“Have fun, boys!” Phu and I clambered out of the backseat of my mother’s dated Oldsmobile and stepped onto the wet parking lot. After waving my mother off and watching her disappear into the distance, I turned to face the rugged apartment complex that towered over the surrounding neighborhood. “That’s my bedroom window,” Phu said, jabbing his index finger towards the second floor of the building. “See? Right there!” I gazed absently at the window. It was quite dusty and tinted with a rather soft shade of yellow: A morsel of vitality, profoundly accentuated by the insipid overcast that blanketed the sky. “Let’s go.” I clumsily followed my host’s lead through the maze of cars and up an unkempt spiral staircase until we finally reached a faded and rather unsightly door. Its pinkish shade stood as a testament to the age and weathering of the red veneer with which the door was originally coated, and like Phu’s window, provided a small hint of life within its cold and inorganic surroundings. “Here it is,” Phu remarked, “207B.” I watched as Phu grasped and gently shook the rusty doorknob. The door cracked open, and almost immediately my sinuses swelled at the exposure of exotic spices and herbs: The likes of which a young, American boy such as I would have seldom experienced outside of a typical Asian restaurant. Phu motioned for me to follow, and with a subtle feeling of anxiety pawing at my diaphragm, I quietly edged through the doorway.
After my eyes adjusted to the indoor lighting, I found myself utterly confounded by the drastic shift in tone that had taken place before my very eyes. Beautiful, vibrant chrysanthemums surrounded the perimeter of the living room area and were complemented by soft-colored silk paintings of Chinese origin that covered most of the walls. In the place of a TV was a rather large, ornate table of rich teak which was covered with tens, if not hundreds, of tiny and exotic glass trinkets: Treasures of the far Eastern world. Directly to my left sat a particularly short man of his mid-50’s who I took to be my friend’s father. As I began to introduce myself, Phu interjected: “Ông khỏe không ạ? Ông đang làm gì?” I gazed in bewilderment as my childhood friend addressed his father with vivid and mysterious combinations of syllables, ranging from low mumbles to high, swinging yelps in a seemingly unpredictable, yet beautiful path of motion. “A butterfly,” I thought. Phu, sensing my confusion, laughed and explained, “When speaking Vietnamese, it not only matters the word that you say, but also how you say it that determines the meaning.” I was inexplicably fascinated by such a foreign concept, and I listened with a feeling of boyish wonder and excitement to the fluid exchange of the mysterious language between father and son for the rest of the evening.