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no fried rice for you! | by qui nguyen

The most common reaction when people discover my origins tends to be disbelief. Take a good look at me: you’ll see the typical black hair, almond eyes and golden skin of a classic Asian sensation. I’m as yellow as a kung fu flick, yet my roots…well, my roots are from down south. Deep south. We’re talking “chicken-fried steaks, grits and a side of pickled pig’s feet” south.

Down south, food is culture. Simple as that. We don’t have any famous museums or theatres or music (Unless you count “country,” which is about as artistic as a wet beer fart). Instead we have food. Big food. Food meant to make a man out of your skinny city boy. Hipsters need not apply.

My moms, though uber-yellow, is a master of the high-cholesterol culinary arts. Trained by beautiful black ladies to flavor her veggies with spice and her meats with soul, my mother’s cooking is 100 percent Southern-style with a touch of Asian flave. How did a teeny little Vietnamese lady learn to fry so well?

Flashback to a time when most of us were still sporting Superman Underoos. It is 1975 and my folks have landed in America. The Vietnam War just ended and my parents escaped the newly unified Communist nation by moving smack into the rural south. As thousands of Viet refugees flooded America, the government needed to find a place to house them. And since there were an excess of unused camps built during World War II (AKA Japanese internment camps), the South and Middle America became prime locations to relocate thousands of Viet exiles. From there, families were sent into small communities to stay with foster homes for job training and help in cultural assimilation. My mom was sent to Arkansas.

Now, I’m from the South. I hate the stereotype of all Southerners being bigots because I know it’s not true. However, in 1975, in the backwoods world of El Dorado, Arkansas, Southerners were not nuts about a whole buncha Yellas moving into their ’hood. My parents were no exception to this blatant hate. So, my moms found refuge in the one area of town not afraid of Yellow Fever. She moved into the projects. And as the story goes, there goes the neighborhood.

Fast forward years later, my moms is now the first Asian to sport a jheri curl and a Bob Marley Rasta hat. To celebrate her new Soul-cooking skill, she bought a diner in the middle of town and started selling fried chicken to fat truckers. As one would guess, a smack-talking 4’ll” Far East woman vending down-home vittles stirred more than a few questions.

“Hey, I’d like some fried rice, an egg roll and some Wonton soup,” the typical first-time customer would ask upon arriving to Nguyen’s East Main Diner.

“We have no egg roll, fat man,” my moms would correct.

“You got no egg rolls? How about the fried rice?” they’d persist.

“Are you stupid? How many diner you see have fried rice and egg roll?” she’d respond.

“But you’re Oriental,” they’d retort.

“Fuck you, fat man. I hope you have big heart attack while you watch Hee-Haw and fuck your sister!”

My moms was not the best salesman. However, she did find a way to convince folks that East Main Diner, though Asian-owned, was indeed a diner and not an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. Her solution? Put it in the greeting.

“Hello, welcome to East Main Diner, we don’t have any goddamn Chinese food. You want Chinese food, go to a goddamn Chinese restaurant. Look at my menu, you see anything Chinese? Fuck no. Order something else. Now, what the hell do you want?”

As I said, my moms is not the best salesman, but her point was made.

Whether it was the novelty of Soul Food from a Yella or just folks wanting some quick eats from the closest sit-down joint, the citizens of El Dorado did venture into the quaint dive of my mother’s food establishment. And as the years went by, the diner earned a large, loyal following. Some stayed for the food, but most visited daily for other reasons.

“Hey, can I get a burger today?” a regular would ask.

“No!” my mom would yell.

“Oh, come on, Tong. I need some red meat. I want some red meat. If I don’t get any red meat, I’ll die.”

“You too fat, fat man. You get any more red meat, you will have heart attack. Today, you get garden salad with no dressing.”


“But nothing, fat man. I want you to come to diner, not to early grave. Besides, I hate funerals. I look terrible when I cry.”

“You’d cry for me, Tong?”


“You’d cry, Tong?”

“Do you want salad or not?”

“Sure, Tong, I’ll take the salad.”

The biggest attraction to the diner isn’t its novelty, the food or even the little Asian owner speaking ’70s jive. It’s much deeper than that. The regulars at this corner joint are what you’d expect to see in a Sam Sheppard play. They’re older, largely single and a bit alcoholic in nature. They are the divorcees of the South, the abandoned, those accustomed to watchi ng Wheel of Fortune from their Barcaloungers. Perhaps because the geisha-sized cook knows well what it’s like to lose a home, she knows it’s important that her restaurant be a place where anybody can hang a hat. So, here, in the smoke-filled, greasy-spooned world of hamburger steak plate lunches, she’s made this place their home. The regulars come to the diner because, after all, it’s just a diner.