Fresh Off the Boat Finale – How Not to Lose Your Identity

My husband and I finally got around to watching the season finale of Fresh Off the Boat (FOB) this weekend. For those of you who haven’t watched, FOB is a sitcom that is centred around an Asian family that has just moved from Washington, DC to Orlando, Florida so that the father can open a steakhouse restaurant. I feel like a lot of Asian North Americans (is that a real term? I’m just going to use it to describe Asian Americans + Asian Canadians) have this sense of duty to support this show. After all, how many TV shows feature an Asian family? The season has been decent so far; not our favourite show of all time, but I do find myself relating to a lot of the content and it’s fun to discuss with my husband.

In this episode, Jessica (the family matriarch) realizes that her family may have assimilated too much to American culture and is worried that they losing their Chinese identity. She begins dressing more “Chinese”, cooks more Asian dishes instead of mac & cheese, and enrolls her children into Mandarin school. I thought about my parents and wondered how much they had ever considered this thought.

Truthfully, I don’t think they were all too concerned. Growing up, my parents hardly ever discussed Vietnamese identity with me and my brother. In fact, my father admits that they didn’t speak Vietnamese to us because they didn’t want us to be at a “disadvantage” at school — socializing only with other Asian students instead of all the other kids as well. I think the logic is reasonable, but I’m certain they didn’t consider how it would affect how we would identify with Vietnamese culture.

As children, my brother and I obviously wanted to fit in with our peers and not to be “weird.” I remember a Chinese kid named Kenny in my grade one class who had a thick accent. I’m pretty sure he was ESL, but I didn’t know what that meant back then. He couldn’t communicate well with the other kids, smelt like Chinese mothballs, and had stinky milk breath in the morning. Who wants to be like Kenny? I remember thinking how I felt sorry for kids that had to speak “their language” at home and had to attend Chinese school. How uncool! I’d rather spend time doing other things like playing outside or going to soccer games.

It’s interesting how much things change now that I’m an adult. It would be nice to speak Vietnamese to my grandparents or utter things in Vietnamese to my parents so that white people can’t understand what I’m trying to say. I feel sorry now for not learning Vietnamese as it partially takes away from my Vietnamese identity. I wonder if the future Baby Macedos will think about this at all.

I started thinking more about why my parents don’t seem concerned about assimilation. They didn’t try to indoctrinate us or explain the importance of Vietnamese cultures and traditions. They just did things that seemed like it was part of everyday normal life. My brother and I wouldn’t have known any different.

Identity Idea #2: Celebrate or practice cultural traditions on a regular basis so it becomes part of their ethnic identity (despite not being able to speak the language).

On the finale of FOB, Jessica admitted how much she loved mac and cheese because it was tasty and was so easy to make. She kept that food “white” by adding bacon bits. I remember my dad used to cook up bacon and those little pork sausages for us to eat… with rice. And we didn’t eat it for breakfast, we ate that meal for dinner. My brother and I thought this was normal until we had some friends come over after school. Our friend Ryan informed us that people eat bacon for breakfast and they use their hands. When I look back at this moment, I don’t recall being too bothered by it. Why do you have to eat bacon and sausage only at breakfast? They tasted delicious with rice. I could eat that for breakfast, lunch, or dinner! I admit, I’m pretty sure my dad still doesn’t know that bacon and sausage are breakfast foods. I can’t claim this is a Vietnamese cultural thing, but the point I am trying to make is that if it seems like a normal thing, it becomes part of your identity. Bacon, sausage, and rice for dinner is part of my upbringing. And I can call it Vietnamese if I want.

To make a stronger point, I’ll use Lunar New Year as an example. My parents didn’t explain about the traditions of Lunar New Year; the day would come and go. We showed up to the big family party, played with our cousins, ate lots of delicious food, and looked forward to receiving lai see (lucky money in bright red envelopes). Lunar New Year was something we looked forward to every year.

The lesson to pass onto the future Baby Macedos is to make sure we celebrate these types of events every year to give it some kind of normalcy. Even if they can’t speak Vietnamese or Portuguese, celebrating or practicing the cultural traditions on a regular basis will assist in forming their identity for each background. However, I want to take it a step further and explain to my children why we do these events like how parents explain Christmas or Easter to their kids. But I probably won’t say anything about bacon and sausage with rice for dinner until they find out themselves that those are actually breakfast foods.


Vietnamese Recipe – Vietnamese Caramel Pork with Egg (Thit Heo Kho Trung)

Another Lunar New Year has gone by and I didn’t make any “special” dishes, but I at least ate a lot of delicious food with my family. There’s always next year, right? I always have good intentions, but procrastination gets the best of me.

I had some leftover pork shoulder to use and I thought of one of the comfort foods from my childhood: braised caramel pork with egg. The pork is slowly cooked in a sweet caramel sauce and packs a subtle saltiness that brings out a nice flavour. I wouldn’t consider this a clean eating recipe that I would eat regularly as a North American; instead it’s an ordinary Vietnamese “everyday” dish that I ate growing up.

Unfortunately this brings up an issue that I’ve thought about when thinking of foods to make for the future mini Macedos. There’s a big push for healthy, clean eating in today’s society — would I want to make a dish like this on a regular basis? It doesn’t contain the worst ingredients ever, but it’s not exactly the healthiest either. If this is one of my childhood foods, I’d like it to be part of my children’s as well (I’d like to explore this topic more in depth on a future blog entry).

I’ve had this recipe bookmarked from Wandering Chopsticks for a while as it seemed pretty easy. It’s just a few ingredients: sugar, water, pork, fish sauce, boiled eggs, and coconut soda.

I am intrigued by the coconut soda because I distinctly remember the cans in our basement pantry. We always had at least a six-pack of these cans around. The brand is called Coco Rico and I am positive the look has not changed for the past two decades (at the very least!). The funny thing about the coconut soda is that I never knew what it was used for. It was not something we drank as a beverage. The Coco Rico was just another thing I would see all the time in the pantry. I remember trying a sip before, but I guess it wasn’t memorable enough for me to like or to hate it.

I had planned to pick up the coconut soda when I went grocery shopping at Superstore, but didn’t see it in the oriental aisle. It’s one of those specialty items you need to buy at the Asian supermarket, so I’ll remember that for next time. Since I was at my aunt’s house, I asked if she had a couple of cans because I knew I wouldn’t be stopping at the Asian store. I don’t know why I was half surprised when she pulled some out of her pantry. I guess this supposed to be a pantry staple if my parents always had it in their basement. I only know one recipe that calls for it!

Coco Rico Coconut Soda
The soda itself tastes sweet and mildly coconutty. Overall, it’s kind of boring and not a soda I would ever have a craving for. This is probably what I thought when I tried it as a child.

My first attempt at this dish wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t an astounding success either. I had a bit of a problem when I was caramelizing the sugar. It seized up a bit, so I had to add extra water to soften the hard chunks of sugar that formed. I’ll have to research a little harder to get the technique right as the colour didn’t look as good as I would have liked. It didn’t turn the pork a nice caramel hue, but at least it still tasted good.

My second problem was that I forgot to watch the heat while the pork was cooking. This resulted in a tougher pork and I was disappointed to not have that delicious tenderness. I’m not the best cook in the world (as you’ll probably figure out eventually), but I’m glad I tried it and I know I can get this recipe right by the time the mini Macedos can eat this dish!

My first attempt at making Vietnamese caramel pork

Vietnamese Caramel Pork with Eggs
(adapted from Wandering Chopsticks)

Vietnamese caramel sauce (sugar + water)
2 lb pork butt or shoulder, sliced into two-inch chunks
3 hard-boiled eggs (I prefer more eggs)
1 can Coco Rico soda
2 cups water
2 tbsp nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce)
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

1/ Make the caramel sauce:
– Heat pot to medium-high and add 4 tblsp sugar to pot with about 1/2 cup water.
– Stir until mixed and sugar dissolved.

2/ Once sugar is caramelized, add pork and stir to color the meat. Add water and coconut soda; the pork should be covered with about an inch of water. Add fish sauce, salt, and ground black pepper. Turn heat down to medium low and allow to simmer for at least half an hour.

3/ Add hard-boiled eggs (peeled) about 15 minutes before the pork will be the done.

4/ Serve with rice.

Make Vietnamese Food… Or Take the Easy Way Out

“I love Vietnamese food!” It’s surprising how many people exclaim that when they find out I’m Vietnamese. I think it’s funny that people will use that line in order to express that they can relate to me. When white people refer to Vietnamese food, my mind automatically assumes they are referring to rice vermicelli and pho. When I think of Vietnamese food, I don’t really know where to start. I think about comfort foods my mom or grandma made when I was young, or things like banh xeo or chicken curry. People often ask me if I cook mostly Vietnamese or Western food at home. Most of the time, I will cook “Western” food at home because it’s easier. It’s a quick prep to make something delicious and healthy. I sometimes hesitate before I answer because we make a lot of rice, which we eat with just about everything. It’s an Asian staple of course, so I don’t think about it as being Vietnamese cuisine. To make the Vietnamese foods I have loved all my life, I’ve realized it’s not difficult, but rather time consuming to make. When we had parties at our house, my mom would spend all day prepping and cooking. Sometimes, she would ask me and my brother to help her do the tedious (and sometimes crappy) jobs. One of my least favourite is to break off the “ugly” ends of bean sprouts. The bean sprouts are just an addition to noodle soups and they weren’t necessarily how they had to be prepared in order to eat. I remember asking if we had to do this and my mom replied, “it makes it look nice.”

Top: The ugly ends of the bean sprouts Bottom: "clean" bean sprouts!
Top: The ugly ends of the bean sprouts
Bottom: “Clean” bean sprouts!

Of course this is a pretty lame answer to a child, but this is partially what deters me from cooking Vietnamese food. It just takes time to make a simple food elegant. One of my favourite Vietnamese cuisine blogs, Viet World Kitchen, always inspires me to make Vietnamese food. Unfortunately, I rarely follow through. For example, her latest post is on Vietnamese sticky rice cakes for Tet (Vietnamese New Year). I would really love to learn to make this. I am a little intimidated by its complexity, especially since the post is accompanied by step-by-step photos. When I mentioned that I would like to attempt making this, my mom dismissed my attempt at making more Vietnamese food and tells me it’s too much work. Not very encouraging, but since I’m making it a priority to make more traditional Vietnamese food at home, I know I have to get over this. I know most people really value their time, so it’s not convenient to spend hours prepping for one meal. I’d much rather go work out, do chores that have piled up over the week, or watch TV. I’ll admit when I think about the future, I know I’ll be slaving away all day preparing food for family parties. I just hope I won’t be fat from spending so much time cooking and not exercising. This thought makes me nervously laugh to myself, so we’ll see how I juggle this when the time comes. For now, I’ll take the time and effort to make more Vietnamese foods. Let’s see if I can follow through, and I’ll document my struggles and triumphs in the art of perfecting Vietnamese foods.

Shame in a Name

Back when I was in university, I went to go vote in a municipal election. The lady asked for my last name and I replied, as I normally would, “Nguyen, spelt N-G-U-Y-E-N.” I had always replied this way, because I pronounce Nguyen as “win,” and I thought it was very considerate because how could a white person figure out to look under the N’s instead of the W’s?

I remember getting somewhat insulted when the middle-aged white lady looked at me with a confused look, almost as if I were crazy. No lady, you’re the crazy one. I lived in NE Calgary, where there is huge visible immigrant population, and it was impossible for no other Nguyens to be voting that day. That list should have contained at least a dozen of us.

I don’t know why I remember that day as it’s happened countless times before. But it bothered me enough to change my answer to “nuh-guy-en” whenever I was posed that question. It just made it easier and I wouldn’t have to explain that, in fact, Nguyen is like the Smith of Vietnam.

I told this story to one of my Lebanese friends and he was clearly annoyed: “Why would you do that? You should be proud of your name.”

Good thing I didn’t tell him that I was really eager to change my last name when I got married. Heck, I even tried getting rid of my middle name, Ngoc. I hated when anybody asked me how to pronounce it. “NNN-GOCK??”

That alone made me feel sorry for people that had foreign first names. Who the heck wants to have their name mispronounced all the time, or worse, made fun of? At least Anne isn’t a weird, wacky name, so I didn’t totally hate my name. But what about the people that had traditional names from their country? Do most of them love it? Feel any kind of connection to their heritage? Or do they despise it, and wish for a “normal” white name like John?

My Lebanese friend had a lot of say on the subject, but the thing that stuck out for me that he said was his connection to Lebanon. He has family and friends there and he travels there. It’s obvious to me that he really enjoys it. Wow, how obvious. If you have a deep connection, of course you will love your heritage.

And here I am, having thought all my life that I would someday visit Vietnam, just like I would visit Turkey or Australia. Doesn’t seem right, but it is what it is. At least I have the power to change that opinion of how I feel about Vietnam. (Side note: I went to Vietnam two years ago, but that’s a different discussion.)

Identity Idea #1: My children will appreciate the Portuguese and Vietnamese component of their names. And they’ll know how to properly pronounce them too!

Now that I’m about to have children, my husband and I have discussed baby names. Of  course, the last name is a given. Surprisingly, the middle name came pretty easily too – we’ve decided that our children will have my maiden name, Nguyen. Nuh-goo-yen. As we’ve been thinking more about our children’s future identities as two cultures, a Vietnamese and Portuguese name is something that will be part of them forever. Hopefully it will mean something to them someday, as it took me some time to be “okay” with my name.

Interracial couples, how much importance do you put on the name of your children to contain both cultures?

I’m Canadian… but I Guess I’m Also Vietnamese

Growing up, I didn’t think too much about what heritage or culture really meant. My younger brother and I liked playing outside, watching hockey, and following whatever current fads kids are supposed to be in. Remember those Molson Canadian commercials (“I AM CANADIAN”)? I remember thinking that it was so cool and very patriotic to say zed instead of zee. I’m pretty sure that came out around the same time as the Winter Olympics in Nagano because I remember that I felt so proud to be Canadian.

I feel bad to write this, but on the other hand, I wasn’t proud to be Vietnamese. I didn’t hate my background, but I frankly didn’t give much thought about my heritage. Maybe it was more accurate to say that I identified more with being Asian. I loved eating tons of Chinese food at weddings, playing around on, trading Sailor Moon stickers, and collecting anything Hello Kitty. If anything, I had parents that were from Vietnam and I had a Vietnamese last name. My brother and I didn’t speak Vietnamese and we had no interest in learning the language. My parents did their best to ensure we weren’t at any disadvantage at school, so making English our mother tongue made sense to them.

Truthfully, it didn’t bother me for the longest that I didn’t identify with Vietnamese culture. It didn’t really occur to me until I met my husband and we were planning our wedding. I had always loved going to weddings when I was young, but that’s because the majority of the weddings I attended had an Asian-style reception. 10-12 course meals… what’s not to like? Girls dream of their wedding days, while I always knew that I would have an Asian-style reception with plenty of delicious food that I grew up enjoying eating at weddings. But what else did I know about weddings and how to incorporate any sort of Vietnamese traditions? I felt ashamed that I didn’t really know of any; it’s not something my parents ever talked about. If any traditions were followed, my brother and I just did them. It’s like ordering food or dim sum at a Chinese restaurant; I have NO clue what the vegetable is called or what the darned name of the dish is. It shows up and we happily eat. I feel this way with many things about my heritage – I just really don’t know anything. I may have grown up with some, but I don’t realize it.

I didn’t want a full blown Vietnamese tradition-inspired wedding, but going through that exercise definitely made me rethink about how I feel about my heritage. My internal conflict seemed so hypocritical to me; I want to be more proud and to know/follow more of my Vietnamese background, yet I couldn’t wait to change my last name so it wouldn’t be so impossible for white people to pronounce. The main reason why this has been in my mind for as long as it has is because I started thinking about mine and my husband’s future. When we begin to raise our family, what will our children think of their Portuguese-Vietnamese background? Is it something they will think about, or will it all be lost because we live in Canada and they’ll just grow up “Canadian”?

The reason why I started this blog is to explore the importance of culture and what it even means to me. I feel like it’s a responsibility for my husband and I to ensure our children appreciate or at least respect their heritage. The whole idea is actually frightening to me because I don’t know how I’m going to do that. I can’t even speak my own parents’ mother language! Only time will tell, and we’ll see all the fun (and ostensible awkward and terrible) moments to come.