samantha mimi nguyen

rice + shrimp heads


co/ woks of life

co/ woks of life

The smallest things can bring you joy as a kid. For me, it was raffle tickets. Particularly those in a dusty mint shade with “Washburn Elementary School Lunch” printed on one side. Not that the ones from Chuck E. Cheese were of menial value; the perforated tickets that came from my school lunch lady held exceptional prestige.

She was a pudgy woman with upper arms the swung back and forth like historical videos of the golden gate bridge flexinging in the wind. She had a giant fold of skin at her wrists where a thin gold watch nestled between the creases, slightly hidden by cheap plastic serving gloves. Her oversized wire-framed glasses were always foggy from the food overcooking under heat lamps. My memory may serve me wrong, but I believe her name was Mrs. Hotchkins. She would smile down at me with her over-dyed, fiery red hair encased in a stringy net and ever so gingerly take the ticket from my tiny hands. This exchange made me feel like I was about to embark on something special, something meant for the elite. To me, her smile was a sign of approval. And those garish paper tickets gave me entrance to something I could momentarily belong to - an association meant for the white kids of Washburn Elementary.

Growing up in the midwest, I always felt different. It wasn’t clear to me at the time, but my siblings and I were the only Asian kids in our school. Aside from the people in my family, no one looked the way I did: onyx black hair, slanted almond eyes, olive skin, and a tiny flimsy frame. No one looked like me - no one in my school, no one in my neighborhood and definitely no one on TV. When I saw Tia Carerra in the movie Wayne’s World circa 1992, I couldn’t believe that a brown girl was the protagonist’s love interest. Shwiiiiing! If it wasn’t obvious I was different because of how I looked, my lunchtime meal immediately gave it away. I thought that if I could get my parents to let me eat what I considered “white people food,” then I would fit in. But of course, it was always a tupperware of rice and shrimp. All of my blonde hair, Wonder Bread dreams of peanut butter and jelly, absolutely shattered.

On the rare occasion I could actually purchase a school lunch, it consisted of a plastic tray compartmentalized for each component of your meal. The largest section contained a square cardboard piece of pepperoni pizza, another was filled with overcooked kernels of canned corn, and of course, a very specific slot was reserved for a carton of 2% milk. I’m sure my mom could afford buying me school lunch, but she rarely ever did. It happened a handful of times throughout the school year so it was always a momentous occasion. Although for my mom, it meant she were too busy to pack my regular lunch. I’d place my plastic lunchbox in front of me and knew its contents would not be what my seven year-old self considered to be normal: a bologna sandwich with mayonnaise on white bread, plastic cup of mixed fruit, boxed juice and a crinkly bag of Cheetos. Instead, the horrifying contents of my lunchbox would be a tupperware of rice and braised shrimp, heads still attached. Huge, crispy black eyeballs staring back at me with boiled bok choy as blankets - complete with a set of chopsticks.

I knew there was no compromise when it came to my mom’s meal selections. If I complained, she had no problem reminding me how they survived war and children back home would gladly take my place.

“You know how lucky you eat food?” my mom would say to me in her broken english. “You sit here and you eat everything I put in front of you, okay?”

I would look down in front of me and find a bowl of rice noodles swimming in a seafood broth with pork and crab meatballs floating around like life rafts.  

“But, Mooooom!” I would cry out. “I haaaaaaate it! Can’t I just have some macaroni and cheeeeeeeese?!”

Needless to say, I would sit there for hours until my food was gone. Every. Last. Bite.

My mom knew exactly what she was doing. She was only pretending she didn’t know what “white people food” was. First of all, she grew up in Vietnam where the French had taken over so she has definitely met white people before. They brought Catholicism, disease and replaced our characters with the Latin alphabet. However, the fusion of cultures brought about banh mi, a crispy baguette sandwich stuffed with pate, cured meats and pickled veggies. Delicious as an adult, not so much at seven. My mother tried to trick me into believing bahn mis were just like the other kids’ sandwiches, but none of theirs smelled like liver. Also, my mom worked at a nursing home and there were definitely old white people there. I’m sure these folks knew all about casseroles, and potato salad, and chili, and mayonnaise sandwiches. She could totally have asked them what she should put in my lunchbox so I didn’t have to be the weirdo Asian kid with smelly food.

Later in my teenaged years, I no longer had to endure the audacity of bizarre foods in my lunchbox because my mom made me cook it myself. I was forced to learn her ways by spending hours with her in the kitchen to help her prepare meals. This was absolute torture. My mom knew exactly what she was doing. While my friends were hanging outside Jack-in-the-Box flirting or smoking cigarettes, I was forced to crush garlic, peel the shell off of raw shrimp and with surgeon-line precision, slice down the middle of their backs to pull out a string of guts. The kitchen was my mother’s domain and it was in this space where she covertly criticized and nurtured us, using food as her weapon of choice.

“You eat more, you so skinny! You no eat vegetable that why you look so tired and hang out with friend too much and no good grade!”

Although in recounting this time, my mom rarely spoke english to us. She would sharply tell us to find our Vietnamese words because she didn’t understand english. My mom absolutely understood every single word. I know this because she had no qualms following the intricate plotlines of daytime soap operas.

After moving away for college and rarely getting to spend time with her at all, I started to miss those times. I realized, my mom knew exactly what she was doing. There was purpose to forcing me to eat weird food at lunch and spending all that time in the kitchen together - she didn’t really care about me learning how to make sautéed garlic shrimp; she wanted me to be the shrimp! Infused with the tastes, sounds and flavors of her homeland. She didn’t want me growing up in America forgetting where I came from, and more than anything, being ashamed of where I came from. It was in those moments in the kitchen that she taught me about our culture, through food. As we made Pho together, a soup noodle dish us Vietnamese people are so famous for, she would tell me stories about watching the soldiers eating it in the mornings, the steam rising from their bowls before they went off into battle. One time she picked up a ceramic dish, held it up in the light and examined it like it was exotic specimen. She began to tell me in a distant voice about how all the dishes in her childhood kitchen shattered all around her when the bombs first fell on Hanoi. It was through the kitchen, the food and language that she helped me understand who she was. And who I was.

Growing up in the midwest in the 1980’s, I looked different and felt different than everyone else. I was just a little girl who wanted to be like all the other kids. I wanted a Kraft cheese single stuck right between two plain pieces of Wonder Bread, cut into triangles with a miniature bottle of Sunny D. My mom could have easily given me any of those things in my lunchbox. But instead, she spent hours in the kitchen making me Vietnamese food so that even though I was growing up as an Asian American, I wouldn’t forget about the Asian part. Everytime I opened up my lunchbox, it was her way of telling me, “don’t forget who you are.” Now, I am thankful for that. Different is what makes me who I am today and that is a good thing. Now, I wouldn’t trade in a tupperware of rice and shrimp for anything. Shrimp heads still attached and all. Because honestly, everyone knows that’s where all the flavor is.