Reading, writing, and cooking

For years, my mother and father have insisted on no presents for Christmas. I try to abide by this, and for the most part I am successful (every once in a while, I sneak in a small gift when I see something that resonates – a photo, or book – when I simply can’t resist). Instead, I donate money in their name to a cause that I believe reflects their values. For many years, I donated to the Oregon Humane Society in my old dog’s name since that’s where we found each other. My parents also met their most recent dog when he was found wandering the roads by their former country vet.  My brother and sister-in-law found their dog at the pound. We are a family of rescuers.

Lately, however, I’ve been donating to local classrooms through Donors Choose; my parents have always encouraged educational pursuits, so it only seems fitting. Oregon has some of the worst educational outcomes in the country, despite high levels of spending, so perhaps giving money to classrooms here seems like a somewhat a foolish decision. Still, I comb over the wish lists of 100s of teachers across the state – most asks revolve around technology. While I agree that classroom tech can result in better learning and better preparation for the workforce, I find I am not really drawn to those requests. I instead give to those asking in order to provide materials for less fundamental educational needs: Not math, but art; not tablets, but science equipment that allows students to mimic the analyses they see on countless crime shows. I want to support student learning in ways that foster connection in themselves and the world around them.

Last year, I gave money to a rural classroom teacher so she could buy cooking supplies for her middle-school students. In her request, she stated how her kids lack the basic skills needed to make a meal, and how the school no longer supports this sort of learning (does any school now, I wonder?). While I never learned how to cook in school – pretty much figuring it out through reading, watching, and trial and (lots of) error – I see cooking as a skill that should be taught. Cooking meals improves nutrition and eating habits and therefore overall health. It can even help with math skills when the need for doubling or halving a recipe arises; I’ve never seen a recipe without fractions.

Cooking slows a person down and allows them to focus on the now, and the people they are with. Preparing a meal can bring a young person closer to their family or culture, or help them learn about others. When people cook together, it requires communication and coordination. A home-cooked meal shows love, whether it is made for a large family or just one. When I sit with a meal I have made, I feel less alone.

When I was younger, I had the reputation for being a horrible cook. I’m not sure where that came from – possibly because I was such a tomboy, or perhaps I went to great lengths to place that label on myself, finding it a source of pride for whatever rebellious adolescent reason. Maybe I didn’t want to try to cook because I was afraid of failure. It’s taken a while, but I am less concerned with the idea of something not turning out right now. Yes, there are some great cooking and (especially) baking disasters,  but I’ve learned that oftentimes a culinary mishap can be salvaged. And, even if it can’t, the process itself proves to be relaxing and enjoyable to the point where I can actually say, “I like to cook.”

What I tend to eat for breakfast/lunch and sometimes dinner too, if we don't go out.

What I cooked for myself in Korea; I bet it will be a staple during Portland winters.

A few days ago, Dave and I tried our hand at jackfruit carnitas. A friend of his had made them a couple of weeks ago, and he thought they were great; websites touted that this vegan option was indistinguishable from the “real thing.” For some reason, he advertised our experimentation on social media and a friend, who is an excellent cook, wanted to taste the results; the invite was given.

I followed the recipe almost exactly, and even consulted with a friend who is known to put together excellent meals to make sure the spice combination sounded right. Seven hours in the slow cooker, and the result was bland. In a knee-jerk reaction to fix things, I added too much chili powder, which created a paradoxical spicy-boredom. We warned our soon-to-arrive guests of the preliminary results. They didn’t care and I believed them. When they got to our house, the cook came in, tasted the concoction, and simply stated “needs salt.” One quick fix and things turned out well (his amazing contributions of ceviche and caipirinhas made for an amazing meal).

I wonder if school cooking classes can incorporate lessons on failure. The practice of trying, the experience of things not working out, and the trouble-shooting of solutions; learning to adapt to an unexpected outcome. When we teach a young person how to cook, we teach them more life skills than simply providing sustenance.


Teaching woes

Grades are in. My students did horribly and I am taking it personally. This is despite the fact that fellow teachers and my supervisor are telling me not to. This is despite the fact that I graded other exams that showed other classes did not fare much better. Yet, overall, those classes DID fare better. I am left feeling a little discouraged and doubting my abilities to teach English.

Mind you, I know I am a good teacher; I just don’t think I am a good English teacher. I have no idea how to teach listening skills, get students to review vocabulary, get them to read and understand articles in a language completely foreign to them. I talk to a teacher who I admire and tell her things I want to try next semester. She looks at me with a combination of concern and pity and says she’s tried all of those things before and they just don’t work (yet I know her students did better than mine, so she’s doing something right). We get them when it’s too late, she continues: they are taking their last or second to last course in English out of three years in college in addition to what they got in high school. These students simply can’t learn, she tells me in an effort to make me feel better.

In a way, her words do make me feel better. They also go against everything I believe about teaching: To me, you need to believe that every student is reachable in order to teach. Giving up on someone is not an option. Every student deserves a chance. Thing is, I have already seen firstand that many students here abuse this mentality; cheating is rampant. Dishonesty is often prioritized over trying. Case in point: the exams here are standardized across the seven-college system where I work. Apparently, a student in one of the other campuses leaked “information” about the topic of the exam essay – all it takes is a cousin from one college to text to another and the rumor mill spreads. Thing is, this information proved to be false – the essay was about a different, but related, topic. Nevertheless, half of my class wrote about this incorrect topic. So did large percentages of other classes, but mine was the highest at this location. All the campuses were impacted and a flurry of emails among those in charge debated on what to do. In the end it was decided: Those students that wrote about the incorrect topic failed the essay portion of the exam.

So I can dismiss the abysmal essay scores on something other than my incompetence. However, my students also tanked the other portions of the exam, scoring, for example, three out of twenty on the listening portion; five out of twenty in language knowledge – and that was a score from a student who I know studied. These scores were pretty typical from the performance of the class as a whole; sure most did a little better and some even did a lot better. But for the most part, the scores out of twenty for each section were in the single digits. Did I steer my students wrong? Were they doomed to fail? Would a different teacher have gotten better results from them?

I know I didn’t get them to work hard enough. I was too busy settling in, getting used to the system here and getting used to teaching English, to push. Yet still, I can’t believe these results. As I grade the exams, I scribble down all sort of ideas for next semester; now that I know what the exam looks like, I come up with things I should do in class to prepare them for passing. Maybe some will work, or maybe none will. But I know it’s almost mathematically impossible for students to do worse.

Then again, these students know what’s on the exam. They have taken at least two or three exams with this exact same format before. There are no surprises here. Only disappointment and incredulousness from me. Add to that fading hope – it’s not gone, but it’s barely there. I know it will come back as the shock of today fades, but right now I am not feeling my best.

I turn to my notebook and look at some examples of answers I took from the exams I was grading. Students needed to be able to spell “poly unsaturated fatty acids” in response to a listening question. I admit, this is a very difficult phrase, especially when you consider that these students are writing in a new alphabet, and from left to right instead of right to left as they are accustomed. Nevertheless, they have been studying at the college level for two-three years already and also studied English in secondary school. Here are some answers:

  • Poly unifed facitat acents
  • Protocol universed falting assets
  • Holy ansuration vely assume

For real. This is what I am experiencing over here. Again, I am not sure if this makes me feel better or worse.

I am left with the question: What do I do now? I know part of the answer is to try to change my teaching methods a bit. I don’t want the other part of the answer to be lower my expectations, but I fear this might have to be the case. Any words of wisdom from teachers out there are welcome. Any words of moral support from anyone are also appreciated.

A traditional (?) family gathering

My first Eid celebration was a blend of tradition and modernization – the Middle East and the inevitable American influence that creeps its way into every crevice around the world. Upon arrival, I took off my shoes and was immediately whisked away to the women’s side of the gathering, in a separate room from Dave and those with whom I feel I have more in common; in general, I prefer the company of men in superficial settings like this. Not this time, nor any time when I am with Omanis. So I sat on the floor, a firm pillow supporting my back rather well, in a room full of women and children. Grandma was on my left. It took her about three minutes to communicate her shock and disapproval over the fact that I don’t have children. The other twenty women simply looked confused and a few who spoke English said “later you will.” I didn’t feel the need to explain that I’m in my mid-40s and on birth control; being childless is part of my life choice. It’s just not something that’s understood in this culture at all. In the background, a television showed a Batman cartoon dubbed into Arabic. Some of the kids paid attention, but most ran around an semi-tormented each other like brothers, sisters, and cousins do.

When the women found out I was from America, they became excited and brought over a young woman who shared the news that she was going to university in Lincoln, Nebraska to study civil engineering. I told her she must be very smart and her family proud. Many questions about Nebraska – its climate, food, and people – were all shouted at me in both English and Arabic – this young adult had never left the country before and was due to depart in January. I did my best to make it sound like the best place on earth and one in which she would thrive. I had my doubts, but only because it gets damn cold there, and I know very little about the state; what I do know doesn’t draw me in, but then again I don’t think I could be any more different than the young adult across from me. Her blue dress and matching head covering bolder in color than most of the other guests’ attire, but not something you would typically see in the Midwest, or at an American university. Though what do I know, it may be more commonplace than I realize; I have no idea what the Muslim population of University of Nebraska, Lincoln is. But I do know all about the proportion of women in Engineering. She will be a unique person there for sure if not for her religion, than for her gender. I felt a strong urge to help her in some way, offer support, a contact, some encouraging words, but I had very little to give (anyone out there know someone willing to be a friendly face out there?).


Sitting on the floor with one of the many women there (the only one willing to be photographed).

Conversations buzzed over my head as more women poured in. The soon-to-be college student introduced them to me: not by name, but in relation to her. “My cousin, my other cousin, another cousin, my brother’s sister, my cousin’s wife.” I lost track after I counted 25 women all in different colored and patterned outfits; only one was wearing the more conservative black abaya, though all wore long sleeves and skirts/dresses and not an adult head of hair was in sight. The children wore the same clothing I would see my friends’ kids wearing.

I felt comfortable sitting there, both physically and mentally. Even though I didn’t understand most of what was being said (occasionally someone would try to chat with me about what I was doing here, or what they did), the dynamic was pretty much like any other large family gathering. Hugs, laughter, children running around, and a million simultaneous conversations. I sat quietly and just took it in.

Then it was time to eat. A large sheet of plastic was rolled out onto the floor, and six platters of seasoned rice were placed on top all down the long room. Then came the meat (shua). All I knew about it (from reading and asking some Omani teachers at work) was that it had been killed three days before, and cooked in the ground until that morning – it was smoky and fell off the bone. Huge chunks of it were thrown onto the rice, and two bowls of sauces – one red, one yellow – were also presented. Tomatoes and onions completed the spread. I turned to the woman next to me and asked what type of meat it was (I assumed it was goat); she replied, “Cow. Or maybe camel. I’m not sure.” I wasn’t sure if her lack of confidence was due to language or culinary ignorance. I ate anyway (I still think it was goat).

I was the only one presented with a plate and spoon. The rest of the family dug in with their hands. They would rip at the meat, which basically fell off the bone, and shovel it into their mouths. They would pour sauce on the rice, massage it in their right hand (never the left!) until it formed a ball and popped that in as well. Then they would go for more. It looked primitive, unsanitary, and totally normal all at the same time. I still stuck to my plate, but enjoyed watching the smoothness of the dining process of the rest of the group. Like any grandmother would, the family matriarch kept piling pieces of meat onto my plate and telling me to eat more. I tried to signal to her that I was very full and would sneak her servings back onto the platter. She did, however, succeed in making me drink my Pepsi to wash the meal down. It was funny to me to have such a traditional meal bastardized by an American (global) staple that can hardly be categorized as sustenance.

Cleanup consisted of taking away the food that was left on the platters and crumpling up the plastic sheet – no dirty dishes except my own. Apparently one woman did all the cooking for the fifty of us (including kids) in our room and the twenty men in the other.

Sweet cardamom tea and cardamom coffee were served in tiny handleless cups, along with dates – these are traditionally served to counter the bitterness of the coffee. I love dates and have been eating them daily since I got here. I told grandmother this and, after a translation, she smiled widely and toothlessly and gave me a thumbs-up. I thought the meal was complete. Nope.


Dad came by to visit the ladies. He loved the fact I was drinking coffee for some reason.

Then came the halwa, a dessert made with dates, egg, milk, and a ton of sugar – it can be flavored with rose or other herbs and spices as well. It has the consistency and appearance of opaque jello. The mother made little scoops of it and again family members of all ages dove in with their hands to pick out a piece or two. I was given a spoon and encouraged to eat two globs. It’s good stuff, but super rich. I’m guessing Eid is pretty much like Thanksgiving when it comes to lack of portion moderation. Then the dad came in to check on me and pretty much force-fed me a third spoonful. Surely now we were done…

Then came the plates of fruit. Women gathered around them and started to cut up apples, plums, bananas, and pineapples. There were pomegranates too, and as I helped scoop out the seeds, I shared with them that these are often served during our Christmas season. They at least seemed to like the idea, smiling politely and nodding. I earned extra bonus points when I was the only one there who really knew how to cut and serve a mangosteen (thanks Vietnam!) using only an extremely dull knife. Thankfully, I got away with eating a few pomegranate seeds and a couple of hard-earned sections of the mangosteen. And finally, the meal was over.

Most of the guests left soon after. A few hung around, but soon all that remained were our hosts. I was able to join Dave, his student, and the father in the men’s room. The student played the guitar and I was convinced to sing along to Hotel California as the young brothers and sisters came in to hear the white gal sing. I did OK for the first verse but then my laughter got the better of me. Why is that song so universal? I have heard it in every country I have ever been in from Brazil to South Korea. Its popularity baffles me, but it was only fitting that it was the only American song he knew. I expect that if we are to join them again I will be joining him in a fine rendition of either Stairway to Heaven or Freebird.

They were trying to plan for us to see a movie in the city (over an hour away) – there was talk of a Bollywood film and those aren’t known for their brevity. While I sort of liked the idea, I was beat. Dave managed to thank his student’s family for the amazing meal, but we had to go. Omani hospitality is amazing, but I think they will continue to give until you tell them it’s OK to stop. They sent us on our way with leftover shua, rice, a bag full of fruit (grapes, oranges, apples, a pomegranate, and a mangosteen!), and a two-liter bottle of Pepsi.


Success in failure

I was going to write a post about the ways in which South Korea and Vietnam are similar and different, but the lists got too long (and perhaps bordered on the stereotypical). Instead, I am going to post my thoughts about learning – more specifically, learning English. My inspiration came from this article from the NYT Magazine which addresses how to support new college students who come from lower socio-economic statuses and thus often have less support to succeed in post-secondary education.

In Saigon it’s common for a group of university students to approach you and ask if they can just talk to you — to help with their English skills. If any American walks through a park, I can almost guarantee they will be approached and asked to take some time out to have a conversation with a group of 3-7 young people. These conversations often last for 15 minutes or so; it’s up to the person’s schedule, but students will come and go as the conversation progresses (most stay), and new people join in. Look around the park and you see as many as 20 groups going on at once, while other Vietnamese scan the pedestrians looking for a willing conversationalist.


A quiet part of the park. I need to learn to take pictures of people.

Yesterday Dave and I ended up each talking to a small group for almost two hours. Usually, the conversation runs through pretty basic stuff “How long have you been here?” “Where are you from?” – the goals of these sessions, as I understand them, are for the students to practice speaking and listening – both for content as well as for pronunciation. For example, Dave and I were asked how to pronounce “winner” vs. “winter.” We found that he and I say the latter differently, probably based on where we grew up; I was also a bit surprised that these two words are said almost identically by some (I tend to enunciate the “t” more in winter, making for a slightly better distinction between the two words; I blame Canada for this).

When I told my group I taught at an American University, they became even more engaged in the conversation. The questions got deeper: “how do I get a job?” and, strikingly, “how do you succeed? I am afraid of failure.” — they continued to express fears of failing: courses, not getting a job, not finding a partner, etc.

I think many young people feel this way, but for some reason here it is OK to talk about it. I did not witness this vulnerability among young people (or anyone) in South Korea. I am finding in Saigon, there is a culture of trying and it being OK to make mistakes. In South Korea, where they are also mandated to learn English, I found very few people trying to practice their skills. Even the Korean-native English teachers at Dave’s school were hesitant to talk to me. The few that braved to do so would apologize and say that their English wasn’t very good and they knew they were making mistakes. After a few sentences, they would stop talking. These people, too, were afraid of failure, but instead of admitting it, they just didn’t really want to try. In Vietnam (at least Saigon), there is an acceptance around being more open about struggling with something, saying it up front, and continuing on. I have encountered this with older adults who approach me and just want to have a conversation – they say their English isn’t great (note: it’s usually pretty dang good) but they still want to sit down with me, talk to me, and also teach me some basic words and customs of their own.

I could go into a litany of theories as to why this cultural difference seems to exist in terms of making mistakes. But really what this observation highlights to me is the importance of allowing young people, no matter where they are from, to be able to make mistakes: to admit “this is hard, what do I do?” — as long as there are people there to support them when they ask. This is true whether someone is trying to speak a foreign language, get a job, or find a partner. I think it’s important to hear messages like, “It’s OK to mess up. Sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t,” and, “When things don’t turn out so well, try again. It will probably go better next time. You learn from mistakes and from that learning you have a greater chance of doing better.” It’s a message that anyone can convey to another, and based on the article that inspired this post, just hearing this message can go a long way in encouraging the success of a young person – and it’s even better when a young person can reframe the message and apply it.

On a personal note, I got a D on my first midterm at college and ended up majoring in that field — but I believed enough in my ability (thanks to my own educational and family background) to go to the professor and ask for help. I wasn’t used to doing so poorly, so I went in and asked what I was doing wrong and he was really encouraging, nice and helpful (and tolerant of my tears). I have no idea what would have happened – what my educational goals would have been – if he didn’t take time for me at such a crucial juncture.