I’m asking what may be an impossible question: what does being Vietnamese mean? Or, what does having a national identity mean? When Alain Badiou wrote about nationalism, he criticized how tragedies get mechanized to fortify state identity. Trauma as an alibi for patriotism is what Frank Wilkerson has also called a “national pageantry of mourning.”
This dynamic is present in many narratives of Vietnamese identity — as a shared pride as a result of enduring shared traumas (colonialism, the war, messy and derivative communist dictatorships, poverty, etc.) Like, being Vietnamese as wearing a particular type of survivor badge, one of a fathomless assortment. Since I’m suspicious of nationalism, I look for other ways to be relatable to my family and extended Vietnamese community. The simplest point of relation seems to be food. I think that’s partially why I’m obsessed with learning about, cooking, and sharing it.
Have you too been vexed by your understanding of being Vietnamese, of nationalism, of the preservation of family and cultural memory through food?
There’s an embarrassing photo of me on my parents’ fridge when I was 15 (braceface, greasy bangs, bad eyeliner in humidity) in Vietnam holding a jackfruit. The last time I was in Vietnam I wasn’t aware of stepping on my ancestors’ land, eating the herbs they grew, polluting the air they breathed.
My father jokes that when he retires he will move back to Vietnam and open one of two businesses: a funeral parlor or a 24-hour gym. Funerals are traditionally done in the home, but now that more people live in highrise buildings, how do they preserve the feeling of an intimate open air gathering in the home they raised their 12 kids in? How does a family carry a casket up and down 34 flights of stairs? In an elevator?
Honestly upon answering this question, I was feeling anxious about being the center / or centering my identity or work / being vulnerable to a certain voyeurism. What does it mean to be Vietnamese? All sorts of things, mostly traditional things because how many generations of Vietnamese people have been born and raised in other nations? It’s all so new. How do we talk about Vietnamese people without talking about war? The war? Generations of colonialism? A lot of Viet cuisine directly results from colonialism. Viet people are innovative survivors.
To this day I don’t know how (yet) to cook the food I love because my mother cooks it so well. I’m in the mood for bún bò huế and drive 20 miles west to her house to eat it and spend the afternoon watching golf on TV with my father.
It seems like bún bò huế, or food, is a binding agent for you. Between generations, between geography, between time, between worlds.
It also seems that many people of today’s Vietnamese diaspora are trying to talk about anything but the war. Make art, write stories about anything but the war. But for me that feels like when someone challenges me to not think about water for the next ten seconds. Even if there’s a huge prize upon completing the challenge, all I will think about is water.
Earlier this year, I hiked Mount Fansipan in Sapa, super north of Vietnam. It’s the highest mountain in Indochina, with face-slapping cold winds and thick blankets of fog. Along the hike there were markets of local produce. There were these plants that were inscrutable to me: impenetrable skins, virulent colors. I didn’t know what they were for, and because I didn’t know, they weren’t for me.
What are these plants surviving through? How did they get so tough? They do not exist for us to decipher. They hold mysterious powers. Our ancestors know what to do with these. They are our ancestors. How would I go into the woods tomorrow and decide củ béo đen (rich dark root) could be used to treat tendonitis? Who planted them?
Yeah, I guess that’s what I’m getting at, about the vast knowledge these plants hold that exclude me. It felt like a metaphor for my relationship with Vietnam. I relate this feeling to a line in your new book Soap for the Dogs, “soup that was too hot for me to eat.” The sentiment is similar to what I’m describing, I think. The abundance is there, in front of us. We can’t figure out how to get to it. We wonder if this is our fault.
When I last went to Vietnam, I took photos of exceedingly ordinary things from my exceedingly ordinary life there. A metal coffee filter and a serving of condensed milk. A kaffir lime leaf. It’s like if I were in America and took a photo of a stainless steel thermos. But these unfamiliar things felt significant, felt useful for understanding. I also felt ridiculous, like who was this for?
Writing these intimate scenes of your home life in your new book, did you question for who you were giving a tour? Do you ever feel a sense of “self-tourism”?
Take me with you!
When I worked at a Vietnamese dental office, the dental hygienist made nước rău má (pennywort juice) and when she gave it to me all she said was “It’s good for you!” Growing up my mother would say this about bitter melon, aloe vera, chrysanthemum tea. I didn’t recognize pennywort, and felt a whole world open up when I received concoctions made by Vietnamese women who weren’t my mother or even my auntie. I immediately called my mother and asked her what pennywort is. “It’s good for you!”
Who’s reading my book? I want to connect with Vietnamese contemporaries and share my version of Vietnamese, my time capsule, and exchange ingredients. My mother often trades plant clippings with her friends. Her garden is full. Her jacuzzi is a controlled climate for chili plants in the winter. Perhaps my equivalent of her jacuzzi is my writing, a rolodex of memories? Unlike my parents or anyone in my family, as a first generation Vietnamese born in the US, I actually have the luxury of writing these tracings down, reflecting upon what I’m carrying with me, learning how to excavate whole worlds and document these histories in my own words.
My mother was able to save a few photos from her childhood, but many of her things were thrown away by her family when she fled the country because they didn’t know if or when they would see her again. I imagine they’re photos of people rather than things. Is object photography a luxury?
Documentation, true. So many things I’ve learned about Vietnamese history I’ve gleaned from photos. Photos of moments that were likely exceedingly ordinary at the time taken. Thermos photos.
In one poem in the book, you write:
Let’s begin by cutting potatoes
Don’t think about your banking account while having sex
Don’t trust dictionaries or the weather report
Are you describing escapism through food? Do you think there is such thing as useful, non-destructive escapism?
I like to think of this relationship with food as a way of transporting, time traveling, transcribing memories wrapped up in domestic rituals and objects. My senses fill up with a euphoric smoke that I’ve never smelled, but it is as familiar as my father telling me about the woman who sold piping hot bột chiên near his childhood home. Perhaps this is a shade of empathy or a shared sensory experience more than it is escapism?
That reminds me of a passing line from a Delillo book, about a cookie: “Taste and smell can saferack memory in the shadow of an instant”, and those who experience it become “a penitent seeking the message of the past.”
In another interview with Vi Khi Nao you quoted Dao Strom’s “We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People”: “You cannot call yourself a gentle person without simultaneously knowing your own capacity to brutally miss the mark.” I really liked that.
I love this line because to me, there are no synonyms, there is no translation. This is the only way to say it.
photos by Minh