I've always considered myself as something more than the typical American tourist, that I bucked the stereotypes and was a true "citizen of the world." But here was clear proof that I was a presumptuous moron. Love is messy when you're a visitor in...
I’m a stand-up comic in Los Angeles, and the worst part of going to comedy shows all the time is having to hear white people complain about how hard dating is all the time. I don't give a shit about most people's love lives. That said, my own romances are of endless fascination to me, especially the messy trysts I've had overseas. My old job had me traveling a lot, sometimes for months at a time, all over the world. It gets lonely. Living out of hotel rooms is fun, but you crave human contact.
It was the fall of 2009. I had already been in Vietnam for about a month. I had just scored an apartment in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, and I was about to spend my first Thanksgiving away from America. By sheer luck, I happened to live on the same street as Texas BBQ, a restaurant run by an old shit-kickin’ expat that my memory has named Coy McColt. Coy happened to be the biggest turkey importer in Vietnam, so Thanksgiving was his Christmas. Twenty bucks bought you all you could eat and drink, all day and well into the night.
While I devoured heaping plates of stuffing and beans, I noticed that a cute Vietnamese waitress was making eyes at me. She would come over and refill my beer the moment before it was empty, much to the chagrin of my two buddies who were not experiencing my level of service. Two hours later she upped her game, just cold gigglin’ at everything I said. People started to clear out, but we remained. Finally, my friends took off, leaving me alone at the table. All I knew in Vietnamese was “thanh toán tiê’n” (check please!), which I had only just learned so I could tug at my collar and say it in a Jerry Lewis voice.
She spoke a bit of broken English, so I kept things simple.
“What you do, fun? Fun thing you like?”
We were both kinda drunk at this point. She looked at me, and a slow smile crept across her porcelain face.
“I like… driiiink.” She mimed glug-glugging a bottle.
“I like… smoooooke.” She mimed puffing on a joint.
“And I like… you.”
She let out a few muted laughs and scurried away. I cornered her by the bar, wrote my phone number down, and put it into her pocket. Somehow we crossed the language barrier and planned a date, agreeing to meet on the steps of the opera house the next day. (Note: since the French occupation, district one of the city, which is still referred to as Saigon, remains remarkably French. In addition to the cobble-stoned roads, there’s a three-fourths replica of the Paris Opera House, and a three-fourths replica of the Notre Dame cathedral.)
I practically skipped from my house to the date rendezvous point. When I got there, I saw her talking to a dude on a motorbike. She informed me that this was her brother and that he gave her a ride from her house, which was pretty far from the city. I stuck out my hand, in the international gesture for “Thanks bro, nice to meet you,” and he just mean-mugged me. Apparently he was not too keen on the tall white boy with the mustache and checkered pants having a night with lil’ sis. (Note: my appearance was so unique to the city that cab drivers would remember me, usually indicating this by twisting the gossamer ends of their imaginary moustache, and take me home without my having to remind them how.) I just kinda waved to Bro Man and thanked him, making sure he could understand me. Waitress and I hopped into a cab and sped over to a lovely little coffee shop.
Leaning on his motorbike at the entrance of the coffee shop, and sporting the same grim face, was none other than big bro. He followed us in and sat down at the table directly across from me. He ordered a pack of smokes and began plowing through them. I attempted to make small talk with the waitress without catching any of his hate-gaze. That was impossible. She sidled up, put her arms around me, and I swear I could feel big bro's lazer stares. She tried to kiss me, I pull back. She tried again, and I couldn’t take it anymore.
“This… weird. You know weird? Strange.”
She got super defensive and spurted out, “What? You no like me?!”
“No, babe, it’s not that…” She had no idea what I was saying. “I
you! This weird. Brother, weird. No good have brother here.”
She looked at him, he affixed his rage beams on her, and they locked glares for about ten seconds before she exploded on him. They started screaming back and forth, and nobody sitting around us batted an eye. I have to commend the Vietnamese on this. They know when something isn't their business.
After about a minute of this, they stopped. She pouted. He slowly made eye contact with me and uttered the first words he'd said all night:
“I… know… kung… fu.”
“Thanh toán tiê’n!”
The check came. He owed the equivalent of three dollars for his smokes and three coffees. I told the girl this. I agreed to pay for her but not the brother. She looked at me like I just asked her for 4 million dollars.
“We no have money.”
It all hit me right then and there. I'm sure you remember those old Looney Tunes when two chums would be stuck on a desert island and the fat one would be looking at the skinny one, then hallucinate that he turned into a hot dog, and the fat one turned into a hamburger? Yeah, well I was an American passport. They were poor, probably lived in some shack near the swamps, where a lot of the poorest working-class people lived. I was her ticket out of a difficult existence, I thought.
At this moment, I realized the date was over. But the night wasn’t. It was time to take off my “getting my dick wet" helmet and put on my “party ambassador" fez. I got us all a cab, and we headed for the nearest karaoke joint.
An hour later, everyone was wasted. In Vietnam, like other Asian countries, you do private booth karaoke. So it was just the three of us in a huge booth with food and booze strewn about. Big Bro’s arm was draped around me, and he screamed English-sounding syllables to a MIDI version of "Let It Be." He clinked glasses with me about every five seconds. The waitress sat on the couch, pissed off that I was clearly having more fun with her brother than I was with her. Finally, she tapped his shoulder, and they dilberated in the corner. I didn't understand a word, but I liked that they respected me enough to not talk about me while I stared on dumbly.
The brother walked over to me, bowed, then slapped my shoulder repeatedly.
“You good man!”
He bowed again, then left the room. I sat down on the couch and opened another beer, which the waitress knocked out of my hand while pouncing on me. We savagely made out. It was nothing but a passionate blur of hands and tongues. She slowed down the pace before I could get her shirt off. She kissed me tenderly, cocked her head a bit to the side, and looked into my eyes.
“I… never… stop… loving you.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help myself.
“What the hell are you talking about?!”
“What you no love me?”
“Of course not! I don’t even know you.”
She started crying as I got up to compose myself. I shoved three beers in my pockets.
“I gotta get out of here.”
“Me go now. Thanh toán tiê’n!.”
I avoided Texas BBQ for a few weeks after that. I mean, fuck, I was her ticket outta that dump—she was probably a miserable pile of tears. Hell, she might’ve even been so distraught that she quit her job, sending her family into a vortex of despair. But the guilt was getting to me. I had to go in and apologize. Just walk in, say I’m sorry that she can’t move to America with me to have a better life, and get outta there.
I opened the door, and we locked eyes. She immediately retreated to the kitchen. Shit, this was gonna be harder than I thought. I sat down at a table alone, she came up with a cold beer and patted me on the shoulder.
“Oh hi! Hello! You still here!”
So cheerful. What a trooper.
“Yeah, listen. I must apologize. I caused you great dishonor. If you love me, that OK. I sorry I hurt you so bad.”
She laughed in my fucking face.
“Stupid! My girlfriend tell me American man need to hear love before sex! She say you think you Shakespeare, need romance!”
“WAIT! You no love ME?”
She laughed again.
“No! I fuck owner. He old, you cute. Too bad.”
And she walked away.
“What about brother? Why he come?”
“Oh he old fashion. I tell him you want marry me, so he drive me. He not suppose to stay. He crazy. He know kung fu.”
“Yeah, I heard. So...”
“You want food?”
“Nah, I’m all right.”
And she walked away.
I always considered myself as something more than the typical American tourist, that I bucked the stereotypes and was a true "citizen of the world." But here was clear proof that I was a presumptuous moron. Was I really so self-centered to believe that in the span of just one day, I could change her whole life? That my persuasiveness, blue passport, and money could actually cause a regime change in her heart? I told her that “I caused her great dishonor”? That’s not even a Vietnamese stereotype! Her life was happening before I walked into that restaurant, and it was damn sure going to continue when I shipped back to the States. I threw "Gimme Shelter" onto my iPod and walked back to my apartment. I was a little shell-shocked, but hell, at least no one spit at me when I got back. I’ve never felt so incredibly white.