Migration happens when our home is not concurring with our path anymore, and while some have the choice, and some do not. In our home away from home, we identify ourselves with the food that we cook, consume, and enjoy. As an international student, migrating from Vietnam to Iowa (the United States), and now to Delft, I share the awareness that local supermarkets do not offer the kind of vegetable that keeps our string tied to our roots. Among the stories I have heard growing up, and Vietnamese people I have interacted with while living in different places, the string that leads these lives back to their homeland, is through their backyard garden and food. Therefore, the migrating garden shows how displaced Vietnamese communities can stay connected to their roots, directly through the roots of their vegetables. And with that, by soothing our taste bud, the longing for comfort can be cured.
There are deep remnants of the Vietnam War in how the rest of the world views Vietnamese cuisine. Due to this war, families had to make an important decision, whether to stay or flee, bringing with them their pain from the forced migration, and their hopes for a better life in a foreign land. They planted the seeds they have smuggled with them inside their limited luggage, and through these offerings, nostalgia reliably offers one thing, ESCAPE, away from the uncertainty of the future, and towards the permanence of the past. Some dynamic ways of how the displaced Viet people express their nostalgia is when they open restaurants that are proudly adorned with symbols and decorations that depict Vietnam through the owner's lens. Additionally, they open grocery stores that meticulously source homeland’s products to support their diasporic community.
For instance, the bowl of phở that you eat at a restaurant in Rotterdam has been fortified based on the Southern Vietnamese style. For historical context, September 2nd of 1975 became Vietnam's Independence Day, it marked the fall of the Southern Democratic regime based in Saigon (the part of Vietnam that is supported by the United States), and the birth of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, also known as the unification of the North and South of Vietnam. With most families who fled were from the South of Vietnam, they brought the taste of Southern phở with them. Hence, the rest of the world today is more familiar with the taste of Southern phở, with a lot more spice, darker broth color, and extra side vegetables. Within the culture that Viet people portray in how they make food, there is always a hint of nostalgia. Especially, the sincere hope that each plate they share with their peers can keep the dream alive, the dream of one day they can recreate these things at their hometown/childhood kitchen. In order to legitimize their attempt at the flavor of Vietnamese food, we also need to understand the limited resource one would have in order to embody the flavor, and the kitchen that is used to process these ingredients also matter. Even if those memories were painful, even if the past was not great, the comforting feeling of the past echoes through our journey in the present, and this familiarity can keep us grounded as we are approaching the unknown future.
Homesickness always leads me to crave for rau muống xào (pan-fry water spinach). It brought me great joy when my mother prepared this simple dish for our family meals, but the vegetable is nowhere to be found in stores or Vietnamese restaurants here. Before 1945, rau muống was used to feed farm animals (mostly pigs and cows), and after 1975, it was a definite struggle for everyone who stayed behind or could not leave, so they started to use these vegetables in cooking by pan frying it with garlic, or simply steaming it. When its seed was smuggled across the ocean, there were even politics behind it, as told by Viet folks who crossed borders to the US. The way you process the vegetable at your home kitchen can indicate your origin (Northern or Southern), and this could bring either comradery or scrutiny onto your family amongst the Vietnamese migrant community. In the modern time, it has become a staple dish in Vietnamese meals and my favorite vegetable to feed my nostalgia with, albeit the difficult past that water spinach has carried through its journey.
While I was living here in my bachelor years, Mr. Le was my rau muống supplier free of charge, as all he wanted was to share the fruits of his labor to friends and families alike. Mr. Le was a soldier during the Vietnam War, who survived a bomb explosion, and was a war prisoner for two years. He managed through many disparities during his escape journey through Cambodia, Malaysia, and finally, settling down in Iowa, United States. With most seeds considered to be invasive species according to the States’ agricultural standard, he keeps his vegetables in pots to prevent native soil erosion or overgrow. He takes on the migrant garden as a way to feed his nostalgic tendency for quê hương, as well as establishing his roots again in a foreign land.
As I am writing these words, I recognize my own privilege of never experiencing the pain of being displaced by war or conflict, but I am doing so by choice, and with the hope that these choices would lead me to my dream. But what is the value of this dream when we voluntarily unplug ourselves from our heritage and culture, in order to make sense with our current place of residence, and make sense of our future self? Romanticizing the past through the agency of nostalgia can bring comfort, regardless if this certain comfort can mean holding onto painful memoribilia, and feeding a certain delusion that takes us away from the sensible truth. The Vietnam War separated a nation and scattered its people all over the world. And while these people are planting roots in a new place (sometimes not of their choosing), they are also commemorating their past memories, one garden at a time.