We were missing Filipino food even though I just got here four months ago, so we got an Uber to drive us to Daly City. The city is known for its high percentage number of Filipino communities and is about an hour's drive from home. A man from the airport recommended that we visit a restaurant called “Max’s Fried Chicken” if we were there.
“What? I love Max’s!” I got a little too excited when he mentioned it. Not too long ago, I googled if there was, indeed, a Max’s restaurant in San Francisco but I got a different result. I felt my mouth water as I pictured that juicy, crispy chicken dipped in banana ketchup.
We were in the car with another girl who, coincidentally, worked for Uber! Our conversation started with the usual small talk—a remark on the current weather. At that time, it was cold but not too cold. If that makes sense. Then the topic became about food. She told us places that served good Chinese food. I assume she brought up Chinese food because we looked Chinese. But that’s just my theory.
She was Chinese herself. “My parents are from Taiwan!” she said enthusiastically, turning back from the front passenger seat. Jeremie mentioned Din Tai Fung, one of our favorite restaurants when we were in Singapore. For a second, my Filipino food craving was overridden by the delicious taste of Xiao Long Bao. Our conversation was cut short and when she had to alight at her destination.
“You know, it also hasn’t been long since I arrived here in America.” The quiet driver began to talk as soon as the woman left.
It immediately dawned on me that we'd been so rude not to include him in our conversation. He’d been with us the entire time and it never occurred to me to ask him a question or at least let him be part of the conversation. I felt my face burn a little. Often, we forget about the quiet drivers who take us to our destinations.
“How long have you been in this country?” I asked as I searched for his face in the mirror. All I could see from my perspective was his thick, curly hair and the back of his head.
“About a year...” He hesitated on finishing his sentence. There was silence for a few minutes.
Out of curiosity, I asked, “What brought you here?”
"I came here because of my job in Afghanistan. I was an interpreter and translator for the US government.”
Jeremie and I turned to each other waiting for one of us to ask the next question. It took a moment for me to process his words. Meanwhile, he adjusted his phone that displayed the map to our destination. He apologized and said he recently just started working for Uber and was not familiar with the city. We told him it was no problem at all. We were new to the country too.
“It was becoming too dangerous for me in Afghanistan. I was getting threats from people saying I know your name and where you live and I will kill you!” he continued. A dark feeling swept over my body. Images from recent articles about the war floated in my head. War is never easy but here was someone with first-hand experience sitting in the car with us. I wondered how he felt discussing it. I wondered if we opened an old scar and rubbed salt in it? I hesitated to ask more questions.
“They called me a traitor. The government brought me here and gave me an apartment. I’ve been living here for a year now."
“Did you bring your family here?” Jeremie asked.
“No, they are still there."
“Are they safe? Those people who want to harm you, won’t they hurt your family too?” Ok, that sounded wrong. I'm not good at phrasing my thoughts. I think it’s from the lack of social skills and the fact that I’d been deprived of prolonged human interaction since I started working from home. I mentally face-palmed myself hoping I don’t blurt out more insensitive things.
“Yes. They relocated to the province. I'm planning to bring them here but not now. After my studies, I will bring them.”
“School. That sounds great! What are you studying now?” Opportunity to change the subject. Perfect.
“Film.” I still couldn’t see his face but I sensed a smile in his voice as he said it.
“What made you decide to study film?”
“Because I have so much experience, you see, from the war. I have seen so many things. I want to turn them into movies so people will see them.” At that moment I was speechless. Here's a guy faced with so much adversity, driven out from his home, and flown to the other side of the world. He had to leave his family not for the sake of getting a better income, neither for the sake of chasing his dreams, but because he needed to survive. Yet, he was incredibly optimistic about his situation. He didn’t even sound afraid.
Our destination was getting close so I asked him one last question before we went back to being strangers; before we stepped out of the car and never see him again—I’ve never been in an Uber with the same driver.
“Do you miss home?”
“Yes. I miss the food. Culture. You know?” he said with a hint of nostalgia in his voice. “In my hometown, everybody knows everybody. There is a tight community. We help each other. If there is a party, everyone is welcome. The whole neighborhood is invited. My home will always be home."
The map told us that we had arrived at our destination. I wanted to ask him more questions, but there was no time left. We said goodbye and thanked him for getting us to our destination safely.
We stepped into a restaurant that had that familiar warmth of home. A room full of Filipinos happily enjoying their dinner. And for a moment we forgot where we were on this planet. For a moment, we were able to bite that familiar taste of home.