Thursday, June 4, 2009

Lunch with a Peer

I'm by myself, slurping down a bowl of bún chà at a local street stall, when a Vietnamese grandfather, teenage girl, and four-year-old boy sit down. Most of these streetside eateries are basically people's homes, with a couple of low tables and tiny plastic chairs out front, so space is at a premium. As a result, people sit together, and I end up across from the boy.

Like all little boys, he's twitchy and curious, full of energy, and he can't sit still. He grabs a pair of chopsticks, stands up, and starts doing kung fu gestures while his sister orders lunch. His attention darts everywhere: to the moving plates of noodles and greens passing over his head, to the motorbikes whizzing by, to the adults around him, and to the imaginary army of kung fu warriors he periodically remembers he is fighting. 

There is little difference between this four-year-old boy and any other four-year-old in the world. A too-hard kick sends him reeling backward into a tolerant diner; his grandfather and sister both tell him to settle down, so he bobs back over to his chair. His patience disappears in about ten seconds, and now his chopsticks are batons, maybe planes - or maybe wings and he's a bird! He spins and squirms in his seat, until the food arrives.

This is when I begin to realize there is something different between him and the four-year-old boys I see twitching back home. His confident fingers maneuver the too-large chopsticks with dexterity; he expertly picks noodles out of his bowl and slurps them down. His eyes continue to survey his surroundings, and I can almost see the gears turning in his head. The world he is forming in his young brain is unlike the world I formed when I was his age, although the process for forming that world, I can recognize, is very much the same.

Language does more than describe things; it colors how we see them. If in Greek, the word for moon means "cold," while in Latin the word means "light-filled," that very same moon is experienced differently, depending on what it is called. To this young boy, still wiggling into his body and coming to awareness, everything he looks at has a name: the chopsticks are "đũa," the table "cái bàn," his sister, grandfather, and everyone he knows is addressed with the pronoun appropriate to his or her station. 

I feel a deep kinship between myself and the now busy with his food little boy. We are both taking in our surroundings and giving everything names. For him, these are the only names he knows, so he accepts them with a natural grace. I, on the other hand, am encumbered by the baggage of previous words, so I have to work hard to stop myself from thinking "chopsticks," in order to remember "đũa." And sadly, I'm afraid I cannot say if the Vietnamese moon is light-filled or cold.

These thoughts are running through my head, in English, when the boy looks up from his soup. Our eyes meet, and then, seized with the same urgent thought, we simultaneously make a monster-face.


  1. That last line...the monster face you and boy make...that is such a beautiful moment.

  2. I am afraid I don't agree we are prisoners in a kinda dictionary. I don't give grammar that much power. Did you get to the Anthropology Museum yet? Go to the "special period" section and take your time. You'll never think of VN the same again. Report back. TLB

  3. Very sweet, very human observations. You have a keen eye, an open mind, and a perceptive heart. Keep sharing these with us! =Ricardo.

  4. Ditto Diane M -- killer closing line.

  5. when I learnt chinese,I also admired a six year-old boy who has spoken chinese so fluently and remembered so many new words :D

  6. '....and give them back to their parents. I'm too much of a peer to be any good as an authority figure over them.' AH TRUTH. You are a 'blown up' as opposed to a grown up. This we share.
    (boom boom)