I saw my breath for the first time when I pushed myself against the steamy window of my father’s brown Ford Austin as he drove us home in the night for the first time and the grainy radio blared, ‘Her hair is Harlow gold, her lips sweet surprise…’
It felt strange yet mesmerising to see the smoke pour out of my mouth, lingering and then dispersing into the air like it were our ghosts exiting us. I kept breathing heavily over and over, in beat with the euphonic sounds of the radio, to see, to understand. Daddy, what is happening to us, I marvelled with worry of a miracle. I tried to touch the vapours by pawing the air like an inquisitive kitten but when I couldn’t touch it, I drew a pattern of circles with the tips of my fingers on the glass where the breath laid and my hands became cold, wet and stiff. I had never felt so cold before. This was London, in November in 1983, I was five years old and if there was a soundtrack, it’d be “Please Please Tell Me Now…” (Is There Something I Should Know) because my father kept playing that over and over.
When I stepped out of the car, I heard the quietness and my father picked me up into his arms. The serene, still, snow dusted road was filled with grand tall trees with their arms of branches waving at the sky. The white houses were gigantic and beautiful and I was in awe of the spectacle and my dreams of being a princess dressed in white with a red riding hood coat came true. I was the happiest girl inside the arms of my father. I took comfort and buried my face inside his warm neck next to his long hair tucked somewhere between his ears and the synthetic fur collar as he carried me up the stone entrance staircase to the door. I smiled so big, I felt the air turn my buck teeth dry into ice and my red button nose dripped everywhere.
Once settled into our new home and the luxurious feeling of cosy warmth crept through to our bones, Top Of The Pops was on the television and my father handed my brother and I two Denby bowls of Frosties cornflakes. He poured crisp cold white milk all over it and it made a sort of crackling noise. We had no idea what it was and nor did my mother. “rất ngon!” [its delicious] he said to reassure us, “ăn đi,” [eat up] and we did. The crunch and the sweetness next to the soothing chilled milk excited me and my little three year old brother to a high heaven. We chewed, relished and giggled as our eyes widened with delight and pleasure. The music enchanted us, True, Every Breathe You Take, Karma Chameleon…We drank from the last drop of the bowl and licked our spoons dry. With two of his little hands cupping the bowl, my brother tagged my father’s trousers and said, Daddy, can I have some more please?
To my father’s delight, my mother started to unpack our luggage, a straw woven basket on wheels. It contained all the food he had missed from being in England two years prior, like the three sticks of bánh mì with barbecued pork, coriander and pickles that had gone stale from the journey. He roared at the parcel wrapped with lotus leaf: inside sits snug, the lunar new year’s cake (bánh chưng) of sticky rice, pork belly and yellow beans. Fry this, he yelled excitedly, did you bring chả lụa? (Vietnamese ham) and my mum beamed as she digged through the woven sacks and pulled it out with a sack of pickled sour ham (nem), a jar of pickled shallots, Maggi sauce and a bunch of fresh chillies. We can try to grow chillies from the seeds, she exclaimed as she kept pulling from the basket as if it were a magician’s hat, we can have dried pork floss in the morning for breakfast with congee, showing my father a small bag of rice. They have rice here, he said in great amusement at my mother’s naivety, but its Uncle Ben’s, its not like Vietnamese rice, nothing beats a good bowl of Vietnamese rice.
I saw my father kiss my mother tenderly on her checks as she blushed and chuckled. This is England, and we are finally here, she said to him, his eyes were still widened with breaths of excitement as he finished his piece of bánh chưng, scooping every grain from the plate and moping every bit of chilli soy sauce. My mother then placed a banana leafed package in front of his and seductively untied the earthy strings apart to reveal a handful of tiny dumplings with pink prawns seeping through the translucent tapioca wrapping – (bánh quay vạc), it was my father’s most favourite gift to the mouth which is a speciality in my mother’s coastal hometown, Phan Thiết.
I could tell that he fell in love with her (again) right there and then. He was salivating as she emptied the sweet and citrusy chilli fish sauce out of a small plastic bottle onto the cornflakes bowl she had just washed for him to dip the dumplings in. He took one to his mouth and it seemed like he had elevated onto a celestial seat for those few seconds he let the dumplings sit on his tongue before munching slowly and slowly. He was savouring the chewy texture and then he bit into the prawn inside the coating. It crunched as the spicy, sharp treacle sauce seeped through and was hitting every spot of paradise. And then he offered the only few remaining gems to us, the children and his wife, you will always remember this moment, he commanded, relish every flavour of those silky dumplings, the sweet, sour, hot and savoury of that dipping sauce, that is Vietnam, we must never forget where we have come from.
This was our first meal in London in a bed and breakfast motel, in Highbury New Park. We thought it would be the last Vietnamese meal of our lives.