At the end of my street are two or three different Vietnamese restaurants.
The one at the absolute corner is a bit notorious due to a gangland shooting that happened there, injuring diners. Between it and the next one is a derelict movie theatre that now hosts a storefront church, who rent it as needed. It's for rent or for sale, otherwise.
The piles of shit in front of it are from humans.
The place I'm thinking of is past the now closed Samoan store where the scary tattooed guy was from, down from the laundromat where people are as likely to seek shelter as to wash clothes, the two-car industrial garage with twenty cars parked around it where three Mexican guys fix them in a way that horse whispering is to veterinary science.
The place used to serve pho' but changed owners - the guy who ran it was a pleasant fellow with wavy hair who sold up and out to go into another line of business with his wife elsewhere. The new owners are a quiet older couple and their twenty something daughters, who wear the traditional inexpensive track pants and flip-flops uniform of the highly practical Vietnamese and study nursing between serving various dishes.
The mother was there, not the daughter - unbeknownst to me she was in the back. So I made an attempt with my halting Vietnamese. I spoke it much better as a little blond kid. As I've said before, in the 70s we got a huge influx of refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia, so the schoolyard, an interesting intersection of English speakers from Ontario, bused-in Francophones to try and French immerse the English natives, and Vietnamese and Cambodian kids meant that - well, we learned to speak each others' languages. The schoolyard was like Blade Runner, one language blending into another, and argument starting in English, replied in Vietnamese, and ending in Khmer. I could speak simple things well then. Simple things not so well, now, inflected languages are a bastard, and noone's listening for my childhood mistakes and compensating - but I can usually make myself understood.
Chào bà, tôi muốn pho'gà và bi cuon. Cám ơn (Looking up the transliteration as best as I can- I cannot read it).
I spoke slowly and deliberately to get the inflections right, and though I'm sure I screwed a couple up, she understood my meaning.
I sat down, and the daughter I hadn't seen before came out and peered at me oddly. I noticed the parents were trying to look at me surreptitiously through the door.
Throughout the meal I was being watched. But more than watched. Scrutinised. Maybe, for reasons that will become apparent, it was because I knew how to pronounce banh xèo (but had changed my mind about ordering it)
Finally, the daughter mustered the courage to come and ask me something quickly in a more complex Vietnamese. I caught "are you" but apparently not much else, so I copped the only phrase I knew apart from the ones I just used, "spoon" and "nhà hàng o? ddau?", namely "Xin loi cô, tôi không no'i tieng Viet. (I am NOT looking up how to write that any better than I have....)
She started again in halting English. "Are you... (fighting to find the words... failing...) Vietnamese?" A lot of innuendo in that last word.
The question didn't make sense momentarily, and then I realised what she was getting at.
Given my age, I was just about the age to have been fathered during the war by an American serviceman. They can range in appearance from indistinguishable from their two-Viet parents to practically Caucasean.
They are also HEAVILY ostracised in some quarters, and in some cases drift, physically and socially, between two cultures, some exercising the right to relocate to the United States if the father's identity can be proven.
I fit the profile. Fighting to remember a language learned as a child, homesick for childhood cuisine of shredded pork rolls and crisp spring rolls, steaming pho' and lemongrass perfumed beef. But keeping fundamentally to himself. They were looking for something in my face. A slightly flatter forehead. Teeth that were less Caucasean. A broader face, a more distinctive nose. Could they tell? They weren't sure. They just weren't sure.
I wasn't the creature of legend they were wondering about, murmuring in the back to themselves, and there was just an uncomfortable pause from me coming out and explaining where my language skills, primitive as they were, came from.
I didn't speak Vietnamese there after that.