Speaking a foreign language is critical in the Foreign Service and can sometimes rescue you from the diciest situations. Case in point: Political officer Ken Landon, who had been sent to Hanoi in the immediate aftermath of World War II and found himself abandoned by the French group with which he was traveling. Stuck some 30 miles from his destination with no food, Landon was forced to get creative. Luckily, he had spent the 1930s working as a missionary in Asia and had picked up — as gifted polyglots often do — Swatow Chinese, a dialect spoken by many of the Chinese soldiers stationed in Vietnam following the surrender of Japan.
Landon worked as a specialist on Southeast Asia in the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs from 1943-1954. He was interviewed by Albert W. Atwood in 1982.
“’Who needs more than one pair of chopsticks between brothers?‘”
LANDON: We arrived … [outside] Hanoi at about 4 p.m. after a stop at Pakse. I still had had nothing to eat or drink all day. It was stinking hot, and I was very depressed. [French] General [Raoul] Salan was met by a French delegation, and they all loaded up their cars and drove off leaving me absolutely alone, with no other cars in sight, on the wrong side of the river from Hanoi and about 30 miles out of town.
I had no wheels and no Americans to meet me because there were no Americans, I thought, after the withdrawal of an OSS [Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA] mission, which had been there for a time until it got involved in the political warfare going on among the French, British, Chinese, and Viet Minh led by Ho Chi Minh.
So I had a problem. I had a little tin trunk with me containing my belongings, which I dragged over to the nearest building. At that point I smelled something cooking and looked around the corner of the building and saw a Chinese GI squatting in front of a charcoal brazier, making a bowl of stew.
Well, I hustled right over to him, squatted down beside him, and spoke to him in Swatow Chinese, a south China dialect….
I took the family approach and called him “Brother, Ah Hia” and he looked at me in some surprise.
And I said, “Brother, I’m just starving to death. Brother, I haven’t had anything to eat or drink all day and I am very hungry. Will you sell me part of your stew?”
He sat back on his heels and looked at me perplexed and then said, “No, it’s all the stew I have and it’s my dinner.” I began to urge him further and he said he didn’t want my money; he just wanted his stew. “Anyway,” he said, “I have only the one bowl to eat from and we couldn’t divide it.”
And I said, “Brother, who needs more than one bowl in a hungry family?”
Then he put the clincher on me — he thought — when he said, “Ah, but I have only one pair of chopsticks!”
And I said, “Who needs more than one pair of chopsticks between brothers?”
Well, this struck him funny and he gave up the contest, and so we squatted with the bowl between us and we passed the bowl and the chopsticks back and forth until there wasn’t a morsel left.
We squatted and looked at each other for a while, and he asked me where I had come from and what was I going to do. And I asked him if he could help me get into town, and he said the only wheels would be a lorry loaded with Chinese troops going in for recreation and he wished he was going too.
So, I persuaded him to hail down a lorryload of Chinese, about 40 of them standing in the open back, packed in like sardines. He said he had this Chinese redhead who wanted to go, too, and how about it? They stared at me in disbelief until I began chattering at them in Chinese, and they gave me a hand up so I could stand among them going in to Hanoi.
And I stood there with my head bobbing around among theirs for some 30 miles. They put me off in front of the Hotel Metropole [pictured], but the hotel didn’t have any rooms.…So I said that was all right, I would sleep in the corridor.