When Thien Pham was 5 years old, he, his mother, father and brother made a perilous journey, leaving Vietnam in a rickety boat. The crowded vessel ran out of food and water, but the worst was yet to come as their boat was also beset by pirates. His mother instructed Pham to close his eyes, a harrowing memory that he vividly illustrates in his recently published graphic novel, Family Style. A dozen totally black pages are a visceral depiction of his terror, broken up a few times by his mother’s comforting whisper, “I’m right here.” It’s a dramatic and affecting start to this memoir subtitled, “Memories of an American from Vietnam.”
Drawn in earth tones of browns and ochres, the book’s eight chapters are entitled with the foods which served as touchstones on Pham’s journey, first to a refugee camp, and eventually to San Jose, where he grew up. Several of the book’s chapters serve to honor and recognize his mother as a hero. In “Rice and Fish,” after the pirates leave, she hands Pham the rice ball she had saved for him. In chapter 2, “Bánh Cuõn,” she demonstrates her resourcefulness at the refugee camp by purchasing a stand to make traditional filled rice rolls, and then teaching herself to make them. “Strawberries and Potato Chips” introduces Pham to some of the edible delights in his new home. And “Salisbury Steak” represents his difficult transition to school, beginning with its cafeteria food.
NOSH spoke with Pham at a boba tea shop on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, near where he now lives.
You grew up in San Jose, attended art school in San Francisco and then moved back to San Jose. How did you end up living in Oakland?
After art school, I used to make mini comics, but no one was buying them. A friend said there’s a whole community who do this. They meet every Wednesday night and call themselves the Art Night Crew. They would meet near Piedmont Avenue on Moss Street. It was Jason Shiga, Gene Luen Yang, Derek Kirk Kim, Lark Pien. We met every week for a long time, made comics, and critiqued each other’s work. They all became published authors too. Gene Yang [author of the American Born Chinese book] and I became good friends and he asked me to come teach with him at Bishop O’Dowd High School and I did, as an art teacher.
After Gene got me the job, I moved to Oakland in 2002. That group was instrumental in my career. After the graphic novel Persepolis came out, it jumpstarted the New York publishers to get interested in our type of comics. All these publishers were looking to publish more graphic novels. One of the first was Derek Kirk Kim’s, he helped to get Gene Yang published and then Gene helped to get me published. We all loved Piedmont Avenue, and we’d go have dinner at a Japanese restaurant or an Italian place. When I moved to Oakland, this was the only neighborhood I knew, so I had to move here.
How long have you been teaching art at Bishop O’Dowd?
I’ve been teaching at there since 2002. That’s my life, my career and I love it. I remember telling Gene, ‘Okay, I’m only taking this job until my art career takes off and then I’m leaving.’ But after the first year, I loved the job. It made me a better person because I got to see so many different types of people. After growing up in the suburbs, I had a certain group of friends. The teaching job helped me meet students of all kinds, parents, teachers from everywhere, diverse cultures, diverse ethnicities, social economic standings. It made me a more well-rounded person. It opened my eyes to a lot of injustices in the world and the beauties. It’s like how people describe traveling. The great thing about that school is all these diverse people in one community, who take care of each other. I still identify as a Bishop O’Dowd teacher.
Because of my background in the refugee camp, then in a big apartment complex with other Vietnamese immigrant families and my parents always being away [at work], I always seek community. When I got to Bishop O’Dowd, not only did I love the overall community, but I also loved a small community of teachers that met for lunch every day in my classroom (I depict that in my book). That included Gene Yang. We shared a lot. We became more than colleagues, the people who worked with me became my best friends.
Did comics play a role when you were learning English?
I came here when I was 5 and I was not a very good reader or writer. By 4th grade, I was speaking pretty well, but I was still not an avid reader. The English language was very difficult for me. We were raised on TV cartoons. And I was always interested in cartoons, but I never really picked up a comic. Until one year I saw a comic book, it was Spiderman when he teamed up with Moon Knight. I was looking at a page and then the next thing I knew I was reading it and I didn’t understand how. Then, I figured out that the juxtapositions of the words and the pictures helped me to read. If I didn’t understand a word, I could see from the context of the pictures what the words meant.
I struggled at first. In my book, there’s a couple of scenes where American words appear like slashes, because I don’t understand them yet. But as I understand more, those slashes turn into words. But all those word balloons started off as things I didn’t quite understand, and as I’m looking at the pictures and the context of all the panels, they started to fill in for me in my head. I started to read and understand the story and that propelled me into actually loving to read. I started reading some of the books we had in school, and going to libraries, getting books from donation bins. I became a pretty avid reader of both novels and graphic novels.
As a lead-up the publication of your book, you posted 95 days of yourself eating noodles on Instagram @thiendog Why?
Noodles are part of my life. I love them, so it wasn’t a chore to eat them every day, the chore was posting every day. Noodles are comforting and I like that they come in so many varieties, they cross cultural borders, everyone has a version of it. I tried to get noodles from across cultures, like pastas, Chinese noodles, Japanese noodles, (a few times, a cup of noodles at home). It’s also comforting because I grew up eating them. When my parents used to own a bakery, every weekend, my dad and my brother and I would deliver bread all around San Jose, then my father would always take us out to have noodles at this one place. Tung Kee Noodle (now called TK Noodle). I would watch my dad eat them. He had a specific way of eating them. He would get his bowl, make the sauce, with chili oil, soy sauce, green chilis, dip his meat in the sauce. To this day, I still do it the same way.
What are some of your favorite Oakland restaurants?
For Vietnamese food, Pho Vy and Thanh Ky, a Laotian-Thai place called Vientian Cafe, and a Japanese chef’s choice restaurant in Swan’s Market, called Delage (I will do a KQED Check, Please Bay Area with them).
You’ve said: “I’m a huge fan of watching people eat.” Why is that?
I love watching people from different cultures eat because they eat things differently. I started watching my dad eat noodles. So now, I follow a lot of accounts on Instagram where people just eat, and I love watching them. To watch a Japanese person eat spaghetti is very different than how an Italian person eats spaghetti. I’ve been to a Laotian picnic where people eat with sticky rice and make the perfect bite, Filipino [kamayan] feasts where everything is spread out on banana leaves, and you make a cone. That’s why I love watching people eat and seeing their different techniques.
If someone saw me eat my favorite noodles at TK, they would say “that guy really knows how to eat that noodle.” I love that. Whenever I go into a restaurant of a new culture, I just want to observe people eating, because I want to eat like them. Like eating rice the Korean way is way different than the Vietnamese way. Vietnamese people will lift their rice bowl up to their mouth and just shovel it in, whereas Korean people generally don’t pick up the metal rice bowl at all, they just pick up the chopsticks and eat with them.
At the end of the book, you get your citizenship, at age 41. Why did you wait so long?
In that chapter, I wanted to outline the very complicated process. My parents got their citizenship when I was 18, so I wasn’t included. I tried a couple of times, but there were hiccups, like a mail error. I honestly never felt it was important. I had assimilated into the United States, I didn’t feel like needing to vote was all that important at the time. I was just happy in my little bubble. But it was in 2016, the big election, when my eyes were really opened. The backlash against immigrants hit me really hard, to see people protesting immigration and sending people home made me sad and shattered the bubble I had before, that everything is fine here. And I realized you have to work hard in this country to keep it the way that you love it. For so long, I felt like my voice didn’t matter, but that was the year I realized that everybody’s voice really matters. So that’s when I decided to get my citizenship.
Are you working on a second book yet?
It would be a natural continuation. I have never gone back to Vietnam, but my family still has houses there. My parents have gone back several times. I’m going in November. I want to see where I was born. Maybe that will lead to another book. If I get an inspiration, that’s fine. But I’m still a teacher.