We are eighteen, in our first months of college and drinking cheap beer in the Kentucky twilight, when Tien proposes that we be roommates. She grew up in Ohio, in a Vietnamese-American family, and although she is tiny, she hugs me with a ferocity and enthusiasm that surprises and delights me. We live together for three and a half years in college, and during that time she introduces me to oysters. I eat so many — enthralled at being able to taste the ocean while so far away from it — that I almost get sick. Growing up in rural Arkansas, there were so many foods I had never tried. When I go home with her for Thanksgiving one year, I eat lobster for the first time (for breakfast!) and watch Vietnamese music videos with her parents. Later in our friendship, Tien introduces me to the century egg, which I try with trepidation although the dish (an egg preserved in clay, salt, and ash) smells of dead things. Tien eats it with gusto, even relishing the green-gray yolk.
In college, Tien is carefree, a delightful force of energy. I am a rule follower, the type of person who never misses class. She wakes me up in the middle of the night to read me her poetry, pulls me into the car with her boyfriend on a hot day so we can drive to the reservoir and swim instead of attending class, insists that I read romance novels in addition to the literature assigned by my English professors. One year, I invite her to celebrate Christmas with my family in Arkansas, and on Christmas Day we go skinny-dipping in the creek with my mom, screaming with delight at the shock of the water.
We are 21, and we travel to Mexico together in the summer to study Spanish. It is our first trip abroad together and it lasts six weeks. Living life in another language awakens a hunger in us to see the world, a hunger to escape Ohio and Arkansas and the constraints and prejudices of rural America. In our hometowns, women we went to high school with are already married and talk of buying houses. Neither of us has ever felt that we would fit into that mold of womanhood — we are young and restless and have a burning curiosity to see the world. In Mexico, we practice our Spanish, delighting in everyday interactions, even when we tell our host family we need more jamón (ham) for the shower when what we really mean is jabón (soap). Almost every day when we walk out of our host family’s house, Tien walks in the wrong direction to get to our school. I tease her about this still.