My Name is Rice Flakes
On September 2nd, 1995, my mom was on the disco floor before her water broke. I may have wondered once or twice what song she was jamming to when I decided that was enough. “Mom, we should get out of here,” I probably thought. The message translated well as she quickly left the club for Military Central Hospital. It was a humid day in Hanoi. Everybody was going out to celebrate Independence Day. There was only one other expectant mother in her room. A few hours later, I was born.
According to my mother, I was a strange kid. Unlike other babies, I didn’t shed a tear. I still find that hard to believe given the sensitive person I am now. The nurse was so worried there was something unusual with me she tapped my butt several times until I finally cried. Everybody breathed a sigh of relief.
In Hanoi, September is the season of rice flakes. Rice flakes, or “cốm” in Vietnamese, are immature rice kernels roasted over extremely low heat and then pounded in a mortar and pestle until they are flattened. They are kept and sealed in a large lotus leaf. Rice flakes have a signature shade of green, close to lime green but not as pretentious, a chewy texture that barely tires your teeth, and a milky aroma as pleasing as the smell of Earth before the rain. The aroma is the most charming part. It flirts with your nose even before you unwrap the lotus leaf and tempts you into taking a bite. Every Hanoian knows the scent by heart. It’s a staple of the Northern Vietnamese autumn.
Rice flakes can be used in so many ways. It can be eaten raw, put in an omelette, or made into these jelly-like “rice flakes cakes” (bánh cốm) with a coconut filling that stays fresh for 2–3 days only. Every summer in college, I would entertain the idea of packing some to bring to the U.S., but came to accept they wouldn’t survive the long flight. Because I was born in the middle of rice flakes season, my grandma made rice flakes porridge for my mom to eat every day. Her milk carried the aroma of the grain, which gave me that milky, Earth-before-the-rain smell as a toddler. My parents nicknamed me Rice Flakes after that. In Vietnamese culture, kids have nicknames at home because if the devil knows their real names, he could easily capture their souls. Teachers and friends might have known me by Sieu, but I was always my parents’ little Rice Flakes.
They have a milky aroma as pleasing as the smell of Earth before the rain.
Believe it or not, I hated that nickname. As a kid, I thought it was… underwhelming, maybe a little derogatory. Who names their child after roasted immature rice kernels? The more meaningful the name Sieu appeared, the more embarrassing Rice Flakes felt. I wanted no one outside my family to ever hear that name. When my kindergarten friends shared their nicknames in playtime, I lied and said I didn’t have one. I’m not a liar, but hey, that was an important move to maintain my reputation at Nursery School A. My friends were called Puppy or Porcupine by their parents, which was at least cute. I couldn’t let other kids laugh at my nickname because my parents made an uncute decision. Not a chance!
One afternoon, my parents both got busy with work so they asked my grandpa to pick me up from school. When he arrived at the classroom, he said loudly, “I’m here to pick up Rice Flakes.” My teacher was confused, “Who is Rice Flakes?” My face turned red, but I kept it straight, looked away from grandpa, and didn’t utter a single word. I pretended to be as confused as everyone else. Who is this Rice Flakes? Never heard of him or her before! I could not, I repeat, could not blow my cover because of this. I’ve made it this far. I’m almost out of here to head to elementary school! Lucky for me, my grandpa was so used to the name Rice Flakes he couldn’t recall my real name on the spot, so after a minute of awkward silence, he apologized for going to the wrong class and walked away. I breathed a sigh of relief. The teacher still didn’t know what was going on. The mystery lingered among the kids. That was a close call.
Ten minutes later, I started to feel guilty. My grandpa probably was going to every other classroom asking for Rice Flakes, only to be met with confused looks from the teachers and murmurs from the preschoolers. Maybe it was that guilt, or maybe I realized I needed to go home somehow and was scared that if my grandpa couldn’t find me, he would just leave. (As a mischievous kid with a good nature, I tend to believe it was the former.) I ran up to my teacher and whispered into her ear, “Please don’t tell anybody Miss Diep, but I am… Rice… Flakes.” You guessed it. She flipped out. She rushed out of the classroom to look for my grandpa. The kids were confused. I was stressed. “It’s about to go down,” I murmured in dismay, “There goes the reputation I have built in this kingdom.”
My face was as red as the nectarine my mom made me eat after every dinner.
Five minutes later, the teacher and my grandpa appeared at the door. Upon spotting me, in my cargo shorts and Mickey Mouse t-shirt with the ridiculous porcupine haircut that was the epitome of late 90s kid fashion, my grandpa shouted, “Rice Flakes, there you are!” Even though he had to wander three floors before being told his first destination was correct, he was more relieved than mad. But I was. Embarrassment rushed through my body. My face was as red as the nectarine my mom made me eat after every dinner. My ears were as hot as the boiling steamer my grandma used to make sticky rice. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. I knew the cat was out of the bag. The kids probably had a big laugh after this, now that this Rice Flakes mystery was solved and I had been the culprit all along. I sprinted out of the classroom and buried my head in grandpa’s belly, sobbing. Why couldn’t he just call me by my legal, state-authorized, government-certified name? Why did he have to reveal my deep, dark secret to the class, which was at the time as big as planet Earth to me? Why did my parents give me such an ugly nickname before all this? I hated everyone. I protested going to school the next day, but of course it didn’t sit well with my parents. I was mad at grandpa for a week, before I forgot why I was mad in the first place.
After I graduated from kindergarten, I made sure no one from my family called me Rice Flakes in a public setting going forward. I wasn’t a difficult kid at all. That was my only demand, besides skipping lunches that had pork belly, not taking naps on Saturdays, delaying haircuts, staying past bedtime whenever Charmed was on, and taking only liquid medicines, no pills allowed. Very easy. That incident with grandpa was catastrophic enough. When my mom joined the PTA in third grade (not by choice, she wasn’t very pleased given her busy work schedule), whenever she came by my school to organize an event she didn’t want to organize, I reminded her to just call me Sieu. What’s so difficult about a mom calling her child by the name she put down on his birth certificate? Or so I thought. The awkwardness was palpable because it turned into somewhat of a performance. She never called me Sieu at home. My mom suddenly felt like a stranger because there was no feeling attached to that name when it came out of her lips. There was no depth, no familiarity, no intimacy. It was just a facade of a sphere with nothing inside to give it weight. For the greater good however, I went along with the game I started because I couldn’t let more people in the world know the existence of Rice Flakes.
It was just a facade of a sphere with nothing inside to give it weight.
I went to the U.S. for college in the summer of 2013. Being in a foreign country with no family, I had the unique opportunity to rewrite my identity the way I wanted it. I introduced myself to everyone as Sieu. I left Rice Flakes in the past, in Vietnam, in a drawer I thought I had locked away for good. The fear of being laughed at for a nickname invented after roasted rice kernels was put to rest. I felt peaceful for the first time in years. On this side of the world, no one knows about Rice Flakes.
I was enjoying my new life in America so much I didn’t see it coming. One morning after I woke up in my dorm room, in the split second between an inhale and a sudden sneeze, I smelled it. That milky aroma that was as pleasing as the smell of Earth before the rain. That sweet scent that contains in itself the spirit of the Hanoian autumn. That charming smell that’s so humble yet lusting. Rice flakes! It couldn’t be. This is upstate New York. I breathed in again and much to my disappointment, the scent was gone. Of course it wasn’t real.
It was me tripping on aesthesia. It was my olfaction tricking me into believing I was still at home. It was the nostalgia I arduously tried to repress spilling out of a hidden locket. A rush of homesickness ran like electricity across my spine. It had been months since I had rice flakes from a gentle lotus wrap. It had been months since I heard somebody call me by Rice Flakes. It had been months since I felt that sense of intimacy, of affection, the reassurance that however old I got, I was always my parents’ little kid, the feeling that wherever I went, Vietnam or America, I had a family who cares for and protects me always. I spent my whole life trying to hide it from the world, only to feel a part of my identity lost without it. It was there that I had an epiphany.
Everything means nothing if there is no love.
Rice Flakes isn’t just a nickname inspired by roasted rice kernels. Rice Flakes is my parents’ humble love for the son they welcomed to the world the night they thought was just a normal disco night. Rice Flakes is my parents’ fear of losing me to the hands of the devil, because they want to protect me from all the evils in the world. Rice Flakes is my parents reminding me that wherever I live, I am rooted at home, the September boy who carries the spirit of a Hanoian autumn. Rice Flakes is our little secret, a name that’s not at all pretentious to impress the world but the more I’ve lived, the more I’ve learned that what’s on the outside never truly matters. A fancy name and a fancy life don’t make you a good person. Expensive watches and impressive penthouses don’t bring you happiness. Everything means nothing if there is no love, the pure kind of love that is unconditional, that holds you like it’s afraid to lose you, that chooses you every morning when you wake up, that yearns to protect you at all cost, that embraces you on your worst days, that lifts you up when you are down and tirelessly brings out the best in you. I didn’t know then, but I know now. By giving me the name Rice Flakes, my parents were teaching me about love. How to give it properly. How to filter out what’s unworthy. How to ask for what I deserve. How to spread it to those who need it. How to feel it with my full throbbing heart. How to, at the end of every day, give love to myself.
I’m writing this piece on the dawn of my 25th birthday to remind myself that much like Rice Flakes, love comes from the most humble things. It doesn’t show off. It doesn’t make a scene. It doesn’t have a price tag. Sometimes it comes in a simple lotus wrap and carries a milky aroma that’s just as pleasing as the smell of Earth before a summer downpour. For me, that is enough.