"I'm not ready, I'm not Auntie status!"
In our Season 3 finale, we go from a curried goat/goat curry debate :) to bbq pig parades. Food is central to how Grace Phan-Nguyen lives, works, and celebrates. Her familial and geographic cultures come together in stories about everything from her wedding to seasonal holidays.
We love how earnest and intentional she is in making sure her current life and future generations embrace the multitudes of cultural influences she is responsible for maintaining. And if she doesn't know how to do something herself, Grace has a knack for finding a community of Aunties wherever she is in the world.
Perhaps it's an empathy that comes from her parents' own immigration experience or the inspiration of theatre on her cultural sense of self, but we find Grace is always digging deeper to understand things beyond the surface. There was no one more perfect to end off this incredible season on “celebration” of culture.
Grace is a producer, screenwriter, and researcher. She originally started in theatre specializing in arts management and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion initiatives. She recently switched to film and television; specializing in youtube. Her clients include, My Name is Andong and Made With Lau. She's interested in food research, documentaries, feeding friends or family, and long naps.
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Hey, my name is Anika Chabra and you're listening to Root & Seed. A podcast about tradition seekers, who are sparked to explore, define and celebrate their family and cultural identity.
While we are sad to close out this season - we are super excited for you to hear from today’s season finale guest Grace, who is a producer, screenwriter, and researcher. Originally from Toronto, Grace moved to Berlin when she married a German man during the pandemic. Grace’s understanding of food from both her familial and chosen cultures runs thematically throughout our whole conversation - as a producer for food vlogs including My Name is An dong and Made with Lau, it’s no surprise that that is the case.
This conversation was a super fun one to record - you will notice just how much fun we had when we connect over a story over food terminology early on in the episode, so we decided to not over craft it - instead we are delighted to provide you with a little glimpse into the banter that ensues when Grace and I just chatted.
Also please note, Grace was in her familial home when we were doing her interview and you will hear her father making his lunch, a traditional Vietnamese dish in the background and we decided to just go with it. This is a podcast about multiple generations, family, food and culture, after all! Like all of our interviews, we started with a foundational question of what cultural influences make up Grace’s identity. Hope you enjoy!
The influences of my familial cultural background is Vietnamese. Obviously, it's distilled through my parents and when they left, that type of culture is back in the eighties. So Vietnamese culture is from the eighties specifically and then here in Canada, I live in Scarborough. So it's primarily West Indies, with lots of Jamaican and Pakistani and Indian influences.
So actually, I grew up a lot on like curries, goat curries, or people say curry goat. You know there's that battle of terminologies and samosa and a lot of Japanese and Korean foods. Toronto is so diverse, so my understanding of what cultural heritage I have also comes from this diversity as well, which is a huge blessing and something that I definitely carried through today, when I'm now living in Berlin.
Oh, I love that you would get along very well with my husband, he’s from Scarborough.
Oooh yeah! East side what’s up!
Oh no, no. He would be all over you right now and he would have the debate around curry goat or goat curry for sure.
I'm like, fam, let me tell you! Like my West Indian family will be like, you cannot be saying curry goat. Like sure you can curry the goat, but also it’s goat curry. I can't have the accent, but if you could hear the aunties, just like having that debate in the kitchen and they’d be like throwing out rotis like nobody's business.
Thanksgiving is always so full with Asian-inspired West Indian foods and it's just like a huge mismatch of cultures that when I come to the dinner table, I try to emulate that for my guests as well when I'm in Berlin.
Maybe we can talk a little bit about that independent study course where you explored Asian Canadian theater. It sounded like that was a bit of a defining moment in your life.
I was in an independent course with Barry Freeman who is kind of like, not a superstar I would say, but he's very well known for his academic work around the other in theatre.
He has many books out talking about the basement theatre in churches and how the movements of theatre really helped facilitate the discussion of otherness, but also creating otherness. So in our courses for majoring, I did it in theatre, but I also did a specialist in arts management.
So it helped create an environment that allowed me to explore what does it mean to create theatre around my culture or my familial culture. And this was the first time where I took the chance to take learning about my own culture outside of the familiar aspects of food, language, clothing to something that was on a Canadian stage. Literally Canadian works because movies have always been something that we're exposed to and theatre was something that was considered a privilege to see.
You spend a lot of money on tickets, you take the time to go out. You might as well have a dinner, so it's like dinner and a show type of vibe. So it was quite inaccessible to me because I didn't have that growing up. Theatre going was not a thing. It was a luxury that we couldn't afford and the fact that I got to study it was really great. And then I got to see stories that was part of my experience, not necessarily, because this is about like two generations ahead of me. So the main resource was Nina Lee Aquino, who’s a really amazing artistic director for Theater Factory right now.
But she was doing her master’s and she said, there's no Asian stories out there. So she created this anthology, I read it and my mind was blown because I was like where is this in anywhere else? And so my first contact with Asian content other than Chinese soap operas and Korean dramas was this. And I was like, this is English context of Asian stuff. So I was like, hell yeah. And I got so excited and I did a master’s afterwards.
So, you got like super inspired and then you actually did it for study. I love that. Oh, that's awesome. I don't know if you had a chance to listen to Alex Choi, one of our previous guests and he talked about a scene in Kim's convenience. And when he saw that on stage that was a moment for him where he's like, oh my God, they know my life.
Yeah, I got a lot of Korean friends to see the show and they were like, “does someone like stalk me because this is my life.” That experience and that discussion is so precious. I think there's something about it, even seeing it on TV. Sorry, I'm getting teary now because I don't know what it was like before. I don't remember because for films I would always want to be Ariel or someone who didn't look like me, but I love the free-spiritedness of it.
But to have something completely click, it's not life-changing so to say, but it's a core memory moment where you're like, this has been me the whole entire time. I feel acknowledged, I feel validated and I think that's also really important in Canadian culture too. Now that we're trying to reclaim and reconcile with Indigenous communities that I want this moment, that I am feeling for them as well.
You're such an introspective person. You take very little for face value and you kind of dig deeper and you have like this really great sense of curiosity that I really admire. So let's talk about celebration and food or anything that comes to your mind. This season, our podcast is all about celebration and celebration can be grand, but it also could be like every day, right? It could be those little moments, those little things that you do every day and every week to really honour your culture. Talk to me about how you have celebrated your background in a meaningful way.
So actually going back to the first question of growing up with this culture or the familial cultures and the Canadian cultures that I am now taking on. I wanted to take that into my wedding ceremony.
So I got married during the pandemic and like all pandemic weddings, it was hella tiny, super small and you're like, okay, how does Zoom work in a way that other people can join? And I think it's really funny because if you get a chance to look at my parents' wedding photos, they had a Western wedding, white dress and in a tuxedo.
And if you look at mine I had a traditional áo dài, which is the Vietnamese clothing. It was in gold not like princessy in the way that most people think, but it was chic enough to know it was a special moment. I wore red booties because red is a lucky colour and my husband and I got our hairs to match because he also has long hair. So we put in lots of natural items like grass that was dried. So it looked like it was gold in our hair.
We had a pretty modest wedding because I had just graduated, finished my master's and my husband at the time was still in school. So we wanted to do a couple of things. I wanted to honour his culture because it's just as valid as mine and we did something called a Pólterabend which essentially is creating the first conflict in marriage. I don't know how to describe it because you invite people over for food, obviously and have music and whatnot, but the defining moment of Pólterabend is taking porcelain, whatever it is. It could be a toilet bowl, it could be a plate, it could be a cup and you smash it in their home, the wedding couple’s home. And every time it happens, they have to clean it up in whatever way they can. So all night before our wedding, we were cleaning up like shards of porcelain and I was telling everyone we're not going to clean like 100% so please put your shoes on our home. Like just, just keep it to this section and we told our neighbours because it's obviously very loud and, we were singing a lot of traditional German hiking songs and eating Vietnamese foods because catering was expensive. So I ended up going to a Vietnamese auntie that I befriended when I first moved to Berlin. I was like, auntie, I'm getting married, can you help me with food? And she’s like, girl I got you! Let me tell you right now. Like what do you want, what do you want. I'm going to get it for you right now.
How did you meet this person?
I have the audacity to be shameful. So I go up to like florists, grocers who are obviously Vietnamese because Berlin has a huge. Northern Vietnamese culture, a community, sorry. So I befriended a lot of aunties and just got to know their story, got to know about their shops, I visit them regularly. For New Years, I bring them oranges to wish them a Happy New Year. They don't give me Li Xi, which is the red pocket money, but I try to give my business to them as much as I can. I try to build a community around me because I don't have the multicultural communities that I have in Toronto back in Berlin. And in Berlin, it's also not 100% the cultures I know because Northern Vietnamese culture and food is vastly different than the Southern culture I have.
So my only way to keep in contact with my language and some sort of version of my food is through these aunties. So I make an effort to show up, speak to them in my Southern accent, to try to understand the Northern accent. And then they gave me food that tastes similar to the Southern style of the food, but then I go home and I try to change it a little bit and I started learning how to cook my own food.
Do you feel like your culture, your relationship with your culture strengthened when you went to Berlin?
The grip that I wanted to have on my culture was a lot stronger because here I have the luxury of my parents being the ones that bestow that culture to me. But as I grew older and I was starting to learn about parenting, like I don't have children yet, but I'm obviously thinking about the future and how would my children learn the culture that I know and it's normally inherited by the primary caregiver. So if I am the primary caregiver it means that I need to know the language, I need to know the food and I'm not confident in that at all. So I'm trying to find every single opportunity to practice my familial culture, but also I have a responsibility to pass on the German culture that I understand to my children. Not only does my husband have to do it, but at some point, we're going to have to either choose to live in Toronto or Berlin and I'm planning for both cases where I don't have access to the cultures that I am more confident in. I can speak Vietnamese at an intermediate level. I can't speak about politics, but I am much more confident in my cooking skills. So if they can't eat fish sauce, I am a failure of a mother.
That's the thing that I want to take into consideration. I want to expose my children to as many cultures as possible because that's a Canadian element that I hold dearly. It helps them to be more world focused in a sense and to be more empathetic to the people that don't look like them.
Again, having that cultural connection or having that sense of validation either through TV or film or theatre. I also want that to be done at the dinner table so that people who come through my front door and sit at my kitchen can say, this almost tastes like home. There's a lot to say, but I really strive to create a place where my kitchen table feels like home or the content I make on YouTube makes other folks get excited about their own cultures again. And to really inspire folks to relearn their mother tongue or have that memory of their grandmother because if you know, Made with Lau. Daddy Lau is teaching Randy how to cook certain things and also you can see where his son Cam gets to eat the food and to be exposed to that teaching. It's a really great platform for people who didn't have that opportunity to speak to their grandparents and ask questions of why do you do that with your shrimp? Or how do I make the eggs kind of curdle in larger curds and not like the American small scrambled eggs? It’s for them to recreate that experience once again because not everyone has the luxury of a grandparent, not everyone has the luxury of having parents that have the ability to translate or have you learn the culture.
The disconnect is very alienating and sometimes devastating. There are times in my life where I felt like I was a failure of a person of colour because as a Vietnamese person, I look Vietnamese, but I'm so quote-unquote white. As I only make scrambled eggs and toast and I love bacon, but I can love all those things and also know fish sauce is called nước mắm or add different ingredients, like scotch bonnet to my curries, you know?
Anika That's awesome. So is that how you celebrate your culture every day, through food?
Yes. I mean, I have to eat, but food is not only like a political thing. The history behind it is quite cultural. If I'm curious about a culture that I have had contact with, but not necessarily had the opportunity to learn, YouTube or video platforms that have these recipes are a really great point of contact to like see aunties cook, see how they do it, but also be exposed to the language they use around the food. So I follow this Swahili auntie on YouTube because I'm really curious about regional cuisines. For example, a lot of Kenyan food is out there. I didn't know this, but there was also kind of like a hierarchy in foods. Like only certain levels of status folks would get a certain type of dish.
So to eat in that type of diverse context also allows me to appreciate the food that's in front of my table and a lot of food researcher friends give me resources or like, “Hey, did you see this article?” And I'm like, I want to make this now and they're like, okay, you'll need this. And I was like, where do I get that?
What a wonderful conversation and a gift to our community. In true Root & Seed style, we ended our conversation with a question prompt from our Conversation Tool. We just had to ask a question that is central to celebration and so we asked her, “what is your favourite holiday to celebrate with your family and why?”
I am learning the German culture and the weight behind their holidays, it's very Christian focused. We do not work on Sundays, grocery stores are closed everything is closed. So if you need to go grocery shopping you do it on a Saturday or God help you wait until Monday. So, Easter is so much bigger than what I expected, not only that, but Christmas is a three-day event. I did not realize that so my first Christmas was a doozy because I said I would volunteer to cook for Christmas and I didn't realize I was cooking for three days and three meals.
Where were the aunties for that?
I was with the German folks. I mean, they just make a huge Bratton and they make a huge quantity and you just eat that throughout the day.
Christmas was such a huge deal and Easter is such a huge deal that I have to schedule my life around these two holidays in Germany. It's so confusing because in Canada, Easter is just like a holiday. You get Good Friday or Monday off and so you have like an extended weekend and that’s it, that's the extent of us because we're quite a bit secular. But for some reason, I'm like, I made that mistake and now I can't get out because that's what they expect every Christmas and every Easter and I'm just like, “help, somebody help me. I need children to learn how to cook so I don’t have to cook."
You've become the auntie.
No, I'm too young for this. I'm not ready, I'm not auntie status. I'm still like a child trying to remember how to speak and cook, but for them, it's like such a great cultural exchange because they too are so curious and actually, pre COVID wedding plans was that they were going to come to Toronto and they were going to do a whole Vietnamese ceremony. What was wild about that was you have to bring a full roasted pig and they never heard or seen something like that before and they said, who carries this? And they're like, oh, it takes about like four people to carry a whole pig, you know, roasted and stuff and you do a parade and they’re like wait, there's a parade?
Yeah, normally it's like seven days. The first day is the ceremony for tea or that's traditional and so they had nothing like this and they jokingly said, oh, our vegan brother-in-law, my vegan brother-in-law can carry the pig. So I was like, please don't do that and now it's vice versa in the sense that I am going through Christmas or I'm already planning for Christmas.
I'm looking at meals that they haven't had before and doing research. Trying to cook it once or twice to kind of have a feel for it and then at the dinner table, they just want to have that education and that food experience. And I'm like, okay, this is how you eat it. It's normally in a big bowl, but I put it into smaller soup bowls because Germans don't have the big pho bowls and you can add this item or this item and now we have a competition to see who eats the spiciest food because they're competitive.
Grace is such a beautiful way to end off this season. She is all about celebrating all the cultural influences of her life no matter where she is like we heard from Brooklyn and Zoe in episode 1. The coming together of traditions and cultures in her wedding like Asha in episode 4 and how it's all about the food when celebrating - like we’ve heard with just about every single one of our guests this season!
This Fall we are excited to introduce you to another set of incredible guests who are documenting their cultures and heritage. We will be spending the summer speaking to individuals who are doing just that and if you liked Grace’s introspective, fun, dig deeper approach to all things, we have a feeling that she will be back to talk about her experience in film production and documenting.
Keep in touch this summer by subscribing to our newsletter at rootandseed.com, following us on social @rootandseedco and If you are interested in being part of a smaller, more private community on culture, tradition and heritage send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org to get an invitation to our private Facebook group.
Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, Executive Produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel and Edited by Camille Blais.
Bye for now.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Edited by: Camille Blais
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