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Alice in Wonderland March 30, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 3:39 am
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In the evening we went to the movies to see Alice in Wonderland in 3D. Two big cabs came to the shelter to pick us up. There were 10 girls, Linh and I. The girls were impressed with my dress, as I never wore dresses to our classes, but today I decided to dress up for them. We came to the CT Plaza, walked through the luxury mall and finally took the elevator to the 10th floor to the cinema.

The movie started and we all entered the world of magical Wonderland. The girl who sat next to me was squeezing my hand, as we both were scared of the “bad creatures” jumping into us. Our seats were very close to the screen so it felt like the stereo effect was even stronger. The girls were laughing and talking when they watched funny moments of the movie, as it was there first time experiencing 3D. I thought that I had 11 Alices with me – sincere, kind, generous, beautiful inside and out with rich imagination. I want them to stay that way and have happy lives. 

We took pictures outside the theatre and went back to the shelter. As I was sitting in a cab and listening to the Vietnamese music, watching the lights of Saigon at night, I realized that I finally see the city the way locals see it.  Linh and I walked to the store to get some cookies for the girls who didn’t get to go to the movies (as they go to school in the evening). There are 18 girls in total at the shelter. We came back and chatted with the girls, ate cookies, then took more pictures. And there came the hardest moment, when I had to go. I gave them all hugs, including Miss Yen, and asked them to promise to write me letters and send pictures.

As I was leaving the shelter on a motorbike, I felt sad as if I was leaving my own family. Deep inside I was crying… Now I know what Carrie meant when said that those street children in India stole her heart. Though sad, I was sure that it is not the end of our friendship, as we will keep in touch… I’m leaving them now but I will be present virtually, and keep helping them with learning and life questions as a friend and mentor. 

The next morning The Saigon Times published the following on page 7


Class Twenty: The Exam March 27, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 3:20 am
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Five of us came to the shelter that morning: Andy (VPV), Loan (The Saigon Times journalist), Sam, a volunteer from USA, local volunteer Dung and I. As we had 5XOs for 6 girls, Hanh took my Dell computer for the exam. Dung was translating. I gave out a list of questions to every girl and that is what it looked like:

25 March 2010

XO/Sugar Exam questions:

  1. Find Boston on the map
  2. Go to and find info on Phu Quoc
  3. Translate first paragraph on
  4. Send it by email to me
  5. Download a book from my email & open it
  6. Take a picture

I drew on the board a grid for 6 girls and 6 questions and would put a check mark every time they say they finish a task. For the first question, they immediately opened database of maps on their XOs and found Boston on the map of  North America. Every one successfully found info on Phu Quoc on, translated it to English & emailed it to me.

That is what I got: ” Phu Quoc Island also known as Ngoc, is the largest island of Vietnam, is the largest island in the populations of 22 islands here, in the Gulf of Thailand. Phu Quoc island with other islands forming member Phu Quoc island district, Kien Giang province. Entire island district has a total area of 593.05 km ², approximately the area of Singapore. Duong Dong Town, located in the northwest, is the capital of the island district. Phu Quoc, Rach Gia city located 120 km to the town of Ha Tien and 45 km.”

Earlier that morning I emailed the girls a digital book. The last task was to take a picture.   Truc didn’t want to take a picture of herself so I told her to take a picture of Andy and Loan. She did and sent it to me by email.  They finished all of the questions in about 30 min, some even quicker… Last task was a bonus, but they all did it.

The judges were sitting at the other end of the table and conversing quietly, which was good.

When the exam was over, they told me they have something for me. I didn’t expect anything.  I got a framed heart of the girls in the orphanage which says “We love you!” I said I will put it in my room in Boston and look at it every day! The teacher made a speech which expressed that she  was very thankful for what I did and computers and that they will always remember me.

So finally the moment of awarding the Teacher Certificates came and I started the ceremony by calling Hanh first, she is the oldest. I shook every girls hand and gave her a certificate! They were impressed. Then I said that now they qualify to teach other girls in a shelter, so they all know how to use the Internet, play games and do other things on the XOs.

I also announced that I’m leaving my teacher XO at he shelter for them as well. They asked who am I leaving it for and I said for all of them to share between 18 girls! And finally I’ll be coming to pick them up at 5:45PM to go to celebrate tonight!

Loan was very interested in the XOs, and I asked Hanh to show Loan several activities.  As we were leaving, Houng was playing piano on the XO and her music was really good. Mathieu wold break into happy tears if he saw her…

Andy gave me a ride to the CT plaza where I bought 12 tickets for the movie tonight, which cost about $75.


Class Nineteen: Last Class Before The Exam

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 1:35 am
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Minh came to translate today. When we entered the classroom, the girls were working on their XOs: two were copying down words from their favorite songs from the Internet and others were either checking their mail box’s or playing games. The first thing I wanted to accomplish today was to test Vietnam XO/Sugar User Group. I sent an invitation to all the girls to become my friends on FB.

Earlier that day I received an email from Elsa saying that it will take time to get parental consent to create the boy’s Facebook profiles. I looked at the portal  link Elsa sent and decided to try both to see which one is better.

Two girls were resetting passwords. Huong created long secure password and immediately forgot it, so we had to reset it again… Then I asked them to become members of the XO group, but they couldn’t do it due to the limitations of They do not get the full version of FB in Vietnam. Oops. I guess, we’ll use Vietnam-Needham portal created by Elsa then…

I decided to let them write letters to the boys to tell about their favorite book, song, singer, movie, etc. I learned that Truc is reading Harry Potter now, Bi’s favorite musical is High School, several of them wanted to visit Japan, they all like music. Hanh was asking what profession boys want to have when they grow up? 🙂

They asked me what kind of questions will be on the exam? I told them general categories and announced that the exam will be at 9AM tomorrow. We confirmed that all 6 girls will be present for the exam and the celebration.

Thao asked me what if they don’t pass the exam? I said that they will not get the certificates…

Meanwhile I was thinking about things to do and areas for improvement:

1. Translating manuals and to Vietnamese. I wrote to Clytie about it… and she forwarded my request to the Vietnamese Localization team…

2. The girls still can’t really type in Vietnamese as not all symbols are working and displaying correctly… (see several comment to  Class Nine post)

3. We didn’t have time to try E-toys and to install music player

4. Future projects: learn English on-line, Blog creation, Cooking classes on-line, register at Scratch website, create a page on about their shelter, make a story about professions, find job websites

As we were driving back to the Peace house after the class I decided to do something nice for all the local volunteers who helped me in the last several months with translation, so I thought of a roof deck party on Sunday, the night before I leave Saigon for Hanoi. So I Invited Minh and other local volunteers to come to the Peace House as I’ll be making Russian salad for all of them to try.


Preparation March 26, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 2:10 am
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The amount of work to be done today is enormous… I had to find or create and print out Teacher Certificates for the girls. It was very important as I promised it to them from the beginning. Having credentials would empower them as individuals. The next thing was to get the teachers’ approval to invite the journalist to the exam and to have a celebration probably on Thursday evening. What kind of celebration? I need to think of something special: ice cream outing or movies? …   I also need to create exam questions… And choose and invite the judges… Where do I start???

I e-mailed Nancie asking if she could forward to me the template of the Teacher Certificates, she gave out to the teachers in Hanoi. Fortunately, Nancie responded immediately, referring me to her assistant in Hanoi, named Nguyet, who emailed me the templates right away. Even though I don’t have Corel program on my computer, I went to the printing shop nearby and made them customize the template for Saigon and print out 6 certificates , as I knew exact names and birth dates of the girls. Everything was done in 2 hours and for $3. The certificates looked very cute and were bilingual – English and Vietnamese with a cute green XO in the center.

Next step, I contacted Andy and asked him to ask his friend who works for the Saigon Times if she is available to come to the exam on Thursday. She said she could do it in the morning at 9AM, which was perfect as we would have free time in the evening on Thursday to celebrate. Andy rode his bike to the shelter to ask whether 9AM was good and all the girls would be present, then if  the journalist was allowed to come, and lastly, if I could  take the girls out to the movies. He came back and said that celebration is OK, but it would be unfair if I only take 6 girls to the movies, the others will be sad.  Then I decided I would take all the girls to the movies. I thought it would be great to see the new Alice in Wonderland in 3D. We clarified how many girls would be around at 6PM, and were told ten. Perfect. I would need to buy the tickets on-line in advance as they sell out quickly.

I invited Mathieu (France), Andy (UK) and Sam (USA), who will be teaching English to the girls after I leave. Mathieu coudn’t come, but Andy and Sam agreed to “work” as judges during the exam. All I wanted is their presence to make the exam look more official.

Then I had to create the exam questions. I planned to showcase their skills with XOs and do it in one hour. So about midnight I created 6 questions (see next post) . Lastly, I was searching online for the nearest movie theater to buy tickets on-line. It turned out that you can’t in Vietnam, you have to go to the movie theater in advance to buy them. I would do it tomorrow morning after the exam.


Class Eighteen: Making Progress

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 12:27 am
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The teachers informed me  that the girls love the computers and are happy to use them. And I knew immediately that the teachers are now interested in them, too.  They don’t know how to use the XO, so I gave them a crash course on how to start it, launch activities, close them, use the Internet, and more importantly, check the journal for what the  girls do. They looked super excited and empowered. Yen opened yahoo email and sent me a letter. Then I showed them picture-taking, speech, etc. We discussed viruses again and Zerlene explained that there are almost none in Linux in comparison to Windows. Yen and Thanh felt relieved.

I also told them about the exam on Thursday and the judges who will come to the exam. Those who pass will receive Teacher Certificates and they will be able to teach other girls in the shelter. The teachers liked the idea and supported it completely. I also asked for their permission to communicate with children from other countries with my supervision. This will improve their English and they will learn to use discussion boards/walls on-line.

The teachers asked about OLPC. I said that the organization always improves computers and its programs. That is why I taught the girls to get updates frequently; it will be part of homework assignments. People like me go to different countries to teach these computers in schools, sometimes with hundreds of children.   But Ba Chieu is lucky, as they are the first place in Saigon to have 5 of these computers for free. Other schools find out and would want to have these computers too, but may have to buy them for $229 each. So Ba Chieu will become famous. At that moment Zerlene took a photo, and she said we were probably making history at that moment. We all laughed.

I was so glad Lan came to translate, as she was correcting the local volunteer and helping her translate. Zerlene successfully set up a secure connection for the shelter and the teachers created a password.

It was already 8:20PM when we finished discussion with the teachers and they told me that the girls upstairs were anxious and asking “Where is our teacher?”

So we had to do several things today:

1. Install language pack

2. Learn where to get Sugar Activities and download FBReader as an example

3. Finalize Facebook accounts at

I already created their profiles using one general password. So all we had to do is to reset passwords, confirm accounts by email and upload pictures. They took their pictures first and added each other as friends… Several girls were still working on it, but I had to leave as it was already past 10PM. I could feel that it was a lot of progress in one day! I thanked everyone –the  teachers, Yen, Zerlene and Lan.


Class Eighteen: Negotiations March 25, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 5:27 am
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It dawned on me  that I spent too much energy running daily operations of the project and completely forgot the politics. I also needed a precise translator and more time to spend with the teachers at Ba Chieu. So I brought a team with me: Zerlene who is a system engineer and Lan, financial specialist, who speaks good Vietnamese, both from CA. Four of us (including brand new local volunteer Yen ) went to the shelter. I told the Teachers Yen and Thanh that the girls came with me to help set up secured wi-fi connection, so that no one can steal it from them!

While Zerlene was working on it, I inquired about the cost of the Internet. Last time they said it was too expensive to use wi-fi, how come? I thought it was free. They informed me that they pay per minute of use, which was surprising. But the teacher Yen explained that they decided to allow the children to use the Internet twice a week, probably on Friday and Saturday. They will unplug the router the rest of the time.

I understand that it is their shelter and they set the rules, not me. Volunteers like me come and go, but the teachers are here to stay and keep the discipline and help the girls with their lives long-term… So I just say that it would be great as the girls need to practice, otherwise they will forget how to use computers. It is very important in life to know computers, because with such skill it is easier to find a good job.

 Thanh comes with another reason… “But we don’t know what they do online… We don’t know what kind of assignments they receive and send”. That was the moment when I gave them the power. I said that I’ll send them copies of my emails to the girls, so that the teachers know what the girls do. They were surprised that I’ll keep teaching the girls even after I leave and asked “for how long?” I proposed 2-3 months.  The teachers were glad and told me to send the assignments to the girls before Friday so that the girls can do their homework during “home computer” class during the weekend. I said it sounds great.

Then I showed to them Clytie’s email in Vietnamese, and suggested they write to her in case there are any problems with computers, they can write to her in Vietnamese, even though she lives in Australia, she will answer. I gave them my email address and said that I would write to them and the children both in English and Vietnamese (using Google translate).


Class Seventeen: Glass is Half Full March 24, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 12:37 am
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Three girls ran up to  me and gave me hugs. I told them about the exam with several judges to attend. They were curious who  the judges would be. I kept it a secret. Also we will have a celebration on Friday. Thao almost burst into tears as she is going away to stay with her extended family for the weekend, so she is going to miss the celebration. Maybe we’ll celebrate on Thursday after the exam?

Then I saw Hung, who was skipping classes lately. She came in to get some books and was about to leave the  room. I asked her if she wanted to attend the class, she could use my computer (red Dell laptop) or share a computer with one of the girls, because we have only 5XOs for 6 girls. She looked lost and left the room. I din’t want to force anyone to study so I let her go… Two minutes later she came back and sat down at the table with us. I was so happy…

I wrote on the board “”. They tried to translate words and sentences from English into Vietnamese. And here came the surprise. I showed them print out of the letters in English from the boys in Boston. They were very curious. Beforehand I sent each girl one of the boys’ letters by email. They enthusiastically copied the text into the box of translate google and translate all letter into Vietnamese.   

Then I showed them the Vietnamese ebook site, and asked them to download one book from it. They had difficulties as the books  were either zipped or in some other formats different from pdf. I sent one ebook to them by email and asked to open it.

lNext, they finally read Clytie’s email and sent her one question either about computers or Australia.  The lesson went way past 9PM and everyone was still doing something on-line. I could tell they were hungry for more to do on the Internet…

At the end I gave every girl a sea shell key chain from Phu Quoc island, where I was the week before. I told them to get it close to their ear and listen to the sea breeze inside the shells.

We had no time for creating Facebook accounts, but I took girls’ full names and birth dates. I am going to create FB profiles on their behalf tomorrow.

In the evening I found out that there is a volunteer who knows all about setting up secured wireless connections. She did it for the Peace House  2.  She agreed to go with me to the shelter on Tuesday to help secure wi-fi there. Another one volunteered to go with us to help me talk to the head teacher and translate  as she speaks good Vietnamese. We want to find out what is the main problem for the teachers if the girls want to browse the Internet daily?


Class Seventeen: Glass is Half Empty March 23, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 12:34 am
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New volunteer Thanh came to pick me up, I showed her the way to the shelter. We almost lost balance once and I prayed again and again for us not to crash. It would be bizarre to get into an accident and break my leg during my last week here. God, please help us.

We arrived safe and sound. The girls told me that there is no wi-fi because Miss Yen (teacher) turned it off. Why? Was there a problem? Did it stop working? Did she do it intentionally or by mistake? Can’t she fix it? Or is she afraid of viruses? Why? I felt like no explanation could justify it… Or maybe they are afraid of the freedom girls have with the Internet or loosing their power/control over the girls? Thanh said that  their wi-fi is open to the public and that is why anyone can steal it and use their information. I promised to set up a secure connection with password tomorrow. We just didn’t have enough time to do it before.

The head mistress came into the classroom and I asked her about the problem.She said, it is too expensive to have it on all day, so they disconnect it, but will turn it on just for the class… I tried to explain that the girls have to have the connection for at least several hours a day to do their homework that I send to them on-line. Deep inside I was in shock…

About translation… I noticed that sometimes local volunteers do not translate exactly what is said, but try to come up with their best intelligent guess. It happens either because they don’t understand or they think they will look better if they suggest some possible answers to my question instead of getting the exact translation of the answer for me. That brings a lot of aggravation as I need to get the real reason behind the teachers/girls behavior. I also sensed that volunteers probably would feel embarrassed to admit they don’t understand. It must be equal to loosing respect or “loosing face”. Especially since there are more local volunteers than assignments, they do not want to admit that they don’t understand in fear of loosing their position. I was wondering if it was a cultural thing, but perhaps it is a problem for all foreign language speakers at the beginnng level.

It was difficult for me to understand their explanations. I still don’t know which one is the real problem, but we had to move on. I first made sure the girls remembered how to send email attachments.We created an email account for Bi, since she didn’t have one, but for some reason she couldn’t attach any files to her emails on the XO. Meanwhile, some other computers were as slow as real turtles, others froze at the worst possible moment.We still tried to download files again or restart the computers. I told them to have as few activities open as possible so as to not freeze the XOs.


One Week Left! March 22, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 11:14 pm
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I returned to Saigon, to its unbearable March heat, crazy traffic and crowded Peace House full of new and old volunteers. The road in front of the house is blocked again due to construction. Oh, no… My room is a mess and I’m melting from inside.  I can hardly function, all sweaty…

But I have to get ready for the class tonight. So I received the videos which are unviewable… Books were not downloaded, Clytie’s letter was not read. And there was no teaching exercise. Plus we have to learn to use the Google translator. We have a lot of catching up to do…

On Sunday I created a Facebook page for the Vietnam XO/Sugar users. I emailed Adam, Nancie, Elsa and Mario about it. I also received letters from Elsa’s boys. She forwarded 6 letters in PDF, which I converted into text docs (see next post why). Here are three of them:

Dear girls,
Hello! My name is Alex! I have a favorite game too. speech. Its awesome! I am 10 years old, and i go to a moderately good school. I am not a fan of school but i talk with my friends at Recess. My favorite subjects are Recess and lunch. Your state is part of our program to get books to you. Its called Room to read. You are my main classes state! We watched a video on your state and it looks awesome! well, i hope to hear from you again!

Hi, My name is Nathan. I am 10 years old. I am in the 5th grade. I live in Massachusetts. My favorite XO Computer game is Turtle Art. And Record. My favorite color is blue. I like playing a game called capture the flag. You try to take the other team’s flag without getting tagged. What do you like about Vietnam?


PS Did you watch the Olympics?

Dear girls,

Hi. My name is Jeff. I love reading. My favorite book is Artemis fowl by Eoin Colfer. What is your favorite book? One of my best friends (Alex) is writing to Huong. Alex says he hates school but I kind of like it. My class is studying your country. We are trying to get books and libraries to your country through a system called room to read. I am in fourth grade. You are probably having trouble reading this.


Class Sixteen: Happened!

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 11:00 pm
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On Tuesday I called the Peace House and was told that no one can go to the shelter that evening. I couldn’t get mad at anyone because it was my teaching project and local volunteers have no motivation to go to the class especially if there is no one to teach it. I thought about asking a foreign volunteer to substitute me, but no one knew anything about XOs, except for Mathieu, who was  busy. I think that volunteers get intimidated, that they don’t know enough to consult the girls, or just not interested in going if there is no foreigner, who does all the teaching, or some other reason… this is the nature of volunteering – you do it voluntarily…

I received an email from Clytie regarding my post Long Live the Internet: 

“Regarding point 3, I wrote to the OLPC Help team and the OLPC Localization list and suggested we need a specific mechanism for non-English help requests. Machine translation is not always effective.

Please tell your students that if they get stuck, and aren’t getting a response when asking for help in Vietnamese, they are welcome to email me and I’ll advocate/translate for them. They can also ask for help on a Vietnamese Linux mailing list like this (just choose “Vietnamese” in the drop-down menu in the top right-hand corner of the page). We have a growing free-software community which can offer a great deal of support to new users and experienced users alike. (I’ll also send you a personal email which you can show to your students as an introduction from me.) I hope this helps. We don’t have a great many support resources in Vietnamese yet, so we need to make the best use of the ones we have.”

So no one went to the shelter on Tuesday, no one went on Wednesday as well, even though I asked. Finally Mathieu agreed to go help with the assignment, but first I had to explain to him how to do what the girls had to do…

I wrote another email to the girls telling them to read the letter from Clytie (in Vietnamese) and teach other girls several activities (to practise their teaching abilities).

Clytie wrote:

“Below, I introduce myself to your students and their teachers. Hopefully, that will help them feel more confident to ask for help. I’ve given them the info about the LUG mailing list, and some background on my family and I, especially my younger daughter, who is not too much older than they are. I’ve included some links they might find interesting (mostly pics). Please feel free to check them out. In order, they are: the Vietnamese Linux mailing list, a photo of my younger daughter a few years back, her photos, drawings, the region where I live, photos of it, the live weather page for this town :)”

It was Thursday evening, 9PM when I received three emails from the girls with attachments, which were supposed to be videos. However, I couldn’t play either one as they had XML format? Isn’t it Excel? The name of one file was tmpDJ0i2b. What did Mathieu and the girls send to me???


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