Growing up, there weren’t many times when I felt proud of my Vietnamese heritage. It made me feel like an outsider in my predominantly white high school. However, I remember clearly the first time I did feel proud of my cultural identity. To kick off the summer after freshman year, my friends and I went out to celebrate at a local Vietnamese restaurant.

As the six of us sat there in the empty restaurant on a random Thursday, I explained the menu to my friends with only my mom’s kitchen as my map on Vietnamese cuisine.

“Can you order for us?” one of my friends asked. “It would be easier since you know what everything is called.”

I nodded in agreement, shifting nervously in my seat slightly. Despite the fact that both my parents are Vietnamese immigrants, I never became fluent in the language. My parents always said that I was when I was very little, but then I started going to school and my mouth replaced it with English.

Kenzie Nguyen

“What can I get you?” the waitress asked in broken English.

“Cho em gà rán (Can I have some fried chicken?)...” as I continued to list off our order, her eyes grew wide and a small smile appeared on her face as she wrote down our order.

“Em nói tiếng Việt? (You speak Vietnamese?)” she asked me.

I nodded shyly in return. “Chỉ một chút thôi. Em không giỏi. (Only a little bit. I’m not that good)” “Em nói tiếng Việt rất giỏi. (Your Vietnamese is pretty good.)

“Cảm ơn. (Thank you.)

When she left, my friends nudged me proudly with remarks of excitement at how well I spoke. I couldn’t help but feel a bit flattered. I have never been complimented before by anyone about my abilities to speak in another language. While others, like my older sister, could hold long conversations with older people such as grandparents in Vietnamese, I could only manage a simple “hi” and “how are you doing.”

It felt good to be applauded even though it was something as simple as ordering food. Besides small talk, food is the only thing that I can communicate in Vietnamese. In fact, it’s the one aspect of my culture that I connect with most.

Growing up in suburban Minnesota, there wasn’t a large Vietnamese community or influence. I didn’t go to a school that was predominantly Asian and there were minimal Asian restaurants and stores let alone Vietnamese spots. The only cultural influence at home was in the kitchen. It was constantly filled with the smells of thịt kho, a Vietnamese braised meat dish, rice, and vegetable dishes such as rau muống, a stir-fried water spinach dish with garlic.

Kenzie Nguyen

The kitchen was where I learned about my heritage. Through cooking lessons that consisted of my mom just throwing things into pots and pans on the stove and saying a dash of this or a handful or two of that, I learned recipes passed down from generation to generation.

As I watched my mom placed beef bones and aromatics, such as cloves, cinnamon sticks, and star anise, in an extremely large simmering pot, I learned my mom’s phở recipe that takes 24 hours to carefully make from scratch.

On that very same stove, she taught me the key to making the bánh xèo (Vietnamese crepes) batter extra crispy, which is a very thin layer on a hot pan.

I spent summer days separating eggroll wrappers for my mom and brother as they filled and folded them into neat cylindrical rolls. I eventually got promoted to help with the rolling too, but my rolls were a bit amateur compared to theirs as they were either too long or overstuffed.

Growing up, I was ashamed that I wasn’t fluent in Vietnamese because it was a reminder that I wasn’t cultured enough like my peers. I didn’t participate in Vietnamese student organizations, know the cultural fan dances, or even have an áo dài, a traditional Vietnamese dress, on hand. There was a barrier between me and my cultural identity, which I was too scared to ever break down before.

Now, two years into college, my favorite thing to do is share Vietnamese food with my friends, whether it be by talking about what I grew up eating or cooking for them when I get homesick and crave a semblance of home. Every dish I learn to make and share is a block taken down from the cultural barrier, and a tribute to my parents for providing me with the love for food.