Why I’m Not Allowed in Certain Vietnamese Restaurants

This is probably the most convoluted thing I’ve ever had to explain with lists before.

Category F5 tornado (upgraded from initial est...

An F5 tornado– no match for Derek’s teeth.

When I told one of my coworkers in high school that I was sitting next to some mysterious kid named Derek in physics, he leaned over and whispered, “You know Derek’s a quadruple black belt in Taekwondo, right? I’ve heard he plucked a kid’s eyeball right out of its socket.” This was terrible news, as I am no good at physics and have surprisingly large eyeballs. Worried that I would frustrate him to the point of violence, I began asking all of my fellow high school-aged co-workers what they knew about my new physics partner.

Things Kids in My High School Believed About Derek

– The aforementioned eyeball plucking thing came up at least three times, attributed variously to his military training, his half-Chinese heritage, and his 80 black belts in four different martial arts.

– “I heard his dad is so crazy that he taught Derek to yell at teachers when they’re wrong. In elementary school, he threw a chair at an aid when he got mad.”

– “He’s the first-chair violinist in the orchestra. It might be because the conductor is afraid of him, but he’s also really good.”

– “He’s going to the Air Force academy or something.  My friend said he’s got tattoos all over his chest and he can break your neck just by looking at it.”

– “He’s in the Civil Air Patrol. He does search and rescue stuff. That tornado that just happened? My mom’s cousin’s accountant said Derek is leaving school for a week to drive up there and pull people out of the wreckage with his teeth.”

A smarter person would have looked at this admittedly questionable information and found a new partner. Since I am not a smart person, I was instead incredibly thrilled to have someone with this reputation help me achieve a greater understanding of mass times acceleration. Derek wasn’t there all week, presumably because he was dragging people from their tornado-savaged homes using only his jaw. When Derek finally came back to school, the first thing I said to him was, “Can I ask you a question about eyeballs?”

Things That Were Actually True About Derek

– No, he’d never plucked out anyone’s eyeball, but definitely could if he needed to.

– Yes, his dad was sort of crazy- he was ex-Navy, owned a self defense company, and had the patent on an object which I fondly call the Stabbing People Key.

– No, he’d never thrown a chair at anyone.

– Yes, he was the first-chair violinist, either by talent or fear.

– Yes, he was considering the Air Force Academy.

– No, he didn’t have any tattoos but was about to get one.

– He could not break your neck by looking at it. He could, however, break it by snapping it.

– Yes, he was in Civil Air Patrol and had been rescuing people from the tornado.

– Yes, he had pretty excellent teeth

– Yes, he wanted to go out some time.

The stage was set. In a short period of time, I would be in downtown Denver looking very foolish and covered in noodles.

It started innocuously enough. He wanted me to meet his shooting instructor. This sounded lovely, as our first date had involved accidentally going to a clothing-optional hot springs and everything sounds better after that.  Unfortunately, things quickly went horribly wrong.

Things That Caused the Date to Get Weird Fast

– When he said “shooting instructor”, I imagined a bigger, more intimidating cross between Forrest Whitaker and Mr. T, probably because I watch way too many Stallone movies.

I pictured exactly this: the kind of dude who would crush my head under his arm just for fun. (Thanks, Mary!)

In actuality, the shooting instructor was a tiny squirrelly white guy named Dave whose mustache was bigger than his whole face, and who spent the entire trip talking about his girlfriend, Nancy the Dreamboat. He never called her just Nancy, and I assumed it was because she was a total babe, but from the way he described her personality, it was entirely possible that Nancy the Dreamboat was her full name. When I asked Dave this, he became inexplicably offended and wouldn’t talk to me for the duration of the day. This made it particularly awkward when Derek fell asleep in the car, leaving me trying to fill the painful silence with humming. Finally Dave called Nancy the Dreamboat and had a loud conversation with her about how awful and tone-deaf Derek’s new girlfriend was.

– I’m notoriously klutzy. During the course of the day, I tripped three different times. One of those times, I  smacked my head on a glass case in an antique shop and was bodily removed by the store owner. The last time I tripped was immediately after a beautiful girl (who I later found out was in love with Derek) handed me a very large box that was marked EXTREMELY FRAGILE. She had just finished telling me not to hurt the contents of the box when I stepped into the street, fell on top of the box in the middle of the crosswalk, and was almost hit by a car.

-We ended up at a multi-cultural event for People Who Wear Suits. I didn’t know why we were there, why my boyfriend was suddenly wearing glittery, furry pants and shoes with claws, or why everyone in the room seemed to be staring at me when he was the one dressed like that. It didn’t occur to me that the other 20 people I’d walked in with were dressed just like him because they were all lion dancers and that all the business people were staring at me because I was clearly out of place as the only white girl in a group of Asian kids who were about to perform a traditional dance. I went on to offend an entire culture by pointing out that Liberace had similar pants. (This is a lion dance- it starts to get really scary around 4:43. It’s kind of like two-person gymnastics that’s deeply rooted in a culture and allows the participants way less visibility and several more ways to fall to their deaths. It’s awe-inspiring and sphincter-tightening, especially if the lion’s butt is your G.I. Joe-like boyfriend.)

And Finally… Why I’m No Longer Allowed Near Pho

– To celebrate a lion dance well done (which seems to mean it was convincingly lion-y and no one broke any important limbs), the entire group went out to eat pho afterwards. At the time, I had never heard of pho (which is pronounced fuh, for those of you who, like me, grew up in small towns full of boring white people), but that was no excuse to say things like, “We’re going to eat pho? This should be pho-ny!” In fact, when you say things like that, people start thinking you’re kind of an ignorant jerk.

– At the pho restaurant, I sat across from the beautiful girl who loved Derek. I ordered my pho incorrectly while she ordered hers like a pro and talked about how the pho her grandma made was way better. I told her my grandma makes pretty good burgers. Then the waiter brought out utensils. One thing I had neglected to tell my Chinese boyfriend is that I am terrible with chopsticks. I lack the coordination necessary (one time my chopsticks wound up hitting my waiter in the face when I gestured too wildly at the table), so I’m pretty big on forks. When the waiter started handing everyone chopsticks, I tried to swallow my panic and act like I knew my way around them.

I said something like, “Ooh. Chopsticks. I’m the best at chopsticks. I have been known to pick up chopsticks with other chopsticks.” It didn’t make sense, and it was going to come back to haunt me. The waiter was also passing out little spoons and I was starting to realize that not even my grandma, who is an expert silverware classifier, could have helped me identify what to use the spoon for.

– Finally, the waiter brought out the pho. I hadn’t eaten all day and I was starving.

“Oh good!” said the girl.

“Pho real,” I said.

Pho is an interesting food. It’s kind of like Ramen, but you can’t dive in right away- you have to go through the pho process first. There’s a whole mess of noodles sitting in broth, and whatever meat you chose floats on top. You season your broth with the sauces they provide and squeeze a lime wedge in there. The waiters bring out plates of vegetables that you mix into your pho, and they give you little a little saucer to squeeze sauce onto. There are different kinds of sauces and you mix them to reach the perfect amount of spiciness. I didn’t know any of this and I was very hungry, but I was also afraid to move. I watched Derek and the girl and tried to fake my pho expertise (faux pho, if you will), but it quickly became apparent that I didn’t know what I was doing. Derek had to walk me through eating it.

– Everyone else was ready to eat their pho and my stomach was growling, but my chopsticks were giving me grief. Someone down the table explained that I had to put my spoon in my left hand and my chopsticks in my right. It was not working out, and the waiter noticed.

“We don’t have any forks,” he said.

“Crap,” I said.

“I’ll get you one,” Derek said, and he went across the street to buy me an entire box of plastic forks because I was inept.

– Even with a fork, pho is tricky to eat. The girl was hitting on Derek and I didn’t even care because I was focusing all my energy on taking the next bite. I was clearly losing a fight with some noodles, but I was still really hungry and determined to eat, so I abandoned the spoon (OK, fine. I accidentally dropped it in my pho and didn’t know how to get it out so I just pretended it didn’t happen). I started to use the spaghetti technique, wrapping the noodles around my fork and using the side of the bowl to help, but I got a little too enthusiastic about my new strategy and the bowl tipped towards me, sloshing pho on my legs, my shirt, the table, and my purse. The girl stopped flirting with my boyfriend long enough to look at me in disgust, but I nearly missed it because I was pulling noodles off my jeans. Derek sort of hurried me through the door while he paid. I climbed into the car, still picking at noodles.

– We were halfway home when my phone rang. I opened my bag to look for it and found it under a soggy pile of noodles that had fallen into my purse. I’d accidentally brought at least half of the pho with me. I spent the next 20 minutes trying to distract Derek (while he was driving a car) so that I could scoop the noodles from my purse and out the window. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work. He dropped me off at my house covered in noodles and shame, and I spent the next month practicing proper chopstick usage in physics class instead of learning about vectors.


  1. zephyrliving

    This would be the type of date that, in a movie, would render the girl impossibly cute to her date, and they would get married and live happily pho-ever after. Tell us more. I’ve got a few of those dates in my own annals of “the most embarrassing date ever.”

  2. shenanitim

    “In elementary school, he threw a chair at an aid when he got mad.”

    Jeez, now I feel bad. My buddy once threw a algebra book at our math teacher in middle school. He didn’t last long…

    • Stephanie

      Your buddy didn’t last long, or the math teacher didn’t? I’m pretty sure ‘algebra’ means “throw this at someone in frustration” in Arabic, anyway.

  3. Rachel

    Oh you poor girl. >.< Look on the bright side, though- the situation may not be a total loss. He may have found you completely adorable. Who knows, maybe he'll turn it into a pet project of his to teach you how to use chopsticks. ;)

    On one first date, the guy decided to take me to the beach. And of course, I get my monthly gift from mother nature- ninja-style. The poor guy literally had to go up the street to buy me a box of feminine products, and then wait for me while I attempted to clean myself up in the grungy bathroom. Then he took me home.

    He must be crazy, because we've been together three years now. :)

  4. zrbe

    You are amazingly funny. I know it’s probably because of ehow and technology, but still. Oh and first dates are supposed to be……well something. I do not really know.

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  6. Kenn

    As always, this is very funny stuff, Stephanie. Sorry things didn’t work out for you on that date, though. But then again, first dates are usually awkward. Aren’t they? ;)

  7. Andrew

    It’s a pity you two had a falling out (with him finding god and smoking and all). I’m glad you posted this story as I have previously tried to tell my friends about this and…well you’re familiar with my story telling skills.

  8. kasmersensei

    Sounds like an odd way to pho. I have been to Vietnam, and this is not the usual way to eat it (yes you can add some vegetables, but the majority of them are already in it) . I think though I will use your story next semester when we cover love and marriage (we also cover dating). Very funny story, and I am sorry it went oh so wrong for you.

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  11. Toby Evans

    I am laughing my freakin’ butt off in the middle of Coffee Bean and Tea leaf in Manhattan Beach, CA. Thank you. What’s funny is your desperate desire to be seen as normal. I hate being normal. If I start to get normal, I freak out and feel the need to do something bizarre. The last thing I want to be is like everyone else even though sometimes I am.

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