At the beginning of 2020, 19-year-old Debby Nguyễn was looking for ingredients to make spring rolls in an Asian grocery store in Boston’s Chinatown, when an idea struck her. She wanted to write a book.
That day, she went home with not only rice paper and fish sauce, but an exciting passion project to share information about the often-misunderstood world of traditional medicine. With the help of an Honors Propel Grant from Northeastern University where she is studying, Pills, Teas and Songs will be shipped to backers on Indiegogo in April 2021.
All pre-ordered profits from the book will go to Room to Read Vietnam and the CaribEd Project. Room to Read aims to improve education for girls in Vietnam, while the CaribEd Project distributes test-prep materials to low-income students impacted by Covid-19 in the Caribbean.
In this interview, she shares with Culture her love for the cultural and historical aspects of medicine, and how her writing journey began.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
I’m 19 years old, and currently I’m studying Pharmacy and Data Science at Northeastern University in Boston. I grew up in Saigon and attended the American school system there, so I’m fluent in both English and Vietnamese. I’ve always been into writing, but it was mostly poetry. Pills, Teas and Songs started as a passion project and it’s the first time I wrote something non-fiction.
What brought you to creative writing?
I’ve been writing pretty much since middle school. I read Vietnamese literature too, and I think Vietnamese is a beautiful language, but it’s harder to express emotions in, partly because my family is on the reserved side. Poetry is my way of being creative. My favorite poet is T.S. Elliot.
My mom loves literature, and she encouraged us to read books. She never pushed us to study math or science. She said: “You should know how to write and draw.” (Nguyen’s brother drew the cover for her book.)
I love my parents for that, because they’re very open-minded about everything I’ve done. They don’t read the New York Times, but they know it’s a big newspaper. When my poetry was published there, they told me “Good job!”
In an interview, you said that your dad is your inspiration. Tell us about a fond memory with your dad
My parents used to own an independent pharmacy that they named after me and my brother. After school, my mom would sit behind the counter, running the cash register, and I was there doing homework.
One of the best times was when my dad told me about his childhood. He’s not a really emotional man, but he got so excited talking about how he grew up in the countryside. My grandpa was a traditional medicine doctor and would tell him, “Hey, go to this hill and pick up this plant for me, or this mushroom.”
My dad would go, and he loved that. He often told us, “You kids never know about that, the struggle we had to deal with.” He doesn’t talk much, but when he started talking about medicine, he wouldn’t stop.
Is that what motivated you to choose pharmacy for your undergrad studies?
My parents never forced me to go into medicine or anything, but I’ve always felt this kind of responsibility.
In Vietnam, you often see lottery ticket sellers on the street. While many people ignore them, my dad doesn’t, especially if he sees an older woman. He always supports them. I think that’s why my dad likes medicine, because he wants genuinely to heal people.
That’s how he raised me, showing me you can always help people. I think that’s why this career is so honorable, and I’m proud to be doing this, either through pharmacy or writing.
You were inspired to write this book while shopping in an Asian grocery store. What exactly went through your mind?
In Boston, the Asian community is not as big as it is in California or Texas. There aren’t many Vietnamese restaurants around. I missed spring rolls, so I went to look for the ingredients. There’s this little supermarket in Chinatown, and walking there made me feel like I was at home, because of the smells at the supermarket.
The supermarket also has a pharmacy counter with all kinds of imported medicine from Asia. I thought the floral patterns on the packaging of the Chinese medications were so beautiful and unique, unlike what we see in CVS or Walgreens. There is so much work put into this but very few people actually know about it.
Asian medicine is still perceived as “backward” or “uncool.” I myself didn’t know much about it until my dad told me about what my grandpa did. In the U.S., when people think of Vietnam, they think of the war, so they don’t know much about our culture.
Writing about it was a way for me to talk about our culture with pride.
When you began writing this book, how did you reach out to people?
Thank God for the Internet! There is no way I could have found these people without it. There are 11 chapters, all the way from India to Nigeria. I’m also lucky to live in Boston, where I have many international friends.
For example, I talked to my friend’s mom, who is from Russia, for the chapter about that country. I also have a lot of Indian-American friends, who shared their thoughts on how their medicine is represented in mainstream media. Even though I don’t have any friends from Nigeria, I met a Nigerian poet earlier this year when buying his book. Through social media, we discussed the medicine practice that I was writing about. Not every interview made it to the book, but I learned a lot from every single one of them.
The people you talked to are not medical doctors. They are people who happen to practice certain types of traditional medicine?
I’m not an expert on medicine, and I do have a disclaimer that I don’t want to speak about efficacy in this book. There is still a lot of research being done in these fields. We don’t fully know about all the practices that exist in the world, so it’s more of a cultural book, about the way people think about medicine, how they interact with it, and its roles in history and culture. I think that’s what’s missing from what people think about medicine. This book is like an introduction to the world of traditional medicine.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered when writing the book?
I discovered that I was really afraid to write about Vietnamese culture. It was the second-last chapter that I wrote. I was worried that someone from Vietnam would read the book and say that it didn’t represent Vietnam or our people.
On the other hand, it was also about talking to my family. It took me a long time to get on the phone with my dad. It was the first time I initiated a long conversation about a topic so intimate with him after my grandpa passed away. My dad still doesn’t know I’d written the book yet, it’s a surprise for him. But the stories came very easily to me, because I realized how much I already knew. I enjoyed that Vietnam chapter a lot, after getting over the initial fear. It is such a big country, culturally. There are so many people of different ethnic groups with different medicine practices. You can’t speak for all of them. I think I did my best.
You’re trained in Western medicine and this book is about traditional medicine. Have you encountered contradictions between the two fields?
I don’t think they work against each other, or contradict, but they can work together to help a person stay healthy as a whole. In most Asian countries, the main healthcare system or modern hospitals, practice Western medicine, but people still, for example, drink tea with each meal to help them digest food better. My grandfather did tai chi and yoga, but he went to a Western doctor, too. I think that’s a perfect example of what healthcare should be.
You haven’t seen your parents for a year and a half. What have you been doing to stay well?
It has been a challenging year, but I love that it has given me so much growth and opportunity. Before this, I didn’t think that I could write a whole book on my own or go more than a year without seeing my parents. This year has shown that I am more mature and capable of taking care of myself. I am more connected to my family than before. I talk to my grandma every other day. I initiate calls to my mom, too. Before, she would call me first. I try my best to reassure my family, and in a way that has made us so much closer to each other.
How are you celebrating Tết this year?
I plan to cook Vietnamese food and buy traditional dishes. Food is a big part of how my family celebrates Tết and I have always looked forward to eating xôi gấc, my favorite Tết food.
What are your wishes for the new year? Any advice for young students who want to do what you’re doing now?
I wish everyone health for the upcoming year since 2020 has taught me health is wealth. I’m lucky my family has been safe throughout the pandemic and wish others the same. For young students, don’t be afraid to put your heart and soul into what you love because if you have the right intentions you will get where you need to be.
Photo courtesy of Debby Nguyen
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
This content is also available in: Tiếng Việt