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Eating Christmas: A holiday meal with a side of guilt

This holiday season, This Show is bringing you true stories about — what else — food. And Phoenix writer Nina Newell recalls a holiday meal prepared with love — and a heaping side of guilt.

“I made a turkey for you!” My mother’s distinctive accent rings loud and clear above the noise of the arrival gate at Portland International Airport.  

It’s Christmas 1986. I’m 23, newly graduated from college. 

My mother’s welcoming broad smile is familiar, yet unfamiliar in its direct gaze toward me. Taken aback, I glance behind me to see if by chance she’s talking to someone else. 

“You look just the same, sis!” My younger brother steps forward and lifts the backpack from my shoulders. His voice deep, he laughs. “No. You’ve gotten a lot shorter.” 

My throat constricts. When I last saw him, his voice was high pitch, and he was a head shorter than me. 

My baby sister, now a teen, shyly touches my arm and whispers, “You’re here. You’re finally here!“ 

I grasp her hand. Guilt tightens the knot in my throat. 

For the past seven years, I’ve abandoned them. I’ve abandoned my siblings. At 16, I’d wanted to pursue the usual American teenage girl’s dream: have friends, finish high school, then college. As the oldest Vietnamese daughter, however, my duty was to always be my family’s caretaker. Always. 

When my parents discovered my determined plans for college, they disowned me. The respectful, Vietnamese daughter’s proper thing to do was to beg for forgiveness, stay and do my duty. 

But I didn’t. I took off. 

“My first time with turkey! So much work!” My mother’s voice brings me back to the airport. “Your father brought turkey home for you.”

Holding my breath, I turn toward my father. He’s wearing a suit jacket. He acknowledges me with a nod and a small half-smile. That his smile didn’t reach his eyes — it never does — bothers me not at all, for his wearing a suit jacket tells me that perhaps I’m not unwelcomed.

“Are you hungry?” he finally speaks. “Your mom’s been cooking all day.”

I exhale a relieved breath. Yes, not unwelcomed.  

I’ve forgotten Vietnamese people don’t express our thoughts and emotions through hugs or touches or words — words like "I’ve missed you. I love you. I’m sorry." We communicate through food. In my family, food is used to show love and care. 

My throat relaxes. I smile. “Yes, I’m hungry.”

Later, at dinner, the centerpiece of the Christmas meal turns out to be a shiny, lacquer-red turkey. Surrounded by plates of raw octopus, raw beef, spicy herbs, perilla leaves, banana blossoms, bitter herbs.

My mother sets a steaming pot of broth down. “Hot pot’s ready.”

I stare at the lonely turkey.  Maybe it’s not roasted but a truly lacquered centerpiece. I’m tempted to poke my chopsticks at it to find out. 

“It’s so red,” I say. 

“Annatto seeds in the basting oil makes it red,” my mother explains. 

“Want me carve it?” I ask.

 She shrugs. “If you want. Turkey’s just for you. Not for us.”

My stomach flinches.

My father says, “We do not celebrate baby Jesus’ birthday with American food.”  

Tap. Tap. Tap. The ends of his chopsticks drum against the bowl of dipping sauce on the table between us. 

He continues, “We follow our mother-land’s food. And traditions.” 

As the pungent smell of fermented shrimp paste in the dipping sauce advances up my nostrils, I’m reminded that my family also uses food as a weapon.  

With my chopsticks, I pick up a bitter herb and gently insert it into the turkey’s open neck. 

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