From tragic beginnings, the Vietnamese diaspora now finds itself spread across five continents, at the center of the Information Age, true global villagers. PNS editor Andrew Lam is a short story writer and journalist.
The other day I typed the words "Pho Soup" into the AltaVista search engine and the number of hits that came back was staggering. There were all sorts of recipes -- chicken and beef, northern and southern styles -- along with avid discussions of this tasty dish, as well as reviews of restaurants that serve them all over the world.
Pho, traditionally, is the beef broth soup with noodle, brewed in star anise and burnt onion, with bones and tendons and tripe, sprinkled with green onion and basil on top -- a wondrous Vietnamese invention. When I was growing up in Saigon, I would wake up on the weekends to the delicious aroma of pho. Downstairs there would always be a bowl of pho with billowing smoke waiting for me.
Before the Vietnam war ended in 1975, pho was not well known outside of Vietnam. Now, thanks to more than 2 million Vietnamese living on five continents, it's become a global dish.
Indeed, whenever we have family gatherings a favorite topic is who ate the best pho at what most exotic locale. We compete for the best story. My cousin Bill, for instance, has eaten pho in Rio de Janeiro while Jeanne, my aunt, has eaten it in the Ivory Coast. Other relatives have eaten pho in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Jakarta, even Athens.
But, as it turns out, I have the best story.
Once, while backpacking through Europe, I was invited to a castle in a town north of Brussels. I remember reaching its moat and stopping cold in my tracks. The pungent aroma was unmistakable -- Vietnamese pho soup!
Inside, a charming Vietnamese woman in her mid 30s greeted me with a dimpled smile. As she fed me her pho soup, she told me her story. Once a high school teacher in Saigon, she'd lost her job after the war. One night she stole away on a crowded boat out to sea. A Belgian merchant vessel picked everyone up and brought them back to Belgium. Impoverished, she resorted to living in the basement of a church in a town outside Brussels. One day, a local baron saw her while praying in church and fell instantly in love. They married. Now, she's the mother two children of royal blood and lives in a European castle.
If the Vietnamese diaspora began a quarter of a century ago from tragic beginnings, it has turned into a post-modern fairy tale. Vietnamese abroad have, within a quarter of a century, made the transition from a people bound to the land, who tended our ancestral graves and believed in the integrity of borders, to a highly mobile, global tribe as bound to the computer chip as we are to preserving our culture. We have moved to the center of the Information Age to become true global villagers.
It is no accident that the highest number of Vietnamese are concentrated in California -- with 120,000 in Santa Clara, home of the microchip and Internet startups. Nor is it an accident that when I was a student at UC-Berkeley in the mid-80s, the majority of Vietnamese students in our association were EECS (electrical engineering and computer science) majors. I suppose these old classmates of mine are now asserting their cultural identity through the Internet.
For years I kept pinned on my wall a little item about the most exotic restaurant in the world -- in a scientists' colony in Antarctica. Who owns it? A Vietnamese woman, of course, selling pho soup. Sometimes, in a whimsical mood, I imagine flying over a sea of ice to this Vietnamese restaurant near the South Pole. I would order a bowl of pho and wait to hear her story. Thousands of miles from our tropical homeland, with the cold Arctic wind howling outside. I would have the most exotic bowl of pho soup I ever tasted.
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