I did not know what to expect when it came to our new temporary home. All I knew that we were to be living with someone, a stranger no less, in this strange land. Albeit familiar because of all images ingrained into my mind by the gazillion of hours of Hollywood movies and American television I’ve consumed in my not so long lifetime, the US still is a new place. Surely, a stark contrast to our original (and always) home country: the Philippines, and our more recent expat country base: Dubai.
Instead of the monotonous desert and concrete landscape, we were greeted with the freshness of greenery: luscious, thick, dense, swaying to the delicate pine-scented breeze. Instead of the slutty red Ferraris, the sunshine yellow Lamborghinis, and the occasional fuchsia Mustangs driven by dish dash garbed Emiratis and the ubiquitous white Toyota pick up trucks driven by “pajama” garbed Pakistanis on the highway, we were flanked by mammoth American pick ups and Optimus Prime trucks, which drove at super car speeds down the interstate. Instead of rapid fire Arabic and sing-songy Hindi or Urdu ur Malayalam (South Asian dialects) filling our ears, we were treated to, not English, but fiery Spanish / Mexican, warbly Korean and clucky Vietnamese.
Should language be a challenge? I assumed that most people, if not everyone, would be fluent in English. We were in America! Why would people struggle with the language? But my assumption was immediately debunked when we met our landlord, Mr. Trong.
A sprightly, middle-aged Vietnamese man, Mr. Trong, wiggled out of his beat-up sedan and waddled down his driveway from to greet and welcome us into his home. “Haro!” he said as he shook The Husband’s hand. His greeting did not have the American twang, but was rather thick with an East Asian-like flare, replacing l’s with r’s.
After we’ve settled our jetlagged selves and our expat haul into our cozy, pink, Disney Princess room (it was his daughter’s – now a 36-year old grown woman – old room), Mr. Trong briefly showed us his two kitchens. He was an empty nester, with two of his children living on their own, and yet he had to have TWO kitchens. The Husband and I couldn’t get over that fact. So that meant two stoves, except that one’s oven functions as storage, and two refrigerators: one double door refrigerator / freezer and one big-a$s two-person width freezer, both filled to the brim with food. “We like family. You can use everything. Okaaaaay! You can take. Okaaaaaaay!” Mr. Trong, eyes twinkling, waved his hands seeming to give us an all access pass to his food stash and kitchen equipment.
In as much as we would’ve wanted to rightfully raid and massacre his overstocked kitchen, we didn’t. The thought of invading a stranger’s kitchen was too much for us to bear. And so we waited, watched and listened like a pride of lions going in for the kill.
We watched Mr. Trong go about his daily kitchen routine: leaving his used teabags in the sink every morning, bringing in bag/s of groceries of vegetables and fruits and simmering broth overnight in his extra-hungry family sized slow cooker (which was actually bigger than my family’s – note that we were 8-person strong.). The Husband and I were stumped. The tea we could understand, but grocery shopping and cooking broth everyday? In as much as we wanted to ask more questions and strike up a conversation with Mr. Trong, we would all be lost in translation.
And so we went about our business, eating the Vietnamese takeaway: banh mi (sandwiches) and pho (rice noodle soup), we’ve managed to hoard in the absence of a proper grocery haul. Of course, Mr. Trong did notice that we were chomping away on his beloved Vietnamese banh mi. To which his response was to immediately point the location of his toaster and instruct us how to operate it. His face transformed from jolly to ghastly, seeing that we were having banh mi, fresh out of the refrigerator. Mr. Trong pointed to the toaster again, saying with his regained enthusiasm: “You can use this! No problem!”
A few days later, Mr. Trong sent us a message: a dinner invitation, through our better English-speaking Vietnamese housemate. We’ve heard of his prowess in the kitchen and passion of cooking for other people (which explains the two overstocked refrigerators and the 8-foot high shelf bursting with restaurant sized pots & pans) through his daughter, and, of course, we naturally accepted. The old man caught us cleaning up in the kitchen, so he repeated his dinner invitation in broken English: “I cook. We eat like family. We…” he then used his finger to create an imaginary circle connecting the three of us “…like family” He cooked us feast after feast after feast of American-Asian proportions: big in home-cooked Asian flavors in gargantuan American portions.
Until today, a month post our arrival in the Duluth, we still get to enjoy the abundance and deliciousness of Mr. Trong’s cooking (Tomorrow, we are having homemade chicken wonton soup!). Though he clearly did not speak good English, Mr. Trong clearly understood the universal language of food. No one would ever be lost in translation with hunger pangs or, even worse, on an empty stomach. Thank you Mr. Trong. We are eaternally grateful for those wonderful meals. We are not so secretly hoping that you’d continue to cook for us as long as we are here with you.
Delirious about delicious,