I have returned home with a backlog of stories and photos. No time to type in a two week crash-course visit. Forgive me Viet if I begin with a story about you.
Despite the fact that he was my closest friend in Hanoi, I never met Viet's family in the time I lived in Hanoi. I knew only the most anonymous things about the family he lived with just a few minutes motobike ride from my little house. He kept me entirely separate from his domestic world. In fact his family may have only learned of my existence near the end of my stay when it seems Viet was spotted by his sister on the back of my moto going up Bach Mai. Who was this Tay their son was hanging out with?
As it turns out, his mother regards Westerners with great suspicion. I am told she is a fan of Vietnamese soaps and, like my mother, has at times a very active imagination and a sense of drama. According to the world of Vietnamese television one should always be wary of the Ong Tay. You never know when he might slip something into your drink, corrupt your children with foreign influence and social evils, leading them gradually into a life of crime and depravity. Perhaps it would have come as no surprise if she'd know this Ong Tay had lived in the infamous Black Spot of Hanoi.
So this time I was very surprised to be allowed to meet Viet's mother at his aunt's house on my first day of my most recent visit. I was not prepped for the occasion except that in the narrow alley leading up to his aunt's house Viet strongly suggested I pocket my earring. I slipped it off for the remainder of my time in Hanoi.
After my rehearsed "Chao Bac" greeting, I was invited to take a place on the tile floor while Viet took care of some family business. I sat there quietly as the family discussed who-knows-what and I let my eye wander around the living room inspecting the family altar, the domestic bric-a-brac and the view to a little paved courtyard populated by a dog, a few cooking implements and some wash basins. After our initial greeting, the family paid me very little attention, hardly a sideways glance.
Finally though after about twenty minutes, Viet's mother turned to me and asked me one of the Standard Questions: "Do you have children?" In fact my Vietnamese interrogators rarely get as far as this. I am usually asked first about my marital status so the question of children is always preempted.
In comparison to Western languages Vietnamese is not a yes/no language. There is no straightforward equivalent to the English word yes, and when the question concerns the future, the Vietnamese prefer not yet to the generic word for no. Maybe this reflects a more tentative never-say-never outlook. In any case I answered the Standard Question with my Standard Response: chua (not yet). But given that this was my one opening, probably my only chance to chit chat with the family, I felt compelled to add something, and I tossed around for some other expression, some little elaboration. Showing off a bit I proudly offered: "chua lap gia dinh" - meaning, I have not yet formed a family.
An awkward pause followed. Turning away Viet then addressed his mother, then turned back to me and said: "I had told my mother you were married but did not yet have children. Now I told her you were just joking."
Apparently I had just contradicted an alibi I didn't know I had. If Viet needed some wiggle room he might just have said I didn't really know what the expression meant or I understood it differently. What does it mean to "form a family"? Does that mean to marry or to have children? It seemed to me that there was enough ambiguity here to work with.
Well the phrase is not ambiguous in Vietnamese; it clearly relates to marital status. So Viet insisted I was merely joking. Viet's mother must think Ong Tay have a very dry sense of humour - or none at all. I sat there clueless on the floor with a sincere and humourless expression on my face.
Afterwards Viet didn't seem too concerned about the whole incident, but I felt embarrassed I managed unwittingly (though through not fault of my own) to put my foot in it. It seems that while the Ong Tay may not be a criminal corrupter of youth, he may however quite naively risk blowing your cover. Obviously a little Vietnamese is much more dangerous than none at all. Mea culpa Viet. Next time I play real dumb.