I have discovered the secret to happiness. No, it’s not love, or a purposeful life. Really, it’s a 17.6-ounce bar of dark chocolate with almonds that you can buy for $4 at Trader Joe’s, which is arguably the best grocery store on Earth. I was having a bad day, and came home to find a bar on our kitchen table. Jameelah had written “I love you” on it with a black marker. What possibly could have been better, except maybe two bars, one of them saying “I love you” and the other saying “My rich uncle died and he left us his estate.”
As you know, Jameelah and I are going to Vietnam this summer. This will be the first time she meets the extended family and her first time in the country. I am feeling OK about it, as this is my fifth or sixth time back, and I notice that visiting one’s homeland and relatives is like eating a bar of chocolate: The first few bites are delicious, but as you keep consuming it, the bar of chocolate no longer appreciates you and just wants gifts of vitamins and lotions and then you’re stuck all alone wandering about the city and rolling your own spring rolls. The prodigal son’s welcome, sadly, has been over, and I say, if the village is not going to throw me a feast when I return and carry me down the red-dirt path on a divan with flowers strewn about, then there’s no point going back.
But she insists on going, and since only she can open jars of Classico pasta sauce, I have no choice but to acquiesce. She is very excited, thinking of all the wonderful things she can see and experience, all the great people she’ll meet, and how romantic it will be. So I put a stop to it, telling her of the heat, the humidity, the smog, the terrifying bathrooms that make you feel like you’re squatting over a miniature vortex with a density so high that not even light can escape.
“Worse,” I said, gripping her by the shoulders, “The relatives will judge you. And they are blunt. Their words pierce into your soul.” I am still affected by the PTSD obtained from the first trip, where I was told that with my zombie-like complexion and flat nose I was the sixth best looking member of my family. There are only seven people in the family!
What I am worried about most is that Jameelah is not Vietnamese, which might be guessed from the fact that her name is Jameelah and not, say, Kenny Nguyen. I don’t know how they would feel about my dating a non-Vietnamese person. “They will stare at you,” I say, “Their eyes pierce into your soul.” Unfazed, she has been practicing her Vietnamese and learning how to cook traditional Vietnamese food from my older sister. Today she came back with a big pot of vegan canh chua, which is a light traditional sweet and sour soup.
We have bought our tickets. I am now resigned to the fact that we will be in Vietnam from July 16th to August 13th, that there will not be a feast with a divan and strewn flowers, and that all eyes will be on my girlfriend. To support her, I am providing her with advice on how to impress the relatives. “First,” I said, “you must memorize the names and status of all the aunts and uncles. This is Uncle Phuc, but because he is older than my mom, you call him ‘Bac Phuc.’ This is Uncle Duc, but he is younger than mom, so you call him ‘Cau Duc.’ This is Uncle Liem, but he’s an uncle-in-law, so you call him ‘Duong.’ This is Uncle Tri, but he’s younger than Dad, so you call him ‘Chu.’ For the aunts, it’s a little more complicated…”
“Second, grasshopper,” I said, “it is essential that you master the use of MSG.” I tasted the soup. “OK, it looks like you’ve mastered it.”
“Third,” I said, “you must cook and clean while I spend four hours at a café, then I’ll come back and watch soccer while drinking with a group of friends, and you’ll need to serve us food and alcohol until we pass out under a banana tree.” She scoffed. With attitude like that, she’s going to have a hard time for sure. I don’t know how she’s going to win the relatives’ approval to be with me, considering my status as the sixth most attractive member of the family.
Send advice on how Jameelah can impress the relatives. I’m sure many of you have had to meet your boyfriend/girlfriend’s relatives for the first time.