The perfect cracker would have:

black sesame, black pepper, pink volcano salt, minced garlic, chili powder, matcha powder, green onion, rosemary, basil, nutritional yeast, lemongrass, cinnamon, turmeric, charcoal, ginger, cardamom, and nori flakes …all embedded onto a rice flour crust and pounded into thin rectilinear planes, abandoned to scorch in the hot sunlight, internally bubbling up tiny pockets of warm air as evenly dispersed as a beehive.

Biting down should feel like crushing into an exoskeleton with no guts. Bumpy surfaces are relatable because they confuse inside and outside. An inclination towards dry foods because I am a hollow shell.

Shaking crumbs from my pillowcase, my mother would threaten me in her watered-down Buddhist way that I would surely become a cow or an ant in my next life. She never understood that this only invigorated my empathy with animals, envisioning their souls, to the point where I would often pretend to be an animal, as most children do, on my hands and knees, observing human life from a more knowing future (confusing the punishment of reincarnation as eternal suffering with Christian notions of transfiguration via the embodiment of christ).

Plasticity describes the deformation of a solid material undergoing irreversible changes of shape in reaction to applied forces. It should be clearly differentiated from elasticity which is the ability for a material to resist a distorting force by returning to its original form once that influence has been removed. In engineering terms, the transition from the elastic material to the plastic material is quantified as yield, which is to ask, how many times must it hurt before a new body emerges, but also raises the question of if a house quivers at the slightest breeze, is it still a house? Regardless, we all need a place to live. Regardless, the wind brings angular ships from cold, northern hemispheres towards humid landscapes with long coastlines.

Colonizers, who are notorious for their bad digestions, brought over gluten to Vietnam primarily in two innocuous forms: firstly, the thin lines of wheat noodles from northern China, and secondly, the rigid and narrow baguette from France. In both cases, the Vietnamese re-fleshed out these shapes with rice flour, resulting in lighter, crispier mouthfeels and gentler absorption into the gut. The oral history I vaguely remember is that rice originally appeared as a large ball falling from the sky into each and every home, on a daily basis, as an answer to mass prayers. Somewhere along the way, a woman eternally damaged this blessing by shattering her daily ball of rice with a broomstick. Grains reverberated off her kitchen walls and were spit onto the ground. Like heaps of white snow on hot asphalt, the magic liquified and from then on rice had to be grown by hand, with knees submerged in water. This was a vulnerable position to work from, for any body type, with limited visibility and muddy traction.

And so the Chinese imperialists came in, and stayed for over 1000 years, directing these bodies from the shores of drier land which offered misty panoramic views. The French did not arrive until 1887, but when they did, they quadrupled the amount of territory designated to rice growing by drowning solid ground previously being used to live on.

There is a specific kind of poverty, which is the kind that forces you to mine your own sustenance so deeply to the point where you don’t know how to take sustenance when it is being given to you, because you are so used to giving it over. Today, rice is one of the country’s top exports. Rice persists as the cause, the symptom, and the cure. Rice is born and dies and rebirths in literal wetness, elastic only to itself as individual grains, and continually yields as a collective stickiness, clinging to one another from within the shells of hegemonic shapes, but also deforming them through an inherent malleability.

We almost never meet one another at the right time, in the right bodies, and if we do the moment is so brief we spend the rest of our lives attempting to recreate it, the very attempt at which takes us in a direction further away from where we started. The bánh mì, in postcolonial terms and at this perspective in time, might be described as a hybridity. Within the framework of genetically modified foods and a western canon that enables eugenic processes, it’s crucial to clarify that hybridity does not consist of two distinct lines intertwining like strands of DNA, fusing into an eternal code. There is nothing so primordial about your cultivated taste buds that could have validated the formation of the bánh mì, and yet prevented the popularization of central region foods, which are sometimes so slippery it feels like parts haven’t died yet. The baguette cushions your cheeks from the impact of overwhelming flavor, a different life.

I can’t allow you to romanticize the meeting of the French and the Vietnamese, because hybridity is not about reproductive sex. Hybridity is rather an impotence that glides along the form of an asymptote, which can be visualized as two lines getting closer and closer to one another but never being able to touch as they arch toward infinity. The recognition of hybridity is standing in this gap which grows all the more tragic the smaller it becomes, but also it is within this gap where we can see the other without losing ourselves. Loneliness is a predicate for seeing. The moment you speak about something it has separated from you. When your mouth is full and chewing you cannot speak. We eat to lose ourselves, to consume the literal body of the other, or our great grandparents. We claim eating is supposedly not intellectual, eating is instinct, which makes us animals, whom we rely upon for our humanness as we eat them. Eating is a reminder that we can die, which is expelled in the exhale of most satisfying pleasures.

As another French hybridity, phở is certainly the most popular Vietnamese American fare, sometimes valorized for its health benefits. But one might recall that the bone broth which gives phở its savorable depth was born out of the necessitation of using every part of the animal or else there wouldn’t be enough, letting the creaturely bits simmer while the people slept, to eradicate the kind of bacteria that arises from not being able to manage disparate moments of decay, of having someone else’s time imposed on you, of always running behind, of being left with the scraps. There are no heroics to this sort of urgency, no particular moment of revelation, just time passing by and allowing the unfamiliar parts to stew long enough so that they are eventually digestible, carried through the mundane and generous elasticity of a soup. Within this mixture of oxtail and cinnamon, swimming with rice noodles, is the taste of desperation and resilience and surrender and comfort and devastating victory after 1100 years of being called by a different name.

Now, from here, with no imminent threat, phở performs with each iteration for us as the motherland. A sip of broth is atemporal, as is your mother who never stops being your mother no matter how old she gets, how cruel she is, or how you are convinced that you are nothing like her, if you choose to see her only once a year, on the coldest day, and your mouth turns away the soup she makes you, it’s because you won’t allow her to claim innocence under the guise of cultural transmission.

Some things that my mother made me as a child growing up in America:

orange juice swirling in milk
vanilla ice cream baguette
spaghetti sauce with canned pineapple chunks
carved out watermelon domes filled with rice
escargot porridge
the entire surface of a birthday cake covered in peanuts when I asked for sprinkles

Diane Severin Nguyen is an artist who uses photography and time-based media to transform natural and inanimate objects into something uncanny. She currently lives and works between Los Angeles and New York. Nguyen earned an MFA from Bard College in 2020 and a BA from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2013. Her work will be included in the recent exhibition MADE L.A. 2020: a version, at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. She has had solo exhibitions at Bad Reputation, Los Angeles (2019) and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong (2019). Her film TYRANT STAR has screened at Yebisu Festival, Tokyo (2020); IFFR Rotterdam, Netherlands (2020); and the 57th New York Film Festival, New York (2019).