Holy crow, as my friend and client Jim says when he’s startled or alarmed. Holy crow, it’s been so long since I blogged recipes I had to go back and see what I had last posted. To avoid this in the future, here’s what we’ll do: I’ll post the recipe and the story on the same day. It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work. Let’s give it a try, shall we? Here we go…
Saigon fell in the spring of my fifteenth year. This was all very distant and vague to me; we still didn’t have a television at home, so what I knew of matters in Southeast Asia I learned from listening to the radio news each morning while I ate breakfast, before the “Billboard of the Air” and after the “Farm Report.” When the Vietnamese came to town they caught us unawares. We understood that people came in all colors—we sang a song in Sabbath School about that very thing: “Jesus loves the little children/All the children of the world/Red and yellow, black and white/All are precious in His sight…. When I was very small we once had a neighbor girl, Gardenia, who was very very black, walked on her hands, and ignored her mother when she called. But then Gardenia and her family moved away, leaving two African-Americans in town, both middle aged. We understood about Mexicans. There was a large migrant labor camp not far from town. We understood about Native Americans—Indians, we called them in those days. They were a constant presence in our town, which was just a few miles from the reservation.
We even understood about interracial marriages; the Baptistas in our church were composed of a husband from South America (very white, with sandy hair) and a wife whose parents had been missionaries (also very white, and also with sandy hair). Because the Baptistas were Active Witnesses, our church had a large Spanish congregation, which met downstairs. Dad found this disgusting. “They’re in America,” he said. “They can learn English and come to church with the rest of us. It’s doing nobody any favors to pamper them this way.”
The fact that many of them were in America illegally—our whole church celebrated when one member of the Spanish Church got his green card—didn’t seem to worry him, though. “They work hard, do jobs you can’t get white people to do,” Dad said. “They’re welcome, as far as I’m concerned.” They may have been welcome, but he wasn’t above inflicting a little mental anguish. One summer day he came home laughing. “I was out in one of the back corners of the ranch looking for a cow. She had calved, but she’d hidden the calf away and we needed to move them. I drove up a draw, and there at the end of it was this old car buried in sand and tumbleweeds. A Mexican man stuck his head out. When he saw I was alone he knocked the weeds away from the window and climbed out. He could barely speak English—just enough to ask if I knew where the INS man was. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I can bring him out here. You want to see him?’”
“No…no-no…no-no-no,” the man said, shaking his head and backing away.
“Course I wouldn’t a done it,” Dad finished, laughing, “But when I went back later the car was gone.”
Even for a town as culturally diverse as ours, the Vietnamese were a shock. Our church sponsored two families, the Li’s and the Phams. Because my parents were Good Christians and we had a big house, the Li’s came to stay with us. They had three tiny, doll-like children. The eldest son, age eight, and the father spoke limited English. The rest of the family spoke none. Suddenly there was a rice pot on our stove. Mrs. Li made it fresh every day—light, fluffy rice, which her family ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We children ate it, too, delighted at being able to dodge our regular breakfast oatmeal. The oatmeal pot sat forlorn and slimy on a back burner. Mrs. Li was a quiet woman, with shining, heavy black hair. The whole family was quiet, actually. “We have to be kind to them,” Mom explained. “They have been through a terrible experience.”
I think it was in the Li’s children‘s faces that I first really saw the cost of war. They fled their home one day, flew over the ocean in the back of a cargo plane with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and arrived in a strange land where everyone was big and pale and cars shot down empty roads and the floors were furry.
The other family, the Phams, had four sons, all thin, dark boys dressed in strange, bright clothing—seersucker pants striped in candy colors, plaid cotton shirts, paisley and floral boxer shorts—which we saw because they wore them as outerware long before that became fashionable—and sandals. They reminded me of macaws. At first I thought they liked such clothing. Then I learned that they, like the Li’s, had fled with nothing, traveling to the airport on scooters, gunfire all around them. There was no room on the plane. They stood and watched, knowing that since Mrs. Pham had worked in the Adventist Hospital and Mr. Pham worked for the church, they would be targeted and killed first. The engines revved up. And then, just before the door closed, the preacher who had baptized them, the man for whom they had worked for many years, came to the open door and stuck his head out. He looked at them, looked back into the plane, looked back at them, and silently beckoned just as the soldiers prepared to roll the steps away. He beckoned them, while all around people were screaming, crying, begging for salvation as their world ended. They fought free of the crowd, evaded clutching hands, ignored the sobs and cries for mercy, and rushed up the steps to safety, knowing that many of the people around them would die. They had what they could carry in their hands and pockets—a few family photos, a guitar pick, their billfolds. They climbed into the plane and sat on the floor, bracing themselves against the bulkheads and the other passengers. The plane taxied and then took off. They landed at Camp Pendleton in California, where they got a few changes of clothes, an old guitar, and a destination: our town.
They stayed with another family. “It wouldn’t be suitable to have boys staying in the house with those girls,” the church had decided. Because the Li’s and the Phams had so much in common—they spoke Vietnamese, shared the experience of having lived in and fled Viet Nam, and were both struggling to build a new life from nothing—we all assumed that they liked each other. Mom and Dad invited the Phams over often so they could spend time with the Li’s. By the time we realized we were wrong our lives had changed forever.
The Pham boys were musicians—classical musicians, concert caliber classical musicians. Using their limited English, hand gestures, practical demonstrations, and vigorous nods and smiles when they thought we had it right, they informed us that they had had a band in Viet Nam. They wanted to be like the Beatles, which was why they wore their hair and fingernails long. They were musicians and that was what musicians did. The hair was long for aesthetic reasons; the fingernails were long so they could pluck delicate trickles of music from their guitar’s old strings.
I found them magical beings—people who had lived a life utterly unlike mine a world away. They had the sort of drama and tragedy in their lives that demands that allowances be made. And the music—sitting on the grass, listening to them pull music out of that chipped old guitar, listening to their voices harmonize in a language I couldn’t understand—was an awakening.
Even more of an awakening was Mrs. Pham’s cooking. If Mrs. Li had transformed our breakfasts with the simple addition of a rice pot, Mrs. Pham transformed the communal church meals. She also transformed my idea of how cooking must be done.
Like many people–most, I would venture to say–I was raised believing that cooking was to be done on the table, or the cupboards. Mrs. Pham often did hers on the floor, squatting on her haunches with the bowl on the floor in front of her while she mixed and mixed. She kept a cloth for wiping the floor, and cleaned it not once, but repeatedly while she was cooking. Cooking on the floor broke all the rules I had been taught–and yet, watching Mrs. Pham do it, I began to wonder why? If the floor was kept clean–and hers was–why not cook on it? Why was a flat surface three feet higher better?
I never really took to the whole cooking-on-the-floor thing–my muscles hadn’t been conditioned to squatting as Mrs. Phams had been–but my world was a different place for knowing that the possibility existed. And that changed everything.
The Pham boys’ musical talents sparked an interest in classical music for me. Their cheerful flouting of the town’s fashion dictates (blue jeans and boots) taught me that pleasing myself should factor into clothing choice. The Phams raised other, deeper questions when two of the Pham boys began dating Pam and Marie–questions about racism, about culture, about how deeply we should expect immigrants to assimilate, and to which version of American culture. The questions the Phams raised challenged us, forced us to think not just about them, but about ourselves. They became a mirror in which we saw our lives. And that seeing changed me in profound ways.
Suddenly things I had been trained from birth to simply accept were not givens. I began to think about the rules and restrictions governing my life, and weigh their merits. To say I became rebellious is over-stating things; I was a quiet, unobtrusive child, and I remained a quiet, unobtrusive teen. By and large, I continued to be outwardly compliant. But I understood that I did it because of public opinion, not because I necessarily embraced the values and systems with which I had been raised. The Phams gave me the gift of objectivity, of stepping outside myself and seeing my actions from a radically different point of view.
None of which they intended, of course. They certainly didn’t see challenging our preconceptions as their purpose in life. They were simply one Vietnamese family among many, in some ways remarkable, in others less so, struggling to find their way in a new world because their old world had imploded.
And that was their final gift–the knowledge that even though everything we know has been destroyed, it is possible to begin anew, to start fresh, and to not just survive, but thrive. My way has separated from theirs now, but I still think of them from time to time, and the sense of possibility and hope they brought to my life. And I am grateful that I had the opportunity to learn to see myself from another’s perspective.
And, of course, I still enjoy the cauliflower fritters Mrs. Pham used to make on her kitchen floor. This recipe comes by way of my sister–enjoy.