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.


Cecilie said...

What´s not to love about your life in Vietnam? And what´s not to love about spending time with you? I am sure Sue is a wonderful girl, but so are you! And "your mother". He seems like the nicest guy!

SeattlePam said...

Absolutely a wonderful story! I was wondering when Mom's history would be revealed. Such a warm and friendly soul, and a great "based on a true story" account!

Brian Bowker said...

Very much thank you, Marjie. This post is now my favorite.

Mungo said...

What Brian said.