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Bagels and Pho

Was there a recipe for raising my daughter from Viet Nam? Holding her in my arms, I discovered that love was the prime ingredient. by Lyssa Friedman



After I filed my adoption application with the liaison agency in Vietnam, I had the usual worries of a waiting, first-time parent. Will I have enough time? Enough money? Enough sleep?

But my biggest fear was not about the daily tasks of a mother. Instead, I fretted about how I would nurture my child’s Vietnamese self. I would be bringing my infant daughter to a Jewish home, in a mostly Caucasian, San Francisco suburb. In school, I was more likely to study Henry V than Ho Chi Minh. After college, I visited Versailles, not Reunification Hall.

Since then, I’d learned to order pho (Vietnamese soup). But I needed a crash course in raising a Southeast-Asian child.

I started by reading Culture Shock! Vietnam, by Claire Ellis, while skimming Penelope Leach’s child development tome. I played dan tranh (zither) music. I practiced making the nema ran (spring rolls) I would serve at her (Jewish) baby-naming service.

In Vietnam, I collected gifts to give my daughter later: a shimmering ao dai (traditional Vietnamese costume), gold lacquer boxes. I toted her across teeming streets as motorized bikes sped by. In a café, I stirred condensed milk into slow-dripped coffee, and eavesdropped on the nasal vowels at the next table.

I imagined that, by cultural osmosis, I could stuff my child’s homeland into our suitcase, to unpack a series of sensual treasures that would seal her memory and identity.

Once home, Vietnamese music whirred from the boom box on my daughter’s nightstand. Purple lanterns whirled above her crib. But within a few weeks, the sounds and lights started to blend into the backdrop of the blue nursery walls.

I wheeled my child’s Maclaren into a noodle shop and whispered her adoption story to her. When I traveled to Vietnam, it was as if I was not only meeting you for the first time, I told her in English, I was remembering you from a distant past. By the time we landed in San Francisco, I had loved you my whole life.

I handed her a bagel. And as I dropped basil into my pho, I felt my body-memories of Vietnam slip, diaphanous as steam rising from soup.

For this baby was not just my adopted Vietnamese child. She was drool and toothless grins, belly laughs and tears, sleepless nights and joyous mornings. She was my daughter. And as our attachment intensified, so did my colorblindness.

While awaiting my referral, I had visited a monk friend who serves a Vietnamese community. How do I integrate her Vietnamese culture into our family? I asked him.

I think you’ll be busy enough with a new baby, he answered.

But he and I are both right. I can enroll my American child in Vietnamese language classes and celebrate Tet (lunar New Year), but unless I combine these attempts at cultural literacy with vaccinations, naps, and those deep-pool gazes between parents and children that make the rest of life melt away, I will shortchange her.

For the difference between becoming a parent and being one is that, if before, I envisioned perfection, now, I promise only to do my best. We will celebrate the moon cycles and light Hanukkah candles. Visit her home country and explore our own. Eat bagels and sip pho. It may not be perfect. But it’s the best.

Lyssa Friedman lives with her daughter in Mill Valley, California.

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