China-U.S. (Foreign Policy)



Home Again

I realized that I hadn't posted anything since we were in Hue, Vietnam and that it would be nice to give an overview of the rest of our trip.

We left Hue and on the bus to Hoi An and I realized there must be an invisible wall between the two cities which changes the climate. It remained warm the rest of our trip. Hoi An was very small and filled with tourists. We found a bookstore owned by an American ex-patriate named Randy and, when we left without books, he asked us why we didn't buy anything (in a friendly way). "We're Peace Corps Volunteers, and books are expensive, but we enjoyed looking!"

"I know how that goes," he replied, "I myself have been out on the road without money and..." and at this point he stopped because he looked up and off to the side, contemplating the days he had spent without much money. That's when he said, "You know what, take two books - no charge." We looked at each other as he walked back into the bookstore. After going back inside we left, happily clutching Franny and Zooey and The Alchemist.

Just before leaving the city we met a man who was born during the American War (Vietnam War). His father, a farmer, was killed by a bomb during the war before he was born. After working to save money, he eventually earned enough money to buy a couple motorcycles and bicycles, which he now rents to foreigners. We talked about what typical Vietnamese people pay for things, we talked about government, and we talked about his family. It was a rare moment when I felt a connection and an understanding. So much of Vietnam had been about paying for hotels, food, buses and everyone seeming to want our money, but this man treated us well unconditionally.

We took a sleeper bus to Nha Trang and then split a taxi with 3 German women so we could get to Jungle Beach, my favorite place in Vietnam during the vacation. The beach resort is run by a Canadian ex-patriate and, since it is so far from the city, provided 3 meals each day as part of the housing cost. The beach was 20 meters from our hut and there were very few people. I read two books in 5 days, climbed large river rocks up a hill to see several waterfalls, boogie-boarded, and traded stories with Austrians, Australians, Swedes, Germans, Canadians, Brits, and even some Americans. At the end of our time in Jungle Beach, the owner offered us two options: (1) Pay for the taxi back to town and catch a private bus to Dalat (our next destination) or (2) Go with him to Dalat, as he planned to go anyway. We chose the latter and got a chance to learn more about the future plans of the resort. We had to travel through the mountains to Dalat, and reached a high point of 1500 m. When we arrived the owner of the resort knew a hotel owner and was able to help us find a place to stay.

Dalat had an interesting night-life, with bustling markets and portable restaurants springing up on the street. We saw a strange, thick yellow liquid boiling and people sitting around drinking it. I asked Terrie if she wanted to try it and she replied, "Drink a strange, thick yellow liquid from a pot on the side of the street? Do you even have to ask?" So we sat down and tried it. The drink wasn't bad and, as it turns out, it was soymilk.

We met a group of Vietnamese students that night. They were talking together and they said "hello" as we passed so I stopped, turned, and approached them. Two chairs suddenly appeared from the crowd and we began talking about who they were and the places to see in Dalat. Later a student asked us if we were tired. We immediately understood, and said goodbye before returning to the hotel. Later we talked about this and decided that we may not have recognized their subtle signal had we not learned about this cultural difference while living in China.

Vietnam seemed to be a lot like China, except with French influences. Coffee, bread and cheese are all luxuries not easily found in China, but they were ubiquitous in Vietnam. Religion, Architecture, Food and Language were all influenced by French occupation.

Saigon was too big and too hot for relaxing. We checked out a couple of bookstores, searched the market for gifts, and to kill time decided to try a brief one-hour tour of the city. I found out that preparing to avoid being cheated is not enough, in itself, to actually avoid it. After a 35 minute tour, seeing "City Hall" and "A Pagoda," the Vietnamese were reaching out their hands for twice the price they quoted. I laughed out loud. I didn't argue or complain, as I'd grown used to this treatment in Vietnam. As I continued to laugh I handed 35/60ths of the REAL price (yes, i'm good with mentally calculating 12ths) and we walked away. It was the final punctuation of a series of people trying to cheat us throughout Vietnam. Although nobody else tried to cheat us, we had a strange encounter when we returned to Hanoi on our way back to China.

Our plane got into Hanoi late and we decided to wait for the small van to take us downtown for $4 rather than pay $18 for an immediate taxi. By the time we got to our hotel it was 12:30 a.m. Unfortunately the receptionists were unable to find our reservations. In an attempt to brush us off they asked for our reservation form, which I gladly showed them on the internet. They had no rooms, they said, they would call another hotel. After several calls they found a $28 room. "But we reserved a room here for $20," we said.
"This should be no problem for you," he replied.
This was the final, spoken explanation for an attitude we noticed while traveling: the people expected that we were rich and that money was not an object. This is frustrating as a volunteer, especially after I said, "We are volunteers, we don't have much money" and the receptionist replied, "I don't think so, money is not a problem for you." At this point I was livid and I wrote down our monthly salary for him. When he realized that, indeed, we made much less than he thought, he continued to call hotels. After another fifteen minutes we proposed sleeping in their dining room, which he quickly agreed would be the best solution. And so my last night in Vietnam was spent sleeping on a bunch of wooden dining chairs.

The only other exciting moment during our return was catching the train from Nanning to Guiyang. The bus pulled into Nanning at 7:00 p.m. and the train (300 meters away) left at 7:30 (we still didn't have tickets or very much money). We made a plan. I would run for the train station and Terrie would get all of the bags. In hindsight the opposite would have worked better, but there were unforeseen circumstances. For example, we didn't realize that the train station was so far away. In any case, the bus stopped and, tucking Terrie's wallet into my pocket, I sprinted for the station. When I arrived there were 10 people in each line. Several minutes later I asked for 2 hard sleepers to Guiyang. "They're all sold out," he said.
"How about 2 soft sleepers then?" I asked. Typically I wouldn't purchase a soft sleeper, as they are about twice as expensive, but we needed to catch this train.
"300 yuan," he said.
I handed him 300 yuan and he looked confused.
"It's 300 per ticket," he said. Panicked, I realized I was only about 10 yuan short.
"What do I do?" I asked, and he replied, "Just buy one now and you can get another later."
Again, when looking back, this makes no sense to me. We both needed to get on the train or neither of us did.
I left the ticket counters, went to the front of the station and saw a bag-laden foreigner stumbling toward the station. I took the bags from Terrie and told her to find an ATM and get money NOW. We needed to buy a second ticket. The time, at this point, was about 7:15 p.m. She came limping back ten minutes later with a handful of money, and she handed it to me distractedly as she examined her recently wounded shin. After falling on some rocks at Jungle Beach and spraining her ankle, she probably wasn't the best person to nominate for carrying 70 pounds of equipment and then sprinting for an ATM.
I bought another ticket and we boarded the train with minutes to spare.

After a couple nights in Guiyang we returned 'home.' I looked around the campus today and realized that virtually nobody is here. The empty, quiet campus has been pierced by the inexpensive firecrackers set-off by children. The small Post-Office door was slightly open and I inquired about packages:

Thank you

Grandma and Grandpa Ooley,

Mom and Dad,


and, of course,


Your generosity will not be forgotten!

I will spend the next week preparing for a Special Education lecture (which I will deliver sometime this month) and my upcoming classes. I'm looking forward to the campus regaining its life.


Hue City, Vietnam

We walked across the bridge above the perfume river today on our way to Thien Mu Pagoda. Deciding to walk along the river instead of taking a taxi was a good idea. The people along the way are unaccustomed to seeing foreigners (unlike every other place we have been so far) and they greet us with friendly hellos more than offers to take motorbikes or cyclos. The road itself is not so impressive; it just follows the bank of the river for the 4 kilometers it takes to get to the Pagoda. Walking in this area was more quiet than other places and it gave me time to think. Palm trees which stood beside the river were awkward because they were set against a gray sky; It reminded me of the familiar tropical storm footage on television. On the road small frogs, the size of a fingernail, hopped through the mud. Families were preparing their homes for the new lunar year and their children waved to us. These families work out of their home - their homes double as a small store or photocopy shop or any number of small businesses.

When we arrived at the Pagoda I was tempted to be disappointed. Only one structure stood in front of 2 sets of steep stairs. Four kilometers of walking for this? We reached the top of the stairs and the whole complex stretched back to include several more buildings. One building housed the car that drove Thich Quang Duc to Saigon for his unique method of protesting the Diem regime in 1963. Behind the complex, beyond the trees, through barbed wire and high fencing was a vast graveyard. Throughout the grounds there were monks scurrying around too busy to notice us (or too accustomed to seeing foreigners). We took the boat back to the downtown area and ate at a wonderful restaurant. After the expensive and mediocre food in Hanoi I have been pleased to be in Hue. The woman who cooked our food was deaf and mute so we ordered by pointing at what we wanted on the menu. Details were clarified using sign language of sorts. Everything was delicious and the price was right: around 3 dollars for two people.

Tonight is the last day of the year (in China and Vietnam, anyway). Everyone is a year older tomorrow! When I thought about the holidays I've experienced here I learned more about myself. I have always wondered where the feeling was in Chinese Holidays. I thought back on my own life in America. Passing someone on the street between omnipresent lights and signs advertising the season elicits a greeting: "Happy Holidays!" and this greeting is familiar, warm, and makes you feel comfortable. I couldn't understand why that didn't exist here or in China, but the language barrier explained it to me finally. These phrases and this comfort is everywhere, but I don't have access to it. I am an outsider. Sure people are happy about the new year. They are talking about it and laughing and celebrating, but I am only seeing the edges of this celebration: a superficial barrage of flowers and incense, loud noises and small trees covered with small oranges packed frantically into houses.

I don't feel the depth of these holidays because they are not my own.

This new knowledge has given me access to a new way of seeing. The more I understand about myself and my own culture the more my eyes open to new ones. The closer I can get to home, the further I can stretch myself to new ways of thinking and seeing.


Language Proficiency Interview (LPI)

One of the things I noticed during my LPI was my new ability to speak in Chinese to help me speak better Chinese (circumlocution)! For example, if I wanted to describe a car's characteristics in Chinese, but I didn't know the Chinese word for 'engine' I would talk about the machine inside the car that makes it go and ask what the word for that machine was. After the tester told me the word I would continue speaking and use the new word in place of the string of words describing that object.

I received the results of my LPI: Advanced Low. This is according to the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages scale (ACTFL), and roughly corresponds to a 2 on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale (ILR). People had asked how this would correspond to a number of college courses completed, but colleges use these scales if they want to determine a student's level (specific classes in college are not geared to assess language proficiency in such a comprehensive way). I could say that I have completed two semesters of Chinese texts during my last semester, but I believe my speaking and listening ability is higher than a student who has studied Chinese in college for one year. In any case, the following is the ACTFL explanation of my current level:

Speakers at the Advanced-Low level are able to handle a variety of communicative tasks, although somewhat haltingly at times. They participate actively in most informal and a limited number of formal conversations on activities related to school, home, and leisure activities and, to a lesser degree, those related to events of work, current, public, and personal interest or individual relevance.

Advanced-Low speakers demonstrate the ability to narrate and describe in all major time frames (past, present and future) in paragraph length discourse, but control of aspect may be lacking at times. They can handle appropriately the linguistic challenges presented by a complication or unexpected turn of events that occurs within the context of a routine situation or communicative task with which they are otherwise familiar, though at times their discourse may be minimal for the level and strained. Communicative strategies such as rephrasing and circumlocution may be employed in such instances. In their narrations and descriptions, they combine and link sentences into connected discourse of paragraph length. When pressed for a fuller account, they tend to grope and rely on minimal discourse. Their utterances are typically not longer than a single paragraph. Structure of the dominant language is still evident in the use of false cognates, literal translations, or the oral paragraph structure of the speaker's own language rather than that of the target language.

While the language of Advanced-Low speakers may be marked by substantial, albeit irregular flow, it is typically somewhat strained and tentative, with noticeable self-correction and a certain 'grammatical roughness.' The vocabulary of Advanced-Low speakers is primarily generic in nature.

Advanced-Low speakers contribute to the conversation with sufficient accuracy, clarity, and precision to convey their intended message without misrepresentation or confusion, and it can be understood by native speakers unaccustomed to dealing with non-natives, even though this may be achieved through repetition and restatement. When attempting to perform functions or handle topics associated with the Superior level, the linguistic quality and quantity of their speech will deteriorate significantly.


A Journey, An Exodus, A... you get the idea, right?

After leaving Peace Corps In-Service Training (IST) in Chengdu, we found ourselves on a soft-seat 18 hour train. Terrie asked the conductor and, luckily, we upgraded to hard sleepers. After arriving in Kunming, finding our Hostel and checking-in, we wandered around the plaza looking for something to eat. A strange tofu and rice-noodle dish looked good, tasted not-so-good, but filled me up. That night I had the beginning of what was to be several days of stomach pains. I paced back and forth throughout the night before falling asleep for only a few hours. The next day I called the Peace Corps Medical Office in Chengdu (the very place I had so recently left!). The doctor asked me several questions and I performed a battery of tests to rule out the immediate concern of Appendicitis (one included jumping high into the air and coming down hard on my heels). The day after I began to feel better, though the pains would come and go. The day after that we decided to leave for Vietnam, but the doctor was still concerned about the pain in my abdomen. Though the pain only came for a few minutes every hour or so, the Doctor wanted to make sure there were no major concerns before we left the country. An orchestrated effort on the part of Peace Corps and Terrie and me led us to the hospital to get a check-up and rule out any serious concerns. Upon entering the hospital we saw several signs in Chinese and many people with white masks. We walked up to the center reception island and I explained my need to see a doctor. The woman at the reception directed us upstairs to the gastrointestinal ward where we checked in for a small fee (about 60 cents) and we were then whisked into a doctor's office. This was a concern because it seemed that there were many Chinese people waiting in the adjoining room, but we did not ask if I was being treated differently. The doctor looked at us with alarm and began to ask questions in Chinese (How long have you had this pain in your stomach, do you have an appetite, etc.). Instead of answering the questions I asked the doctor to call the medical office in Chengdu so that the Peace Corps medical staff could answer her questions. "Can't you answer the questions yourself?" she asked, obviously nervous about making this phone call. After explaining the need to call (because PC had specific things they wanted to know about my condition) the doctor pulled a cell-phone from her pocket and learned of my situation from the PC medical staff. During the examination she applied pressure to different points on my abdomen and there was no pain. Finally she sent me down to have my blood drawn and examined (the fee for this was about $3.20). Here are some pictures of this process:

Drawing Blood

Waiting for the Doctor to Analyze the results

After taking my blood, the hospital personnel placed the vial in a large machine which printed out a paper for us to give the doctor. The doctor called the PC medical staff and explained that all of my blood results indicated no serious problem. We had the medical go-ahead to begin our trip to Vietnam. Interestingly, this entire process (leaving for the Hospital, registering, examination, paying for the blood exam, drawing blood, getting the results, the final examination of the results, and returning to the hostel took under one hour. We were impressed.

That night we boarded a bus bound for Hekou, a Chinese town on the border of Vietnam. Before getting on board a man took our bags and put them under the bus. "There is a 50 yuan fee ($7.50) for each bag because of gas," he said to us. We looked at one another skeptically and he pointed out that it was written on the back of our tickets and that all Chinese people must pay the bag fee too. We paid him 100 yuan and borded the bus. The bus was filled with 2 stories of very small beds in 3 rows. We squeezed our way through the aisle and found our beds before settling in and getting comfortable. The man who had taken our bags returned to ask other foreigners (a Japanese man and a Dutch woman) to pay the gas tax for their bags. They refused and he said he was going to take their tickets and refund their money so they could go the next day before he stormed to the front of the bus. I asked them about it and they said they didn't pay for their bags when the man put them in the compartment under the bus. Suspicious, I began to search the back of my ticket for a "gas fee" or "baggage fee." Although there were only Chinese characters on the back of the ticket, I found nothing regarding bags or extra fees. I challenged the man, explaining that others did not pay fees for their bags and that there was nothing on the ticket to suggest a need to do so. First he claimed that we paid an extra fee because our bags were so large, then showed me his clipboard and a hand-written "fee" of 50 yuan was on the top. Lies, I suddenly realized. Everything had been a show to get extra money from us, the unwitting foreign travelers. "You're cheating us!" I yelled in Chinese, alerting everyone on the bus that an argument was about to begin. A woman looked our over her sleeper-perch and asked to see my ticket. "It is the same price as mine," she said. I said that the man also charged me a luggage fee, which wasn't listed anywhere on the ticket. The man said, "You can go get the police if you don't believe me." But the last bluff belonged to me when I said, "I will, let me off this bus before we get going, I want to see the police immediately." As I spoke to the driver and a bus station employee at the front of the bus, the man quietly slipped off the bus. After several minutes I finally explained that the man had charged me a "luggage fee," and that nobody else had to pay it. The station employee asked me in Chinese, "Did you give him any money?" I didn't understand and she asked it louder and more frantically until another passenger translated very slowly, "she says... did you... give... money?"
"Yes!" I said, "We gave him 100 yuan." The woman, obviously angry, went after the man yelling at other employees in the crowded bus parking lot to try and stop him. Then she told me to wait at my sleeping perch because my money (which, this entire time had actually been Terrie's money) would be returned. A minute later it was returned and the matter was resolved. The bus crawled out of the station lot and we were on our way to Hekou. The ride was bumpy, but the sleepers were almost comfortable and we slept well. Early the next morning we awoke at the Hekou bus station and began the next phase of our journey: entering Vietnam. A fast talking Chinese man offered to help us get a train to Hanoi and the price seemed reasonable, so we bought tickets using Chinese Yuan. He said he would meet us on the other side of the border crossing (after we passed through Chinese and Vietnam customs) and offered his phone as proof of his sincerity (which I gladly tucked into my pocket).

China-Vietnam Border Crossing (Hekou to Lao Cai)

After passing customs (where they seemed especially concerned about books) we met the ticket salesman who provided our tickets and directed us toward the taxi area so that we could catch our soon-to-leave train at the nearby station. Three of us climbed into the van after the man explained that it would be 5,000 VND (Vietnam Dong) per person (about $7.50 total). When we arrived at the train station and gave him 100,000 VND he returned 50,000 VND, grossly overcharging us. We argued and demanded our money back, but he laughed nervously and refused. As a protest we threatened to sit in his van so that he would lose business until he gave us the fair, agreed-upon price. He walked over to talk with some friends on motorcycles while we talked about our next move in his van. One idea was to take his keys and wait until he gave us a fair price before we gave them back. This idea was the most daring we had and we began to get nervous about the repercussions of such an action (would we be pursued by a gang of angry Vietnamese?), so we decided to just leave. On our way up the steps to the station we encountered the driver again and his friend started to explain how such a van costs so much to maintain, etc. etc. I have never felt such a strange combination of anger and sadness at such injustice. The added fact that we were all volunteers who were struggling to travel in the first place made it seem so unfair. We shook it off and boarded the the train to Hanoi. The new lesson was clear: always arrange prices up front, and wait for change to materialize before handing over bills.

On the train there were two interesting aspects: First, when the Vietnamese say "bench seats," they literally mean bench seats. Second, the reason it takes 10 hours to cover 200 miles is, well, I'll let you do the math (We also had about 15 stops which were 5 minutes each). No, really, I want you to do the math.

The low point on the train was when we looked at our tickets, converted the currencies in our heads, and realized that we'd paid the fast-talking ticket salesman (whose phone I had held for extra security) about double the actual ticket price.

The high point on the train was the limited communication with Vietnamese people by pointing to phrases in our guide-book (we asked almost everyone if they spoke Chinese but nobody understood). People were happy to try and communicate and find out where we were from. We had finally arrived in Hanoi, but were stopped at the gate because Terrie had lost her ticket. We stood to the side searching through her bag for the ticket and wondering what would happen next when the attendants decided to turn a blind eye and allow us through. We had made it.

Today in Hanoi we were in line for water-puppet theater tickets (I'll explain later, I promise!) and we heard the first Chinese since we left China more than a day before. It happened after a man cut in front of me in line as he asked his wife questions about which tickets they should get. Clear language was coming from his mouth in the form of Mandarin Chinese! Terrie and I smiled at one-another and I said in Chinese, "Excuse me, would you please get in line, we got here first." His wife, in perfect Chinese custom, said, "oh, how embarrassing (we are sorry)." The husband then whispered to his wife, "They speak Chinese!" We later talked with them about our work in China as volunteers and how we were just traveling through Vietnam.

And now we look ahead. Our next destination is warmer and the Lonely Planet guidebook claims that it is "[the] intellectual, cultural and spiritual heartbeat of Vietnam". We will leave in two days.