The FamilyAt first glance, the sports-utility vehicle that pulled up to the Arrivals terminal (and into which we were scuttled inside) seemed like overkill.
It wasn't. That became apparent when we passed over the mounds of wet, red clay that comprised the road into Bien Hoa where Mai's family in Vietnam lives. Her cousin's husband had picked us up from Saigon International Airport and we were ferried via that luxury ride to her aunt, her Yi Nam's* (sp?) house.
The house was pretty - it was flat and broad and open, with low ceilings and light blue-green tile covering the floor. Like many Vietnamese homes and offices, there were few exterior walls, so the yard and driveway ran seamlessly into the house. A hammock slouched low in the middle near the kitchen.
Some important differences made an impression: A large pot to hold the household water. In addition to the indoor bathroom, there's an outhouse for a toilet. No media devices displayed in the living room. A large gate walling off this cul-de-sac from the rest of the road. My curiosity antennae were twitching and I asked myself "what are the Vietnamese markers for place, and home, and neighborhood?"
Other differences became apparent after conversation. (Only Mai's cousin An spoke English.) The cat's name? "It's Cat! (*laughs*) We don't name our animals."
I was an obvious source of amusement and curiosity. An asked me to sit at the round stone table that was the centerpiece of the home ... and then the entire family sat across from me.
The jury was present and seated.
It could have been scripted. The third question (and it's always the third question, "3" being magic and always a purposeful builder of suspense suggesting that numerology and narrative might be have some universality to it, though that's a conversation for another post) - the third question was "so, what's your relationship with Mai? Are you married?" Heh. Family is a big deal in Vietnam, and marriage is extremely important. Boyfriend didn't take whatsoever ... neither did just plain friend or did a host of other things I tried, so I settled on not-married which elicited laughter all around and a string of conversation containing a word said with some derision that I recognized: "American."
Following the trial, though, Mai's family was extremely courteous and kind. They were generous with food and subsequent visits to other relatives and their houses left me stuffed. We were offered wonderful treats at each home. Mai's mom is a great cook, I was grateful for the homecooked goi thit heo and cá. Delicious.
Afterwards, I was treated to a silent movie. Albeit a somewhat avant-garde silent movie as the interstitials were missing. The cast was Mai and her family, speaking Vietnamese, and family interaction is awesome to watch if all I'm left with is the subtext. My God.
The stories: The lady in the blue dress misses her hair. The boy in the hammock feigns boredom but is intensely curious about the newcomers. The lady in gold is nervous around the lady in beige. The shirtless boy straightens when the older man smiles at him or pats his head. The other older gentleman remembers things which make him shiver.
The last reel of the movie began with a long dolly-shot across a highway of sorts leading us from Bien Hoa back to Sai Gon where we saw the results of a horrible, bloody scooter accident. Sai Gon is different, motorists - beware! The reel closed well, a miles-long blurry cascade of thousands of young Vietnamese collected in the neon-lit sidewalk cafes and huts along the highway looking cool and laughing.
(I'm behind on posting. As of this moment, we're in Hong Kong - this moment should've been posted days ago.)
*Aunt Number Five. The fifth child of Mai's grandmother.