Familiar strangers: A talk with co-author of “Mango and Peppercorns” about growing up Vietnamese-American, mothers, and food
Graphic by Tricia Vuong/iStock | Photo courtesy of Lyn Nguyen and Tricia Vuong
Counter staffer Tricia Vuong chats with Lyn Nguyen about a shared history as children of refugees.
Lyn Nguyen grew up chopping vegetables in the kitchen of Hy Vong (“hope” in Vietnamese), Miami’s first Vietnamese restaurant. Whenever it was packed, kindergarten-age Lyn would assume the role of dining-room ambassador. She’d circulate and tell customers, “The kitchen is really slow tonight because my mother’s in a bad mood.”
Pictured above (left): Lyn Nguyen with her mother, Tung, on Christmas, 1982. Counter staffer Tricia Vuong (in pink) with her mom and sister, 2000 (right).
Her mom, Hy Vong’s chef and co-owner Tung Nguyen, had left the Vietnamese rural village of Điện Bàn and fled the country altogether after the April 1975 fall of Saigon. Tung, one of the “boat people,” spent nine days at sea before being rescued and taken to a refugee camp in Guam. She was then flown to Fort Indiantown Gap, a Pennsylvania military base that processed 20,000 Vietnamese newcomers. Finally, 27-year-old Tung wound up in the Miami home of Kathy Manning, a white graduate student and refugee-resettlement volunteer. There, Tung realized she was pregnant from a brief relationship with a refugee she met in Pennsylvania—a fleeting connection that she didn’t discuss with her daughter. Instead, Tung told Lyn her father was a South Vietnamese soldier who died during the war. Lyn was born Phuong Lien Nguyen in March 1976, named for both the phoenix tree and the lotus flower.
Tung and Kathy opened the restaurant in 1980, often butting heads over how to run the establishment. They were the epitome of mango and peppercorns—a dish of opposites Tung created and sold in the restaurant (which closed in 2015, but later reopened for pop-up events and takeout during the pandemic). Still, Tung and Kathy formed an unlikely but enduring family that included Lyn and Kathy’s own mother (whom Lyn considers her grandmother).
Tung, Kathy, and Lyn recently released a cookbook-memoir titled Mango and Peppercorns, co-authored with former food critic Elisa Ung. It was a two-year project, and Tung was initially against it. Creating the cookbook forced her to confront the past, including sharing the truth about Lyn’s biological father.
I was drawn to Lyn’s story and the cookbook, so I reached out to interview her. Over the course of our talk, we discussed growing up American without a Vietnamese community, being raised by single-mother business owners, and how our parents’ refugee story has influenced us as the second generation. In many ways, Lyn’s story is the quintessential American dream, complete with an elite education and a good job. She went to undergrad at Harvard, received her MBA at Cornell, and now she’s the founder of an artificial intelligence firm.
Though decades apart, we are both the children of Vietnamese refugees. I didn’t read books by Vietnamese authors while growing up, never mind any that spoke to the experience of how I felt trying to assimilate. We had that same childhood bowl cut and I, too, was that quiet kid hanging out in the family business. Most weekends of my early childhood, I played Neopets and ate Panda Express takeout in the breakroom of my parents’ nail salon. The windowless, concrete room in the back was separate from the salon, which had eight tables and one of those clunky early 2000s television sets. The pungent smell of acetone wafted through the room, cutting into the sweet and sour aroma of our orange chicken.
Over the course of our talk, we discussed growing up American without a Vietnamese community, being raised by single-mother business owners, and how our parents’ refugee story has influenced us as the second generation.
When my parents divorced, my mom, sister, and I moved from Cleveland to Southern California, where my mom opened her own salon. During our first year, we all shared one bedroom in my cousin’s house. Although we were now on opposite sides of the country and our dad wasn’t around anymore, not much really changed for me. Yes, we had to make new friends and adjust to living in a new house. But my mom had always been our caretaker. She made sure there was rice in the cooker and food in the fridge. She took us to school and picked us up, paid the bills and threw us birthday parties. To be honest, I don’t have many memories of my dad except for when we were all at the salon together and the occasional Sunday dinner at Friendly’s. The days of sitting in their breakroom ended and instead shifted to quiet, lonely dinners at home—eaten in my room while doing homework—as my mom spent her nights closing up shop.
Writing this, I realized I still haven’t uncovered extensive details about my own parents’ escape from Vietnam. I do know my dad left as a “boat person” and was transported to a refugee camp in the Philippines. He was sponsored by a Baptist church and later arrived in Longview, Texas. My mom’s family—which included her parents, two brothers, and two sisters—came through the Orderly Departure Program (ODP). The ODP was signed between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in May 1979 after traumatic stories of Vietnamese fleeing by sea surfaced in the media.
Last year during the pandemic, my mom and I exchanged stories about life in quarantine. I expressed how it was difficult living alone and not being able to speak to a human face-to-face. My mom had a different outlook. When Saigon fell, her family didn’t leave the house for a couple weeks while they waited for the chaos to settle. Quarantine reminded my mom of those times. In her eyes, the pandemic was easy. She no longer had to commute to work, had a roof over her head, and meals to eat at home.
I am also grappling with feelings of guilt for not knowing more. For not having the verbiage to communicate with my ancestors and not being able to fully grasp what my parents endured, in what feels like another lifetime.
In 1984, my mom’s family finally came to the United States after a long paperwork process; the seven of them shared a two-bedroom house near Los Angeles’ Chinatown. My gung gung (Cantonese for maternal grandpa) worked as an assistant cook, my po po (maternal grandma) was a seamstress, and my mom’s first job was typing ads for a newspaper. Their family was middle class in Saigon; they owned a house in the city, my gung worked for an import company, and my mom had a private English tutor. But when they arrived in the United States, my mom couldn’t afford to attend college.
Neither Lyn nor I were raised hearing stories about our parents’ upbringing and how they came to America. I called my mom while writing this to ask her some of these things she’s never shared with me before. Even now as an adult, thanks to therapy and conversations with other Vietnamese friends, I’m working through how to process my family’s intergenerational trauma and unspoken history. I am incredibly grateful to have been raised by such a strong, smart, and powerful woman, and I hope to carry on her legacy through my work as a journalist.
But I am also grappling with feelings of guilt for not knowing more. For not having the verbiage to communicate with my ancestors and not being able to fully grasp what my parents endured, in what feels like another lifetime. Mango and Peppercorns speaks to a larger story about immigrants and refugees working toward building a better future for the next generation. And for me, Tung’s chapters especially offered insight into a perspective that reminded me of my mom and what it must have felt like to run a business and raise two girls in a new country.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tricia Vuong: I spent preschool through sixth grade in a small suburb outside of Cleveland. There weren’t any other Vietnamese families I knew of, and maybe one or two other Asian families, period. I had no exposure to the culture or food except whatever my parents made at home. My parents were also trying to assimilate into that community and like many Vietnamese refugees, they went into the nail salon industry. The prevalence of Vietnamese-Americans in the nail salon industry skyrocketed after the war when Hollywood actress Tippi Hedron started a program for 20 refugee women. They quickly learned the vocational skills of how to do a manicure; fast forward to today, when Vietnamese immigrants dominate the $8 billion dollar industry.
I spent evenings and weekends at the salon. And eventually when I got older, I remember helping them run the credit-card machines and was even able to do manicures at one point. What were your earliest memories of your mom and Kathy opening up Hy Vong? How did some of the Hy Vong customers later turn into your community?
Lyn Nguyen: So I don’t remember much of them opening up because I was about 4, but I do remember—and maybe it’s because everybody tells me about this—I would go there after school and that was my babysitting. I’d get out of school and then my grandmother would pick me up after her work, around 6 or 6:30 at night. So from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., I was at the restaurant, and my mom would put me to work in the kitchen. Whether it was peeling carrots or washing dishes, I was always helping and doing something. An hour before the restaurant opened, the busboys would come and I would help set the tables, put down placemats, fold napkins, and things like that. I remember very vividly playing little games in my head, thinking ‘who can fold it faster’ or ‘I’ll go left in this direction today and then right.’
Hear more from Lyn.
TV: So your mom and Kathy have an incredibly unique relationship, as friends but also as business partners and in some ways as parents raising you. They didn’t always get along and clearly disagreed on how to run the business, but in the end they shared similar values and had a tremendous impact on you. What was that relationship like growing up?
LN: You know, they had very distinct roles. I think of Kathy as my aunt or almost like if I had a father. She filled that kind of role. She was the person who would play with me and take me to arcades so we could play Atari. My mom was my mom. She was the one that made sure I had enough to eat and got enough sleep. Growing up, I think I had a closer relationship with Kathy because she understood what I was going through a lot more since I was growing up American. But my mom was always my mom; it was never a competition of who was and who wasn’t. Kathy would always defer to my mom. I wasn’t allowed to spend the night at anybody’s house because that’s not allowed in Vietnamese culture and that’s what my mom wanted, so that’s what Kathy adhered to.
Courtesy of Lyn Nguyen
TV: In the book, you mention several times that you didn’t crave your mom’s Vietnamese cooking and wanted to eat “American” fare like the spaghetti and meatballs your grandma made. Why did you prefer those dishes at the time?
LN: I think a part of it was just being like everybody else. And because I had to go to the restaurant after school, having American food at home was different. It was a bit more of a novelty versus the food that I was surrounded with at the restaurant. My grandmother made fried chicken with yellow rice and green beans slathered with butter, and that was one of my favorite meals growing up. She was also the one home with me on the weekends, so when friends came over she’d cook for us whatever she knew how to, such as spaghetti and meatballs or dried beef gravy. I grew up finding those foods very comforting.
TV: I think for a lot of Asian families it’s difficult to express emotions through words, especially those who come from two different generations. The language and culture barriers can pose a separate challenge to communicate. I know my mom always expressed her love through food even though she is fluent in English. My grandmother doesn’t speak English at all and I can’t speak Vietnamese or Cantonese (her native language), so we rarely sat around and ate at the dinner table together, but she would always push more food onto my plate to make sure I was full. Even though my mom was gone during dinner most nights, she always made sure there was food in the fridge for my sister and I when we got home from school.
How did food play a role in your mom’s ability to express her love for you?
Hear more from Lyn.
TV: You’ve mentioned how writing this book forced your mom to recount her history and share it with you, directly or not. You disclose that you didn’t know about your biological father until the book-writing process and even then, it wasn’t from your mom. I think, as children of Vietnamese refugees, our parents have sacrificed a lot for us and in return also suppress a lot of the trauma they endured to make sure we’re okay. Of course, I didn’t realize this at the time. But now [as] I get older, it’s something I think about often.
Can you share what happened during the writing process? How did your mom react when she realized you found out the truth about your father?
LN: It was interesting because she never told me and I happened to find out from Elisa, the woman who was our writer for the book, and she found out through Kathy. I think a lot of people thought it’d be more of a shock for me or that I should have open wounds, but I never missed not having a dad. I never had that desire to find him, and maybe it’s because I have really strong role models in my mom, Kathy, and my aunt. Or maybe it’s because my mom did create a story in my head so I had something. When I found out, I was actually more traumatized by the way she left Vietnam, how she had to watch her friend die [in one of Tung’s chapters, she recounts the day she fled Saigon and how she witnessed a close friend’s drowning during the journey], and the way she was treated as a person, versus the details about my father.
I think for me, that was the real reason why I wanted to write this book. It’s like you said, we don’t talk a lot, we don’t sit down and talk about our history. I really wanted to know my mom’s story because I thought it was really interesting and something I wanted to have. The whole book gave her a platform because I felt like she worked so hard and didn’t realize what she had accomplished. She didn’t realize that what she did was really unique and she should be proud of herself, so the book was really to celebrate my mom.
TV: The book goes into thorough detail about your mom’s life before she came to America and it’s pretty clear that cooking was always a part of it. She came from a poor village in central Vietnam and was the first to leave it for the big city of Saigon where she sold soup and sent money home. That’s ultimately where she was when the war broke out, and after arriving in the States, one of the first things she did when she resettled in Miami was to cook.
For my family, opening up the nail salon was a means of survival, not passion. In some ways, I think the restaurant was for your mom as well. But it sounds like it traces back to something much deeper, which she enjoyed doing for her family and learned from her grandmother.
Hear more from Lyn.
TV: Your mom mentions how after you went off to college at Harvard, she started to cook American food for you whenever you came home because that’s what you wanted. She’d make mac and cheese but would still put a Vietnamese spin on it by adding some fish sauce. But at the same time, you were going to find Vietnamese restaurants near school so you could eat food that reminded you of her cooking. Was that the turning point for you in appreciating your mom’s Vietnamese cooking?
LN: It was a combination. I would say it happened gradually between school and the first year I started working. In school, I missed home cooking and the flavors of Vietnamese food because our cafeterias didn’t have that. I didn’t realize that, even though I preferred my grandmother’s American dishes growing up, I was exposed to such a wide range of flavors and ingredients including lemongrass and fish sauce. I missed my mom’s cooking most when I started working long hours in investment banking in Manhattan. I constantly ordered out and you could get Vietnamese food at the time, but none of it was as good as my mom’s. I started to really appreciate how much care she put into her food and the quality of her ingredients and the subtle flavors.
TV: Nowadays, Vietnamese food has become so popular and is greatly appreciated across the country. Have your mom and Kathy talked about this shift?
Hear more from Lyn.
TV: It seems like ever since you were young, you helped your mom out like teaching her how to write a check. I think often, as children of immigrants, we have the privilege of growing up in America and speaking perfect English, so we often assume these parentlike roles for our own parents. It’s also common for younger generations to take over the family business and find new ways to incorporate social media and technology. Even though you didn’t take over Hy Vong, you helped spearhead some of the business initiatives like selling prepared dishes at local grocery stores.
How did your mom’s refugee experience shape you as a person today? Why did you feel like it was important?
LN: [Tung and Kathy] have worked so hard, and I wanted to do something that could live beyond them. Even when their restaurant expanded, it only had 15 tables. There were only so many people they could feed. I really wanted to be able to get what they created to more people. We looked at possibly franchising and did the packaged foods, but for me [the question] was: How do I give them a bigger platform?
After the restaurant closed, people would stop Kathy on the street or keep calling and texting her, asking when they’d reopen. They started doing catering but wanted something that could reach a broader group of people. So we did pop-up events and those were really lots of fun; about 200 people came to those each night before Covid.
LN: Recently, I was invited to be on the board of a refugee alliance association and I’m so fortunate to have that opportunity, but I also think [my mother’s history] keeps me grounded. One day I’ll be talking to somebody and they’re complaining about a “First World problem,” but then I go home and I need to help my mom pay a bill or help them figure out an appointment. It helps me realize how much she sacrificed and how far I’ve come. I also have a strong sense of giving back. Whether that comes from my mom or Kathy, it would be hard to say. … That’s something I inherited from them both.