You must read to the end of this post to find out what is..."delicious!"
But to get there, you have to backtrack with me to the beginning of the longest week ever (it's Thursday night for me now):
November is supposed to be the beginning of the dry season, but it rains all day long. I know it's been flooding in Hanoi, but I haven't seen any here, until Monday.
When Nam picks me up from school -a day of school I faked my way through, tired and Dalat waterfall sore - we are riding in two to five inches of water. We take two detours in the first half mile…there is no way through the lakes and rivers on the roads. Traffic is jammed, busses are criss-crossed at intersections, stranded. He takes a few back alleys, but still, we keep meeting dead ends. I think I could go to sleep on the back of the bike.
We are riding down one alley when he points to a woman standing near a pho booth. “My friend,” he says. He slows his bike and they begin to chat. He asks me if I would like some of her pho. All I really want is to crawl into bed. But I must eat, we aren't making progress toward home, and it's a Nam food suggestion. OK, let's eat.
“YO!” he says, indicating that I need to choose between three trays of “meat”on the stand. One is pure gristle- big, thick tablespoon-sized balls of fat. On the next tray is pork with lots and lots of fat on the ends, kind of half and half. On the third tray is raw tenderloin, very lean. This one cooks when the broth is poured over it. I point to that and when Nam's gracious friend brings my bowl to the table, MomNam begins to prepare it for me (earlier, he puts my raincoat on and adjusts my chin snaps and I feel like it is a snow day thirty years ago). He squeezes in lime and hot sauce and hoisin sauce, but I don’t allow him to put any peppers in (remember last time). He laughs.
Then his bowl comes to the table. I can’t believe it; Nam is eating with me this time – a first. He has ordered all three “meats.” About half way through the meal, he puts a little bowl in the middle of the table and places a ball of gristle in it with his chopsticks. He wants me to eat it. “It’s really good,” I think he says. I eye it. My weariness is magnified. I'm too tired to disappoint Nam, but I'm way too tired to try to chew that fat, or to try to swallow it whole and wash it down with iced tea.
I pick it up, though, and it is there in my spoon in front of my face. It's all blurry and I feel I'm not really even present. I just can’t do it. I put it down and shake my head at Nam. But he isn't giving up. He squeezes some hot sauce in the bowl and stirs it around. “Maybe you'll like this ball of gristle now, smothered in the hot sauce that you don't like,” I think he says. He points to it again. “Come on, taste it!”
Now there is an audience. Nam's soup-making friend, as well as another male customer, come over to see if The Foreigner will eat the best ingredient on the table. They wait. Nam's expectant face is dripping with sweat from his red pepper-filled soup. Six eyes are fixed on me. I just want to put my head down somewhere.
But I am finally able to muster up a very firm "No." Cuz you know what? There is nothing that is going to make me eat that gristle, not even Nam's pouty face. "Ok, be that way," his body language suggests, "miss out if you want." My audience disperses.
We negotiate three more detours on the way home. We stop at his aunt’s house to deliver the pho that Nam’s friend gave him at the stand. It's 7:30 by the time I walk through the castle doors.
No Break Tuesday:
I work all day and then meet parents for conferences between 4 and 6:00. No break in between; parents are waiting outside the door when my afternoon class gets out. I can't even "go out"-as the kids say.
No Sheets Wednesday:
Parent conferences between 4 and 6:00 again. Parents stay until after 6:30, though, which gets me back to my alley around 7:00. I grab some tofu stuffed with pork (topped with tomato sauce) and, before I turn the corner to the castle, I decide to pop my head into Thuy's house because sometimes she sits in the doorway and reads with her parents. She's not there, but a girl I don't recognize is. She says Thuy is just down the alley. No big deal. I head to the castle, and before even thinking about climbing the stairs, I flop down on the couch and turn on the TV --I am hapy because a Friends rerun is on...perfect non-brain activity, perfect dinner-eating entertainment for tonight. I am beyond content at this moment.
Then the doorbell rings. Tarn is on his way out, so he gets it. It's Thuy. She's concerned about me..."Does Maggie need something?" Tarn speaks much better Vietnamese than I do, so he mediates between us. "I just wanted to say 'hi'," I tell him to tell her. Tarn leaves and Katherine is playing soccer, so it's just Thuy and me. She lingers a bit at the door. Remember that on Sundays, she cooks and says "I go now" before we are even finished, so her hesitation makes me feel that I should ask her to stay. She quickly agrees, so I make some tea and we go to the roof and have a pretty nice conversation despite the lacking language. After about a half an hour, we go back downstairs. Her tea is gone, she doesn't want any more, but she sits down on the couch. Hmmmmm... I want her to feel welcome, so I try to make more conversation. I am still in a dress from work. My laundry is in the wash. I'm supposed to have my first teaching observation first thing in the morning. I am dying. My head feels like it's lolling to one side. It's been an hour. Where are those three words I am longing to hear?
But instead of saying "I go now," Thuy picks up the remote and turns the TV on. She's staying. You know what's on? America's Got Talent. You know how long we watch it? For an entire hour. Looking back, I can recall many thematic questions and statements, like, "You, Katherine and Tarn, you are a family" and (again) "Do you remember (miss) your parents?" "Did you live with your parents in America?" But in the moment, I just can't understand why Thuy is hanging around. She is so great at picking up social signals (unlike my Vietnamese Mother).
The show is over, and still, she sits. I know you're thinking, "Why don''t you just tell her you need to go to bed?" and I don't know the answer to that. I just can't make her feel unwelcome. She looks tired, too, though; after all, she starts selling fabric at 5:00 am. Finally, at 9:30, she says them, the three words I would pay five million VND to hear. "I go now." But she says something else that puts the entire night in perspective. "Tarn, Katherine -- both go out. You here, alone," she frowns.
I get it. Thuy has stayed with me all evening, despite her own weariness, because she thinks I will be lonely in this big castle if she leaves. This woman, 36 years old, has slept in a bed with her sister her entire life. She has been on two vacations, to Dalat and Nha Trang, her entire life. I will see both places within six weeks. She is never alone, except maybe in the toilet.
"I'm OK," I tell her. "Thank you." If she could only know how OK I was before the doorbell rang two and a half hours ago. But she can't. I head upstairs and when I open the door to the Rapunzel Room, I remember my laundry. It's all the way downstairs, in the washing machine, wet. My sheets are wet. They would have dried in just a few hours if I had hung them out. But I don't even care. I fall onto the bare mattress and go to sleep within seconds.
Observation: went well. All day the only thing I can think about is getting a massage at the Bum Bum right after school. However, last week, just a day after I made Tran the CD (the one with R and B -- Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, The Manhattans), my request for a massage was rejected. Tran tried to explain the reason, but wow, it stung. I was so dejected, walking back to the castle. All week Katherine and I traded email theories about why I couldn't get a massage. We are so spoiled, getting them whenever we want, any time, day or night. I suggested that perhaps I had committed some kind of cultural blunder by giving Tran the CD...maybe the government really does mandate "A Time for Us" on all massage CD's. But my neighborhood equilibrium has been off all week. No Bum Bum massages? I can't even think about it!
So I am a bit hesitant today, fearing another Bum Bum dismissal. But all of the girls are there, and they greet me warmly. When I say "Massage?" Tran smiles and nods her head yes and points to a seat; she is in the middle of doing someone's eyebrows. My sense of relief is even better than a massage. The smiley girl who sometimes washes my hair gets me some cold water. After glancing through a magazine for five minutes, the older woman who runs the salon walks by me and caresses my arm - a really gentle gesture that says, "We are glad to see you." And when I go upstairs, I get my answer: they have remodeled the fourth floor -- last week was construction week. As I lay down on the massage table, Trung fumbles with some CD's. And then I hear the best lyrics ever, "Honey you...are my shining star...don't you go away..." I lift my head up and laugh. "You like it?" I ask.
"The music...it is..." she struggles to find the right word, "it is...delicious!"