Settling into our new Floridian life was no easy feat considering Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam was all my family had ever known. My father took up a job at Regal & Nautique Orlando as a boat service technician while my mother soldered tiny IC chips until persistent nosebleeds caused by inhaling solder smoke forced her to seek employment elsewhere. Neither job was particularly interesting, however, they swallowed their pride knowing it was a necessary step towards establishing any sort of footing in this foreign place. Especially since my brother and I were only four and seven, ages far too young to contribute anything of significance to help lift the burdens off our parents’ backs.
About halfway into our second month here, my father returned from work and announced he “brought home the bread,” which was something I never heard before. He must’ve picked up some weird American lingo while on the job. Had I heard him correctly? It was a rather small achievement, I thought, considering he was gone for most of the day. My father clarified that “bread” was a term Americans used when referring to money. Somehow a block of flour and water was equivalent to social economic wealth. Such an odd place, this America.
In simultaneous celebration of my grandmother’s first month in the States and birthday, my family decided to treat her to a steakhouse dinner even though her few remaining teeth were hanging on for dear life. She opted for Outback Steakhouse after having seen a commercial for it where entire families were smiling and giving countless thumbs ups. “Take me to the happy food place,” she said. And since it was her special day, we happily obliged. My grandmother wouldn’t stop talking during the car ride about how excited she was to be visiting the land of good times and delicious food.
Once we got parked and began towards the door, my grandmother suddenly stopped as she started removing her shoes while other patrons darted us weird glances through the windows.
“Ma, what are you doing?” my mother asked.
“This is steak house? Ma always take shoe off before enter house. Good manners.”
We spent a solid ten minutes explaining to her that, contrary to its name, Outback Steakhouse was not an actual house with couches, showers, and bedrooms. She finally agreed to slip her shoes back on before all of us went inside, avoiding eye contact with inquisitive folks who wondered what happened. By the amount of bearded beer-bellied white men moving about, we might as well have arrived at a Santa Claus convention. My quick-eyed father ushered us towards a table that was somehow vacant amidst the heavy bustle of customers. Moments later, we were approached by a waiter who informed us the table we chose was “For Reserved Guests Only,” as specified by a small piece of folded white paper sitting atop its surface.
Waving the sign about, my mother claimed we were emotionally calm and collected, thus it was only fitting to dine at a table clearly designated for reserved people like us. The waiter snatched the sign away and gave us exactly thirty seconds to find new seating before upper level management got involved. With what little English she knew, my grandmother suggested we avoid further confrontation and move elsewhere. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves at a table near the registers within the waiter’s line of sight as a reminder to not attempt any more funny business. Now my mother began lamenting, cursing the tricky nature of American words with a quick shake of her fist. Stopping as the waiter came by with menus, saying only, “Thank goodness, that little miscommunication back there sure worked up an appetite!”
My grandmother tapped my shoulder and I noticed she was furrowing her eyebrows at the open menu.
“What the steak do good job?” she asked.
At first I had no clue what she was talking about. As I followed her thin fingers towards the laminated page, only then did I realize she was asking about the words Well Done under a piece of steak which looked like burnt sheetrock. My perplexed grandmother had sworn they were complimenting the meat for some praise-worthy achievement. Withholding laughter, I explained the words were referring to how the steak was cooked.
She replied, “If chef cook good job then grandma not worry, food will be delicious.”
Then the waiter swung by and recommended their medium-rare steak, pointing at a cross-section of meat with a beautiful pink center. While my father appreciated the suggestion, the offer was kindly denied since he refused to eat something that was difficult to find. Realizing my family wasn’t from around here, the waiter tried explaining to him that “rare,” similar to well-done, was just another way steaks were cooked. After about fifteen minutes of heated banter regarding the confusing nature of American vernacular and steakhouses, my family said screw it and went to McDonalds instead.
Grandma managed to snag two peppermints on the way out as mementos from her first time (almost) trying Western dining. “Look at the pretty candy!” she said, transfixed by the swirl of reds and whites like it was some Christmas hypnotist wheel. She was equally fascinated by the crinkle of wrappers, showing my brother and I the sound the plastic made when rubbed between her fingertips. We pulled up to the drive-thru and ordered chicken McNuggets for the kids and grandma while my parents split a Big Mac, which they claimed was printed deceptively smaller on the order board.
Once everyone began digging into their respective meals, I couldn’t help but reflect on the evening’s occurrences. In hindsight, although we failed to offer my grandmother the full Outback Steakhouse experience, things actually turned out pretty well. Not only did we learn some new words along the way, my grandmother got to try McDonalds for the first time surrounded by people she loved. And that alone was something worth celebrating.
Things I’ve Lost
Milk teeth: the first at an Outback steakhouse during Christmas of ‘02, another at the hands of my father equipped with about a foot of dental floss securely tied to a doorknob. Sleep: as my mother’s rendition of the tooth fairy was more frightening than comforting, instilling in me an image of a winged tiny person who came during the night to take my baby teeth in exchange for a quarter or two. Slight trust in my mother: as I stumbled upon a small tooth shaped container in my bathroom holding all my baby teeth, thinking that perhaps, my mother, was in cahoots with this winged tiny person. A few brain cells as I was channel surfing and stumbled across “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” for the first time. My mother at the supermarket: as I failed to locate her after accomplishing the assigned mission of acquiring a milk jug and some paper towels.
A pick-up basketball game in my middle school physical education class, where I realized putting a ball into a hoop was not my forte. Sensation in my left ankle: an injury I sustained from being crossed during that same pick-up game; further solidifying my realization that basketball wasn’t for me. My first high school friend to drug addiction; he was always there but never was. My appetite: upon discovering the copious amounts of oil and grease found on school pizza; nothing quite like the thrill of putting a triangular piece of cholesterol into your body. Delicious.
Patience and the feeling in my legs: while waiting in line for two hours at a local Walmart as the folks preceding me were loading up on produce in preparation for Hurricane Irma. My spot in that same line as I had to quickly run to the bathroom; sympathy, quite literally, goes flying out the window during hurricane season. A close family friend whom I considered a second grandfather, to cancer: as he was unable to fulfill his promise of attending my high school graduation.
A significant amount of weight during puberty; and my interest, post weight loss, in a girl who had turned me down years before I got slim. Perception of time as I awaited my name to be called during the aforementioned graduation ceremony: consumed with the realization that the supposed best four years of my life were now over and questioning whether they had lived up to that title. Faith in humanity: on January 20, 2017. A thin layer of skin atop my shoulders: resulting from a failure to evenly cover them with sunblock on a recent beach trip; a decision I now regret as the Sun showered me with radiation and made me his bitch. Many hours creating this, and subsequent pieces of writing; a price I am willing to pay, always.
Nam Hoang Tran is a writer living in Orlando, Fl. His work appears or is forthcoming in Funny-ish, Montana Mouthful, Star 82 Review, Bending Genres, and elsewhere. Find him online at www.namhtran.com.