Jesse: Pho the First Time

Presented to you in collaboration with TCK TOWN, storytellers of Third Cultural experiences. 

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By Jesse Micic (From Croatia, England & Italy. Living in Melbourne)

The writing on the door was too difficult to understand. The smell in the air was too distinct to place. The items spread on the table too foreign to comprehend.

I enter. I take my seat. I point at the menu. I smile. I continue looking out toward the puzzle of objects sprawled before me. My eyes quickly scan people close by. Searching for information. My perspiring forehead, and flushed cheeks, reacting to the unknown task ahead and an apparent absence of air conditioning.

After a few minutes of live tutorials thanks to my fellow diners, I'm ready. Or at least I think I am. A bowl is placed in front of me. The aroma. Indescribable.

I look down. Thinly sliced pieces of raw beef emerge out of a steaming, cloudy, brown-coloured broth. Long glistening white noodles apparently somewhere underneath, as I've been led to believe from the five minutes of slurping I had just witnessed around me. Fresh mint, bean sprouts and lemon accompany the bowl, waiting to be resettled in a warmer surrounding.

Pointing to an object in front of me, I make an inquiry to my lunch companion. "What's this ornament?" Laughter ensues, quickly disappearing as the seriousness of my question becomes evident.

"That's a tea flask!" I'm told, as I blush further. Something which my live tutorials had evidently not yet informed me.

Not wanting to seem overwhelmed by anything further, I sit and watch a little longer. Waiting for the steam to dispel from the bowl's atmosphere. I talk of something less embarrassing than my grasp of tea ornaments.

My hands start to fumble with the instruments placed next to my bowl. I pick them up. They’re light and heavy at the same time. They are jolting around, but don’t seem to move when directed. The waiter must have forgotten to provide the manual for these, I ponder to myself.

Noticing my unskillful approach in holding chopsticks, my friend offers her assistance.

"You need to build up the muscles in your hand!" my guide proclaims. "But here, let me show you." Her grip looks somewhat different to the others around me. "You know, even though I'm teaching you to use them this way, it's not technically correct."

Who am I to judge? I think to myself. Smiling and nodding, shuffling uncomfortably. Wishing that this restaurant was located inside of a fridge, rather than my current surroundings —  an aging Vietnamese restaurant, lacking correct temperature control for an uncomfortable teenage boy. I’m more used to eating polenta with a fork, than rice noodles with chopsticks.

As I stare into this peculiar mix of ingredients, I reflect upon my own life and upbringing. My grandparents migrating from conflict-torn and poverty-ridden communities of Europe, endowing me with cultural teachings from places I had never been. Food, the primary vehicle of my connection to these distant places. Chopsticks and rice noodles, unfortunately not a part of this cultural package.  Though foreign in flavour and composition,  I feel a strong affinity to the journey this dish had taken from Vietnam to Australia.

Back to the task at hand. With a deep sigh, I plunge my chopsticks into the depths of the broth. A cluster of dormant noodles awaken, instantly fighting off any attempt to be lifted out. After a number of failed attempts, I find success. “Ah-ha! I’ve got one.” My comment breeds a chuckle, but my success is short lived.

I slowly and tirelessly navigate the chopsticks towards my mouth, ready to indulge in the sensory explosion that is fast approaching. Unfortunately, the noodle has other ideas, making a last ditch effort to return to the warmth of the broth. Defeat obvious in my eyes, a splashing sound reinforces my failure.

I sit there. Sweaty. Hungry. Flushed. Embarrassed, but humoured. This was the first time I had ever used chopsticks, been to a Vietnamese restaurant, or laid eyes on tea ornaments (flasks). Every time I sit in a restaurant now, I look around and try to pick out my 15-year-old self. Sometimes I’m old, sometimes I’m young. Sometimes I’m white, sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I’m sweating, sometimes I’m pale with fear. But every time, I feel happy that people around me continue to put themselves in new cultural environments, and show a willingness to learn and appreciate the cultures that have come to make this place their home.