Lost in Translation

A waitress’s curiosity about a customer sparks an unlikely romance.

By Pam Chamberlain

I asked Peter Tran out for two reasons. First, I wanted to see whether it was true, what they say about Asian men having small penises. Second, I wanted to shock my parents.

Peter came into the Husky House Restaurant at 7 o’clock every morning, usually with a group of guys from his engineering firm. They were from Vancouver and had a contract to develop one of the big machines in the new heavy oil upgrader being built near Lloydminster. We ran a tab for Peter’s crew, and my boss sent a bill to their boss at the end of every week. Since the guys didn’t have to pay for their meals, they tipped real good. Every single morning for four weeks, Peter ordered a poached egg and dry brown toast.

One morning, he came in alone. I was feeling spunky, so I said, “We have a whole menu, you know. You don’t have to have your egg poached. You could try it scrambled, boiled, sunny side up, over easy or over hard. You could even order an omelette if you’re feeling adventurous.”

He laughed and the skin around his eyes crinkled. “Well, if you insist,” he said, “I’ll try a ham and cheese omelette. I feel like living dangerously today.”

“Coming right up!” Walking back to the kitchen, I was aware of his eyes following me.

As I put up the order, Leslie asked, laughing, “Are you flirting with him?”

He’s flirting with me!” I answered smugly.

When I brought Peter’s meal out, I asked where he was from. “Vancouver,” he said.

“I mean before that.” “Oh, I see,” he said with an amused smile. “Vietnam, I guess.

Although I was born in Laos. It’s a long story, actually.” “So would you call yourself Vietnamese, or Lao… or from Laos?” “I’d call myself Canadian,” he said. “But you can call me whatever you like.”

Embarrassed, I changed the subject. “How long will you guys be in Lloyd?”

“I’m not sure,” he replied. “We’re near the end of the project, if all goes well. So I guess we could be leaving any week now.” “By the way, I’m Kerri Lynn,” I said.

“Kerri Lynn,” he repeated. He had a cute accent. “I’m Peter.” “Nice to meet you.” I grinned at him.

After he left, I was clearing his plate when the two goals popped into my head right out of the blue, and I decided to ask him on a date. It’d be simple, I figured: we’d go out a few times, and by the time I achieved my two goals, he’d be leaving town. No harm done. It would be very exciting to sleep with an out- of-towner. I’d be like one of the girls on Melrose Place.

I told Leslie I was going to ask him out. “Really?” she asked with a raised eyebrow. “Why?”

“I just think it’ll be cool,” I said. “Besides, I can find out if it’s true—you know, what they say about Asian men…” I winked.

“You’re terrible!” Leslie said. “I bet he’ll think it’s cool to send home pictures of himself with an Amazon blonde.”

I slapped her with a dish towel.

The next morning, I primped in preparation. Now, I’m not saying I’m the prettiest girl in town. (That title has to go to Sherrine, who works over at Amigos bar.) But like Leslie said, I am tall and I have a good bust and curly blond hair down to my waist. That morning, I made sure my hair was extra curly, and I spritzed perfume all over myself. I put on a new forest- green blouse. It was a bit fancy for work, but this was a special occasion.

When I got to the restaurant, Leslie said, “Well, aren’t you spiffed up today!”

I primped my hair playfully. “The higher the hair, the closer to God,” I said.

“I don’t think God wants anything to do with what you’re up to,” Leslie retorted.

When Peter came in (alone again, fortunately) I brought him his poached egg and asked if he wanted to go to Dairy Queen for ice cream after work. He looked at me with obvious surprise and said yes.

It was so awesome, the way people looked at us when we were out together. With my hair done up, I was nearly six inches taller than Peter, and people would turn to watch us on the street. I felt like I was in Toronto, where girls have interracial relationships all the time. Not in pokey old Lloydminster. In Lloydminster back then, everyone was white—well, except the Native people, who didn’t really count because they weren’t foreign and most of them hadn’t travelled any farther from Lloyd than I had. Growing up, I never saw a real live black person until I was in West Edmonton Mall when I was twelve years old. He was way blacker than the Huxtables on The Cosby Show. He had the blackest skin and the whitest teeth I had ever seen. I stared and stared at him, until Mom finally told me to stop because it was rude.

One time, when I had just finished high school and started waitressing at Husky House, a family from New York came into the restaurant. I can’t remember exactly how I found out they were Jewish—I think it was something to do with the mother asking what kind of meat came with the breakfast special. I got real excited because I had never met a Jew before, and I started to ask lots of questions. First off, I wanted to know why Jewish men always wore those little white caps to weddings in the movies. The father got irritated by my questions. I hadn’t meant to be rude; I was just curious. I could tell he didn’t appreciate me treating him like a minority, especially considering he was as white as I was. He said some of the local Jewish people could answer my questions. I thought about my hometown—Aspen Butte—and laughed, which seemed to make him more angry. I explained that there weren’t any Jewish people in Aspen Butte. He got real exasperated and said of course there were Jewish people in Aspen Butte. There were Jewish people everywhere, he told me, I just might not realize it. I didn’t mean to argue, but I had to tell him I was absolutely positive there were no Jewish people in Aspen Butte. There were only the people who went to Bethany Lutheran Church, and those who didn’t.

I was afraid we were going to get into a real argument, but Leslie saved me by calling me to the kitchen. “Order up!” she yelled, even though there wasn’t one. I didn’t get much of a tip from the Jews. Leslie said she wasn’t surprised.

After I’d been out with Peter a few times, Leslie asked me how old he was. “I’m not sure,” I said. “A couple years older than me, maybe? Twenty-four, twenty-five?”

“I doubt it,” she said. “Ask him.”

I did, and I was shocked to learn that Peter was thirty-seven. Maybe it was because he was short that I thought he looked young. I didn’t mind, though. Dating an older man—now that was cosmopolitan! That’s what girls did in New York City.

It only took a few weeks to achieve my first goal. In retrospect, I wonder what the big deal was, but at the time, I was terribly curious. I had never slept with anyone who wasn’t white before, and I wondered what it would be like. Growing up in rural Alberta, I hadn’t had much opportunity to experiment.

(Turns out Peter’s penis was pretty much the same shape and size as all the other penises I’d seen so far—which was three. The only difference was that his was a little browner.)

I’d joked about the penis size thing with Leslie after my first date with Peter, and in the weeks that followed she kept asking if I’d found out yet, but by the time I actually did find out, I didn’t want to tell her about it anymore.

On to Goal #2. I called my mom one night to say I was coming out to the farm for supper. “I’m bringing Peter,” I said. “Wonderful,” Mom said. “I’ll make a roast beef meal. We can’t wait to meet him.”

“Just to warn you,” I said, grinning. “he’s different.” “Different how?”

“You’ll see.”

I didn’t mention that Peter was… well, not white. I couldn’t wait to see the looks on their faces. I’m not saying they’re racist or anything, but it would sure come as a shock to them to find out I was dating a foreigner.

Peter and I drove out to Aspen Butte, about forty- five minutes north of Lloydminster. Mom and Dad saw how different Peter was the moment we walked up the front steps. They were coming out to greet us, and they stopped dead in their tracks. The looks on their faces were hilarious—confusion, disbelief, then exaggerated smiles. I nearly laughed.

When I made the introductions, they were both good sports. Dad shook Peter’s hand and invited him in. Mom grabbed my arm and pulled me aside. “But I made Yorkshire pudding,” she whispered frantically.

Before I could answer, she called to Peter, speaking loudly and slowly, enunciating clearly: “Do—you—eat—roast—beef?”

Peter shot me a quizzical look, and then smiled at my mom. “My favourite!” he said cheerfully.

Mom visibly relaxed. If dinner wasn’t a waste, things were fine in her world. As we sat down at the table, I began to wonder why I had imagined it would be fun to put her through this. And the expression on Peter’s face didn’t make me feel very good.

Peter complimented Mom on the meal as we all chowed down in silence. Then my dad said, “So, did you come with the boat people?”

I felt my face flush. I didn’t know exactly what the boat people were, but it didn’t sound like a good thing. Why did my dad have to be such a redneck? I raised my eyes to Peter’s. What had I been thinking?

After a long pause, Peter said, “No we weren’t boat people.” Then he changed the subject: “How do you think the Oilers will do this fall?” Mom and I exhaled in unison. Dad and Peter talked about hockey stats for the rest of the meal.

After supper, Mom shooed us outside while she cleaned up. I showed Peter around the farmyard and then we walked out behind the corrals to a little hill, my favourite spot in the world. “I love it up here,” I told Peter. “When I was little, my friend Vanessa and I spent hours playing back here, building forts and burying treasure.”

We climbed up the bank and found some flat rocks to sit on, and we sat facing west, where the sky was beginning to turn pink. “Isn’t it beautiful?” I asked as I looked out over the rolling pasture. “It’s so green.” He surveyed the scene slowly as the sun sank. “It is beautiful,” he agreed. “I can see why you love it. But green?” He was lost in thought for a moment. “You should see Vietnam. Now that’s green! Take this green and multiply it by a hundred—no, a thousand—and it still wouldn’t be green enough.”

We had never talked about Vietnam before. I slipped my hand into his. “What’s it like there?”

“Trees everywhere,” he continued. “Not spindly trees like these aspens, but tall giants growing thick in rain forests. And emerald-green rice paddies. Mist in the morning that makes everything magical.”

He gazed at the flame-red sun, and I stroked his hand. “It’s so beautiful,” he whispered.

After it got dark, I pulled him up and led him through the night back to the farmhouse. He stumbled in the darkness, but I knew the way by heart.

After he exchanged pleasant goodbyes with my parents, my mom pulled me aside and whispered, “Is this thing with Peter serious?”

“No, Mom,” I assured her. “We’re just going on a few dates. He’s not in town very long.”

Mom thought about that for a minute. “All right, then,” she said. I couldn’t interpret her tone.

My motives for this meeting had been ridiculous. My parents weren’t, in fact, as shocked as I thought they’d be. Looking back, I realize all they wanted was for me to be happy.

As we drove back to Lloydminster I recalled the way Peter had gracefully manoeuvred through the evening. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“Why?” he asked. “Your parents are great.”

“You’re great.”

Although I’d achieved my two goals, I hadn’t had nearly enough of Peter Tran yet.

In the days that followed, I realized something: with Peter, I could go anywhere. I could leave Lloydminster. I could visit Vancouver and Vietnam. I could learn new languages. I could see the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building. With Peter, I could see the world.

Peter usually came over to my place straight after work and spent the night. After all, the Homefire Motel, where he and his co-workers were staying, wasn’t all that homey. His room had a fridge and a hot plate, but the bed was practically in the kitchen and there was no table.

Either Peter or I would cook supper. (The first time he offered to cook, I was astonished—I had never known a man who “chicken balls” in Chinese. Surely something had been lost in translation. Years later I heard that a real Chinese person—one from China, I mean—wouldn’t be caught dead eating a chicken ball. There was no such thing there.

After supper, we would relax on the couch, and Peter always rubbed my feet because he said it wasn’t good for me to be on them all day. No one had ever rubbed my feet before. It was heavenly. Peter would say, “Tell me about your day,” which always made me laugh because it sounded like something an old married couple would say on a seventies TV sitcom. But I would tell him about my day, and he listened intently, always remembering which waitresses worked which shifts. He never forgot to ask, “And how was Leslie today?” because he knew that half the reason I’d stayed at Husky House so long was because Leslie and I were very best friends.

“Who was your worst customer today?” he would always ask. I would tell him about the customer who had been rude or fussy or stingy. “And your best customer?”

“You,” I replied every time.

I’d ask him about his day, too, and he’d tell me about whatever part of the project they had worked on that day. He drew diagrams of the equipment to show me how everything worked. He told me all about the hydrocracker fractionation unit he and his team were building. I even learned what naphtha and residuum are. The refining process is a lot more interesting than you might think. I usually made things like Kraft dinner and hamburgers. Peter would cook more exotic dishes—noodle soup, dumplings. He started a little tray of sprouts on my kitchen window, and he bought snow peas and noodles from Wong’s Kitchen, the only Chinese restaurant in town. Peter said his favourite meal was rice rolls, and he wished he could make them for me. He tried to explain what they were like. “It’s noodles and vegetables and barbecued pork wrapped up in a rice wrapper.”

“How do you wrap vegetables in rice?” I asked.

“Well, you need the special wrappers.” We had asked Mr. Wong, and the manager of the Co-op, but neither had heard of such a thing.

“It doesn’t matter,” Peter said. “It’s the sauce that makes them so tasty. I’d never find the ingredients in this town.”

I’d never eaten much ethnic food. Lloydminster didn’t have ethnic restaurants then—well, except for Wong’s Kitchen, which didn’t count because the Wongs’ ancestors came to Alberta even before mine did, and the Wongs haven’t been to China any more than I have. Everything on the menu at Wong’s is written in English. I don’t know if Mr. Wong even knows how to write in Chinese. When I was little, Dad used to joke about chicken balls: “How do they get the balls off the chickens?” Even as a kid I realized that it was unlikely that chicken balls were called “chicken balls” in Chinese. Sorely something had been lost in translation. Years later I heard that  a real Chinese person—one from China, I mean—wouldn’t be caught dead eating a chicken ball. There was no such thing there.

Before I knew it, two months had passed, and I was still enjoying every minute with Peter.

One night, while we were watching ER, Peter’s head was on my lap. I was running my fingers through his hair when I glanced down and noticed a patch of dark blue on his scalp. I parted his hair. “What’s this?” I asked, laughing. “How did you manage to get pen on your head?”

He wrenched himself away from me and sat up abruptly, sliding to the opposite end of the couch. “It’s nothing,” he said, smoothing down his hair with both hands.

“But it looks like you have blue ink in your hair,” I said, reaching a hand toward his head.

“It’s nothing!” he said loudly, jumping up. “Forget it.” It was the nearest to angry I’d ever seen him. He grabbed his coat and said he had to get back to the motel, but I knew it was just an excuse. I barely slept that night. The bed felt very big and very empty.

I told Leslie about it the next day. “What do you think?” I asked.

“Dunno,” she said, mulling it over. “Birthmark? or maybe in his country it’s cool to get tattoos on your head. Maybe it’s a stupid picture and he’s embarrassed of it now.”

“I don’t know,” I said doubtfully.

“Ask him again.”

“You didn’t see him. He was really touchy about it.”

“You could check sometime while he’s asleep.”

“I can’t do that!”

“Why not? You’re curious, aren’t you?”

So that’s what I did. A few nights later, I waited until he’d fallen asleep. I pulled the penlight out of my bedside table where I’d stashed it earlier, and I gently touched Peter’s head to see if he’d waken. He didn’t. I held the penlight between my teeth and carefully parted his thick, black hair to find the mark. I was stunned to realize it wasn’t a picture at all. It was a number—4. A number? I inhaled deeply to steady myself. He moved in his sleep but didn’t wake up. I found another number and another. I was trembling. 7 4 3 9 2. The digits, blurred at the edges, were printed in a straight row in dull blue ink. I shut off the penlight and leaned against the headboard in the darkness for a long while, trying to make it make sense. 7 4 3 9 2. What did it mean?

After a restless sleep, I woke at 5 a.m. as usual, and got ready for work quietly to avoid waking Peter. He came into the Husky House just after 7, as usual, and as usual I brought him a poached egg and dry brown toast.

I assured him I’d be fine. As he left the restaurant, Leslie steered me back into the waitress station. “What the hell is with you today? I took the orders out to tables fourteen and nine for you, and then I see you sitting at Peter’s table bawling.”

When I told her about the tattoo, she let out a low long whistle. “Wow,” she said. “Do you think it’s some Vietnamese version of the skull and crossbones? Some sort of gang thing?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Do you?”

“No.”

“Do you think he was in prison or something?” I asked with a catch in my throat. “Would they do that to someone in prison?”

“I don’t know. You’re going to have to ask him, I guess.”

I meant to ask him, and for a while the curiosity was killing me, but I remembered the look on his face the night I found the tattoo, and hard as I tried to think up the right words to ask about it, the right words never came. I felt as if I’d need to speak a language I didn’t even understand.

Mom visibly relaxed. If dinner wasn’t a waste, things were fine in her world. Peter complimented Mom on the meal as we all chowed down in silence. Then my dad said, “so, did you come with the boat people?”

A few weeks later, as we lay in bed, I said. “We should go to Vancouver. I’ve never been there.” Actually, I’d never been much of anywhere.

“We can’t right now. Things are really picking up at the site.” “Are your parents there? ”

“Where?”

“Vancouver.”

He caught me staring at him as I put down the plate. “What’s up?” he asked. Then he looked at me more closely. “Are you all right?”

“What’s your name?” I asked him.

He raised an eyebrow. “You know my name.”

“The real one.”

He told me, and I tried to repeat it, but I couldn’t. “Write it down,” I said. He wrote his name on a napkin (I still have it folded up in my dresser drawer): Le Ngoc Tran.

Le was easy, but Ngoc… While Peter ate his breakfast, I asked him to say it over and over, but I just couldn’t make my tongue produce the n and the g at the beginning of the word. Tears of frustration welled up in my eyes.

Peter looked perplexed, and he took my hand. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s very hard for any English speaker to pronounce it.”

“It does matter,” I insisted. “I should call you by the name your mother gave you.” The tears began to slide down my cheeks freely. “But n and g just aren’t supposed to fit together like that. It’s not right!”

He had to get to work. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?” he asked.

“No, my parents are far away from here.”

“Vietnam?”

“Kerri Lynn,” he said. “It’s a long story. A story for another day.” “But—”

He pulled me close and stroked my hair. “Shhh. Another day. Good night, em yêu dấu.” He rocked me to sleep.

By 8:30 the next morning, Peter still hadn’t shown up for breakfast.

“I hope he’s not sick,” I said to Leslie.

From the phone by the till, I called my apartment. No answer. My heart pounded with growing dread. I dialed the Homefire Motel, and the receptionist coolly told me that Peter and his crew had checked out early that morning.

“Where did they go?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Their job was finished, I guess, and they paid the bill. That’s all that matters to me.”

I hung up the phone with tears streaming down my cheeks. Leslie ushered me to the bathroom.

“He wouldn’t just disappear, would he?” I asked. “Maybe he’s out doing errands. He’ll phone you.”

I went home, and Leslie covered the rest of the shift, but Peter didn’t phone that day, or the next day, or the next.

A week later, I called directory assistance and asked for the number for Peter Tran in Vancouver.

“I have no listing for a Peter Tran,” the operator told me.

“Try Le Ngoc Tran,” I said, stumbling over the pronunciation.

“Spell that, please.”

There was no listing for Le Ngoc Tran, either.

“Try L. Tran.”

“There are 83 L. Trans in Vancouver, ma’am.” “Eighty-three?”

“Yes,” she said. “I can give you three numbers for 75 cents.

You’ll have to phone back again for the next three numbers, and that will be another 75 cents. Would you like to begin?”

“Don’t bother,” I said, slamming the receiver down in frustration.

What would I have said to him, anyway?

I waited until he’d fallen asleep. I held the penlight between my teeth and carefully parted his thick, black hair. I inhaled deeply to steady myself. He moved in his sleep but didn’t wake up. I was trembling.

Lloydminister is booming—a “beehive,” they call it. We have our own Superstore now. I often browse in the back corner in the short aisle labelled “Foreign Foods.” Every time I shop I buy one new thing to try. The mango juice from the Philippines was really good; the pickled eggs from Taiwan weren’t. Not long ago, I saw a round, flat plastic container labelled “rice wrappers.” Asian Boy brand. I bought the package—100 of them. That night I followed the directions to prepare the wrappers, and I filled them with noodles and lettuce and sliced leftover pork chops. But the wrappers kept tearing, and I couldn’t roll them tight enough to keep the filling in, so I had to eat them with a fork. The mixture was bland. I figured the pork wasn’t flavoured right, and Peter always said it was the sauce that was so delicious. I added soya sauce, but it didn’t help. Next time I go to Edmonton, I’m going to find a Vietnamese or a Laotian restaurant. Maybe I can learn how to make the wrappers properly.

The restaurant is always full of oil field workers now. Guys from the upgrader. Guys from the field. Leslie is dating a rig worker who’s up north for ten days at a time and off in Lloyd for five.

A couple of months ago, I went on a date with a bouncer from Amigos. Leslie set us up. He was cute, but he spent the whole evening telling me about the fights he’d broken up (or started) at the bar, and I got bored.

I interrupted his rambling. “I had this customer today you wouldn’t believe—”

He shot me a look and interrupted me right back. “So anyway, like I was saying, I grab this guy by the collar and I say, ‘Look here, buddy—’”

I tuned out. When he finally paused for breath, I asked, “Would you ever rub a girl’s feet for her?”

He raised an eyebrow and grimaced. “No way! That’s totally gross.”

I stared at him until he shifted uncomfortably.

What?” he asked defiantly. “You want me to touch someone else’s toe jam?”

We didn’t go out again.

With the upgrader running in full swing, the city is bursting with people—people moving in every single day, they say. We have a bunch of South African doctors now. Doctors don’t often come into the Husky House, but I would love to talk to one of them someday and find out for myself what South Africa is like. There are a few black families too, as well as a couple of East Indian people. About three weeks ago, an Indian family came in for breakfast: a mother, father and two little girls. The man wasn’t wearing a turban or anything, but the woman wore a beautiful outfit with baggy pants and a long shirt. The cloth was bright orange, embroidered with gold thread. I was dying to ask her the Indian word for the outfit, and I would’ve liked to touch it to see if it was silk, but one thing I’ve learned is that just because I’m curious about something that doesn’t mean I have the right to ask about it.

Leslie says maybe Peter had a wife and kids somewhere, in Vancouver, or in Vietnam. I wonder if she’s right. Maybe Peter just liked the thought of sleeping with a blue-eyed blonde for a few months. I don’t want to believe it’s true, but I suppose even in Vancouver, even in Vietnam, engineers don’t marry waitresses.

I’ve started a Tip/Trip Jar on my bedside table. At the end of each shift, I dump every single coin into that jar. When I’ve saved enough, I’m going to travel. I want to see the world. On weekend nights I watch Ian Wright on Lonely Planet travel to all the amazing places I haven’t seen. Europe, Africa, South America. I hope they’ll do a show about Laos someday.

Yesterday when I was shopping at the mall, I popped into the travel agent’s office. “Just out of curiosity,” I said to the woman sitting at the desk behind a computer, “what would a flight to Vietnam cost?”

“Gee, I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever flown anyone to Vietnam. I’ll have to look it up. What city?”

“Oh. I’m not sure. What’s the capital?”

She pecked at the keyboard and waited for the information to appear on the monitor. “From Edmonton to Hanoi on Air Canada, you’d be looking at about $1,800 round trip.”

“Whoa. That’s a lot,” I said. I would need to supplement my tip jar substantially.

Turning away from the monitor, she looked at me with interest. “Why do you want to go to Vietnam, anyway?”

I shrugged my shoulders. I thought of green forests and green fields. I felt the sting of tears in my eyes and I lowered my gaze. “It’s a long story,” I said, finally.

Lost in Translation was a finalist in the Alberta Views short fiction contest. Pam Chamberlain lives in Camrose.

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