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Thien Pham's Graphic Novel Is an Immigration Story Told Through Food

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Composite image with the cover of the graphic novel 'Family Style,' which has an illustration of a bowl of pho, on the left. On the right, a photograph of author Thien Pham, in glasses and a plaid shirt, holds chopsticks as he prepares to eat a bowl of pho.
Thien Pham's new graphic novel, 'Family Style,' is a memoir of his family's immigration story. It documents their refugee journey from Vietnam to San Jose through the lens of eight different food memories. (Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers; collage by Sarah Hotchkiss)

¡Hella Hungry! is a column about Bay Area foodmakers, exploring the region’s culinary cultures through the mouth of a first-generation local.

Nothing sustains a community more than food. It’s where all memories of home begin, and it’s how anyone who has ever been separated from their roots finds a way back — eventually.

For Thien Pham, an Oakland-based graphic novelist, comics artist and high school educator, it took more than 40 years after fleeing his home country, Vietnam, to gather the right ingredients needed for his life’s work: Family Style. Packed with life lessons about family, friendship, assimilation and life in San Jose as a refugee, the graphic novel also serves as a love letter to his most memorable meals, from Southeast Asia to Northern California.

Each chapter of the story presents a thematic dish that encapsulates Pham’s experience at the time, from the “Rice and Fish” he ate as a child refugee living on a boat to the luxurious “Steak and Potatoes” he enjoyed after first arriving to the United States — and many unexpected food combinations in between.

Though the book grapples with traumatic topics of forced migration and diasporic displacement, it’s largely centered on the joy of communal gathering, shared culinary knowledge and family-sustained recipes for dishes like his mother’s bánh cuốn.

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Excerpted panels from a graphic novel: 1) Image of a thin rice crepe on a plate. Text reads, "Put the pork filling in the middle, then roll, fold the rice paper with the bamboo stick. 2) A woman reaches into a bowl, assembling the banch cuon. Text reads, "Top with the fried onions, garlic, and veggies." 3) She holds out a plate with the finished banh cuon. "Add fish sauce at the end. And that's it. Here, try it." 4) Another woman in a red blouse picks up a piece with chopsticks. 5) She eats it with her eyes closed in pleasure. "It tastes like home," she says. 6) The panel zooms out to show the two of them sitting in front of a small stall made up of various cooking implements. "So do you think you're ready to do this?" the woman who prepared the banh cuon asks.

There’s one poignant scene when Pham eats his first bag of potato chips with his family after they’ve worked as migrant field laborers picking strawberries. Later as an adult, he memorizes important dates in U.S. history in order to pass his citizenship test while eating lunch in the teacher’s lounge. Often, food is at the center of it all, helping to nourish Pham’s identity and feed his family’s aspirational immigrant dreams.

On the eve of his national book launch, I spoke with Pham about his memories of growing up in the Bay Area, his favorite San Jose restaurant and the beauty of being an immigrant.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Alan Chazaro: Family Style is a graphic novel about food, family, diaspora, teenage angst, American assimilation and more. As a visual storyteller, where did you begin, and how long did it take to complete?

Thien Pham: I’ve wanted to tell this family story for a long time, but there were things preventing me from it in the past. I never had a tight enough connection with my parents to get the full story, my art style wasn’t where I wanted it to be and I didn’t have a fresh enough perspective. Coming to America as a Vietnamese immigrant has been told before. It’s a universal immigration story, and I didn’t know how to tell it at the level I thought it could be. I needed time to figure it all out.

During the pandemic, it just intersected for me in a weird way. I finally spent time with my parents and talked to them about it all, and we were all old enough to talk about the truth. I also felt at that point my art was at a level that could do the story justice. When I talked to my mom, I realized that what I told her was mostly food related. As soon as I got that last piece, I knew that was the angle for me to approach it: immigration told through food. It was the missing piece; it was already inside me.

After that, I just did it page by page. It was fast, in terms of drawing comics; it wasn’t agonizing or dragged out. It’s not often I get that. Maybe two or three times in my life I’ve had that feeling. That’s one of the reasons this book is so special to me. Who knows if I’ll ever have all that coming together so perfectly again? At the end of the book, there are strips of me talking to my parents and explaining how the book was created. I wanted to capture that in the book. It was magical.

Panels excerpted from a graphic novel: 1) A boat pulls up to a larger freighter ship. 2) A man on the boat says, "They said they can take us as far as they can, and give us food and water for some money..." 3) The Vietnamese refugees on the boat look stunned to receive this news. 4) They line up to receive food from a man in a baseball cap. 5) When she reaches the front of the line, one woman says, "We have five people. Can we get some more?" as he hands her a plate of squid and a slice of watermelon. 6) The woman and her two small children look overwhelmed as someone approaches offering two additional plates of squid and rice.

Your first graphic novel, Sumo, was published over a decade ago. When did you realize you were ready to illustrate and write Family Style?

Everybody has stories in them, but it’s about recognizing when it’s time to share it. That’s crucial. I didn’t have any idea about my next big graphic novel. I would start and stop with things and nothing really stuck. I can only create when I feel a major emotional pull to do it. But between those graphic novels I’ve been drawing. I did short stories, food magazines. I was always honing my craft. Through these smaller projects I really found how to tell stories in my own voice. By the time the inspiration finally hit me, I was ready in terms of art and storytelling. I was at the point I could tell the story in the style I wanted.

The book includes references to recipes related to your family’s experiences. What have you realized about the connection between food and family?

I always wanted to cook my mom’s food. I missed it. During the pandemic, you couldn’t just go to Vietnamese restaurants, so I started learning how to do it. Every day I tried to make something my mom made me when I was a kid. This is a very metaphoric thing in the book. I thought these simple meals she used to make were easy and took no time, and they were delicious. She made meals in 15 minutes for the family in between her work shifts. But when she described to me how they were made, I realized simple meals are very, very nuanced, and there are so many more things to it I never thought about.

For example, something I thought was just fish sauce also had sugar and coconut soda and star anise. When I ate it I never picked up on those things. I realized how it mirrored our trip to America. My mom just says, “Yeah, we were on a boat and got here, and it was this and that.” But when you sit with the details, it’s like the nuance of a recipe with so much more happening. That made me realize that my parents were constantly trying to protect us when we were kids by making it look easy. Whether it’s not telling us about their hardships or making light of the work they did to provide dinner, they were trying to shield us.

Now, at 48 years old, I realize what an amazing cook and person my mom was. I think I always took that for granted.

What were the challenges of writing and illustrating Family Style, which invariably deals with intense immigrant hardships?

My dad surprised me when I asked him about how he maintained his hope through hardships: He said it wasn’t hard. Looking back, he’ll now admit it was tough, but in the moment he said it was so much joy and fun, even in the refugee camps while living in shacks with nothing. Because at least you have friends and family, and everyone is there and making the best of it. He recalls the refugee camps as some of his best times. When he told me that, it made me realize how immigration and refugees are always portrayed as sad and struggling. But there is also joy, opportunity and having each other. I wanted to write a story full of that hope and joy.

If there was a challenge, it was to convey some of the challenges while keeping a tone of joy. I didn’t want it to be about only the hardships, but seeing the fortunate side of things.

Excerpted panels from a graphic novel: 1) Kids eating lunch at a table in the cafeteria. A smiling, gap-toothed boy says, "Hey Thien! How's your first day of school going?" 2) Thien, with a perplexed expression, responds, "Okay, but for some reason everyone's calling me 'Tin.' The gap-toothed boy responds, "Ha! That's your new name! At least it sorta sounds like your name. They call me 'Tony'!" 3) Thien examines a plastic-wrapped carton of food. "What's this?" 4) While chewing, gap-toothed boy responds, "It's called sals-buree steak. Try it. I think you'll like it!" 5) Thien warily peels back the plastic wrap. 6) As prepares to put a spork-ful in his mouth, he says, "You sure? It smells funny..." "Okay, here goes..."

Community is a major part of immigrant survival for any group. In your family’s case, you met Chu Nhan, a neighbor and social advocate, who helped you move into an apartment complex with other Viet families. I’m curious, what’s the Vietnamese community in the Bay Area currently like, and do these networks still exist for newcomers? So much has changed since your family’s arrival in 1980.

For research, I went back to that exact apartment complex where we started. It’s still very much filled with immigrants. The immigrants aren’t only Vietnamese but Hispanic and Indian as well. So it’s more diverse, but it’s still there. It’s really great.

That was one of the most defining moments of my childhood — to find a community of kids. When we first came here, we were latchkey kids in kindergarten and were home all the time. Our neighbors checked in on us, and our friends were all from around the street, and we just hung around until 9 at night when our parents finally came home from work.

In the Bay Area, I would say the South Bay is where most Vietnamese people live. But as I was writing this book and traveling around to promote it, I’m seeing Vietnamese immigrant populations all over the United States. I know of San Jose and Orange County, of course. But I recently discovered Houston has a huge population, and their food scene is amazing. Same with New Orleans. They brought Viet Cajun, which is one of my favorite things — those boils. There are pockets everywhere. I think that’s great. They all have their own flair and personality. California Vietnamese. Louisiana Vietnamese.

If you had to add a new chapter and dish to the book to reflect your current living situation, what would it be and why?

I would definitely do a sushi chapter. I’m a huge sushi fan. Or tacos. I love tacos, too. The Jalisco Marisco truck in LA is one of my favorite things to eat. Or pasta. Spaghetti can be an amazing artisan experience.

As an immigrant living in the U.S., how have your experiences with food changed over time?

I used to think Chili’s was high-end (laughs). I used to think that was making it in life. Then, when I first started dating my ex-wife, she took me to a Michelin-star restaurant in San Francisco. It blew my mind, and for so long I was looking for those beautifully refined restaurants. But I’ve journeyed back to my roots and discovered the nuance of phở or a birria taco. Those kinds of things.

You regularly contribute food-related comics to publications like KQED and the East Bay Express. You also grew up in San Jose’s diverse immigrant food communities. You’re a true OG foodie. Where do you go to eat when you’re in the mood for a soul-satisfying meal?

I go to San Jose every Saturday. I have two nephews who have a single mother, and since the oldest has been in fourth grade, I come to see them for phở. We’ve gone to the same place for 20 years now: Dac Phuc. One of the nephews just got married and the other just graduated from San Jose State and got a job. And the restaurant has always been there. I think it’s the best hands down. Yelp doesn’t always agree; it’s not the most fancy place (laughs). But for me and my family, there’s no better phở. It’s nostalgia.

I just went on a trip to Detroit, and when I got home, all I wanted was Dac Phuc. I feel the most at home there. Whenever I miss those Saturdays, it knocks me off kilter. We still do it every weekend. I love San Jose.

It’s a marathon to finish any sustained creative process, so I’m sure you’re recharging your battery. But when the time arrives, what other projects or potential book ideas do you have?

When I finished Family Style I was thinking of how to follow it up. A really cool way felt like the opposite of what I did. This book is about me as a child immigrating from Vietnam to America, but I’ve been here for 40 years now and have never been back to Vietnam. People tell me I need to eat Vietnamese food in Vietnam. I’m told I haven’t had the real thing yet.

Recently, I had a life changing event when my grandma passed away. She took care of me the most in Vietnam. My relatives told me that her house, the same house where I grew up, is still there and owned by my family. I want to go back and discover the history that I don’t know about in Vietnam. I want to try the food I love at the source. It’s hard to be an immigrant in America, but it’s also the best. We walk through two cultures at once. We’re raised to eat everything. Other people are missing out.

Thien Pham will be reading excerpts from Family Style at Mrs. Dalloway’s (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on Tues., June 20 at 7 p.m. He will also appear at the California College of Arts (1111 8th St., San Francisco) on Fri., July 14 and Hicklebee’s Bookstore (1378 Lincoln Ave., San Jose) on Sun., July 16.

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Pham is currently also doing a four-month artist’s residency and exhibition at 836M Gallery (836 Montgomery St., San Francisco), with a focus on the history of San Francisco’s neighborhoods.

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