals. People would sit in bemusement as we walked past, not quite sure what to make of the four of us. We certainly stood out.  As we waited, Wes started working on a digital story project using a terrific little iPhone app called Storykit, while I let some little Chinese kids play Fruit Ninja on my iPhone.

The trip back to Shanghai was quick and we grabbed a taxi back to Pudong, where we had dinner in an American-style cafe.  There was lots of laughing and fun as we shared a few drinks, reflected on our day, and unsuccessfully tried to demonstrate the robustness of Chinese paper money.  We finished off our day with a bit of shopping at the local Best Buy, before grabbing a taxi back to our hotel.

Overall, a great day shared with great folk.  Let’s do it again sometime…

Fullsize photos on Flickr at http://www.flickr.com/photos/betchaboy/sets/72157624864632311/

Experiencing the Unexpected

This is the first time I’ve ever done this, but I’d like to welcome a guest writer to Betchablog.  This post was written by one of my work colleagues, Pam Nutt, and was actually the first part of her welcoming address to staff for the start of the 2010 school year.  I enjoyed hearing Pam deliver this address to our teachers so I asked if she’d mind posting it here for all to read.  As you’ll discover, it was based on some of her experiences in Alice Springs in outback Australia, and I liked the way she linked it back to kids and learning.  Enjoy!

“You’re  so privileged,” some said. “Very few people see the Todd flowing.”  Others, with an almost  reverential whisper, said “Only 1% of tourists see water flowing from Uluru.”

The sign outside the Alice Springs Desert Park said it all: “You will never look at deserts in the same way again.” Indeed. Torrential rain. Enormous umbrellas that benefited little. Puddles that we gave up walking around and just walked through. Pathways that resembled miniature Venetian canals.

I have to admit to a few churlish thoughts early on in that four and a half days of rain in the Red Centre. We were, after all, travelling with overseas friends, and the whole experience was meant to be postcard perfect – living, breathtaking Ken Duncan panoramas. And what was one of my first purchases in Alice Springs? An umbrella!

But it’s the surprise of it all that stays in my memory. The Todd not only flowing but breaking its banks in a spectacular display; the sound of it as well as the sight; the excitement of tourists and locals alike as we were all drawn down to the dry riverbed that had turned into an ever-expanding rush of noisy fast-flowing water.

And so the saga continued, with moment after moment taking us by surprise. Did it ever occur to you that you could be drowned in the torrent flowing down Kata Tjuta? That the road could be washed away in huge sections, barring your way to the MacDonnells? And to top it off, that Uluru should be shrouded in a mist that, rather than limiting our vision, enhances the mystery of the place.

Our final day at Uluru began with the obligatory dawn viewing – misty clouds on the top; subtly changing pastels beneath; the dawn of a beautifully sunny day and the sight of waterfalls glistening on the Rock. It wasn’t at all what I’d expected but it’s that sense of surprise, even awe, that remains with me. It’s a powerful and living landscape, not merely a postcard, and the fact that it was a shared experience enriched it further. Long live the experience of the unexpected.

It’s the unexpected that brings our experiences into sharp and memorable focus. I don’t wish to diminish events of unexpected horror and tragedy by not centering my thoughts on such moments. Rather, I’d like to reflect on the fact that out of our ordinary experiences come moments that can transform – the extraordinary behind the ordinary, as Patrick White observed. The power of the unexpected experience gives fresh meaning to the ordinary details of our lives.

Think of our classrooms. The fact that we have detailed programmes, desired outcomes and well-planned strategies clearly outlines what we expect in them. And these expectations are in no way to be derided, nor is the satisfaction that, at the end of it all, we’ve accomplished set goals. But I don’t ever recall being joyously excited by this. Satisfied. Happy. Gratified. Even relieved, perhaps. But what gives greatest cause for excitement are the unexpected moments that highlight the experiences of individual students. They’re often unexpected because they operate outside the formality of our written curriculum.

There’s the ‘A-ha!’ moment when a struggling student has suddenly grasped an elusive concept in terms that mean something to her.  It could be a moment we easily miss – the rest of the class has got it quite some time earlier and moved on. But suddenly, there’s a “This poem really says what it feels to…” or “Macbeth could be a today story!” or ‘There’s a pattern here that I can finally understand and apply. It makes sense!” Then you know that a student has reached out and grabbed an idea for herself, rather than noted what you’ve said in order to give it back to you in an assessment task, intelligibly or otherwise.

There’s the moment when a clever, ambitious  and articulate student quietly reaches out to spend time with someone who just doesn’t get it , taking joy from the shared experience of learning and celebrating what could seem to her to be a lesser achievement. There are the moments when students are prepared to laugh and talk with you, not just merely take down notes about what you are saying, or ask what they could have done to get 20/20 instead of 19/20. Or when a student from years ago meets you and says, “I remember in one of our classes…“ and they go on to tell you of something that they built into their life because of some interaction in a classroom.

There are the times when a group learns how to deal with accepting that not everyone is like them but is to be valued. Or the times when they understand why they are privileged, even though they’re not given everything they want. It’s a joy to see someone who rarely dips below an A sharing the moment with a student who’s excited about getting a C+.  In the rush and pressure of teaching, it’s easy to miss those moments. It’s a joy when we experience the unexpected and it brings us back to the things that really count – what kind of people we are, what we value, where our hopes lie.

At all levels in our lives, experiencing the unexpected can have a profound impact. Valuing the unexpected in our classrooms, for example, goes far beyond expecting certain outcomes in relation to some learning stage. And such an experience of the unexpected, whether it be part of an intellectual, emotional or spiritual journey, may well have begun somewhere in a classroom, both for the pupil and the teacher.

I’ll never look at these unexpected experiences in the same way again.

Words and Video by Pam Nutt
CC BY-NC-ND Image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/skemsley/204933908