July 31, 2006
Nha Magazine, Q & A, Christine Buckley, Jul 26, 2006
“Viet Kieu,” asserted my HCM City neighbor, his mouth turned down with distaste, “are simply no good.” He would not elaborate, but merely shook his head as if to say I’d never be able to understand.
His is a sentiment one hears less often since Viet Nam’s economy started booming, but still there remains a barely palpable undercurrent of resentment here towards the millions of Vietnamese who whether by choice or circumstance have made their homes outside of the country. A new generation of Viet Kieu, however, are pouring into this emerging market economy and doing something to reverse that negative image.
Not unlike the “ugly American” stereotype that hangs over the head of every Yankee visitor to Paris, stories about wicked Viet Kieu have been woven into the fabric of local urban legends since the country opened its doors to the outside world nearly two decades ago. Such tales usually star a pleasantly plump middle-aged Vietnamese American fresh off the plane, overdressed and flaunting his purported wealth for all hungry eyes to see. He’s come back, we are told, to wed a young virgin and whisk her back to a life of manicures and spa treatments in southern California… He can’t speak a word of his mother tongue, but money still talks in the former Saigon, and instead of visiting his relatives, Mr. VK treats himself to a suite at the Las Vegas-style Rex, special “massages,” lavish dinners and bottles of the finest liquor before stepping gingerly over the beggars who stare up at him from the sidewalk and ask why he has been chosen instead of them.
Was there ever a grain of truth to this picture? Maybe. But even locals without overseas relatives wiring money home have begun to realize that the second generation is somehow different.
In the two years I’ve lived in Saigon, I’ve spoken to hundreds of Viet Kieu: from around the world. Ten of those people from my generation agreed to talk in detail about their experiences coming back to live in a Viet Nam drastically different from the war-scarred nation many of their parents fled over 30 years ago. Instead of summarizing their viewpoints in a tidy package, I’ve decided to let them tell their own stories, in their own words.
Laurence Nguyen, the youngest of the group at 23, was born in Montreal and moved to Saigon just over a year ago. After a stint at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, she is now a client relationship exec with Fraser’s law firm.
Twenty-seven-year-old Christine Van was born in Hue but grew up in Brooklyn, New York. She came back to her country in 2004 to find her “Vietnamese” self, after realizing how assimilated she had been in the U.S. She now lives sandwiched between her aunt, uncle and cousins in HCM City’s District 3, and since July has been the general manager of a new restaurant called Hideaway Cafe.
Dao Xuan Loc, 35, a software development manager born and raised in Paris, has lived in Saigon for two years. He lives alone but sees his relatives every other day.
Nguyen Trung Hoang, a 42 year-old filmmaker, left Viet Nam at 18 and returned home in January 2005 after spending more than half his life in France and America. Now known as Ouater Sand, he recently married a local girl (who was introduced by her aunt in the U.S.) and took her back to San Francisco, where he runs a restaurant. He’s the only married one in this group of 10.
Linda Pham, 27, left her birthplace in Melbourne to gain international advertising experience in her parents’ hometown of Saigon. Now an art director at Saatchi and Saatchi, Linda (whose Vietnamese name, Hien, means gentle and virtuous) is one of the few members of the group at ease in the language, and seems to have found a happy balance between her Western and Eastern values.
In 1975 Landon Carnie was adopted as a toddler by American parents as part of “Operation Babylift,” which saw almost 3,000 Vietnamese orphans flown out of the country to families around the world. Now 32 and teaching at an international university in HCM City, he recently returned from a trip through China, Mongolia and Russia on the Trans-Siberian railroad. He says the most valuable lesson he’s learned in Viet Nam is that yelling never gets you anywhere.
Voughn Nguyen, 33, Director of Marketing for Norfolk Group (real estate), grew up with traditional Vietnamese values in Canberra, Australia, even though her parents left their country as children for Laos. Now a busy businesswoman, she’s at peace with Saigon but can see her future elsewhere.
Twenty-nine-year-old Quoc Doan recently moved back to San Jose after three and a half years in Saigon, where he held various creative positions, most recently as an art director for McCann Erickson. Although he misses life in Viet Nam, he’s getting by just fine without the traffic and pollution, thank you very much.
Quoc’s former roommate Tho Vu, who is as French as they come, also moved back home this fall after spending a year teaching French-speaking elementary school kids in HCM City’s expanding suburban district of Phu My Hung. The 30-year-old enjoyed his time here, but is happier back with his nuclear family in Paris.
Van Linh Siharath, who just turned 34, was born in Laos to Vietnamese parents and grew up in the mountains of central France with a loving French stepfather. She recently returned to Paris after spending a year living with relatives in Hanoi in an effort to improve her language skills and “find a part of myself that I didn’t know.”
NHA: What made you come (back) to Viet Nam?
Landon I was looking for something new. Teaching is not very well-paid in the U.S., and I could never save money there. Here I can save 60 percent of my income, or about $1,000 a month. In Saigon, I get a high standard of living at low cost. I’ve gained simplicity. Every day something new happens here. At home I felt caught up in the monotony of life.
Hoang: I came back to meet my fiancee, change my perspective a bit and get inspiration for my latest film. Vietnamese people generally don’t like Vietnamese films. I want to change that impression by making a realistic one. But it’s hard to break in here.
Quoc It was after the 2002 dot.com crash. All of my friends were unemployed. I came back on vacation and decided to stay. I was interested in working, period.
NHA: How did you feel the first time (back)?
Quoc: I found out that my paternal grandfather had died on a Monday, and I was on the plane that Friday in 2001. We went straight to his village, Quang Bien, an hour outside of Saigon, to the house where I was born. Then straight to the cemetery, where I met 26 people with my facial features—some with my teeth, others with my eyes—standing there. They were waiting for me to seal the coffin. From there we walked to my dad’s grave. I didn’t know that would be part of the plan. For me that was the most transparent moment of my life. I had always been used to the idea of my family being just my mom and two older sisters. Seeing the grave was tangible. It was as though my life had two pillars for the first time. I cried like a baby. Then we went and ate, of course.
Voughn: The first time I set foot in Viet Nam I was 21 and cried for two weeks wanting to go back to Oz. I’m not sure where home is now. I don’t miss either place when I’m away from it now.
Van Linh: I met my family in Ha Noi for the first time in 1998. I just showed up at their house in a cyclo one morning. I spoke less Vietnamese than I do now, but when I told them who I was, and I had photos of my grandmother with me, the women started crying. I didn’t have authorization to stay with them, so I was in a hotel, but only for a few days, and when we separated again we all cried. But I’ve been back several times since then and now when I leave we all know we’ll see each other again.
Christine:When I first came back [for a visit] I loved it. Everything was taken care of—I have a big family here, so I didn’t have to worry about money—it was a different experience. Since I’ve moved here I’ve had to learn to communicate with outsiders. At first I was scared, really uncomfortable. It took a lot just to get out of bed and go to the supermarket. It was kind of like high school, with everybody staring and looking at you. I still get looks, but I just don’t care anymore.
Linda: I was 12, and I just remember 50 people at the airport and my mom crying—the whole family was there. At that age, I didn’t appreciate my culture. I just thought of it as a big family reunion.
NHA: Can you describe your living conditions here? How often do you see your relatives?
Christine:I live next door to my maternal aunt and uncle’s house in a one-bedroom apartment they own. Next door is another uncle, his wife and kids. I have plenty of cousins around the same age. I eat lunch at noon with them every day, and occasionally have dinner out with friends.
Loc: My uncle and cousins are here. I prefer to have my own house, but I see them every other day, and we eat together often. It’s fun to stay with them on holidays. We don’t have too many problems communicating—they are used to my Vietnamese.
Hoang: I was close with my cousins when we were younger [he left VN at 18]. But now I’ve got to get to know them all over again. We go out together, but they’re all married with kids. They are shocked that I would want to come back to live here. For them it’s not fair. They’re dying to go to the U.S. and work and make money. In a poor country, the focus is always on making money. If we grow up poor then naturally we want to show people that we are rich.
Landon: I live alone and am glad I don’t have to deal with family here. I have no desire to look them up [he was given up for adoption as an infant]. If the opportunity fell into my lap, I wouldn’t deny it, but I’m not going to pursue it.
Laurence: All of my relatives went to Canada before I was born. When my grandparents came back for a visit they would only go to expensive French restaurants. They were afraid of ice and eating on the streets, and took malaria tablets. I was surprised, since this is their country, but I found myself taking care of them.
Linda: My mom has nine brothers and sisters, and Dad has eight siblings. It’s full on. When I first got here, I stayed with my auntie and uncle. They insisted. I had always lived at home with my parents, but I only lasted two months with them. They couldn’t understand why I worked late or went out at night. They thought it meant they were bad hosts. It was hard, because I didn’t want to insult them. I used to see them every week, and now it’s more like once every month or so, because I’m busy at work. On the weekend I need to rest and relax with friends. Visiting them takes a lot out of me, and it’s not how I want to spend my weekend.
NHA: How does working in Viet Nam differ from your experience elsewhere?
Loc: First of all, it’s not easy to find an interesting job here. In France, employees take initiative, and want to move higher, to achieve. Here they wait to be told what to do. The culture is not as individualistic, which is sometimes tiring. I wasn’t prepared for that. All the Vietnamese I know in France are different… here people are hardworking, but they have different methods. I think they need to learn to take on responsibility and make decisions.
Landon: Among our Vietnamese staff, there is little proactivity. Self-motivation doesn’t exist. Of our 30 VN staff I’d say only two are really hard workers. My Vietnamese assistant argues with me about how to do everything, sometimes for 30 minutes. I get the feeling people always want to do things the fastest way, not necessarily the right way.
Laurence: Big time. People here are not as work-oriented as we are. It’s a collective society, so family comes first, and you wait for the boss to tell you what to do. As in: “The boss told me to do this, but I don’t think it’s a good idea, so let’s go out to lunch.” Or: “Let’s put newspaper on the floor and sleep.” I would sit and read my email while my former colleagues were napping.
Linda: Creative departments overseas are wild, outspoken, blast music in the office and dress crazily. Here the work culture is much more conservative. I don’t wear clothes to work that show my tattoo, because I’m worried what my colleagues would think, and because I respect them I want to adapt to their workplace. My company is relatively open-minded, though, and we have heaps of fun. The General Director is a Vietnamese American. And lunch hours are great in Viet Nam. In Melbourne you’re lucky to have half an hour.
Voughn: There’s a bit too many hierarchical hang-ups [and too much] nepotism here. It’s not what you know that matters but who you know, or how pretty you are. Being intelligent or talented doesn’t necessarily add up to much in Viet Nam.
Christine oing business with Vietnamese people has given me a harsh view of them. To put it mildly, they have an unorthodox way of doing things. Nothing is systematic or organized. But those who have a grasp of the different ways East and West conduct themselves are great to work with.
NHA: Are you fluent in Vietnamese? How are you coping with the language and culture?
Quoc: Every Viet Kieu:, I think, uses a certain kind of baby talk, since we’re used to speaking to our mothers. Being back here on the street is another thing. The problem with the language is that it’s not standardized—it’s still in flux. The terminology is different than the words our parents were using in the ’60s. I read in English for amusement—Vietnamese material is too heavily censored, anyway.
Voughn: I can only talk about basic things. My parents never chatted about nuclear science or the current state of economic affairs at home . . . both my grandmothers are here. I love them, but it’s hard to get close to them due to the language and cultural barrier. We can speak about everyday things, but can’t really express deep feelings or truly understand each other. To be close you have to really be able to communicate.
Christine: My family and I don’t talk about our love lives, swap personal details, or have deep spiritual conversations. They just think differently. One of my cousins, who’s 22, is dating a girl, and the way he views courtship is so ancient to me. Holding hands and giggling—it’s so junior high.
Hoang: I’ve lost a bit of vocabulary, but learned more since I’ve been back. The language is evolving . . .people know I’m Viet Kieu:, because I’m polite and say “thank you,” which most people don’t do anymore. They also can guess I’m VK because my shirt is never tucked in. [He indicates the men around us in the cafe, who are all wearing the standard dress for men: white shirt tucked into black pants with a belt and black shoes.] And I’m happy to own my freedom of speech. I can speak about politics without worrying because I have an American passport.
Tho: I usually understand what people are saying to me, but I lack technical terminology. So it’s hard to get beyond superficial stuff and deepen my relationships.
Landon: I am essentially paid not to speak Vietnamese for eight hours a day. After work I’m too tired to study the language. I would like to, because everywhere I go people instantly speak Vietnamese to me. My foreign friends speak in Vietnamese to the waiter, yet he’ll always look to me for the answer. And I don’t have it.
Laurence: People tell me I speak with a northern accent from 30 years ago. They can hear it right away. So I’m always classified as Viet Kieu I can describe what I want and express myself. It’s getting better. My former boss was Vietnamese, and I wanted to tell her how I felt about certain things, but it was really hard because my words don’t have the same impact. I have a few local friends, but communication is an issue. They go deeper into something and I don’t understand the vocabulary they use. So our conversation always rests on the surface, and as a result I feel like I don’t really know them. I guess I just need to put more time and effort into learning the language.
NHA:: Have you encountered prejudice in Viet Nam as a VK? What about overseas?
Christine:Ninety-five percent of the time I pretend I don’t speak Vietnamese. I get more respect that way. If they know I’m Viet Kieu. I’m treated with resentment. Once I was in Hoi An at a restaurant with a foreign male friend, and the waitress said to me, “Don’t you feel the cold?” which was a way of criticizing my tank top and the fact that I was with a Western guy. Some people assume I’m a taxi girl.
Voughn: Certain Viet Kieu come back here and think they rule the earth just because they speak English, which has generated a negative stereotype. I either get treated really badly here because I’m a VK or so well I don’t deserve it. No matter what happens, I’ve learned to take it with a grain of salt.
Loc: Sure, there is prejudice here. When you try to bargain, the starting price is higher. Sometimes they think I’m a foreigner, which I prefer. But I don’t want to be seen as Viet Kieu. Here [in a Highlands Coffee shop] the staff automatically speaks to me in English, so I go along with it. It’s easier, because then I don’t have to explain myself.
Tho: People know right away we’re VK, so they treat us differently. We don’t know how they’d treat us if we were just regular Vietnamese. I think American VK have given us a bad name—they talk a lot.
Hoang: I’m treated differently now. On the surface people are kind to VK—they take us out and appear to make friends with us, but we are never sure whether there is something behind it. They invite us to Highlands or places where they can’t normally afford to go, and then expect us to pay. People also make promises they can’t keep, just because saying you’ll do something even if you know you can’t is the path of least resistance.
Landon: I encounter prejudice more here than I do in the U.S. Mostly because I can’t understand what people are saying. People talk behind your back. I see discrimination the most at the English language schools around town. They won’t hire Viet Kieu. They correctly assume that Vietnamese parents won’t accept a Vietnamese face teaching their children English. My university isn’t like that. But the others are. They offered me a Vietnamese wage… There are so many different types of VK, like the really Westernized ones who come back driving a Wave Alpha. Maybe they went overseas for a few years, worked really hard at manual jobs to save money and then came back here to flaunt their wealth. People here are so naive about how easy life is in America. They have no idea. They categorize us, but they can’t tell the difference between us. Unfortunately, I’m treated better when I speak English.
Laurence: Sometimes I get ripped off by xe om drivers and taxis. I know the price, but they often try to overcharge me. I don’t care about the money, but it’s the principle. They seem to be asking, “Why was it you and not me who had a chance to have a better life?” I think some people think we are traitors and say that we left because we didn’t want to fight for our land. I can understand their point of view. But we’re not back here because we want to exploit people. We’re back here to make things better. At home I could make much more money. I’m here because I’m Vietnamese and I want the country to go forward… But not everyone is hard on us. A lot of people encourage me and support my learning the language. They’re curious. When they meet you, it’s always the standard questions: age, family, salary. It makes me so uncomfortable, but you have to answer. I lie, because I don’t want them to think that I think I’m better than them.
Linda: Sometimes people don’t guess that I’m VK. I have a lot of local friends, and I think I act like them. . . I’ve adapted really well. I feel like my local friends are rooting for me when they tell me I have very Vietnamese characteristics: I’m outspoken, I want to take care of everybody and make sure everyone is having a good time. However, trust is a bit of an issue. Saigon is a very money-hungry place. For instance, I had just met my friend’s mother when she asked if my parents could sponsor one of her relatives to Australia. That’s not cool.
Quoc People from the countryside here are always excited to meet me. But city people spit on us—I can sense it. I used to be sensitive to that, but now I don’t care so much.
Van Linh: I’ve traveled widely in Viet Nam and never felt any racism—quite the opposite—but that may be because I’m not really living in one place and can explain who I am and why I’m here. I grew up in a small French town where I was the only Asian girl. Everyone wanted to protect me. My name was difficult [to pronounce]. I always wanted a French name like Sophie or Isabelle, and it was only as a teenager that I understood my differentness was an advantage. Since then I’ve been attracted to people who were marginal, not normal. Those kind of people know more things, speak other languages and understand other cultures…
NHA: Would you say you identify more with a Western or a Vietnamese perspective on life?
Voughn: Before coming here at 21, I always thought of myself as Australian. I denied my Asianness because I thought it wasn’t cool. But now I’ve realized I’m not a circle or a square. Maybe that makes me star-shaped. It’s hard to date men here because I can’t totally identify with either local or Western men. It’s tough to find someone with a perfect complement of both cultures raised overseas.
Tho: Europeans share a certain mentality. We have a future. Here the majority of people are living day-by-day. They can think only of their tomorrow. I’m between both cultures. It’s easier for me to speak French, but I don’t share their outlook completely either.
Quoc: I identify more with Westerners because of a shared experience. Some might say I’m whitewashed, but I am Vietnamese. You can move a grasshopper to the desert, but he’s still a grasshopper. He’s just learned to adapt to the desert.
Loc: My close friends here are mostly Anglo and Francophone expats. Vietnamese don’t go out very late—and if they do it’s all men drinking beer to get drunk. I don’t really know any Viet Kieu here. I don’t like them too much. American Viet Kieu have given the word a negative connotation. I get the feeling they want to show off.
Christine: Almost all of my friends here are foreigners. I don’t have many Vietnamese friends outside of my family. I just can’t relate to most Vietnamese people. At the end of the day it’s always about money with them, and I don’t want to build a friendship around that.
Van Linh: I am not completely either one. I am very French. But I want to know the other part better. I am proud when a stranger here takes me for a Vietnamese. If I can walk down the street without someone saying “buy this!” or taking me for a foreigner, that’s an amazing feeling.
Hoang: I feel more like a foreigner. People expect me to act like one. If I act or dress like a local, they think I am lower-class. With my old friends, I’m still Vietnamese. But with strangers, I’m a foreigner. Because the fact is, the minute I show the passport, I get to walk right into the consulate instead of having to line up with everyone else on the pavement.
Loc: I was raised French. We never celebrated Tet at home, didn’t have a family altar or religion. I always felt at home in France. But my second home is still Viet Nam.
Landon: I have no problems with my identity. I feel American when I’m in the U.S. When I’m alone I feel American, and sometimes when I’m walking the streets alone here I feel Vietnamese. I think my students relate to me better because I’m Vietnamese.
Laurence: I guess I identify more with Westerners because we have to deal with the same frustrations here, like being ignored or overcharged. There’s a real bond between Canadians in Viet Nam. But I’m a citizen of the world. Thanks to globalization, you can have a dad from Morocco and an Italian mom. Montreal is so multicultural that you can be five different colors. When I’m here, though, Vietnamese people tell me I’m Vietnamese, not Canadian. It depends on who I meet. I don’t feel lost. I see this country through Canadian eyes. I feel at home here because I decided to make it home, but I could be at home anywhere.
Linda: I consider myself Vietnamese. I always say I’m Vietnamese when people ask my nationality, because that’s the way I look. With my Vietnamese friends, I can’t just sit and chill and not say anything. They’re always hyped up and chattering about past experiences and fun times. We go swimming, fishing… but after my first year I started to miss Western friends, and felt I needed a bit of a balance. With foreigners there’s a wider range of conversation—we can talk about politics, sex. Now I see my local friends every day for lunch and my Western friends on weekends. My local friends are very caring and into helping me. I’m lucky.
Quoc: Growing up, the idea of Viet Nam was a repressive one, not on a political, but on a personal, familial level: obey your elders. We had less freedom than American kids, which was always a point of contention with my mom. She’d say: “You can’t do what your American friends do because you’re Vietnamese.” Mom didn’t understand when my sister wanted to go to a dance—we were simply not allowed to date. So when I was a kid I felt like a Vietnamese growing up in America; now I feel like an American in Viet Nam.
NHA: How do you find the food here? Do you go to the market and cook?
Voughn: The C word? I’m hardly ever at home, and going to the market for cheap, tasty food is more feasible.
Landon I have my favorite pho place. It costs more to go to the market and buy ingredients
than to eat out.
Loc: I love eating things that are considered strange in France, like durian and dog meat.
Laurence: I eat every meal out. Food is cheap and good, and I don’t have the time to cook. Besides, we only have one pot, no rice cooker and four forks.
Linda: A typical night out with locals is all about eating—and fast. After dinner we’ll stop to drink sinh to [smoothies], then go and eat more. I spent my first year here eating outside on tiny lanes, places I’d never have found on my own.
NHA: What do you miss about “home” when you’re in Viet Nam? And vice versa?
Loc: Cheese and foie gras. I prefer the weather here. It’s always cold and rainy in France. And my family here is bigger, which is fun.
Van Linh: Cheese, friends and Ba ngoa [grandma]. The last time I got back from Viet Nam the Parisian streets seemed sad to me, empty. Here there’s noise, action, vendors, it’s animated. People+crowds+noise= vui [fun].The people are on the streets. In France, people come home from work and go inside. There’s an emptiness there. And you can’t get pho in the morning so easily.
Tho: I miss sport. It’s difficult to work out in the heat. And the sports I like are reserved for the elite here: fishing and gymnastics. France is definitely home, because I understand the system and how it functions. Here everything is vague. People say that Viet Nam has evolved, but I’m not so sure. We don’t know our place as Viet Kieu. People have no confidence in the system. Everything changes on a whim. But people are open and accessible, which I like. You can contact them at the last minute and see them whenever —they’re more spontaneous than we are.
Voughn: Rules, regulations, politeness and being able to walk down the street without fearing someone will run me over. Fresh air, huge movie theaters and well-stocked supermarkets. I don’t plan to be in Viet Nam for the long term. I feel another challenge coming on.
Quoc: Cleanliness, modern conveniences, sexual liberation, freedom of information and speech. I want to turn on the TV or read books and see things I’m interested in without limits. When I go to Thailand from Viet Nam my eyes bug out—I’m elated. Thank God for the Internet. I read the BBC website religiously… but there’s something about driving around on a motorbike late at night that I’ll miss when I’m gone. And here I’m part of the upper-middle class. I can afford to go out every night. It’s also good being stripped of familiarity and materialism. I used to feel the need to fill my house with a bunch of crap, like a Surround Sound system. Maybe life here is simpler. Some days I’m Vietnamese, other days I’m Western. Every day you start over. As a Viet Kieu you can float through all classes and circles, each with its own range of people, enough to keep life interesting. But the highs and lows are extreme.
Christine: I miss being able to converse with people, and being anonymous. Beef. Variety. Clothes that fit—fashion here sucks. My cousins are always calling me fat. When I leave I’ll miss the ease of life here and the people I love, who I know will never leave this country.
Hoang: The law. Organization. Here a red light has no meaning. Everyone does whatever they want. When there’s a traffic cop, they obey. But when he’s not there, there’s no more law. When I’m back in the U.S. I miss the food, fruit and climate here, but not the lifestyle.
Landon: I do miss things at home. Like waiting in line and knowing you will eventually be served. Here you may never get your turn. People keep cutting you. You can’t be polite, but have to push and shove. I hate it. I also miss people saying “sorry” and the ability to just go off into the wilderness or go hiking. I grew up in a rural area with snowboarding and waterskiing. Here you can only go to a coffee shop and drink beer. Walking is a nightmare. Saigon South is a bit better, kind of like suburban America. The first thing I do when I get back to the States is drive for an hour with the radio on. Oh yeah, and the bookstore—new books and magazines. But the benefits here still outweigh the negatives. I have a passport and go back whenever. When I do, I’ll miss the simplicity of life here, and the street stalls—I love them. I hope they never lose things like that, but I’m afraid they will.
Linda: I love Melbourne, but it never changes. It’s always the same.
Laurence: When I leave I’ll miss drinking coconuts and eating at street stands. And low prices—like being able to afford a massage once a week. My quality of life is so much better here than at home. For $200 a month we have a maid who cooks and cleans, a big, nice house… and a beer costs a dollar!
NHA: Do you share your parents’ views/politics in terms of Viet Nam?
Christine: At first my parents were surprised and not too happy about my coming here to live, but as long as I have a good job and am doing well here they’re fine with it. The Vietnamese government isn’t really an issue for me. I don’t think about it, but I do share my parents’ anti-communist stance. I experience communism firsthand every day and it’s not working. Viet Nam could be growing faster and more efficiently but can’t because of the government.
Voughn: I was very fortunate that my parents did not impose any politics on their kids. Ho Chi Minh’s original communist ideals, which I admired, were very different from the current regime’s.
Van Linh: My mom did not understand why I wanted to come here. She said: “Why? There’s nothing there but misery. Women are always at home, you’ll have no independence, no social security. Here you have your work, us, your friends, and in Viet Nam there’s nothing!”
Landon: Since I was raised with American parents, I’ve never had the same anti-communist feelings many other Viet Kieu do. I actually detest those kinds of sentiments. Those people wave the banner of freedom and justice, while most only get their U.S. passport so they can collect Social Security and unemployment. Sure, I have my moments with the Vietnamese government and people, but who doesn’t living in a foreign country? When I read stories about anti-communist Viet Kieu and war veterans all I see is bitterness. They need to let go. They’re going to spend their whole lives bitter, trying to make others feel the same way instead of accepting things for what they are and moving on.
Quoc: For my family, the Vietnamese government conjures up cruel memories of the war era… but the government is changing policies to accommodate economic growth (Stalin would roll over in his grave if he knew that today’s “communism” was powered by capitalism). Viet Nam is finally starting to share in the benefits the rest of the world has been enjoying and it’s not going back. Today’s government is not bent on control and suppression the way it once was. A Vietnamese friend recently told me “Nobody cares whether you call it communism or democracy. As long as our country is prosperous, it’s good for everybody.”
NHA: What aspects of Vietnamese culture do you love/will you teach your kids? Which parts do you find contradictory/will you leave out?
Christine: If I have kids I’ll teach them the language and culture but definitely not the Vietnamese mentality. I feel like they’ve taken the MTV version of our culture and run with it. Like the importance of having the latest motorbike or cell phone when you have no money to buy a phone card or fill the tank. Unfortunately, I learned more values growing up with my Vietnamese family in New York than I have here.
Hoang: Women here are amazing. They go to work and then come home and cook and clean and take care of the husband and kids. I have absorbed both the French and American culture in addition to the one I grew up with, and I plan to educate my kids with all three. American kids have too much freedom. You can’t correct them, and they have no respect for their elders.
Landon: I’m starting to see Vietnamese losing the unity of their nuclear family. Now both parents are going to work. Luxury products are available and people want to buy. In the U.S. there are too many latchkey kids on Ritalin. Here students still respect teachers and parents and understand the value of education.
Laurence: I like that they’re more collective and attached to their elders. But I pity the woman who isn’t allowed to get married because she has to take care of her mother. She just accepts it as her fate and criticizes us for our freedom. Maybe she’s only 32, and she’s an old maid not allowed out of the house after 10pm. That’s unfair.
Van Linh: Here no one in your family is left alone or in need. In France there’s only my mom, grandma, stepfather, and brother. In Viet Nam the family is all-encompassing. I missed that growing up, and would like to have that in the future. I also like the mix of modernity and traditional values. Like a businesswoman in a suit going into a pagoda to worship. Or women going to the market in pajamas without thinking about it.
Linda: The West is very materialistic, and it looks like Saigon will become like that. It’s happening fast. I have the image of the banh mi lady pushing her cart, and am afraid she’ll disappear. The countryside is still so different.
Loc: I like the focus on family and values. Family ties are stronger here. My parents raised me like that. In Viet Nam the emphasis on success is high. America is more about freedom and being happy. Here you are driven to succeed, earn money and start a family. There are some advantages to that, especially the focus on education, which helps kids come out ahead. I’ll teach Vietnamese to my children. It is the key to their past and their heritage. But other than that I will only retain the nuclear family values. A close-knit family provides a great support network.
Growing up, I was taught all the conservative Asian values. Living in Viet Nam has shed a whole different light on my culture. We learned the pure values, but now I’ve seen how they are applied and the contradictions that result. Face and reputation are important, so in public everyone wants to appear more honorable than the next person. But in private it’s a different story. While a woman must remain obedient and chaste, men go out drinking and chase women. And although no one will talk about sex, all you have to do is look at the size of their family to know what’s going on. The Vietnamese population didn’t surpass 80 million by abstaining from sex.
Tho: Vietnamese people always talk about their traditional culture. But you can only find it outside the city. Just like in the French countryside, the people are self-sufficient and have a simpler life. Happiness is dependent on minimizing your needs. If you don’t know about something you don’t need it.
Voughn: I’m finding out that I possess a firmer grip on Vietnamese cultural values than my local friends, who are dying to break away from tradition. Our household, despite being in Australia, was steeped in customs that have virtually been forgotten in a rapidly modernizing Viet Nam. My Dad is very Confucian and into respecting the ancestors and traditional etiquette. If I have kids, I hope they’ll be respectful, honest and dignified no matter what cultural environment they absorb. But with all due respect, most of the values I’ve discovered in Viet Nam are not ones [with which] I’d raise a child.
Our generation of Viet Kieu is lucky because we have a chance to build a bridge of understanding between Vietnamese here and those who have chosen to stay in their adopted countries. To foster understanding and healing.
Sadly, in Saigon people are trying so hard to Westernize, and in doing so they’re losing a sense of themselves as Vietnamese. Why knock everything down? Development is good, but you have to preserve history too. It’s sad to see Vietnamese denying their Asian heritage and natural features for plastic counterparts.
My parents painted a rosy picture of Viet Nam, and I thought it would be like all the songs my parents listened to. Women were tame, meek and mild, and men were gallant. People got on like a house on fire. They stayed faithful to each other and married for life. Youngsters respected elders, and were pure. But I was proven rather wrong. We all have misconceptions of countries we never knew.
July 31, 2006
July 26, 2006, 7:04AM
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COOKING WITH . . . BICH TRAN
By MARY VUONG
Copyright 2006 Houston ChronicleEditor’s Note: This is an installment in our occasional series about food, family, tradition and culture. The cooks we feature usually live in or near Houston, but this time our writer returned to her California hometown to learn the traditional Vietnamese dishes she was raised on.
–>She started without me.
I flew 1,400 miles so my mother could teach me how to make Vietnamese food, and discovered that she’d hit the kitchen she began 90 minutes before I woke up.
Instantly cranky, I marched back to the childhood bedroom I hadn’t slept in regularly for nine years. I was overreacting, sure, but it was only 7:28 a.m.
Was this a good idea? I wondered.
I traveled home to Redondo Beach, Calif., this summer determined to master family recipes and create delicious memories so that I could pass them onto on to the next generation. Eating has always been my favorite pastime, but I didn’t develop an interest in cooking until I began writing about food a few years ago.
A series of stories I wrote called Cooking With . . ., in which Houstonians happily reminisced about making significant dishes from their past, made me nostalgic for the Vietnamese dishes I was raised on.
I rarely eat such food in Houston. Nothing here compares to my mom’s cha gio, egg rolls that she stuffed, rolled and fried in party-size quantities, or her ca kho, a homey catfish stew bursting with the nuoc mam (fish sauce) ubiquitous in Vietnamese cuisine.
I was almost 5 years old when my mother, Bich (sounds like “bit”) Tran, became a stay-at-home mom with the birth of my brother, Christian. Our routine was the same each day: After my dad, Hoan Vuong, arrived home from work, we sat down to a home-cooked meal. I never gave it a second thought.
Now, two time zones away and too exhausted to cook from scratch after work, I’ve come to realize what a luxury those dinners that my mother labored over were.
One of my most vivid memories is of my mother standing at the stove during parties so that every guest would have a perfectly crisp banh xeo, a crêpe stuffed with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, onions and mung beans. They ate them as quickly as she could swirl the batter.
So I asked her to teach me that and another dish. Goi sua tom thit is one of my all-time favorites, a lively, herbaceous salad with shaved vegetables, pork, shrimp and jellyfish. Though a it’s a common offering at Houston Vietnamese restaurants, I haven’t found a version to my liking; the celery is sliced too thick, or the typically pungent fish sauce is disappointingly bland.
I learned to cook in my mid-20s by closely following recipes until I felt comfortable enough to improvise. My mom, already preparing meals for her family at age 10 or 11, learned by observing her mother, analyzing restaurant meals and reading cookbooks and newspapers. I use my digital kitchen scale daily; she eyeballs nearly every ingredient.
We speak Vietnamese to each other, with liberal use of English words on my part. I call her me (pronounced MAY-eh), Vietnamese for mother.
I tried learning to cook from her years ago, but it backfired. When I asked for measurements, she replied, “as needed” or “to taste.” I was an inexperienced cook with minimal kitchen skills, and such vague instructions were enough to make me quit.This time, however, I was prepared. To be able to write accurate recipes and re-create the dishes solo, I insisted on digging out her rarely used scale and measuring spoons and cups.
But my need to measure everything and to ask “why?” stalled the process. Over two days of cooking, this was a cycle we couldn’t break:
“Each person can do it their own way,” she’d say.
“But I want to know your way!” I’d cry, exasperated. “I need a solid starting point; I can’t improvise from nothing.”
A friend but always Mom
Cooking with Mom forced me to realize that the mother-daughter relationship may never blossom into an adult-adult relationship, no matter how old the child. She still has the I’ll-cook-and-you-play-or-do-your-homework mentality from my youth. She gives me the easier, less messy duties, such as peeling carrots and daikon, while she deveins shrimp and expertly slices slippery pork.She’s subtly critical of my work, taking over the shaving of the carrots because I’m not making them thin enough. For her, it’s easier to do all the work than have someone else try.
I’m the same way.
Our similarities start with our Vietnamese names. She is Bich-Ngoc and I am Ngoc-Bich.
Food is a key
We express love and affection through food. She tucks homegrown satsuma oranges and frozen banh bao (meat-stuffed buns) into my luggage as I’m heading back to Houston. I leave Los Angeles with fleur-de-sel caramels for friends here.We also share a rarely broached fear. My maternal grandmother has Alzheimer’s, and I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for my mother and, ultimately, me. It’s not just the unwritten recipes I want to preserve but the memories they evoke.
I was in my mother’s womb when she and my father fled Vietnam in December 1978 for a refugee camp on Pulau Bidong, a Malaysian island. I was born the next year on a hospital ship run by Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian organization.
That’s the edited version of history. It wasn’t till last summer, during my first trip to Vietnam, that the more gut-wrenching stuff emerged.
A link in history
My dad and I were sitting in an air-conditioned hotel room, watching a CNN reporter wade through water during Hurricane Katrina. When I remarked on the awful conditions, my father said the tiny island they lived on with 40,000 other refugees was miserable, too.My father’s English students, the sons of fishermen, were experienced swimmers and helped him gather mussels in rocky areas. He and his brothers-in-law also would drag mosquito netting through the water to catch tiny fish along the shore.
But that wasn’t enough to survive on. He was forced to sell his wedding band so he could buy food to supplement the rations provided by the Red Crescent (Malaysian Red Cross), buying a chicken neck to make soup or a precious egg. (Eggs are my favorite food. Coincidence?) They splurged on the occasional 7-Up, under the odd but widely held belief that it would make their baby’s skin light. Someone stole my mom’s soda one night after she and my father dozed off on the beach.
I was just 1 1/2 months old when they arrived in California, where we first settled in the working-class city of Cudahy in Los Angeles County. Three homes later, they purchased their current house in Redondo Beach.
Which is where Mom and I spent these two days cooking.
The prep work was tedious. For the salad, my mom and I boiled pork and shrimp and shaved and sliced endless vegetables.”How much pork are you using?” I asked her. “We have to weigh it.”
“Oh, maybe this much,” she said. “If we have too much, we’ll subtract.”
“How about shrimp?” I pressed her, knowing her answer would be the same.
The crêpes turned out to be tricky. Mom’s first one was perfect, thanks to an experienced wrist, but it took several tries before I produced one that was unbroken and golden-brown.
Division of labor
As soon as my father returned from work, she tasked him with making the fish sauce we would drizzle over the salad and dip the crêpes in.”I can’t take it anymore!” she declared. “All day it’s been measure this, weigh that.” I burst out laughing. She did, too. So I had been driving her crazy the past eight hours, as well.
The tension melted away and we relaxed. My mom finished tossing the salad as I continued to pour the crêpes. My brother snapped photos, and my dad made a comical production of using measuring instruments to produce a dipping sauce that is very much “to taste.”
When we sat down for dinner, I learned to eat banh xeo the traditional way. With my fingers, I placed a piece of hot crêpe onto a cool lettuce leaf, then added shredded herbs. I rolled the pile into a tight bundle and lightly dunked the wrap in fish sauce. It was brighter-tasting than I remembered, thanks to the spicy, minty herbs I had rejected as a picky child.
The goi sua tom thit, despite the many ingredients, was light and clean. The tart lime juice and sweet-and-salty fish sauce pulled everything together, from the subtly sweetened shrimp and pork to those distinctive herbs.
Mung bean wars
Back in Houston, I tested the recipes in the comfort of my familiar kitchen, referring to my notes for cooking times and temperatures.10:02 a.m.: Beans with water on medium. Mostly covered. When starts to boil, reduce to simmer. Stir occasionally.
10:26 a.m.: When beans are somewhat cooked but still hard, drain any remaining water and return to stove to continue cooking at low heat (mostly covered). Stir occasionally.
10:37 a.m. Stop cooking when beans are tender and slightly mashed. Remove from the heat. Let sit 10-15 minutes.
Despite my meticulous notes, I overcooked the mung beans.
Some things I still need Mom for.
Chronicle kitchen-tested recipe from Bich Tran.
Use a 10-inch nonstick frying pan to make these stuffed crêpes, which should be served immediately, while crisp. To eat, tear a portion of a crêpe, place it in a lettuce leaf, top with shredded herbs, roll and dip in Fish Sauce. You can find the flour, labeled “banh xeo,” at Vietnamese and Chinese stores, as well as any other ingredients not in your local store. Plan ahead: You’ll need to soak and cook the beans before you start cooking.
- 1/2 of a (12-ounce) bag dried, peeled and split mung bean, picked through
- 1 (12-ounce) package banh xeo flour
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 3 stalks scallion, in 1-inch pieces
- 2/3 pound small shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 2/3 pound semifatty pork, sliced into thin, bite-size pieces
- Sugar, to taste
- Salt, to taste
- 2/3 pound onions, thinly sliced (about 3 cups loosely packed)
- 2/3 pound bean sprouts, washed and dried (about 5 cups loosely packed)
- Vegetable oil, for frying
- Leaf lettuce
- Assorted herbs such as cilantro, mint, red perilla, Vietnamese coriander and crab-claw herb
- Fish Sauce (recipe above)
Rinse beans and soak in lukewarm water for 2 hours.
Strain beans and put in a 2-quart nonstick pot. Add water to slightly more than cover. Cook, partially covered, on medium heat until water comes to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the beans are semicooked but still firm. Drain any remaining water and return to the stove to cook over low heat, covered. Stir occasionally. The beans are ready when they are tender. Remove from heat and allow to sit 10 to 15 minutes, covered, then fluff with a fork.
Prepare the batter by stirring together the flour, 3 1/2 cups water and coconut milk until free of lumps. Add the scallions.
Combine the shrimp and pork in a bowl, season with sugar and salt, and divide into 12 to 14 equal portions, depending on the size you’ll make the crêpes.
Combine the onions and bean sprouts, then divide into 12 to 14 equal portions.
Heat about 1/2 teaspoon oil in a 10-inch frying pan on medium heat. Add 1 portion of shrimp and pork, turning to cook both sides and evenly spacing the pieces.
When the shrimp and pork are light golden, pour in about 2/3 cup of the batter, starting at the center and swirling the pan until the batter is about 1 inch from the edge. Scatter 2 tablespoons mung beans over the batter, then add 1 portion of the onions and bean sprouts.
Cover the pan and cook for about 5 minutes or until the crêpe’s underside begins to develop golden brown spots and the edges are crisp. Carefully slide a spatula under half the crêpe and fold like an omelet.
Cook for another minute, then slide the crêpe onto a plate. Serve immediately with lettuce, herbs and Fish Sauce. Using fresh oil each time, repeat until you have used up all the ingredients.
Makes 12 to 14 crêpes.
GOI SUA TOM THIT
Chronicle kitchen-tested recipe from Bich Tran.
There are many versions of this dish. My mom’s, which includes pork, shrimp and jellyfish, is light, refreshing and well-suited to summer. Plan ahead: The jellyfish, available in or near the freezer aisles of most Chinese and Vietnamese markets, must soak for several hours.
- 4 ounces jellyfish, soaked and cooked (see note)
- Marinade (recipe follows)
- Fish Sauce (recipe follows)
- 1/2 of a (12-ounce) can CoCo Rico Coconut Soda
- 3/4 pound shell-on large shrimp, deveined
- 2/3 pound lean, boneless pork
- Salt, to taste
- 1/2 pound carrots, peeled and thinly shaved lengthwise (about 3 cups loosely packed)
- 2/3 pound daikon (Japanese radish), peeled and thinly shaved lengthwise (about 4 cups loosely packed)
- 1/2 of a (15- or 16-ounce) jar young lotus root in water, drained, rinsed and cut crosswise into bite-size pieces (slice larger pieces in half lengthwise first)
- 1/2 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded and thinly sliced
- 1/4 large sweet red onion, thinly sliced
- 1/2 pound cucumbers, seeded and thinly shaved lengthwise (about 2 1/2 cups loosely packed)
- 1 or 2 stalks celery, sliced thinly on the diagonal
- Cilantro and assorted herbs, such as mint, red perilla, Vietnamese coriander and crab-claw herb, to taste
- Red chiles, seeded and thinly sliced, for garnish
- 1/4 cup shelled peanuts, toasted and crushed, for garnish
- Lime wedges
- Shrimp chips
Allowing plenty of time, prepare the jellyfish and set aside. Prepare the Marinade and Fish Sauce; set aside.
Heat the CoCo Rico in a small pot until boiling, then add the shrimp. Cook until the shrimp are pink, about 2 minutes. Remove the shrimp and set aside to cool. Don’t throw away the broth.
Place the pork in the pot with the CoCo Rico, adding enough water to cover. Season the liquid with salt. Simmer, partially covered, until the pork center is lightly pink, about 10 to 15 minutes (if pork is in multiple pieces, reduce the cooking time). Remove the pork and allow to cool, reserving the broth for another use, if desired.
Cut each shrimp lengthwise to yield 2 pieces. Slice the pork into thin, bite-size pieces. Refrigerate.
In a large bowl, combine the carrots, daikon, lotus, bell pepper, onion, cucumber and celery. Add the Marinade and toss well. Refrigerate.
Before serving, drain the marinade from the salad. Shred the herbs and mix into the salad with shrimp and pork. Lightly dress the salad with Fish Sauce to taste and toss. Garnish with chiles and peanuts.
Serve with lime wedges and additional Fish Sauce — so diners can adjust the flavorings to their taste — as well as shrimp chips.
Note: To prepare the jellyfish, soak it in water for 3 hours to remove the salt, changing the water every 30 minutes. Boil water and blanch the jellyfish for 5 to 8 seconds. Then soak the jellyfish in fresh cold water for 20 minutes before thinly slicing.
Makes 4 to 6 servings as a side dish.
- 1/2 tablespoon rice vinegar
- Juice of 1/2 lime
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
Combine all ingredients and mix until the sugar and salt are dissolved.
This recipe makes enough for the banh xeo (recipe follows) as well.
- 4 1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 3 tablespoons bottled fish sauce
- 1 1/2 garlic cloves, minced
- Chile garlic sauce, to taste
Combine all ingredients with 1 1/2 tablespoons water and mix until the sugar is dissolved.