A conversation with the author of “Mango and Peppercorns” on Vietnamese-American mothers, food and growth
TV: In the book, you repeatedly mention that you didn’t fancy your mother’s Vietnamese cuisine and wanted to eat “American” dishes like spaghetti and meatballs that your grandmother made. Why did you prefer these dishes at the time?
LN: I think part of it was just being like everyone else. And because I had to eat out after school, having American food at home was different. It was a bit more of a novelty compared to the food I was surrounded by at the restaurant. My grandmother made fried chicken with yellow rice and butter-brushed green beans, and it was one of my favorite dishes growing up. She was also the only one home with me on weekends, so when friends came over to our house she would cook whatever she could do for us like spaghetti and meatballs or beef jerky sauce. . I grew up finding these foods very comforting.
TV: I think for many Asian families it is difficult to express emotions in words, especially those from two different generations. Language and cultural barriers can present a distinct challenge for communication. I know my mom has always expressed her love through food even though she is fluent in English. My grandmother doesn’t speak any English at all and I can’t speak Vietnamese or Cantonese (her native language) so we rarely sat and ate at the table together, but she always put more food on my plate for s ‘assure I was full. Even though my mom was away during dinner most nights, she always made sure there was food in the fridge for my sister and I when we got home from school.
How did food play a role in your mother’s ability to express her love for you?
Hear more from Lyn.
TV: You mentioned how writing this book forced your mother to tell her story and share it with you, directly or indirectly. You reveal that you did not know your biological father until the book writing process and even then it was not from your mother. I think that as children of Vietnamese refugees our parents sacrificed a lot for us and in return also removed much of the trauma they endured to make sure we are okay. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time. But now [as] I’m getting old, that’s something I think about often.
Can you share what happened during the writing process? How did your mom react when she realized you had found out the truth about your dad?
LN: It was interesting because she never told me and I found out through Elisa, the woman who was our writer for the book, and she found out through Kathy. I think a lot of people thought it would be more of a shock to me or that I should have open wounds, but I never missed not having a dad. I never had that urge to find it, and maybe that’s because I have some really strong role models in my mom, Kathy, and my aunt. Or maybe it’s because my mom created a story in my head so I had something. When I found out, I was actually more traumatized by the way she left Vietnam, how she must have watched her friend die. [in one of Tung’s chapters, she recounts the day she fled Saigon and how she witnessed a close friend’s drowning during the journey], and the way she was treated as a person, in relation to the details about my father.
I think for me that was the real reason I wanted to write this book. It’s like you say, we don’t talk a lot, we don’t sit down to talk about our story. I really wanted to know my mom’s story because I thought it was really interesting and something that I wanted to have. The whole book gave her a platform because I felt like she was working so hard and not realizing what she had achieved. She didn’t realize that what she was doing was truly unique and that she should be proud of herself, so the book was really about celebrating my mom.