Eating humble pie in Vietnam

Eating humble pie in Vietnam

A surprise botany lesson at the table.

I’ve been embarrassed so many times in matters of the tongue that I’ve become extremely accommodating when speaking to people who struggle with English. My heart is in the right place, but there have been a couple of occasions when a sense of superiority I didn’t even know I had has jumped up and bitten me in the rear.

A case in point: We were ordering dinner at a restaurant in Hanoi a few years ago, when I noticed “banana flower salad” listed on the menu. I’d read enough tourist menus in Asia to become fairly adept at deciphering their apparently random jumbling of letters, and although this particular menu was better written than most, I assumed that the dish was actually called banana flour salad.

Since I’d never heard of this strange variety of flour, I asked the waiter how the dish was made. It turns out there’s no such thing as banana flour, but the banana flower is — drum roll, please — the flower of the banana plant.

Close-up of the banana plant.

The tiny banana flowers. © zngx_0311 http://www.flickr.com

Our very patient waiter decided a little show-and-tell was in order for the ignorant foreigner. He brought a purplish, conical-shaped plant to the table and peeled back the layers to expose a ring of embryonic bananas. When he pulled these away, we could see the delicate blossoms inside. They were almost translucent and looked like sea anemones, with their pale, ghostly tentacles.

I know it was only a flower and I don’t want to make too big a deal out of it, but the encounter with that waiter was truly a magical moment. He gave me the gift of knowledge, and I was grateful to be leaving the restaurant with something I didn’t have when I walked in.

More importantly, he gave me a wake-up call against the kind of knee-jerk cultural arrogance that presumes only native speakers are equipped to handle the English language. I was grateful for that, too.

Oh, and the salad? Delicious!

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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2 Responses to Eating humble pie in Vietnam

  1. Margie Banin says:

    Oh, how neat! I just recently encountered my first up-close banana flower while in Grenada. The family we were staying with had a banana tree in their yard, and it flowered while we were there. I have to admit, for me – coming from the Pacific Northwest – it was fascinating to watch how over the course of a week or two it went from tight bud to huge, dangling bunches of rapidly growing baby bananas. Did not learn you could eat the flowers, though…wish I’d known!

    By the way, I’ve been eagerly following your posts ever since we ‘met’ on the expat seminar calls this past summer. I rarely comment, but I just want to let you know how much I enjoy (and often identify with) your experiences. Thank you!

    • Maria says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Margie! I think of that call often — it was a very satisfying discussion and I hope there will be a follow-up series on repatriation sometime soon. And lucky you, visiting Grenada and getting up close and personal with the banana plants! I would love to watch them grow from flower to fruit — I loved watching the grapes grow in Bordeaux. I have to admit that until that day in Hanoi, I had honestly never thought about where bananas came from. Travel is truly food for the mind!

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