The Burnt Toast Phenomenon

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I have come to observe that many Vietnamese-Americans are subjected to the “Burnt Toast Phenomenon.” What I mean by this is that we are brought up to take the “lesser” of things. Often Vietnamese parents will encourage their children not to want expensive things, to save money and not buy anything that is not needed, and not “waste”. This can be frustrating for Vietnamese-Americans because living here, in the United States, we are encouraged to shoot for the top and the media constantly entices young people with top brands, trends and luxuries. We live in a society where movie stars are envied and worshipped and “things” are always in want.

But yet our parents will tell us it is ridiculous and wasteful to “want” anything that is not absolutely necessary to live. This is ironic, because a lot of times this has nothing to do with how much money the person or family has, it is the mentality that the “bare minimum” is enough and saving is always better. If the “Burnt Toast” is edible and can save us money, then we should buy that instead of the fresh baked loaf of bread. If the day-old cookies are half off, as long as they are still edible, pick those instead of the new cookies.

I have also found that this phenomenon carries over to a non-material aspect. At family gatherings or parties, it is not uncommon to see Vietnamese guests in a buffet line plating food for others with big chunks of meat, big fat shrimp, and a large heaping of noodles. But when it comes time for the person who is serving others to make his/her own plate of food, he/she may just plate himself/herself sticky rice he/she scraped from the bottom of the pot.

And when you ask that person why they did not get some meat, shrimp or noodles, the person will say “Oh, I’m not that hungry. I really like sticky rice and it looked so good I just wanted a plate of it alone.” When in reality, the “plater” was starving and was craving meat and shrimp, but thought it would be “rude” to take the better food items that should be left for other guests.

In my own family, the women often take the “burnt toast” during family gatherings when there are not enough chairs for everyone to sit at one table. We have twenty two people in all with my grandparents, their children, and the grandchildren. The “adults” usually sit at one table and the “kids” at another. When there is not enough space or elbow room at the adult table, the women will say that “I want to sit at the kids table so I can sit down and stand up easier” or that “It is more comfortable to sit at the kids table”.

In reality, these women really want to sit at the adult table and engage in mature conversation rather than sitting with the kids who are watching cartoons, but they do not express this. They take the paper bowls and plates when others are using glass, they take more noodles and less meat, and they eat quickly so that they can get started on washing the dishes.

I have also found that men take the “burnt toast” as well during family gatherings. A lot of the men will stop eating and claim they are “so full” before they are really full because they do not want to overeat and not leave enough food for others. Even when there is more than enough food for everyone to have seconds and thirds, even fourths, one man will usually start the chorus by saying “I am stuffed” and soon after the rest will fall in line.

I never realized this as a child, but now, as I am growing into adulthood, I realize this phenomenon more and more. I think it is because I am feeling the pressure and expectation that I too must engage in this “burnt toast ritual” to give others the better half while I take the worse half. It perplexes me WHY we have this phenomenon.

But when I reflect on it, I think it has to do with the fact that Vietnamese people are used to struggle. Many Vietnamese people came to the United States in a time of war and had to live on very little to house and feed very large families. They were forced to live by little means and had to learn not to waste or spend on anything extravagant and make resources last.

I am not saying that Vietnamese people are cheap. In fact, it is the opposite. Vietnamese people are very generous and giving. Vietnamese people are unusually resourceful, inventive and creative. They do not waste but they do not live substandard lives. My only point is that Vietnamese-Americans are brought up in a society where they are taught to be more “selfish” by the Vietnamese point of view. In America, we are supposed to eat what WE want, do what WE want to do, and live how WE want to live.

This Burnt Toast Phenomenon lives on through us, the Vietnamese-Americans who are growing into adulthood or who are in our adulthood. Growing up in a Vietnamese family means RESPONSIBILITY, DUTY, and RESPECT for your family. Vietnamese families are extremely close-knit which is a blessing, but at times this can lead the Vietnamese-American children to feel a bit oppressed by the expectations of their family.

Do not get me wrong, Vietnamese children are very well taken care of. Most parents will pay for their children’s’ education and support them through college and even graduate school, when other parents would throw their children out of the house when they graduated from high school.

Some parents would charge their children rent if they lived at home during college, Vietnamese parents will buy their children new cars, do their laundry and clean up after the children if they would only live at home during college. Vietnamese parents are so great about supporting their children’s’ education, that is THE priority. The children do not have to work or worry about any other responsibilities until school is done. It is a wonderful thing, but there is a tough exchange.

Many Vietnamese-Americans are expected to stay single, live at home, and take care of their parents, siblings, even grandparents until they are graduated from school, have jobs and are financially stable. This may not sound so bad to others, but for those who have lived through it, know that it is a constant battle. We know how lucky we are that we are able to have such loving families that would do anything for us and who we would do anything for. But at the same time, we must take the “burnt toast” and give up some of our independence and freedom for their happiness.


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