Adopted by a Vietnamese Family

23 Jan
The church around the corner from 'our' place

The church around the corner from 'our' place

Sorry to have been off-line for a good week or two (as if you noticed ;-) but I had some family matters to ‘take care of’. I had only arrived a few days in Sai Gon and the ‘inevitable’ happened: I met with my Vietnamese ex from Berlin (we knew we would be in Vietnam at the same time) – originally just for a friendly drink – but then for lunch with his family – and as I was there for dinner as well – his mother said: ‘why don’t you stay in our house?’… A very simple and candid question – with more complicated and far-reaching consequences. (VIPs read more here)

That was quite an unexpected evolution of my situation: from being a lone (and at that moment lonely) traveler I was promoted to a sort of son-in-law. Wow. From an overpriced hotel room without a window (it was Tet period – Vietnamese new year – after all) I moved into a nice 3 story city house with a whole floor virtually to ourselves: a big big room with 2 beds of which we only used one (of course) with a balcony in the front of the house (and earplugs to master the Saigon traffic in the street below and the roosters invariably starting to crow at 5am).

Ze bathroom

Ze bathroom

Our bathroom was on the same floor in the back of the house. The funny thing was that there was only one drain in the bathroom: so the water of the sink, of your brushed teeth, of your shower, of your shaving all dropped on the floor and then drifted to the drain in the corner… Needless to say that one needs waterproof flip-flops or bare feet for washing one’s hands – unless you also want to wash your socks… (shoes are ‘sowieso’ left at the front door in people’s houses, hotels, temples,… even in some shops– a habit forcefully imported in Germany by my boyfriend).

The main room, with the fancy wooden crafted shiny chairs and tables, was on the ground floor, but this room was also used at the same time as a garage for the mopeds (a bit similar like the hotels, in which the reception is at the same time also garage for a car or two). The room in the back of the ground floor was the kitchen and dining room – the territory of the house servant and the mother of the house. But also a wide variety of uncles and aunts came to join us at various occasions for a meal – a definite open door policy.

So how do you get to the food? Not for sissies...

So how do you get to the food? Not for sissies...

It’s incredible that in the few days I spent in C’s house, I ate sooooo many delicious foods that I would have never dreamt of eating. We ate crab one day – and then I don’t mean the surimi sticks for beginners – but the real animal that needs to be broken into and sucked on in order to extract whatever is edible (and me that is wary of food that you still have to ‘operate’ on before you can eat it…). Another day we had home made summer roles: basically wetting rice-paper on one hand, and using the other one to scoop all kind of goodies in it: rice noodles, prawns, meat, fresh herbs and more and more fresh herbs (that’s great about Vietnam, sooooooo much fresh herbs) – and then you roll it all together and dip it in delicious hoisin sauce with peanuts and omnipresent chilis. Mmmmm, now I know where C got the recipe from (as we once made this at his place).

Yummy Vietnamese food - loads of it - most of it never eaten before...

Yummy Vietnamese food - loads of it - most of it never eaten before...

But having rice, noodles or soup (the yummy Pho Bo) for breakfast every day got a bit much for me, so after a few days I had to have something you can actually bite into, something solid: bread! (and they do lovely baguette here – thanks to the French colonizers). Or we once went to a fancy place to have steak and fries. One cannot deny his culinary roots I suppose…

The strange thing for me was the house servant. For whatever, it would be the house helper that would do it or get it. So when I had this need for more solid food, it was she that was sent off to the market. A drink? The servant would rush to crush your ice and get the beer or coke (for the funny tummy periods). Washing? Just put the dirty clothes on the steps and it would arrive clean and ironed a day later on your chair. I guess I would never get used to ‘making others do things for me’ – just like in the office I would hesitate asking the secretaries things that I can do myself…

Family stuff also involved playing with the nieces of my friend. There’s no better way to communicate (if you don’t share a common language) than playing or singing. But as I would break every mirror in the city when I’d sing, I stuck to the playing. Playing cards is quite popular in Vietnam. And there is no game, if it doesn’t involve money. So the 7 and 11 year old got out their wallet to play a card game with me. Serious business. Nobody wants to be caught stingy in Vietnam – showing off generosity (especially towards your family) seems the norm (if I believe the Vietnamese guy I met on the bus, who was living in Oz and complained big time that coming home for Tet would cost him dearly because of all the presents he ‘had’ to bring).

New Year decorations in the front room - garage...

New Year decorations in the front room - garage...

I also had the honor to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year (or lunar or Chinese New Year if you want = 24 January 09) with the family – and go with them on an outing to the beach, as many Vietnamese do in the Tet-break (one week holiday, at least).

It was a unique experience to spend time with the family of my (ex)boyfriend and see how the ‘real’ Vietnamese life is, and not just what you see from a tourist-distance on the street. And of course to get to know the roots and reasons of my BF’s character and behaviour. I am more and more convinced, you cannot know a person well until you know his/her family and place where they grew up… One can never escape their roots…

But on the other hand, language was a barrier. I had promised myself to have some basic Vietnamese when visiting my BF’s family, except that the BF turned into an EX, so at that time I gave up the struggle with 6 different accents & intonations that turn the same word into a multitude of different meanings. As nice it was to observe the relations and interactions between the family members, I was really handicapped to participate in the going-ons.

  • Would it be a valid criteria for a partner, to have access to his/her native language (i.e. family & history)?

It was definitely strange to be part of something that you are not really part of… or was I?

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