Thursday, March 22, 2012


My Vietnamese landlord is kind of like the grandpa I never had.  In fact I don’t actually know his name, either first or last.  I’ve always referred to him as “Grandfather”, which would be the Vietnamese greeting/address to one who is older than you.  Quick note about the Vietnamese language:  there are about 6 different pronouns to refer to people, depending upon their age and status.  Now, I speak minimal Vietnamese, but I understand the basics.  When you refer to someone, there’s 6 different ways to refer to them; male/female of a younger age or lower status than you (‘boy’/’girl’), male/female (different words gender dependant) of late 20’s/early 30’s approximately and/or someone of slightly higher social status (uncle/aunt approximately), male/female of middle age (father/mother approx.), and male/female of advanced age (grandfather/grandmother approx.).  So, I just always refer to my landlord as ‘grandfather’, partly because I don’t actually know his name and partly because I don’t know how to call him in a respectable way (calling someone by their first name may be offensive, I’m not too sure in this situation). 

Vietnamese society is very strongly influenced by Chinese Confucianism, which is a very hierarchical system of Superior/Inferior.  Aside, this is part of the reason I am not so much into Vietnamese culture, because it is super hierarchical, and I’m kind of an anarchist at heart.  Egalitie, Fraternitie, and Libertie never caught on here.

Anyway, back to Grandfather.  So, as best as I reckon, Grandfather is between 70-85.  With Asians, especially developing world Asians, it’s really hard to tell their age, partly because they stay very active until the day they die, and partly because their skin doesn’t show the ravages of age quite like our European skin does.  The night I moved into my new place, Grandfather poured me 3 teacups full of rice wine infused with severed and endangered Asian black bear paw.  Because if you eat/drink bear, you will be strong like a bear, according to the ancient wisdom/stupidity of  Traditional Chinese Medicine (the same medical tradition that brings us acupuncture and the extinction of the Asian Rhino because it’s horn will make the  penis more potent).  Well, I believe in conservation more than most, but when you’re a guest in someone’s house and country, a good guest accepts his host’s gifts graciously, which in this case mean drinking about two tumblers full of disgusting rice vodka/herbs/bear parts.

Anyway, Grandfather always seems to have the right timing to cheer me up right as I think this entire county is full of people who have the awareness of drunken, brain damaged people.  After I park my motorbike, Grandfather pulls me into his apartment (I live in what could be described as a 4 floor duplex, Grandfather and Grandmother on bottom floor, his son and family on 2nd floor, a French couple on 3rd floor, and me on 4th, all kept comfortably separate by an exterior stairwell/entryway), and sits me down, then starts pouring either beer if I’m lucky, or some foul rice vodka concoction if I’m unlucky, and I hang with Grandfather until I’ve pounded 2 beers or 3 shots and the accompanying snack.  Now, Grandfather and Grandmother speak not a word of English, and I speak about 20 words of Vietnamese so most of the time we sit there in awkward silence, grinning silly and having one word conversations (“Vietnam good?” “Vietnam good.”  pointing to food “good!”  ‘good’ is one of the few Vietnamese words I know).

But  like I said, Grandfather and Grandmother are like my adopted grandparents.  Today I came home after a particularly exhausting day, wanting nothing more than to go up and relax, but, Grandfather sensed a disturbance in the Force, and pulled me into his apartment, where I was greeted with a full tumbler of mysterious rice vodka.  He patted me on the shoulder and encouraged me to drink up.  He told me what it was in Vietnamese, and I didn’t understand, but I was led to understand that whatever it was, “it’s good for the man!”  So, I did my usual, and gulped down about 12 ounces of extremely bizarre, borderline gag-reflex inducing rice vodka, followed by a glass of water.  Grandfather doesn’t drink anymore, but boy, he sure does love plying his guests with booze.   He is really a sweet heart.  Even if I can barely stomach the concoctions I am forced to drink, his heart is in the right place, and I drink it with a grimace concealed with a smile and a “to your health”.   And other times, Grandfather shuffles up to my apartment with little Vietnamese treats to offer.  Mostly I don’t know what I’m eating/drinking, but his hospitality is clear, and I always accept graciously, even when it’s stomach churning.  But again, he’s a sweet old man, and I like hanging out with him even if our conversations only consist of one word, and much awkward smiles and grins.

As I said Grandfather is like my adopted granddad, but as he’s Vietnamese, that still doesn’t stop him from occasionally trying to rip me off.  One time I ordered water (all houses are supplied by big bottles of drinking water, as the tap water is non-potable), it was delivered when I wasn’t there and Grandfather received the delivery.  Thinking he had paid for it in my stead, I went to give him the money, and he gladly accepted it, then I noticed Grandmother smacking him and talking in Vietnamese disapprovingly.  Grandmother kept giving me the money back, Grandfather kept taking it.  I was very confused.  Finally Grandmother shooed me away with my money, and the next day,  the water guy came around asking for money.  Grandfather hadn’t paid for it, but was going to gladly accept me giving him the money for it.  Grandmother wouldn’t have it though.

 That’s the thing with the Viets, they are sweet people, but they have little compunction about ripping you off, even if they like you.   I just shrugged it off and smiled, as I know Grandfather is an old scoundrel.  A month later when I was paying rent though, Grandfather was mistaken in his calculation of how much I owed him by $350, and would never have noticed (basically you pay rent 3 months at time here, and he forgot one month), now a part of me was thinking, ‘haha, sweet a free month!, gotcha Grandfather!’ but of course, the other side of me was like ‘no, be honorable’, and as my momma raised me right, that’s the side I always listen to.  So after 10 minutes of me explaining of how his calculation  was off and in fact I owed him $350, he got it.   I’m pretty sure I scored one for Western Honor on that one.  Grandfather has always treated me well, but after that, I was like blood.  And now here I sit, with a gut full of foul rice vodka infused with some horrible herbs/animal parts gurgling in my belly, but happy in being an adopted grandson.  As I said, the Viets can be infuriatingly oblivious to everything, yet they are still a very sweet hearted people.