For those who don’t yet know, I’m fond of all things food and Vietnamese. And judging by recent responses on VTP, I’m not the only one. I am, however, equally – if not more so – obsessed with the cultural production of “accents.” Imagine my delight then, when confronted with the Australian hybrid travel-cooking show, Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam. If I were a bit more sexually ambivalent, I’d have jizzed my pants. You too will reach the same premature conclusion when you hear his sweet Aussie accent:
Go on, I’ll wait. Now that we’ve all basked in the glory of the ever-dapper Luke Nguyen, consider what a significant achievement Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam represents. As the first Vietnamese expatriate to headline a successful transnational television show (Maggie Q’s horrendous re-reincarnation of La Femme Nikita not withstanding), Nguyen exposes a Western audience to an image of Vietnam that often contradicts their common knowledge. The show takes for its subject not simply food or travel, but the people and culture of Vietnam. It is, in essence, a Vietnamese expatriate’s fantastic journey through the perils of modern Vietnamese society in an attempt to reclaim culinary and ethnic authenticity.
I’ve learned quite a bit from Luke Nguyen, the most enlightening of which is that unless it’s cooked in lemongrass, it isn’t truly Vietnamese. This places my entire life in crisis: am I really Vietnamese or have my parents mislead me? How much lemongrass must I consume to reaffirm my Vietnamese authenticity?
These signifiers of Vietnameseness, of course, are arbitrary, and in the case of lemongrass, environmental. But the question of authenticity continually re-emerges as we watch Luke Nguyen interact with his native brethren. The audience sees him cook in strange, exotic locales as a flurry of Vietnamese people surround him. Often, he invites a guest to sit and (uncomfortably) watch him cook, acting as a kind of living backdrop that attests to his authority. “Look,” it says, “a real Vietnamese person accompanies me.” This, of course, raises several questions: is Luke Nguyen not a real Vietnamese person? Is he some fake Vietnamese/Australian cyborg sent back in time to kill John Connor? And if he really is Vietnamese, why must the show constantly strive to prove as much to its Western audience?
That Sweet Aussie Accent
The show’s desire for authenticity may stem from the standard stereotype of the accented Asian. But let’s first be clear about what an accent is. Regional “accents” are, in actuality, dialects. Accents, instead, are a matter of (mis)pronunciation – what, for instance, someone Fresh Off the Boat would have. The FOB stereotype is so pervasive that it haunts even the most pompous Ph.D. candidates in English literature. On more than one occasion, I’ve been congratulated, in all sincerity, on how well I speak English. “Why thank you,” I always reply, “yours is aight.” Such an experience reveals the assumptions being made about what a typical Vietnamese (or Asian) person should sound like, and these are the same assumptions that challenge Nguyen’s claim to authenticity. If the stereotype imagines all Asians, whether first- or second-generation, as an accented caricature, it also inversely questions the ethnic and cultural knowledge of “unaccented” Asian people. As someone with a distinctly Western dialect, Nguyen is forced to continually remind his audience that despite his Aussie “accent,” he is ethnically, culturally, and linguistically Vietnamese. The relatives he visits, his scripted knowledge of Vietnamese culture, the people he awkwardly speaks to on screen – all attest to his Vietnamese heritage. This constant reiteration helps Nguyen gain much of his culinary authority. After all, who would watch a show called, “John Smith’s Vietnam?”
Authenticity and Exploitation by Proxy
On some level, the show is also about Luke Nguyen’s personal odyssey to reclaim his Vietnamese ancestry.
He roams the countryside flirting with young ladies, gets himself into all kinds of trouble, and narrowly escapes with help from the native inhabitants. He even gets attacked by a sea creature – or two-inch squid – in the middle of the night. Homer would be proud.
This reclamation of his authenticity, however, sometimes comes at the expense of the native Vietnamese population. Whether their presence is necessary or a twisted form of tokenism, it’s never made clear. And that is at once the beauty and frustration of Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam. It straddles the line between homage and exploitation, between a celebration of culture and an incitement to tourism. As a Vietnamese expat who is also culturally Western, Nguyen acts as a tour guide to the “real” world of Vietnam. But like the contradiction between his English dialect and his Vietnamese dialogue, the audience never experiences an “authentic” Vietnam. As the title suggests, Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam is a mediated experience. When he says, “It’s a pity I’m here alone” while cruising down a serene river in Tam Coc, you can’t help but feel sorry for the invisible Vietnamese person rowing him around. Or when he makes a game out of carrying 40-kilo baskets, an activity, he recounts, that “these little ladies” do all day, you’re not sure whether you should be buoyed by their strength or question his privileged trivialization of their harsh life.
At moments, the tension between what he says and what occurs on screen is palpable. Check out his interaction with the elderly Hmong woman starting at 22:00:
You feel for the old Hmong lady as Nguyen informs the audience that the Hmong in this area are incredibly poor and can rarely afford meat in their diet. He tells you this all before slicing up a piece of smoked duck breast and tasting it in front of the poor woman’s eyes. He even asks, “Thu Khong?” but then seemingly changes his mind and shoves it in his own mouth. The scene highlights a very clear disconnect between what he says and what he does. It signals an incredible failure on his part to appreciate the situation as he recites from the script. His words acknowledge that many people – like the woman perched behind him – can’t afford meat even as his actions reveal an apparent incomprehension of its consequences.
The Trouble with Translations
But the show’s mediation goes beyond simply using the native Vietnamese population as props to promote Nguyen’s authenticity. It also makes judgments as to what counts as legitimate and intelligible speech. Anyone who speaks multiple languages knows that the act of translating is a tricky business. The cultural production of language makes it nearly impossible to translate the literal, idiomatic, and connotative at the same time.
Translations are even trickier in Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam.
In some instances, the Vietnamese is subtitled as well as can be expected. In others, however, the show simply ignores the Vietnamese words uttered. The value judgment here, that these words aren’t important or lack the intelligible content viewers can comprehend, typifies the Western notion of foreign languages as insignificant gibberish. At times, subtitles are absent when Nguyen translates for the audience. At others, both subtitles and translations go missing. When he asks the Hmong lady if she’d like to try the smoked duck in Vietnamese – and then fails to follow through – the show gives neither subtitle nor translation. Non-Vietnamese speakers miss the disconcerting exchange, and its import, altogether.
The show’s selective representation, strangely, is even more problematic when he offers translations, since his renditions are almost always misleading. He often asks his guests in Vietnamese if the food smells good. They’ll give a little nod or quietly say “yeah” – how else could they respond? – and he’ll translate it emphatically as, “She said it smells delicious!” And all in that charming Aussie accent.
It’s likely that correctly subtitling these leading questions would raise doubts as to his authority and authenticity. If a chef has to ask for validation and receives a quick nod in return, it doesn’t exactly instill confidence in his abilities. And Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam, like all cooking shows, is heavily invested in its chef’s ability to not only produce, but astound. Instead of subtitles with that ambivalent nod, then, the viewer sees a real Vietnamese person supposedly enamored with Nguyen’s food. And what better verification of his Vietnamese and culinary authenticity than confirmation from a native Vietnamese person?
A large part of these questionable situations come from the artifice of the show’s “reality” format. We don’t expect authentic castaway life from Survivor, so why from Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam? Still, it’s difficult to come to terms with some of these representations of Vietnameseness.
What do you think the lesson from Luke Nguyen’s desire for authenticity is? Or, better yet, what the hell is Vietnamese authenticity, anyway?
This article is the first in a proposed series that examines Luke Nguyen’s journey to his native land in order to explore the often troubled, and always entertaining intersections between culture, identity, sexuality, and, of course, food. Look for Questionable Vietnamese Masculinity in the near future.