Saturday, February 28, 2009

My Default Meal

Thank you so much to everyone who commented on 6C's videos. I cut and pasted all of your comments into PowerPoint so that they could see them one by one first thing when they got to class on Friday...there were 20 slides in all, and I just wish I had another video to post so that you could hear how loudly they laughed at your guesses. I am so afraid I am going to get into trouble because of them and their energy and how I tend to egg them on - I guess I will just have to keep sobering them up with sad books.

I have to give special recognition to my nephews, Devon and Nolan, and my niece, Megan. They came up with the guesses that got the loudest laughter...I guess they have the same sense of humor - these kids who are worlds apart. Brian, they also loved your guesses and your responses to their supposed guesses. They loved all of them and they felt like movie stars. It was really, really fun...

And, as for neighborhood food news:

This is a picture of my most common meal on the street. Someday I am going to video the stir-fry stand of its origin that swarms with people and activity day and night, but for now, here is my favorite order: the most tender squid and prawns, that strange but tasty Vietnamese bologna and a little bit o ham tossed with the most delicious rice, all fried up right in front of us with some little cut-up green beans on an open-aired, huge, circular griddle. We go up to the side of the stand and choose from little bowls full of either this seafood/bologna combo, fresh crab or tenderloin for them to add to a scoop from a huge mound of rice. This plate of food is just a two-minute walk from the castle door, and it costs about $1.20.

I'm sure you would default to it at least twice a week, too.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thursday Blog Game: "I hear that people from Seattle..."

Meet the 6th graders of 6C. We have been reading a book about the Danish Resistance of World War Two, Number the Stars, so I decided we needed to lighten things up during our Thursday double period. They are all telling you "Things They Have Heard about Seattle." Some of the rumors they have heard are quite shocking!

Sorry about the four parts: I have learned that videos load best in 20 second increments. If you don't have time to watch all of them, watch the last one, at the bottom. I do not know where Lucky came up with it, but enjoy the view of 16 sixth graders completely losing it after he tells what he has heard about "People from Seattle."

And, of course, guess what at least one of them is saying - they can't wait to hear what you think of their video!

In order of appearance:

1-Alex, Michael, Tommy

2-Annie, Mindy, Sam

3-Tom, Lisa

4-Ami, Lucky

English translations will be provided next Thursday~

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Don't Eat Pollution

Regarding my last comment in the last post: Nam does bring me a breakfast treat - not yesterday, but today. It's a different version of the #1 Breakfast - and he wants me to know it is from Hanoi. The difference is that the wide rice noodles are rolled up with something, I'm thinking dried mushrooms.

And I find something new to eat today: I am at the post office picking up a package from Amy T (her third strike, heart candies - thanks, Amy!) when a woman comes in carrying a stack of these:

I am curious and starving, so I buy one. The woman at the desk looks amused.

"Do you know what that is?" she asks. She tells me it's dried rice, topped with dried meat (the hairy-looking stuff), with chilies. "It's delicious!" she says.

And it is. I eat half of it while I am waiting for my package. When I go outside, Nam is lounging, smoking a cigarette. I ask him if he wants some. He quickly pulls the plastic bag over the rice cake and gestures out onto the street. He makes the negative hand gesture...I guess he is saying that I shouldn't eat something in the polluted street. He is trying to get this across to me while holding his cigarette, so I get a little judgmental. I point at the cigarette and make the negative hand signal..."well, perhaps you shouldn't be inhaling tar into your lungs, on the street or anywhere!"

The thing is, almost every food stand is right next to a busy street. Anyway -

Tonight, seven of us are getting together to watch the Oscars. They are being shown - commercial free - on a cable channel. We filled out ballots on Monday morning - we had to swear we wouldn't look at the results. The winner will get 350,000 VND, or about $20.

I should have had a dress made for the occasion.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Marsha Marsha Marsha

When I meet Nam this morning, the first thing he says to me is, "Sue - go home?"
Yes, I tell him, Sue go home.
He pantomimes that he saw me put her into the cab - he was on the street in his spot - and he waved as she drove by but she didn't see him.
When we get to school, I hand him a card that she wrote to him (with a 100,00 VND tip in it). I ask him if he would like me to have a student translate it, but he folds it up and says "My Minh." Minh will do the job.
After school, he calls a student over to translate. "Your friend Miss Sue is fantastic. Please tell her anytime she isn't busy I will drive her around the city." Then he hands me the above card to give to her. I hope she doesn't mind that I opened it (and that I am sharing it with the world) - it wasn't sealed so of course I had to read it. I loved that they called her "jolly" - a word I would not have thought of myself, but one that fits her so perfectly. I love the whole letter; it's just like him to be so thoughtful and to return the gesture.
Nam is taking me to get my implant today, and all the way there he points to places and says, "Miss Sue no like," (deep fried food stand) - or "Miss Sue eat pho there" (points to a stand) or "Miss Sue my friend." Ah, the memories...
At about Memory #5, it's like OK, OK, I get it. I am the one you are in a committed relationship with - you are driving me to my dental implant appointment instead of gallavanting across town to find all of the best eating establishments in the city, having the time of your life with your flashy, jolly firefighter friend Sue. I think you will realize in a few days that it was all just a fantasy, and that I am your bread and butter real life food client. And that we have had some good times, too...
Funny, for the past few weeks, a guard has been standing at the entrance to the road leading to the front of the school, telling all motorbike drivers to go around for drop off. Nam pays no attention to this guard, and has been driving right past him - always with a belly laugh (I am always laughing, too). Today he does it again and I say "Cowboy" as he does it. That really gets him.
Whether cutting rice in prison, escaping to America, winning over his wife or driving past school guards: Nam the Cowboy.
He had better bring me my breakfast treat tomorrow.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

K's Parents

I really hope Katherine's parents don't find out about this, but - according to Katherine - there was a HUGE rat hanging out by our table when we took them to Nam's village for Not Soup on Saturday night. (I never saw the rat, so she could be getting me back for telling her about the rat droppings in the bed in Thailand.)

Construction by the river has been going on ever since we got here, and the site has been slowly encroaching upon Nam's Village's Not Soup stand. We take a short cut along the back alley river road to get there, but now a deep hole has been dug right up to the edge, and it's bringing bad smells and, supposedly, big rats.

So we walked the long way around to get back to the castle. K doesn't think they saw it.

I haven't mentioned K's parents because before yesterday I had only met them for about five minutes at the castle door when I was coming in and they were going out. They will be in Vietnam for four weeks (then her dad will board a bicycle to Laos on his own), and are using the castle as a "resting" place between hops to some islands near HCMC, Hanoi and Halong Bay.

I am very happy because tomorrow night, Katherine's mom, Joan, has declared "fajita night." And I have a feeling that her dad, Tim (whom many of you recognize from the blog comments), will supply the beer. I was just downstairs when he commented on how great it was that we have a beer supplier on the other side of the alley (as he popped open another Tiger). Have I mentioned this detail as another neighborhood highlight yet?

Yeah, so many people want to cook for us in the castle. Anyone else?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

One Man's Life: The Cowboy of Nguyen Canh Chan

After just a few days with Nam, Sue voices something I have been thinking for quite a while now. "It would be so great if we could find out about Nam's life. Do you know anyone who could translate for us if we took him out to dinner in your neighborhood?"

I do think of someone: a guy I have gotten to know at my Turmeric Rice Cake stand. Alan appreciates me because I "know and love" his favorite cakes. He can't get them in Montreal, where he now lives and works at Banana Republic. He left when he was 18 to make money for his family, and he is here visiting for a few months - the first visit in seven years - staying at his aunt's house just across the alley from the cakes.
Sue and I stop by his house one evening and throw out our proposal to him. He says he would be happy to translate for us. We set up a 7:00 time with him for Thursday night and hear his interesting perspective on how Vietnam has changed (for the best...economy-wise...people aren't struggling like they used to). He calls Nam and explains what we want, and Nam agrees to the Thursday night plan.

When Nam drops me off on Thursday, he tells me he is going to go home and shower. He seems really excited about this dinner. But Alan calls at 6:45 and must cancel. "I guess we can just have Nam's soup with him in his village," I say to Sue, but we are both sad about it. I have never known someone so well, yet not known him at all; I was really ready to lift up the curtain on him, and Sue was the perfect person to do this with. She is the ultimate Interested-in-Others person.

Nam shows up at exactly 7, looking very polished and happy. I have Alan call him to explain that he can't join us...and then I'm not sure what to do. I think of his nephew, Minh, but Minh's English level is certainly nowhere near Alan's. I suggest this to Nam, and Nam instantly takes control. Before we know it, he has snatched Minh from whatever he was doing, has ordered him to the castle with his motorbike and puts Sue on the back of Minh's and me on the back of his. We stop at his mother's and sister's for a family meeting about where they should take us for dinner.

After much animated discussion, they come to a consensus and off we go; it's Sue's first night motorbike journey, and I can hear her laughing all the way across District One. Of course, what we both had in mind was sitting at one of the local, delicious, quiet outdoor places on the low, red plastic chairs. But that's not what Nam's family thought we had in mind. We end up at a huge indoor restaurant with a cheesy singer singing American songs onstage, with Vietnamese touristy dancers to entertain us. It's crowded and very loud.

Nam shifts into party mode right away, though. He dances to the music - a little bit country, actually - all the way to the table. This is the first time I hear him say this, and now I have heard it about ten times. He tells us he is a "cowboy" and does this funny lasso gesture. He sings, orders a beer and lights a cigarette. I have never seen this side of him.

I am going to piece together what we learned about Nam from this night, but I cannot claim journalistic quality reporting here. Loud, bad singer, distracting dancers, a very inexperienced English language speaker for a translator: keep all of it in mind. But here is Nam's life:

Nam was 17 when Saigon fell in 1975. (He is now 51). His father fought with the Americans, but in Nam's village, they were pretty much untouched by the fighting, except for about a week when they had to hide at the local fire station. Right after the fall, Nam had mandatory military service, which he carried out in Cambodia. We were not clear about how much fighting action Nam saw there, but when he got home, he was stationed for a while in Tay Ninh - the same town where my uncle was stationed. I got to tell him about my Uncle Rex's love of the Black Virgin Mountain. He completely lit up at that.

After his military service, he went home to a terrible economy. He said things were very, very hard and they didn't have enough to eat. He tried to get on a boat to America three times between 1978 and 1982 with the idea that he could earn money and send it back (purely economical reasons, nothing to do with the political situation); the first two times, he paid the money and was ready to go, but the "plan failed." The third time, he actually got on the boat, but they were captured. He says he was "very, very scared." Nam was sent to prison in Ben Tre (south of here, on the Delta, where Tarn and I spent a weekend a few months back). The first year of his reeducation, he made tiles in a factory. The second year, he worked cutting rice in the fields. "Very hard work," he says, "but I was NUMBER ONE!" Evidently, he was the number one rice cutter and cowboy.

After serving time, he came back to his neighborhood, here at Nguyen Canh Chan, and met "The Beauty of Nguyen Canh Chan" - his wife. He says he didn't wait for someone else to grab her, because he is "a cowboy." Her family had a business selling leather goods from Chinatown. He used to go there every day and pick up belts and suitcases and come back and sell them at the market in his neighborhood (this is why he knows Chinatown so well). It was a meager existence, so finally his brother-in-law, Mai's husband, gave him the motorbike he now drives. He has been a driver for 15 years and makes enough for his family to be comfortable.

"Things are much better here, now," Minh tells us.

Back to the line in the Quiet American (paraphrased): They don't care what kind of government they have, as long as they are safe and full. What struggles these people have endured - these warm, friendly, smiling, gracious people.

During this life story, we have eaten stuffed squid, baked scallops, deep fried oysters and we have ordered grilled grouper. The waiter brings a live grouper to us in a basket. "Is this one OK?" Kind of like smelling the wine cork, I suppose. Within fifteen minutes, the fish comes back, whole and grilled. Nam tries to offer us the head and tail, but when we don't want it, he happily devours it. Minh's favorite part is the eyeballs. I am shocked when we get the bill: It's $60. The grilled fish alone is $30. Nam grabs the bill and checks it over. "We shouldn't have ordered the fish," he says. Sue wants to pay for everyone, which is very generous of her; $60 can last for weeks of food here, and of course we would have been so much happier eating this same meal on the low red plastic chairs.

But we are both full from the experience. Nam enjoys himself immensely, and Minh works himself to exhaustion translating all of our questions. It was a family effort, and we get to know "Nam the Cowboy of Nguyen Canh Chan."
It's Sue's last day; she's flying out at 5 and has tailored clothes to pick up all over Saigon. She's wondering how we are going to fit everything in.

"But I need to say goodbye to Nam," she says. "Where can we find him?"
I am a little surprised; after a week with this man, it isn't clear to Sue that Nam will find us. After all, mothers know where their children are. After we taste through the market for about two hours - the salad rolls, the #1 breakfast, the rice lady, the spring roll lady, the turmeric rice cake ladies (for the third time this week), and the jelly drink lady - we decide to take a cab to do the tailor pick-up. But Nam is waiting for us right around the corner from the castle...he grabs us as soon as we emerge onto the small street. He shows Sue the card for the tailor across town; he knows she has an appointment for a fitting at 11:30.

So our plans change, because our mother says so. He gets another driver from the street and we drive to Ben Thanh Market for her first fitting on two motorbikes. While I shop, he drives Sue to her other tailor waaaayyyyy across town. They come back for more Ben Thanh fittings. He waits with all of the bags on the corner, in the shade, content as can be. Every once in a while, we pass and wave to him.

When we are ready to go home, he grabs another driver - this time a woman - and he and she take us straight to the alley with the noodles, grilled meatballs and pork on a stick. He has us both hooked on them. Here is where we give him the present we are so excited about. At Ben Thanh, we find a black cowboy hat with a string tie beneath the chin. While we sit on the low, red plastic chairs with three bowls of noodles and pork in front of us, he opens up the bag and lets out one of his big belly laughs. He throws the hat on, whips out his sunglasses and lights a cigarette. He knows what this picture should look like. The sad thing for you is that in all of our hurry to get Sue in a cab at 3:30, I forgot to download her last set of pictures. You will have to wait for this classic shot. It's going to be my favorite.

Nam and Sue have grown so fond of each other that I get a little teary when he puts his hand out to shake hers. "Good bye, Miss Sue. Very much thank you," he says. Sue is a softy; she doesn't hold back tears. "No, no, thank you," she tells him. I can hardly stand it.

Sue brings out the best in people like this; because of her visit, my Nguyen Canh Chan world has expanded. She ate all my food, entered into my tailoring obsession, and - most importantly, met and loved all of my people. It was really, really fun to share it.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday Night Cooking by Headlamps, Flashlights,Candles and Ukeleles

Amy T, Sue has stepped into my neighborhood and into my shoes. Yesterday morning, we stop by Thuy and Thanh's to say hello (every morning, of course) and Sue tells them she will come back to choose some material for a skirt. That's the last I know. I get on the back of Nam's bike and go to school.

In the afternoon, I hear about her day: After leaving me, she goes back to T and T's. They help her with material. They ask her how long she is staying. They ask her if she wants to cook Friday night. They make a shopping list for her. She is holding the list doing something in the market when Guess Who with the Sixth Sense shows up and within seconds grabs the piece of paper out of her hands and reads it. He takes her to his family's house, and they make a plan to go shopping in the market Friday morning (today).

(So when I get home from school, Sue asks (quite innocently): "Um, is it OK if we cook with Thuy and Thanh Friday night? Nam's mother is going to take me shopping.")

A bit later, she pantomimes to Nam that she is looking for a tailor to get some clothes made. He pulls out a card - one that he put in his wallet way back in October - of a seamstress I used once (Alice's) waaaaaayyy across town. Sue was actually searching for a local tailor and doesn't know this one is waaaayyyyy across town until she is on the back of Nam's bike forever. They put in the order at the tailor's, then Sue gets a Nam Tour of Chinatown. She says he knows everyone. They have coffee with a friend of his. He burns incense and bows to a Buddhist altar (remember that his family is Christian). He shows her around the shops. She says, "Are you sure he isn't Chinese?" This throws me a little.

Well, we find out all kinds of things about Nam that evening...but that is a post I will be writing tomorrow.

As for today...we wake up to no power - again. We get ready in the dark, but I tell Sue to flip the breaker in about half an hour and it should be no problem. After walking the morning market with me, she meets Nam's family for the shopping trip. She thinks they are just going to shop in our market, but Nam tells her to get on the bike, and Nam's sister Mai gets on the back of her son Minh's bike. They drive for about ten minutes and arrive at a huge food market. Sue says it's amazing to watch Mai negotiate her way through the produce - she picks something up, haggles over it, puts it back and gets a better one. She and Mai take care of the list, and Nam and Minh push their bikes beside them, they are there to carry the bags.

They buy pork and prawns and greens and twenty other things. They come back, they go to the actual #1 Breakfast Place, etc. etc.

When I get home, I can't believe it. They power is still off. T and T are coming at 5 to cook, and it is hot. Muggy and yucky. No fans, no light. Nam tries to help, but ends up showing Sue and me that we need to WASH the greens. The Repeater shows us five times. Our neighbor Henry, the one who pays our bills every once in a while to save us (he is a part of the Grandfather Who Makes His Granddaughter Laugh Family - I know "Henry" doesn't sound like a Vietnamese nam), calls the electric company. He says they will come within two hours.

Meanwhile, T and T come and we put all of our flashlights, headlamps and candles together (yes, Brian, mine aided in the ripping off of shrimp heads) and go to work on dinner. Henry sees what we are up to a brings a huge flashlight. Tarn brings his ukelele down to provide cooking entertainment and T and T's niece and nephew, Tu and John (we call him Monkey Boy -he's the one who drank the beer at Tet) show up. So it's all of us, Katherine, Tarn, Sue, Monkey Boy, Tu, Thuy, Thanh and me, cooking and playing and running around by candlelight. Yes, it's as cool as it sounds. (Sweaty, however.)

We make my favorite: pork/taro spring rolls, battered squid and prawn crackers. All of the grease is rolled up into the fresh greens to give it a crunch and an almost-healthy feel.

Right when dinner is ready, the electric guys come and say we need a new breaker. Henry is there to translate, and he and Tarn get on the bike to go to the shop to get a new one. Sadly, T and T don't stay to eat after all of their work: Monkey Boy is all wound up and must go to bed. This leaves only Sue, Katherine and me to eat all of this food ourselves. By the end of the evening, by about 9:00, the power is finally back on, allowing us an air-conditioned sleep.

I know what you are thinking. T and T "only want to cook with Katherine, Tarn and Maggie." I don't understand it either. But as for Sue, she is hooked on Saigon, and apparently, they are hooked on her; in just four days she has become one of us. I don't know how she will say goodbye to Nam, Minh, Thuy, Thanh, and all of the other people in "our" neighborhood. They really know how to take care of us.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Blog Contest Thursday: Fish Parts

This whole fish is one thing Nam, Sue, Minh and I ordered at our Thursday Night Dinner (which is a good story I will have to get to this weekend).
What are the three most tasty parts of the fish (according to Nam and Minh)?
(I am posting at 3 am power when we got home. The neighborhood was outside with candles.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Miss Sue, Day Two: Mom Things

Today I get to hear more Mom Nam stories when I get home. Like this one:

Yesterday, Sue wanted to get some sunglasses (she lost hers while traveling in Laos) but she never mentioned anything to Nam about it. She squinted all day long, and was planning to ask him to stop somewhere this morning. He beats her to it, though: when they get on the road, he takes a pair of sunglasses out of his pocket and hands them to her.

"He's so observant," she says.

"I know," I say. I finally get to share this character with someone.

When we meet him on the street, I tell Nam that Sue wants to try the #1 Breakfast. "Drop me off at school," I say/pantomime, "And then come back and get her and take her to The Spot." I wanted her to see the pandemonium surrounding this stand, where foreigners never come. He takes charge instantly; he goes into Nam on a Food Misson Mode. He orders Miss Sue a coffee and commands her to sit down on the plastic chair at his morning spot. Actually, she wants to go home to get a few things and keep their 9:00 date, but there is no stopping Nam when he is in this Mode. So she does as she is told (just like I do).

Unfortunately, he ends up picking up the breakfast on his way back from school and they eat it where Sue is having her coffee. But he gets one thing right: he buys breakfast for himself, too. Here is the #1 Breakfast: bean sprouts and basil leaves on the bottom, wide rice noodles which have been grilled on something resembling a crepe pan and rolled up with nuts, a big ball of deep fried bread (savory), what I will refer to as "homemade bologna," and fish sauce. Whenever I bring this to school, everyone is jealous. "Where did you get that?"

More Mom: Yesterday, I told you that he rolled up all of the ban xeo for her...well, today, he prepares her pho: he squeezes the lime, adds the greens and the sauces and stirs it up. He orders a big bowl for her and a little bowl for himself.

She brings a bottle of water in, but he tells her to eat the pho first, and then drink the water. She says this is challenging (because the soup is spicy), but of course she obeys.

And more: yesterday, he became accustomed to Sue taking food pictures. All day today, he prepared the food for the picture, chopstick placement and all.

Tomorrow, we are meeting Nam with a translator, but that's a completely different cool story that I don't have time to add right now, because we have food to eat, shakes to drink, massages to get and roofs to hammock in.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Miss Sue (Two Thumbs Up)!

I come through the school doors and see Nam waiting across the street. He is smiling and waving. I cross and give him the thumbs up gesture. "Did you have fun?" I ask.

"Miss Sue!" he says, and he gives her two (very enthusiastic) thumbs up. He starts telling stories as soon as I get on the bike and does not stop until we get home. I understand something about Miss Sue getting lost and Nam bringing her home, Miss Sue eating eight of something and Nam eating only three, Miss Sue taking lots of pictures of him and him trying to hide from them. He makes the motion of a big, strong firefighter and points to himself as being so, so small.

Speaking of "firefighter," when we get to the castle, I can't wait to get Sue's version of the day. But my key does not open the door. Nam tries, I try won't work. It's so strange. Even though six people are staying at the castle right now, no one is answering the doorbell. After trying for about ten minutes, Nam says he will go and get someone to help, so I squat in front of the castle to wait. The grandfather-Who-Makes-His-Granddaughter-Laugh brings me a chair. Candle Neighbor brings me something to drink. Ms. Hao comes over to get the story. All of my neighbors are concerned about my plight, and soon there are seven of us standing outside trying to problem-solve. I figure Sue is on the roof unable to hear the doorbell because the front gate is open and we always lock it when we I try to ask my neighbor if I can climb up to their roof to yell across, but they don't understand. To make a 45-minute story short, finally I just pound and pound and yell and ring and ring, and Sue opens the door.

When I finally get in, I turn around and wave to my neighborhood, "Thank you, everyone!" My neighborhood waves back.

The firefighter part: when you lock yourself into the castle, it is a real fire hazard. If you can't find the key to get out, you are trapped. We have an extra key in a hiding place for that purpose, but Sue just left the key in the lock to be safe - that is why I couldn't open the door. And I was right, she was up lounging in the hammock, just taking it easy.

When Nam returns from trying to find help, he cannot fathom Sue's pantomime about what she did with the key. Of course, he must show her the mistake she made over and over again. I tell her that he might just go and grab his nephew for a lecture, because that's what would have happened with me.

But he doesn't. I discover that they have already made plans for one more day of touring. "See you again," says Nam. "Nine." He will pick her up at the castle at nine again.

For the rest of the evening, I get to hear Nam stories. Sue had a blast with Nam. He began the day by taking her to the fire station, then to the opera house, the post office, the Reunification Building. She pointed to a picture of Banh Xeo (the crepe that we made with Thuy and Thanh on Tet) and he lit up and drove her across town to the best place for Banh Xeo. What a great strategy - one I will be using. He kept rolling up the crepe into the lettuce and handing it to her; that is what she ate eight of. He wouldn't let her do it herself. At one point, they stopped at a bookstore to buy a phrase book so they could communicate better. At the end of the trip, she asked him "how much?" and he gave her a very fair price...$6, which comes out to about a dollar an hour. He was so proud to be her tour guide for a day.

Sue took lots of pictures, but after all of our shopping, hair washing and eating, I was way too tired to load anything. I am posting this at 3:30 am for some reason. Check back to this post for pictures of Nam and Sue's Day #1 tomorrow, when, hopefully, she will have pictures of Day #2 as well.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Very Curious

As we speak (it is 9 am here), Nam is picking up my friend Sue at the castle for a day of touring around the city. I made a little itinerary, had my student, Jack, translate it for him, then told him "take her to see whatever you think is interesting, and she wants to eat Vietnamese food, too." He doesn't do too well with open-ended requests like that, so we'll see what happens.

Sue arrived last night at 5, and she has already had the soup in Nam's village, some seafood from Seafood Alley, the turmeric rice cakes, the taro spring rolls and some rice from the Rice Lady (with the tapioca sauce). She has met Thuy, Thanh, Nam's family and Mr. Seven. She bought some material from Nam's family and is going to have one of my dresses copied by Ms. Hao. And while we were eating soup, Nam just happened to drive by on his bike, so they got to meet, too, plus she walked out to the street with me to say hello to him this morning.

So, yeah, I'm going to be totally curious, all day long...I can't wait to hear the stories. I told Sue to take pictures so we can post about their day tonight.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday Dinner with our Soul Sisters, Part Two: Hot Pot

When Thuy and Thanh show up at 3:00 with a portable gas burner, I know that Bach is right: we are making hot pot for dinner.

We felt like the luckiest castle in the world when we had just one cook; think how we feel now. They work so fast, though, that my head is constantly swivelling back and forth to catch everything.

Thanh takes over at the sink with her assistant, Katherine. They remove the spongy part of the Water Mimosa and take the leaves off of the morning glory...snap snap snap. And while I rip the heads off of the shrimp, Thuy de-inks and scores the squid (so it will curl up) and cuts up the white fish.

Then she begins the soup: she heats about four cups of water and squeezes the packages of Tom Yum Paste into it. On the other burner, she heats some cooking oil and sautes freshly ground hot red pepper. She bruises some stalks of lemongrass, cuts it up and throws it in the pot. In goes Agi Ngon (is that MSG? I am still unclear) and sugar. She tastes, I taste, she adds more sugar and the red pepper.

She pours some hot water over the tamarind seeds and stirs them around to release the fruit and flavor into the water and pours the juice into the pot.

Then she throws the oyster mushrooms in, followed by half of the squid and the fish. She inserts the gas into the burner on the table, moves the pot of soup from the stove and sets all of the full platters around it: the rest of the fish, the clams, the greens and the rice noodles. We grab Tarn from upstairs; he often chooses not to be involved in the cooking, but he is an extremely grateful
participant in the eating of what has been cooked (and he washes up without being asked now).

The feasts keep getting better and better; I keep saying it, I know. But just look at this soup - made from ingredients collected from within five blocks of our home.

We eat and eat and eat. The squid is so tender; fresh squid is my new food love. And morning glory is just that much better than spinach - I love it. The soup simmers on the burner and we keep adding the goodies when they get low in the pot. We eat what is in our soup bowls, then start over by adding more noodles to the bottom and pouring the boiling broth over them.

T and T are no longer shy about really eating with us, either. They eat as long as we do.

And another thing they are no longer shy about is asking me if it's time for "Your mother's tea" when they come over. I had my parents send me my favorite "Choice" licorice peppermint tea, and both of them love it. After dinner we take the tea and a bowl of fruit to the roof; there is a slight breeze and the sky is lit with that magic cloudy/sunny evening mix. After a while, both K and T have to go, but T, T and I stay on the roof for quite a while and engage in "girl talk." I learn some very interesting things on the roof tonight, but you know what, what was said on the roof must stay on the roof. I'm sure you understand.

Here's one thing I can share...they make this very clear: At any given time - for the rest of our lives - we can come to this little neighborhood in District One and find our sisters at their fabric stand, and we will be accepted as family.

We are most definitely the luckiest castle in the world.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sunday Dinner with our Soul Sisters, Part One


Clockwise from top left, this is what is going into our Sunday evening dinner:

clams, fish (looks like halibut), prawns, squid, I Don't Know #1, lemongrass, I Don't Know #2, Tom Yum Paste, oyster mushrooms, tamarind seeds.
I think we are making soup, but Thuy likes to remain a little bit mysterious about these matters, so I don't ruin her fun by asking.

Here is a close-up of the second "I Don't Know #2": Can anyone identify this? I pass it every single morning an
d would have no idea what to do with it...but today I get to find out. The white part, it's spongy.
(Just learned from commentor "Bach" : #1 is Morning Glory - which I am familiar with in its cooked form, and #2 is Water Mimosa - cool.)
You know who will be at The Castle dinner tonight? Thuy, Thanh, Katherine, Tarn and me - no one else. The other morning when we were planning our cooking date, Thuy pauses and says, firmly, "Just you, Katherine and Tarn." She puts her finger and sweeps her head down in a strong gesture. "No friends." Like either it's my way, or I don't do this anymore. I love this about Thuy - she is sure about what she wants - but I have not mentioned anything about having friends join us.
Thuy must fear that since I shared them as our fabric suppliers, maybe my next step would be to share them as our cooking instructors. She has become comfortable relating to the three of us - think of how far she has come since the "I go now" of October, minutes after cooking was over. And I am so happy that Thanh feels comfortable joining us now, too; she stayed out of it for so long. Maybe the events of last Saturday are as simple as that: they don't want to share us. To be honest, I don't want to share them, either.
While we are shopping, we run into an older woman she knows... Thuy introduces us and tells me she teaches at an English school. The woman asks if Thuy is my student. "No," answers Thuy, "we are sisters." The comments softens me even more; no, I don't want to share them, either.
In the videos, you can see how the fish is hacked right in front of us (and how the squid eyes are gouged out and thrown into the squid eye bowl) and you can hear the background noise that has become so familiar to me.
We run into someone else during our shopping trip: My Mom. Thuy and I are at the Clam Lady's stand when I sense Nam standing next to me. Of course he wants to go through my bags - a family pasttime. He makes a comment to Thuy about each item, and they talk a bit. I wonder if my food crazy driver is trying to get an invitation to dinner. I would be, if I were him.
Two people Thuy and Thanh may be OK cooking for besides us are Katherine's parents, who fly in tomorrow night; they are excited to meet her family. I just told Tim I would post Dinner, Part One so they could read it before getting on the plane. As for Dinner, Part Two, they can hear about it in person. And maybe taste some leftovers. We will have a castle-full this week: my friend Sue Stangl, firefighter from Seattle, also arrives tomorrow. She has been traveling through Cambodia and Laos.
OK, check in for part two, about eight hours from now.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Blog Contest Thursday: Name Her

Compelling, isn't she?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Loyalties, cont'd

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that this is supposed to be a blog that focuses on food, and that I haven't posted about food (specifically) in ten posts. You're thinking that my loyalty has shifted, too, right along with my shifty neighborhood.
Well, dresses and drama have me distracted lately, I admit, but IT is still food. Here you go:
My mother, "Mr. 5", or just plain Nam - whatever he goes by for you at this point - proved his food sixth sense once again today.
When I emerge from school, I am overly tired and starving. It rained yesterday - the first rain since early November (it's not supposed to rain at all until mid-March) and the market seemed in a bit of disarray this morning. I couldn't collect my normal four daily meals (four daily meals before 3:00). And the 6th grade is putting on a play Friday (students - another topic my mom feels is lacking in my blog lately) and one side-effect of this is that they have been extremely high maintenance (so I want to leave them at school and not talk about them some more, mom (Carol)).
Rarely do I come home right after school, but when I do, Nam knows I like to check the noodle/ground pork BBQ/deep fried spring roll lady, since she closes between 3 and 4. Sometimes I get lucky and get what is left. He points down that street when we near the neighbhorhood and I give him a definite "yes."
But, oh no, we turn down the alley and she gives the Vietnamese negative...the hand up, twisting back and forth. My heart sinks. But you know what my mom (Nam) does? Without even checking with me (in the past we have just gone home in defeat), he gives the "onward" motion with his whole arm, and swings his bike around in one movement, like, "we will move forward and find and conquer." I am completely with him on this mission; it's the most alive I've felt all day. We merge back onto the main street, drive a few blocks and turn down an alley. However, the Vietnamese negative motion is duplicated by another woman presiding over a duplicate stand.
Nam doesn't even stop...he will not be deterred. He points to himself and says, "My home." We drive along the river for a few blocks, and then down a very very narrow alley. I recognize this alley from when we did the first family Meet & Greet back in September, but that time it was 11:00 pm and it looks very different in the light. I see another noodle/ground pork BBQ stand with four women gathered around it. They are still grilling, and there are about 15 uncooked skewers left. Nam, as usual, negotiates the food transaction. My neighborhood is a Vietnamese neighborhood, but Nam's village, it is a Vietnamese Village. These women look at Nam like he has retrieved me from the moon, and of course Nam enjoys the attention.
While they put my order on the grill, Nam walks me one more block to his house. His wife and daughter are both there, and I sit down to "visit" with them. But before I know it, Nam says it's time to go collect the food. As we depart, the four women wave and yell all of the English words they know at me, "See you again!" "One, two, three, four!" "Goodbye, hello!" and they laugh and laugh... and we are back at the castle within minutes. Search and destroy...that is what my food driver can do. He is the best.
In the picture: I have transferred the food to a bowl and have taken it to the roof. This dish is meant to be prepared in layers and then mixed up to eat: lettuce/basil mixture on the bottom, rice noodles over the greens, peanuts over the noodles and BBQ ground pork skewers - and I cannot even decipher what yummy sweetness they mix the pork with - on top. Cover it all with the fish sauce mixture, and then destroy.
See, food, it is about you, still.
Sweet, sour, salty, spicy, crunchy food, I should add.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

59 Minutes of Dental Work when The Moon is Round

We don't have dental insurance at the school, but I had heard that all dental work is really cheap, so I finally make an appointment for a cleaning. I get there at 4:00, and by 4:25 my teeth are clean and the receptionist has made an appointment for me to see an implant specialist across town.

(I need a crown to go with the implant that was required after biting down on the rock in the "student only" granola bar while administering the WASL - Washington Assessment of Student Learning - five years ago). (In case you need proof that that test is evil.)

I pay $6 for the cleaning and they call a mototaxi driver who waits outside to take me to the implant building. By 4:59, I have consulted with a specialist, had x-rays and impressions taken. The implant will cost $400. At home, my insurance will cover 50%, which would leave me with $1000 out-of-pocket.

Two Things:
1. Again, doing the math: if you need clothes made and dental work done, it is totally worth it to buy a plane ticket to Vietnam.

2. Teeth cleaning is so cheap here, maybe I will add it to my "Bathtub Plan." I have washed my own hair only once since I made The Plan...and I hated doing it. Why not have someone clean my teeth, too? Something to consider.

As for the signs, they are painted on a coffee shop across from the implant building. I myself do not drink coffee, but maybe you have had it "fried?" And it is nice that this cafe wishes you "Money, wealth and uck."

In China, I noticed these kinds of signs all the time, but here they aren't as ubiquitous.

One more thing...I am at Thuy and Thanh's in the morning, and my squid guy isn't sitting on his usual corner.

"Where is the squid guy?" I ask Thuy.

"He is at temple. The moon is round."

"Is he there all day?"

Thuy points around to where many of the vendors should be. "She's at temple, he's at temple..."

Funny, I've been here six months and I didn't notice. Another thing that happens when the moon is round: meat places go vegetarian. For example, my pork/taro spring roll lady is selling something different. As I peer into her chafing dish, a woman standing next to me says (in perfect English), "You should try it, it's really delicious."

It's always a bit shocking when someone in the market speaks perfect English. She tells me it's tofu, rice paper and onions, all shredded up together. It's vegetarian because "the moon is round today." You can get this mixture with noodles, or you can get it stuffed inside spring rolls and deep fried. I am tending to go with all things deep fried lately, and this choice does not disappoint me.

All things deep fried except for coffee, that is.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Drop off for Dress Competition Winner

Finally: here is part two of Saturday's shopping excursion (part two involves no perfidy):

This is the most famous market in Viet Nam: The Ben Thanh Market. The hotel where we stayed upon our arrival is about two blocks from here. Inside is fabric, food, fake name-brand purses... everything. Everything. It is a deceptively normal-looking building from the outside.

At 6:00, when the indoor Ben Thanh Market closes, this street in front of it transforms into the Night Market. Almost everything you can find inside during the day, you can find outside at night. Rows and rows of collapsible restaurants with tanks of live seafood line this street every single night. It takes about fifteen minutes to walk here from the castle, or about five minutes by bus or mototaxi.

If you go into the entrance of the market pictured here and turn left at the first aisle, you can find my downtown seamstress' sister's fabric stand. If you turn around from the spot of the picture, you can see a line of seamstress and tailor shops: My downtown seamstress' shop is the one called "Tram." That is her name.

Here she is. She is holding the two fabrics I have chosen for the #1 Dress Winner...many people liked this blue paisley, so I went with that, and my nephew Nolan mentioned that he thought I should make it in dark red. I agreed. Angie and Marie, I hope you are OK with these...if not, we will have to make a third. So I gave her the picture and the fabric and she made some measurements. She says they will be done by next weekend, but we'll see. She's rarely on time unless someone is flying out.

Here is a close-up picture of her shop: the mannequin on the right is wearing the Vietnamese traditional dress, the Ao Dai (pronounced "Ow Yi." This is one of this shop's specialties. Often when I stop by, Vietnamese women are being fitted for weddings or formal occasions. For some events, women change into up to five different ao dais, can you believe it?

This woman pictured to the right is Tram's loyal assistant. She just got her hair cut...usually she wears cute pigtails. She always offers me fruit or something when I come by. Sometimes Tram has as many as five women stitching away on the floor of her shop. Usually, they seem to be having a good time with all of the people coming in and out. I have no idea how she keeps everything straight, because material is lying around everywhere.

To keep you posted on cost...both the red and paisley material cost 65,000 per meter (arond $3.70), so the total for the fabric for both dresses is about $15 (I take 2.5 meters for a dress). When the dresses are ready, after the fitting(s), I will pay her 200,000 per dress ($12 each). So, grand total for two Maggy London dresses listed on for $118 will come to about $40 for both. That is a savings of almost $200. So, I'm sure some of you are doing the math. A round trip ticket to HCMC runs about $1000. Just think of all the money you could save!

And here are Shannon and Sharon looking at Tram's catalogue for ideas. Their eyes are wide with possiblities after their first dip into the world of clothes making. Both of them keep telling me that they are afraid of this world. They fear all of the possibilities and all of the money they will now be spending.

As for me, I am completely at peace with the money required for my new favorite hobby (after eating).

Sunday, February 08, 2009

A Pink Breakfast Visit with My Mother's Mother

To tie things up from yesterday: I will continue to buy from T and T...of course. No question about that. I made my daily visit this morning and nothing has changed. I don't even plan to go back to that cheap market; everyone deserves to make a profit, and they have only been fair businesswomen with me.

I do wonder, though, if word got to them about our little motorbike journey with Ms. Hao and friend, because this morning, Thanh asks me, "What did you do with your friends yesterday?" It's hard to get across all of the nuances here in writing, but she asked in a suspicious way. I could be reading in to it.

I was going to get breakfast and come home and post about the Ben Thanh shopping trip, but then my morning changed. The person that this whole time I thought was Nam's great aunt I now know is his mother, and this following story is how I now know this (I thought he told me his mother had died).

Anyway, after hanging out with T and T, I make my regular morning market circuit. I visit my "Squid Man," my "Prawn Woman" and I buy from a "Traveling Clam Man." I also buy some of my favorite taro pork spring rolls. I am heading back to refrigerate my copious amount of food for later cooking when I feel someone grab my arm. It's my mom's mom, so I guess you could say: it's my grandmother. She does this to me often - she grabs my arm in the market to greet me. A few times, she has invited me to come to her home and I have declined.

But this time, she grabs my arm and leads me to her daughter's home - the one who sells the fabric - and I have no choice in the matter. She doesn't realize that she is pulling me over buckets of fish and that I almost knock over a pile of mangoes. She leads me right into the living room where all of the fabric is displayed and traps me there. I play with her granddaughter and speak with her daughter until they can rustle Nam's nephew out of bed (Minh). When he comes down, he says that his grandmother would like to invite me over to her house (next door) for something to eat. This time I accept.
Pictured here: Minh, N's Mom, Mai (Minh's mother) and baby Mina (Mina's mother refused to get in the picture because of her casual attire).

Nam's mom tells Nam's wife - who sits outside of the grandmother's house on market mornings - to make me one of her fish sandwiches. Minh brings it in and hands it to me without a plate - this huge sandwich on a flaky French baguette. They open what seems to be fake Dr. Pepper for everyone, but no one else is eating. It's only me, getting flakes all over Nam's mom's pink livingroom couch.

They hold a very formal visit as I awkwardly chew my huge sandwich, attempting (unsuccessfully) not to speak with my mouth full. They are sitting on one side of the room underneath a giant picture of The Last Supper (in the upper left corner of the top picture - Nam's mom really wanted me to get a picture of her beside the flower arrangement to the right of her, but I wanted The Last Supper) ask me all of the usual questions: What did you think of Viet Nam when you came? How many people in your family? How old are you? How much do you pay for your house? (Everyone asks this and $1100 per month is a shocking answer, of course.)

And I learn some things from them:

1) They are Christians. 20% of the Vietnamese population claim Christianity as their religion. I had figured that from the cross Nam wears around his neck.

2) Grandmother had six children, but one daughter died three years ago of bone disease. Minh spells out the whole family and I try not to act shocked when he tells me that this woman is Nam's mom.

3) One of the grandsons is an actor, and this is him, on the left, without the beard. He also makes money going to tourist restaurants and parties and dressing up as this character with the beard. The wall of the living room is filled with family and ancestor pictures.

4) Nam's mother is 80.

5) Nam's mother paid for her house with 50 bars (kilos) of gold about nine years ago. It's worth much more now.

6) Mai and her husband next door (with the fabric) bought their smaller house for 11 bars of gold about 18 years ago.

7) The rest of the siblings live in various districts in HCMC, but they all come every year for Tet. Nam bought the youngest brother's house for some reason.
After I am done having them watch me eat, I take out my camera to take some pictures. However, my leather bag full of seafood catches Mai's eye. She comes over and begins to take everything out of my bag. It's really embarrassing, because I have a ton of food in there. I was hungry this morning.
She says a string of things to Minh and he translates how I am supposed to cook the seafood (I have learned that playing dumb about how to cook makes my neighbors happy, so that's what I do). She also says that I shouldn't put seafood in my nice bag because it will make it smelly and dirty. Note taken. I guess the whole family goes through other peoples' bags of food and enjoys evaluating the contents.
Then we begin a photo session, and Nam's mom arranges us in about ten different poses. She specifically tells me that I am supposed to send my mother the picture of the two of us, so mom, that picture is for you. They ask me to take the photos to a developing place and to give them copies, which of course I will do.
I stay for close to an hour, and when I am about to leave, Nam's mom says something to Minh. "My grandmother want to know if you come back for lunch." I feel so popular in this neighborhood. I tell them that I have plans with a friend. But really, I just have plans to nap at the top of the castle in my air conditioned room.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Home, Ascension, Air and Sleep: The Effects of Neighborhood Smoke and Mirrors

When my neighborhood confuses me, this is what I do: I 1) come back to the castle, 2) ascend the stairs to my Rapunzel Room, 3) turn on the air conditioning, and 4) take a nap.

Well, I just woke up from a deep afternoon sleep.

Just when I think I have something figured out, I find that I have absolutely nothing figured out. Take, for example, my "Just Like the Pineapple Lady, Not at all Like the Pineapple Lady" post, where I thought I had reached enlightenment concerning issues of neighborhood loyalty. Summary: It took months for Sweet Seamstress (Ms. Hao) to finish a few items of clothing for me because (I figured) I had bought the material for those items from the fabric woman across from Thanh and Thuy (before I really knew T and T). Any clothes ordered with fabric bought from T and T were being made very quickly, while the other bag of fabric just sat there for months. "It's all about loyalty," I wrote. Since then, I have been careful to only bring T and T's fabric to Ms. Hao for clothes-making.

Keeping that in mind, listen to what happened this morning:

My friends Sharon and Shannon have been asking me to take them on my fabric/seamstress loops - both neighborhood and downtown/Ben Thanh ones (I will post about loop #2 tomorrow). The first place I take them this morning - of course - is to Thuy and Thanh's. When we show up, T and T are very happy. Thanh says "I feel so lucky today, you bring your friends."

Both S and S have brought items they want copied, so T and T help them pick out material for cotton t-shirts, pants, and a stretch cotton skirt. We have a fun, warm interaction with a lot of laughter involved for the struggle in communication. The prices for the material are standard (around 60,000 VND per meter = just over $3), but the material they both choose to make skirts is a little higher. Thanh tells us it's pricey because it's "very high quality." T and T tell them that they will need four meters for two skirts, and the transaction is made.

Next stop, of course, is Ms. Hao's, three doors down from the castle...T and T's soul sister friend. Lieu, her assistant, who was at the party, is there, too. S and S get measured and show them the things they want copied. But wait...the skirt material, there is only 2 meters of it - not four, like we thought. Mass confusion, lots of pantomime, so finally, Ms. Hao calls for her neighbor who speaks a bit of English. After our explanations, we all think that T and T must have forgotten to give us all four meters. Ms. Hao calls Thanh, who runs down with two more meters of the same material. We think the problem is solved when she writes "240,000 VND" on a piece of paper...she's telling S and S that this is what they owe, meaning that this material costs 120,000 VND (almost $8) per meter. In all of my material shopping, I have come across nothing that costs over 100,000 VND per meter ($6)- not even fine Vietnamese silk. Sharon opts out, but Shannon says go ahead. When Thanh leaves, I cannot believe what happens next.

The English speaking woman makes a negative gesture with her hands and (in very sketchy English) says, "No shop at Thuy's. Too expensive!" Ms. Hao is nodding her head in agreement. She puts her hand up to her neck, like 'they are choking you.' "This fabric, they buy it for 60,000 VND per meter," says the friend. "No Shop at Thuy's."

Honestly, I am stumped; I have absolutely no idea what to do or say. I have told both S and S how great T and T are, that they have been amazing friends to us, about cooking, Pagoata Day and the Tet family celebration and about the loyalty between T, T, Ms. Hao and Lieu. I have finally taken my friends to meet these women and they experienced a warm interaction...but now - now we are caught in the middle of something really uncomfortable.

"But Thuy is my friend," I offer, weakly.

They look at me kindly, but after much more "discussion," between the three women, the friend says, "Come back at 2:00. We take you to the market to see (she points to the skirt fabric). Ms. Hao hugs me and says "We love Maggie" - like, we will only do this because Maggie is our friend. But this is the part they emphasize - at least four times: "DON'T TELL THUY." What else can I do but put my hand to my heart and promise that I WON'T TELL THUY?

It feels so strange, saying this to them. Both Shannon and Sharon help me process it all the way downtown because I am spinning. Sharon is the one who hits it right, though...I think. She says, "Maybe their loyalty has shifted to you."

Maybe there is nothing more to figure out, and it's that simple: I am their friend now, and they won't allow T and T to overcharge my friends.

When I was first getting to know Thuy, she told me that every afternoon, she gets on her motorbike and rides to a market to buy her fabric. Maybe you remember that I asked if I could come with her someday. She said yes, but her body language said "uncomfortable." Because of this, I never brought it up again.

Back to today. At 2:00, Sharon and I return for this clandestine outing. English friend and Ms. Hao put us on the back of their motorbikes and take us to this secret, local market; it's not far from the castle...a five-minute ride.

We go to one booth out of maybe fifty, and, sure enough, there is the material Thanh charged my friends 120.000 VND per meter for. The woman tells us it costs 60,000 VND per meter - half the price.

Of course you must account for seller mark up, but Ms. Hao says that mark up shouldn't be more than 20,000 per meter. Sharon buys some for her skirt and I buy some for pants, then we get back on the motorbikes and head home. Sharon leaves and I go in to get measured for the pants. Guess what they say to me over and over..."DON'T TELL THUY!'

That's the part where I come back here, ascend the steps to my Rapunzel Room, turn on the air, and fall asleep.

So here are the questions running through my head:

1. Would T and T have overcharged me if I had requested that material?
2. What if the woman at the wholesale market mentions to Thuy that I was there with Ms. Hao?

and this is Katherine's concern (as she listened with fascination to this story):

3. What if everything is revealed and loyalties are redrawn on a large neighborhood scale and as a result the Bum Bum shuts us out of hair washes, manicures, pedicures and massages? (every time K returns from the Bum Bum, she mentions the fragility of it all, how it COULD possibly all end at any moment...)

Hmmm. Don't know how to process it. But let me summarize the smoke and mirrors life I lead in this neighborhood:

1) I have a driver whom I must trick into letting me off next to restaurants that he disapproves of and next to Ben Thanh market vendors where he may discover that I am buying material from someone other than his sister (I always have him let me off in phony places, then tell him I will walk home). Every now and then, when I have somewhere non-school related to go and Nam is nowhere in sight on the street, I can always find "Mr. Bay" on a certain corner. Something I haven't mentioned to you is that "Nam" means "5" - Nam is the fifth child. "Bay" means "7" - he is the seventh child. 7 actually speaks really good English and we have become friends. Every time 7 takes me somewhere, I am afraid that 5 is going to catch me with him. It's quite unsettling.

2) I have a sandwich lady on the street where I meet Nam every morning whom I adore; however, I have overdosed on her sandwiches and can't stomach them anymore. Even though I can't eat them, I still buy two or three a week and either give them to friends or throw them away when I get to school. Because she is so friendly.

3) I walk past the Pineapple Lady every single day and I am afraid I am going to cause her early death. You should see the ferocious way she gestures for me to buy her produce. Every single day. And all I have ever bought from her is six cents worth of pineapple. I must walk by her and pretend I do not see her convulsions.

and now, this:

4) I have two friends who sell me material, teach me to cook Vietnamese food, and who invite me to family celebrations... but they seem to have cheated my friends. This cheating was revealed to me by their soul sister, who is almost my next door neighbor. Now I must not let on that their soul sister has tattled on them and has subverted their business, but the whole neighborhood saw us get on their motorbikes and ride out of the neighborhood, and the wholesale woman sold us the material that they sold us for half of the price, and she sells to T and T on a daily basis. Talk about a conflict of interests. And - I walk past T and T every single morning on my way to meet Nam; they see and comment on the clothes I am wearing. They will see this material.

Now, if this had happened to you - tell me, wouldn't you have had to come home, ascend stairs, turn on air and go to sleep?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Blog Contest Thursday: Power Trip

Maybe you don't know disco, and you aren't into dress designing, and you don't want to guess about food that could possibly be mashed brain or deep fried bull penises...Well, ok, how about this one:

Guess how many wires are connected to this pole.

These pictures are taken out on our main street, Tran Hung Dao (I meet Nam right past the blue bicycle sign every morning). The close-up shot is taken from the chain restaurant on the corner, King Baguetteria. I bought a sandwich just to take the picture for the contest. (It was only $1.20) I sat up there and counted, (as best I could) these wires. BTW, the streets and sidewalks are dead because I took these right after Tet. I know I keep saying this, but usually, this place is swarming.

Katherine told me the other day that it was the amount of wires, not the amount of motorbikes, that she was obsessed with upon her arrival here. Me - I didn't notice anything other than the motorbikes for about two weeks.
Back to the guessing, we will do this "Price of Right" style: put your guesses in, but don't go over~
Speaking of King Baguetteria and Katherine: she sprained her ankle pretty badly at soccer practice last night (she is the only girl who practices on this particular men's team). I want to take the invalid something to eat after school and I think of her favorite tuna sandwich at King Baguetteria - it would make her so happy. The problem: I must ask Nam to drop me off at the corner, and he will not approve of me buying a sandwich from KB - a chain restaurant. Of course, he always knows a better, cheaper place to get any food item (as you know).
So this is what I do: I tap his shoulder and point to let him know I want to get off at the corner. Predictably, he gestures at KB. "You're going to get a sandwich there?" His face is incredulous.
I point to the little grocery store right next to KB, "No, no...I'm going over there," I lie.
He relaxes; he's got no problem with that. I pass KB and enter the store. It has only two aisles, and I don't need anything there, but you cannot put a price on saving face (and saving myself a translated lecture at Nam's aunt's house). I buy yogurt and crackers, pay up front and then step out onto the sidewalk. But guess who has stopped to chat with a friend on the corner.
Quickly, I duck back in; he doesn't see me. I study the chocolate bin for a while before creeping back to the entrance and peeking out...I do this two more times. I buy some chocolate and more crackers. Finally, the coast is clear. I can walk next door and buy Katherine's tuna sandwich without my mother knowing.
Oh, and Nam lost another helmet today. He's laughing and pointing at the new helmet when I emerge from the school. It's a red one, just like the one he wore at the beginning but without the Tweety Bird sticker. I laugh and do a pantomime, "What, what did you do...toss another one out on the street?"
I am not expecting this, but the driver sitting next to us answers in perfect English. "No, he forgets to ask people to take them off when he drives them places." Mystery solved. That is how Nam loses all of his helmets.
One more thing. I have to tell you about this nightmare I had:
I get up to brush my teeth in the dark, like usual, but I just happen to notice a dark spot on the brush. I turn on the light and my toothbrush is swarming with ants.
That really happened, too.
OK, numbers anyone?