The Pho Incident (A Story from my Childhood)

This past winter, I entered the CBC Literary Awards competition for Creative Nonfiction. In short, it’s a contest for style of how you tell a real story in 1500 words or less. The Long List was recently announced and I wasn’t on it, which meant I can now share it here with you! Entries published anywhere until now would have been disqualified from the competition.

This event had an impact on something in my near future at the time of writing, on which I contemplated and which has since passed. In a few days, I will post the follow-up to my contemplation at the story’s end.

I hope you’ll like it and thanks for reading. 🙂

“Con muốn ăn phở thịt viên,” I replied to Mom at a street side food shack in Sai Gon, South Viet Nam, just months after the war had ended. Child wants to eat pho with meatballs.

I liked pho because like most Vietnamese, I was born with the 1pho genetic marker. I liked meatballs because they were easy to chew with my toddler teeth. Pho with meatballs was the easy choice the rare time I got to eat out due to severe post-war financial hardships and unsanitary conditions to which I was oblivious. The former never stopped my Parents from feeding their children. The latter only when there were risks of illness. This was not such a case. Mom knew and trusted the lady vendor despite the scrappy looking place. The eating area only had two wooden tables and two chairs each. It was open to the busy sidewalk opposite the ordering window, with only a canvas roof overhead and canvas walls separating adjacent shops. Yet, it did not look scrappy next to everything else in post-war Sai Gon.

Eating out was truly a luxury at the time. Mom and I were the only ones waiting for food despite a busy sidewalk, and Mom did not order. She knew there were more important priorities than her temporary hunger. I did not, and rejoiced when my pho came with three meatballs! It was one more than I usually got in pho anywhere, including at home, being a tiny toddler and not much of an eater. The extra meatball was from the vendor’s kindness, with Mom already having paid rather than hoping for a generous tip. She told Mom she wanted me to grow up faster since I was so tiny. It was a lovely moment of kindness even a toddler could appreciate, even if not fully without knowing the vendor also lived under severe financial hardships.

As the vendor walked out of sight, out of somewhere, three toddlers from the streets rushed to our table. Even as a toddler, I could tell they were from the streets. They were dirty all over, had messy hair and torn clothes, and were injured from whatever with visible scars and bumps. I could not even tell if they were boys or girls. They did not speak. They just stared at Mom and me with big eyes and pouty mouths, leaning against each other as if jostling for positioning at the table edge to my right.

I had seen street kids before in Viet Nam, as young as I was. They were all over the place. However, this was the first time I had seen any up close enough to interact with them.

“Mẹ, cho mấy em ăn?” I innocently asked Mom. Mom, can we let these younger children eat?

I asked without care for how that was going to happen. They could have shared the food, or Mom could have bought them some like she did for me. I thought neither were a big deal. I just wanted those kids to have something to eat. They seemed so needy I had instinctively used the pronoun for someone younger than me in referring to them, as if I were their big brother looking out for them.

My question for Mom was very naïve, not knowing the desperate environment in which we lived after the war had ended. Feeding the family alone was a problem, never mind anybody else. I had put Mom in an incredibly difficult situation without realizing it one bit. She was definitely not going to let me share food with these dirty street kids. Financially, her two children were the only people on the planet she would have bought eat out food for that day, not that she was uncaring.

“Thôi, đi chỗ khác ăn,” Mom gently replied. Never mind, let’s go some other place to eat.

Instead of taking my hand to walk me out as she generally walked me everywhere then, Mom picked me up and walked out. I could no longer see those street kids because they were at my back. However, I could still hear them, and what I heard in the next few seconds, I have never forgotten.

A little shuffling –
A few kid grunts –
Slapping of hands in water –
A bowl breaking on the ground –
And then that most gently heartbreaking of sounds –

The softest, exhale of a wheeze, drawn out, as a child processes pain before gathering for the big wail to tell you how much pain.

Then a fading wail as Mom suddenly picked up her pace upon hearing it as well.

Someone did not get a meatball.

Probably nothing to eat at all.

At that young age, at least one of those street kids already knew to beat another physically for food.

It would be years before I came to those conclusions at just that simple level of detail. I had not been able to forget the event, and thought more each time I recalled it. However, even as a toddler, I knew the kids fought for that food, someone got hurt, and that definitely was not right. The memory only got more tragic as I thought more about it and processed what it had all meant.

Reflecting over the years on what Mom did in the pho incident, I have concluded she did the best thing possible. She could not subject my health to those street kids’ dirty conditions in sharing the food. She could not afford to buy them each a bowl, and not without attracting more. Buying me a separate bowl while making sure they shared one would have been elitist, but staying to make sure they shared fairly while I had no pho would have scarred me for life. I concluded all this thinking over this pho incident over the years. Mom only explained kindness and limitations to help when I questioned her about the incident over the bowl of pho she got me soon later, where we were not disturbed as I ate. I was old enough to understand “not enough money”, even if I had no idea how tough things were financially.

Mom passed her compassion test. Soon, though, it will be my turn.

I will be returning to Viet Nam for the first time in 35 years, having left five years after the pho incident when things were still tough. I will have to face some street kids as there are still many, and I will have to decide how to help them. I will also have more options than Mom did many years ago, with more resources. However, I definitely will not have enough to help all the street kids, nor even one to get off the streets for good. I will have to choose who I help, how and how much.

What will I do?

I have a plan, but it is far from firm. I know better than to believe I could accurately anticipate my behaviour in such tough life circumstances. I have shown compassion to less fortunate others many times in life, but this is not the same. I have never had to choose individuals among a group. There were social safety nets in North American society to supplement my limited help. I also see these street kids in Viet Nam as being different from anyone I had helped before. I could have been them in another time, or my kids could have been them, had a few things not gone right in the lives of my Parents, or mine, respectively. Life can take the biggest of turns on the smallest of things.

Will I pass the test?

I don’t know, except that it will be for me to decide, not for anyone else. Problem is, I don’t think I’ll know for certain when I come back. Limiting kindness is not a science. You will probably have to ask me at my deathbed on how well I will have lived with my decisions. Over debriefing pho that day way back when, though, I am proud to say I asked Mom to have some of my pho. This was even after she said she was not hungry when I asked her why she had not ordered any. I hope that seed of kindness I had in me has grown well since then.

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