Family: the food, the bad, and the ugly


We recently visited my family in LA, and as usual, the visit churned up a host of conflicting emotions. I have never had the best relationship with my mother, whose perspective and understanding of life is so very different from my own, and our differences have been exacerbated by both her age and mine. Lately, I’ve also been feeling increasingly guilty that my brother has taken on the responsibility of caring for our mother while I am more than 2,000 miles away. (Vietnamese guilt can rival Jewish guilt any day!) This last visit had the added stress of visiting my paternal uncle and his family, who had recently emigrated to Fresno. You see, my father and I are estranged and seeing his family brings up all sorts of issues. So, no trip to LA is ever JUST A VACATION, but thankfully, there is plenty of good food to help ease the frustration. What is it about family anyhow, where they kill you with guilt one minute, flatter you the next and then stuff you with yummy food until you can’t feel anymore?

Soup-er Boy has been asking more about family lately, particularly mine. He sees most of his father’s family (with the exception of the ones in the Philippines) regularly at Thanksgiving and other visits to Baltimore. On his father’s side, he knows his great-grandmother, aunts and uncles, cousins, and even remembers his great-grandfather. But on my side, he only knows of one grandmother, one uncle, and a couple of cousins. This wouldn’t be so bad except that my mother has 13 (no that’s not a typo), brothers and sisters, and endless nieces and nephews. So, where are they all? Mostly in SoCal, but I can’t see them. Long story short: my mother had a huge falling out with her siblings a few years ago and has excommunicated them all. Very GW Bush of her–you’re either with her or against her. Which means, of course, that I can’ t have any communication with them either–lest I want to be excommunicated as well. Sigh.

I can go on ad nauseam about how I think my mother has mishandled the situation, but alas, at the ripe age of 37, I know now that what I think won’t change a thing. And really, this isn’t even the root of my issues with my mother nor the only reason why my stomach goes into knots during every visit. No, there’s the fact that although her health is deteriorating she avoids physical activity, medical advice, medicine, follow-up visits, etc. Discussions about her health inevitably end up with her wishing that one of her kids had become a doctor! She also holds a grudge forever, and finds fault with everyone. Double sigh. And yet, filial piety is a strong thing. I can’t give up on her and my poor brother deals with her on a daily basis.

This is all a bit much to explain to a seven-year old who is only wondering if his mother has any cousins. So there was a part of me that was relieved to finally introduce him to my father’s nephews. And he was great. He didn’t complain at all about the 4 hour drive to Fresno. He dutifully ate everything that was placed in front of him. And he thoroughly enjoyed getting to know his cousins. It didn’t hurt that we took them all bowling, because really, what else is there to do in Fresno on a Sunday?

But there was the other part of me that dreaded the inevitable mentioning of my father. With every Vietnamese gathering there is food, and my aunt (uncle’s wife) had prepared a big pot of pho bo and cha gio (eggrolls) for our renunion. After the effusive and loud greetings, we were shuttled into the dining room for lunch. As I helped ladle out bowls of pho, she asked me if I talked with my dad frequently and I replied no. Well then, she said, we should call him right now! Uh oh. I just smiled grimly and asked my cousin how school was going. Thankfully, I think she got the point and didn’t mention it again. Oh, the pho was okay, a bit sweet for me, but the eggrolls were tasty and we were gratefully for something to munch on while the kids played and the older generation chatted. We spent the night at a nearby hotel and left for Bakersfield the next afternoon, where old friends, good food (brisket and latkes), and more importantly, no family tensions awaited us.

The rest of my time in LA was indeed full of good food. From silky smooth Tonkotsu ramen and messy kalbi tacos to Japanese hot pot and Baha fish tacos, I sought to ease the knots in my stomach. It worked to a certain extent. And now, more than one week later, I think the knots are finally easing.



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4 Responses to Family: the food, the bad, and the ugly

  1. Aaron Becker says:

    Just the other day I was thinking that the only reason our bodies require food so often for sustenance is that it’s just such a damn good way to feel better. You’d think that evolution would have made us only need food say once or twice a week so we don’t need to spend so much time every day foraging, hunting, and cooking. Luckily, we get hungry about as often as we need a break from it all!

  2. Jason Sperber (daddy in a strange land) says:

    So glad we were able to provide a respite in the middle of all that. As the saying goes, friends are the family you choose…

    • So true, Jason! Whenever anyone asks us about the Commune, I tell them that it’s like family without the baggage. Thank goodness for friends (and sane family members, too).

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