As you might know, I live in Penang, Malaysia. I used to live in Vietnam. Not much Vietnamese food in Penang, unfortunately, but plenty of other great cuisine.
I was at my favorite hawker stalls the other day (for you locals, we call it “Lucky 99”) and my wife ordered a dish from a Chinese vendor called crispy noodles. We used to eat crispy noodles in Vietnam and wondered if this dish was anything similar to what we used to eat.
One bite confirmed it. Identical. An unmistakable taste. I was immediately transported back in time 18 years to a small alley-way in central Haiphong City – right across from a Buddhist temple – to a small open air shop where my students used to take this formerly palate challenged American.
When I arrived in Vietnam, I thought the Big Mac was on the top of the food chain. I couldn’t understand why my students disparaged frozen food. I said to them, “you have to try American frozen food. It’s so good!” I shutter to think of the person I used to be, but I’m glad I learned to accept the idea that perhaps I wasn’t the most open-minded person in the world.
I remember one time in particular when two young friends whisked me away to this delectable back-alley noodle shop. I, of course, offered to pay for my friends and asked what the brother-sister tandem wanted. The brother replied that he was starving and ordered a plate of noodles. The sister said she wasn’t hungry. I said ‘ok’ and we ordered two plates. I looked over at the sister and asked once more, “you sure you don’t want anything?” She humbly replied that she wasn’t hungry.
The two of us gobbled down the crispy noodles topped with sliced pork, a delicate gravy sauce and some chili peppers. It was delicious, but I was sure my Big Mac would be jealous.
We had a pleasant conversation and then went home, happy and satisfied. Or so I thought.
About a year later when I had gotten to know the pair much better, the sister looked at me one day and said, “Mark, do you remember the day when we were at the noodle shop with my brother.” I did. “Yes,” I replied. “I remember that you weren’t hungry.” “Actually, that’s not right,” she replied. “I was starving.” “Then why didn’t you order anything?” I asked in a perplexing manner. “Because,” she concluded. “You only asked me two times. I didn’t want to seem too eager, that wouldn’t be polite. If you had asked me a third time, I would have said ‘yes'” I was confused. “But your brother accepted immediately. Why is that?” I asked. “He had spent a lot of time around foreigners and knew that if you wanted something to eat, you had to say so immediately. I didn’t know that.”
Live and learn. We laughed about it. I felt bad, of course, but chalked it up to being inexperienced in an exotic land. From that point on, I was determined to learn all I could about Vietnamese culture and to do that I realized that I needed to learn the language – which I eventually did.
Lesson One: when inviting your Vietnamese friends, ask at least three times.
Lesson Two: Always be a learner. Humble yourself and your own desires and wishes to learn about other people and cultures.
Lesson Three: Penang has a place that sells crispy Vietnamese noodles. (Even if they call them Chinese.)