“In the Absence of a Homeland”

In the Absence of a Homeland
by Amber Tran

Ingredients for Bánh Chưng

5 ¼ cups long-grain sticky rice (soaked overnight and drained)
1 ¼ ounce cans of coconut juice
4 ½ tablespoon sea salt
2 ⅔ cup dried, hulled, and split yellow mung beans (soaked overnight and drained)
1 ¼ pounds pork belly
1 medium-sized Spanish onion, minced
3 teaspoons black pepper, freshly ground
1 tablespoon sugar
2 trays banana leaf, cut as needed

The women in my family weave life like we weave our banana leaves: back and forth, under and around. When our spines crack with the weight of the world, where laws are drawn in the color of our blood, we braid our gold and our gorgeousness and our daydreams back into each other. We build homes in the valleys of our loss. When they tell us to hide, we brush the sleep from our eyes, and we busy our hands making bánh chưng.

To Bà Ngoại, who wakes at dawn to soak our mung beans.

The first time I helped Mẹ make bánh chưng, you told me I was a genius. Giỏi quá, you smiled, patting my head. Not even I know how to do that, you told me. In my childhood, I didn’t understand the loss behind your words, blazing beneath soft smiles. I merely basked in my accomplishment, glowing with the magnanimity behind such a statement. To 7-year-old me, you were large and infinite and all-knowing. You still are. I worshipped you—built altars from the way you wore your hair and refused to iron your shirts. If I knew more than you—in any capacity—maybe I, too, could be a god.

I realize now that my knowledge is not a reflection of my sanctity, but of a bloodline revived after bursting—after being splintered by the crimson now coursing through Vietnam’s waters.

You, Bà Ngoại, have lived. You have lived through war, and through CONVAIR bombings turned rhythmic lullabies. And because of that life, you have been forced to forgo and abandon and hurt, in ways that will only ever exist in abstract poetry and speculation to me. What I know of you, you have told me through our pidgin language of loss and rebirth.

And this, assembled and scraped together from our conversations of muted syllables and stumbling vowels, is what you have told me.

This is what I know:

In your quest for survival, you abandoned all that was not absolutely necessary. All that you could not carry on your back when they bruised and beat your door down, you sacrificed. So the family recipes and photographs and the journal entries of your mothers remain in that valley, ashes braiding themselves into soil. The land, by now, has likely consumed them—swallowed your history just as your country has done to you.

Not even I know how to do that, you told me.

How to Fold the Perfect Bánh Chưng, According to Mẹ

  1. Ask your fiancé to build a 6×6 wooden cradle—the same fiancé that comments on the length of your daughter’s skirts and the shape of his daughter’s stomach. The bánh chưng needs this, for structure.
  2. Tell your daughter to come downstairs. Call her ungrateful when she lingers a moment too long.
  3. Collect your ingredients, and settle them on the floor: banana leaves, sticky rice (soaked overnight and drained), yellow mung beans, and chopped pork belly, seasoned with salt and black pepper.
  4. Line the banana leaf against the cradle’s interior, keeping the shiny side up. The short side should be facing you. Excess leaf should line the mold.
  5. Set another leaf down, matte side up this time, to make sure the bánh chưng doesn’t crack.
  6. If it cracks in your daughter’s hands, you may console her—but only the first time. If she cracks it a second time, scold her. Call her unfocused. Tell her that if she does not memorize these folds, she will be the end of her bloodline.
  7. Use a spoon to scoop sticky rice into the cradle, taking care to cover every inch of the leaf. Repeat with mung beans, creating a smaller interior square atop the rice.
  8. Place the pork onto the mung beans, sealing it over with mung beans and rice.
  9. Fold the excess leaves lining the mold over the filling. Alternate leaves, folding them in a counterclockwise rotation. Make sure the folds are crisp. This will define its corners.
  10. If the corners, however, begin to expand, and the banana leaf weakens with the wet of your daughter’s tears, take the bánh chưng from her. Flip it over, and dress it in red string yourself. Do not console her.

To Mẹ, who buys and cooks and folds and boils and cleans.

Where I stumble, you persist. When I am ungrateful and American and despondent in my uselessness, you tell me to get out of bed and sweep the house. You, who have been tasked with weaving the family back to life, do not wait for me to stop breathing in shallow spurts, gasping for air as the walls collapse onto me.

At least you are breathing, you tell me.

You, middle child, who learned resilience at the same age I learned my left hand from my right, tell me to get off my phone, or you will break it in half. What you do not tell me—what I wish you did—is to get off my phone, because look at how our family has embedded itself into these leaves: how they carry the shape of our joy in their patterns.

You are brave, in all of the ways I am not.

When our family lost our history, you created it, broken wrists and calloused palms crafting, building, and always, always moving.

You, with your Youtube videos and internet searches of How to Make Bánh Chưng, have made sure that I do not forget our traditions like Bà Ngoại was forced to. You have taught me wisdom and beauty, and you make sure that I, too, will teach my daughter.

You—Mẹ, Mother, Mom—have built a home in the absence of a homeland.


This is the first of many pieces of writing to come from the amazing teen writers who were part of CSSSA (California State Summer School for the Arts) 2023. For most, these will be their first publications. 

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