It happened in a flash: impact, a dull crunch, heads rocking forward for a split second before being wrenched back again by seat belts, a stream of American muttered curses, a shot of pain knifing through my shoulder.
In the seconds following, a heavy silence poured into the taxi.
We three sibs darted looks at each other, then locked the peepers on our driver, a diminutive Vietnamese man with salt and pepper hair, wire-rimmed glasses and a well-pressed, but worn, button-down oxford. He sat looking mutely forward, both hands on the wheel, thumbs tapping to an unheard beat. He was waiting for traffic to move forward so he could follow suit.
As the seconds dragged to a full minute, I voiced a dawning realization. “He’s not going to do anything about it.”
Heads shook throughout.
“We did just get rear-ended, right?”
“Okay. Just checking,” I said.
“And he’s not going to do a fucking thing.”
“What kind of place is this?” My sister asked, with a note of wonder in her voice.
We had gotten into this habit in China of talking our alien English aloud to each other, right in front of people. We did this because for the most part—especially the further inland we traveled—no one understood, and once we realized this it became, well, great fun.
We could be out in the middle of nowhere, backwoods Yangshuo, in a village with more water buffalo than humans and we could happen upon a Chinese person with an enormous nose, toucan-like, and we could say—if we wanted to, mind you, purely hypothetical—we could say, “Wow! Look at that whopper! Bet he can smell a fart in the next village!” Or of another, “Why doesn’t this guy shave this four-inch mole hair? It’s curling like crazy.” Or to another tugging on a water buffalo’s rope leash, “How much for your lady there?” And as long as we didn’t point directly at the protuberance, or insanely long mole hair, or water buffalo, the poor Chinese would be none the wiser. They would just smile.
I am sure this happens all the time in the mostly monoglot, US of A. I completely understand it. Speaking your own language, to your own people, seems a kind of refuge in the bewildering storm that is another culture. A safe harbor. When you understand little, it is nice to sink into the known, and when you are feeling oppressed and inconsequential, an incomprehensible joke at another’s expense raises you up a little, with no real negative consequence. It was intoxicating at times.
But we weren’t in China anymore. We were in Vietnam now and hadn’t re-calibrated. We had grown careless, showing a little of our American lack-of-restraint.
So when my sister voiced her question aloud, ‘What kind of place is this?’ laced with a sort-of awestruck tone of wonder, imagine our surprise when the mild-mannered taxi driver answered in fluent English.
“This is Saigon.”
All three of us gaped. We had been struck twice in two minutes. Once from behind in a car accident that no native acknowledged, and a second time by this taxi driver’s tremendous English. What kind of place, indeed.
Hold on to your hats and glasses folks. This is Saigon.