Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dark Alley Beauty and Soul Breakfast Food

Dark Alley Beauty

Sometimes when Tarn takes a shower downstairs, the castle power goes out. Sometimes when two castle dwellers shower at the same time, the castle power goes out. But not always. Kind of like the traffic laws: some people obey some of the laws some of the time. Because I am Rapunzel at the top of the castle, I have no idea when Tarn is in the shower on the ground level. Tonight, upon my return from the gym, I shower, as does Tarn when he returns with Pretty Lady (his bike, in case you missed that one). This time, the castle lays down its electric law. So it’s 8:00 and the power is out and it’s pitch black. My hair is wet and the castle will now withhold power for an unspecified amount of time. Last week it withheld all night and I had to sleep in the R & J Balcony room because upstairs was just too muggy without air conditioning.

So what do you do when your hair is soaking wet and you are in a dark castle in an alley in District One of Ho Chi Minh City? You go to your alley to get your hair dried and straightened. Only, unbelievable…The Bum Bum is taking the night off! Katherine has two visitors from the States and of course she wants to show off our personal beauty shop, but they are already mopping up for the night. She and her friends decide to walk the ¼ mile to get the classy hot stone massages and I decide to wander through the neighborhood with my wet head.

Something special is happening tonight; the altars are in the alleys and incense is burning. I love walking by the alley temple at night, too, and tonight it is lit and smoking with incense. Whatever the occasion, people are still working and watching TV, and I have my choice of salons to visit. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which places function as salons…they look just like homes.

One place is rather dark so I’m not sure, but I see a sink and a head dryer and two women sitting on the floor with very young girls. I make the motion: can you dry my hair? They are surprised; they are not a fluorescent salon so they probably don’t get outside customers. The woman who dries and straightens my hair is the best I’ve had yet. She is so careful she takes a whole hour to do it. Her friend sits in the chair next to us and they chat, while the young girls sit in front of me on the floor and just stare at me and my strange hair (the sun has made it a little red). Near the end, a shy teenage girl appears and I know she has been sent for. She nods at me and blushes.

“Do you speak English?” I ask her, because I know that is why she is here, and most teenagers speak at least a little.

Most likely, she has never spoken to a native English speaker before. She tries to form a word but can’t. I try again.

“What is your name?”

This time she answers, and maybe she gains some confidence. I think the woman doing my hair is her mother; her ‘mother ‘ says something to her.

“My…my mother wants to know. Has she hurt you?”

It’s always so interesting to know what they are wondering. “No, no, she did a very good job.”

Her mother looks very proud (about both her daughter and the hair) and says something else. “Where are you from?” This goes on for a few minutes. They want to know: what is my job and where do I live and do I like Vietnam? The girl continues to blush. Again, am I pleased with my hair? I tell her I am very pleased with my hair and her mother communicates to me how much she hopes I will return.

Of course, I will.

Nam and Soul Food

Yesterday, I give Nam a box of Durian coconut rice candy from my trip to Ben Tre. He doesn’t really know what to do. He doesn’t smile, but he’s not mad either. He indicates that that should be his payment for the ride. No, it’s for you, I say, and I have an AIS student ask him: Can I pay you for the whole week now? This is really a contract. Now he looks happy. And he finally thanks me for the candy with a shrug. I wonder which social structure rule I have offended?

He’s late picking me up after the gym, though, despite our new formal agreement…this time, his story is that he lost his Tweety helmet. Apparently, it flew off his bike, never to be seen again. He plays out this story about three times. But he has a new one. It’s black. Do I like it? I think he likes to spend his extra money.

This morning, on our way to school, he points to a mass of people by the street. I know what he wants…he wants me to try his favorite breakfast. He asked me once last week, but we were running kind of late and though this may surprise many of you, I do put my job before my stomach (mostly) (unless I just can’t). But today I am free so I say yes, of course. When I say a mass of people, I mean a mass, and they are all Vietnamese. But Nam works his way to the cart like an expert and asks me a few questions: Do I want bean sprouts? Basil? I can see it’s something I’ve had before, the ribbon noodles with the deep fried savory dough and mystery meat topped with fish sauce. He takes my order very seriously.

When we get to school he motions one of the students over (usually they are dismounting from their parents’ motorbikes when they get chosen to translate for me and Nam). This time, it’s 6th grade soft-spoken Selena. He wants her to tell me how to eat my breakfast. 1) Don’t eat your sandwich first, eat this. 2) Don’t eat your rice first, eat this. 3) Eat it now, while it’s hot. 4) Pour the fish sauce over the fried dough and let it soak in a little, but not too much. 5) When it has soaked in, mix everything together and eat it. 6) It should be both crunchy and chewy. 7) Eat it now, while it is hot. 8) Be sure to pour the sauce all over.

Poor Selena, she just keeps translating and translating. She has no idea how important her services are. When I get inside, I follow his instructions to a T. Yes, I have had this breakfast before, but of course Nam is right: this is about ten steps above what I have had. And the mystery meat…well, it may look like bologna, but wow, it doesn’t taste like it. It’s layers of flavors. My colleagues in the staff room ask me about my feast and I tell them that my driver is introducing me to the food of Saigon. They have never heard of such a thing ( and they all have drivers, too).

When we are on our way home tonight, I know exactly what he’ll do, and he does it. Even though the cart is not there in the evenings, he points to where it stands in the mornings and wants to know: how did I like it? I give him a thumbs up and tell him it was soooo delicious. Every once in a while Nam surprises me with some English he pulls out of nowhere, and he does this now. He gives the thumbs up, too, and says, “Number One!” Now he is really happy.

I must agree with my driver. My driver who knows good food. My driver who knows that I know good food, too and who feels happy when I pronounce his taste 'Number One.' Hmmm...just like someone else I know...


AmyT said...

Marjie, despite your charming interactions with local people, delicious food experiences, and straight hair...and a hope that I don't offend Grandma Willis... you wrote: "Sometimes when Tarn takes a shower downstairs, the castle power goes out. Sometimes when two castle dwellers shower at the same time, the castle power goes out."
So visual me pictures you and Tarn in the shower together.

Dad said...

What a beautiful story, Marjie. I appreciate the way you relate to others and your willingness to share.

marjie said...

Amy, I think we will start taking showers together, all three of us. If we turn all of the lights off, too, then maybe the power won't go off. How does that sound?

Thanks Dad. Wish you could have tried the breakfast with Nam and me!

Brian Bowker said...

Marjie - I think this is my favorite post yet! I love the humble interaction with the new salon and the translating daughter. I love that Nam is showing you his favorite breakfast. But most of all I love that you treat people without prejudice, as equals, wherever you go. No wonder Nam takes a special interest in you and trusts you with his food secrets; he's not just a driver to you, he's a friend! What a wonderful life-skill to have.

My respect for you only grows. (And you didn't even have to sing a mean song to me or anything!)

marjie said...

Brian, that is a really nice comment. Really nice. But...have you EVER seen either of our parents treat another person as less than an equal? I have never seen you do it either...nor Angie ...etc, etc. Anyway, thank you.

Brian Bowker said...

But? But? Where does the 'but' come from? You write it as if you're excusing yourself from the compliment...

Yes - our parents have given us an advantage in life by modeling respect, humility and diplomacy. But that doesn't diminish that fact that you've now got those skills in spades!

(I turned down the "humility" switch for that last paragraph.)

Apparently what our parents didn't teach us was how to accept a compliment... ;)

The Norris Clan said...

Excellent post, M. Can you post a pic of this famed breakfast sandwich? It sounds so amazing. And I love the hairdresser story. I think the local people (Nam, this new salon) must think they've won the lottery with having you be a regular. Oh, how they will miss you... YOUR #1

kumma said...

NOW I understand everything... NOW I know why, despite me being me, smarj still managed to be my locker partner and friend: you treat EVERYONE as equals! Even me. Now I understand.

LOVE this post even better than the last, and I thought the last was the best, but now this one is the best, until I read the next best one.