Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Portrait of a Teacher

If there's one thing that can be said about my students, it's that they love drawing pictures.  The girls typically draw pictures of themselves, their friends, Mickey Mouse, Asian cartoon characters, medieval scenes with princesses, castles, and princesses, and rainbows, while the boys like to stick to the more violent pictures: guns, transformers, thai fighters, soldiers, battle scenes, etc.  My initial reaction is to be disturbed by the photos that the boys draw, but then I think back on my childhood and I recall memories of myself perched high in a tree with a pair of binoculars, a Rambo bandana, a plastic knife, and a fake wooden musket, pretending to snipe football players practicing on the baseball field behind the house I grew up in (where was my mom?).  I suppose I ended up alright, so I'll throw the dice and hope that these fantastical violent tendencies are universal in 9 year olds around the globe.

Anyway, every once in a while I'll get a student who draws a portrait of me, and I'd love to share the pictures I have accumulated over my first two months of teaching.  The pictures are always from girls.  I'm pretty sure this is because any time I end up in one of the boys' pictures I'm usually the skinny guy getting crushed by the tank.  Hey whatever, at least I make it in...

Photo #1:  The first portrait I ever received was not a gift, it was a punishment.  It was my first day of teaching, and I caught a 9 year old girl (Lucy) drawing instead of paying attention.  I walked up to Lucy, grabbed her picture, and acted like I was really mad.  I told her the only way I would let her off without punishment was if she drew a picture of me, and it had to be good, or else the punishment would be severe.  She could tell I was kidding, and excitedly drew this picture for me.  I like to think of this as the Asian version of me...

Mr. Athuny (teacher)

Photo #2: I don't really have a backstory for this next photo.  I was substituting a class of 9 and 10 year olds, gave the class a 15 minute break, and when I came back in this was at the top of my box of activities that I bring into every class.  I asked who drew it and told them I really liked it, but no one would confess to it.  Picture #2...

The Mystery Continues...

Photo #3: My next photo was one that I received today.  It came from an 8 year old student of mine who goes by Sammy.  This one was actually kind of cool because I didn't think she liked me that much.  She never really pays attention, and often is drawing or talking to the girl who sits next to her when I'm trying to teach something new.  When I came back from our 15 minute break, I looked in my teachers box and saw a folded piece of paper that said "For You" on the outside.  When I opened it, I was greeted by this pleasant surprise...

Thanks Sammy!

I'm saving my favorite photo for last.  This was given to me by a 10 year old girl who calls herself Sunny.  I covered this class for 3 lessons while their teacher was taking a vacation, and really enjoyed all of the students.  They were all extremely interested in hearing about America, and it was fun sharing stories of my home with them.  I really liked Sunny because she uncannily reminded me of one of my younger cousins who I think is probably the coolest person I know.  During our breaks I would introduce her to my favorite music from my iPod, while she would play her favorite Korean songs she downloaded onto her mp3 player.  On my last day teaching this class, she gave me this drawing...

The reason I like this is because of the message that accompanies the photo: "Sunny to Mr. Anthony- Wish you luck, heath, and have a girlfriend, (bla bla, much thing nvm)  I'll alway remember u! (maybe)."

I'm not sure what the "(bla bla, much thing nvm)" part means, but whatever.  I assume it means "and  more stuff, but I'm too cool to keep feeding your ego and wishing praises on you."  The best is at the bottom:

"It, this picture, is not beauty, but no copy! Sunny ©"

Yes, Sunny copyrighted her picture.  Genius.  These kids never cease to crack me up.  I hope you enjoy the humor in these pictures as much as I do!  Hopefully I'll have a new batch of pictures to share in a few months time from now.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Vietnam: Welcome to Saigon

Considering that this blog is supposed to be about my experiences in Vietnam, I suppose I should start writing about the country I have lived in for the last 3 months!

There is so much that can be said about this country, and I'm not even going to attempt to tackle a small portion of it in this single post.  One thing I can say for certain is that every day here is an adventure.  Even the boring days tend to pack a crazy event or two into them.

After my first two weeks in Southeast Asia, we boarded a bus for the eight hour bus ride from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to the place I was to call home for next ??? (months, years, ???): Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, also referred to as Saigon.  I had been to Saigon 9 months earlier, and that initial visit had made me want to return to live and work for an extended period of time.  As is evident from my first 5 blog posts, I loved Cambodia, and I found myself wondering if I should have stayed in Cambodia or maybe gone on to teach in a different country altogether like Thailand.  However, when we pulled into Saigon and I first stepped off the bus, I was immediately reminded of why I was so intrigued by the city 9 months earlier.

Approaching the Cambodia-Vietnam Border

Almost in Vietnam Country

Saigon officially became Ho Cho Minh City in 1975 when the North Vietnamese took over the city, effectively ending what we refer to as the Vietnam War.  While Ho Chi Minh City might be its official name, many people still refer to it as Saigon.  I have to admit, I haven't taken a single photo of Saigon in the three months that I've lived here.  I've been so caught up in trying to infuse myself into the culture that I've been doing my best to not look like a tourist with a camera strapped around my neck oogling everything I walk past that is slightly different.  Now that I'm moved into an apartment, working a steady job, and as settled in as I'm going to be I guess it's time to get out there and start taking some pictures.

As I said before, Saigon is a fascinating city, and there's no way I could begin to sum it all up in this blog post.  Life moves fast, traffic is chaotic, food is delicious, exhaust fumes are nauseating, people are friendly, language is confusing, heat is sweltering, rats and cockroaches are plentiful, rooftop views are spectacular, fruit is fresh, cost of living is cheap, cultures are clashing, and construction is never-ending.  I think it is safe to say that it is unlike any place in the world.  The city is changing daily, and I often wonder what this place is going to look like in 10 years.  If I left today and came back in 2022, I probably wouldn't recognize it.

I suppose I should attempt to focus on something, so I'll close this post by mentioning the first thing any visitor to Saigon notices: the traffic.  There really isn't an appropriate adjective to describe the chaos of Saigon's traffic.  I've been driving a motorbike for a little over two months, and while it can be extremely fun, I do have to be very cautious.  I try to be as careful and alert as possible, and I'd like to think that I'm a decent driver considering the conditions.  I've had a few passengers who would disagree with the previous statement, but every passenger is the best driver, right?  (And with that sentence I just lost about 3 friends)

One of my friends took this photo of me out of a cab window

Crossing the Saigon River on the massive Phu My Bridge

A few nights ago, my housemate and good college friend Mike and I were heading out and he grabbed his camera to catch a video of the traffic from the back of my bike at around 6:30 PM, roughly as rush hour is starting to wind down.  Mike runs an extremely popular blog detailing his travels in Asia that gets readers from literally all over the world.  He posted the video to his blog, and I invite you to click on the following link to check out the video to get an idea of what we experience on a nightly basis!

Finally, someone recently created a time lapse video of the traffic in Saigon that has been circulating among all of us out here.  While one can never truly understand and appreciate the intensity of the traffic without actually witnessing it, this video does capture it about as well as anything I have seen:

I hope that these videos have begun to explain one reason as to why I find Saigon so alluring.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Temples of Angkor

November, 2004: As I sat in the back row of tables during study hall my junior year of high school, I caught myself dozing off about 20 minutes into the start of the period.  Not wanting to fall asleep, I scanned the back of the classroom for something that would occupy my time and keep me awake.  I spotted a cardboard box stacked with dozens of old National Geographic Magazines, piled so high that they were spilling out of the box.  I forced myself up and wearily made my way over to them and began scanning the selection: Fighter Planes of WWII, Ancient Amphibians, Eastern Europe After the Fall of the Soviet Union.  After more digging, I found a cover that caught my eye.  The title read The Temples of Angkor, and the cover photo was similar to the one below:

I took this magazine back to my seat and went straight to the cover story.  As the clock on the wall ticked, I found myself reading faster in order to take in as much information as possible.  I read about how there existed in Cambodia a massive site of ancient ruins in the jungle that was built between the 10th and 13th centuries.  The city where these ruins were located, Angkor, was the largest known pre-industrial city in the world, with speculation that it held up to 1 million inhabitants at its peak.   The temples contained extremely detailed carvings that related stories from both the Hindu and Buddhist religions.  The article went on to describe various other things about Angkor: the giant moats that surrounded the largest temple (Angkor Wat), the bullet holes in the walls that gave indication of the recent violence in Cambodia, the massive trees that have grown around the temples giving them an eerie presence, and the various animals that can be seen wandering around the complex (elephants and monkeys).  

By the time the bell rang to signal the end of class, I was hooked.  My fascination with Southeast Asia began in that study hall.  I found myself snapped out of a kind of daze, and in that moment I looked up and made a promise to myself that I would see the ruins of Angkor with my own eyes.  

September 3, 2011:  Nearly 7 years after I first read about Angkor in the National Geographic in my study hall, I found myself in a large van heading down a dirty road surrounded by trees in the jungle of Cambodia.  As we neared the ruins, yet while they were still out of sight, I was hit by a wave of realization...  This is it...  I'm about to accomplish a goal I set for myself when I was 17 years old.  My stomach was in knots, and I found myself strangely nervous.  We rounded the corner and saw the massive swimming pools that the king had ordered to be built in front of Angkor Wat.  I scanned the horizon back and forth, and finally caught glimpse of it in the distance: Angkor Wat, the best preserved temple in the site.  I made it.

There's really only so much that I can say about Angkor.  I've never been to Machu Picchu in Peru, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal in India, or the Ancient City of Petra in Jordan, but I imagine Angkor is similar to those places in that its beauty can only fully be appreciated in person.  I really like this description of Angkor Wat from Henri Mouhot, a French explorer in the 1800's:

"One of these temples-a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo-might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings.  It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome"

I took over 250 photos while at the ruins, so I'll try my best to considerably shrink the amount of pictures I post to this blog.  Enjoy!

Don't mess with them- they've been guarding this road for about a millennium.

There were multiple hallways like this that gave the illusion you were looking at two mirrors facing each other.

I saw no signs saying I wasn't allowed to explore!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Living Life, Khmer Style...

Considering what these last 2 months have been like for me, the time I spent in Cambodia from Aug 27th to Sept 11th seems like years ago.  For those two weeks, Cambodia was home, and what a unique home it was.  Because I was there to obtain an English teaching certification, most of my days were spent in class.  We would leave our hotel at 8:30 in the morning, go to class all day, and get back at 6 in the evening as the sun was going down.  In some ways I'm sad because I was so busy during those two weeks that I don't feel like I fully experienced Cambodia and I hope that someday I can make it back.  Here's a quick day by day rundown to give you an idea of how my days were spent in Cambodia.

  • Saturday Aug 27:  Land in Phnom Penh late at night, get to hotel, get to bed.
  • Sunday Aug 28:  Meet my fellow LanguageCorps classmates who eventually went on to Thailand, Vietnam, China, or stayed in Cambodia after the first two weeks to continue training and eventually teach.  Afternoon tour of some of the city's touristy areas.  Welcome dinner at night.
  • Aug 29-Sept 2:  Class during the day, go out at night, attempt to do homework later at night.
  • Sept 2-Sept 4:  Visit to Siem Reap and the ancient city of Angkor Wat.  This will receive its own blogpost.
  • Sept 5-Sept 8:  More class.
  • Sept 9-Sept 11: Visit Sihanoukville, a beach town in Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand.  Seemed like a cool place, but it rained the whole time we were there (and I was sick) so it probably won't get its own blogpost.
I've been thinking about what I could put in here to explain Cambodia and my only solution is to include an excerpt from an email I sent my family.  What better way than to hear from me while I'm in the moment...

"I have so many stories of what this place is like I can't even begin to explain them all.  For one thing, it's absolutely nothing like Vietnam.  Cambodia makes Vietnam look organized.  Considering the country was pretty much completely decimated by the Khmer Rouge in the 70's, there's still a lot of rebuilding to do.  The food isn't really that great, the water is foul (even the locals don't drink it), the police are corrupt, guns are everywhere (not just the police- and the police aren't really "police" in the sense we understand the word.  They're more like Don Fanucci in the Godfather Part II), there's SO MUCH poverty, there's not much English spoken, the showers are cold, they REALLY don't believe in toilet paper, it has rained a lot, the city smells like garbage, the internet is shoddy, prostitution is a serious problem, and the list goes on.  That being said, the people are extremely friendly, prices are cheap, I have yet to get bitten by a mosquito, it's not too hot (I was expecting suffocating heat.  It's pretty friggin' humid, but not unbearable), and I've never once felt unsafe.  We've been told that if you are smart and respectful, it's almost guaranteed that you won't run into any trouble.  Even though I don't think I could spend a full year here, I'm looking forward to the next 2 weeks and have little doubt that it will be an awesome experience."

And yes, the next two weeks were definitely an awesome experience.  To give you an idea of how much I enjoyed Cambodia, between my stomach issues, jet-lag, pollution, and the common cold, I was sick pretty much from the day I arrived.  Despite this, I had an amazing time and when I think back on my time there I don't really dwell on how I didn't feel 100% healthy.  A lot of this had to do with the Khmer people: the locals were so generous everywhere we went, and it was a pleasure talking and getting to know many of them.

A few days ago I was reading an article on about how there exists groups of people who travel to places that are unsafe because they get a high off of putting themselves in harm's way.  The photo attached to the article was of one of these people eating a tarantula in Cambodia.  I couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of the photo and the message it was sending.  The truth is Cambodia is not a dangerous country.  To the contrary of what message the article was trying to send, it is a beautiful country with wonderful people and the possibility of endless memorable experiences.  Most of all, it is a country worth visiting in an attempt to understand it better.

Cambodia is certainly an interesting and bewildering country.  Those of us in my group came up with a way to describe the way things happened there so that we could understand them easier: "Khmer style".  For example, when someone says "Let's do karaoke tonight!", you assume it will involve going to an establishment with karaoke machines set up, maybe a couch to sit on, etc.  In Cambodia, karaoke involves going to a random family's house where a family member ushers you into an empty room with ceilings about 5'-7" high.  There is a couch and a television, and while you are singing the television is not only showing you what words to sing next, but it is also showing strange images of people sunbathing in Greece while covered in mud.  Some things are just lost in translation.  Hence, karaoke, Khmer style...

One of the few times I felt tall!
I'm going to close this post with some photos from Cambodia, but before we get there I feel compelled to share a story that kind of sums up my time in the Khmer nation.  Despite the perplexity of the following situation, I feel like something similar happened almost every day I was in Cambodia...

Our classes for LanguageCorps were held at Pannasastra University, a popular Cambodian college with campuses throughout the country.  My third day in Cambodia was our first day of class.  Our initial lesson concerned with issues such as what not to do in order to keep from offending locals (don't touch them on the head, don't show them the bottom of your feet, don't point your index finger of one hand into the open palm of your other hand, etc.), what to expect from bathrooms in Cambodia (no toilet paper, sometimes you might have to manually dump water into it to flush it, occasionally it's just a hole in the ground, etc.), and other various cultural differences like the fact that a lot of Southeast Asians aren't shy when it comes to bathroom policy.  If you needed to relieve yourself, you did it...  Even if it was in the middle of the road or the sidewalk just off the street.  Like the popular children's book says, everybody poops.  Big deal.  

During our first class break, I walked to the bathroom and stepped up to a urinal to do my business.  Just as I started, a Buddhist monk with a shaved head and orange robe regalia stepped out of one of the stalls and walked up to me.  He looked down at... ummm... me... and then looked up into my eyes.  The only reason I didn't freak out was because I was thinking about what I had just learned concerning bathroom policy.

He pointed.  "What's that?"

I looked down, looked up at him, and shrugged.  I thought it was pretty obvious.

He continued pointing.  "What's that?"

At that moment I turned and looked at the only other person in the bathroom: a down to earth looking modern Cambodian teenager.  I gave him the most desperate look possible, pleading with my eyes for help.

"He wants to know the English word for what you are doing."

I was immediately relieved.  "OOOHHHH!"  I turned back to the monk.  "Pee.  I'm peeing."

He pointed to the stall.  "What's that?"

"Poop.  You poop in there."

The monk smiled.  He laughed, "Ahhhh!  Pee, poop, pee, poop, hahahaha."

As he walked out of the bathroom and I went to wash my hands I realized I just gave my first English lesson in Southeast Asia.... Khmer Style...

I stole these next three pictures from my awesome Canadian photographer friend Robyn

Notice the family of four on the moto on the right.  Not an unusual sight.

S-21:  The infamous torture prison during the Khmer Rouge genocide.  Only 4 of the 17,000 inmates survived.

Oh, hello

About to eat a tarantula

Enjoying every bit of it.  Note: I will not be sending this photo to

Eating an insect that looked like a large cricket.  Maybe a cockroach?

With my good friend and tuk-tuk driver Pitol

These fish eat the dead skin off of your feet- a very odd sensation

Trying to convince this street hawker that the fish ate one of my toes.  He was skeptical...