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  • Everything begins with a woman. The destiny of our clan would rest on the shoulders of a widow.

    After her husband died, my great-grandmother had to feed her six children. A tenant farmer, living in a thatch roof hut, in the nether region of Vietnam, known for its mosquitos and parched red dirt, she had few good options. Illiterate. Indebted.

    Most families in those circumstances indentured their children to another wealthy family as servants.

    But my great-grandmother refused. She knew that the children of maids became maids. The children of valets became valets. The wheel of poverty. Grinding. Groveling.

    There must be a way out.

    And so she made a decision that would alter the destiny of her descendants: she allowed her children to attend the village school.

    The villagers called her: Crazy. Arrogant. Stupid. Uppity.

    But she ignored their heckling. Stubborn. She clenched her teeth. She pushed forward with her plans.

    Except for the eldest daughter who would stay with her to tend the farm, all the other children–including my grandmother–would receive an education.


    ***

    My grandmother was one of the first women in Vietnam to receive a university education, one of the first women in Vietnam to study as a graduate student in the United States.

    She arrived in Ohio on a scholarship in the early 1950s.

    In her letters, she complains about the winter. She evokes the loneliness of being stranded--a stranger in a strange land. She writes about racism–not at the university, but in the town, especially, the uncomfortable stares, the way foreign students–especially those with darker hues–were treated at restaurants.

    But most of all–it seems she misses fish sauce.

    Ketchup. Mustard. Mayonnaise. As a substitute. Not even close.

    And so when my grandfather visited her in Ohio, he gifted her a bottle of the best Vietnamese fish sauce (from Phu Quoc Island).

    My grandmother excitedly began to prepare a meal in the communal kitchen. Liberally,she spritzed the fish sauce onto the vegetable-shrimp dish that she was sauteeing. With joy, she inhaled the aroma of the fish sauce, its pungency made her mouth salivate

    When the meal was completed, my grandmother took my grandfather for a tour of the campus.

    A few hours later, when my grandparents returned from their stroll, they encountered a commotion in the dormitory.

    There was a frenzy in the kitchen. It seemed as if her fellow students were searching for something. Everything was askew. The refrigerator moved to a corner. The small wooden dining table pushed against the wall.

    When she asked her roommate the cause for all this upheaval.

    The woman responded. “Something stinks in the kitchen. We think there must be a dead rat somewhere rotting.”
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