If you have to learn anything about people who were raised in a predominantly Asian upbringing, you must know that a true hero in the community is someone who wields a frying pan and wears an ugly beige apron. The hero in my life who wields a frying pan and wears an ugly beige apron is none other than my dad.
Growing up, I had a hard time relating to my dad, partly because we butted heads. A lot. I was THAT little shit child and my younger sister was the little angel. Sorry, Pops. Regardless, he was patient, and made sure to raise me to be ambitious, strong-willed, and above all, grateful. I’m also certain that me being a baby girl scared him shitless during the parenting years. That’s probably why I think more with androgyny and exhibit less society-defined feminine mannerisms.
There was a small time frame during my teen years where I believed two ridiculous things: 1) that I “hated’ my dad 2) that I was a full-grown adult. I had to have been 15 or 16 at the time. Everyone knows that teenagers have delusions.
I argued and disagreed with my dad on everything and anything. He suggested that I get paired up with a math tutor at the Kumon tutoring center to improve my quantitative skills; I argued and was upset that he insinuated that I was stupid and needed a tutor. He offered to pay for my driving lessons with a private tutor friend of his who owned a special vehicle that had a two-brake system for instructing; I told him it was a waste of money and felt belittled because he must have thought I was unteachable. He connected me with a professional writer who helped students successfully apply and receive the Gates Millennium Scholarship; I bailed on my dad to go hang out at the mall because I was offended that he thought my writing skills were too not good enough to win a scholarship.
The sad truth of how my dad suggested, connected, and offered to do those things were fostered from his love for me. He never forced me to do anything against my will, but because I was a little snot, it cost me more than just the Gates scholarship and a higher math score on the SAT - it concocted unnecessary heartache for my dad. Although he was a tiger dad when I was younger, he still had feelings, and after all that's said and done, he had two little princesses he needed to care for.
I grew out my “I-hate-my-dad” phase towards the end of high school. My frontal lobe was finally catching up to young adulthood and worrying about bigger life transitions, like college. At times, my “moments” come back to me. I distinctly remember the summer of 2010, when I was packing notebooks and pens and physical parts of my life into boxes to move into my college dorm room, my new home in Corvallis, Oregon at Oregon State University (OSU). My dad barged in mid packing and accidentally knocked over a stack of neatly stacked notebooks that I had just arranged. He was overly zealous and kept pestering me about what I wanted to eat for dinner that night.
“DAD! Get out of my room! I don’t want to eat right now, ugh!”
I fucked up and yelled back so loud my mom heard me from the kitchen and came running down the hall.
“Why are you yelling at me, con? Ha!?” (“Why you yelling at me, daughter?!”)
The expression on my dad’s face involved a bright red face and inverted eyebrows. This was the look he gave me when he was about to whoop my sorry ass. I was stupid enough to provoke him further.
“Can’t you see I am packing? Don’t come in here! I am so stressed about moving, Dad!”
My dad’s face was still bulging red and I ignored the fact that he could still have whooped my ass even at age 18. More annoyed than scared, I kept packing. At this point, my dad slammed my room door shut and angrily marched back to the kitchen. I overheard him yelling at my mom, saying that he wasn’t cooking anything for dinner, and that I could walk down the street to the local park to eat the dirt from the park’s garden. I ignored his remarks and continued frantically packing. Exhausted from packing my life away, I took an afternoon nap to clear my head.
Mid-REM, a pungent smell woke me from my nap. Sweet and refreshing, it was a familiar smell that any kid growing up in an Asian household could recognize a mile away; the smell of freshly steamed, al dente cooked rice. My dad adored jasmine rice.
I was groggy and disoriented laying on my back in bed. I heard thick footsteps and cracking ankles approaching; my dad gently knocked on my hollow door. Tripping on my body pillow, I managed to open the door to my dad giving me a strange yet dorky pout of disgust.
“Troi oi, nhìn tóc của con gốm qua.” (“Oh my, your hair looks gross.”)
My dad used to tease me with this phrase all the time while I was growing up. Mostly because he used to tease me for being such a plain Jane and never styling my hair and also to poke fun at how unorganized I was as a girl. His pout continued as I was barely adjusting my eyes to reach the state of being “awake”.
“Okay. Đi ăn cơm, con. Ba nấu món ăn con thích nhất.” (“Okay, let’s go eat dinner. I made your favorite dishes.”)
Still dazed from my interrupted nap, I triple-blinked to continue trying to be fully awake, swiping eye crust in the process. I shook my head side to side for a nice stretch, but also because I was in disbelief about my father’s mood; he was too cheery after what had happened only two hours before. I honestly thought he knocked on my door to finally give me that ass-whoopin’. But he didn’t.
I followed my dad to the kitchen. He told me to sit at the table, in front of neatly scooped bowl of piping hot jasmine rice. He remembered to place my chopsticks to the left. I am the only weirdo and left handed person in my family.
“Oh, I forgot, con.”
My dad scurried from the table to bring the prepared dishes over to the dining table. The ugly beige apron he was wearing caught my attention.
“Ba mua cái apron này ở đâu? Màu này một chút, uh...không đẹp.” (“Dad, where did you buy this apron? The color is kind of uh...not pretty.”)
“Oh, Ba mua cái này ở đâu không nhớ. Xấu ha?” (“Oh, I don’t remember where I bought it. What? Is it ugly?”)
“Nó nhìn okay, nhưng cái màu được.” (“I mean it looks okay and I guess the color is okay.”)
He did that pouty thing with his eyebrows again to signal that I was being ridiculous. The first dish he set down was one my favorite Vietnamese comfort foods of all time: thịt kho trứng gà or braised pork with eggs. It is a tender dish of pork belly stewed in a sauce made from generous fish sauce, coconut juice, tons of garlic and onions—the fat from the pork belly adding significant richness to the sauce. My dad made sure to pair it with a beautifully crafted basket of cucumbers and lettuce for sauce dipping.
The second dish was one of those dishes I had to train my stomach and palate to adjust to throughout childhood: canh khổ qua or bitter melon soup. I remember hating it as a kid because the melon itself was just so bitter. I didn’t really appreciate its bitter taste and how well it paired in a soup until my late teen years. The bright green meat of the melon was now a dark olive green. It was cooked with half a chicken which made the broth more flavorful and aromatic.
Even though I hold myself accountable for being overweight, in part I still blame it on my dad. The last piece to today’s masterpiece was a heaping bowl of ginger chicken stir fry. Ah Jesus, so that’s where the other half of the chicken went. His protein game was strong.
He sat at the table, untied the ugly beige apron, and threw it on the chair and completely missed. He missed because he kept telling me to eat.
“Con đang ăn nhưng Ba nhìn con nhưng không ăn. Kỳ qua.” (“I am eating but you’re just watching me eat, it’s weird.”)
“It’s okay, con. Chỉ ăn đi, con.” (“It’s okay, I like to watch you eat.”)
I guess reality hit him, hard. He realized I was leaving for the real world, well...college world, soon, and he didn’t know what to really feel. But he knew what he needed to do and it was to show me his love through his actions.
He watched with wide eyes as I ate through the protein-heavy meal and cried out typical Asian dad expressions like “WOW!” and “YUM!”. I was taught that one should not stare at others eating, but that rule apparently didn't apply to my dad. I chomped on a chicken bone by accident and spit it back into my rice bowl.
“Con gái, con đứa, ma tánh nóng nải, nóng tính qua.” (“For a girl, you are so hot tempered.”)
A piece of the bitter melon got caught in my throat. I drank some of the broth to wash the melon chunk down. I looked up at my dad and he was doing that pouty thing for the upteenth time.
“What, Dad?” My face contorted out of confusion.
He kept staring and then tossed a napkin next to my rice bowl. He raised his pointer finger to his face and poked the side of his lip twice. I had a grain of rice stuck to the side of my mouth.
“Just eat,” he said.
My dad was doing what he did best. He joked about intense situations to lighten the mood and more importantly, forgive and let them pass, especially when it came to me or my younger sister. He would constantly tease us about our tempers during our teen years. I inherited his hot temper but I was thankful that I also inherited his positive coping methods. We can go from 100 back to 0, real quick.
He topped off the bowl of bitter melon soup that I barely made a dent in. He told me to finish eating dinner and continue to pack for Corvallis. He rose from the dining table to retreat to the living room, heading for the computer to start his evening Asian drama/Steven Seagal/Jean-Claude Van Damme binge.
Of course, wiping my mouth, I discovered my grey shirt had been soiled from the garlic chicken. I hoped the laundry machine could remove the saucy stain.
This was how my dad showed me that he loved me, sincerely loved me. And I didn’t realize this until I got older and moved back from college. He never verbally told me that he loved me, but he displayed it through acts of service. In Vietnamese upbringing, you are shown love and affection through actions; words just are the accompanying accessories of the acts of love.
I could remember the last hour my dad spent helping me move into my dorm room. He was sweating buckets from the smoltering Corvallis weather, his voluminous hair flattened by the heat. He plopped down on my flimsy dorm chair and ripped open the package of Costco water and took one for himself and tossed the other one next to me on my bed. We sat gulping water like horses. My dad turned to me after finishing his water and patted my head. He kissed my forehead and told me that I was the smartest kid he knew and that I needed to accept the fact that college might be the hardest time of my life.
My dad knew the key to success was conquering the struggles and boy, I struggled. The worst part about my undergrad experience was realizing how much my dad and mom did for me, primarily the “small stuff” like home cooked meals, packing an extra bag of ramen to take back to school, washing my bed sheet with my favorite Tide detergent, that kind of small stuff. In whole, these little things are not so little; they are chock-full of love, effort, and affection. I realized, more so now, that my dad is my hero. Especially during this period of my life as a young working professional, I am more grateful for the little things like his small act of service of preparing home cooked meals.
So now when I am greeted by my dad after coming home from a tiresome day at the office, wearing his ugly beige apron and sauteing vegetables in a frying pan, my heart is content and my soul is nourished.