The informant, AA, is a Vietnamese American high school student. She is a second generation immigrant- both of her parents and their families are from Vietnam, and many of them still live here. AA shared with me a Vietnamese food tradition that she participated in herself at a wedding:
“So when my aunt and uncle were married, after the ceremony there was this big feast. There were 7 to 10 courses- they’re always the same foods at Buddhist weddings.
First there are cold dishes, like jellyfish salad, and then it goes to hot dishes, like lobster and hot pot. It’s always the same dishes in the same order. They’re always really precise about the order, especially at this wedding since my aunt is very Buddhist, actually. It’s always very elaborate, and a lot of money is spent on the food. It incorporates many different types of seafood.
The dishes are served in a certain order as a way of wishing good luck onto the couple. For appetizers, we have sliced meats and jellyfish, and nuts shaped like dragons and phoenixes- those are served chilled as well. It’s supposed to symbolize, like, the male and female roles in a marriage. The dragon represents the groom- so powerful and strong. And then the female is like a phoenix because she is “born again” into this new life as a wife.
Later on, there is a roast pig that’s meant to symbolize virginity. I’m not sure why, exactly! I don’t know, I think it’s just a really old, sort of outdated tradition. Because back then the bride was supposed to be a virgin, and since many weddings were arranged marriages it was really valued for the girl to be a virgin.
Another common dish is shark fin soup. But since its Western style now, these kinds of weddings in America usually switch it up to pork soup or porridge. Then you have the lobster, and since it’s red it symbolizes luck and happiness and joy. Colors are really significant in Buddhist and Vietnamese weddings, especially red. Then you have fish, which symbolizes abundance, like, the abundance of money and possibly children. Towards the very end you have noodles, which is longevity.”
Which dish do you find to be the most significant, with a meaning you find particularly special?
“Desert is usually sweet red bean soup, which, stands for 100 years of togetherness because the soup contains a lot of seeds and beans- I think that one is really cute!”
Is this something all or most Buddhists do?
“It’s specifically Vietnamese Buddhist. It’s very unique to our specific background so it’s very important to me.”
My thoughts: Every culture has rich traditions pertaining to weddings. The particular wedding food customs AA mentioned are so fascinating because they show the intersection of Vietnamese, Buddhist, and Western traditions- for example, shark fin soup is replaced with other foods to reflect Western criticism/rejection of shark fin soup for ethical reasons. The idea of symbolic foods that ensure happiness and prosperity later in the marriage are common in different cultures, including the Hungarian wedding folklore collected by Géza Róheim, as well as foods that represent virginity or gender roles.
Information about the Informant
My informant is from a Vietnamese family. She’s currently an undergraduate student at Indiana University Bloomington. In her spare time, she loves to knit and cook, primarily baked goods, but also some “Asian” recipes that she learned from her family. This is a recipe for a Vietnamese fish sauce that her mother taught her and which she has memorized, that she recited for me while I was visiting her with another high school friend of ours.
“For the uh, mixed-out fish sauce. I don’t know what it’s called in English. Anyways, it is one part fish sauce, two parts warm water, two parts sugar, and two parts vinegar or mixture of vinegar and lime juice or something. Vinegar doesn’t taste as good, but it doesn’t go bad as quickly. Optional sliced ginger and optional chili garlic sauce.”
My informant, as stated above, enjoys cooking with her mother, and, as her family is Vietnamese, this is a recipe that may have been passed down through her family. One questionable (questionable as in whether or not this recipe is “authentic”) item is the chili garlic sauce. While undoubtedly, Vietnam could have encountered the chili plant (which originated in the Americas but quickly spread around the globe after Columbus’s voyage) centuries ago, when discussing the question of whether or not a dish is authentically ethnic, people are usually uncomfortable with the idea that an ingredient was imported into the country that the dish supposedly originated in. It is mitigated here by her stating that the chili garlic sauce is optional, but does raise an interesting question (as ethnic food recipes often do) of what do we call authentic and how do we define authenticity?
There’s a story in Vietnamese mythology that’s similar to the Chinese or Japanese story about the koi fish becoming a dragon.
There was an emperor who wanted to create new dragons because dragons bring rain, which helps crops grow. So many animals in the ocean were summoned to have a competition, where they had to jump over three gates of rain. The first animal that could jump over all three would get to be transformed into a dragon.
First, a fish—I think it was a tilapia?—tried, but only got past the first gate. The second to try was a catfish, but it hit its head on the second, so its head got flattened. The emperor rewarded it with dragon whiskers for effort. Next came the shrimp, but it only got past the second, so the emperor made it look like a miniature dragon. Lastly the carp tried, and it got past all three, so the emperor transformed it into a dragon.
Because of this, dragons symbolize success and wealth, and education in Vietnam is compared to the three gates.
Informant is a Vietnamese American and a member of USC VSA, and grew up learning about Vietnamese culture.
The carp’s transformation into a dragon is a common motif in Asian mythologies, with slight variations in each culture’s telling. It is also interesting to note that this myth has parallels to social function.
Many many years ago Vietnam was ruled by a king who was known for his kindness. He only had one daughter so he adopted a son, who he loved as his own. Eventually the boy, An Tiêm, married the daughter, and they all lived happily together.
The king’s men, however, were jealous of the king’s kindness to An Tiêm, so they started spreading bad rumors about An Tiêm, saying he had plans to overthrow the king. When the king himself heard, he was distraught and decided that exiling An Tiêm would be the best solution, because he believed An Tiêm was able to survive outside the kingdom.
So An Tiêm and his family were sent away to a remote island where they had to farm and hunt their own food. One day though, An Tiêm noticed a flock of birds pecking on black seeds. He was curious what they were, so he took some seeds home. Eventually these seeds grew into plants that bore green fruits as large as people’s heads. The fruits had bright red insides that were very juicy and sweet, so An Tiêm called it dưa đỏ, or red melon. But later when the birds came to eat the fruit, they seemed to be calling “tây qua”, so they decided to call it that.
The watermelons sustained An Tiêm’s family, but after a while, the king started to really miss his children. One day An Tiêm decided to carve a letter onto a watermelon and cast it into the ocean, and the king finds the watermelon back at the kingdom. Discovering that his family was still alive and discovering the new fruit, the king was overjoyed and proud of his son. Because of that, the king sent for An Tiêm and they all lived back at the kingdom, happily ever after.
Informant is a Vietnamese American and a member of USC VSA, and grew up learning a lot about Vietnamese culture at home and at school.
There once was a woman who lived in North Vietnam with her husband. One day he left to fight overseas when the woman was pregnant. She missed him so much that she waited for him every day outside on the cliffs overlooking the land and sea, holding their child. No matter what the weather, she remained outside waiting for her warrior husband to return home, in the storms, sun, and the rain, but he still did not return. So as she waited and waited until finally, she turned into stone, and is still waiting alone at the top of the cliff.
The informant first heard of this legend from his mother when he was living in Vietnam at the age of about ten or twelve. His loved his mother and followed her around everywhere and she would tell him stories about Vietnam and how it was created and about famous people or events in the past. The day his mother told him this legend he was complaining about having to walk outside when it was extremely hot and humid, even more so than normal. This is when she told him of the woman who would wait outside no matter what, heat or cold, just to see her husband again. The informant believes this legend is a story that serves as a model to Vietnamese women, telling them that they must remain strong and loyal to the central nit of life in Vietnam, which is the family. It is the woman’s job to hold the family together when the father is out trying to earn money to feed the family. He retells this legend primarily just to little children, as a form of entertainment and to keep them quiet and attentive during family gatherings.
This rock is called “the Statue of the Awaiting Wife” and is very famous among the Vietnamese people. It represents the strength and perseverance of the Vietnamese woman, as well as the loyalty and dedication that she contributes to the family. Though it is hard to say whether or not the rock exists and really used to be a dedicated woman and her child waiting for their father and husband to return home, it is a form of Vietnamese folklore that has been passed down through the generations for so long that it is almost accepted as true, and that is the reason why it is continued to be told and retold. I also think that in many Vietnamese legends, there are many things involved with nature and this story represents it, that we are a part of nature so it would be natural for a human to turn into stone. The stone also represents strength and resistance, as the woman was strong and persistent as she waited for her husband to return home.
“Mắt to hơn bụng”
Literal Translation: His eyes are bigger than his belly
The informant first heard this from his mother when he lived in North Vietnam when he was a young boy, about age nine or ten. The entire family of six had been eating dinner together for some time when the informant became full. However, he still had food left over on his plate. His mother then said to his father, “mắt to hơn bụng” and made him finish the rest of his food. This proverb essentially means that the person wants more than he can handle. The informant remembers laughing when his mother said this, because he had never heard such an odd saying. The informant remembered this proverb until now because it sounded so strange. “How can one’s eyes be bigger than one’s stomach?” he thought to himself. So whenever his children put more on their plates than they can eat he reminds them not to have eyes bigger than their stomach and makes them eat it all. He thinks this proverb is very popular in Vietnam where food is scarce because it reminds people who are blessed enough to have food on the table to not be greedy and wasteful when so many people are starving in the world.
Because the Vietnamese people are starving and hungry in Vietnam, they have learned to appreciate the importance of food and how hard it is to come by. The Vietnamese people who generally use this proverb are adults who have experienced that hunger and try to convey that experience onto their children, who generally have not experienced hunger to the most extreme yet in their lives. When people are hungry they tend to crave different types of food. “I want this and this and this and that,” when in reality they want it but don’t have the stomach room to eat all of it.
“gần mực thì đen, gần đèn thì sang”
Literal translation: “close to ink then black, near by light then bright”
The informant learned of this Vietnamese proverb when he was in third grade of Vietnamese school, while studying for a test. Again he heard it from his grandmother also, which is when he began to remember it clearly. His grandmother would tell him this proverb whenever she talked about his studies and friends at school. She would say, “gần mực thì đen, gần đèn thì sang,” which implies that you are what your friends make of you. If you hang out with bad friends (ink), you will become bad (black). If you have good friends (light), they will influence you to become good (bright). The informant believes this piece of wisdom because he sees it come true in his cousins’ lives. One was really wild and rebellious and when she found a boyfriend who was very religious and good, she began to change into her old, nice self. The informant likes to retell this to his friends who are Vietnamese, often making them laugh because normally one would not randomly quote a proverb out of the blue, but he likes to lighten the mood with quirky sayings.
This is a fairly common Vietnamese proverb, often used to teach younger kids to have good friends and be influenced by good people, opposed to bad friends. The original proverb is actually a play on words as well as a useful saying about choosing your friends wisely. It is slightly repetitive yet different, it also uses “đen” for black and “đèn” for light, in order to emphasize the similarities between the two phrases for increased memorability. This creates the most unique phrase that is easy to learn and easy to say. Usually it is the older generation teaching the younger generation, as it is in the informant’s case. However, the younger generation can also spread it to others. I believe they spread the knowledge because somewhere deep down they have an appreciation for the Vietnamese language and because that proverb is so true and the play on words is so easy to memorize, it remains in one’s memory, even from childhood.
The informant, then twelve years old, first heard this phrase from her uncle, whose wife was pregnant at the time. Her uncle and aunt were gathered with the family and announced their pregnancy. Later after dinner, the family was eating cherries together and was discussing whether the baby would be a boy or a girl, when the topic of twins came up. The informant’s uncle saw her aunt eating a double cherry and said, “Did you know that if you eat a double cherry while you’re pregnant, you’re going to have twins?” My informant doesn’t really believe that this is true because she does not believe in superstitions, although it is a superstition that everyone in her family likes to joke about, because it also happened to come true. Her aunt ended up giving birth to twin girls six months later. This is why the informant likes to retell the tale, because it makes the superstition much more mysterious and believable when it actually comes true.
I believe this superstition is highly unlikely to be true because the events are completely separate, and that the informant’s story just happened by coincidence. However, superstitions are always driven by the chance occurrences that happen to confirm them, making some people believe that they’re true while they may completely be random happenings. I believe the informant tells the story only to joke around, poking fun when pregnant women are around. The superstition is so seemingly arbitrary that people tend to believe that nobody could possibly create such a fantastical story up, so it must have some sort of truth behind it. This is how the superstition of double cherries is spread and dispersed.
There once were two brothers who lived in Vietnam. The older brother’s name was Tan and the younger brother’s name was Lang. They were very close. Then one day Tan decided to get married and moved away to live his life happily with his new bride. His younger brother Lang, began to distance himself from his brother and one day disappeared. He had left his home and wandered about, finally resting by a river, when he died from exhaustion and turned into a limestone rock. His brother Tan began to worry about him and went out in search of his brother. After a while, when he couldn’t find him he found a nice rock to sit on by the riverbed. He soon fell asleep and died in his sleep from weariness and turned into a tree. Not soon after, Tan’s wife began to wonder where her husband was and went to look for him. When she couldn’t find him, she leaned against the tree by the riverbed and rested her foot on the rock. Eventually she died and turned into a vine that wound around the tree. Years later, a king came and ground up a leaf from the vine, a nut from the tree, and mixed it with lime. The product was a sweet red juice that the king loved so from then on he brought that combination to all the weddings and it became a tradition to drink it between family members at every wedding ceremony.
This proverb was first heard by the informant from his mother just after the family had attended his aunt’s wedding. The informant had asked, “Why do the family bring around that tree to everyone and they have to eat it?” The informant’s mother answered that the tree represents a good marriage not only between the husband and bride but also a peaceful relationship between the two married people’s families, in order to prevent the same thing that happened to Lang, Tan and his wife.
This is a Vietnamese custom that has long been used at wedding ceremonies and receptions when the family of the groom brings the plant around the room and offering it to family members as they are being introduced. This custom has also been brought over to the United States and is still practiced at modern traditional Vietnamese weddings as well. It is passed on from generation to generation, to provide peace and healthy relationships between families.
“It’s a bed time story that my mom used to tell me about this human eating monster that like terrorized a village in Vietnam. And I don’t know, this one hero got him to like try this delicious Vietnamese chicken dish and he liked it so much that he just ate chicken”
My informant liked this story because was funny and so easily resolved.
In this little story, it connects my informant with her Vietnamese heritage, not only in the location, but also in food. It presses that Vietnamese food is so good, that it can stop a terrifying monster who now loves it so much, it is all he eats. It is her mother telling her that their culture is important for her to know. It is the last thing she hears before she goes to sleep and what she eats every day. It was important for my informant to hear this because she grew up away from Vietnam in American culture.