Dinner with the Nguyens
by Alan Jepsen
After her parents concluded I was more benign than malignant they began inviting me over for dinner more often.
The rice noodles, they slip through my overbite and slap back into my bowl.
I wear long sleeves to hide the tattoo on my forearm. I try not to look up while eating. I don't want to know who's watching.
Because my girlfriend's mother sees me as merely and unavoidably a white guy, and I am the first of my kind she has ever had to directly feed, she's sure I'm not getting enough meat; she doesn't know how to gauge my capacity and assumes the worst.
Under the table, there's a Boston terrier using my leg for support, begging me for food. No one else can see him, but his struggle to breathe through an inbred nose gives him away.
This dog's name is Thinker. This wasn't his original name. They got him from a friend who had named him Stinker. You get the picture.
Thinker understands Vietnamese, so they can't talk about him, or he would climb on their legs. They can say what they want about me, though; I give no reaction, other than an occasional, completely anxiety-ridden, smile.
While I stab at fried things in bowls with my chopsticks, I start convincing myself that the smallest mistake would mean not getting the approval to continue seeing their daughter. Even in our mid-20s, this is crucial for her. I think about my socks huddled behind a table leg, not matching; this never bothered me before. I'd never cared to worry about it because I never had to. One sock has a gray tip, one without. I can hide the holes in the heels, but the tip is pretty impossible. I'm just trying to make friends here.
Thinker, the one who has taken a break from clawing at my leg, is, without exaggeration, twice his ideal weight. When he lies on his side, his legs stick straight out, horizontally, in the air. I have been told neighbors have nonchalantly referred to this dog as a pig--as in oh, you pig is so domesticated.
I do my damnedest, really. I insist on doing dishes as much as someone can in my position. Usually I am refused, but the last two nights I've gotten the okay. My girlfriend says this is "huge."
Sometimes they feed the dog while they eat by setting the food outside the screen door. But, Thinker knows what's going on, so this isolation only makes him eat faster to get inside for more scraps.
You can hear the dog eating and choking at the same time. He finishes his bowl and looks up at us, two or three pieces of rice stuck to his snout, snorting hard, his body convulsing, his face pressed to the screen, his breathing stopped, concentrating on getting in for more shrimp patties. The site of this ambition triggers something in my girlfriend's father.
"You eat like a cat," he shouts across the table. His accent fully separates each syllable. I look up at him, her dad, and around the table, but it is too obvious that he is speaking to me.
"A cat?" I ask, in my conversing-with-ESL-students voice.
"Yes, a very... uh... de-li-cate."
I'm caught between two thoughts: Is this an insult? And how does he know the word 'delicate'?
"I should eat faster?"
"Yes," her mom blurts, taking control. "You should eat like a ti-ger."
"Yes. Yes. Ti-ger." Her dad says, flailing his elbows out like, and I am guessing here, a tiger.
"Be very, uh, uh, ro-bust."
After my sixth or seventh shrimp patty, and third bowl of rice, my girlfriend senses my defeat. She puts her chopsticks across her bowl, sticks her napkin in her empty glass, and motions me to the sink. We start dishes and no one protests.
The density in my stomach spreads to include a tightening of my arms. Swinging dishes toward my girlfriend--the dryer/stacker-- who's concentrating more at giggling at my pain than at the plates I'm pushing in front of her.
We finish, wipe down anything with a flat surface, and turn and walk past the table, where her dad is now listening to his portable radio, to "Little Saigon Radio," her mom's eating lychee and puppy-talking Thinker.
"Thank you for dinner," I say too loudly, too forced. Before the awkwardness ruins the moment, I make a hasty decision: "Cam on," I fumble out, my teeth refusing to let the right sound push through, my first attempt at Vietnamese in front of the folks. A simple "thank you." Afraid. Butcherer of languages.
"Oh! Khong co chi!" her mom enthusiastically shouts back, pushing a piece of lychee from her mouth and onto her smiling lips.
Her dad says "Yeah good," not looking up from the radio, but not visibly annoyed at the disruption either.
I turn away, internally disagreeing, saddened with what I've failed to communicate.
Her dad, aware we are about to leave, suddenly looks up. "Hey, you know, not nec-e-ssary to ev-e-ry-time say 'thank you' when you come to eat. You are welcome here, you know?"
I nod an okay and smile as he returns his attention to the radio. My girlfriend and I turn and pass the division wall, into the living room. My girlfriend moves her head toward me, laughing again, letting the vinegar smell of fish sauce blow out of her mouth.
"This is huge," she whispers.
About the author:
Alan Jepsen is from Iowa, now living in Los Angeles. He has also been published on WordRiot.org and OpiumMagazine.com.