For the past ten years, I’ve followed my partner around, cobbling for myself whatever opportunities there could be. Another move related to academia, I thought wearily.
This move—our fifth—was a big international move.
On August 6, 2021, we flew from Boston to Germany, where he received his only other offer for a professorship. He had been on the job market for a few years and felt both gratitude and pressure to accept, especially after one job prospect in the United States had been rescinded.
Realistically, there would be no other offers during the pandemic, he said grimly.
I was offered a half-time instructor position at the same university. There were major differences between our statuses: he, a professor, and I, a precarious instructor. Or an adjunct as they call the position elsewhere. He was expected to learn German because his job title comes with an extra distinction of being a “civil servant.” I was told that many people spoke English, that I could get by without knowing German.
I rarely take advice from academics because they are unrealistically optimistic or they themselves have separated the institution from the rest of the world. The assumption is that I would only communicate with English-speaking Germans in a university. But one wouldn’t necessarily make that conclusion based on the many university emails composed in German I receive.
Though he understands more than he speaks, I appointed my partner as my translator. At the grocery stores, he’s taught me how to distinguish what the numbers on the flour bags mean. And despite his valiant attempts to remind me how to say “excuse me” or “I’m sorry,” my brain wanders into French, the only foreign language I know. “Oh! Excusez-moi!” I’d say to the person I bumped into. It takes me only an instant to realize my error, but it’s still a bad habit. Even a simple “nein” or “ja” becomes a “non” or “oui.” Inexplicably, I couldn’t place “nein” or “ja” in my muscle memory.
One of the first restaurants I tried was Pho3Mien, an eatery near his office downtown. He had ordered phở gà when he visited the university and searched for apartments in April. At the time, Hannover was under lockdown and restaurants only offered takeaway. The restrictions have now eased up considerably.
“I think they speak Vietnamese,” he said. We sat outdoors at the one table next to the restaurant’s window.
“Or you can try to order in German,” I retorted, staring at the menu posted on the wall. All of it was in German, some words easier to translate because they almost resembled English. “How do you say ‘one bowl of phở’?”
A server walked out with a tray of food. I heard her say something in Vietnamese before she stepped out of the doorway. At the other table, several feet away, she placed plates of curries and rice in front of the two guests before appearing at our table. She said something in German while flipping open a small pad, pen poised on a blank line.
He looked at me expectantly.
I didn’t say anything.
“Um, sprechen sie Vietnamesisch?” he asked.
She paused. “Bitte?” she asked.
I repeated his question but in halting Vietnamese.
She answered in the affirmative, and my body relaxed. I placed my order of vegetarian phở and a glass of water.
“Wasser mit gas?” chị asked.
“Wasser?” I repeated.
She translated it into Vietnamese, and I nodded.
“Mit gas,” I said again. I looked at my partner quizzically. “What’s ‘mit gas?’” I asked in Vietnamese. “What does ‘mit’ mean?”
She thought for a moment. “‘Mit’ is like ‘with,’” she offered.
I finally understood. “Wasser mit gas” is sparkling water. She had pronounced gas without a “s” sound at the end. It sounded like “gah.”
Embarrassed, I apologized for the confusion. Based on her twinkling eyes, I could tell she was smiling from behind her mask.
When she returned to our table with glasses of water, she asked why we were in Hannover and where we had lived before arriving. After providing a brief outline of our geographic histories, I told chị I should learn German.
“It’ll be easier if you do,” she responded. “People don’t speak English here.” In Montreal, where I lived for almost four years, this sentiment is tinged with ideology. But she seemed to imply that learning languages is an act of survival.
As we ate our bowls of phở, my partner nodded at something behind me. I turned and saw a different couple at the last available table. Nearby, the other diners had finished eating and were now sipping their Vietnamese coffees.
“People only ever seem to order curry here,” he observed.
“Why’s that?” I asked him before drinking a spoonful of the broth.
“I think that’s what they like here,” he answered, like a bad anthropologist.
We returned to Pho3Mien about two weeks later. I cheerfully greeted chị as we sat ourselves at the same table outside.
I was prepared. I ordered the same dish in Vietnamese and added “und wasser mit gas.”
When she left, my partner exclaimed, “why’d you say ‘mit gah?’”
“I wanted sparkling water.”
“It’s ‘mit gas’,” he said, emphasizing the “s.”
“But chị pronounces it without the ‘s’,” I defended myself. I said it again. “‘Mit gah.’ I was just imitating her. I think Vietnamese people drop the “s” when they say “gas” generally. Ma always says cooking with ‘gah.’” I shrugged after offering my linguistic explanation.
Throughout the meal, when chị stopped by our table during her free time, I quickly pulled up my mask to chat with her. At one point, she interrupted herself to walk over to the trio who sat down. I heard her quickly switch from German to Vietnamese.
As we got up, I saw that two of them had ordered bowls of phở. Their friend had ordered a plate of rice and beef. Not curry.
My second month in Germany, I met another chị at another restaurant. A twenty-minute transit ride takes me from my front door to Hoa Asia. We’ve ordered their spring rolls, fried bananas, and phở. When I phoned my order, I greeted the person with an “hallo” before asking “Sprechen sie Vietnamesisch?”
Inside, I walked up to the counter to pay. A server was organizing the to-go orders in huge, brown plastic containers. To my right was a window. I saw two chefs in the small open, smoky kitchen busying themselves in front of their woks. They nodded at me.
The dining room was empty. The dark wooden tables and panels and bright orange chairs were quite retro, a set-up that reminded me of the many restaurant scenes between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan in In the Mood for Love.
Tonight, like the other times I’ve come to pick up my order, I rarely saw guests eating outside. Especially since the time change and as the evening grew colder.
Chị said something in German. I stared at her in silence. She patiently translated into Vietnamese: How are you? Are you now liking Germany? The last time I was here, I had told her that my chồng had found a job. I used the word for husband, momentarily forgetting the word for “partner.” Bạn đời.
“What are you going to do when your chồng is at work?” she had asked in alarm. “You shouldn’t be all alone.” I had assured her that I would be working, too.
“Still not understanding German?” she asked.
I shook my head. I had memorized about three sentences barely five words long.
“It’s hard,” she sympathized. “When I came here, I didn’t speak German and it was hard for me to learn it.” She paused before glancing at the empty restaurant. “Living here is a bit sad. It’s hard to find other Vietnamese people. In the U.S., at least there are Chinatowns…’
Uncertain what else to contribute to the conversation, I nodded along. She must have equated my quietness as a sign of sadness and repeated what she had said the first time we met, a warm offer to swing by anytime just to chat.
I thanked her, knowing that spaces now, especially restaurant spaces, have been struggling during the pandemic. I didn’t want to burden her while she was at work. Speaking some Vietnamese to a person in Germany was enough for me, however fleeting the conversation was.
I left a tip in cash. She rummaged around in her coin purse, and I used a colloquialism I rarely said in Vietnamese. “No need for change.”
As I walked out of the restaurant, I noticed a new sign on their window. It was in German, but I could recognize what the images were conveying. Masks and proof of vaccinations required.
Anna Nguyen is a PhD student and instructor in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Leibniz Universität Hannover in Germany. Her research focuses on the rhetoric, composition and literary studies of science, literature on food, citations, and social theory. She is especially interested in theoretical creative non-fiction, where social theory, thinking about food, and first-person narrative blend without enforcing academic conventions. She hosts a podcast, Critical Literary Consumption.