I was born in Vietnam, but don’t have memories of it. All I know about the details of the first four years of my life, I know only through the stories told to me by my parents, aunties, uncles and cousins. I’ve always felt a little as if I had missed out. To make up for it, as a little girl, I asked a lot of questions. I loved sitting in the car on the hour’s drive to Uptown for Vietnamese food, with my elbows perched on top of the sides of the front seats, my bottom on the very edge of the middle of the back seat, (seat belts weren’t a big deal back then from what I can remember) arms and fingers outstretched to reach the radio dial, and in-between changing stations and Dad’s singing of “Hey Jude”, I ask my parents questions about Vietnam. My favorite ones were about how they met. How long they dated. How Dad proposed to Mom. Come to think of it, I’ve never really gotten a straight answer. To this day, my Dad will respond, “Your Mom proposed to me”! They both proceed to burst out laughing, Dad’s face turning persimmon red, not being able to catch his breath, and Mom, giggling uncontrollably, giddy and teary-eyed. He is the only one who can make her laugh like that. I smile, glance to the right at my Mom, to the left at my Dad behind the wheel, and for an instant, catch a look at that undeniable twinkle in both their eyes, their faces etched with happiness; for those few moments, I can clearly and vividly see them as silly teenagers in Vietnam…and in love.
We reach the Vietnamese restaurant, and everyone’s in a good mood by now. Like clockwork, we all order the usual. Bún thịt nướng (Vietnamese grilled pork with vermicelli noodles) and chè ba màu (three-colored sweet bean dessert with coconut milk) for me. Phở đặc biệt for Mom and Dad. Like in most Asian families, little is said once the food arrives and the meal commences. Culinary concentration takes over. Every so often, Dad orders cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee) to wash down his meal. I watch the mesmerizing slow drip of the filter, as pools of black gold begin to puddle above the thick, creamy base layer of sweetened condensed milk. I listen to him scrape every last precious drop of the blended goodness into the tallest glass of ice, and then to the clanking of an even longer spoon as it goes ’round and ’round. Even at such a young age, I notice when Dad takes his first sip, it’s as if his entire being changes from head to toe. As if he’s being transported back to another place and time. I’m allowed a sip or two of the iced coffee, and am reminded then, and still today, that although I can’t remember my Vietnam —it doesn’t matter, she is forever entwined with me and coursing through my veins.
MUSIC PAIRING: The Beatles, Hey Jude