Language is in the Hips

Amy Nguyen, International Studies – Political Science ‘18

When my dad travelled to Guangzhou to study martial arts, he didn’t know a speck of Chinese. At least, that’s what he would tell me every time he was feeling reminiscent about this particular story, which, at this point, I know like the back of my glasses frames. I love hearing it though.

Born in Vietnam and living out his teenage years in Mississippi, the man was limited to a handful of phrases. The most important one, he emphasized, was “bathroom.” Verbally, my dad was basically a fish out of water. But, like a fish out of water, my dad still possessed the ability to convey that water was a necessity through his body language and facial expressions.

Unlike his mother, he wasn’t able to whip up a 5 star meal. So of course upon arriving in the foreign land without his food-provider, the first thing he did was seek out a place that sold cooked meals, ready to eat. The only problem (which my dad apparently didn’t view as an issue) was that knowing how to say “bathroom” wouldn’t get you chicken fried rice. He probably realized this as soon as the wonderful aroma of chicken drew him to sit down at a local street-side restaurant, and the words on the menu were made of Chinese characters. A woman immediately accosted him upon his arrival.

“What do you want [to eat]?” She snapped at him in Cantonese with no-nonsense mannerisms. My dad jumped at her gibberish, and shakily brought the menu (that he couldn’t read) closer to his face. Juggling the nonsensical menu with his small pocket dictionary, he looked up at her in fear, pointed at his chest, and started with the only other word he knows, “I…”

Abruptly, he tucked his hands into his ribcage and started cooing like a chicken, “Bok-bok-bok-BOK (let it be known the higher pitched emphasis on the last ‘bok’)!!” Immediately, he followed this elegant display by picking up his imaginary spatulas and crashing them together in an extravagant representation of stir-frying in a flaming wok.

“Chhsssshh ChhhsshHhH!” my father exclaimed in a bold show of onomatopoeia, mimicking the sound of rice cooking over high heat. The woman, the owner of the restaurant, looked startled (and slightly concerned, perhaps). As if she might have envisioned the actions of my dad instead of experiencing them in the living realm, she asked politely for a clarification.

“What the he** did you just say!?” Her response consisted of more fearful eyes, chicken imitations, and artful mimicries of imaginary rice cooking over flaming woks. The owner’s reaction was instantaneous and hilarious.

“Ahh you want chicken fried rice!” She declared through chortles, “Wait here, wait here!” The owner shuffles to the kitchen divider and pokes her head in. “Hey everyone! Come outside and look at this funny Japanese man (nevermind that my dad is Vietnamese)!” The confused entirety of the kitchen crew, including the dishboy, lined up along the walls of the restaurant.

“Do it again, again!” She prompted him in excitement. More fear, more chicken cooing, and more wokking. It was a riot. The restaurant was in tears, intrigued by this strange man who didn’t know a word of Chinese yet managed to convey meaning in the most fundamental of ways.

Needless to say, my dad got his chicken fried rice that day. He got a pork entree the next day, and beef the day after that. He walked in and out of that restaurant many times during his stay, each time solidifying the strange and wonderful friendship that grew between him and the kitchen staff. From then on, every time he took a seat on the little plastic chair in the street-side restaurant, the owner’s face would light up. She would tell him to “wait” and grab the cooks and busboy, lining them up for a brief 2-minute break of entertainment.

If there is anything I want readers (whoever you may be) to take away from this story, it’s to travel near and far. Immersing yourself into a foreign land is not something to take shyly, and lacking the language doesn’t have to be discouraging. In the case of my silly dad, lacking the language doesn’t have to exclude you from a population. In fact, it can surround you with friends if you use your non-ability correctly. Because if there is one thing that my dad has taught me growing up (and there were many things), it is that skills, facts, and languages can be learned, but having the right attitude is a decision.



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