The Silent Sisters: A story of developing international relationships

By Robert Catherman · 2 years ago

In November 2017, I swapped my seat in Anthropology 461, Historical Ecology at the UW, for seat 21D on a Boeing 777. I was headed to Vietnam for three weeks to work on a safe drinking water project. This is my 22nd year working in Vietnam on humanitarian aid projects. I have many stories that I could tell from experiences during those 22 years, but one story stands out.

In 2011 I traveled to central Vietnam to work with a Vietnamese partner on a drinking water 
project. After we finished our project in the city of Hue, my associate invited me to go to a unique tea house with her and her daughter.

When I arrived at the tea house, there were two additional people with my companion, her younger sisters in their mid-twenties. I soon realized the meeting had a dual purpose: one of friendship and hospitality and an opportunity for the sisters to practice their English with me, a native speaker. I was happy to participate in both.

We enjoyed our tea and I tried my best to engage the younger sisters in English conversation. But, try as I might, the most I could get out of either sister was a one- or two-word whispered answer to any question I asked. So it was a bit of an awkward evening, but we all enjoyed the aromatic tea and the beautiful teahouse.

In my mind, I named them “The Silent Sisters”. But that was only in my mind.

We finished our teatime and said our goodbyes. I assumed that would be the last time I ever saw that crowd, but I was proven wrong within a year.

The following spring I returned to Vietnam and we continued working on the project. Again my associate invited me to tea, this time, with herself and a visiting Japanese professor. Unbeknownst to me, Silent Sister #1 was also invited. At the tea house, the English-speaking Vietnamese associate, the English-speaking Japanese professor, and I all laughed and talked for about twenty minutes. But Silent Sister #1 remained silent.

Suddenly, Silent Sister #1 burst into speech. I think she realized that if the two other people who were speaking English as their second language could communicate effectively, she probably could too. And she did. Her English was quite understandable. So now there were four people talking in English, drinking tea, and laughing together. And I decided to change the nickname of “Silent Sister #1” to “Miss Talkative”.

We finished our drinks and said our goodbyes.

In February of 2013, I was once again in Vietnam, and I was introduced to someone new.

Kien was a university student who asked me to practice English with him. We met four or five times for coffee at my favorite hangout in the city of Hue, the Book Cafe, a scenic setting beside the Perfume River. Frankly, Kien’s English was hard for me to understand, and we spent a lot of time writing words on paper so I would not have to guess the word he was trying to pronounce. We made some progress during my three-week visit before I had to return to the US.

For the next year, Kien and I emailed about once a month. Then he was silent for four or five months before finally emailing to say his computer was broken. I remembered that Miss Talkative worked at an Information Technology job and perhaps could help. Via email I asked her to look at his computer and assess if it was repairable. She assured it could be fixed, and made the arrangements for Kien’s laptop to be repaired.

Kien asked Miss Talkative to deliver the repaired computer to his home in the countryside. So she and her boyfriend rode to his house by motorcycle. She later told me that she enjoyed meeting Kien’s father and mother and younger brothers and sisters and that they were very poor but very happy. Kien emailed to thank me for my help with the computer repair.

A few months later, Miss Talkative emailed me and said, “I have a confession to make. I have been visiting Kien’s family occasionally in the countryside and sometimes take them a bag of rice and other foods and a few clothes. They are very, very poor. And I took the young twins on my motorcycle into town to fit them for new shoes.”

Needless to say, I was very moved by her caring heart and her generous actions. I am always intrigued at how the people we meet today may play some undefined role in our future. And I am reminded that we should never discount the possibilities that may lay dormant in some relationships, even if they have gears turning in places around the globe.

In 2015, I read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which is set in Seattle’s International District during World War II. What I took away from the book was that there are occasions in our lives when the two emotions, bitter and sweet, intersect at the same time and place.

And that is what happened on my next visit to Vietnam.

On a Saturday in March, 2015, Miss Talkative, her boyfriend, and I rode by motorcycle to visit Kien and his family. You will recall that the living conditions of Kien and family were described as “very, very poor”. This was my first opportunity to observe the situation firsthand.

I’d been coming to Vietnam for 20 years and have seen the best and the worst of living conditions — how the well-to-do live and how the poorest-of-the-poor live. So I was not shocked when I saw the inside of Kien’s home: a dirt floor, two sleeping platforms for six people, and mismatched chairs for the table which only had room for four at a time and with windows lacking both screens and glass.

The sweet surprise was the friendliness of the family toward me. I was a total stranger and a foreigner. I knew that Kien had told them about me but that was our first meeting. The father didn’t speak any English but he definitely knew how to communicate through smiles and gestures. The mother, very bashful, hid out in the kitchen. Kien’s younger brother and sister knew some English, but shyness kept most of their words locked inside.

For them, having a foreigner as a visitor was an occasion to celebrate. At one side of the house was a 20-foot-tall papaya tree bearing a dozen papayas at various states of maturity. The 50-year-old father climbed a ladder and cut down the largest papaya I’d ever seen. He split the footlong papaya open and carved it into edible chunks. We gathered around the small table and feasted on the fresh fruit.

Then the mother brought plates of banh uot,a thin pancake made from rice flour and stuffed with pork sausage,from the kitchen for our lunch. Miss Talkative asked her to sit and eat with us; the mother said something in Vietnamese and everyone laughed. Not speaking Vietnamese, I did not understand the joke regarding why she would not sit with us to eat. Miss Talkative translated for me: it was a well-known Vietnamese idiom loosely translated as “the cook is never hungry”. Too soon it was time to leave after this bitter and sweet experience. The scarcity of material goods took a backseat to enjoying a warm, rich time together and strangers becoming friends.

A few years have now passed and more events have unfolded. Now, I am “Uncle Bob”, an adopted member of Miss Talkative’s family. Miss Talkative and her boyfriend, Mr. Right, met at their workplace. After being a bridesmaid countless times, it was Miss Talkative’s turn to be the bride in their traditional Vietnamese wedding. They decided to start a family immediately.

Just before the birth of their son, my wife was in Vietnam and met the couple for coffee. My wife gave the couple our present for the addition to the family: a baby quilt, hand-sewn about twenty years ago by my mother. I told my mother, now 97, their story and she was thrilled knowing that her handiwork traveled halfway around the world to warm the hearts of our friends as well as their child.

For me, it was pure travel that started my relationship with The Silent Sisters.

When I returned to Vietnam last November, I visited with the new family: Miss Talkative, Mr. Right and baby Gau. I was again reminded that while travel is about experiencing new places, unusual activities, and different foods, the biggest joy of travel is befriending people. I anticipate that my friends in Vietnam will continue to be a part of my life until the end of my days on this planet.

Edited by Jack Russillo