More Japanese manhole covers (photo credit: Flickr user “s. morita”)
My most recent obsession is Broad City. The show revolves around best friends Abbi & Ilana as they navigate through their 20s in NYC. It premiered while I was in Vietnam so I’m just now catching up with the rest of the world.
Broad City started as a web series in 2010 & has since been picked-up by Comedy Central & snagged Amy Poehler as one of the producers. Abbi & Ilana created the show & write most of the episodes. The women are hilarious, ridiculous, real, insanely smart & a great example of true friendship (sounds corny but is absolutely true).
While in Vietnam, I spent 10 days traveling the country as a tourist - never sleeping in the same place two nights in a row. Then, I spent 10 days settled in one town with one family.
I was straight-up spoiled by my friend’s (Nhi) family. Nhi’s mom, Lisa, cooked & cleaned for everyone. Actually, the one time I tried to help clean up after dinner, I inadvertently dropped a full bowl of rice. Lisa even gave up her bedroom for me; she slept on a mattress in a hallway/loft area while I had a door, A/C & a full bed to myself. I was mortified & tried to refuse such kindness at first but eventually conceded & accepted, enthusiastically offering huge smiles as a sign of gratitude.
I basically had team of 12+ Vietnamese people willing to speak for me anytime we were in public. Ordering at restaurants especially. So I didn’t learn quite as much of the language as I probably should have because by day 3 or 4, I just graciously sat back while they discussed what I should get. Nhi’s sister, Tina, even interrupted someone else who was ordering for me by shouting (in English), “No, she had that for dinner last night!” They were so on-top of my culinary experience.
Since I didn’t have to worry about the menu (I ate whatever they put in front of me), I was in full people-watching mode for most meals. The Ngo family often spoke English or translated for me but not everyone spoke English, so I was content sitting back & listening to a language I didn’t even remotely understand. It’s fascinating to try to figure out what’s going on without any word cues.
I noticed when we arrived at restaurants, in herds of 10-15 people, even a jam-packed restaurant found room for us. And while the staff scrambled to get tables together, I had the insanely passive aggressive desire to apologize for our bombardment. I was usually embarrassed by our arrival, like we were rudely inconveniencing the restaurant (definitely not the case). A few times I joked with Nhi & her sisters that the very American part of me just wanted to move the tables for them while repeating ‘sorry’ in an overly apologetic tone. Nhi assured me restaurants wanted our business so awkwardly moving a table through a crowd of people, already seated & eating, wasn’t anything to fret about. There were even a few instances that Nhi’s family got up to help run food to our table so we would get it faster.
There were two occasions that a group of us sat down at a restaurant, only to look over the menu & realize that the prices were too high, prompting us to leave. Again, I was mortified. The first time around, the waiter had already served us sesame crackers so Tina politely left them a couple of bucks for their time & trouble but we still left to find better-priced food (we’re talking a difference of maybe $3 per dish but when you’re already paying $3, that’s a 100% mark-up). The second time, the service was too slow. We waited for our entrees for too long, in the Ngo family opinion, so we left. Keep in mind, this was a pretty “special” restaurant. It was floating on hundreds of blue plastic barrels on a river & we had to take a boat to get to it. But the time it took for us to get there didn’t matter. Service wasn’t up to par so we peaced out.
Another thing the Ngo family does while out to eat is scrutinize the bill. They look it over, with painful detail, to check it’s accuracy. This would be easy if your party was 4 people. But ours was often 10 or more. So trying to figure out what everyone had to eat & drink was a chore. Each person seemed to take turns going over the check to make sure all was right. They questioned things, too. More than a handful of times, the waiter or waitress would be called over to clarify something. Again, I just sat back & took it all in, knowing I had no real say in anything going on. Relinquishing control is pretty damn liberating.
When I asked Tina about the check questioning, she was surprised by my surprise. I usually look over the bill in the U.S. but I don’t go through item by item to make sure we weren’t ripped off. Tina said it’s common for restaurants to try to overcharge you, especially if you appear to have money. So her family wants to make it clear that they won’t be ripped off & they keep a close eye on the bill. (Yet, they are so generous with neighbors & other family members & always tipped cab drivers & waiters - not a common practice in Vietnam.)
Oh, also they don’t split bills. Someone usually just paid for the whole thing & it unofficially rotated. I always tried to throw my bills in the mix but was always refused. The few times they did let me pay was when the group was really small (breakfast for five or dinner for three). Or one time I got drinks for about seven of us. I was thrilled & felt like I had a serious triumph.
Being a part their family felt so normal & natural. And you begin to falsely feel like a local. Then your friend points out that everyone is staring at you & you’re quickly beamed back into reality - you’re very different.
“You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts. You have to pay your electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.”