by Thuy Anh Tran from Lehigh University
Hidden Café, which was located on the lower level of building B in my high school, was an ideal place for anyone who needed an escape. This café was not recognized by my high school as an official dining hall, but it secretly opened to serve the growing demand for a small get-away. For straight A students, they came here with the hope of escaping from the cacophony in the hallway to figure out how to calculate the atomic mass of an element. For teachers, they desperately wanted to get away from all the troubles that students created. For rebels, this place was perfect for skipping classes.
The owner of Hidden Café was Bac Huong, a middle-aged woman who was a high school teacher but then discovered that cooking was her passion. She had a small and slim figure; her short curly salt and pepper hair was meticulously hidden behind a ridiculously giant chef’s hat, and she possessed one of the most high-pitched voice you would ever hear, probably because she used to teach in many classes with sixty students. I called her “Bac,” which means aunt in Vietnamese, as my way to show my respect as well as my endearment to her. “If I had not been a teacher, I would have become a Michelin-star chef!” – Bac Huong confidently claimed. This café was opened as a result of many spontaneous moments.
“What do you want today? Mian tiao?”
“Yes, but it is miàn tiáo.”
“I’m no Chinese. Wait five minutes.”
Bac Huong enjoyed using some Chinese words that she picked up to tease me as I was a student in Chinese-English class. “Miàn tiáo” means noodles in Chinese, but it was not just any kind of noodles. It was noodles with beef jerky, sausage, mayo and ketchup. Weird. The combination of diverse ingredients could magically blend together, and it turned out to be one of the best dishes that I had ever tasted.
I loved watching Bac Huong making noodles. The main ingredient for this dish was obviously noodles, or Hao Hao noodles, which was only ten cents. The fastest way to cook was to pour hot water into a bowl of raw noodles. Bac Huong never forgot to add some spices, some onions and especially her special sauce (soy sauce). She put a plate on top of the noodles’ bowl so that it would keep the heat inside to cook the noodles. After five minutes, she went to check on the noodles. Then, she cut some boiled sausages that she woke up at 5 a.m. every day to prepare, and added some beef jerky. On top of the noodles, she put some mayo or some ketchup, depending on her mood. This dish had such a special smell that I could immediately recognize before I even arrived at Hidden Café. Within ten minutes, Bac Huong made noodles and eagerly interrogated me about my school life.
“Do you get a 10 out of 10 on your Chinese quiz?”
“How did you do on your Math test?”
The most dreadful question was yet to come.
“Where are your friends? Call them here.”
I stayed silent.
You would not think that such a simple question could hurt you internally. Little did Bac Huong know that she played many roles in my high school life: my “Bac,” my emotional counselor, my teacher and my only friend.
Who was I in high school? I was a fat kid (yes, I use the F word). I was bullied because my body figure did not comply with the standard measurements for a normal high school girl. Who came up with that anyway?
That day, a girl in my class who was a close friend of mine suddenly asked me to tell her my body measurements for her “research purpose,” and I was gullible enough to tell her. Classic Mean Girl’s prank.
The next day I went to class, she greeted me with a special nickname that I would try to forget every now and then: “square” (because my height and my weight looked quite the same). Then, there were “fatty”, “pig”, “rectangle”, “girl without curves”, “fat ugly girl”,… At that moment, my body was heated up with embarrassment. I kept looking down to the floor and closed my eyes so that I could keep my tears and my anger inside.
I was not ready to face with such a challenge as I never knew there was something called confidence. The feeling that I was missing something inside my soul which needed to be fulfilled haunted me. Later, I discovered that it was validation. There was no class that taught me how to stand up against bullies in high school, which I think it should have had. Therefore, I kept myself safe by creating my own bubble, and never dared to step outside. What choices did I have? Many, but the easiest choice was to hide myself in this little corner of the Hidden.
How wrong I was.
The advantage of living in a bubble was that it created a strong shield to protect me from getting hurt, but bubbles could pop at any time.
When I left for college, I chose not to say good-bye to Bac Huong and the Hidden because I did not want that chapter of my life to end. I would never imagine how difficult it could be to give up eating those delicious noodles.
Six o’clock. Lower Court. Located in the lower level of the University Center, which reminds me of the Hidden. Lower Court is much more crowded than the Hidden, and students come with the purpose of seeking companions, not hiding. I choose a seat at the corner of the room. I tell myself not to think about Bac Huong’s noodles but it is impossible for me to do so as in college, spaghetti with beef sauce is the closest to what I used to have in the Hidden. Right now, the cooks are busy making spaghetti, but the way they make it is far different from what Bac Huong did. Spaghetti is already cooked from the kitchen before being placed in a large tray. The sauce is separated from the spaghetti, and each person will serve themselves with the amount of sauce that they want. I am struggling to calculate how much sauce I need for one dish of spaghetti, while Bac Huong always knew exactly how much soy sauce I needed for a bowl of noodles. All the cooks are friendly, but no one can speak Chinese to tease me.
I learned the hard way that leaving was an essential part of growing up. As I grew up from a teenager, I left my favorite teddy bear in the basement. As I grew to become an adult, I left the Hidden and my favorite noodles in Vietnam. Growing up means that we have to leave things behind so that every time we look back, we will say to ourselves: “Oh, how I miss those good old days!”
I guess I have to grow up now. I have to grow up from Bac Huong’s noodles and start to live my life here at college.
I realize that I am still in the process of stepping outside my bubble.