You're missing Nam, aren't you?
I don't blame you; I missed him when I was gone, too. It was great to walk out onto the street last Monday morning and have him waiting on his bike, reading the paper, giving me that same same half smile.
Time for a Nam story.
The day before break, I handed out a bunch of Christmas presents to people in the neighborhood. My mom sent some boxes of chocolates for this purpose, so I combined those with bags of cashews and pistachios and put them in these really cool bamboo bowls and wrapped them in Christmas paper. I gave one to my Banana Rice Cake with Tapioca Sauce Lady, one to my Sandwich Lady, one to Candle Neighbor and one to my Pomelo Lady. (Pineapple Lady didn't get one.) They did look rather surprised when I handed them over (presents are rarely exchanged, despite all of the Christmas hype), but they have been even more smiley with me since.
As for Nam...I decided to give him chocolates and a significant tip. I usually pay him 150,000 VND per week, which comes to about 90 cents per ride. I had a 200,000 VND tip in a Christmas card in which I wrote, "Thanks for being a good driver. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!" ready to give to him when he dropped me off Friday afternoon (to my light-less castle).
Well, on the way home from school, he stops in an alley across the main street from ours and pulls up to a stand where, of course, everyone knows his name. "Number One," he tells me, pointing to the food.
I don't need to tell you how much I love it when Nam says "Number One" and points to food. I have learned, though, that I cannot force these secrets out of him; they are revealed to me only when the time is right. He is slowly revealing the soul of his native grounds to me, and I have to accept the revelations as they come. So on this Friday afternoon of winter break, the time is right for him to show me the "Number One" deep fried spring roll, grilled pork on a stick and ground pork wrapped around sugar cane stand in the area. It's like his farewell gift to me. His connection wraps up my food to go, and as she does, my heart is beating quickly because I had not yet found the sugar cane pork in the neighborhood. Leave it to Nam to fill that gap.
Nam stops in front of the castle and says "see you again." I reach in my bag and hand him his wrapped gift. The card on top says "Nam." His first reaction is to point at his name. I have left the tick mark off of the a and this bothers him.
I shrug. "Whatever." Yeah...whatever, Nam.
He takes it and I get the half smile. "See you again," he says, again.
So. When he picks me up from school last Monday (btw, he has not been even a second late since the tip and I swear he carries himself differently), I ask him if he can take me to the "Number One" place for dinner. He puts his hand in the air and twists it back and forth- the hand signal for the negative in Vietnam. It seems that that particular stand closes at 4. It's now 5. But when we get to our main street, he passes it. He makes an eating gesture. About ten blocks down he pulls over and there is another cart selling identical food items. He orders for me and, like usual, he is particular about how they package it up. On the way home we stop at his aunt's house. He runs in and comes out with a wrapped gift and hands it to me with his half smile.
I don't open it until I get to the castle. He's given me Tet decorations...Tet is Vietnam's biggest holiday - Chinese New Year, which is in just a few weeks (I will have to explain it in some depth in another post). There are two strings inside, one with Chinese symbols and one with words. There is a card, too, and, written in English (most likely by his nephew) it says, "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Ms. Marjorie. Mr. Nam" (including the tick mark).
The next day, when we get to school, he motions a student I don't know over for translation.
It takes him a long time to explain what he wants to know, but finally, the student says to me, "He took you somewhere to eat yesterday. He wants to know, which place did you like better, that one, or the one near your neighborhood?'
I don't hesitate. "The one near my neighborhood."
When the student tells Nam, Nam grins and nods. I have answered correctly. We remain on the same page. Phew. More secrets are coming, surely; I am worthy.
When he drops me off that night, he gets off his bike and follows me into the castle. He wants to make sure I hang the decorations suitably, so he points to a few places where they may look good. He looks pleased when he sees the calendar hanging by the door.
Do you know of anyone who deserves a Christmas tip more?