Monday, May 28, 2012

I am a Traveler

Tourists don’t know where they’ve been; travelers don’t know where they’re going.
 – Paul Theroux

          Paul Theroux is both one of the great travelers and one of the great travel writers of our time. He is well known for both his works of travel and adventure fiction, such as The Mosquito Coast (1981), and for his non-fiction based on his own travel adventures, such as The Great Railway Bazar (1975). I believe that he thinks of himself as a traveler, and not as a tourist. “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been” because they do not, for one reason or another, experience the places that they have visited. There are many ways that tourists can visit a place and not experience it. Some may only stay at large, generic hotels and have similar experiences wherever they visit; some may travel in large groups and consequently do not meet local people; and, some may spend so much money that they are economically separated from the places they visit and do not experience local culture. On the other hand, “travelers don’t know where they’re going” because they are often so immersed in the cultures and the experiences of the places that they are visiting, that they do not know what is coming next. They live in the moment and are willing to let whatever is happening now dictate what will happen next.

          I came to Vietnam not knowing what to expect, and I wanted it that way. Too many people go on vacations to ‘fun’ and developed places, and that was not something that I was interested in. The life of the ‘traveler’ has far more appeal to me than the life of the ‘tourist’. I have lived in Vietnam for nine months now, and I have taken full advantage of my time here and the experiences that were available to me.  I chose Theroux’s quote because it defines the type of experience that I want to have when traveling. I don't want to go to a non-stimulating place like Hawaii or southern Spain and sit on a beach. I want to go somewhere off the beaten path and meet the people that live there. When I came to Vietnam, all I knew ahead of time was that I was going to be here for a year, and that I had to go to school on the weekdays, but other than that it was an open book. I didn’t know where I was going. This is the message Theroux conveys: that a traveler doesn't need an itinerary, but instead chooses to deal with things as they come, and make the most of it.

          For me, the most compelling part of an adventure is not knowing what’s around the next corner, and my time in Vietnam has certainly been an adventure. One of my first and most humorous experiences in Vietnam was getting hopelessly lost in a cab on the way to a soccer field deep in a crowded neighborhood. At that point in the year, about seven days in, I couldn't speak any Vietnamese, and the driver spoke no English. Eventually after a long and trying process, we found my destination. But, as awkward and difficult as the drive may have been at the time, it makes a great story and it built character and resilience in me. That's another great part about traveling, if all I did was sit in my room and not make the effort to go to the fields, I would have missed out on an opportunity to learn and expose myself to solving problems. Arriving at those fields made possible another adventure - refereeing soccer in a foreign country and with players who spoke a foreign language. I could have said to myself that these barriers would make refereeing too difficult as it is hard enough without the language problems, but again I would have missed out on the amazing cultural experiences that refereeing soccer provided me. I definitely had no idea where I was going next when I was refereeing soccer (other than quickly to someplace with air conditioning!).

          I was fortunate to have a host family with lots of relatives who lived in many different places around Northern Vietnam, and we often traveled to meet them. One day during the Tet Holiday, without notice I was woken up by my family at five am, put into a waiting car, and was off to meet family relatives in Thang Hoa, a small city about two hours south of Hanoi. Although the unexpected wakeup wasn't too pleasant at the time, it’s moments like this that only a traveler experiences. I was off to meet a large group of people I had never met or heard of before. Questions raced through my mind: would they like me? How awkward is this going to be? Will anyone understand anything I can say in Vietnamese? Of course it turned out like every other family experience I’ve had here: with incredible hospitality and friendliness. Of all the many family members I met, the person who stands out the most is my mom’s uncle. He was a colonel in the North Vietnamese Army. He fought against both the French and Americans in the two Indochina wars. He was very old, but with the help of my dad, who translated for us, he told me some war stories from the opposite perspective that most Americans would hear. I had no idea I would meet this fascinating man; until I did.

          I think that most people who travel are not willing to get outside their comfort zone. They avoid the risk of making some potentially embarrassing mistakes, and yet in the process, they also avoid the possibility of meeting new people and experiencing their cultures. These people are tourists. It is more difficult, but I know better than to allow myself to feel comfortable all the time when traveling. Getting out of my comfort zone and exposing myself to new things is healthy; it makes my life interesting; and, ultimately, can be incredibly rewarding. Theroux says, “travelers don't know where they are going”, and I am a traveler. I came to Vietnam not knowing what was going to happen to me here. I just strapped in and enjoyed the ride.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

SYA-VN '12 - Partners in Crime

          Nearly equal in importance to the life-long bonds formed with my host family here in Hanoi, were those formed with my fellow SYA-VN students. To be a high school student living away from my family, 8000 miles from home, in the most extreme of foreign cultures, would simply have not been possible for me were it not for the love and support of my fellow students. There were just fifteen of us the first semester living in a foreign capital city with well over 6,000,000 inhabitants - and during the second semester, our numbers dropped even lower, with just seven of us remaining - Island America (+france) - at the start of the second term. Even though it is now time to part and go our separate ways across the globe, I'm sure the intensity (some say trauma...) of this amazing experience will make us lifelong friends who circle back to see each other from time to time. We've become brothers and sisters in arms and I'm sure that years from now it will take just one look or comment between any two of us to bring it all back.

          It is now my great pleasure to introduce the final class of School Year Abroad, Vietnam:  (we're not a dying breed, sadly we are now extinct)

Full-Year Students:

Luke Williams

            Although Luke may currently reside in Massachusetts, he grew up on the sunny coast of Southern California (a fact that he makes sure to remind us of constantly). He was one of three seniors in the SYA class, though he was the sole senior during the second semester. He is the sportsman of the group, and is an experienced football player. But seeing how American football isn’t really embraced anywhere outside of the US, he was more then willing to pick up Soccer, Frisbee, Rugby, anything that required running really. During the year I was able to watch the entire process of the college apps process. After being accepted to several schools of his choice, he has decided on Howard University in Washington D.C.

Anna Oakes

            A New Yorker through and through, Anna lives on Manhattan Island, and attends the famous Brearly School. She was originally only signed on for one semester, but had a change of heart midway through the first semester and joined our valiant group of full-year students. She is known (and infamous) in class for her expertise in fact checking and compulsive use of Wikipedia. She and I are also the only ones who live in the Thanh Xuan district, and often carpool to and from school and other events such as Saturday Frisbee. Although she is a New Yorker, she is half Swiss, and is fluent in German.

Elliott Crofton

            Raised in the land of heat and oil, Elliott spent the first 15 years of his life in a Saudi Aramco compound. He is American, and spends his summers in Arizona where his family is from. He currently attends the prestigious Phillips Andover Academy in Northern Massachusetts, just a few minutes away from where my dad grew up.  Known for being very eccentric and enthusiastic, he can often be seen hanging out with Anna and/or Perrine.

Perrine Aronson

            Hailing from the south of France, Perrine is the only SYAer from out of the US, though she has US citizenship. Her father is American and mother French. She is here as a post grad, and is taking a gap year before heading off to Saint Louis University next fall. She has the most abroad experience of our group, living for various amounts of time in a number of countries. Though she doesn't take many classes, she is still a lot of fun to have around, and she often entertains us with her “outrageous accent” (Monty Python reference).

Sarah Wiener

            A Virginia native, Sarah was raised in Charlottesville. She is no novice in travel, and has traveled to many cool places. Armed with her camera, she is a force to be reckoned with, and is one of the most talented photographers I know. When faced with a new or unknown situation in ‘Nam, Sarah will usually be the one to lead the charge. She is very dedicated to her internship at the Hanoi Peace Village, a center that provides care to children suffering from the effects of Agent Orange, and spends a few afternoons a week there playing with the children, and has really made a difference in their lives.

Abby Ripoli

           SYA VN’s only Mid-westerner, Abby calls Chicago home. She attends Lake Forest Academy in Illinois. Her love of Glee paved the way for the implementation of a weekly Glee night at our teachers’ Chuck and Becky’s apartment. She is also known for her fear of sharks, and made sure to educate us about shark safety while in Hoi An. Abby was a great friend to me during the course of year, and I really enjoyed spending time with her. One of her most memorable experiences was the great haircut fiasco of 2012, I won’t go into details but those who lived through it know what I'm talking about…. On a serious note, she was very supportive around the time I had to return home for my uncle’s funeral, and I am grateful to her for that.

Semester students:

Anna Leah Eisner

            Born and raised in Malibu, CA, Anna Leah is the second closest SYAer to me (if we’re counting Nan), living only an hour down the coast. She very much enjoyed her time in Vietnam and living with her host family, who she became very close to. Along with Nan and I, we formed the SB-Ojai-Malibu SoCal SYA triangle. Anna Leah was an awesome friend, and we both share a love of the Doors, and would discuss their music frequently. I’m very happy that we only a short drive away from each other, and look forward to many a SYA California reunion.

Maddy Blais

           Although  technically not a New Yorker, Maddy, resident of Westchester, is still given the title. She packs a lot of sass, but is otherwise harmless. Though best known as being the camera operator during most of the blooper scenes that were filmed over the course of the semester, she still got an A for effort. During her time in VN she would often be seen with Nan and Julia, who would roam the campus seeking out and devouring any and all fruit in their path.

Nan McMillian

            Nan has basically reversed Luke’s cross-country move. A native of Boston, she lives and attends school at Thatcher School in Ojai, CA. She wins the title of closest SYAer to me, only a brief drive into the mountains. Though she may now be a bitter rival to my sister’s new school Cate, she’s still pretty cool. Known around the class for her love of fruit and peanut butter, that would sometimes get her into trouble.

Nathan Cluss

           A senior from Winchester, Virginia, Nate was a super chill guy. He became very close to his host brother, and they would often skate together at Lenin Park, a local skate park. When not with his brother, he would often hang out with Perrine, Elliott and Anna. He was also a very talented photographer, and kept his own blog during his time here. Nate was my go-to cameraman for my movies. Pretty much every scene with me in was filmed by him - except for the bloopers, which usually somehow involved Maddy :)

Hy-Long (Woo) Nguyen

            Woo is a native of the SF Bay Area, growing up in Cupertino. His family is Vietnamese, and he still has many relatives in both the north and south of VN. He was the third senior in the group, and was the only one who knew any Vietnamese before hand, though he was most familiar with the southern accent. He is a very talented dancer, and preformed for us on several different occasions during the semester.

Julia Shumlin

            A Vermonter, Julia now attends ‘miss Porter’s school for girls’ in Connecticut. She was a great addition to our SYA team, and was the only one to have visited Hanoi before. An interesting fact about Julia is that her uncle is actually the governor of Vermont. I didn't believe her at first and though she was just making fun of how small it is, but I looked it up and it is indeed true.

Jaya Sahihi

            Along with Anna, Jaya is also a native of NYC, coming from the borough of Brooklyn. An interesting connection with her is that she attends the same school as our teacher’s (Chuck) nephew. She was the primary enforcer of environmental control, and was known to protest the use of paper packets in APES, and plastic bags at lunch.

Mackenzie Nagle

            Mackenzie has lived in Charlottesville, Virginia; NYC; and now attends school at St. Georges in Rhode Island. He was quite an adventurer, and an absolute whirlwind of energy. By the time he left VN, I'm fairly sure that he knew over half the city’s residents. He plans on returning to Hanoi in just a few weeks, to spend the summer with his host family and return to his internship at Nestle. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

...where my heart is

            As I start to think about what I will remember most over this past year, many things come to mind. I will remember the incredible group of students that I had the privilege of working with, and the amazing teachers. I will remember the chaotic streets of Hanoi, with their unmistakable noises, smells and feel. But the thing I will remember most is my loving host family, who cared for me like I was one of their own.

            Throughout the year, they have supported me and made me feel welcome in a place that was very intimidating at first. The first memory that I have of them was during the host family reception (introduction). I was so nervous thinking of what they would be like - has anyone seen The Simpsons episode where Bart is a foreign exchange student in France?! - but when my family came to greet me, they had a gigantic bouquet of flowers for me and warm smiles that immediately put me at ease. From that exact moment, I could tell that they were awesome. I will remember our meals together, and talking about the day. After a while I started to get a little tired of eating rice and drinking tea, and they understood. They knew that adjusting to a different culture is a difficult task, because they both had first hand experience. For their University years, they both studied far from home in the Soviet Union - my host father spent 6 years there earning a doctorate - so they were well aware of the challenges I was facing. I will remember cooking western food with my family, and teaching them how to prepare it. We cooked pancakes, hamburgers, chicken cutlets, and burritos. They really enjoyed it (or at least they pretended to!!).

            My father has lived quite a life to say the least. He is currently the Dean of Investment Economics at Vietnam National University. As you might imagine, he is a very busy man, but always has made the time to do things with me. He was born in Hanoi, but during the war was forced to move to a village outside the city of Thanh Hoa, which I visited during the Tet holiday. It was a quiet, peaceful little place. It was mostly populated by farmers, but nowadays there are more service industry jobs such as shopkeepers and auto jobs.  After leaving the village, he came to Hanoi to study. Around this time, he was drafted into the army. The war with the Americans had just finished, so he was sent to fight in Cambodia to fight the Khmer Rouge, which was infamous for being a very ugly war. He doesn't really like to talk about his time in the military too much, so I don't push the issue. He was a very talented student, and as I mentioned before, was selected by the government to go and study in the Soviet Union. He studied economics for many years there, and returned to Vietnam to earn a doctorate and begin teaching as a professor. Back then, only the top students were sent abroad by the government. And when I say “abroad”, I mean USSR, because the rest of the world wasn't too friendly with Vietnam at the time. After years of hard work, he was appointed as the Dean of Investment Economics. He prides himself on the fact that he reached this position without being a member of the Communist Party of Vietnam. Nearly everyone with a position of power in the government is a party member, but not him. He isn’t so much anti-communist, but rather believes that the current system in place isn’t strong enough to facilitate Vietnam’s current economic growth. Some of my favorite memories with my host dad have been sitting with him after dinner, drinking tea and discussing Vietnam. He told me about how different the country was just a few years ago, and the incredible amount of economic and social growth that have been taking place. Talking to him about America has also been very insightful. He admires the American system, and hopes that Vietnam may one day be as successful. He holds no grudge against Americans after the war, and this is a sentiment shared by most all of the Vietnamese people I have met (including the older generation that fought against us). My host father and my whole family want to come to America to visit. I hope they will one day soon.

            My mom, Huong, has been so great to me this year. She is a loving and caring mother, and she took every opportunity to nurture me and make me feel welcome in my new home (starting with the flowers on day 1!). She spent her early childhood in a town called Phu Tho, a place I have visited twice, located about 40 miles northwest of Hanoi, along the route to Sapa. She, like my dad, was also born in Ha Noi, but was forced out of the city during the war. Hanoi was carpet bombed as late as 1972 during the war years with America, but she, like my dad, doesn't like to talk much about this time in her life. She must have experienced horrible things during those years. Her father was a very important professor, who actually spent a lot of time in the Soviet Union. She too was selected to travel to the Soviet Union for higher education, but she wasn't there for a doctorate. My host mother works for the government. Her job is at the NOIP (National Office of Intellectual Property) where she deals with patents and trademarks. She found out about SYA through her job, where two of the other host moms (Mackenzie’s and Nathan’s) work. She has been so accommodating with me, and as I said earlier, even lets me cook some western food for them. One of my favorite cooking memories was when I made pancakes with her. She had never had them before, and I’m no expert, so our results were pretty funny. I was able to figure out the correct mixture, but forgot to put something on the skillet to make sure the cakes wouldn't stick. Whoops. So the first few were a little messed up, but we soon discovered that putting a little bit of butter down first made all the difference. At the beginning of the year, when I was starting to really miss food from home, she took me to the supermarkets that stocked western food, and once she found out what I liked, she made regular trips to buy my favorites to help me not miss home too much.

            My sister in Hanoi, Linh, is 16 years old like me. She goes to a private school here in HN, and plans on traveling abroad for college. She is essentially fluent in English, and was told a few months back by an English school that there was nothing more they could teach her. She also speaks and is learning German. She often has been called in to duty as the family translator when my parents and I can't understand what someone is saying, which has been very helpful. Aside from school, she is an incredibly gifted pianist - prodigy level - and I can often hear her playing after dinner while I work, which is very relaxing. When my real family came to visit, my dad said that this would be his favorite thing if he lived here - a free concert piano performance every evening. My host sister is a very intelligent student, a diligent hard worker, and she has been a great sister to me.

            It is a special family that opens their home up to a student from another part of the world, and there are many reasons my host family is one of them.  Not only do both my parents have first hand experience living abroad, but they also know how it feels to have one of their own children living far from home. I have a second sister in my family who is currently at graduate school in Munich, Germany, so they are well aware how strange it can be adjusting to a foreign culture. I have a great memory of the evening that all five members of my family were able to go out when my sister was visiting from Germany. We went, appropriately enough, to a German Night at the Hanoi Opera House. It was such a blast, and we all had such a great time. I feel very grateful that I had a host family that was willing to do fun things like this with me. They are very sad that SYA VN has been discontinued, as they were looking forward to hosting more kids in the future.

            It would be difficult to overstate the importance of family and the remembrance of one's ancestors to the Vietnamese. Confucian ethics are pervasive in society values here and suffice to say that when you have a great host family, you also have a great (and incredibly extensive) extended family. Most all Vietnamese holidays are centered on getting together with family and observing traditions. I was lucky to be able to meet so many family members over the course of this year - and let me tell you, there are a lot of them - in many different places. Traveling with my family to remote areas of the country was always an adventure and having the opportunity to meet such a diverse group of people was a gift - especially when I was able to get to know someone better either with my limited Vietnamese, or with the assistance of a helpful family translator. Without exception, our relatives went out of their way to meet me and to welcome me as a family member into their homes, and I will always remember that. Whether it was meeting a little cousin for the first time, or listening to a war story told by my great uncle, there was never a dull moment with them. The dinners were loud, really LOUD, and I had absolutely no idea what 90% of the conversations were about, but it was all right by me.

            I will miss my new family very much when I leave Vietnam. They will always have a special place in my heart, and I will never forget their kindness. I hope I have honored them by being a great son. I will never forget them, and I hope they will always remember me.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Hanoi Andrew, the video

This is a video project I completed as part of my Vietnamese Language final exam (including a loose translation of the text, below):

After extensive name testing with control audiences from all around northern Vietnam, andrew abroad studios is pleased to present:
A Day in the Life of Andrew in Hà Nội, Việt Nam, the Movie
(trust me, it sounds better in Vietnamese)

            My day starts early. Since I live far from school, I need to be up and awake by 6:30 (which is early for me at least). Normally at this time my family is still asleep, and I am out the door by 6:50. Even though I have been here for 9 months now, it’s still a game of hit or miss trying to get a taxi. Some days there’s one right away, sometimes it takes 10 minutes, I never can tell. Eventually though I do get one, and am off. The streets are chaotic, but I have learned that if I just plug in my headphones and drift off to a happy place, it makes the ride a lot less terrifying.

            I arrive at school around 7:30, just enough time to cool off and rest before class. Since I’m describing a Monday, we have a Monday morning meeting before the first class. Here we have a chance to meet as a group and discuss any issues. Once the meeting is over, we head to Vietnamese class. We have a revolving schedule with 4 different teachers, who are affectionately known as “The Cô’s”. Co Lan is the head of Vietnamese at SYA. We have Vietnamese 5 times a week for an hour and a half each class, so needless to say, that's a lot of Vietnamese.

Vũ-Đức Vượng
 SYA-VN Program Director
 and our beloved history and culture teacher

(fictionalized representation)
            Next up is Vietnamese history and culture, taught by Thay Vuong. In this class we learn about everything from history to current social issues. Learning about Vietnam is fascinating. It’s so eye opening because the only things that most Americans know about Vietnam is war related. To actually come here and learn about the country is very insightful. After VN history we join Thay Chuck for economics. Though I wouldn't call economics my favorite subject, I still enjoy the class. Following econ is lunch. As you saw in the video, our favorite food is doner kebab. It’s incredibly cheap and quick. One doner is 16,000 VND, or, about 76 cents. There are also other places we eat, like the cantina, but nothing quite beats doner.

            After lunch, I have 3 more classes. First up is math with Thay Tuan, where I am taking pre-calculus. Then it's on to English with Co Becky. During this particular class, we had a group of Vietnamese students join us to learn about the American class system. We analyzed poetry together, and they really enjoyed it, as did we. We wrap up the day with a little AP environmental science. The class is also an hour and a half long, as we only have it 3 times a week, and it can be a bit of a drain, especially after a long day. This class is also taught by Thay Chuck.

            With the school day over, I look for a cab, and head home. I work or study before dinner for a few hours. Dinner is always at 7. During the weeknights, my dad and sister are often busy with work and school, so it’s often just my mom and I eating together. My sister takes night classes 3 days a week. Dinner is always delicious, and there is always a wide variety of dishes. We typically have beef or chicken as the main dish, then either noodles or rice, fresh vegetables straight from the rooftop garden, and a soup. Tonight was noodles and beef, with greens from the roof.

            With dinner over, I head back to my room and work some more. I am usually ready for bed by around  10. Well, that’s a day in the life of Andrew in Hanoi. I won’t have many more of them, and I can tell you I know I will miss ‘em!

Friday, May 11, 2012

My Return to Hades

          Humidity is no one's friend.  This past week in Hanoi, as daytime temperatures hovered around 100° fahrenheit (38°C), high humidity levels pushed the heat index up past 125°F (52°C), which, in layman's terms, is crazy hot.  Hot, sticky, sweaty, you feel like you're cooking in your own juices, HOT.  Really, it's hot here.

          Beyond that, I'm feeling a little strange now here in Hanoi, as I am not quite at the point where I am preparing for my departure, but almost. Today is May 9, and in just 3 weeks, the program will be over, and I will be back home in sunny (but much cooler!) California. I don't know exactly how to feel. I am happy with the thought of going home and being back in Santa Barbara with friends and family, but at the same time, I feel devastated that I have to say goodbye to everyone I’ve gotten to know so well this year. I've made so many great friends here in Vietnam, and the fact that I will have to say goodbye to them in just a few short weeks is an alarming one at the very least.

          I'm also getting ready to say goodbye to this blog, at least in its current form.  At first, when I started discussing the idea of keeping a blog last summer with my dad, I wasn't so excited. The thought of committing to produce fresh, interesting material for 9 whole months was something that didn't entirely appeal to me back then, but I am so grateful I made the choice now. I really have become attached and invested in this blog, and really put my all into it and am humbled that it has so many readers. But the blog is called Andrew Abroad....and Andrew is only going to be abroad for 3 more weeks.

          The dramatic change in the weather has been just one more reminder that my time here is short. Comfortable spring with temps in the mid-70s have given way to daily highs in the 90s. Things change abruptly in Hanoi - just a couple months ago we needed space heaters to keep warm, and now the thought of any additional heat makes me cringe. Now I've really come full circle, as the current climate reminds me of the first days after I arrived here. I remember being a young kid, fresh off the plane in ‘Nam, not knowing what to expect. The heat was intense and overpowering, and the sights and sounds were too. That same heat is back and I have many of the feelings, but much inside me has changed as well. I feel at home here in Hanoi, completely at ease in this chaotic city. 

          Now, instead of facing unknowns abroad, I’m wondering how I will adapt to life back in America. I’m not worried about my return to California. Far from it. But I do feel a sense of unease at the thought that I have grown so used to living here, and now I’m leaving it all behind again. But I will take things home with me; I’ve learned a lot about independence; and, living abroad has taught me valuable life lessons that are too many to explain (read my blog!!).

          The one subject that I've avoided thinking about so far is that I'll also be leaving behind a loving family here in Vietnam. Just 9 months ago they welcomed me into their home as a guest, but now we are a family. When I left my family in California, I at least had the comfort of knowing that we'd be together again in less than a year - but now, I don't know when I'll see my Vietnamese family next. Without question, this will be the most difficult part of leaving Hanoi. 

          My time here is short, 18 days left out of an original 269, and I plan on making the most of it. I have a lot of work to do finishing up classes over the next 2 weeks, but regardless I will make sure to not forget to appreciate what I have. Not only am I finishing in 3 weeks, but so is SYA Vietnam. I don't want the program to die with a whimper, I want it to finish with a bang!  (see Tet 2012 for an appropriate sized bang!!!)

Monday, May 7, 2012

with gratitude......

andrew abroad, proudly serving you youth travel stories since September 2011!

now with 25,000 Hits!!!

          Sometimes, you dream about a moment, but when you finally get there, you just don't know what to say. This is one of those. Yesterday, May 4th, Andrew Abroad reached its 25,000th view!  I am in awe. When I first started my humble little blog back in September, I thought I’d be lucky to get any readers other than my parents. But, what I found was that when I put in effort, there are rewards. I work very hard on this site, and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. 25,000 is a large number, about a quarter of the size of Santa Barbara. Now of course a quarter of Santa Barbara hasn't read my blog, and most of these hits are repeat visitors. But the fact that there are so many repeat visitors must mean I’m doing something right! I remember just 3 months ago when I hit 10,000, and what a shock that was. Now, 15,000 hits later, I’m still in the same amount of shock. So here’s to 25K! And before the year is over, lets push it to 50! Thank you all so much for your support and readership so far this year, and I hope you enjoy reading the last few entries I will be able to write, as I now have only 3 short weeks left until I return home.

          Here are the countries of the world whose fine citizens have visited my blog at least once: United States, Vietnam, Germany, Russia, Canada, Bhutan, Thailand, United Kingdom, Laos, Singapore, Australia, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, Argentina, France, Columbia, Latvia, South Africa, Egypt, Andorra, Qatar, The Bahamas, Chile, Serbia, Ghana, Ukraine, Algeria, Armenia, Uzbekistan, India, Bulgaria, St. Kitts and Nevis, China, Slovakia, Estonia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Tunisia, Romania, Morocco, Denmark, Slovenia, Lithuania, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Tanzania, Belize, Djibouti, Mexico, Bahrain, Iceland, Puerto Rico, Afghanistan, Uruguay, Iraq, Belgium, Dominica, Nepal, Kuwait, Aruba, Lichtenstein, Turkey, Belize, Moldova, United Arab Emirates, Panama, Finland, Senegal, Switzerland, Bermuda, Spain, Dominican Republic, Uganda, South Korea, Trinidad and Tobago, Portugal, The Isle of Man(!), Cyprus, New Zealand, Montserrat, Israel, Azerbaijan, Maldives, Austria, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Bolivia, Kyrgyzstan, Cambodia, Belarus, El Salvador, Faroe Islands, Luxembourg, Latvia, Oman, Hong Kong, Sweden, Zimbabwe, Poland, Brazil, Greece, Ecuador, Cuba, Kenya, Ireland, Jordan, Honduras, American Samoa, Czech Republic, Costa Rica, Pakistan, Croatia, Bangladesh, Italy, Georgia (the country), Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Hungary, Peru, Saint Lucia, Philippines.

          My apologies to the good people of any country I forgot to mention!

Thank you all!

Monday, April 23, 2012

SBMS Micro-Finance Videos

          Here are three video clips relating both to my recent trip to Bhutan with my dad and sister, and to a micro-finance class that my dad recently taught the 6th and 7th grade classes at Santa Barbara Middle School.

          The first clip is from the trip we just took, and focuses on;  the day we spent at two schools in Paro, revisiting with students we first met three years ago;  a moment in time with Buddhist pilgrims worshiping at the National Memorial Chorten of Bhutan in Thimphu;  and, the morning we spent with young monks at their monastery in the hills above Thimphu.

          The second clip is from my dad's class, and is the video that we played for the Bhutanese elementary school class in the first video (A Return to Bhutan, at 5:50).  In this clip, one of the Middle School classes has made a video of what a typical American classroom looks like, so the kids in Bhutan (who we were filming to show back home) could see the American class that would be seeing them.  They were fascinated by the video, asking to watch it again and again - their favorite part being the Google Earth maps on one of the kid's computers in Santa Barbara.

          The final clip is also from my dad's class and is a composite of some of the classrooms that my family has visited all around the world - it was the lead-in piece to help explain why and how my family became involved in micro-finance in the first place.  It has segments from our first visit to Bhutan in 2009, including the vocational school for deaf students, the elementary school in Paro (both of which we just visited again), and, a school for young monks high in the Himalaya Mountains. (the Bhutan segment starts at 2:35)

[ADDED May 15, 2012]Here's a local newspaper article about the class:

Santa Barbara Middle School Students Paying It Forward — Around the World

Parent Eric Sanborn shares a valuable lesson in micro-financing, with sixth- and seventh-graders 'investing' in business enterprises in poor countries
With the help of social studies teacher John Seigel-Boettner, Santa Barbara Middle School sixth- and seventh-graders utilize online resources to research people and businesses in need of financing in some of the world's poorest countries. The school's Sanborn family has generously given each student the minimum investment amount of $25.
With the help of social studies teacher John Seigel-Boettner, Santa Barbara Middle School sixth- and seventh-graders utilize online resources to research people and businesses in need of financing in some of the world’s poorest countries. The school’s Sanborn family has generously given each student the minimum investment amount of $25. (Santa Barbara Middle School photo)
By  | Published on 05.07.2012

Imagine at your family dinner table your conversation takes you traveling to all seven continents around the globe, and instead of booking a comfortable hotel alongside a stretch of white sandy beach on your next vacation, you opt to stay with Buddhists in Bhutan, celebrate your younger daughter’s birthday with Bedouin “terrorists,” or volunteer in the schoolhouses of the indigenous tribes in Africa. That is what Santa Barbara Middle School’s Sanborn family of five has chosen to do over the past 12 years.

Eric Sanborn, SBMS parent, recently shared some of these stories in his younger daughter’s class at Santa Barbara Middle School. His main reason for addressing sixth- and seventh-grade students was to share the success and enthusiasm his family has had loaning money to people in some of the world’s poorest countries. It’s not a new concept, but it is a rewarding one. It’s called micro-financing.

During the past seven years, the Sanborn family has helped finance loans to more than 2,500 individuals and their small businesses in more than 60 countries around the globe.

“We ‘lend’ money to people rather than ‘give’ money to a cause, so that the loan beneficiaries can build their businesses and prosper,” Sanborn said.

Nearly 99-percent of the loans made by the Sanborns have been repaid.

“It’s such a rewarding experience to reach out to people,” Sanborn said. “You can’t go to these places and not be changed; it leaves something in you.”

Currently, 60 SBMS students are trying this idea on for size in their own “pay-it-forward” experience. Lessons in micro-financing in John Seigel-Boettner’s sixth- and seventh-grade social studies classes, with help from Sanborn, are centered on, the Community Action Fund for Women in Africa and other micro-financing organizational models.

The students are learning about currency rates, interest rates, social obstacles to business development in Third World countries, and how to distinguish between charity and loans. The curriculum was designed to allow the young people to connect first with the outer journeys of the Sanborn family as they traveled the world. Then the students joined the more personal inner journey that the family took, which was mostly completed around the family’s dinner table. It was these dinnertime conversations that compelled them to “do something” for the people they had met and ultimately led them to micro-financing.

The Sanborns have generously given each student the minimum investment amount of $25 with the hope of teaching the students that their investment decisions have real-world application. Students choose from thousands of people and businesses in need of financing. Online provides a business description, photo, country of origin and spells out the repayment risk of each investment.

Seigel-Boettner is always trying to connect his students with other cultures throughout the world.

“The human connection is something I always try to do in my teaching,” he said. “The other half is to empower kids to be part of it. This unit is helping put a face and a name on the world.”

Seventh-grade student Alea Hyatt chose to invest in a woman from Ghana who sells fish for a living.

“Instead of saying we’re going to make a change, but end up not doing anything, we actually are changing lives by investing $25,” Hyatt said.

Seventh-grader Daniel Solomon chose a Colombian man who installs gas lines for his micro-loan. Solomon says this work makes him feel good about himself.

“You actually feel like you’re making a difference,” he said. “You get to change someone’s life.”
Another business investment is Deryn Gersoff’s loan to a women’s business consortium in Guatemala that makes sweatshirts, weaves baskets and raises animals. Like many of her fellow students, Gersoff has already received partial repayment.

“It’s hard to believe that there is actually someone on the other end, and when the money is repaid, this whole experience becomes more real,” Gersoff said.

“In social studies we learn ways to make a difference, but in this way we actually are making a difference,” seventh-grader Jaime Schuyler said with a smile.

That’s music to Seigel-Boettner’s ears. He hopes that when his students put their head on the pillow at night that they think about someone on the other side of the world. He says the final exam of this lesson plan comes seven or eight years later, when he receives a postcard from one of his former students saying, “I’ve started a soccer camp in Tanzania, or I am in Philadelphia at an inner-city school teaching children.”

Seigel-Boettner said he is always eager to know which lessons of his have made a real difference in the lives of his students.

Most every student says that once repaid they plan to reinvest with another new stranger or business venture somewhere else in the world. Sanborn is hopeful that the seeds he has planted will take hold, and the students will come out different on the other side of this experience.

“You can tell they have made a connection with the people they have loaned to,” Sanborn said, “and it’s that connection that is important.”