Learning Freedom From Want at Hometown Buffet
I still remember the greatest school lunch I never had. I was in Mrs. Wilson’s fourth grade class, and my brown paper bag contained everything a ten year old could ever want: a bologna sandwich, a pouch of Gushers, and a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, merrily crinkling in its shiny blue foil. My mom had suddenly became the greatest person in the world – or so I thought for a brief five seconds – until I saw the bottle of Sunny Delight. I ran back to the classroom, where Mrs. Wilson was showing the contents of my actual lunch to a girl on the verge of crying, placating her with the food I was all too familiar with: the banh mi, the cut up apple, and the semi-frozen water bottle that was an irreplaceable hallmark of my brown bag. I apologized for the mixup, took back the banh mi, and gave back her Gushers. She skipped happily away with my excitement, and I trundled back with her disappointment.
Fourth grade was when I told myself I wasn’t a real American. My parents immigrated to the United States during the War, and while I was born in California, to me being American meant you had to be white. In fourth grade you were either Asian, Mexican, or American; as long as you had attractive, white skin you were much more “American” than I was or ever would be. You wouldn’t have a banh mi, reeking of pate and headcheese to make fun of, and classmates wouldn’t ask if you had wider peripheral vision due to the shape of your eyes. Parodies of popular songs at the time, like “Ricestyles of the Rich and Famous”, would never be made about someone with blonde hair. I always laughed along at the jokes and threw in a few self deprecating jabs anyway, because joining in on making fun of someone was the easiest way to fit in – I became really good at playing the role of both victim and bystander. My mom would continue to layer crisp rice flour baguettes with cha lua and homemade mayonnaise, and I would continue to throw them in the trash, feigning disgust so I wouldn’t get dirty looks at what I was eating. I’d eat the apple and drink the water bottle and pretend I was on a diet. It was a magic trick, being able to make a water bottle last for an entire lunch period. Meanwhile, I’d dream of having one of those pizza Lunchables that came with the red plastic spreading stick, and would regret throwing the banh mi smothered in cold cuts and pickled daikon and carrots into the trash. Fourth grade was when I also found out shame and hunger are never an ennobling combination.
We lived in Westminster, which became the largest community of Vietnamese after The War. I grew up on crispy fried eggs with scallions and soy sauce for breakfast and rice paper crepes filled with ground pork and wood ear mushrooms dipped in fish sauce for lunch. My fourth grade class was at a private school in Huntington Beach, where everyone who was white actually lived in Huntington Beach and everyone who wasn’t commuted from nearby cities. My dad picked me and my cousins up from school in the Toyota Wonderwagon he used to buy produce and ingredients for our pho restaurant. It reeked of star anise and cloves and its cloth seats were stained with the Vietnamese coffee he would drink each afternoon. When I explained he drove the van because we had a restaurant, my friends would get excited and thought we ate egg rolls, orange chicken, and fried rice every week, not bowls of pho with bean sprouts and chewy tendon or summer rolls with poached shrimp and pork. All of a sudden, they were no longer interested in the fact we had an Asian restaurant and would continue to point whenever the boxy Wonderwagon pulled in between the Mercedes and the Cadillac Escalade. My dad eventually started parking in the neighborhood side streets so he didn’t have to fight traffic; I told him he should just keep it that way so it would be more convenient for the both of us. Trying to be an “American” was a 24/7 job.
Thursdays however were different – It meant our family was going to Hometown Buffet for dinner. I’m not sure when this weekly ritual started, but all I knew is I’d be free from yet another dinner of white rice, steamed cabbage, and braised pork. Lacing our Skechers and donning zip up hoodies, my older brother, sister and I jumped into the minivan we used specifically for going to church on Saturdays. My dad had this habit of driving ten miles under the speed limit, tapping the gas pedal to accelerate versus slowly giving it pressure, resulting in a jerky car ride. We’d shudder past the concrete strip malls of Little Saigon and the various run down Vietnamese signage until we got to the other side of the city – the one filled with nice movie theatres, clean parking lots, and “American” families. He and my mom would sit in the front seats and talk about how excited they were to eat bread pudding later for dessert. On Thursdays I didn’t have to pretend or hope for the idea of being an “American” family, because we were.
I’ll always remember the neon signage in the distance - a beacon of delectation and very full bellies. We had completed our journey to the Emerald City, where everything seemed so much more nicer than where we lived – more colorful and bright, cleaner, and polished. I’d race out of the car and wait in line like we were at Disneyland. There was always a line to get into Hometown Buffet, filled with families just like ours. Despite being in what I viewed as the “American” part of town, there weren’t very many white people – mostly Asians just like ourselves, and Hispanics. We’d sometimes run into friends of my mom who would say hi, and we’d all begrudgingly greet them with “Chao bac!” in the broken Vietnamese I was trying so hard to leave forget.
There was a painting that hung behind the cash register – it was the only thing I ever looked at during those ten minutes we were inching closer to dinner. Everyone in it was white, their equally ivory teeth smiling around the dinner table as Grandma set down an immense turkey. No chopsticks or suckling pig or dumplings wrapped in banana leaves to be seen. “That’s what it’s like to be an American,” I would think to myself. The cheap cologne of condensed chicken noodle soup nearby, a constant staple whenever we were there, reinforced my sensory admiration of the portrait. I’d impatiently watch as people would overfill their plates in the near distance, mounding pieces of breaded shrimp and drifts of spaghetti with meat sauce. At Hometown Buffet, self discipline and moderation was thrown out the window and replaced by a steam pan of mac and cheese and immediate gratification.
“We escaped in a boat your uncle built and were at sea until we got picked up by the U.S. Navy.”
That was the censored, quick and easy version. Macabre details like how my grandma buried her sister at sea and the weeks they spent on the ocean with sea sickness & malnutrition to avoid capture by the North were left out. I don’t know if my mom bypassed those parts for my own sake or because she didn’t want to recount the heartache, but she always told me how she broke down and cried when she walked into an American supermarket for the first time to see all the food she could ever want organized by aisle and name.
There was thus always a persistent cultural fight in our household: my parents were never shy about reminding us how lucky we were to live in the States, and in turn we were quick to argue how cool it’d be if “they didn’t act so Asian.” I remember my dad yelling at me one day when we were picking up lunch at McDonald’s.
“Why aren’t you taking any ketchup?” he demanded.
“We already have ketchup at home!”
“Take the ketchup! It’s free!” he angrily shouted. I filled our paper bag with 3 handfuls of ketchup packets, not realizing he wasn’t used to taking food for granted yet like I did.
Seven years later in AP US History, I opened the textbook to see the same painting I always gazed at behind the counter of Hometown Buffet, and finally learned who Norman Rockwell was and the meaning behind Freedom from Want.
We each had our own Hometown Buffet ritual. My mom always started with the clear plastic salad plate, topping her greens with those airy, perfectly squared off croutons and ranch dressing. I always got chocolate milk in one of the blue tinted plastic cups, ridged with little prisms. I’d run my fingers around the outside, feeling the bumps as I filled it up. We never had chocolate milk at home, but everyone at school always drank it and here I could have as much as I wanted to make up for it. A man in a bumblebee mascot would give out balloons, tying it to the back of my green vinyl chair that squeaked with every movement. Everyday at Hometown Buffet was my birthday, because I had balloons floating over my head and there was no banh mi to worry about or white kids asking why my eyes were so small. I would get slices of ham even though I didn’t like ham. We would try plates of oversteamed broccoli just to say it was on our plate before letting the busser take it away. It didn’t matter if you liked a food item– you put it on your plate just because you could and had the opportunity. Chicken and dumplings, meatloaf with a shiny glaze of ketchup, fried chicken that stained your lips in slick grease, powdered mashed potatoes drowning in dark brown gravy. Someone would clear our leftovers and I could just grab a new plate and start over. I’d look up at one of the blown up Saturday Evening Post covers and Norman Rockwell’s characters would look back down at me smiling, encouraging me to get whatever I wanted.
I’d like to think my parents took us to Hometown Buffet to remind us how privileged our lives were, but I wonder if they were equally amazed at everything as I was. Entering those doors was like holding an armistice in the cultural battle we were subconsciously fighting with each other, where both parties got what they wanted: I could have all the American food I wanted, and they could revel in fact they would never have to know what it was like to starve again. Our family was running one of the most well known pho restaurants in Little Saigon, and I was enrolled in piano lessons and Vietnamese language classes, but yet here we were going back for another plate of fried chicken and cornbread and baked potatoes.
For dessert Mom and Dad would each get a bowl of the bread pudding they were so looking forward to; I’d grab one of the ice cream cones that tasted like the communion wafers at church and practice making a perfect swirl with vanilla soft serve. My brother had a penchant for cheesecake, my sister for sugar cookies. If we were going to see a movie at the theater next door, she’d take an extra sugar cookie wrapped in a folded napkin and stick it in her sweater pocket. We’d walk together to the movie theater, me happily skipping and not afraid to hold my mom and dad’s hands in public.
Tomorrow was Friday - I’d have another banh mi in my lunchbag, and for dinner we’d go back to steamed rice, boiled cabbage, and braised pork.
I’m 23 now, but of the things I took for granted growing up, my culture is the one I regret the most. I lost my ability to speak Vietnamese long ago when I thought it would be more important to be able to say “fried rice” in English without being made fun of. I’d like nothing more but a banh mi or bowl of pho for lunch, but I live in an area hours away from good Vietnamese food. My dad finally got rid of the Wonderwagon and upgraded to a Tacoma - he’s sixty-one now, and is still doing deliveries for the restaurant, and my mom is fifty-eight, and still leading the line at the restaurant. People think it’s cool I grew up speaking two languages and have parents who were not only badass refugees, but can also make fried imperial rolls that are shatteringly crisp and flaky.
I don’t remember when we stopped going to Hometown Buffet– perhaps the novelty of endless baby back ribs and bread pudding wore off, or maybe we finally realized the food was never really good to begin with, but I’ve always been tempted to return back myself. Despite the fact most Hometown Buffets are beginning to close down (including the one where I live now), the location in Garden Grove, California, still draws a decent crowd on a Thursday night, still made up of multicultural families, and the Norman Rockwell paintings are still hanging on the walls, their characters encouraging you to take whatever you want.