We were missing Filipino food after just being here for four months so we got an Uber car to drive us all the way to Daly City. Daly City is known for its high percentage of Filipino population and is about an hour drive from our home. A man from the airport had recommended that we visit this restaurant called “Max’s Fried Chicken” in the city.
“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 it returned a different result. I felt my mouth begin to water as I thought about that juicy, crispy chicken dipped in banana ketchup. Each bite a feast.
We were in the car with another girl who (coincidentally) worked for Uber! Our conversation started with the usual introduction—a remark on the current weather (at that time it was cold, but not too cold, whatever that means). Then it shifted to the topic of food. The next best thing to bring up to keep a small conversation going. She told us places where they served good Chinese food. I assume she brought up Chinese food because we looked Chinese. But really that’s just me.
She was Chinese herself. “My parents are from Taiwan!” she said enthusiastically looking back at us from the front passenger seat. Jeremie brought up Din Tai Fung, one of our favourite restaurants in Singapore which was originally from Taiwan. For a second, my Filipino food cravings were overridden by the imaginary taste of Xiao Long Baos and dumplings. It wasn’t long before our conversation was cut short and we said goodbye to her as she alighted in one of the streets in a row of identical houses.
“You know, it also hasn’t been long since I arrived here in America.” The quiet driver began to talk as soon as the lady left. He had a Middle Eastern accent.
It immediately dawned on me that we had been so rude not to include him in our conversation. I mean, he’d been with us half the time and it never occurred to me to ask him any questions or at least let him be part of the conversation. What was I thinking? 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 at the back of his head.
“About a year...” He hesitated on finishing his sentence so I asked for the sake of continuation and also to feed my curiosity. “What brought you here?”
"I was transferred here because of my previous job in Afghanistan. I was an interpreter and translator for the US government.”
Jeremie and I looked at each other flabbergasted by his words. It took a moment for me to process that thought and in the meantime he adjusted the phone that showed the map to our destination. He apologised and said he just recently 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 getting 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 deep dark feeling swept through my body. Images from the recent articles about the war swam around in my head. War is never easy and here is someone with first-hand experience sitting in the car with us, no, driving us to our destination. I wondered how he felt talking about it. I wondered if we had opened an old wound and rubbed salt in it? I hesitated to ask any more questions in my head and through my mouth.
“They called me a traitor. The government brought me here and gave me an apartment and I’ve been living here for a year now."
“Did you bring your family here?” Jeremie asked.
“No, they are still there."
“But are they safe? Those people know you. Won’t they want to hurt your family too?” I seriously have poor phrasing when I’m talking sometimes. I think it’s from the lack of social skills and the fact that I’d been deprived from prolonged human interaction for some time now ever since I decided to work from home. I mentally face-palmed myself hoping I don’t blurt out more insensitive things.
“Yes. They relocated to the provinces. I am planning to bring them here but not now. After my studies, I will bring them.”
“School. Wow! What are you taking up 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.
Jeremie’s eyes lit up. “Film! What made you decide to study film?”
“Because I have so much experience, you see, from the war. I have seen so much. I want to turn them into movies so people will see them.” At that moment I was speechless. Here was a guy faced with so much chaos back home. Here was a guy who was driven out from his home and flown to the other side of the world leaving his family not for the sake of getting a better income nor for the sake of chasing his dreams but because of survival. Yet, he was incredibly optimistic about his situation. He didn’t even sound afraid.
I felt that our destination was approaching so I decided to ask him one last question before we went back to being strangers. Before we stepped out of the car and possibly not see him again (I’ve never ridden in an Uber car with the same driver. Ever).
“Do you miss home?”
“Yes. I miss the food. Culture. You know?” he said with almost a hint of homesickness in his voice. “In my hometown, everybody knew everybody. There is a tight community. We help each other out. If there is a party, everyone is invited. The whole neighbourhood 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. This was the point where we got out and remembered it just as it was—a conversation. We thanked him and told him to have a good evening and to drive safe. We took a seat in a restaurant that looked like how it should look back home, complete with Filipino customers and staff.
And for a moment we forgot where we were in this planet. For a moment we were able to devour that familiar taste called home.