On Chicago's Green Line, heading North and West, I was sitting just in front of the middle of the middle car on the right side as the train moved forward. The train was crowded. I had boarded with Nicole, but we couldn't find two open seats together. She sat a few seats to my left, both of us with our backs to the windows.
Sitting closest to the door facing me, but to my left was a young woman, probably three years older than me, dressed in all black—yoga pants and a track jacket. Two seats over from her, almost directly across from me, but in a perpendicular row, was an older Vietnamese man, dressed in a faded polo and jeans that seemed familiar to him. I didn't know he was Vietnamese at first, but I found out as you will find out.
The Vietnamese man was sleeping with his head against the window, mouth open, legs crossed. It was almost noon. It was a Wednesday. The woman was listening to something with headphones. Her pant leg came down to just above her shoe's edge, leaving a small amount of skin exposed at the ankle. That bit of her ankle was dyed with a tattoo of a Canadian maple leaf. She wore a watch but I never saw her check the time. A few minutes into our ride, she looked over at the man who was still sleeping. Her lips she broke into a smile. She glanced over at me, then down at her hands, examining and scratching her pink finger nails which had probably been painted a few days earlier.
At 35th/Bronzeville, two stops from the Loop, a small Vietnamese woman got on the train and sat between the Canadian woman and the Vietnamese man. This woman seemed to be in her late 40s and held her things together tightly on her lap. She kept her head down but her eyes shot around the interior of the train, surveying. She refused to make eye contact.
As she sat, her foot brushed against the man's foot and unintentionally woke him. She had already pulled her leg back and tucked under the seat by the time he was sitting upright. She was looking down and slightly away from him, afraid, it seemed.
He leaned forward and touched her arm. He was glad to see her. As he began to speak, she recoiled (I observed all of this by looking across, but not directly at them. I looked straight ahead out the window, and they were off to my left).
In his language, he said something to her. The only word I could understand, over and over again, was "Vietnam." This is why I figured he was from Vietnam. The woman seemed to understand him but she didn't respond with her voice. She turned her body away from him as much as she could while still facing mostly forward in her seat.
The Canadian woman glanced over with gentle eyes, trying not to interfere, but obviously curious and concerned. Based on the way the man was speaking, he seemed aggressively eager to connect, but based on how nervously the woman was avoiding him, I started to wonder if I should be prepared for something to happen. It made me uneasy.
He wouldn't stop, but she was adamant. When we had reached the next stop, Cermak-McCormick, she stood up, self-contained and small, and moved to an open seat closest to the door in front of me—about fifty feet away. He did not follow her, but kept speaking as she walked away and leaned toward her as she passed, turning his head and raising his voice as he pleaded with her one last time to stay and talk with him.
I didn't know what he said to her in that moment. I don’t speak Vietnamese, but I could tell by the disparity between the gentle pleading in his voice and the darting fear in her eyes that he must have been misunderstood. Two stops later, at Adams/Wabash, she slid out of the train, having reached her destination or transfer station. Nicole came to site by me when a seat opened.
"That man was so sweet. I can't believe she wouldn't talk to him." She said.
"Do you know what he said?" I asked.
"Kind of…one of my best friends back home is Vietnamese, so I know a little bit. He just wanted to know if she was from Vietnam so they could talk together. I guess he doesn't get to speak his language very often." She said.
We kept riding. Nicole and I still had five or six stops till our destination. The Vietnamese man had gone back to sitting with his head against the window, but he wasn't sleeping anymore. Just staring out the window. After a few minutes, he pulled out a flip phone and dialed a number, and raised the phone to his ear.
"Hello? Yes, I am. Yes, I called earlier about the uh…job—hello, yes. I'm still here is the job still available? Is it still open? Can I come in to…interview? For job? Today? No, I cannot today. I need job, is there still job? Can I come tomorrow, please? Tomorrow morning? What time? What time tomorrow? Hello?"
The conversation wasn't going well. I could understand him, but he did have an accent and it didn't seem as though the person on the other end of the phone had much patience. The man pulled the phone away from his ear to turned up the volume.
I could hear the person on the other end say: "I'm sorry, sir, I can't understand you. I'm sorry, sir."
Then the person on the other end hung up. The Vietnamese man pulled the phone away from his ear and dropped both arms down to his lap. He looked down but didn't say anything or do anything dramatic. He just dialed a new number and began another conversation that went exactly the same way. He placed five calls like that before giving up.
Nicole and I stood to leave toward the end of the west end of the Green Line at Oak Park. The Canadian woman stood with us. She pulled her headphones out of her ears and began to wrap them around her hand to stash them in her bag. The Vietnamese man turned from looking out the window and asked: "tired?"
"Yes," she said, smiling.
"Me too." He said, resting his head against the window. The doors opened and we left.