My oldest uncle passed away a month ago today.
On the way to the cemetery, while reminiscing about him and my ba noi (Vietnamese paternal grandmother), my second-youngest aunt remarked that if she had a different mother, the family would not be where we are today. While I've always thought this, somehow hearing my aunt voice it out loud, and in Vietnamese, seemed to make the statement all the more profound.
When my Chinese grandfather left, my grandma was pregnant with her sixth child and my oldest uncle was only 10 years old. A less determined woman probably would not have been able to hold the family together, much less lift us all out of poverty.
During his eulogy, my dad spoke about hy sinh, the Vietnamese word for sacrifice. My dad's family didn't move into town until he was 18 years old. Before then, it was a hardscrabble existence in the countryside as the older siblings helped my grandma while the younger siblings took care of the babies. My grandma used to tell me stories of how when she couldn't afford rice, she fed my aunts and uncles Rau Den (Vietnamese Amaranth), which was essentially a weed that grew quickly and plentifully. She'd slice bananas, dry them, and then sell them at the market and do all sorts of other things to make ends meet. My youngest aunt used to tell me stories about playing with corn husk dolls. Someone else in the village, who wanted a little girl, offered to take youngest aunt off my grandma's hands. Little more than toddlers themselves, my youngest uncle and second-youngest uncle would barricade the door to keep the man out. The family was staying together no matter what.
My grandfather's oldest brother offered to take oldest uncle into town to educate him along with his children. And so my oldest uncle started school, jumping into third grade, but he quickly excelled, learning to read and write Chinese along with other subjects. He hated being away from the family though and always felt the weight of responsibility as the oldest son. And so it was, that after he finished fifth grade, he came back home to help my grandma. That was when my dad was able to begin his education, three years behind his classmates. My oldest uncle never went back to school again, sacrificing his education so my father could receive his. And with his help, and as the other aunts and uncles grew old enough to pitch in too, my grandma was able to educate the rest of the family and eventually moved them into town.
If my grandma wasn't who she was, if my oldest uncle wasn't who he was, I can't imagine the family being who, or where, we are today.
Though he never formally went to school beyond fifth grade, after the family moved to town, my second-youngest aunt's husband gave oldest uncle a two-week crash course in high school math and he was able to get into the local college. And again, when my family started our life over in America, he learned English and three years later, graduated from community college with my dad.
He wasn't the head of the family simply because he was the oldest, but because he was respected and beloved by everyone. We consulted him when it was time to get married, to buy a house, to look up our Chinese genealogy. He was interested in learning everything and delighted in everyone's accomplishments.
Several years ago, he stumbled upon my blog and remarked that he enjoyed reading the posts where I talked about my grandma and family. He often emailed me links to Vietnamese recipes or other news. After that, he was always in the back of my mind when I wrote particular posts about our family, wondering if he would enjoy them. I really haven't wanted to write this post at all. As if writing it down makes the fact that he's gone even more true.
I've long struggled with how personal I wanted to get on the blog. Yet, to not acknowledge such a profound impact doesn't seem right either. What I've eventually realized is that as more family and friends read my blog, and as other bloggers and readers become friends, it serves to record my life. Perhaps a bit delayed, but nonetheless, a record of the minutiae and the major moments.
And those who only care about the recipes and nothing else, well, I don't pay them no nevermind anyway.
After nearly five years of blogging, and for even longer as a reader, the blogs that I still continue to read are records of other people's minutiae too. After all, if I wanted a collection of recipes, I could just go to any old cookbook for that.
My college job was editing student evaluations of classes. In between the many, many trite comments about how this class was "better than 'Cats'" or "two thumbs up," I remember an analogy with vanilla ice cream with chocolate revels. Memory escapes me whether the comparison was to the class, or to life in general, but the image stayed with me.
Not to turn this analogy into as hackneyed a phrase as the others, or god forbid the "chocolate box" one, but life as vanilla ice cream with chocolate revels always seemed entirely apropos to me. Vanilla ice cream is somewhat innocuous. Sometimes I crave such blandness. And sometimes, those small bursts of chocolate revels make digging through all that vanilla worthwhile.
*Poke. Poke.* Lil' sis asked me recently to blog again during one of our daily morning chats.
Every morning, for years and years, my dad would start his day by calling my oldest uncle when he got into the shop. They'd chat about whatever they talk about and then he would begin his day. Sometimes now he forgets, the instinct to call his oldest brother a visceral reminder that his routine is interrupted forever.
And so it is, after a month's hiatus, I feel like I need to get back into my routine.
1 year ago today, Best of: Top 11 to 20 Recipes of 2007.
2 years ago today, one of my most popular recipes: Bo Kho (Vietnamese Beef Stew).
3 years ago today, Banh Tom (Vietnamese Shrimp and Yam Fritters).