Thursday, January 05, 2006


A popular sport amongst Vietnamese children seems to be spotting a foreigner and although admittedly it doesn’t take much to see Teddy de Burca Jnr. coming, he’ll happily play along

Outside the traffic swirls past. Bao ve (Parking attendants) sit on customers’ bikes smoking cigarettes and picking their noses. Inside the crowded restaurant, amongst the clatter of plates and happy chatter of customers, I push away my just finished-bowl of banh cuon and lean back, blithely unawares to the world at large. It’s one of those moments where you’re happy to be thinking about nothing whatsoever and feel you have at long last blended into the Hanoi tapestry.

Then I hear a young mother, sitting opposite, say to her child, who is reluctant to chow down his fish sauce-soaked pancake, “ai day? (who’s that?)”.

I glance over my shoulder, expecting to see the child’s aunt or uncle, but there’s just a 2002 World Cup Pepsi poster pinned to a grimy, greasy wall. I realise that the “ai” in this situation is none other than myself. Suddenly, it seems the restaurant is collectively staring at me, in a nice way, and I can’t help feeling a little oversized for the wee plastic chair I’m perched on. I imagine this is how Gulliver would feel in a café in Lilliput.

With his mouth agog, the kid stares at me like I’m the man from the moon, as though disbelieving I could be that pasty skinned or have such an enormous hooked-nose. I smile as nicely as I can, in a sort of “look – I don’t bite” kind of way, while wondering, “how on earth would this child know my name?”

Then panic strikes – perhaps I know the mother. Is she an old colleague or the employee of an old café I used to frequent, per chance?

Quite often I’m spotted around town by such people. Just the other day a motorbike sidled up to me in the madness that is Dai Co Viet street, on the outskirts of town, and just as I prepared to swivel in my seat and growl – “what the hell are you looking at?” I heard him say “Teddy Chicken Curry Coca Cola”.

I realised it was the delivery boy from a sandwich shop, and no, he hadn’t anticipated I needed a sandwich, he was just thrilled to see me and remember my regular order. I guess I’m hard to miss.

Former colleagues and students always appear out of nowhere and greet me in the same way, “Do you remember me?” Why of course, I say, dismissing the notion of forgetting them with a laugh. As if. So naturally they follow up with, “What’s my name?”
“Something beginning with ‘t’ or ‘h’, right?” I say edging away. “Definitely one syllable, anyway.”

But no, this woman is no colleague, or former student. Why I wouldn’t know her from Eve. So why is she asking the child who I am? Then the penny drops, for the child that is. His eyes twinkle and he gurgles with pleasure before exclaiming, “Tay (westerner)!” much to the mother’s delight, who rewards the kid by shoving food in his mouth.

Of course, there is no denying it: I am a Tay. But that’s no reason why I should try and be funny or sarcastic, but foolishly, just as everyone goes back to eating and chatting, I blurt “dong”, as in ‘east’, while pointing at the kid, but the mother just stares blankly, and the restaurant goes completely silent again, like in the Wild West Saloons when the stranger walks in and orders Soda Pop. I guess it’s probably because I’m pronouncing it completely wrong, and out of paranoia I’m worried “dong” might be a swear word with the wrong tone, so I simplify, to try and dig myself out the hole and point at the kid again, “Vietnam”.

The mother claps, the child laughs, the woman behind the counter chimes in, and shouts out to everyone, “Vietnam! Tay noi ‘Vietnam!’” And everyone in the vicinity seems very impressed that the foreigner not only spoke but knows exactly what country he’s in.

I admit I’m not quite ready for Ai la trieu phu? (The local Who wants to be a millionaire?), but as I leave I am patted on the back, greeted by beatific smiles, three fine looking young women bat their eyelids, two men shake my hand and the bao ve invites me one cigarette. Getting on my motorbike feeling like a minor celebrity, I decide it’s not so bad sticking out like a sore thumb after all. Certainly beats being completely ignored, doesn’t it?

1 comment:

Venitha said...

Very nice story. I admit that I have a hard time not taking the blurs of Mandarin of which I can pick out only 'ang moh' a bit negatively.