Aurore Nguyen, Vietnamese by ethnicity but born and bred in Paris, moved to Tokyo last year, armed with a lust of food and a love of life. Many a time, I’ve been over to her apartment that she lives in with her husband Alexandre, where it feels like I’m going to an incredible restaurant. Among her friends, she’s well known for her love of food and cooking. When did it start?
“I guess it’s a very primitive need. When I was younger, and I was in my house because my parents never let met out, food was the most comforting thing that I could reach. I started cooking at the age of 11, whereas most people start cooking at 20. I started with very basic stuff like frozen pizza, spaghetti carbonara and then gradually I got tired of it, which is probably what happens when you’re 30. So then I started cooking more serious stuff. Now that I’m 30, I feel like I have the cooking mindset of a 50 year old. I started cooking very early so I evolved faster than others. And what’s great about food is that you need to feed yourself a few times a day. In France, we have an expression that you should join something pleasurable with what is needed. Meaning if you’re forced to feed yourself, you better do it the right way so that it can give you pleasure.
I think my emotions are very much connected to food. When I don’t eat well, I’m very sad. And on the contrary, when I am sad and I eat something delicious, it just brightens me and I feel revived. So yeah, I think what I love about food is that it’s something you can share with people. Either because you cook for them, and you put your heart into it, and you’re happy that you can share this moment with them.”
“I was just there, surrounded by people who were so welcoming and warm because they were Italian, and happy to have me with them.”
“When I was traveling in Naples, I rented an Airbnb. When I arrived, there was a typical Italian mama who was cooking, and there was food everywhere. When she saw my eyes rolling with all that food, she said, ‘Ah, I’m having a party, and you’re invited! Please join us tomorrow!’ And so I joined, and it was the most impressive party on earth. There were balls of mozzarella, amazing dishes cooked by the grandmother and I just felt like I was in heaven. What I love about Italian food is how simple it is, you don’t need it to be so sophisticated, but what matters is the taste of the ingredients. She didn’t know me. She didn’t have to invite me. It was just pure sharing and generosity. I was just there, surrounded by people who were so welcoming and warm because they were Italian, and happy to have me with them. That was a really happy moment.”
I wanted to know what life was like for her growing up in Paris.
“I grew up in a very French environment where I was the only Asian at school, so children were very mean and nasty. They would give me very silly nicknames such as King Kong. It wasn’t that painful, because it happened when I was very young. When I turned into a teenager, I never suffered anymore. Overall, I think France is a very open country. And yes, even though I was mocked and pointed at, in my school, 70% of the kids were from countries like Morocco and Algeria, because at the end of the day, so there were limits to the amount of racism because we were ‘not very French’.
My brother had it worst. I don’t know if it’s because he’s a guy, but even now, as an adult, some people still make comments about it. For example, he was out in the street, coming out of a bar, and someone stopped him and started to sing and dance the Gangnam style in front of him. Of, they say a very negative expression, which is ‘Chintok’. It’s just a kind of mean expression to say to Chinese people. So he tells me that he keeps having this, whereas I don’t seem to have it. Maybe because if you’re a girl and you’re Asian, you’re seen as a bit exotic.”
Since she’s lived her whole life in Paris, I wanted to know what her favourite parts of the city was.
“People on the street may look boring, but there’s no mistake in their style.”
“I started realizing Paris was a very beautiful city when I left it. Before that, I thought it was very gray, and that there was nothing very special. People were alike, and always wearing the same colors, like gray or black, so I thought it was very boring. It was only when I left and travelled to Asia, that I realized the beauty in Paris. Obviously, the architecture is very beautiful. You have this sort of eternal classicism, which is very unique. And yes, while people on the streets may look boring, there is no mistake in their style. Things always match. Whereas, you go to other countries, where you see some matches being made which are so horrible that you think, oh, how could you even think of mixing these patterns together? So, the style in Paris is more safe in that sense. And then you have the French people out on the terrace, the cafes, enjoying life. As I am a foodie, Paris is a great city for this. It’s not so easy to discover good places to buy food or have a nice meal, but those places still exist. So it’s great!”
I was surprised with what she said about style in Paris being boring, because the rest of the world has the impression that French women are incredibly stylish, always looking effortless chic.
“It’s true that it’s kind of effortless because French women don’t put excessive makeup and they don’t overdress. They prefer to have something more simple. There is no risk, but it looks good. For example, when you go to a party in France, it’s very casual. Women don’t wear high heels, or fancy sexy daring dresses. They look very normal.”
So what are the parts of Paris that she’s not fond of?
“First, people are rude and so negative. French people are very pessimistic in general. They always complain about everything. Recently, we see that becoming even more aggressive. The streets are also very dirty. It’s getting worse and worse. Yes, there are some immigration problems, but people just don’t respect anything. They throw things everywhere. The city is a bit overwhelmed and the transportation is horrible. It’s always very crowded. Also, Paris is a very expensive city. You don’t have a good value for money ratio. You can pay a very high rent and live in a rathole, it’s crazy. Sometimes you sit in a terrace and you order a Coke, and it’s 7 Euros. It’s just a Coke, you know?
While Aurore seems purely French to me, there are times when she wonders about her Vietnamese origins, so much so that she has started working on a humanitarian project in Vietnam.
“We never spoke about Vietnam, and they never took us there.”
“When you are born in France, and you can see around you that you have cousins who are still in Vietnam, or in the US and who are totally different from you, of course you question your origins and wonder what would have happened if your parents did not flee Vietnam to go to France. I don’t feel my cousins have a worse life than me, it’s just a different life. Of course, I am grateful I was born in France, and that I had access to all the things I did in life. My dad, he came from very modest origins and he was very, very poor, and he kept repeating this when we were kids. When I was younger, my parents never wanted to talk to me about my origins. We never spoke about Vietnam and they never took us there. So when I was old enough to travel by myself, my first big trip was to discover the country of my origins. And I wanted to give back. There’s a quote that when someone gives you something, you give something back. When I was in business school, you had a lot of different associations and a section dedicated to humanitarian projects. For me, it just made sense to work on Vietnam. So I contacted an agency that had volunteers that were helping poor children in Vietnam. The first time I travelled there was in 2006. We met a dentist, who was the most incredible, amazing person that I know. In his spare time, he visits all the poor families in the region that he lives in, and does free consultations for them and helps them. He’s the one that helps us identify which families are in need. We had two different directions for this program. First, a scholarship, where we basically help the children buy their school things and help with the fees, because in Vietnam, you need to have after school classes. We have about 30 children in this program, and on top of that, when we see a family having a specific need, we provide microcredit. It’s very basic. It’s enough money to buy a buffalo, for it to grow, and then for them to re-sell it. Same for pigs or chickens. This is what we did, and sometimes I feel really ashamed because of course at the beginning I was very motivated and I tried to move mountains to make this project work, but I became less motivated as the years passed. I was really ashamed I hadn’t gone back for 4-5 years, so I think it’s time for me to return, to help these children. And it’s really rewarding when you see that they are able to significantly improve their lives. Some families live under plastic sheets, and then they were able to move to a concrete house. Or some children that we’ve followed have managed to get a scholarship to the US. It’s really encouraging, and it gives meaning to what you’re doing.
I feel the world that we live in is really crazy. There’s recession everywhere. There’s this incredible spread of terrorism which is really scary. And even in our every day life, you feel there are so many unfair things happening and it’s difficult to have a peaceful vision of the future. I think it’s really important to make everything we can do to make the world a better place. In my life, I was helped my people that helped me grow and build trust in myself. I feel so grateful for this help that it’s my turn to do it for others.
I always admire people who are always positive and look at the bright side of things. As a French person, we are surrounded by pessimistic people. I guess if everyone started looking at the bright side of things, it could help. You could achieve a lot more. Also, just more kindness. It’s a big word. People who are truly kind are rare. People who truly want to help people without any second thoughts, just out of pure kindness, are not easy to find. When you are blessed enough to meet these kind of people, you feel so privileged and lucky to be surrounded by this kind of energy. You want to be able to have this around you.”
If you liked this post, do subscribe or come say hello to Little Slices on Facebook!