Finding the Story

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Bánh tét (The South Vietnamese traditional Lunar New Year Dish)

“Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.”
― Robert McKee

Every year for the Lunar New Year (i.e. Chinese New Year) my grandmother makes bánh Tét. A New Year’s tradition, this dish is known to have originated in South Vietnam. Wrapped in banana leaves and tightly bound by plastic string are sweet rice, cooked mung bean, and pork belly. This was, and still is, my favorite dish to date.

My grandmother is 73 years old, 4’9” tall, and when she smiles a line of blackened teeth appear—the result of over 6 decades of chewing tobacco. Grandma is a badass.

In 1979, after the fallout of the Vietnam War, my grandma made a decision that would change the course of my existence. My grandfather, a casualty of the war, left her alone with five children and a choice: stay and endure the consequences of being on the losing side of war, or flee and hope for a better life. She fled. In the dead of night she escaped Vietnam with only the clothes on her back, a few valuables, and her last three unwed children.

In 1995, at the age of 10, I visited Vietnam for the first time. Over 15 years had passed since my mom last set foot on homeland soil and tensions were high. The searing looks of the guards at customs, the quiet way we had to sneak about commuter trains, and the hushed tone of conversation whenever we passed a Viet Cong officer made for a visit that was less than comfortable.

I remember details from that trip as if they were motifs in my everyday life. The smell of skewers on a grill, the broken pairs of plastic sandals outside every door, the general lack of furniture, dirt roads, large cement barriers between homes, hand washed clothes, dirty drinking water, mosquito nets, and the smell of Tiger Balm.

In the years since my first trip to Vietnam I have traveled back twice more and recently I began to piece the two halves of myself together. I am American, but I am also Vietnamese. Three days before the 2010 Lunar New Year (February 14, 2010) I traveled home to make bánh tét with my grandmother. Together we shopped, prepared the ingredients, and cooked.

Because of her I understand the power of story. Rich in tradition, folklore, and culture, our daylong conversation became fuel, in the form of inspiration, which now drives the narrative in my writing. If Robert McKee is correct and stories are in fact, “the currency of human contact,” than I have been blessed with more riches than perhaps I deserve.

Time has a funny way of shifting perspective with each new generation, but as a writer and avid reader I am certain that the future cannot be written without a clear understanding of the past. Parents and grandparents are not always forthcoming about the truths that they have suffered, but talk to them long enough and eventually the good stuff will flow.

Stories that resonate with readers are the ones that resonate with you. They are the narratives that move you to take action, sway you to believe, and inspire you to write. And finding them, well that’s only a matter of listening.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Finding the Story

  1. Awesome! Thank you for leaving us a piece of your experience. What a rich foundation you have to draw from – I especially love how you said you are melding the two parts of yourself.

  2. Cyn Bermudez

    I love this, Jaime. Thank you for sharing. I agree wholeheartedly: “Stories that resonate with readers are the ones that resonate with you. They are the narratives that move you to take action, sway you to believe, and inspire you to write. And finding them, well that’s only a matter of listening.” Well said.

    And I love your opening. Filipinos have a similar sticky rice dish: biko. I can relate a lot with what you wrote here. I also visited my mother’s homeland when I was 11. The smell of Tiger Balm holds a lot of memories for me, too. My father was a Vietnam Veteran. And I, too, have always loved hearing about my parents and grandparents lives, their history. Everyone has a story to tell, and if we all, not just writers, sit and listen, it can truly enrich our lives.

  3. What a great post! I especially love how you demonstrated your point within it. This was beautiful and touching. As it clearly means something to you, so I was touched, as well.

    (I also love sticky rice balls. I know them through dim sum and the Chinese side of my family. My mom’s are awesome. I learned how to wrap them in the leaves and twist rubber bands around them, but I should probably learn how to do the actual rice part.)

  4. Thanks guys! I should note that even though I did this with my grandma, I do not have a clue as to how to make it on my own. Her method is madness, there are no measuring cups or proper timings for anything! She cooks by feel and that was simply not passed on in my genes. haha

  5. Really cool post, Jamie, and so very true. I sat down with my grandmother one morning this past summer (this was right after the SBWC, Taylor!) and she told me about growing up in Amsterdam during WWII. I’d always known that this was the case, but when I sat down and listened to her talk about it for hours, I truly learned the rich story of where I come from.

    I’d love to hear some of these stories that she shared with you (especially the folklore), they sound really intriguing. Perhaps in the form of some fiction!

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