I’ve always been caught between tenderness and embarrassment for the food my mother makes. My memories conjure my mother at the stove, holding a pair of chopsticks and dancing as she flips over egg rolls. Her short black hair is held up with a clip and her wrist moves with ease. There’s childhood me with my younger brother, stealing glances as my mother prepares lunch. I can smell smoky canola oil. Vermicelli noodles steaming in bowls. Then, the fish sauce, at once salty, lemony, sweet. It’s always a Sunday; my father worked twelve-hour shifts six days a week, and it was only on Sundays that he was well-rested enough for us to see him during the day.
My mother’s food was and is prepared with a warmth I taste in every carefully folded wonton and patiently stewed soup. It’s in the egg rolls she wakes up at 5 A.M. to prepare and the sticky rice she mixes with her strong arms. It’s something my younger self hid when I went to school. I secretly ate my sandwich of cured meats and pickled root vegetables out of a plastic shopping bag, hoping the other students wouldn’t ask me, “What’s that stink comin’ from?”
One morning I asked my mom to stop giving me sandwiches. She said okay. The heaviness in her voice sunk into the air between our bodies. I held on tighter to her hand. “It’s not that I don’t like them. The kids just look at me.”
I looked up at the trees, bracing myself for questions.
“Because they’re jealous!” she said, then laughed. Her heaviness always dissolves this way, quickly and with a joke. After this talk, she stopped sending the sandwiches with me. I joined my school’s free lunch program, learning the ways of chicken tenders and grilled cheese sandwiches, feet dangling from cafeteria benches, feeling American. I saved my Vietnameseness for the weekends, when my family ate together, either at home or at Phở 87, the first Vietnamese restaurant we went to in America.
Phở 87 lies in the outskirts of L.A.’s Chinatown, a forty minute bus ride away from my parents’ home. There was something magical about stepping into a space filled with others who looked and talked like our family. Our favorites came from deep within Phở 87’s menu. Bún bo hu ế was one, a fiery noodle soup—the loud kick to phở’s quiet simmer. Its noodles are fatter and the broth is spicier, red with paprika and chili.
“This soup comes from your grandmother’s childhood city in Vietnam,” my mom said as our waiter placed a bowl of bún bo hu ế in front of her. The “Hu ế” part of bún bo hu ế is a region nestled near the coast at the center of Vietnam. When I eat it, I think of my grandmother in her youth, walking down the street to a roadside vendor for a bowl of bún bo hu ế . I think of her savoring the lemongrass, slurping each noodle under a cloudy sky, maybe running under a storefront awning just before the tropical rain descends.
The first time I heard phở exclaimed out loud by a non-Vietnamese person, it dropped from the mouth of a white boy I had a crush on in high school. “DO YOU GUYS WANNA GET PHỞ AFTER SCHOOL?” reverberated between the buildings, under the blue sky for all to hear. I whipped my head toward him. This boy was exposing me in the middle of the day, where I felt my Vietnamese identity had no place. He said it so casually, with shoulders shaking as he laughed, “Did I even say it right?”
No, I thought to myself. “FOE!” he had yelled, when really, it’s more graceful than that. It’s a word that lilts and dances upward, the feeling of a question mark curling from one’s mouth the way steam curls from its broth, a product of ox bones boiled for hours until marrow seeps out, mingling with spices: Star anise, cardamom, coriander, cloves, cinnamon. I was flattered that my crush liked Vietnamese food, but unsettled that something so private was seeping into my public life.
I have since watched Vietnamese food become more accepted, celebrated even, in the American mainstream palate. There’s been a distinct shift, one in which food trucks and cafés put their own twists on summer rolls and bánh mì sandwiches. Avocado replaces boiled shrimp, and honey ham is substituted for pork paté. Some of these establishments slap Vietnamese onto their menus, feeling justified by their throwaway use of lemongrass or pickled daikon.
When I visit my family, I eat Vietnamese food on my parents’ couch in our one bedroom apartment among a lifetime of collected knick-knacks my mother might never throw away. There are piles of VHS tapes we don’t watch, old toys I haven’t touched since elementary school, and half-broken home appliances she finds on the street.
Growing up in a neighborhood with very few Asian Americans, there were times when I wanted to bring my non-Vietnamese friends over for dinner, but I knew they would have to sit a little too hunched between the items my mother hoarded, or eat a little too quietly while Vietnamese music blared from our television. Mostly, I was scared they wouldn’t know what to do when presented with the foods I ate every day after school.
It was a shock then, when years later, I stared through the floor-to-ceiling window of a modern Vietnamese restaurant in Astoria, Queens, not quite sure what the dim lighting and mid-century modern furniture would mean for the authenticity of flavor. I thought about my mother, who would shake her head at a thirteen-dollar bowl of phở. “That’s crazy,” she would scoff. “I could get that from Phở 87 for eight bucks.”
The owners? Two generations of Vietnamese men, a father and son, coming together to share recipes from a little red book that held their traditions. Their family sounded so much like my own, yet their restaurant’s appearance reflected nothing of Phở 87’s fluorescent lights or my family’s dusty coffee table. I hesitated, but the right accent marks were on the menu. I ordered a bowl of phở and was grateful to find the right spices wafting toward me when it came. If I closed my eyes as I ate and followed taste alone, I could have been at home or at Phở 87.
It was not unlike running into a teacher at the grocery store; my own assumptions that Vietnamese food could never be so revered were challenged by this family’s reality. Around me, others gathered around their own tables. Many didn’t look like me and some might have tried Vietnamese food for the first time that night. I was hit with jealousy knowing these diners could enjoy their meal without years of internal negotiation surfacing.
Vietnamese cuisine’s rise to mainstream popularity has forced me to redefine a relationship I thought would remain secret. I am, in part, relieved that it’s receiving the recognition it deserves, and, in part, bitter that I—and other children like myself—endured ridicule for it to get here. I flinch every time a food writer applauds the many everyday uses of fish sauce. They bring the most intimate parts of my identity into a conversation I have been avoiding, one that makes me feel like a specimen in my own skin.
The tips of my fingers tingle when I enter a new Vietnamese restaurant. Something that began in New York, born from homesickness, has become a personal mission throughout my travels. Every time I plan a trip, I begin my research by looking into whether or not there will be Vietnamese food in the area.
New Orleans experienced waves of Vietnamese migration in 1975, when Saigon fell, marking the end of the Vietnam War. When I visited the city, I kept an eye out for Vietnamese awnings. Known as Versailles, the neighborhood was quiet the morning I visited. I entered a grocery store to find a woman singing by the doorway. She was maybe 80, my grandmother’s age, and sat on a low stool as she put together bunches of Vietnamese spinach. Her gray hairs were pulled into a small bun at the nape of her neck. I said hello and we spoke to each other in Vietnamese, the first time I spoke to a stranger in Vietnamese since starting college a few years before. Suddenly I belonged to a community much larger than myself and my family.
Next door I bought a Vietnamese Po’ Boy sandwich from Sao Mai, or Lucky Star. The meeting of fish sauce meatballs and marinara sauce came from generations of lives melding in a region with different flavors. Experimentation was a natural byproduct. I bit into the sandwich: A burst of sweet and savory meat slathered with bright tomato sauce.
I have found Vietnamese food in the streets of Milwaukee—a lone grocery store standing out against brick apartments—and between mountaintops in central Massachusetts. During a visit down South to see my partner’s grandparents, I ate phở in the last spot I would’ve expected to find it: A café off the highway in Punta Gorda, Florida, flanked by an outlet mall and a handful of fast food establishments.
My trips home are filled with the same Sunday meals, with everyone gathered in the living room. Except now I play a hand in their production, putting together summer rolls or folding wontons with my mom as we watch Vietnamese television. I think about the modern Vietnamese restaurants that look so different from my own home, these two worlds colliding as I age, asking me to meld my public and private lives. I’m learning that Vietnamese food is integral to my identity, and that I’m able to enjoy it anywhere: With my family on a Sunday afternoon, on my own at an old bánh mì shop, or among strangers in restaurants my younger self could only dream about visiting, always carrying the warmth of my mother’s food with me.