I grew up in Orange County, California and later moved to New York to earn my undergraduate degree. I had always lived near and with Vietnamese people back home, and it wasn’t until I started college that I realized I had taken it for granted. I made only one Vietnamese friend from my classes. When I went to a Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) meeting I found that it was mostly international students, and I felt a sort of disconnect in the Vietnamese culture I had grown up with.
During my senior year, I was looking for a job to prepare for my post-graduate life and saw a hiring sign at a Vietnamese restaurant near campus. I applied because I thought I could kill two birds with one stone, paying my rent while also finding a Vietnamese community.
It turned out that most of my coworkers were Chinese, but I stayed anyways because the job was mostly fun and easy. I became friends with all my coworkers in the front of the house, but the cooks in the back were a different matter. Most of them tried to hit on me by making my staff meals with detailed plating—cucumbers and carrots cut into hearts.
I avoided the flirty ones, but there was one cook who never spoke to me.
He was known only as Uncle and was the head chef responsible for coming up with the restaurant’s successful menu. He appeared to be around my grandfather’s age, was half Vietnamese, half Chinese, and had grown up in Vietnam. He had the most heated temper in the kitchen—if you messed up an order, he would yell “puta madre” at you before mumbling some other things that were probably better left incoherent. But he was also cheeky and beloved. For his sixtieth birthday, the owner and managers arranged a birthday party for him.
I avoided Uncle for an entire year because I was scared of him and didn’t attend the party. Regretting not having gone, I mustered up the courage one day to follow him out on one of his smoke breaks. I asked to try his cigarette, and he yelled at me about how unhealthy smoking was before reluctantly handing it over. I took a small drag, my first one ever, and coughed and hacked until he was laughing at me.
He asked me questions about my parents, when they came to the U.S. and where they were now, questions about myself, what I was studying in school and how many siblings I had. I told him my dad worked at Saigon Broadcasting Television Network in California, and that they had come over in ’75. “Ah, so they came in a boat,” he laughed. “I came in ’86. I took a plane.”
After that, Uncle greeted me whenever I clocked in. “’Sup, baby,” he always said. If we happened to take our breaks together, he would tell me about his life in Vietnam and how he came to the U.S. I took notes on my phone because I am an obsessive story hoarder. We discovered that he and my dad lived in the same neighborhood in Saigon. They even knew of the same bus stop.
A few months after we started talking, Uncle stopped by the register to make a request. “I have a son, and I don’t know where he went,” he said. “Tell your dad to make a commercial and put it in San Jose or Houston SBTN. I don’t know which.” I took notes in my server book and sent them to my dad.
“We can do that,” my dad texted back. “We just need photos and a story.” The story is still currently in the works—I’m not sure if a television promo is even the best way to find a person, considering the scope of the Internet nowadays. But it’s what Uncle wants, and I want to make it happen for him. It’s the least I can do, considering the stories he has given me.
Contributed by Mai Train