You have been living in Ho Chi Minh City for a few months and the woman you’ve been dating for much of that time makes what at first seems a fairly innocuous statement: “I want you to meet my parents.”
In the west, meeting the parents simply means someone is proud to show you off to their folks. But here it can mean a definitive acceleration of the relationship. Gentlemen, be afraid. As one of my closest friends here warned me: “What? Meet the parents? Be careful. You’re halfway to the altar!”
A (female) Vietnamese friend only deepened the apprehension: “If you take a guy to meet your parents, they will think the two of you are serious.”
Having spontaneously said “sure” (it’s hard not to when you’re stretched out on the sofa watching a corny romantic comedy, three glasses into a bottle of Prosecco!), I’m forced to turn procrastination into something of an art form.
“Let’s wait until after the FA Cup final, then I’ll have something to talk to your dad about.”
“But he cheers for ManU, not Chelsea.”
“Hey, don’t get me wrong, I’m really looking forward to it, but didn’t you say your sister was visiting next week? Perhaps you can introduce me to her as a trial run?”
A month later, Sunday evening at an outdoor barbecue restaurant is the rehearsal date. Well, actually nothing like a date.
“Don’t sit too close to me,” is Ngoc’s first piece of advice in what turns out to be a half day lecture complete with revision questions at the end. “Don’t hold my hand. And whatever you do, don’t kiss me!”
“Ok,” I nod. “Any particular reason?”
“Whatever they see us doing in front of them, they’ll assume we’re doing far more when they can’t see us.”
“But we are.”
“Yes, but we pretend we’re not. Every parent assumes their daughter is a virgin until they get married, unless they get married because she is pregnant.”
We’re meeting in a restaurant because that’s what you do in Ho Chi Minh City, apparently. If we were in the village, where Ngoc’s grandparents come from, we’d be meeting in their home. But it is an illusion to consider that neutral territory when meeting the parents of a Vietnamese woman almost a generation younger than you.
“Next thing: When you first meet Dad, you nod and bow a little. Then you shake hands. You take my father’s hand in both your hands.”
“Ok. Any special reason for this?”
She reaches for my cheek and squeezes it a little too firmly. “Because younger people have to respect their elders.”
“What do I call him? Hung?” Hung is Ngoc’s father’s name, so it seems logical.
“No. You should call him Chu.”
“Yes, because his name is only for someone older than him to call him — like my grandfather or my grandmother. If you call him by his name he will think you do not respect him.”
“And your mother?”
“Go? As in opposite to stop?”
“No, Go — Spelt C-Ô. But you pronounce it like go.”
Right. This seems like an ominous instruction. It’s all too possible that the end of the night could be memorable for a very large figurative STOP sign appearing out of nowhere.
Securing father’s blessing for a new boyfriend is incredibly important for traditional reasons, regardless of how the relationship has progressed until then. No matter how much she adores you, a disappointed dad could mean a STOP sign.
I have a friend whose counsel I sought before the meet, whose story was different to any other I’d heard.
“The oddest issue with Phuong's parents was that they didn't care where I came from, how much I earned, what I believed, whether or not I was already married,” he explained. “But when she asked her dad if she could be my ‘official girlfriend’ he was reluctant to give his consent on the grounds that I was a vegetarian!”
Ngoc is talking again...
“When we start to eat, you will say, ‘Moi co chu dung’. Because they will not understand English. It means ‘please eat’ — it’s a mark of respect for them to start eating first. Do not eat before they do.”
Ok, sounds simple enough.
“Over dinner he will ask how we met even though he knows it already.”
I figure she hasn’t told him about the seven cocktails at Blanchy’s Tash at 2am one Saturday morning, so I ask, “What do we tell them?”
“We met at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.”
“Right. But you don’t drink coffee.”
“But I was using the free Wi-Fi and drinking iced tea.”
“Ok. Which one?”
“Which iced tea?”
“No. Which Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf?”
“The one opposite Notre Dame Cathedral.”
“You’ve already told them this?”
“Yes, of course...”
How could I be so naive to think otherwise.
We arrive at the restaurant early. I’m desperate for a nerve-easing glass of red wine.
“Will he drink wine?”
“No, because he is driving. But he might have a beer.”
“Will he think it is bad if I drink wine?”
“Hmm… No probably not. But just a glass.”
I nod. “Can I order one now?”
I’ve just completed the second when Hung and Vy arrive. Vy’s broad smile is charming and warm and I guiltily note she is just as attractive as her daughter. Hung bears the smile of someone about to assassinate me, but maybe that’s the way he smiles all the time — he does work in real estate, after all.
The greetings go exactly as schooled. I remember to use both hands, call Hung Chu and Vy Co.
We’re seated and I ask if they’d like a drink. An exchange between father and daughter is quickly translated.
“Dad would like a glass of wine, too.”
I try not to notice as Hung drops two ice cubes into his wine.
We order food and then commence with the inevitable questions.
“How long have you lived in Vietnam?” is first even though they obviously know all these details already. “What do you do here? Do you like it here? Do you love children?”
I barely suppress choking on my wine. Is it my imagination, or are those church bells ringing in the background?
“Well, as yet I do not have any experience with children,” I reply diplomatically. “But I am sure with the right partner I would enjoy being a father.”
The translation is so short I am sure Ngoc has abbreviated my answer to “Yes.”
“Do you like Vietnamese girls?”
Beware the loaded question! Yes, might make me sound like a player; no is a slight on their daughter, surely, “I think Vietnamese women are very beautiful, but it is hard to find one who also has a good heart like your daughter,” is the best medium of the two.
Ngoc nearly chokes on her iced tea and the look she gives me shows she’s not clear if I’m flattering her or simply a master in the art of bullsh*t. Then she remembers to translate.
He asks another question, appearing even more serious if that was possible.
Ngoc turns to me: “He asks if you’ve been married before.”
I fix her with a bemused stare. This is one question we forgot to rehearse.
“Yes, of course.” I know I’ve dumped her in it, but she’s the best one to navigate us out of this fjord.
It takes a lot more than three words for her to translate mine. Later I ask what she said.
“I said you got married and then divorced. When you divorced you kept contact with her but you don’t fight. I told them you did not have children.”
Is that wise, I muse. I’d have thought they prefer to think I had no contact with my ex at all, especially since we didn’t have children.
“In Vietnam when we divorce we don’t have contact with our exes. But foreigners usually keep contact. So I want them to think you’re a normal foreigner.”
She continues: “They asked why you did not have children.”
Ahh, I think... fear of an impotent son-in-law... “So what did you tell them?”
“I blamed your ex.”
Works for me!
Of course, with Ngoc translating there’s a fairly secure safety net in place so soon the nervousness eases and I’m bold enough to commiserate about ManU failing to collect the Premier League trophy, even managing not to grit my teeth as I talk so insincerely.
He pauses and I sense an ice cold stare. Oh dear, I’ve screwed up. Did he see through the kids explanation? Was it the ex? Has he spied the tattoo not quite hidden beneath my watch strap?
Then Hung says something in fluent Vietnamese to Ngoc. It has the tone of “Which sewer did you drag this guy from?”
It seems like an age before Ngoc turns and translates for me with a beaming smile: “He says he likes you.”