The Narrative of a Dish

Thuy Ho ~ Journeys Taken

“Beautiful are those whose brokenness gives birth to transformation and wisdom.” — anonymous

What makes a dish special?

Scientists would answer that the senses play a major part. Psychologists would answer that it is personal memories of past experiences of taste and time which influence future preferences. Chefs would answer that it is the creativity in combining different ingredients and the ways in which they are combined and manipulated to produce novel taste experiences. So – as I embark on my transition to relocate to the UK after 10 years in Taiwan – what are some of the ingredients in my life story that have taken me to this moment and my future plans? The story of Red Yen – a small Vietnamese restaurant in Tienmu – is an exploration of how I wanted to share and celebrate women’s handcraft skills (by showcasing their handcrafted products for sale) and my heritage.

In many of the villages in Vietnam, women have to make the difficult decision of leaving their family and traveling to work in factories located around the bigger cities. I wanted one of the missions of Red Yen to be supporting rural crafts in the Mekong Delta, helping to keep families together. Just like my mother’s strong conviction to leave Vietnam in 1979, when the strong possibility of Vietnam being drawn into another war (this time with China); to keep her family together she had to leave her homeland so that my three older brothers would not be conscripted, which would have fractured our family forever. My history and displacement are some of the ingredients that have helped me to face adversity and spurred me to keep moving forward. My parents were both remarkable people. My father, an ex-naval officer, was to navigate our small wooden boat through the South China Sea away from his homeland, while my mother was to make all the necessary preparations to ensure the safety of her family. Our family was a matriarchal family; my parents allowed each other to play to their own strengths. Before 1975 my mother’s family was financially successful, but she never took advantage of her privilege and status; instead she worked hard to contribute to her parents’ success with many of their businesses. This strength and commitment to work for the people she loved would be the key to her ability to rebuild a loving life for her family in the UK when we left everything behind to escape Vietnam. We settled in South Wales and had to adjust to a myriad of factors, including the language, food, customs and the cold weather. Being a refugee at such a young age made me gravitate to challenges and be fearless in making life’s choices.

The sciences gave me answers and a certainty to so many questions about the world . Science also shaped my thinking to notice the unseen and the details of the small, allowing me the understanding that a problem will have a solution. So with a biochemistry degree, I became a transplant scientist and was able to contribute to the country that offered my family so many eagerly-grasped opportunities. As a scientist I first worked for a bone marrow charity in London, followed by a position at the NHS blood transfusion unit in South London, and finally at a kidney transplant unit in central London. It was in this job as a transplant scientist that I had to be available to be on-call at all times. This unpredictability of being called into work throughout the night and early morning was not sustainable with starting a young family. This was a problem which needed a solution, which led to my next career transition. The challenges of having a young family drew me to teaching: I wanted more opportunities to be there for my own children as well as others. My dad was a teacher before the war in Vietnam which displaced our family and many others. His father had been a teacher too. (It’s interesting how professions tend to run in families). I wanted to return to my parents’ homeland – my homeland – so that my children could experience the culture and develop a connection with this part of their heritage. Teaching in Saigon opened up opportunities to travel and connect with my birth country, a country that has continuously morphed so rapidly that any permanence is lost before you can even remember what was there before.

Education also took me to Taiwan. Alone with just my two children, then 8 and 13 years old, we moved to Taipei and settled quickly into our new home country. I had previously felt that ten years would be enough time to spend in education and as my children were older and more independent and I wanted to see what else I was capable of, it seemed like an ideal time for another change. Another thought was what work would give me joy? On reflection, my passion for cooking gave me a connection to my mother, who had died from liver cancer a year before my daughter was born. That loss was a traumatic experience, but also highlighted for me the importance and the fragility of life. From my experience of this grief, I learnt that if I was able to cope with this tragic loss, every other challenge would pale in comparison. This experience also helped to free me from both the expectations of others and the fear of failure. To crave a different life and to have the strength to be able to move forward with that decision can be difficult for some, but I do believe that internal strength is modeled through actions: strong women come from strong women, and I have a deep wish that my daughter will discover her internal strength and follow her interests without fear.

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