Some local friends here in Penang took us to a beef steamboat restaurant recently. The food was, of course, fantastic. As we were talking about the restaurant, our gracious hosts told us that if we wanted to ever come here, you have to call for reservations because its a small, family establishment with only six tables. I asked if they spoke English and our host wasn’t sure. But then she said, ‘but their worker is Vietnamese. Perhaps you could call her?’ As she called over the worker who is about 30 years old, I was amazed that a Vietnamese woman would be working here. In my part of Penang, there are no Vietnamese.
As she walked over to our table, I asked her in Vietnamese if she was indeed Vietnamese. She told me she was from Hanoi and then I started chatting with her in her native language. Her face lit up as she was shocked to see a white foreigner so conversant in her language.
As we talked, something became obvious. Tears were forming in her eyes. I asked her if there was anyone around with whom she could speak Vietnamese. She said ‘no’ and that she speaks Chinese to everyone. Her Vietnamese Chinese accent is what revealed to our host that she was Vietnamese.
She was so happy. She lives alone here working in this restaurant. Her family is back in Hanoi, including her 10 year old daughter. She has lived apart from them for many years, though she was sure to tell me that in August she’s returning to Vietnam for three months and if I needed her to pick up anything for to let her know. She beamed brightly as she could once again speak her native language.
How often do we take little things for granted? Simple things like living with your family? Speaking your native language? There are many in this world, who just to improve their lives, are willing to work far away from home while having to learn a new language and culture.
I am so please to have met Lan. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak Vietnamese again. It’s been a while. But for me, it was a pleasant exercise in brushing up on my vocab. For Lan, however, our meeting was a refreshing respite from her difficult circumstances.
I look forward to talking with her again.