Fridays and weekends are always busy and traffic laden in Little Saigon. Being the epicentre for the Vietnamese Community in Southern California, the weekends see a shift in business and foot traffic as families and friends gather to eat and sip teas over anecdotes and stories. All the buildings and strip malls huddle together in a crowded mass of diners, restaurants, and shops as neon OPEN signs light their doorways.
I am already late pulling into the parking area of Seafood Cove restaurant, a medium sized Chinese restaurant that’s been around for a good part of twenty years as a local scene serving traditional Chinese food. By most standards being 30 minutes late to a birthday party is borderline rude if not prepared with some drastic reason why the tardiness couldn’t of been prevented. Since this was a Vietnamese gathering of which i had been to many times I knew I was still going to be among the “on-time” group of attendees. There is a popular saying among the Viet people: Không trễ không phải Việt Nam. Literally: If you didn’t come late you’re not quite Vietnamese. While it isn’t exactly respectful to show up twenty minutes late to an event, it isn’t exactly taboo either. If ever there was an art to being “fashionably late”, the Viet people may have contributed heavily to that book. If I get an invitation for 6pm, I usually expect no one to show until 15 to 30 minsutes past. And thats how it’s kind of always been with most other Viet families and people I’ve grown up around. A typical gathering is always 30 minutes to an hour late. And very few gatherings don’t run into the very late hours where guests can no longer stay out and the kids aren’t yawning loudly.
Now, i wont say it didn’t take me some time to figure this out. After all, I cant really operate on a “flexible” schedule at school or work. Imagine showing up to a production meeting with upper management fashionably late. Or better yet, imagine showing up to the last 10 minutes of your SAT exam… Suffice to say you will not be taking that test. But one of the best things about growing up Vietnamese American for me was this easy laissez-faire approach to free time. It isn’t that free time isn’t valuable, its that how it was spent that is remembered. Ten minutes with a friend is much more than a day with a polite stranger. How does this apply to the idea of punctuality versus tardiness? well, it doesn’t. This just is the explanation offered. I know this as I run into other attendees just arriving at the doorway. I know this as I walk in and hug friends and I feel giddy already as we start to talk quickly and breathlessly between kisses and hellos. And I know that before i even finish my apology to my friend for being late, She is already genuinely telling me she’s just happy I’m there.