Editor’s Note: due to technical constraints, we are unable to correctly accent the Vietnamese words featured in this piece. We apologize for and regret these circumstances, and have received permission from the author to publish as is.
My friend’s mother pours me some whole milk, and I take big gulps with two hands around the glass, savoring the richness of something undiluted as it travels down my esophagus and cools my belly. I yearn to look in a mirror to see if a white mustache has formed. Instead, I smack my lips in satisfaction and reflect at the novelty of having my own plate. No bowls or chopsticks to be seen anywhere. At this table, we eat with both fork and knife. I would’ve had a hard time with the coordination had I not been well-schooled by TV shows like Full House and Boy Meets World.
I expertly cut into the Shake’N Bake chicken, swirl it in a pool of Caesar dressing dripping from the adjacent salad. There are croutons (!) in this salad. The chicken was a little dry, but I didn’t care because I was living out my dream: consuming mass-produced junk food. I scooped up some mashed potatoes, thrilled to know that people do eat it outside of Thanksgiving. My friend’s parents asked me questions, we had an actual conversation. It was everything I imagined a stable, healthy, nuclear family to be. For a few hours, I was part of a dynamic where — between the scraping of cutlery against china — I had parents who asked me about my daily activities and paid attention to my adolescent middle school drama.
Norman Rockwell’s iconic 1943 painting, Freedom From Want | Source: Wikipedia
I was curious and envious of the lives of white folks. The seemingly simple rituals of my peers, with parents who made thoughtful lunches and waited for their kids to finish school to debrief the day over a warm, home-cooked meal, the whole family sitting at the dining room table. The food that they ate was what I saw advertised on TV. I bought into everything: the snacks! Doritos! Cookies in jars! At one point, I made my mom buy me a cookie jar, so I could fill it with homemade goodies and white fantasies. The jar was so large and the small amounts of cookies I made looked so sad laying at the bottom that I gave up. I encouraged my mother to put snacks in there, wanting to be surprised and delighted like the wholesome kids on TV. She filled it with saltine crackers. I was not delighted. It sat empty ever since, until my father repurposed it as vessel for his fermentation experiments.
Food was this cultural touchstone that I could easily grasp and use to blend in.
The first time a friend invited me over for dinner, I begged my parents to let me go. They enforced a strict “no sleepover” policy lest I get sick and the parents would just let me die. I convinced them that I couldn’t possibly contract a disease over the course of a short evening. Refugee parents’ fears are sometimes irrational, or maybe they’re just too busy to deal with our feelings and resort to the most extreme scenario, oftentimes ending in death. So off I went, my first field study on the lives of white people. I was immediately enamored by their multi-story colonial house with a tool shed and swing set. They had not one, but two living rooms. Technically, one was called a den. I still don’t know the difference.
My friend took me upstairs to her room and I studied her bookcase while we chatted on the floor, our backs against her bed. Yes! This is what normal friends in suburbia are supposed to do. (You’re probably thinking I was an isolated child that didn’t have too many friends and only had the Disney Channel and her American Girl books to guide her through socialization. You are not incorrect.) Pretty soon — though not soon enough because I was holding my breath for this moment — her mother called us down to dinner.
At one point, I made my mom buy me a cookie jar, so I could fill it with homemade goodies and white fantasies.
I wanted to be white, I wanted to have money, I wanted a mother that said “I love you” daily and after arguments. I wanted everything that I didn’t have with my family. We were a Vietnamese refugee family living on the cold shores of Cape Cod. We were slowly recovering from a period of dependence on food stamps and constantly being told what we could and couldn’t buy and eat. My father was always fishing. It was economical, but it was also an escape from us. I frequently ate alone or with half the family since my mother worked late. My father was our main caretaker, bouncing between nail salon and after school activities. He often left my sister and me at the public library. There were too many evenings when we were left waiting long after the library closed, or rehearsals were over, or soccer games ended.
Dinners consisted of leftovers — pan-fried fish, canh, and always rice. If being Vietnamese meant living an isolated experience, absent parents, eating food that other people thought weird and smelly, I didn’t want anything to do with it. I hungered for the evenings I was invited to friends’ houses. I’ll happily trade in thit kho for Swedish meatballs, canh chua for clam chowder, and all the mashed potatoes I could ever want. Food was this cultural touchstone that I could easily grasp and use to blend in. Once I was old enough, I packed my own lunches, insisted on turkey sandwiches and chips, and told my father to keep the rice at home. I learned how to cook a full Thanksgiving meal by the age of 11 (well, my father attempted the turkey. It came out burnt at best). It was the only holiday we fully adopted and the only time of year my parents would allow a meal with all Western food. Despite this, I never made Vietnamese food growing up. I was 26 when I cooked cá kho to for the first time.
It took leaving my family for college to realize two things:
- I could make mashed potatoes whenever the fuck I wanted
- I really fucking missed Vietnamese food
I ate Vietnamese food every single day for eighteen years and to one day wake up and not be greeted with a bowl of rice was alarming. In college, I had easy access to fries and chicken tenders; I could eat a burger for every meal if I wanted. My Viet roommate commiserated with me over how much we wanted our parents’ home-cooked meals. We found other Viets on campus and formed the Vietnamese Student Association to celebrate our history and heritage through film screenings and pho nights. Except no one knew how to make pho. And so, I took one for the team. I called my dad and learned my first Vietnamese recipe.
Of course, food is more than just food. It is incredibly politicized: who grows our food, who cooks our food, who eats our food, who has access, who doesn’t, etc. I was processing my internalized racism and peeling back the layers of assimilation I wore like a shield. I yearned for a connection to my heritage and my family that I never had or took for granted. Cooking and sharing Vietnamese food has been my way of taking back our narratives that have been used to appropriate our food ways.
The Rooted Recipes Project | Photo by Sana Javeri Kadri
Earlier this year, I started The Rooted Recipes Project with three other souls from the Southeast Asian diaspora: Kim Boral, Joseph Nontanovan, and Aileen Suzara. Our first meal was in collaboration with APICC’s (Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center) United States of Asian America Festival, themed around “regenerative community.” What does healing and sustainability look like within ourselves and our communities? What have we inherited and lost and how do we gain it back? From our project:
For immigrants and their children, food connected us to our culture and heritage when the motherland became too far away and languages were forgotten over time. The lengths we go to search for ingredients that have yet to cross over, to recreate dishes, and the times we would throw aside forks and spoons to pinch the sticky rice and bits of larb between our fingers to remind us where we came from. Even if we were born in America, we inherit our parents’ nostalgia, we inherit their loss, and we inherit their taste memories… As we use food as a vehicle of agency, we will use food as a vehicle for preservation.
I am Vietnamese American, occupying spaces that are often in tension with each other. Even today I’m still learning to navigate this tension, sometimes with difficulty, sometimes with ease, but always an awareness. I no longer feel the need to choose one dish over another, because my plate is big enough for it all.
Photo by P. Tran
Keep up with The Rooted Recipes Project and its co-founders on Instagram:
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