Friday, March 12, 2010

Language Barrier and Soup

Last night Antoine and I had dinner at his parent's house. They recently moved into a new house and live a little over a half hour away from us. I must admit that I always get a little nervous whenever we go over there for dinner or go out with his family. Don't get me wrong, they are fantastically sweet people and I really like them, it's more of a language issue. Antoine's parents came over from Vietnam in 1980, and in 1981 they had Antoine. Being a Vietnamese family they naturally speak Vietnamese almost 100% of the time in their household. This is where my nerves come into play...I don't speak Vietnamese (although I want to learn).

When Antoine and I started dating and it was about time for me to meet his parents (he had already met mine at this point), he warned me...he said his mom's English was so-so and his dad could speak nearly perfect English, but since he's had a stroke (some 5 or 6 years ago) it takes a little while for people to understand exactly what he's saying. This, naturally, made me a little nervous. But I was reassured on that first visit that everything would be okay when his mom greeted me with a "Hello, Jessica" and hug. And every time since then when I see them, that's what I meet when I walk through the door! Pure sweetness!

Generally when all of us get together there's a lot of Vietnamese being spoken and then some translating by Antoine. In the beginning it made me slightly uncomfortable (although everyone tried their best to make me feel at ease), but now I feel so much better about it. In fact, last night, several times during their conversations (in Vietnamese) I was able to get a general grasp on what exactly they were talking about! Other times not so much...but I'm always met with a smile from his mom or dad and usually a translation from Antoine (and a goofy "I love you" smile from him). Also, I'm getting a better grasp on understanding Antoine's dad. The first few times I went over he would say something to me (in English) but I wasn't able to understand him because his stroke has slightly affected his mouth and tongue and how he speaks. But that's getting easier with each visit!

Also, visits to Antoine's parents house for dinner generally mean...trying new Vietnamese cuisine. Antoine always gets nervous that I won't like whatever his mom makes. I'm known to be a slightly picky eater (I've come along way since when I was younger and pretty much lived on grilled cheese) but I'll try pretty much anything once (unless it's spicy or involves some sort of animal entrails or bunny rabbits...I don't eat bunnies!). I was actually really looking forward to last night's "Taste of Vietnam"...pho! Pho (sidenote: it's not pronounced "fo", it's actually closer to "fa") is a delicious and very American-taste-bud-friendly Vietnamese noodle soup that generally contains thin pieces of beef/steak but can also be made with chicken (which is generally how Antoine's mom makes it, since it takes like 5 or 6 hours to make the beef version).

(this is a generic picture of pho that I bogarted from the internet)
The soup is made with a basic beef or chicken broth that is created by simmering said meat in water for a number of hours. What makes the broth different and interesting is the star of anise that is added while it's simmering. Once the broth is done and the meat cooked, rice noodles are added at the very end. You are then able to personalize the dish according to your tastes by adding bean sprouts, cilantro, green onions, lime, hoisin sauce (a Chinese style dipping sauce) and Sriracha sauce (a spicy Thai chili sauce). For example, Antoine likes extra chicken, cilantro, a generous squeeze of lime and over a tablespoon of hoisin sauce. I, on the other hand, like bean sprouts, cilantro, green onions, a decent squeeze of lime juice and only a teaspoon (if that) of hoisin sauce (I'm not wild about the hoisin). Antoine's mom and brother love to use a good dose of Sriracha, which I told her would probably make me cry if I tried to use any of it!

I eagerly dug into the steaming bowl of pho with my chopsticks (Antoine's mom had offered me a fork to maneouver the noodles, but I declined wanting to be brave and more traditional). My chopsticks skills are okay, but not as good as Antoine's...but to be fair, he grew up using them and I did not! I struggled only slightly with the chopsticks and in an attempt to improve I tried holding them like Antoine (thinking it was my finger positioning that had me at a disadvantage)...but that little Intro to Chopsticks Form 101 was a failure. Then some Vietnamese words started flying between Antoine and his mom and soon she had pulled a pair of chopsticks out the kitchen drawer and said, "Jessica, look! I hold them like you!" Xuan (Antoine's mom) had noticed my embarrassment after Antoine's brief chopstick lesson and my doubt of my chopsticks holding form and instantly made me feel better by saying (in Vietnamese, later translated by Antoine) that everyone holds chopsticks differently and her and I held them the same. And then I realized, I would probably never be nervous to go over to Xuan and Tam's house again, because now I truly knew that they just wanted me to be comfortable and know I was part of the family! So, all in all, dinner was a success!

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