Monday, 26 March 2012

Vinh thi Phi Bang

Chapter 10

"A man's mind plans his way,
but the Lord directs his steps."
                                                                                 (Proverbs 16:9)

Amtrak's National Limited rolled into Pittsburgh a few minutes behind schedule at 22:35. I thought the train seemed to require a long time to traverse those final thirty miles between Greensburg and Pittsburgh but the slowness was more likely my impatience at being unable to push the clock forward to hasten arrival. I didn't know if Phi Bang had planned to meet me at the train station. I hadn't asked her to but was secretly wishing she would. 

No crowds were waiting to meet the train and no one was waiting to greet me. The station was deserted. Amtrak's inherited structure was a huge decrepit elderly empty shell that had probably seen far busier times and trains in the 1940's. Disappointed and weary, I wanted only to find a taxi to whisk me off to the hotel where the travel agent had booked a room for me. Having heard many harrowing tales about American cities being unsafe at night, and probably most of those stories true, I was very apprehensive about venturing outside.

The telephone booths were antique. Made of wood and painted dark brown, the booths resembled props out of an old gangster movie, except these were the real thing. As soon as the door was closed, the dim circular light in the ceiling went on. 

Like a scene portrayed in old movies, I facetiously wondered, "Is gunfire going to erupt as soon as I pick up the receiver and dial 0?"

I was almost expecting to have to pay only a nickel instead of the customary dime. No such luck. The coin slot must have been the only modernized feature because the no-armed bandit did require a dime. Except for the Amtrak signs, time did appear to have stood still in this train station since the 1940's. 

The operator connected me with a taxi company and the dispatcher wanted to know which station I was at. I didn't have a clue.

"Sir, I cain't send no cab if you don't know which station you're at." she drawled in American accented English very different from my English.

"I'm at the Amtrak station in downtown Pittsburgh." I responded concisely but informatively.

"Is that the Penn Station?"

"I'm sorry but I don't know."

"Sir, like I told ya, I cain't send no cab if you don't know which station." she drawled.

"There's only one Amtrak station in Pittsburgh and that's where I am." trying to remain calm.

"Is that the Penn Station?" she questioned again.

"I don't know. I just got off the train and I've never been here before." I stated heatedly.

"Sir, where am I ta send the cab?"

"The Amtrak station."

"Which station is that?"

"I don't know but it's in downtown Pittsburgh. It’s the only Amtrak Station in Pittsburgh. Surely you know where it is." becoming rather annoyed.

"I'm sorry sir, but I cain't send no cab unless you can tell me which station you're at." she drawled very informatively.

"How the hell am I supposed to know?!!" finally losing my temper, and loudly added, "I just got off the train. I've never been to Pittsburgh before and all I know is that this station is the only station in all of Pittsburgh that Amtrak trains make a stop at. Surely one of your taxis have either picked up or dropped off a passenger here before!"

"Sir, it ain't goin' ta help if you're goin ta start yellin' an' all. Just go outside and see if there are any cabs waitin' there. If they is, then you're at the Penn Station." she drawled on like she hadn't heard a word I said.

"And what if there aren't any cabs?"

"Then you'll hafta go an' look at the street signs. Call me back if you don't find a cab waitin’ outside there." she drawled and then hung up.

"I don't believe this." I muttered aloud while looking at the dead telephone receiver.

Venturing outside, I discovered several cabs lined-up in single file patiently waiting for fares.

"I should've come out here in the first place." I muttered in disbelief and feeling like an idiot; albeit an aggravated one.

As soon as I was seated and had the door closed, the cab raced off before I could have any second thoughts about getting out. The driver then asked, "Where to?"

I gave him the name of the hotel and immediately he grilled, "The one on the east side of town or the one on the west side?"

"The one that's in the downtown area."

"There ain't no hotel with that name in downtown or near downtown."

"I really don't know which one."

That was the wrong thing to say. Abruptly he slammed on the brakes, turned around and remarked pointedly, "Unless you know which place you want to go to, then I ain't able to take you there."

"This guy must be related to the dispatcher,” I fumed silently while fumbling through my travel bag searching for the slip of paper that had the address of the hotel. Holding up the note, I exclaimed, "McKnight Road!"

“Never heard of it.” The cabby remarked dismissively.

“I’ve got the address and zip-code right here. McKnight Road.” I persisted, disbelieving what I was hearing.

"There ain't no such street in this city. You sure you got the right city?" the cabby remarked.

At wits end and fuming, I sarcastically suggested, "Why don't you call your dispatcher for directions and find out where it is. She's a wealth of information."

He called and received some directions as well as a few choice words. Cabby drove for miles to a hotel that seemed to be quite far out from what I had assumed was going to be a location in downtown Pittsburgh.

Two weeks prior to my departure from Vancouver and because I knew nothing about Pittsburgh, I had employed a travel agent to book and prepay a hotel room in downtown Pittsburgh for my expected late arrival. That eager-for-my-money agent had repeatedly assured me the hotel was in the downtown core; it wasn't. It wasn't even in Pittsburgh!

Eventually arriving at my destination I was soon to discover that the travel agent had not made the reservation let alone prepaid the room. Compounding my rising frustration, I received absolutely no co-operation from the front desk clerk. Weary from travel and rather than pointlessly waste time in arguing further, I conceded and paid again for the room. 

The clerk handed me the key and stated, "Room 318." 

"Which room 318 would that be?" I slyly asked.

"The one on the third floor." she replied.

Rather than feeling as if I had mastered this crazy game, I tiredly shuffled down the hall wondering if this hotel could possibly more than one room 318. 

I glanced at my watch and thought, "Just after midnight... Twilight Zone."

Thirty hours of coach-class train travel that culminated in a far different arrival than had been anticipated reminded me I needed some shut-eye. 

When I last called Phi Bang about a week ago, she had straight-forwardly stated she didn't believe me when I told her that I was going to visit her. Perhaps she really hadn't believed me. Now I was wishing that I had telephoned her from Montreal just to let her know I was on the way, but not knowing what her father would think about my plans to visit, I was afraid of being told not to come. Anyway, Phi Bang had my letter with my travel plans and she knew when I was expected to arrive. 

Welcome to Pittsburgh! 

The following morning I was awake early; well I thought it was early but upon checking my watch I discovered it had died sometime during the night. I had no idea what time it was other than being the perfect time to finally notice this room did not have a clock.

My head may have been thinking in Eastern Time but my body was reminding me about Pacific Time. Being dazzled by sunlight upon opening the drapes a smidge simply reconfirmed the time was probably a few hours later than I had estimated.

My hotel room overlooked a shopping plaza and a McDonald's restaurant. After a quick shower I headed over to the plaza hoping to buy a cheap watch and then have breakfast. One thing can be said about McDonald's: good or bad, like it or not, their food always tastes the same everywhere in North America.

Upon returning to my room I decided to telephone Phi Bang and let her know that I had arrived in Pittsburgh. Mr. Vinh answered the ringing but he did not ask who I was. Perhaps he knew, or maybe he just assumed that I was another of the many Americans who had been busy helping the family to settle. Anyway, Phi Bang had already gone out for the morning and she was not expected to return home until about 13:00. 

Rather than identify myself, I played safe and informed Mr. Vinh that I would call Phi Bang again later.

Not knowing how far out of Pittsburgh I was or how far away Phi Bang's home was from the hotel, I was beginning to worry that I had travelled all this way and still may not meet her or spend very much time with her. I was feeling rather disheartened but at least I knew again what time it was. 

Morning dragged by exceedingly slowly as I wasted away the hours by watching 1960's television re-runs. Minutes after 13:00 I telephone Phi Bang again. She was home and wanted to know where I was. She told me that she and her family had been expecting me to arrive last night and as far as she was concerned, I had not shown up. When I started trying to explain about my late night arrival in Pittsburgh I realized that Phi Bang did not understand what I was talking about.

"Where are you?" she asked.

"I'm in Pittsburgh." I confirmed.

"Yes, I don't believe." she said.

"I'm here in the hotel now." I reconfirmed and now feeling a taste of nervous anticipation.

"When do you come here?" she asked flatly.

"Now! If you want." I answered excitedly.

"Why you not come yesterday night as you write to tell me in letter?" she questioned further.

"I arrived last night but no one was waiting for me at the station." I detailed succinctly.

"Yes, I know. I was waiting for you to come but you not come." she said, sounding rather disappointed.

"I thought it was too late." I admitted.

"All my family waiting." she added.

"Phi Bang, if I tell you about my arrival here late last night you won’t believe me." I stated but getting a bit off the track.

"Yes, I know." she commented, which I knew meant she did not understand what I was talking about.

"Why are we wasting time talking on the telephone?" I questioned and then stated, "I’ll leave now."

"Where you go now?" Phi Bang asked, sounding confused.

"To you! I’ll go to your house!" I repeated excitedly.

"Now?" she questioned, finally betraying a hint of surprise.

"Yes! Is that okay?" I ventured hopefully.

"Yes. I wait." she answered, again sounding skeptical.

"I figure I'll be there in about an hour although I'm not certain how far it is to get there." I said excitedly.

"Today? You in Pittsburgh?" she questioned in a tone of surprise, now truly believing that I was calling her from within the greater Pittsburgh area.

"Yes!" I confirmed, pleased and relieved that she understood me.

"Yes, I not believe before you in Pittsburgh." she admitted.

"Almost in Pittsburgh... well... never mind. I'm leaving now. I'll be there as soon as I can grab a taxi to take me there." I said, now itching to get going.

"I wait here now! You come my house now!" Phi Bang stated, and for the first time with excited anticipation evident in her voice. 

The trip across the city to reach Phi Bang's home required almost an hour. The taxi finally pulled up against the sidewalk in front of an older dark red brick building. The house was narrow, tall, at least three floors and had a tiny front yard. While paying the driver and preparing to get out, I glimpsed toward the house and noticed that my arrival had not gone unobserved. Two faces were peering out the window at the front door. To say that I was very excited would be an understatement. Nervously shaking uncontrollably I still did not know what type of reception I would receive. As I approached the house along the cement walk, two young ladies came out and stood on the porch. I stopped and stared. One young lady I immediately recognized as Phi Bang. The other young lady I assumed was Mai Lien, Phi Bang's older sister.

From the photographs Phi Bang had sent to me during the year that we had been writing to each other, I had formed images in my thoughts about how she would appear. Phi Bang’s long straight black hair was tied into a ponytail and she was actually shorter and slimmer than I had expected. She was very pretty and she was also very much alive! Phi Bang said nothing at all. She just stood on the porch smiling at me. I said nothing either and just looked at her. What does one say upon first meeting the person one has spent the last almost twelve months writing to as if she was the most important person in the world? In my case, my greeting was certainly nothing profound. In spite of having talked to her on the telephone numerous times and in spite of all the available clever words in the English language, all the rehearsed lines and carefully planned possible speeches, the only thing I was able to say at that moment was a shy, "Hello." 

The other young lady whom I had assumed was Mai Lien turned, went back inside the house and a moment later returned with her father. Mr. Vinh introduced himself to me and then introduced me to both Mai Lien and Phi Bang in that order. Afterward, he asked me to come into the house. Inside, I was then introduced to Phi Bang's grandmother. Mr. Vinh spoke very fluent English, Phi Bang spoke English with difficulty and Mai Lien and Grandmother spoke virtually none.

My heart sank with disappointment when I found out that Phi Bang and Mai Lien would have to go out again to work and they would not be returning until quite late in the evening. Nonetheless, Phi Bang was insistent that I stay at her home and wait for her but I was very reluctant to do so. Mr. Vinh then asked me to remain and indicated that he wanted to have a talk with me.

Uncomfortable at first, I soon relaxed after Mr. Vinh began by asking me questions. He then started to share with me some of his thoughts.

"Last year when you began writing letters to Bang, I expected the writing would end after four or five letters." Mr. Vinh stated.

"Phi Bang always replied to my letters." I said, momentarily glancing at Phi Bang who was silently sitting on one of the chairs across the room.

"With children always with a great fire at the beginning, then with nothing to burn after. I'm very astonished your writing continued." Mr. Vinh remarked as he glanced over at Phi Bang and then looked back at me.

"It was easy for me to keep writing because we wrote in English. Perhaps it was more difficult for Phi Bang." I replied but Phi Bang remained silent.

"Not the first time Bang wrote to friends in other countries. Always stop after two or three letters. I'm astonished Bang did not stop writing to you." Mr. Vinh revealed.

"Mr. Vinh, I've never written to a pen-pal before. I really didn't know what to expect when I began writing." I admitted.

"I never thought this day would come. Much has changed for my family in these last months." Mr. Vinh revealed quietly.

Upon saying this and probably overwhelmed by his memories of the family fleeing Vietnam still very raw, he became overtly emotional, paused a few seconds to recompose and then continued, "I must confess to you I'm grateful that you did not stop writing to Bang."

"I don't know what to say." I responded rather humbly, but very surprised by his comment.

"I get ready go out now. So sorry must go." Phi Bang said, vacated her chair and quickly disappeared upstairs.

Even though I did not ask, Mr. Vinh openly recounted to me why he and his family fled from South Vietnam. The family had been staying in Saigon when the end came. He didn't want to leave Vietnam nor had he planned to flee. After encounters with soldiers from North Vietnam, however, he quickly realized how poorly educated the northerners were and how little they knew or understood about the world beyond the borders of North Vietnam. 

"When I first met with soldiers from the north, not officer, I gave them my gold pen so they will let me pass. They look as if they have never seen anything like that before. I could not believe. Only a pen!" Mr. Vinh exclaimed.

Mr. Vinh said he then decided to flee from Vietnam, hoping to be able to provide his family with a better future elsewhere than the future they would have surely faced had they remained in Vietnam. After quickly making arrangements and paying bribes, the entire family set out to sea a day later. While Mr. Vinh did not say so directly, I concluded from our discussion that the new conquerors had been tacitly accepting payments from people who wanted to risk fleeing from Vietnam by sea.

Mr. Vinh mentioned that in leaving Vietnam, the family was also obliged to leave behind all their possessions. He recounted in detail that he had been operating several successful business ventures in Tay Ninh. In describing the drastic change in their lives, he mentioned that in Vietnam the family had owned every possible material good that anyone could want. Now, the Vinh family was totally dependent upon the good will of the group of American sponsors who were providing everything.

"When we arrived in California we have nothing. I tried to telephone every name of American I can remember from Vietnam. Eventually I am successful to locate one American officer in Pittsburgh. Several years earlier he came to visit and met my family in Tay Ninh. He gave his name and address to me and told me to call him if I visit United States. I did not keep his card because I never expect to come to America. I did not remember the family name correctly but an operator for the telephone company was most helpful. That American officer no longer in the military. Now he is a doctor. I called him to ask if he can do anything to help us. As you can see, he organized a group of sponsors to help us. This why we choose Pittsburgh." Mr. Vinh recounted to me.

Surprisingly, Mr. Vinh was not bitter about events. He was grateful that his entire family was safely together and he was optimistically looking ahead to starting over again. I admired his courage and determination. 

Mr. Vinh again insisted that I stay at the house with the family and not at the hotel. Mr. Vinh said that he regarded me like a member of the family. He also commented that family does not stay in hotels when visiting family. At first I was going to disagree and say no, and all my upbringing and conditioning urged me to say no, but I said yes. I was only going to be in Pittsburgh for four more days and I welcomed any opportunity to be near Phi Bang. Being under the same roof would give us a chance to get to know each other a bit more. My reasoning was that if Phi Bang was still unsure about her feelings for me then I wanted her to change her mind and fall in love with me. Selfishly, I wanted every chance to try to make it happen.

Phi Bang and Mai Lien departed and I called for a taxi to return me to the hotel. Of all the people I have met during all my travels, I shall never forget Leo the cabby. He was friendly, talkative, asked numerous questions to stimulate conversation and offered sensible advice on many subjects. Leo spoke about Pittsburgh in a manner that would leave any listener with no doubt that he loved Pittsburgh.

Leo was wondering why I was staying in a hotel north of the city when I told him my story detailing events that led up to why I was visiting Pittsburgh. He shut off the meter and said he was not going to charge me any more for the trip. He offered to wait for me at the hotel while I collected my belongings and checked out. He also offered to drive me back to Phi Bang's home with no charge. Leo told me that he thought young people needed a break once in a while because few people give young people a break when they need one.

Leo the cabby is most assuredly one of Pittsburgh's great, unsung heroes, a true ambassador for the City of Pittsburgh. A tragedy for Pittsburgh though that Leo is unknown to most residents, but then again most genuine heroes are almost always unknown.

Upon returning to the Vinh home I was introduced to Phi Bang's younger sister and six brothers. After the formalities of introductions I was directed to a room on the top floor where they indicated I would be staying. Shortly afterward they all quietly disappeared to continue work on their homework assignments and English lessons. All spoke very limited English. While I was left alone for most of the evening, periodically someone would shyly venture into the room, ask me a question or two and then disappear again.

Phi Bang had left me her tape player and numerous cassette tapes of Vietnamese music. While I did not understand the words, the music was not very different from North American rock music. No doubt the American influence on young Vietnamese musicians had been significant. Phi Bang's taste in music was definitely not the same as mine. I turned off the tape. 

Looking through the assortment of cassettes I found one with a name that I did recognize, a recording of Bob Hope entertaining American troops in Vietnam on Christmas Day.

"Why on earth is Phi Bang be interested in this?" I wondered.

Phi Bang could not have known what Bob Hope was talking about. I assumed that Phi Bang may have known who Bob Hope was even though she would not understand the dialogue. After a few minutes of listening to Bob Hope comment about Vietnam and the war, I stopped the tape. The tape was tragically out of date. American troops were no longer in Vietnam and now the country was probably a far different place.

"What a change!" I thought. From being entertained as troops in Vietnam during Christmas only a few years earlier, the Americans were now and perhaps with some reluctance, playing host to accommodate the hundreds of thousands Vietnamese people who had come and were still coming to America.

Just after 22:30 I heard Phi Bang's voice again. She came upstairs, handed me an unopened tin of assorted nuts and suggested that I eat some while waiting for dinner to be prepared. Phi Bang turned to go back downstairs. When I started to follow her she insisted that I wait in the room for her to return again. After what had seemed like endless waiting through the afternoon and evening, more waiting to be done. Phi Bang had probably stopped somewhere on her way home to buy the nuts for me. Placing the tin aside on the table, I did not have the heart to tell her that I did not particularly like nuts. The last thing I wanted to do was nibble on nuts. I wanted only to be able to visit and talk with Phi Bang for a while. Every time it seemed we would finally have a few moments together, something else had to be done first.

Later, Mai Lien, Phi Bang and I were seated at the small square table in the kitchen. In the center of the table, Phi Bang's grandmother had arranged several large steaming bowls of different types of foods. While we were sitting and talking to each other, Grandmother placed smaller bowls of plain steaming rice in front of each of us. Afterward, she placed a pair of chop sticks beside each bowl, including the one that was in front of me. Phi Bang looked at her grandmother for a moment but said nothing. Perhaps Phi Bang had intended to say something but decided against questioning the decision  made by the elder member of the family.

We waited for Phi Bang's father to join us before starting into our meal. Phi Bang and Mai Lien whispered to each other in Vietnamese. As if I could have understood a single word even if they had spoken aloud. Anyway, I knew they were talking about the pair of chopsticks Grandmother had given to me because Mai Lien pointed to them while whispering. Perhaps they were in a quandary, figuring that I, a Caucasian, would be unable to use those Asian utensils. I sat there quietly and pretended not to have any idea what the two of them seemed to be concerned about. Inwardly I was trying not to break and laugh.

Phi Bang's father entered the kitchen and joined us at the table. Phi Bang began to fill my bowl with items from the larger bowls in the center of the table. Then, as if nothing was out of the ordinary, I picked up the pair of chopsticks, held one in each hand, and feigned looking puzzled about what to do with them. Phi Bang and Mai Lien glanced at each other in embarrassed silence. Placing both chopsticks in my right hand, I began eating as if nothing was amiss. Mai Lien whispered to Phi Bang in disbelief while I continued eating as comfortably as if I had been using a spoon. 

"Are you surprised?" I finally asked Phi Bang and Mai Lien.

"Yes!" they exclaimed in unison, as if they did not believe what they had seen.

"How you can know to use?" Phi Bang asked. Mai Lien nodded in agreement.

"I practiced for several weeks before I came here." I revealed.

"Do you know there are more than one hundred ways to hold a pair of chop sticks?" Mr. Vinh asked me.

"No." I admitted.

"In Vietnam we can tell a man's class or education by the manner in which he holds a pair of chop-sticks." Mr. Vinh added.

"Then my manner must be very low class." I concluded. 

"Definitely opportunity for improvement." Mr. Vinh confirmed tactfully. He then proceeded to show me numerous different ways to hold chop sticks.

Following dinner, Mr. Vinh and I sat in the living room and talked. Mr. Vinh did most of the talking while I listened and answered his questions. About half an hour later Phi Bang and May Lien joined us. Moments later, both May Lien and Mr. Vinh disappeared upstairs leaving Phi Bang and me alone to talk.

Just after midnight, Phi Bang went into the kitchen again and returned with several oranges and a bowl of grapes. Not hungry, I declined her offer of more to eat. Phi Bang placed the bowl of grapes on the table and returned the oranges to the kitchen. When Phi Bang returned, she sat on the floor at my feet.

"What are you doing?" I asked, rather surprised by her action.

"Yes, I sit here." she said.

"No, I don't want you sitting at my feet. This just isn't right." I said.

"I want." she said.

"No. Sit beside me or sit over there, but not on the floor at my feet." I protested.

"Yes." she said, but did not move. Phi Bang pulled a grape off the cluster, peeled the skin off the grape and handed it to me. She then did the same to a few more grapes and placed them on the plate beside her.

"Why are you peeling grapes?" I asked, curious why anyone would waste effort to peel grapes.

"These are for you." Phi Bang said and handed me the plate of peeled grapes.

"What?" I exclaimed, and added, "No one peels grapes. I've never heard of such a thing. You don't have to peel grapes for me."

"You eat. These good. In my country, eat without skin." she said.

"Here we don't peel grapes. I've never seen anyone do it before." I commented.

"Here, you eat." she said.

"No, I’m not hungry." I protested.

"Yes, I know. Not hungry. You eat. These for you." she repeated, as if she had not listened to what I said.

I took the grapes and stuffed a few of them into my mouth, then said, "Thank you."

"Why you said thank you so many much times?" Phi Bang asked.

Caught off guard, I paused momentarily to think about her question, and said, "It’s what I’m supposed to say."

"It not have any much meaning to say very too many times." she pointed out.

"Don't use very and too together. You may be right. It’s intended to be a form of courtesy but we say thank you so many times that it has lost its meaning, and loses its impact when it’s truly meant to be given." I said.

"In Vietnam, only say thank you when need to express a certain time when very thankful and with much grateful." Phi Bang explained, offering me some insight from her perception.

"Can I ask you a question?" I asked her.

"Yes." she replied.

"Why do you say yes all the time, even when you mean no?" I asked.

"In my country children not to say no, Very bad to say no." she explained.

"You’re not a child." I pointed out while noticing how attractive she was.

"Yes, I am child. Not have husband or children." she answered.

"You don't look like a child to me." I said to Phi Bang while silently thinking about what I really wanted to say to her, which was, "Phi Bang, you're beautiful and if I had any chance at all, I would like to be your husband." 

I remained silent and Phi Bang never knew what I was thinking.

"Thank you but not know how to say to you." she said and smiled shyly.

"Phi Bang, you don't have to say anything." I said.

"Yes, I know, but not right to say no. Not good to say to parent, grandmother or older brother and sister." Phi Bang answered.

"What about a wife to her husband?" I asked, noticing she had left out any reference to husbands.

"Not good to say no. I also know that a wife not always can say yes to her husband." Phi Bang stated.

"Should I conclude that yes does not have any more meaning in Vietnamese than thank you has in English?" I asked trying to draw a common conclusion.

"I cannot know to answer." Phi Bang replied flatly but not sounding as if she was in agreement.

"Well I suppose it doesn't matter, does it?" I asked, not expecting her to give me a reply but curious to know what she was thinking if she wanted to add her thoughts.

"Yes. Does matter. Vietnamese not the same. If different, then different." Phi Bang answered.

"Phi Bang, small differences like these don't matter to me." I commented.

"Important for me. I am Vietnamese." she declared.

"I can accept the different nuances between us, between our cultures and languages." I stated.

"Nuance? That is like French word to mean little different. How you can know? You are not Vietnamese person. You not speak my language. I try speak your language but I not think as American. I not want to think as American. I am Vietnamese." She stated with conviction and challenging me to dispute her comments.

"Phi Bang, I am well aware of the difference between our languages. At times it’s like a high wall between you and me but it does not mean that I’m not willing to try to climb the wall. For you I’ll gladly try." I answered.

"For me, different in language is not a wall. English now only like many bumps on broken sidewalk which can make me to trip and fall. Small different but still can make to fall if not careful. But you not speak any Vietnamese. Not any to try to walk and have chance to fall." she pointed out.

"You’re right. I can’t speak a single word to you in Vietnamese. There has never been an opportunity for me to learn. Phi Bang, I never heard Vietnamese spoken before I came to your home." I answered, knowing that she was correct.

"Yes, I know you not speak Vietnamese. That is why different not matter for you. You not know what is different or how is different." she said.

I picked a grape up off the plate and held it in the air in front of Phi Bang for a brief moment to attract her attention. She looked, wondering what I would do next. I let the grape drop and she caught it before it reached the carpet.

"You see!" I exclaimed, then added, "You caught it. Some things are not different at all."

"Yes, but the grape has no skin." she pointed out.

"But you caught it anyway. I would have done the same thing." I countered.

"Yes. Some things not different." she conceded. Phi Bang may have agreed with me on that one point but I knew she had not changed her thought.

"Phi Bang, do you have to keep sitting on the floor? I would prefer if you would sit on the couch or a chair." I said.

"Yes, I sit here to be near." she said, leaning against the couch and looking up at me.

Phi Bang's grandmother appeared at the kitchen doorway and called to Phi Bang. She arose from the floor and disappeared into the kitchen. A moment later, Phi Bang returned and said, "Grandmother tells me that it is late to be awake now."

"She's right. It’s late." I agreed, getting up from the couch after glancing at my watch. Just after 01:15.

"Good night my dear." Phi Bang said softly. She walked over to the stairway and paused.

"Good night Phi Bang." I replied while looking at her.

"You go sleep now." she said and motioned to me to follow her. I did.

Upon reaching the top of the first flight of stairs Phi Bang stopped on the landing just outside the closed doors to the bedrooms. She then turned, smiled shyly and whispered, "I will sleep in here with my sisters. You sleep in bedroom up there. That is my room but you stay there."

I wanted to hold Phi Bang and give her a hug to say good night but I did nothing, not knowing whether or not it would have been appropriate. As I ascended the second flight of stairs to the top floor, I heard Phi Bang open and then close the door below. 

"What a difference twenty four hours can make!" I thought in disbelief. Twenty-four hours ago, staying in Phi Bang's home had not even been dreamed of.

Noises from downstairs awakened me before daybreak. As I lay half-asleep in bed, I was trying to grasp the reality of events that occurred yesterday. Meeting Phi Bang for the first time and being with her was like living a dream that had come true, the only difference was that I was awake and our time together had not been a dream.

After rising I quickly fixed the bed, washed and shaved before going downstairs to join Phi Bang and her family. No one was in the living room or dining room so I peeked in the kitchen where I could hear activities going on. When she saw me, Phi Bang smiled and said, "You go sit and wait in living room."

"I'll wait here if it's okay." I said.

"This is kitchen. You sit in living room." Phi Bang insisted.

Without protest I complied with her request and waited in the living room. About ten minutes later Phi Bang appeared again.

"This is for you." she said and handed me a cold bowl with a spoon.

"What's this?" I asked, hoping I was not going to hear the answer I was expecting to hear anyway.

"Rice." Phi Bang replied.

"Yes, I know it's rice." I said, and then handed the bowl and spoon back to her.

"Why you ask what is this?" Phi Bang questioned, puzzled by my refusal.

"What I should have asked is what am I going to do with this?" I explained.

"You eat! This breakfast." she said.

"What? You expect me to eat cold plain rice for breakfast?" I asked in disbelief.

"Yes! This good for health. You eat!" she insisted, and gave the bowl and spoon back to me.

"I can't eat this. I'm just not hungry." I protested, and placed the bowl and spoon on the table beside the chair.

Phi Bang picked up the spoon and went into the kitchen, returned a moment later with a pair of chopsticks, and said, "This maybe help you better." 

"Thank you, Phi Bang, but I just can’t eat anything now. My body is still on Pacific Time. In Vancouver it’s only 03:30" I explained. I was not hungry but the other half of the truth was that I would not be able to make cold plain rice go down at this early hour. For some reason hot oatmeal porridge would not have been all that bad even though the chop sticks may have presented a challenge.

"Yes, I know. But you must eat. You don't like rice?" she questioned.

"Yes, I like rice, but not cold plain rice this early in the morning. It feels like it just came out of the refrigerator." I commented.

"Not refrigerator, only pot. Yes?" Phi Bang said.

"Yes, what?" I asked.

"Yes, not know." she replied.

"Not know what?" I questioned to probe further.

"Yes, not know why you not want to eat. You wait here. I talk with Grandmother." Phi Bang said. Phi Bang disappeared into the kitchen taking the bowl of rice with her and leaving me holding the pair of chop sticks.

While I was sitting in the living room waiting for Phi Bang to return from the kitchen, Mai Lien came downstairs.

"Hello." Mai Lien said and smiled.

"Good morning! I think you meant to say good morning." I replied, and explained the difference between hello and good morning.

"Yes." she said, but I did not know if she had understood what I had explained to her.

May Lien sat in a chair across the room and began flipping through the pages of an American magazine which, from the cover, appeared to be a fashion magazine. She then showed me some pictures of very attractive women who I assumed were models, and then asked me, "Pretty?"

"Yes." I answered.

May Lien flipped over a few more pages and showed me another photograph of an equally attractive model and then asked me, "Ugly?"

"No." I said.

May Lien proceeded to show me other photographs in the magazine, asking me if the models were pretty or ugly. I answered her questions but was completely baffled about why she kept asking me.

"Not understand." May Lien said, tossed the magazine on top of the table beside the fireplace and then she too disappeared into the kitchen.

"What was all that about?" I wondered while waiting for someone to return.

A few moments later Phi Bang and Mai Lien returned together to the living room. Mai Lien then spoke to Phi Bang in Vietnamese, picked up the magazine again and then showed Phi Bang some of the pictures inside.

"Is this woman pretty?" Phi Bang asked me, pointing to one of the models featured in the magazine.

"Yes." I replied.

"Is this woman ugly?" Phi Bang asked, pointing at another model.

"No." I answered.

Phi Bang then conferred with Mai Lien in Vietnamese. Afterward, Phi Bang then asked me, "Is this woman pretty ugly?"

"No." I laughed, but still baffled by their questions.

"Yes not understand why you laugh. Pretty means beautiful. Ugly means not beautiful. What is pretty ugly? How can this be said like this together if not mean the same?" Phi Bang asked.

"Pretty ugly? Is this what all these questions are about?" I asked, although I still had little idea where their questions were leading.

"Yes!" they replied in unison.

"Yes, you are right. Pretty does mean beautiful, but in this context, the word pretty has a corrupted meaning. It doesn't mean beautiful when used here." I explained.

"Yes, not understand. How can a woman be beautiful ugly?" Phi Bang asked.

"No. That's not what it means. Pretty in this expression means very. Very ugly." I explained further.

"Pretty ugly is very ugly?" Phi Bang asked in a manner that indicated she knew what I explained but did not understand why.

"Yes." I confirmed.

"Why not say very ugly, if very ugly?" Phi Bang asked.

"I don't really know." I said pensively, pausing briefly to consider, the added, "It's just one of those expressions that have developed in English. Perhaps pretty ugly does not sound quite so severe as very ugly even though it more or less means the same."

Phi Bang and May Lien conferred again in Vietnamese. I knew Phi Bang was trying to explain to Mai Lien what I had tried to explain.

"Beaucoup dien cai dau." Mai Lien said.

"You not supposed to say like such." Phi Bang interjected, scolding Mai Lien.

"What did she say?" I asked, wondering what had prompted Phi Bang's reaction. 

"Means very crazy but very bad too say." Phi Bang answered.

"It is very crazy." I said, agreeing with Mai Lien.

"Yes, but not good to say such as very crazy." Phi Bang added.

"It doesn't matter." I said.

"Not good to say in Vietnamese." Phi Bang replied.

Phi Bang's grandmother appeared at the kitchen doorway and called to Phi Bang. Phi Bang went into the kitchen for a moment and then returned with a steaming bowl.

"This for you." Phi Bang said and handed me the bowl.

"Thank you." I said, grateful for the bowl of noodles.

"Not good to say too much thank you." Phi Bang reminded me.

"Yes, I know." I said unintentionally.

"Now you talk English like Vietnamese." Phi Bang teased.

Phi Bang's youngest brother charged into the living room, stopped suddenly in the center of the carpet and then looked at me.

"What’s your name? How old are you?" I asked him. He stood silently and only stared at me while tugging at his shirt.

"He is Nguyen, youngest brother. Only two years. He not speak anything English. Maybe never learn Vietnamese also. When he is older he will never remember about Vietnam. Never remember come to America. He will be lucky brother to not know such sadness when our mother was died. I also so sorrowful that he will not know, not remember our mother." Phi Bang said softly. She then said something in Vietnamese to Nguyen and he scurried off into the kitchen.

I wanted to place my arm around Phi Bang, hold her and tell her that she did not have to be sad, but I did nothing. Phi Bang had made that brief mention about her mother but added nothing further. I wanted to ask some questions or say something to Phi Bang so that she would know that I did care about how she felt but I did not say anything at all. Not knowing if silence would be better than saying the wrong thing and just upsetting her, I stared down at the bowl of noodles I was holding and fiddled with the chop sticks instead.

"You eat now." Phi Bang said softly.

"Can I eat these over there?" I asked, pointing at the dining room table.

"Yes." Phi Bang said. She took the bowl from me and carried it over to the table.

Phi Bang and Mai Lien had a late morning appointment at the University of Pittsburgh. Phi Bang had asked me to accompany her and I readily agreed thinking that it would be better to be with her than idling away hours alone waiting for her to return. Phi Bang had tried to explain to me what the purpose of the appointment was but our language difference was creating some difficulty in communicating. Ironically, after consulting with the Vietnamese-English dictionary which Mai Lien had brought along to use, I figured out that Phi Bang and Mai Lien were supposed to be attending a language laboratory in the university for English language lessons.

We arrived at the university campus a few hours early, and after wandering around to locate the correct building, we then walked over to the Carnegie Museum. Phi Bang had discovered the museum during a previous visit to the University of Pittsburgh and now she was most anxious to show me around inside. The museum was named after the same wealthy Carnegie family that was famous for steel and steel mills. The Carnegie family had donated most, if not all, of the resources to build and establish the museum.

Hundreds of displays were arrayed in the museum. The displays varied from tiny pieces of minerals and gems housed in glass casings built into the walls to a completely assembled skeleton of a full-sized tyrannosaurus rex which stood on the ground floor and loomed above the opening of the upper level. We strolled through various chambers and levels of the museum pausing occasionally to take pictures and talk to each other.

Visiting the museum together yielded far more benefits than any of us could have even anticipated because examining displays prompted comments and questions as well as the desire to express thoughts and ideas. We constantly referred to Mai Lien's dog-eared dictionary. While Phi Bang had a passable understanding of English, abstract concepts were often proving difficult to convey. Because Mai Lien understood so little English, she was often very frustrated in trying to make her thoughts understood by me and having her questions answered. Unlike Phi Bang, Mai Lien had not spent a nearly year writing letters in English nor half the summer talking to me on the telephone.

We explored for cultural similarities and disparities between Vietnamese and North Americans. We discovered that the turtle was synonymous in both North America and Vietnam when used to describe someone slow. In contrast, the stuffed great-horned owl did not inspire Phi Bang with images of wisdom. She regarded the owl as a symbol to be feared.

Later on, Mai Lien left us to attend her English class. Phi Bang was supposed to have gone with Mai Lien but decided she did not want to. Anyway, Phi Bang was practicing her English with me. I believe the hours we spent together in the museum talking to each other and exploring ideas were probably far more effective than several weeks in a class room ever would have been. 

In the later hours of the afternoon, Phi Bang finally decided it was time we returned home. The grey skies of earlier had already given way to rain and the queue of people waiting for the bus was very long. If we had been able board the first bus that came and went, we would have been crammed in like sardines. Out of curiosity, I asked Phi Bang where the same bus number in the other direction went. She told me that she thought it went downtown but she did not really know. Taking her hand, I tugged and said, "Come!. Let's go the other way."

"We can't do that." she replied, rather surprised by my abrupt action.

"Yes we can and I insist." I asserted and tugged a little harder.

Phi Bang relented and the two of us dashed across the rain-soaked street. Almost immediately the bus came. It too was rather crowded but I spied one vacant seat near the rear.

"You sit." Phi Bang said.

"Absolutely not! This seat is for you. In America, the ladies sit and the men stand." I informed her.

"You not American." Phi Bang pointed out.

"Canadians are almost the same." I replied.

"Like Vietnamese and Chinese?" she asked.

"I don't know." I answered, surprised by her question.

"Do I look like Chinese? Do you tell different, Vietnamese and Chinese?" she asked.

"Is this a trick question?" I asked, hoping to dodge her question.

"What is trick question?" she asked, genuinely puzzled by my choice of expression.

"That’s a question which the person who must answer cannot possibly give the right answer." I tried to explain.

"Oh yes. I not ask question like that to trick. But you did not answer question. Do you think I look like Chinese?" Phi Bang asked me again.

"Yes. You look Chinese. I cannot tell any difference." I confessed, embarrassed by her question and uncomfortable by having to admit that I could not tell any difference.

"Yes, I will sit." Phi Bang said and smiled at me, then added, "It’s okay. I cannot tell different you are not American.

"How you know where bus go?" she asked, changing the subject.

"I don't have any idea where it goes. I’m just assuming that the transit system in Pittsburgh is similar to the transit systems in Canada's cities. Most bus routes are a loop of one sort or another." I surmised and explained to Phi Bang.

"Yes, I know." she said, and smiled at me.

I knew that she did not understand what I had just explained to her. Phi Bang glanced out the window and said, "I never go here before on bus. Maybe lost now."

"No. We're not lost." I assured her, and sincerely hoped I was right because I really had no idea where we were going.

As the bus headed further into downtown Pittsburgh more people started getting off.  Soon Phi Bang and I were seated together beside each other.

Phi Bang sat silently and stared ahead toward the front of the bus. She was probably watching to see where the bus was going. I looked at Phi Bang and marveled at how pretty she was, but I don't think she knew I was looking at her. If she did know, she did not betray the fact. I took her hand and held it in mine and in doing so, startled her.

"Is it alright if I hold your hand?" I asked her.

"Yes, alright." she smiled and added, "Not know this place where bus go."

"The bus will turn around somewhere and return in the direction we want. We’ll be able to go all the way back to your house sitting together like this." I said, trying to assure her we would not get lost.

"In Vietnam, have to pay again to return." she said.

"We may have to do the same here but it won't cost very much." I mentioned.

"Pittsburgh so different from Tay Ninh. America so different from Vietnam." Phi Bang commented, sounding as if her thoughts were far away. Her thoughts had been far away because she was thinking about her country that she had unwilling left.

"I don't know." I said. I wanted to ask Phi Bang what she was thinking about or what prompted her comment, but I said nothing, not wanting to intrude into her silence.

"My country is no more." Phi Bang said sadly.

"Your hand is soft and gentle." I said, while looking at her hand and hoping to draw her back from her reflective thinking about a place far away.

"The colour not the same." Phi Bang said, pointing out the difference between our skin colours. Phi Bang's hand was a golden colour with a distinct Asian yellow hue. My hand was Hebridean white with numerous traces of pink.

"Yes! There’s a difference, but I don't think it’s a big difference. "I replied, and then said while pointing, "Look at that lady over there."

"She is very black. Very big different from me. Also big different from you." Phi Bang commented quietly.

"That’s what I thought at first, but is the difference really any greater? Phi Bang, people in North America come from all over the world. If they were born here, then their ancestors came from somewhere else. Yes, everybody is different here but they’re all Americans. In Canada it’s no different." I said, trying to briefly explain to her about the population and racial mix of North America.

"I am Vietnamese. I know you not Vietnamese. I never think before that I will have dear love friend who is not Vietnamese person. I never imagine such. I can't believe such." Phi Bang admitted.

"Is that a problem?" I asked. Inside, I was hoping she would say no.

"Not know. Never think about such before today. At museum I saw someone else person looking at us walking together. Also on bus, other persons look at us. What do they think to see us together?" she asked. Phi Bang's comments indicated to me that she had not seriously thought about our racial difference before now. My sudden appearance in Pittsburgh and intrusion into her life had probably forced her to deal with the obvious reality of our differences.

"So what about it? I don't care what they think." I answered with conviction. In that instant I did not care what anyone thought as long as Phi Bang was not bothered by the fact we were a mixed couple in the eyes of everybody else.

"Are you afraid?" Phi Bang asked while looking at me.

"Do you mean afraid to be with you or seen with you?" I asked, to be certain I understood the meaning of her question.

"Yes." she said.

"No. I'm not afraid. Not at all!" I replied while looking at her. No, I was not afraid to be with her but I was afraid to tell her what I really wanted to tell her. I wanted to bring up the subject of marriage because I wanted to ask Phi Bang if she would marry me.

"I not be afraid." Phi Bang said, and she smiled again.

The bus made its loop somewhere downtown, changed direction and eventually stopped again at the University of Pittsburgh. Phi Bang was pleased to know where she was once more.

"How you know where bus go?" she asked me again.

"A good guess. That's all." I said. The bus route loop had been an easy guess, but was I certain enough about what Phi Bang's answer could be if I did bring up the subject I wanted to talk about? No. I was no more certain now than I was before coming to Pittsburgh so I said nothing to reveal my thoughts to her.

After exiting the bus, we strolled arm in arm along the sidewalk toward her home. It was still raining and I held the umbrella up between us. Fortunately for us no breezes, so we did not receive a Vancouver-style soaking. The badly cracked and uneven concrete walkway made me think about Phi Bang’s comments last night about our different languages.

"Phi Bang, this broken sidewalk reminds me of what you said last night." I commented, trying to recall her exact explanation.

"Yes, I know. Always have to watch where next step is to place down. To speak in English like that too." she said.

"I suppose that analogy could apply to any language if it’s new to someone.” I remarked.

“Yes, I know.” Phi Bang replied in her enigmatic manner.

“That analogy could apply to us as well because I don't always know what my next step should be with you." I admitted. I was hoping Phi Bang would ask me to explain my meaning about next step.

"What is analogy?" Phi Bang interjected.

"Oh." I said, derailed from my train of thought. Pausing for a moment to think about the definition, I then added, "It sort of means similarity, but from different origins"

"Vietnamese and Canadian very different, but feeling about love, that does not have big different. Maybe not have anything different. Maybe feeling for our love is analogy too." she commented.

"Yes, I suppose it could be." I half mumbled, while pondering her comments. Hopeful that she would want to know, I then asked, "Phi Bang, do you know why I came to Pittsburgh?"

"Yes, not know. You not tell me any reason except to say that you want to meet me." she said flatly, betraying no hint of curiosity if she was curious.

"Well, that was only part of my reason." I admitted.

"Where you go now?" Phi Bang asked as she suddenly stop.

"To your house." I said, puzzled by her abrupt change of subject.

"This my house here." she pointed out.

"So it is. I wasn't paying attention." I admitted.

Anyway, arriving at Phi Bang's home again ended my attempt to bring up the subject that had been dominating my thoughts. Later. There was always later, but if the timing was not quite right, then tomorrow. There was also tomorrow. But was there? My time in Pittsburgh would be short and the clock was mercilessly ticking away the remaining minutes we had together.

Although my body was still functioning primarily on Pacific time, I would nonetheless awaken long before dawn and lay in bed until hearing sounds of activity coming from downstairs. Those silent pre-dawn periods gave me opportunity to reflect upon the wonderful events of these last few remarkable days. 

Today was going to be my last full day with Phi Bang because early tomorrow morning I would be departing from Pittsburgh. Our brief time together was quickly running out, but so far, I had not managed to discuss with Phi Bang the subject I really wanted to discuss with her. I was afraid to talk to Phi Bang about marriage because the right moment never seemed to come along. Then again, maybe the right time had come and gone and I just had not recognized it. Fearing that Phi Bang would turn me down, I once more faced that inescapable and detested haunting question. Is the fear of the pain of hurt caused by asking and being rebuffed worse than the pain of anguish resulting from remaining silent, doing nothing and forever wondering about what might have been?

Phi Bang and I were talking in the living room waiting for her grandmother to call us into the kitchen for breakfast. As expected, little Nguyen raced into the living room, stopped near the center of the carpet and silently stared at me for a moment. This had become his morning ritual since my arrival. This time he approached, climbed on to the chair beside me, reached over, quickly tugged my moustache, and then scampered off into the kitchen. For an instant Phi Bang was shocked and then she started laughing uncontrollably.

"I so astonish to see. Not know what to say. Not know if to laugh or be angry." Phi Bang giggled while trying not to laugh again.

"I don't know what to say either. It's the first time anyone has checked to see if my moustache is real." I replied.

"Nguyen very naughty. He not have any manner not to do such thing." Phi Bang explained.

"I guess I know now why Nguyen kept staring at me every morning." I commented and then changed the subject by asking, "Where are we going today?"

"Today we visit University of Pittsburgh. Mai Lien have class there and I must go language lab. I want you see that place for learning another language. Maybe you learn Vietnamese in a place like such where you live at Vancouver."

Phi Bang and Mai Lien would not hesitate to stop anyone in the street to ask for directions. They were far more trusting of strangers than I was prepared to be. Phi Bang and Mai Lien would also stop and talk to every Asian they encountered to find out if they were Vietnamese. Most often the people they stopped were Chinese but once in a while someone would be Vietnamese. I finally realized that Phi Bang could not always tell the difference between Chinese and Vietnamese any more than I could tell the difference between French and English.

When they did meet other Vietnamese, Phi Bang and Mai Lien would talk to that person for a few minutes and then exchange names and telephone numbers. After several occurrences I finally asked why they were doing what they were doing. Phi Bang said they would need help to locate friends and relatives who may also have fled from Vietnam to America. By exchanging names and telephone numbers, information could later be exchanged through the network of contacts they were making. What I failed to recognize at the time was that the Vietnamese refugees were forming their own community.

"This building known as Cathedral of Learning" Phi Bang indicated to me as we entered through the main doorway. The lobby was crowded. Students with arms full of books were rushing about as if they were five minutes late for their classes.

"Yes, I would have to agree. It's an appropriate name" I commented, thinking that Phi Bang's zeal to continue her studies was almost religious. If she was successful in obtaining her scholarship then this was certainly going to be her cathedral of choice. 

"We go on elevator to language lab. I want you see that place. In Vietnam I never see like such." she said, bubbling with enthusiasm.

"I'm pleased you didn't want to take the stairs." I remarked, noting that Phi Bang's class was on the eighteenth floor.

For an instant she gave me a puzzled look, then laughed saying, "I not very crazy."

"I thought you said that wasn’t a good thing to say." I remarked, feigning to be surprised by her comment.

"You not Vietnamese and you say not matter." she replied.

"Come on Phi Bang. Let's go up and see this language lab you've been telling me about." I said, taking her hand.

After reaching the eighteenth floor we walked up and down the corridors several times. Phi Bang was not certain she was on the right floor but nonetheless she went ahead and slightly opened the door to a classroom to peek inside. With a smile of triumph she turned to me and said, "This language lab. I see this place last week when I came to university for visit."

The language laboratory had several rows of glass-walled cubby-holes for individuals to work in alone. About half the booths were occupied by students who were wearing earphones and busily speaking into microphones. This was no different than the language laboratory I had used on many occasions in high school for French and German lessons.

"I will learn to speak correct English here." Phi Bang said sounding hopeful.

"Have you had any lessons in here yet?" I asked out of curiosity.

"Yes, not yet." Phi Bang answered in her confusing manner of saying yes even when she meant no.

"You can practice speaking English with me." I suggested.

"Yes, I know." she answered.

"Phi Bang, sit down here and I will show you how this works." I offered while pulling out the chair at a vacant cubby hole and indicating to her to sit down.

"Yes, we cannot do such now." she said, somewhat surprised by my action.

"It's alright. They'll just think we're students here." I replied, and then activated the earphones.

Phi Bang complied, sat at the console and put on the earphones. Seconds later she removed the earphones, gave me a confused look and said, "Not understand."

Taking the earphones from her to listen for a moment, I said, "Don't worry. This isn't English. Sounds like Spanish but I'm not sure."

Phi Bang was surprised and impressed with me when I showed her how to operate the equipment.

"You see!" I exclaimed, and continued, "You didn't miss anything the other day when you skipped class."

After Phi Bang was satisfied she was familiar with the workings of the language laboratory, she suggested that it was time for us to leave. While waiting for the elevator, I asked her if we could first visit the top floor to see if we could look out. Without waiting for her answer, I pushed the up button.

From the top floor we were able to look out across Pittsburgh. Because the sky was overcast and the cloud ceiling low, our view of the city was far less than ideal.

"I not like Pittsburgh. One day I hope go to somewhere else city to live" Phi Bang said. This was the first time I heard her mention that she did not like living in Pittsburgh.

"Oh? Which city would you choose to live in?" I questioned, hoping to hear her say Vancouver.

"Maybe New York." she answered quickly, sounding as if New York City was a decision she had made long before.

"New York!? Why New York?" I questioned, surprised by her answer.

"That is very famous action city." she replied.

"Phi Bang, I was hoping you would say Vancouver." I revealed, perhaps also betraying a trace of my disappointment.

"Vancouver?" she questioned.

"Yes. With me." I said.

"My dear, I know what you write to tell me in letter." Phi Bang said after turning to look at me.

"My thoughts and hopes have not changed." I confirmed to her.

“Yes, I think such, but you not say anything to tell me about your thought. Yes, you talk but always say very too much about weather. Weather not important. My dear, you are such cold person I not know how say to you to understand my thought. You also not ask me my thought and my hope for future. You must not be sad and also not angry to hear my thoughts.” She said.

"Phi Bang, I never know whether or not I should ask you questions. Sharing my thoughts has never been easy for me." I admitted.

Phi Bang stared out the window in silence. A moment later she looked at me again and said, "We talk later about this thing. Now we go my home. One place near my home has a piano. I want you play for me music that you write and sent with letter before. I want to hear music you write for me. I not understand your writing music on paper but I listen when you play piano."

"Phi Bang, if you can find a piano, I’ll be happy to play for you." I indicated willingly.

"Now we meet Lien after class. Outside museum we take photo for our souvenir of time together. When old, you can remember your dear friend Phi Bang." she said.

Later at the arts centre, Phi Bang and I spent about half an hour looking at the numerous articles displayed on the tables. All were for sale and all appeared to me as if they had been hand crafted from ceramic. Everything seemed to have a South American Indian style but what did I know about this type of art? Anyway, Phi Bang seemed to be quite interested in the assortment of necklaces.

Near closing time, most of the other visitors had already departed. I wandered over to the grand piano that had been shoved into a corner of the room. After staring pensively at the piano for a moment I sat on the bench. As soon as I lifted the lid to unveil the keys, a grey-haired, middle-age, business-like woman, complete with a set of reading glasses hanging on a chain around her neck, with a voice of authority told me not to touch the piano. Gently I let the lid down and moved away from the piano.

A while later I noticed that the business-like lady had disappeared from the room. Again I strolled over to the piano. Phi Bang was afraid we would be in trouble if we touched the piano again and she kept tugging at my arm to pull me away from the piano. The other ladies working there ignored us. Without sitting, I lifted the lid to uncover the keyboard expecting to be told again to leave the piano alone. So far, no one was paying any attention. Slowly I moved the bench further back, sat down in front of the keyboard and studied those 88 keys before me. No one objected.

Black keys and white keys, to me the keyboard was a symbol of a successful mixed marriage, different yet harmonious and inseparable. "If only Phi Bang and I could be like this." I silently wished.

Phi Bang was standing beside the piano so I asked her to come and sit on the bench beside me. For a brief moment I looked down and closed my eyes, almost as if trying to decide what, if anything, should be played. Hesitantly, I raised my hands above the keyboard then banged down to open fortissimo with a sustained g minor chord. An impromptu change from the quiet opening to the new piano work that had been completed recently. If no one had been paying attention to us a moment earlier, they would be now. Noisily, I had announced that we were here.

My playing came from my heart and not my head. Improvising and making spontaneous revisions while performing the work, my performance was one of those rare, impossible to repeat instances where my fingers flawlessly found the correct key for every note while maintaining the tempo. For almost ten minutes I was oblivious to what may have been going on around me.

As the sound of the final chord died away I looked at Phi Bang. She just smiled at me not knowing what to say. She knew the work just performed had been composed for her. I did not know what type of music or sounds she may have expected to hear but she did seem to have been impressed.

"The music was written for you." I said to her.

"No. That is not me." Phi Bang replied.

"Sometimes I don't know either, but it was written for you." I commented.

"So sadness to hear. I can’t believe I can be such person. No, the music is not me." Phi Bang protested.

"You’re right!" I laughed, and added, "The music is not you. It’s for you."

"We must go now. Soon time to close. I saw older lady looking in here at you playing piano." Phi Bang said.

"You mean the lady who looks like a librarian?" I asked.

"Yes, not understand." Phi Bang answered.

"The lady with the glasses on the chain around her neck." I said and made the shape of glasses with my fingers.

"Yes." Phi Bang giggled, and added, "We go now."

"Okay, but I want to buy something first." I said, thinking about the necklaces Phi Bang had been interested in earlier.

"Yes, I wait for you." she said.

"Come and tell me which one you would like." I suggested.

"Yes, you not do such." she protested.

"Phi Bang, I want to give you something. It’s not very much, but it’ll be something to remember this day and our visit here." I commented.

"Yes, you must not do like this." Phi Bang said while vigorously shaking her head to emphasize no.

Turning a deaf ear to Phi Bang's protests I went ahead anyway and purchased one of the ceramic necklaces. She became very upset with me a stormed out of the building. The lady on the other side of the table had witnessed what happened. She just politely smiled but said nothing while handing me my change and the necklace. I could guess from the expression on her face that her thought may have been, "The young lady is your problem and you will have to deal with her. Good luck."

Phi Bang had been emphatically refusing my offer to buy one of the ceramic items for her but I obviously misread the sincerity of her refusal. Holding the necklace in my hand, I looked at it. Phi Bang was gone. Bewildered by this sudden change, I wondered, "Now what do I do?”

Leaving the building and going outside, I was expecting to find Phi Bang waiting for me but she was gone. Uncertain about the route back to her house, I sat down on the curb beside the road and waited, hoping Phi Bang would come back for me. 

Phi Bang eventually returned and she was very apologetic for running away and leaving me behind. Her tantrum was a new and unexpected experience for me. I thought about the event but was unable to decide if this had only been Phi Bang's nature or if the experience had been a clash between our different cultures. Rather than explore the possibility further, I followed my normal course of action when in doubt, remained silent and ignored the incident as if it never happened.

Since noon, the sky had become an ever-darkening shade of grey and now drops of rain were beginning to dot the pavement. Arm in arm, the two of us slowly strolled along the sidewalk as we returned toward her home. I was holding the umbrella between us and kept glancing at Phi Bang. I do not know if she noticed, but I thought she looked very pretty. As we slowly walked along, Phi Bang struggled to find the words in English to express her feelings to describe to me what it was like trying to begin a new life in this strange new country. While I too was a foreigner visiting the United States, very little if anything in the United States was different from Canada. Nonetheless and in spite of a lack of any real tangible differences, Canadians were as determined as ever to try and figure out what the differences were, other than the fact Canadians were not Americans.

As Phi Bang and I approached the entrance to a park, she wanted to go inside and sit on a park bench for a few moments.

"It’s raining now." I said, pointing out what was obvious to both of us.

"Yes. Not matter." she replied

"Alright, we can stop in here if you wish." I offered. 

I selected a bench beneath a large maple tree that had turned bright orange and was starting to shed its leaves. The elderly maple was part way up the slope and not too far in from the gate. We sat on the bench holding the umbrella up between us.

"No flowers in garden." Phi Bang commented.

"It won’t be all that long until everything becomes brown and grey." I informed her.

"Yes, Not want to talk about weather report now." Phi Bang said.

"Oh?" I questioned and asked, "What do you want to talk about?"

"You are so quiet, so cold. I can’t always understand. My dear, I want to say to you words "my love" but now is not time to say. Yes, I can feel so much in my heart for you but I’m too young. I’m only eighteen. You too young also, only twenty-one. We are too young to think such. You must return to university to study. I must study also. We talk about love and marriage after study time finish. I think maybe too long time for you to wait." she said.

Contrary to my assumptions about Asian cultures, which I was quickly discovering I knew absolutely nothing about, Phi Bang could be direct and to the point when she wanted to be.

"Phi Bang, I don't know what to study. Anyway it’s not for me." I replied.

"You study music! I listen when you play piano music. I can hear that sadness which speaks from your thought but not from your words." she said.

"No! No more studying music. That’s not for me.” I stated with conviction.

“Yes, I know.” Phi Bang replied flatly.

“Phi Bang, you heard me play the piano, but you listened with an untrained ear for music.” I explained.

“I see and hear you play piano with feeling from deep in heart.” Phi Bang said.

“I certainly don’t play well enough to study music seriously or to make a career in music." I said, not wanting to hear from her what I was hearing.

"My dear, you must study! Music is your life. You not have to make career." she argued, while looking at me with an expression of absolute sincerity.

"Phi Bang, if you want to study, that’s alright with me." I replied, while looking down at her hand which I was holding. Phi Bang's hand was smaller than mine and felt soft and gentle. In that instant, her hand also seemed so very elusive.

"You not have to study only music. There is so much other subject you can do. You can do same as I do. Soon I must sit for exam to write for scholarship." she said.

"At the University of Pittsburgh?" I asked, somewhat surprised by this bit of news.

"Not know which university but not Pittsburgh.” She said.

"Where?" I asked, surprised by her comment.

"Not know. Depend on which place I have success to scholarship. Life too much difficulty. Too much too hardship. You not know my country. Very beautiful. Very sad. Not as America. Here there is so much. Maybe too much good things to have here." she said.

"Yes, I suppose you’re right about too much." I concurred while watching a few maple leaves flutter to the ground, and thought to myself, "Yes, too much of everything except love."

"Those are the symbol of Canada." I said, trying to change the subject and pointing at the orange maple leaves on the ground.

"Will this tree die?" Phi Bang asked.

"No. Next spring it’ll grow new green leaves." I assured her.

"Not want to imagine that your country has dying tree leaf for symbol." Phi Bang commented.

"Neither do I." I answered.

"My father want all his children to live together. We have nothing except what help we have from sponsor people. I must go to study to help Father. In a later year after study then I can think about love." Phi Bang said, while looking at me.

"I don't know what to say." I said and looked away. The sporadic drops had become a gentle rain and I stared as water ran off the edge of the umbrella.

"You not have to say anything. This time together I never believe we would have. But we have anyway. I never forget these days we have in Pittsburgh." Phi Bang said softly.

"This will be our last evening together. Tomorrow morning I’ll have to begin my journey back to Montreal and then Vancouver." I said.

"We not think about such now. We think about this time today and our time together." Phi Bang replied. She looked up at me and smiled.

"I think we should think about getting back to your house. Even with this umbrella we are getting wet here." I said, pointing out that our knees were becoming wet.

"Yes, we go my home now." she agreed.

"What is the name of this park?" I asked out of curiosity, wanting some reference to remember this place by.

"Not know, Never stop in here before. There is name sign at other gate. We go out there." she answered while pointing toward another entrance gate further along the walk.

We did not need to exit by the other gate. Although backward from where we were seated, I could read the letters in the wrought iron sign over the entrance. 

Looking at Phi Bang again, I asked, "You really haven't stopped in here before, have you?"

"Yes, this first time to come in park." she confirmed.

"Yes, I know." I commented and said nothing else.

The sign over the gateway revealed that the park was really a cemetery. If at that instant I had not felt so disappointed the irony could actually have been quite amusing. Unaware what this park really was, Phi Bang had wanted to stop in here to talk to me because she wanted me to lay to rest any hopes that I may have held about marriage; at least for the near future as far as she was concerned.

While Phi Bang did not deny her feelings toward me, she was adamant that we were too young to think about getting married now. Phi Bang wanted to study and studies were going to come first. Higher education was her passion and raison d'etre. In spite of coming from half a world away, I could detect that Phi Bang possessed that same determined vision and sense of purpose that I heard Karen McLennan speak from several years earlier. Phi Bang implored me to return to university to study but I was unable to fathom her sense of urgent sincerity in what she wanted me to do.

What I did not and could not comprehend at the time were the events in her life which she had lived through. Phi Bang knew only too well about life in a country that had been in a state of civil war since before she was born. She knew only too well the severe hardships of fleeing and leaving everything behind, to live life as a refugee, trying to rebuild a shattered life in a completely different world. She knew only too well the horrors and depravities of human nature that surface in a struggle to survive where the cost of losing would be death. At eighteen she knew far more about life than I would probably ever learn in my life time.

Amtrak's National Limited was expected to be at least two hours late. In spite of my knowledge about trains and bankrupt northeastern American railroads, having to wait for a late eastbound train had not occurred to me that morning. That late train was truly an unexpected gift of two more hours with Phi Bang and I was overjoyed at hearing the news. The station agent offered to look after my bag and suggested we go somewhere for breakfast. While not the least bit hungry, I thought it would be interesting if we could stroll along the streets of downtown Pittsburgh.

Saturday morning the streets were deserted and stores and restaurants were closed. Undeterred, we started walking slowly along Grant Street pausing occasionally to peer through windows of locked up buildings. Once in a while a nearly empty streetcar would clatter by us on its predetermined course.

Phi Bang had been unusually quiet in the taxi that had conveyed us from her home to Amtrak's Penn Station. I too had been silent but that was normal for me. My feelings were anguished turmoil knowing that my time with Phi Bang was near the end. Soon I would be saying good-bye to her, a good-bye without any idea as to whether or not we would ever see each other again.

"Phi Bang, my thoughts and hopes haven’t changed.” I said, wanting her to know.

“Yes, I know.” She said softly.

“I don’t want to leave you, but I must go. I will come back and visit you again." I vowed.

"My dear, don’t tell me promise about a time to return. I not want to hear such. Not know what is future for me. You not know for you. We don’t know how is future for us." Phi Bang replied.

"Phi Bang, if you ask me to come back here to visit you, I’ll do it." I emphatically promised her again.

"You cannot say such. I not want to hear. Mai Lien have friend in Vietnam who make such promise and he never to return any more." she revealed.

"This isn’t Vietnam. There’s no war here." I said.

"Not died in war. Some things people can say to promise not different here." she answered.

"You’re right! I don't know the future, but a future with you is what I hope for and live for. The present offers me nothing." I declared solemnly, probably sounding as if the end of the world was at hand.

"Don’t be sad. You must study! Please think that. My hope for future is to study. If God still wish time for us together after study years then we talk about such at later time. But how can anyone know? Now life so very different from Vietnam." Phi Bang said.

Phi Bang was insistent that she did not want to hear any more promises from me and I knew it was impossible to change her mind. I wanted to argue further but said nothing. She was right because neither of us knew what the future would hold. To change the subject, I asked, "Are you ready for winter?"

"No." she replied emphatically.

"How do you know? You never lived here in winter." I said.

"I’m so cold at this morning time." she replied.

"Are you cold now?" I asked, somewhat surprised. The morning was cool but certainly not cold for mid October.

"Yes, very cold now." Phi Bang stated.

"This isn't cold. Just cool. It’ll become much colder between now and next spring." I informed her.

"Yes, I know. The sponsor people already tell me such. I’m afraid to think how I can live in such cold place." she commented. 

Phi Bang and I paused in the center of the Seventh Street Bridge that spanned the Allegheny River. We leaned against the steel structure and watched the sun rise over the hills of Pittsburgh. Sunrise that morning was very beautiful. The sky was coloured a blazing blood red. Thirty-four years earlier Japanese pilots would have loved this sunrise as they prepared for their attack that would draw the United States into the war that would dramatically alter the course of the twentieth century. The war also changed the world's perceptions and approaches to dealing with the subject of west meeting east. Anyway, this October morning I would not be flying off into a sunrise never to return. Instead, I would be taking a train. Regardless, I certainly felt as if I would never be returning to the one person I absolutely did not want to have to leave. 

As the remaining few minutes of our brief time together were played out we sat holding hands on one of the big wooden benches in Penn Station. Glancing over at the row of wooden telephone booths, I remembered my arrival here a few nights ago. At first I was going to tell Phi Bang about my welcome to Pittsburgh but decided not to. She probably would not have understood anyway. 

Moments later the late passenger train rumbled noisily into the station. Phi Bang looked at me and then said, "You go now."

"No! I don't want to leave you now." I replied while looking at her.

"You must go now." Phi Bang said softly. She gently pushed me, to encourage me to get up.

"The train is supposed to stop here for ten minutes." I reminded her.

"Good-bye, my dear." Phi Bang whispered.

"Phi Bang, come out with me to the train." I asked her.

Arm in arm, we walked slowly and silently toward the gateway leading to the waiting train. The gateman must have understood from the expressions on our faces. He just waved both of us through without even checking my ticket.

As I stood on the station platform beside the waiting train and looked at Phi Bang, I wondered, "Is this how a man feels when he goes off to war, wondering if he will ever return and wondering if he will ever see his beloved again?"

What was Phi Bang thinking as she silently stared back at me? I could only wonder and guess because I did not ask. Throughout the war years in Vietnam, so many Vietnamese women had said good-bye to their husbands, their brothers, their sons, their fathers and their betrothed. For many, those moments had been a final good-bye to last forever. Had Phi Bang escaped from Vietnam unscathed only to experience the same here in America, land of the free? I did not know but I did not feel very free. In five days my heart became enslaved to love, only to be followed by that heart-rending agony which came from an involuntary separation from the person I more than anything wanted to be with. No! Being chained to sorrow and heartache, I was not free.

"All aboard!" the conductor hollered in true railroad form.

Dropping my bag on the platform and placing my hands on Phi Bang's shoulders, I looked at her intently. While desiring to pull her close to me, hold her tightly and give her a kiss to say good-bye, I did nothing and said nothing. The truth was that I had never kissed anyone before and I was afraid to try, afraid to be wrong and afraid to offend her. I just longingly looked at her wondering if this was the proper way to say good-bye to her. Phi Bang said nothing and just stared back at me. Finally I whispered, "I don't want to go."

"My dear, I never forget these days we have together." Phi Bang said. 

I let go of her, turned and boarded the train. As I stood in the vestibule and looked back at Phi Bang on the platform the train began to move. I waved and then called out, "I love you."

There was no response at all from Phi Bang. I do not think that she ever heard me. 

Those final few moments we spent standing on the station platform had become the heart-wrenching climax of the most unusual and exciting five days in my otherwise boring and uneventful life. My moment of truth had come and gone and fear had once again held my desires in check and forever left me with the lasting, haunting memory of yet one more failure to reach out. As Amtrak's National Limited sped eastward through the mountains of Pennsylvania, I had ample time to reflect and think about the last few days. I could feel tears dribble down my face as I counted out the telephone poles beside the tracks.

When we wish to do so, we can many times recall and relive in our minds some of those critical moments in our past and wonder how the outcomes might have been altered if we had only done just one thing differently, however, we can never go back to try and do it again. We cannot avoid life’s decisions and the pains or joys that may follow. We have no choice but to live with our decisions as well as the consequences. Many times since, I have thought about those five days, those final moments, and have often wondered, what if...?

The Oddblock Station Agent