Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Friendly Night in Vietnam? What the heck is THAT?

By Kelly Fitzgerald

It's times like these that I really wish I had my camera with me.

Yesterday in class, one of my Vietnamese students invited me to Friendly Night, which took place this evening at 6:00 p.m. in the auditorium. I obliged, and all were ecstatic.

When I got to the auditorium, I was, as usual, the only white person there. I was escorted by one of my smallest students to the front row where he asked me to "pliss be zeated" so the show could begin. I followed his orders, feeling 200 pairs of eyes on the back of my head as I sipped the complimentary bottle of Aquafina placed before me. Water never tasted so good.

At 6:15, the show had yet to begin. Typical Vietnam. I was still the only teacher in the front row.

Finally, five Vietnamese girls strolled through the side entrance and stood in a line side-by-side, about three feet apart from one another, with their hands on their hips and their heads hanging down. Then, the music began.

They looked...really uncomfortable. They were dancing like cheerleaders would, but instead of big toothy grins, their expressions read HORRIFIED, and their bodies weren't straight, but slumped. Then they did a pyramid...and every single girl looked so still and so scared to be up there that the pyramid dissembled as quickly as it was put together. Then they exited stage right.

Act 1, down. Act 2, even stranger.

First, one girl strolled in, walking very slowly from one side of the stage to the other, stopping at each side to pose (uncomfortably) for the audience. Each girl had a number pinned to her left shoulder. After the third contestant finished strutting her stuff, taking her place next to the previous two, I asked Stephen, the student seated next to me, what the hell was going on.

"Oh, this Vietnamese beauty contest," he said, opening his right hand to expose a crumpled piece of paper. "You see which number you like best, and you vote."

I ended up choosing number 5, a short girl with glasses and a messenger-style backpack hanging across her chest. She may not have been as pretty as taller-than-life number 7, but she was definitely the cutest.

Then, after the runway show went down, the singing started. One of my quietest boys who sits in the back of Pronunciation on Wednesday was the third performer. He was actually pretty good, and quite theatrical. I thought about pullin' a Kanye West and interrupting his number before it was over to inquire why he couldn't participate this much in class. Reluctantly, I held my breath.

But the absolute BEST part of this show was when two of my students were speaking in rapid Vietnamese on stage after the singers were done. Understanding not a word of what they were saying, my eyes drifted to the floor, and were only raised when I clearly heard my name.


I nervously looked up, seeing my student motion for me to come on stage. I'm sure my expression looked just as horrified as the dancing cheerleaders' did. I pointed to myself, as if there would actually be any other Kelly's in the room, and he kept motioning. I walked really slowly to where he stood and turned around to face the crowd. You'd think I would have gotten used to all eyes on me by now, but I haven't.

Two other Vietnamese teachers were called to stage as well. They shook hands with me and introduced themselves. I don't know why they were hiding amongst the crowd of students and left me dry to hang in the front row by myself, but they were too nice not to like.

Then, we were all presented with roses. I got roses simply for just coming to the show. That's how damn appreciative these kids are.

Due to earlier arranged dinner plans, I had to bounce after an hour into the show. But I got this text from Stephen around 9 p.m.:

"I'm sorry, the person you love - number 5 - isn't in top five of the most beautiful ones."

She wins in my book.

Kelly Fitzgerald graduated from the University at Albany, SUNY, in May 2009, and she is currently teaching English in Vietnam. The photo above is decidedly NOT one taken at Friendly night at Can Tho University. Fitzgerald's blog is fantastic, and can be found at

Monday, November 09, 2009

It's Not Over Till It's Over

By Dan E. Beauchamp

The historic vote Saturday night in the House of Representatives for health care reform is incredibly important. We should all celebrate and thank Speaker Pelosi for pulling it off. Yet, as most know, the 220 to 215 majority reminds us that the struggle between strong democracy, majoritarian democracy and weak, anti-majoritarian democracy within the Democratic Party is not over, and will likely continue for some years into the future.

If the Democrats succeed in the Senate and if they make the most of this victory next year by reminding the electorate, time and time over, how historic this shift is, then the future of a stronger, more progressive majority in the U.S. may be in the cards.

This vote will put pressure on the Senate. And while the narrowness of the victory will encourage some Blue Dog Democrats in the Senate to risk voting against their party, they also surely must know that the Republican Party is coming after all Democrats in 2010 no matter how they vote today to seek to bury this victory. And those in the House who voted against their own party know that reform when and if it comes will change the politics in their own districts.

A very substantial fraction of the Democratic Party is holding tight to the politics that brought them, sectional politics, "red" versus "blue" politics, and it may just be beginning to break up.

The next month and the next years will be crucial for all of us who hope for, who wait for, a democracy of days, a democracy that battles to make daily life for ordinary people more secure in the United States, and not just with health care reform.

Writer Dan E. Beauchamp, Ph.D., led health care reform efforts in the mid-1990s, and served in New York State government. He lives in Bisbee, Arizona, where he served for a time as mayor.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Don't Worry, Be Happy...or at least, Calm

I am less than two hours away from an appointment with a dental surgeon. He is scheduled to pull out a wisdom tooth, and doesn’t expect it to be any big deal.

So why do I feel as though I’m heading into open-heart surgery? I keep imagining the absolute worst possible scenarios: Dr. P slips with the pliers and puts a hole in my cheek. Or he causes bleeding that somehow won’t stop. Or I get an infection that snakes its way through my body. Or he finds that it isn’t just the wisdom tooth that’s cracked, but all the rest of the teeth are too, so he has to pull the whole set.

You get the picture.

So maybe my husband was right the other day when he came up with a new word to describe what I do, day in and day out.

I “negitate.”

He is clever, that husband of mine. He knows of what he speaks. He sees me get up every morning and head straight to my Native American blanket, outfitted with a candle and special crystals and stones and a few feathers and such. He watches while I spend 20 or 25 minutes sitting cross-legged on the mat, focusing on my breathing and generally, trying to realign my brain.

He also knows full well that when I get up off the mat, I will lapse back into my cataclysmic thinking.

I’ve been meditating now for maybe 13 years. So why am I still the queen of "negitation"? I’ve been through my share of hardships. But in the end, I’ve triumphed. And generally, I’ve been a very lucky person. I have blessings galore in my life, and even more reasons for optimism.

Part of the issue: growing up, I probably earned the equivalent of a Ph.D. in worry by the time I was 10. My mom herself will admit that she’s the original nervous Nellie. One itty-bitty example: my freshman year in college, we walked into my dorm room and Mom headed straight for the window, which had a sill about 18 inches from the floor. Immediately, she began to fret that I would fall out of that window.

I love my mom, dearly, but I hate the fact that she – and I—worry the way we do. There is no reason, as my dad often points out, to open your umbrella before it rains. Or even, for that matter to carry the umbrella in the first place.

A year ago, when the whole nation (or at least the Democratic half of it) was reveling in the thrilling possibility of hope and change offered by the Obama candidacy, I was secretly dreading his election. Why? Because it meant that my husband and I would move to Washington, D.C. for his job.

I know I know, everyone and their cousin was telling me how silly I was. They were raving about how DC would be the most exciting place in the Universe to live. But for my own set of neurotic reasons, I was terrified of the move. And so, in my heart of hearts, even though I couldn’t stand John McCain or that silly running mate of his, part of me was hoping he would win.

I can hear the hissing and booing coming in through the screen. I am not proud of it, I'm just willing now to face up to how stupid I was. The moment we arrived, I realized, hey, this could be kind of ….fun!

Indeed, moving to DC has been quite a splendid thing, both personally and professionally. I really love Washington, and its monumental buildings (all the architecture is awe-inspiring.) I enjoy my teaching job. We have a cool apartment in the heart of downtown, a few blocks from the White House. And I really value all the people I’ve met.

And so I look back a year ago and think, what a waste of time all that worrying was.

Of course I’ve grown to love it so much that now I am tempted to worry about moving back.

But that’s where I am drawing the line.

In the best tradition of meditative practice, I am now asking the universe for help in my quest to stop negativating. I am telling myself every which way I can that there is no purpose in turning the future gloomy, and assuming that the worst will happen. I do not want to forecast rain and thunder or hurricanes or tsunamis when the sun is shining overhead and there’s nothing but a gentle breeze behind my head.

So I sit here. I take a breath in, and when I breathe out, I consciously think about letting go of any of those awful thoughts, as if I were flinging each one of them off the top of a mountain.

I breathe in and out several times. I take my hands from the keys momentarily...

And let them rest on my knees. I let my shoulders sag.

I focus on the breath filling my chest and

Now, I am not so concerned about what is going to happen with my tooth. I am ok in this moment.

I imagine myself smiling, leaving the dentists’ office. I imagine myself sitting on a warm sandy beach. (OK well, that part might be a bit of a stretch.)

The point is, I am setting my intention to give up the worry. I am asking the universe for help. I am, in effect, giving up my will, my fear, to some greater power (isn’t this how AA works? Isn’t this what recovering alcoholics do day in and day out, yield their will?)

Well, so, I am doing it in this moment, because that’s all I have. We can only exert our will, or yield it up, moment by moment.

I will go forward to the dentist’s office, without popping an Ativan – even though Dr. P’s instructions say I can.

I am calm. I think. For now.