I am married to a General. So is my wife. In spite of statistics, two Generals do not a war make, at least not always. Both of us are the oldest child in our respective families. Both of us have had businesses or have run companies, and both of us have owned restaurants at one time or another in our multi-faceted lives. The major difference in that aspect is the fact that my wife is a natural-born chef, whereas I am a learn by watching or following a recipe. She can taste something and recreate it, but deigns to follow a recipe. I am useless 99.8% of the time without a teacher or a recipe, or both. The end result is that her food always tastes fresh and interesting with sharp, distinct flavors, whereas mine, if I try to create a dish, usually tastes cluttered and muddled.
But this is not about food, at least not this time. Today I am writing about the difficulties of being married to a General. Before we married I suspected that Kim was inherently a General, and I knew for sure that I was. We both like to maintain control of the moment, and don’t readily accept the suggestions of the other partner. In both our defense we know when to retreat and when to stand our ground, particularly when we hold the high ground–after all, isn’t a marriage a sort of war even if both are on the same side? Sometimes one of us gets stubborn and tries to hold an indefensible site, only to be later overrun by logic and the facts of the situation. Gradually both of us are learning when, where, and how far to conduct each skirmish, and to save our chips for the grand battle that may ensue. It is fun, interesting, and educational as each of us learns to live with a foreigner, for better or for worse. We have learned early on that in order to have more of the “for betters”, we need to keep the lines of communication open and talk out each situation where we are face to face in seemingly opposite positions. Someone who is smarter than I will probably call that “marriage”. I can deal with that.
Since we first met we have kept those lines of communication open and active. We talk a lot about our thoughts, experiences, relationship, and feelings, and she tries to help me understand both her side and the cultural aspects of a situation, guiding me through the “Vietnamese Way” while gently easing my objections and showing me why I am wrong. I’m wrong a lot. It is almost embarrassing how often I’m wrong, but it is a cultural ignorance and I am very receptive to altering that when I’m shown the proper way. I live here, and while I demand certain American comforts (like full time air conditioning and putting used toilet paper into the toilet), I have conceded foods left un-refrigerated for most of a day and some cooking with tap water rather than bottled water. My wife is quick to point out that when we eat out, the ice is not made from bottled water and I haven’t gotten sick yet, and she is also willing and able to understand my explanation that I come from a climate and country where the bathroom floors are never wet because 1. the floor would become a skating rink in winter and 2. it is rare to find a drain built into a bathroom floor and in fact, many are carpeted. She has adapted to my desire to flush used toilet paper (most Asians believe that toilets cannot handle paper being thrown in) by buying paper that readily dissolves in water, and conceded to my desire for a dry bathroom floor by letting me hang a shower curtain. Many homes have showers in a corner of the bathroom, and people don’t bother trying to keep the floor dry. The weather is hot and the wet floors don’t matter much.
On the other hand, we do argue about refrigerating food, and I have conceded a 12 hour window. Despite the fact that in the beginning of today’s blog I said it would not be about food, it is one of the major issues of contention between us. I am used to putting food into a refrigerator immediately upon finishing using that food, cooked or uncooked. Vietnamese can leave things out of the fridge for hours, with no apparent ill effects. I came to the conclusion that since the food here is much fresher than in the USA, usually one day or less out of the ground, off the tree, or fresh from the slaughterhouse, AND there seem to be less chemicals, antibiotics, and preservatives in everything here, AND often in the case of fish or chicken you pick out a living, swimming, squawking animal, the product deteriorates much slower despite the heat in most Vietnamese homes–And our home is air conditioned whenever we are at home, (deep breath) the bacteria that will develop in a 12 hour period are not sufficient to kill us, or even make us sick. So far we are OK, or should I say, I am OK. Kim has become accustomed to the way of food handling and only one time got sick from something she ate–at a restaurant.
So I yield to my fellow General. If I can have a dry bathroom floor, she can handle food the way she normally does. She still cooks rice and soups with bottled water, all for my benefit. She brushes and rinses her mouth with tap water–I still keep eyes and mouth tightly shut when showering and brush with bottled water. My wife spends what she considers a wasteful amount of money each week for bottled water (three 19 liter bottles last about 8 days and cost 145,000 VND–an extravagance she would never employ), and she uses it freely and without concern for the expense. Considering her careful expending of funds that is a huge sacrifice. She is very, very good about things like that, and I try to show and tell her how much I appreciate her “sacrifice”.
We did not take our usual hour walk the past two days. I had some major problems with my stomach and just couldn’t get out of bed, but today I almost felt well enough to walk. Our usual venue for exercise has a huge, four day, exhibition going on so we chose to walk on the flower street, a picture of which I am attaching below. Now you should understand that at this age, if I lay off the walking for two days, it is like I haven’t walked for a year. My general sets off on a hike that would have made Col. Huxley in the novel Battle Cry by Leon Uris exceedingly proud. I dragged my weary, fat ass, clutzily behind the marching leader. She led for two reasons–I think she was trying to kill me, no, that’s a joke. She wanted to set a pace that would get us home in my lifetime and she really was concerned about me because the last time we walked there, I tripped over a cyclone wire fence that had been laid on the sidewalk prior to being rolled up and put aside. I cut various parts, but my gross stomach prevented any facial contact and apparently my tetanus shot still worked. She did not want the trauma of THAT again. So she walked a bit ahead pointing out any bump, lump of dog poo, or unexpected thing on our path. I had learned my lesson but was not looking UP until she pointed out a low bamboo pole on an awning that would have take out an eye, but that any average Vietnamese could easily pass under. So General Kim saved General Bill’s ass once again, and in revenge she set a pace that Seabiscuit couldn’t have matched. She did allow me two sit-downs–mostly because I collapsed at both opportunities before she offered, and in her defense (she reads this, so I must be gentle), she did ask me numerous times if I wanted to turn back BEFORE we reached the halfway mark. Stubbornly, I refused to be outdone by some girl 20 years my junior(Kim), and I did finish the walk. It was an hour walk at a good pace and I consider it an achievement considering I thought I was dying at 2 am and was trotting at 6 am. For a reward she fed me a Vietnamese treat–a baked sweet potato and even let me have some butter, altho she snatched the butter away before I could get more than a taste.
I like my wife, and I love her too. She is a rock when it comes to my welfare, but bends gently when she thinks it will make me feel better or when she knows it doesn’t make much difference. Despite her super-close relationship with her family, she always takes care of me first. She listens to my arguments during discussions, as I do to hers with equal attention. We care what each other thinks and feels. We try to understand the arguments of the other, and we try to give a lot of leeway because of the cultural differences. Our relationship is improving with time, like fine wine, and when she takes away my butter, I complain but only to maintain a bit of control over what I eat. I know she does it out of love and a desire to make me live longer, and THAT I will do my best to help her achieve. She’s just too good to leave alone.
Sometimes I look in the mirror and wonder what my General sees in me that makes her so good, so caring, and so lovingly considerate. I’m still looking for that answer.