What’s cooking in Lilian Vo’s pot? A recipe to bring a community together, despite language, cultural and generational gaps.
In her recently published recipe storybook, “The Sticky Rice Project,” Vo blends stories and recipes together to paint an authentic portrait of her Vietnamese community in Seattle. The book highlights the various worldviews and difference in values that exist within one community.
Vo, originally from Renton and a Renton High School graduate, said she found food brings people together in mysterious ways.
“I would talk to my mom the most at the kitchen or at the dinner table,” she said. “When I came home from college, I would often talk to my parents at the dinner table. That’s when I would ask them all the questions, even if it was about homework, history or Vietnam; I noticed (these conversations) happened over food. So I thought how could I recreate that experience and involve other people. So I thought what if older generations taught the younger generations how to cook.”
A recipe storybook seemed like the perfect way to cook up her vision.
The book is methodically organized and requires readers to start from page 1 and work their way through, rather than skipping from recipe to recipe, or story to story. This is a deliberate choice, Vo said, in order to give the readers the depth, history and significance of each recipe and story.
“The most important part of this book is the stories, not the recipes necessarily. But the recipes do start a conversation,” Vo said. “If someone brought it to their mom, their mom might say, ‘This is the wrong recipe.’ And that’s where the conversation starts. It keeps going from there.”
The book collaborative effort with Vo’s friends — some of them also RHS graduates — and staff of Xin Chao Magazine, a Seattle-based Vietnamese magazine. The project was made possible by a grant by the Live It Fund. Vo, who is a self-taught graphic artist, was the lead designer of the book. She conducted various interviews, designed the entire book and was the lead for the project.
Currently she is a international studies student — minoring in anthropology and Japanese — at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
She ventured into the field with hopes of becoming a politician, however quickly found policy making wasn’t a good fit for her. Instead her curiosity led her to explore the political, social and personal intersections of minority cultures in a predominately white societies.
The quest has led her down a rabbit hole, one where she’s examining her own experiences as an Asian American, and also exploring the diverse cultural fabric of this country.
“It was really the move from high school to college that sparked this project for me,” she said. “I started to understand what a bubble Renton High School was in, but also how fortunate I was to grow up with these friends and faculty who understood where I was coming from. I never felt like I had to explain myself. Anytime I left Renton, that’s when I started to realize how my own identity…. I feel fortunate for Renton high School, but I’m also fortunate to have left so I can understand what people outside Renton and in the rest of the country experience.”
The book seems to be many things for V0 — a testament of her community’s strength, a love letter to Vietnam, a chance for her be thankful for the cultural tension she lives in. But mostly, it seemed to be an opportunity for her to figure out who she is.
“Even though I grew up in Seattle and I was around many Asian Americans, it was complicated for me,” she said. “I grew up knowing I’m Vietnamese and really caring about it, but I wasn’t sure why. I taught Vietnamese dance, I taught Vietnamese youth group, I spoke Vietnamese at home. But I think I was doing it to prove myself to my parents that I cared. It wasn’t until college that I did it for myself.”
When Vo embarked on this journey, she hoped to start a dialogue or open a portland to fruitful relationships. She did not expect to help readers find a sense of deep belonging. From the feedback she’s received, that’s exactly what readers experienced.
“I wanted to design an experience for youth and elders to communicate with each other. Now I’m thinking of ways of how to intentionally build community…. I never thought about how the ‘The Sticky Rice Project’ became The Sticky Rice community. I wish I had thought about it more.”
The project is only the first step in a long journey for Vo. She’s starting to see the possibilities of expanding the conversation, not only in her Vietnamese community, but also in other communities within the Seattle area. And beyond.
For more information about The Sticky Rice Project, visit https://www.thestickyriceproject.com/.