Like any good Jewish family, we go out for dim sum on Christmas, Uncle Phan’s in Austin’s Chinatown, although I’m not sure my family can be described as good or Jewish. My grandmother was born a Jew, but she left the tatters of her religion behind after her stint as a nurse in war-soaked Vietnam. She brought home a Vietnamese husband, maybe an even trade, though I do not claim expertise in religion or relationships.
While Grandfather was alive, we celebrated Christmas in the most American way possible, because he loved any festival and considered it his civic duty to participate in his new country’s customs. Grandmother gave up trying to explain why Jews don’t celebrate Christmas. That’s when the Ly family holiday open house was born in Beauchamp, Texas, some fifty years ago, complete with gigantic Christmas tree, hall decked with greenery, enough sugar treats to give the town diabetes, and gifts from a Vietnamese Santa. I’m happy to think that a generation of Beauchamp children grew up with an Asian Santa, the same Santa who owned the Vietnamese restaurant and gave out free spring rolls on holidays, anybody’s holidays. Several generations of Beauchamp children grew up on Grandfather’s spring rolls.
After Grandfather died during my zoo vet residency, no one could bear the kind of Christmas he loved (though the open house tradition continues to this day). So Grandmother returned to her Jewish roots and hauled us to Uncle Phan’s Chinese Restaurant on Christmas Day. Chinese employees raised their eyebrows at her part-Vietnamese descendants, but in the putative spirit of the season, everyone tacitly ignored historical clashes between cultures. The Ly family praised the Cantonese dishes, and Uncle Phan, who looked too stooped and ancient to be an uncle, was most attentive.
I accept that I will never understand social cues. I don’t bother trying most of the time. JD, Dianne, Chantal, and Darryl explain things when necessary. But sometimes I practice. After last Christmas when Uncle Phan begged for Grandmother’s assistance in understanding Jewish dietary practices, I wondered if he had romantic feelings for her.
He could have asked any Jews present that day, but he sat at our table while she explained at length, because, as with most Jewish practices, there is no simple answer. It’s one of the things I like, now that I’m studying the religion for myself.
When he descended into a confused silence, she patted his arm and said, “Some Jews will eat anything, some will eat anything but pork and shellfish, and some will eat only vegetables in restaurants because meat must be prepared in certain ways.”
He grasped for simplicity. “More vegetable?”
She agreed that was safest, but she herself would eat chicken and beef.
So when she asked me to drive her to several medical appointments the Friday after Thanksgiving, I suggested that we have lunch at Uncle Phan’s. Like many Chinese restaurants, he offers a lunch buffet that caters to Austin’s technical crowd.
The kitchen doors swung wide when we entered, and a mélange of Asian spices overwhelmed me with nostalgia. They reminded me of Grandfather’s restaurant, though Chinese spices are different enough from Vietnamese that I avoided an obvious emotional response. I focused on pink and red peonies on the reception desk. “Look, Grandmother, your favorite flowers.”
“How nice,” she replied. I don’t know whether the flowers, the scents, or maybe the familiar expanse of snowy white tablecloths caused her slight smile to surface. She doesn’t smile much. “You don’t often see them in winter.”
They must be expensive out of season, because each table in the dining room bore a single red or pink carnation with an evergreen sprig instead. Most people probably didn’t notice the difference. Peonies and carnations both have large quantities of fluffy petals.
Uncle Phan bustled up and bowed. He wanted Grandmother’s opinion on several Vietnamese dishes he planned to include on his menu, the better to expand his market. She sampled them while I ate what the tech bros ate, giving me a sense of connection with them
While she praised the delicacies, Uncle Phan questioned her further. He seemed to want to determine her favorites. At the end of the meal, he brought her an egg tart, not on the buffet. I made do with a sesame ball.
He bowed again, a smile flickering across his face, as she made our reservation for Christmas Day. He burst into a big grin when she asked him to cater my bar mitzvah, date as yet undetermined.
“I have to…to finish reading the Talmud first,” I stammered. “And other spiritual tomes. In the original language.”
Grandmother, not pleased with my study of religion, says I have to keep the sacred tradition of inviting the entire family of everyone I’ve ever spoken with to my bar mitzvah. Perhaps it’s an initiation rite. I must ask my rabbi.
On December 25, Uncle Phan led us to the only table with a peony, the table with the most pleasant view. He served us plates of egg puffs, Vietnamese-style dumplings, and banh bot chien, the Vietnamese version of radish cakes. My father and aunt blinked back tears at these Vietnamese versions of Proust’s madeleines. Grandmother wore a stolid expression, though she complimented the chef several times. She did bow her head when Uncle Phan sliced the steamed rice noodle rolls cross-wise, as is proper. Instead of shrimp or pork, they overflowed with vegetables.
I wished I could check my conclusions with JD and the others right then. Though I have observed many courtships, I hesitate to draw conclusions. Nevertheless, I thought the moment called for boldness
“Does your wife work in the kitchen also?” I asked Uncle Phan. I could tell my family thought it was a weird question. My sister rolled her eyes so hard I thought they would detach and bounce out the door.
“My wife died ten years ago,” he replied, with the same sadness I often saw on Grandmother’s face.
My family murmured condolences as the dessert cart trundled by. Uncle Phan looked it over and nodded. I’d seen dessert carts, not nearly as full, go to other tables.
“Grandmother, would you like an egg tart?” I asked, not waiting for an answer as I served her. “They’re best eaten fresh.”
She took a bite and savored it. Her eyes followed Uncle Phan back to his kitchen “Not always, John Ky. Some things are best with age and experience.”