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Hansel, Grettel, and Bác Lan
"Okay con (child), there’s your Bác Giang, Bác Linh, Bác Lan, all your uncles, and your grandparents (Bác is a formal adult title). Do you remember their names?” called my mother from the passenger seat.
“Yes, I do, just leave me alone.” I muttered under my breath, glaring at the houses and street signs whizzing by, cursing these bystanders as though they were the reason I was restrained through the hour-long trip to my uncle’s house.
As per monthly tradition, my extended family was gathering at someone’s house to check up and maintain relations with each other. Growing up as an only child, I learned to appreciate the companionship and support my extended family provided. Participating in this monthly ritual for the past five years, I generally looked forward to these occasions.
However, there were two reasons that I did not want to attend this party. First, my Aunt Lan was attending. I dearly love her because she has provided me with nothing but love and affection. However, throughout the years, I (and others) have come to the conclusion that her ability to produce sustenance must have stayed in Vietnam because there is no one else in this world that has consistently produced as many unsavory dishes as my wonderful Aunt Lan. Her presence has often served as an obstacle in my attempts to hide my true nature and exhibit only the qualities of a good Vietnamese boy. The second reason for my reluctance in attending was the alarming absence of progress on my English essay due the next day.
Due to this amalgamation of unfortunate circumstances, I was absolutely ecstatic and near-jubilant at the prospect of my evening activity.
In actuality, I was ready to go home. I knew this as soon I crossed the threshold of my uncle's home. Immediately, however, my thoughts were captured by the sensory experiences that greeted me. The thoughts of my Monaghan essay drifted away as the smell of egg rolls, bánh bèo (rice cakes), fried rice, and beef chow fun filled my nasal cavities.
“Mmmm, it seems there are good dishes this month.” I joked to my father, nudging his shoulder.
“Well, we’ll see what Lan brings,” my father nervously replied, “let’s just eat early before she gets here, so we can say we’ve already eaten when she gets here.”
My mother ushered my father away and pulled me to the side, telling me, “Adam. You. Are. Going. To. Eat. All. The. Food. Everyone cooked food for you to eat, and it is rude to ignore their work.”
I mentally dismissed her words, but I nodded my head, feigning agreement. I then scrambled to the food, sticking an egg roll in my mouth, picking up two little plates of bánh bèo, and filling a bowl with fried rice and lạp xưởng (sausage). I took my loot and strode to the “kid’s” table. I talked with my cousins, cordially greeted my relatives, and began to play with the toddlers - but then the doorbell rang.
I heard Bác Lan’s shrill voice, and I knew my gauntlet had arrived.
My fabulous aunt strolled in with three dishes. In her left hand was an oily eggplant dish. Her other hand wielded two bags of fried fish and stinky tofu. I physically wilted, as I caught a whiff of the delicacies she had prepared. I could already taste the moist, elastic eggplants that perspired on the lid of the container that sealed them. Despite the supposedly air-tight enclosure, the long-familiar smell of stinky tofu penetrated the surrounding environment. I began to sniff the smoky aroma akin to manure as it made its way to my nostrils. The fried fish was manageable, but her eggplant and stinky tofu dishes had persistently thwarted my parents’ desires for me to eat everyone’s food.
I formally greeted her with a bow and a hug and helped her carry the food to the table. I briefly purged my hands of the residue and attempted to escape to the “kid’s” table, but Bác Lan lovingly called out to me, “Adam! You have to try my food! I tried a new recipe for everything!”
I turned slowly, hoping that she addressed someone else. But unfortunately, she was looking directly at me. I smiled in return and said, “Of course Bác Lan! I'd love to try your food! It's just that I'm already full because I was so hungry when I got here, I had to eat immediately. So sorry Bác!"
My aunt quickly answered, “Oh don’t be shy! There’s plenty for everyone and you’re a young growing boy! Let me get you at least a little bit so you can try it. I made it really special this time.”
My stomach began to churn, as I gave my aunt a hug and begin my prayers. I began scanning the room for someone who could eat my food for me. I took her offering to my table, as my mother passed by.
“Great job Adam!” my mother whispered in praise, assuming that I had taken the initiative with Bác Lan's food. I flashed a feeble thumbs-up and swore under my breath. I just lost my first chance at passing my burden off to someone else, my mother. After my mother left, I resolved to take a bite of all the dishes because I had convinced myself it was good to at least try the dishes my aunt worked so hard on. My effort was the smallest respect that my aunt deserved.
The food was good. Unexpectedly, the stinky tofu was lovely. The eggplant still evoked my patented “run to the bathroom and spit it out” technique, but the fish and tofu were delightful. I made sure to compliment my aunt, and I realized that it was wrong of me to immediately assume the food was bad. Even though the vast majority of her dishes elicited abdominal agony, my aunt’s food deserved my honest consideration because of the love and effort in her cooking.