For about three months when I was eight or nine, my grandfather’s sister Cô Út, a Buddhist nun, came to live with us in Florida from her remote monastery in Vietnam. She wore simple, gray cotton garments and carried a small duffel bag. Within days, she’d quietly folded herself into our suburban American life. Twice a day, she prayed on a mat she’d brought along with her. She liked taking walks around the neighborhood and chatting with the neighbors. At mealtimes, she told stories of Buddha’s travels, embedding them so beautifully into the tapestry of our conversation that we always listened, rapt.
By contrast, our everyday life had a kind of frenetic energy born of the kind of concerns so many immigrants struggled with: how to make rent, how to raise children who stood between two cultures, how to make room for spirituality in a chaotic world. Though my grandparents remained religious, the younger folks had strayed from our early lessons in Buddhism.
I’m sure Cô Út wasn’t impressed by our secular household, but she never let us feel it. Instead, when she saw a wrong, she would address it through storytelling. She, like my grandfather, had a way of spinning tales with such beautiful immediacy that we forgot they were, at heart, parables designed to help us understand our place in the world.
Once, she told us about how her whole monastery went on a pilgrimage on foot with heavy sacks of rice and vegetables strapped to their backs. Their sole mission was to find and feed the hungry in their path. Though the journey was rough and blisteringly hot at times, they wouldn’t return home until all the food had disappeared into the bellies of those who needed it. In retrospect, this seems like one of those saccharine tales we tell, appealing to kids’ innate sense of injustice, but what made this story different for me was that she’d lived it herself. She was the proof of a holy life.
I could tell it made my grandfather happy to have his sister around. They’d been separated as children, orphans who’d been divided into households and treated as poor relatives, always reminded of their precarious place. When they later found one another as adults, my grandfather—the eldest brother—promised never to leave her—his baby sister—again. They were, after all, the last surviving siblings of five. But he did leave, of course; we all did, when we got on a plane bound from Ho Chi Minh City to Florida. Now, with his sister back in his home, my grandfather was proud to be able to do small things with Cô Út—like take her to the local beach, or, once, to Disney World, where the full contrast of her life at the monastery and our American one came into sharp relief. I could see my grandfather transforming into the version of himself he might have been as a kid, had he not suffered so much. Quick to laugh. Reaching for wonder. Meanwhile, we all became more contemplative with Cô Út around, less prone to blaring the television or airing grievances at the top of our lungs—a competitive sport in our hot-blooded family.
But the change I remember most was at our dinner table. Like most Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns, Cô Út ate a solely vegan diet, abstaining from animal products as part of her spiritual practice. Though my grandmother and aunts still cooked meat for the kids, it became more commonplace to have mostly vegan meals, out of respect for her. Our table, once groaning with caramelized shrimp and beef stew, now became a backdrop for dishes like braised tofu cut into triangular steaks, vegetable-packed spring rolls, and garlicky tangles of water spinach. There was xôi, a sticky-sweet rice dish; fried vegan patties; and sautéed bamboo shoots seasoned liberally with freshly ground pepper. As the months went on, the cooking only got more creative.
My grandmother, truth be told, initially muttered a few choice asides as she was forced to shelve her beloved fish sauce. Some of us may have sneaked away for a hamburger or three. But even I—a picky kid who loved pepperoni pizza above all else—started to pick at the vegan food in front of me. Seeing my grandfather’s immense love for Cô Út introduced a kind of respect in me, too, not only for my great-aunt, but for a part of my culture that seemed to have become suddenly accessible through the dishes at the dinner table. The braised tofu, dotted with velvety straw mushrooms that soaked up all the flavor of the sauce, was as warm and hearty as any other protein-heavy dish we’d eaten. I enjoyed the simplicity of a vegetable broth, floating with semi-circles of nearly translucent winter melon. It seemed to me that we all became quieter during those vegan meals. We let ourselves sink into our thoughts, no longer as concerned with pushing them outside our minds.
My grandfather’s sister eventually flew back to Vietnam—though not before we introduced her to the joy of French fries—and we went back to an omnivore diet. My grandmother happily reunited with her jar of fish sauce. But Cô Út’s lessons of spirituality stayed with us. Service, contemplation, and sacrifice, though I did not see veganism as a sacrifice after my time with her. It was a habit shift. Another, just as satisfying way of seeing the world.
Even before Cô Út lived with us, for as long as I’ve been alive, my grandparents ăn chay—or, go vegan—two days a month, usually coinciding with the first day of the lunar month and the advent of the full moon. It’s a practice undertaken both to honor our ancestors and to welcome prosperity for our family. A solemn, yet hopeful celebration. Before the vegan meal, my grandfather would say the blessing to our ancestors: “You are never far from us.” I liked the simplicity of his prayer. The acknowledgement of legacy, of our own rootedness.
My grandparents never imposed vegan food on us; that wasn’t their way. But usually, the adults would eat vegan food as well, because it was simpler to do so than to cook another meal. Sometimes, I’d join them. It felt like I was communing in a tradition not only of religion, but of family. Afterwards, we’d clean the table together, wiping up the remains of the meal, still thinking about the ways our pasts have brought us where we are. We silently thanked those who came before us for the life we have now.
I’ve had a few other brushes with veganism in my life. When I have friends who are vegan, I try to expand my cooking repertoire with them. While visiting my grandparents during their periods of ăn chay, I eat the same foods as them. But sometimes, I’m just in the mood to shift my lifestyle, even briefly, in my own home. Due to health concerns and the environmental impact of eating meat, I’m often eager for the chance to pivot away from my own reliance on animal products. On those days, I’ll reach for the vegetables, the tofu, the seitan. I call my mom, asking for her recipe for kho chay (braised tofu and mushrooms).
This change in diet often brings out something more mindful in me, forcing me to take note of the texture of my food, as well as the rhythm of my own thoughts. Though I’m not a Buddhist myself, I’ve always been drawn to the tenets of the religion, specifically around the need to release ourselves from perfectionism. I’ll never be a perfectly conscientious eater—a perfect vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore—but I hope to make steps forward every day, walking in the deeply grooved path my family has set before me.