More Than Food: Shared Conversations, Shared Lives
His hands are spotted and old; on the left hand a large wound is covered by a puff of bloody cotton and a piece of clear tape. These are the hands of Do Kha, a 77-year-old bamboo coracle builder who lives on Cam Kim Island in Vietnam. He is small in stature, with a look of frailty about him that disappears when he sits cross-legged on the ground to cut strips of bamboo and begin a new boat. My husband Isaac and I arrive at his house in the morning and greet him with a loud Chao buoi sang (Good morning). Isaac explains Toi noi duoc mot it tieng viet (We speak a little bit of Vietnamese). He has a difficulty hearing, so we exchange a few sentences of Vietnamese, but are never sure exactly what has been communicated. His wife, children and grandchildren are on the porch, and neighborhood children roam in and out of the yard. My husband Isaac pulls out his sketch book, showing Do Kha and his wife drawings of other Vietnamese fishing boats.
The drawings cross all language barriers, and family members gather around to examine them. They communicate Isaac's appreciation and interest in the traditional Vietnamese bamboo boats. I sit on the concrete steps watching as Do Kha uses a large knife to cut bamboo into thin strips. Looking at the cut on his hand makes me feel sick, and, imagining his pain, I look away. He continues working, squatting in the packed earth yard, making a neat pile of bamboo strips.
On the porch is a half-finished mat of woven bamboo strips, the beginnings of a bamboo coracle. Isaac sits down and begins to weave, perspiration building on his forehead. Do Kha makes corrections physically, putting his hands over Isaacs and moving them to weave or unweave. When Isaac reaches the point at which the woven bamboo mat begins to curve to take the shape of the circular boats, he does not know how to continue. At that moment Do Kha hops on a motorbike with a friend, waving as he drives off. Isaac walks over to a pile of finished bamboo boats, one piled on top of another, and begins to study the pattern of their weave. He takes out graph paper, and sketches what he sees, trying to find a pattern. He is like this for perhaps an hour, bent over in concentration. Neighborhood kids come and go, curious for a minute, then bored by his inaction.
I am sitting on the steps watching the chickens run around the yard, shuddering at the screaming of a pig being killed next door. Do Kha returns unnoticed; I look up and he is in front of me cutting bamboo again. He stops to smoke a cigarette and offer us Jasmine tea. When I look up again he is out in the yard burning brightly colored paper money and clothes - offerings to his ancestors. I watch the flames eat up the gold painted paper, ashes flying overhead. Do Kha sprinkles rice in the yard, lights incense and sits down again.
Around 11am his family gathers around and invites us to lunch. This generosity is repeated everywhere we go, families inviting us to sit down for tea or lunch. In a room nearby they have laid out a feast - soups, spring rolls, chicken, noodles and rice. Family members spanning three generations sit down on a woven mat. Food is piled in our bowls, our hosts wanting us to try everything, excited to see our faces as we taste the food. We sigh with happiness and exclaim zat ngon! (delicious). The men toast and drink tiny thimbles of rice alcohol. At the end of the woven mat a baby attempts to feed himself with chopsticks. He awkwardly sticks them in the bowl of soup, searching for a piece of meat. When the meat falls back into the bowl, he laughs and tries again.
After the meal we try to thank them by offering some cookies and chewy peanut candy. The grandmother gives us a smile and points to her toothless gums, shaking her head. Her daughter takes a cookie, biting it cautiously. As we are leaving Do Kha and his wife point to their bed, and insist we nap there. We decline politely and bike away waving and yelling Cam on, cam on (Thank you, thank you).
About the Author: Alice Driver is spending the year working and traveling with her husband Isaac Bingham as he studies indigenous boat building in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, New Zealand (Tokelau), Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Next year she will finish her Masters degree in Hispanic Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her first academic article appears in the winter 2007 issue of Romance Quarterly.