When I first came to America, I started picking up on a pattern of responses I would get upon introducing myself and saying I’m from Vietnam:
1. What’s the country like now, you know, after the war?
2. I love Vietnamese food! Pho is my favorite! Is it pronounced fo? Or fuh?
To which I would respond:
- I don’t know… I guess my WiFi is slow sometimes, so that sucks.
- It’s Phở, and I hate it.
If there’s anything I felt more disconnected from than the Vietnam war, it was Phở. I hated Phở.
I know it’s something that’s supposed to represent my culture, but I just can’t like it.
The image of Phở that I had in mind didn’t seem to belong to the Vietnamese people; the image of Phở that I had in mind had been shaped by foreigners. I saw Phở the same way that I saw Vietnam throughout most of my life– through the eyes of my international friends and Western teachers and role models. There were only very few things I really considered authentic, one of them being my mom’s cooking: but this was only because it was personal to me and not exposed to anyone else.
Every once in a while though, my mom would make Phở. And when she did, I felt like it was an insult to her cooking.
I saw Phở as something inauthentic and overdone. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from having Hoho’s as the closest option to home, and eventually becoming accustomed to American Chinese food, it’s that everything eventually loses its authenticity as it gains popularity.
Like any foreign cuisine, the more in demand it is, the more it has to change to adjust to the preference of customers. Foreigners who came to this country and opened restaurants probably realized that they had to find ways to change the taste of their food so people could feel more comfortable trying it. The people and the place shapes the food, for all good reasons, but then in a sense, authentic foreign food cannot exist in this country.
It’s the same with people: nobody is authentic. We are shaped by our surroundings.
If Vietnamese food was supposed to represent me, and Phở was what people thought of when they think of Vietnam, then I am in short, a bowl of Phở. I felt so much more comfortable in a skin that wasn’t mine, because I would’ve preferred anything but Phở.
My favorite thing is when I tell people English is my second language and they tell me, “Oh my God, your English is perfect: you don’t even have an accent or anything!” In those moments, my immediate thought is to sound even whiter just in case a slight bit of accent slips out and they take back what they said. I never understood compliments, but this was a compliment, right? Yeah, it’s a good thing that I’ve lost my accent. Yeah, it’s a good thing that I feel a disconnect from my culture as long as I can fit into another one. It’s a good thing that I feel more comfortable in a language and a culture that I can’t claim as my own. I can’t call myself American, but sometimes I don’t feel Vietnamese either.
It’s scary that nowadays: the sound of Vietnamese sounds even more foreign to me.
For so long, I’ve held a grudge against how racism against Asians is overlooked; how it’s okay for people to mock Asian accents because, much like how immigrants adjusted the taste of their food to fit this country’s liking, they have probably also worked all their lives to get rid of every trace of their accent, any sign that they were foreign, just to fit into this country and have the chance to be someone here. To mock their accent is to overwrite their story and their culture.
But, truth is, I don’t think I even have the right to be mad because I was never too proud of my own culture, so how did I expect others to respect it? I woke up every day wishing I was someone else. Something else. It’s funny that one of the biggest issues my parents and I used to argue over was whether or not I could dye my hair. I spent years trying to convince my mother to let me dye my hair brown, just because I thought it would make me look less Asian, and. from what I was taught, that was beauty.
Whether I dyed it another color, the roots of my hair would be black and Vietnamese. My mother saw something deeper in the act of me wanting to dye my dark black hair a slightly less dark color. She saw it as an act of diluting my roots.
I saw myself as a bowl of Phở, and I felt misrepresented. I spent so long being angry at myself because I wished people would see me as something else, but I was just a bowl of Phở. I felt insulted any time anyone tried telling me they liked Phở because I felt like I was being pitied. I knew there was more to my culture, but I couldn’t make people see that. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true that we can’t make people understand every aspect of who we are. And I just thought that if people didn’t understand my culture fully, they wouldn’t really appreciate it, so there was no point in trying to make them understand. But I recognize now that people were actually being genuine when they told me they liked Phở, and even when they asked me about the Vietnam War– people only say those things in an attempt to connect to my culture and understand me more; I was just too protective of it to see.
There are three main components that make up a bowl of Phở, and I’ve come to accept and embrace that it represents who I am.
The noodles: this is the body of the dish. It’s thick… but it’s also really soft. It may seem transparent prior to being boiled, but once it’s boiled, it becomes so much more.
The meat: this is the mind of the dish. There are vegetarian options, but why would you do that to yourself? The meat is the best part. With beef originating from the North and chicken originating from the South, these are the two different traditions I grew up with.
In most Western food, garnish is overlooked– it’s almost never eaten and is shoved to the side with a look of disgust. Not so with Phở. Phở embraces every aspect of the bowl. There are so many extra toppings to include: cilantro, Vietnamese basil, coriander leaves, fresh chili, bean sprouts, I could go on… but point is, it’s very extra. There are so many components that at first glance, it may look chaotic. Individually, each component tastes different– some of it may not even be good– yet somehow it all works so well together. These are the bits of my personality that I can’t seem to individually identify, but I know it can only work all together.
Finally, the broth: this is the soul of the dish, the foundation of the Phở. It’s the component that gives the Vietnamese taste, and what makes it unique. Not a lot of people know this, but this takes the longest to cook, usually six to seven hours to cook perfectly. It’s sometimes left to simmer overnight. Not many people understand and appreciate how much effort it actually takes to make a bowl of Phở. Just like how it has taken me a long time to understand and appreciate the depths of my own culture, the broth is what I take pride in.
Being away from home, I have been deprived of good Vietnamese food. And because of that, when I’m home, I have learned to appreciate waking up on a Sunday morning to the smell of a bowl of Phở, carefully prepared by my mom the night before with all the love she has for it. I am finally able to see Phở in a more genuinely positive way. It’s hard to say it’s my favorite, but I have learned to appreciate Phở. It is a part of my cuisine, and it is who I am.
(Copyright 2018 Anh Nguyen)