Reader feedback: 'Allow the Asian community to have a voice and please don’t be our voice'

Yia Vang is a local Hmong chef with another perspective on the Bon Appetite How to Eat Pho controversy.

Yia Vang is a local Hmong chef with another perspective on the Bon Appetite How to Eat Pho controversy. Photo courtesy of Yia Vang

Our story Pho by any other name: The fight for the soul of Vietnamese cooking has continued to spark conversation, including this thoughtful letter by Yia Vang, a local Hmong chef who is working towards a restaurant of his own with his pop-ups and catering company Union Kitchen.

In the story, we explore the recent Bon Appetit How to Eat Pho video controversy through the perspectives of a variety of Asian diners, food-lovers, and chefs, stating that their message culminates with this message: "Don’t tell Asians how to eat their food." 

But Vang has another perspective, one that he communicates beautifully below and ends with this message: "Allow us to have a voice and please don’t be our voice.”

So, without further ado: 

I just got done reading your article about the infamous "pho video" from Bon Appetit Magazine.

I've been thinking about about that situation ever since it came out! I do believe that it was the responsibility of the magazine to carefully edit the whole article and showcase the video in a way that is sensitive to the cultural integrity of the dish. I have three points I would like to present and see if we can start a conversation about food, race, ethnicity and culture.

1. Food is the great equalizer. Food doesn’t discriminate. For example, a bowl of pho tastes amazing to anyone, whether you are a white dude or an Asian dude. It doesn’t matter your ethnic background, religious belief, political association, or sexual orientation…good food is good food! That’s the beauty of food. I (a Hmong man born in Thailand) can sit across the table from some elderly white women (with a Scandinavian background) have an amazing hot dish and eat together and talk about life and it’s totally OK. Good food unites people. Food is the catalyst to great conversation. That’s the beauty of food, regardless of whatever ethnicity or culture it derives from. Many of the cooks and chefs I know love Asian cuisine -- white, black, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern. After a long hard day on the line cooking there’s nothing better than a bowl of fried rice (with whatever is left over) and a fried egg on top. It hits a curtain stop in your soul.

2. That leads me to my next point. Every dish has a narrative. From a bowl of pho to a taco stand on Lake Street, there’s a story behind the dish. I believe that’s what makes food so amazing! For example, as I stand in line at Los Ocampo and watch Hispanic men and women hand pack the tamales, I want to know their story. How did they come to live in Minneapolis? Where did they come from? Who taught them to make these tamales? It makes me want to know the story and dive into the understanding of the lives of the people and the food. The story behind every dish captivates our human souls. I love to eat at Cook St. Paul not just because the food is great, but also because [owner] Eddie Wu's story of how Cook came to be. He wasn’t just a guy who decided “Hey, Korean food is sexy right now how do I capitalize on that opportunity?” He immersed himself into the Korean culture. He learned the names of the dishes and some of the language. He spent almost a year working alongside a Korean grandmother! Eddie Wu doesn’t claim to be the authority on Korean food, but I see him as an ambassador of Korean food to the majority white culture in Minneapolis. 

3. This leads me to my next point, because of the narrative in these dishes and how close they are to the hearts of the people. It becomes a very touchy topic. When someone who’s white takes a dish like pho (which has a deep meaning to many Southeast Asian people) and speaks on it as an authority figure, it reads like this to Asians: “Hey, let me tell you how I can elevate your food that has been part of your community and culture for many years. Let me show you how the white man can help make you better.”

I don’t believe that was the intention of Bon Appetit or chef Tyler, but it came off that way. Asian culture is built on hospitality and food. In the Hmong house if you have guests that drop by unannounced and it’s around dinner time, you make them sit and eat with you even if you didn’t prepare enough. As the host you would take the hit and make sure your guest was well-fed.

Food is more than nourishment. It’s an extension of our love for people. Growing up, I would take peppers with fish sauce and fermented greens to school for lunch. Many of my friends thought it smelled funny and sometimes I was embarrassed and didn’t want to eat around my white friends. The same kids that made fun of us with our weird food now take pictures of it and blog about it and talk about how it’s something that they discovered!

I think that pain of being made fun of and looked at as weird filled us with a lot of shame. At times we thought "Why can’t we just be like you white guys?” So, sometimes we feel like all we have have is our food. Sometimes, that's all we can still call our own. Sometimes, I still feel like that little immigrant kid in the corner of my lunch room eating by myself. Feeling guilty for being ashamed of my culture and people and knowing that my parents didn’t have much, but for lunch I could always depend on a bowl of rice, some grilled chicken, pickled mustard greens, and peppers.

See, my parents didn’t speak English or have fancy jobs. The way they loved us was through the food they packed for us. So, in a way it felt like I denied their love because all I wanted was Lunchables so the other kids would stop making fun of me.

Imagine how much different it would have been for me, as I sat there in the corner eating by myself if a white kid came over and took my lunch and showed his friends and told them: “Hey guys, check out these fermented greens and grilled chicken and peppers! Isn’t it great? This food is amazing.”

My final thought is this. I think the feeling from the Asian community is not “Don’t tell us how to eat our food,” but instead, “Allow us to have a voice, and please don’t be our voice.”

As Yia of Union Kitchen Minnesota, my responsibility and calling is not to open a pop-up or brick and mortar for the next “cool” Asian place. I want to make my parents and the generation that came before proud of who we are.

I want to showcase how we as a people have [come] so far, and do that through what I was taught: how to love people by cooking for them.