©Viet-ly Nguyen, 2013

©Viet-ly Nguyen, 2013


A huge steaming bowl of pho stared back at me for breakfast, lunch, or dinner each week. A bowl bigger than my head. Armed with chopsticks longer than my forearm, I couldn’t be defeated by the steam that moistened my face or the broth that burned my lips or the noodles that left soup streaks on my cheeks. My mother, after boiling the beef bones for hours, steaming up the kitchen so she would have to crack open the windows even if it was a cold Minnesota night, crafted each family member’s bowl to perfectly match the individual taste and quantity preferences. A handful of cilantro and chopped green onion was plopped on top of my soup. My dad and I were the lucky ones who also received an un-chopped three-inch green onion log. I squeezed a half moon slice of lime into the bowl, grabbed a chopsticks’ worth of bean sprouts, and added a dash of pepper. Then I began my pho-eating mini-journey, making perfect spoonful bites in attempt to make a dent in the heaping bowl. Each spoonful had a measured combination of rice noodle, one piece of beef dipped in hoisin and sriracha sauce, and some cilantro and green onion. I dunked the mound of goodness into the broth, creating a scrumptious bite to slurp down. If I did manage to get down to the bottom of the bowl, I strategically planned how I was going to conquer it. One bite with only noodle? The perfect slice of beef with hoisin? Finish the broth with spoonfuls or just pick up the whole bowl to drink?

There’s so much I remember about the hundreds of bowls of pho I have eaten. I remember my mother standing at the stove for hours, skimming the fat off the top of the broth as it cooked. I remember handing off all the fatty meat pieces to my dad. I remember my brother’s chopsticks constantly bumping into my shoulder at our tiny kitchen table and never saying sorry. I remember when I couldn’t finish the large portion of soup and my dad encouraged me to eat all the remaining meat pieces. Those surely couldn’t go to waste. In college, during overseas studies, I remember eating pho every single morning in Hanoi on a child-sized plastic stool on the sidewalk in my raincoat with the bowl in my lap. I remember watching sweat beads stream down people’s faces as they ate pho in the toasty temperatures of Saigon. They were that devoted to the soup. I remember coming back to the United States and telling my mother I now liked adding the thai basil and cilantro to my soup, maturing my pho-eating habits. I remember finally finding my go-to pho spot in Oakland where the lighting is pleasant and where one sip of the broth travels through my body, letting me taste every spice. I remember ordering tripe in my pho for the first time, copying my friend so I could continue to become hard in the way Oakland asks you to be. I remember eating pho as a hangover remedy after long nights of partying. I remember seeing the bottom of the pho bowl and raising and shaking my fists in victory.

And then, I remember when my now fiancé ate his first bowl of my mother’s pho. He sat down at the dinner table. His polite southern manners cushioned him. He never orders pho at the restaurant. Only #33 – rice vermicelli with pork and egg rolls. Here, he has to eat the pho. Serving her food is often the only way my mom knows how to make human connections. She set the intimidating airplane-sized bowl in front of him. He said thank you and mimicked my actions. We customized our bowls with limes and herbs, squirted hoisin and sriracha in a tiny dish. He took a picture and posted it to Instagram, hoping to get at least 15 likes.

“Do you like the soup?” my mom asks.

“Yes, of course. It’s delicious. Better than the restaurant,” he says a little loud so she can hear him over everyone else’s slurping.

Seven months later, with seven years of being together, Odiaka and I got engaged during sunset on Lake Merritt. The setting couldn’t have been more blissful. We called his sister to tell her. We called my parents to make the announcement.

In some cultures, inviting your child’s partner into your home and serving him the most special, yet staple, of meals means acceptance. Not for my mother. A mother who has told me never to marry a black man. And later, never marry a Mexican. And then, never marry a Viet. Who else is left?

“Oh my god! I so happy. I cry right now,” my father screamed softly into the phone. My mother said flatly, “It’s fine. You’re old enough to make your own decisions. Here’s your father.” She hands the phone back to my dad. I put him on speaker and there’s a lot more “oh my gods” and choking back tears.

When we first started dating, she screamed and screamed over the phone questioning how I could do this to her. What would it say to her family that her daughter is with a black man? The screaming stopped because she simply stopped talking to me. This protest of silence, louder than thunderstorms and sirens and car crashes put together, only lasted a year with me. It’s known to last for decades with other family members. Then, my ancestors visited me in my dreams. It could have been my grandfather. It could have been great aunts or great uncles. They scolded me. Said I shouldn’t. I woke up with an anvil on my chest. Should I be Vietnamese and follow their commands? Or should I be American and take a stand for love?

Once my mother started talking to me again, the situation lightened. It’s hard to resist Odiaka’s generosity and giant heart. He comes back to Minnesota with me to visit. My mom gives him extra large shirts and shorts she finds at garage sales. She stuffs him with other delicious dishes and makes sure he’s warm enough in the freezing temperatures. He opens up and tells her about his family.

Recently, through my father, I learned she doesn’t want me to invite any of our relatives to the wedding. She doesn’t give a reason. I know the reason. I know because I’ve been her daughter my entire life.

And still, I remember every single time my mother has a bowl of pho waiting for me whether it’s two o’clock in the afternoon or two in the morning when I come home to visit, reminding me how much she loves me without speaking a word.

Can I still claim victory?


©Viet-ly Ngyuen, 2013

Viet-Ly teaches sixth grade at Westlake Middle School and is proud that she is taller than at least half of her students.  She believes teaching is the most real form of activism where she can create caring relationships in the day-to-day grind that is the classroom.  Her BAWPtism this past summer will forever change the way she teaches.

One Response to “Pho, Please by Viet-ly Nguyen”

  1. Georgia Dzurica Says:

    Really enjoyed reading this.Write on, Viet-ly!

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