Monday, 28 June 2010

Things I'm going to miss: Ordinary life

Them's my undies. I wash them every Saturday by hand, and it's a completely normal part of my routine, but it will end when I become a grad student with access to a washing machine and a very tight schedule. (Though now that I have discovered the wonders of presoaking there's no going back.)


This is the average number of books I read per month. That's nearly one book every two weeks! One of the things I will miss most is the easy pace of life in Vietnam, which has allowed me to rediscover reading for fun, rather than for class.

See food? It's seafood! (clams)

Eating with chopsticks. It's just so civilized.

Street life. It's going to be so isolating to go back to temperate climes, where everybody keeps their business inside. How can I be nosy anymore?

Friday, 25 June 2010

Things I'm going to miss: What-in-the-world moments

If you leave your country, chances are there are going to be a lot of things that take you by surprise--no, that are veritable jaw-droppers. Like the first time you see a family of five sharing a single motorbike. Or when your sweet little host grandma digs around in her nose with her finger while you are talking to her as if it is no problem (it is, in fact, no problem). Or four people on two bicycles pedalling serenely down the road, all holding hands. Or when your extended host family offers you raw pork blood at a party. Or when you first realize that if it ever became necessary, you could indeed buy live bunnies and snakes by the side of the road. Or pussycats.

With a regular supply of such moments, I've become rather addicted, and I predict serious withdrawal when I return to the States.

I made a facebook album, "Visual metaphors for culture shock" in an attempt to evoke some of the feelings such moments provoke. Unfortunately, these moments are difficult to capture with stills, but I was lucky enough to find a lovely video that sums it up perfectly.

I now present to you the finest in Vietnamese advertising. Vinamilk: It's not just milk. It's Happiness.

I suggest you watch this with sound if at all possible. (This video can also be found here.)

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

We interrupt this series to bring you something totally random

Thinking about all the people/places/things I'm going to miss from Vietnam made me really depressed. So I decided to cheer myself up by thinking about one of the most ubiquitously available sources of joy and happiness: random words.

One of the best sources of random words is, of course, the good ole' American boy Daniel Webster.

The only thing more American than baseball and hotdogs is spelling it "color" and "theater." Take that, Brits! 
And a large picture of my head.

But I am about to reveal to you the secret location of an even better source of even randomer words and word combinations. It is simple. It is free. It is my gift to all you Shakers and word-lovers and word-loving Shakers out there. You ready?

The answer is: comment on this blog.

No! Really! For serious. Because when you comment on this blog you are required to go through a security procedure in which you read and type out a distorted word or phrase that has been generated by your machine to be 100% random and 99% AWESOME. (1% of the time you get a dud. But it's no worse a failure rate than condoms, and the consequences are way less life-changing.)

Here are some of my favorites*:

used pasteurrepultPAPAL ASYLUMstermenWRONG POCKS**│shnillyoffice truce**│last vander ***

*One hundred points to whoever illustrates of one of these.
**Pretty sure I suffered from this in middle school.
***I think we should call one of those.
****Similar to the last of the Mohicans, can be found at Calvin College.

Also, you can go to facebook and post a link or picture anywhere and it will give you the same thing. Don't like what you get? Try again! Here, copy and post this:

Knock yourselves out, wordophiles!

Friday, 18 June 2010

Things I'm going to miss: My coworkers

Here's a nice GRE-worthy word for you: esprit de corps. Here is a definition:

Synonyms include going to the beach together,

Hannah and chị Giang 

eating lunch together every day,

Anh Khoa, chị Mai Anh, chị Hằng

studying English together (or goofing off as the case may be),

Anh Long, cô Hannah, chị Mai Anh, chị Phượng, anh Khoa, 
bác Chung, chị Ngọc, chú Bình  

celebrating International Children's Day together,

Anh Lâm (editor in chief) and children of Thế Giới Employees

celebrating each other's weddings,

Mr. Long (accounting department) and his bride.

visiting each other's homes at Tết,

Chị Thuận and family (and me)

going out to fancy restaurants at Tết together,

Chị Hạnh (also my host mom), chị Thuận

partying hard at Tết together,

Bác Chung

going to pagodas together,

Em Diệp and chị Thu

learning each other's languages,

Anh Long (my boss) reading El Vocero Hispano Newspaper.

and occasionally even getting some work done.

Employees of Thế Giới Publishers, how I will miss you all!

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Things I'm Going to Miss: My Host Family

The time is fast approaching when I must return to the motherland. And like many people who absolutely detest change, I don't like to think about it. So before I think about what lies ahead, let's think some about what lies in the here and now. Let's think about all the people, places, and things that have brought me so much happiness here.

Let's start with people.

em Hiếu

As you can tell, Hiếu has a lot of charisma. For an 11-year-old, he is incredibly confident. He does not shy away from chocolate sundaes that are almost as big as his head. I will miss him.

chị Hạnh

This picture was taken when chị Hạnh and I went just the two of us to pay our pre-Tet dues at the neighborhood pagoda Chùa Hà (popularly credited as the Pagoda of Love). In Vietnam you don't tend to tell people how much you like them even if you think they are great; it's just too personal and awkward. So instead you spend a quiet moment together. Maybe light some incense. So this was our version of saying "I think I feel comfortable with you now." I will miss her.

em Hiếu and anh Tám at Cafe Mobilette

Anh Tám doesn't talk much. Not to me, not to anyone. But he still likes to sit with you at a coffee shop, and if you are patient, and if you study your Vietnamese, and if you persist in asking him lots of questions, he will open up. I will miss him.

bác Hồng making pig's feet

This is the most typical angle from which I see bác Hồng. Most of my memories of her involve some recipe or another. The best one, and the one she is making in this picture, is pig's feet. I will miss her and pig's feet.

bác Huỳnh

This is bác Huỳnh interpreting a Chinese poem for me. Most of my memories of him involve him teaching me poems with risque double entendres. He is also the sponsor of my trip to Laos (and Thailand for an afternoon). I will miss him.

Bác Huỳnh is very social and holds his liquor extremely well. This I discovered in Laos.

I know I said it already, but...I will miss them.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

And the winner is...


Congratulations to Nina Forsythe, winner of the HOLY MOLA giveaway, for being so lucky. I know you tried really hard; your work has finally paid off.

Scout's honor, this is not a case of nepotism. She is my mother, and obviously I would have chosen her if it were up to me, but it was who chose her. If you want to improve your chances at the next giveaway, head on over to:

Please note that if you would like to ask Silvio what the heck he is doing spying on this bathing bull, you can ask him this Friday, June 11 7-8pm Eastern Time or Friday, June 18 same time at the live chat here:

Live chat with Silvio at the author chat salon at Condor Books

Feel free to ask him about his book, too.

Finally, here are some links of interest:

Silvio's website
Silvio's blog which, personally, I find much more interesting
Condor Book Tours in case you have a book you need promoted, too.
Dulce Bread and Book Shop* where you can buy Bernardo and the Virgin

*Note that they will donate 100% of their commissions to Unicef's Storybook Gift project. This project sends culturally appropriate storybooks to children in need throughout the world.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

It all started with a true story...

FYI: This story is brought to you by Condor Book Tours. Find out more during a live chat with the author this Friday, June 11, 7-8pm EST and Friday, June 18, same time.

One thing Vietnam and Nicaragua have in common besides bananas, frangipani trees, and me, is war. Specifically, guerilla war. Specifically, dirt poor communist guerrillas fighting the United States of America.

basically the same.

Except different. Because in Vietnam they were called the Viet Minh, and later the Viet Cong, and later the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Freedom-Independence-Happiness because they won. In Nicaragua, the situation was far less clear, so today they are still just called the Sandinistas.

The Sandinista revolution is the setting for Bernardo and the Virgin, and it goes something like this:

  • 1979: The Sandinistas overthrow the oppressive dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle.
  • 1979: The U.S. decides it doesn't like communists in its backyard and things get complicated.
  • 1979: The Nicaraguan people discover that the Sandinistas aren't so perfect themselves.
  • 1980: The Virgin Mary decides to appear to a sacristan named Bernardo in the humble rural town of Cuapa, bringing the following message:

"Make peace. Don't ask Our Lord for peace because, if you do not make it, there will be no peace."

Pretty straightforward message, hey? And what's more, all of this is true.
Until, that is, my friend Silvio got his hands on the tale and turned it into a novel. Then all sorts of lies started being told about the whole situation. But as is the way with fiction, they were lies that were somehow still true. The following is an interview my mom did with Silvio to find out just what possessed him to do such a dastardly thing. 
Feel free to read and post your own questions, today, Wednesday, June 6, and Silvio will answer!

Nina Forsythe: Why fiction? Why not a biography?

Silvio Sirias: I love reading biographies; however, they appeal mostly to the intellect. Fiction, though, aims straight for the reader’s heart, and that was my target. In addition, a novel allows us to suspend disbelief. That lets me say to the reader: “Sit back a spell to enjoy this incredible story I came across while in Nicaragua.”

N.F.: How close to the truth did you stick to portraying Bernardo, who was, after all, a real person?

S.S.: The only times in the novel in which Bernardo’s character narrates is when he describes the apparitions. At these times I stay very close to his version of events because of a promise I made to him while he was still alive. But outside of that I had considerable creative license. That’s why I chose to tell the rest of his story through other characters. However, I always sought to stay true to the essence of the man and to the defining moments of his life.

N.F.: You seemed to have a lot of fun with the other characters. There’s the Nicaraguan émigré who constantly botches English expressions, the priest who’s nostalgic for the Inquisition, and—my favorite—the literary theorist who’s so impressed with himself. Were the secondary characters created out of whole cloth?

S.S.: Well, Nina, while living in Nicaragua and conducting research I had many delightfully surreal experiences, and I met many interesting folk who ended up—vastly exaggerated, of course—in the novel. To give you one example, toward the novel’s end there’s a Spanish priest who shoots fish with an AK-47. This actually happened. He invited me and an English friend (also in the novel) to go “hunting” with him. He drove us to a nearby river, told us to hide behind a fallen tree trunk because the bullets might ricochet, fired his weapon three times into the water, jumped in fully clothed, and came out holding three large fish that we ate for lunch while he told bawdy jokes about bull testicles. And that’s just one of many incidents.

N.F.: Do you have a favorite character

S.S.: They’re all my creations, and I’m terribly fond of each one. I do confess, though, a preference for the ones who make me laugh out loud. In my favorite chapter, they all come together during a mass pilgrimage to the apparition site. I still enjoy reading that chapter—for me it’s like attending a fun and touching family reunion.

N.F.: Is there anything you learned in writing Bernardo and the Virgin that has helped you in working on your subsequent books?

S.S.: Writing Bernardo, above all, gave me the confidence I needed to continue writing fiction.  I also learned to enjoy the art of revising, and I learned the importance of selecting a good structure for the story I have to tell.  I’m convinced that the success of most novels hinges on the structure a writer chooses.

N.F.: Is one of your goals to change the way Americans think about Nicaragua?

S.S.: Definitely. Throughout the 1980s, the decade of the Contra War, Nicaragua was in the news every day. I think Americans got sick of hearing about Nicaragua every evening while they were eating dinner. Although the war ended twenty years ago, it left a lasting impression that Nicaraguans are hopelessly violent people, and because of this the country has been placed in the drawer of things Americans would prefer to forget. But you lived in Nicaragua for several years and you’ve seen that most Nicaraguans are gentle, caring people with incredibly generous spirits. That’s a great part of what I wish to convey in Bernardo and the Virgin.

Okay guys, now it's your turn. Ask away!

Note that if you buy his book from Condor Book Tours, they will donate 100% of their commissions to Unicef's Storybook Gift project. This project sends culturally appropriate storybooks to children in need throughout the world (more infohere).