The Galaxy I Found in My Bowl of Phở -- A Story by Allison Thai


Image description: The title card for The Galaxy I Found in My Bowl of Phở by Allison Thai. The title appears in white over an image of a bowl of phở. The bowl is white and there are brown chopsticks resting atop it. Scattered around the bowl are anise, lime, and cilantro. A galaxy of stars is superimposed over the whole image.

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Hello, Patrons! This is the first of two pieces I'll be posting this month based on your feedback, and subsidized by your pledges! This post was available for Patrons only for the first week before opening up to the public on the 17th of May.

For both of the pieces I will be posting this month, I asked writers from Texas to give me a creative work, and I also offered to match their payment amount (which is subsidized by Patreon pledges) with a donation (out of my own pocket, not subsidized by Patreon pledges) to a local organization of their choice. I came up with this idea back when Texas was in the middle of an ice storm and experiencing many disruptions in the power grid, but of course by the time I had contracted these works, that particular crisis had passed. Still, there are many reasons to donate to Texan organizations, and both of these creators have chosen ones that are significant to them. Here is Allison's statement about her choice:

My organization of choice is the Vietnamese Culture & Science Association (VCSA) in Houston (https://vcsa.org). Houston has the largest Vietnamese-American population outside of California, and VCSA does a lot of good work for that community, especially to promote education, community, and leadership skills in Vietnamese youth. My family and I personally know many of the volunteers and staff members, and we’ve been involved in some of their activities ourselves. I consider this my little modest way of giving back to the organization that has supported me and my family through the years, especially since my father unexpectedly passed away last year.

Please note, in case you are interested in donating to this organization, I was unsuccessful in donating online, but was able to send a check to the VCSA at: 

13080 Bellaire Blvd Suite G
Houston, TX  77072

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The Galaxy I Found in My Bowl of Phở
by Allison Thai

2:30 PM on a Sunday at Thiên An Sandwiches. That’s when I stop waiting tables to break for lunch. Two stalks of cilantro as long as my fingers, four drops of Sriracha sauce, three basil leaves, a long hard pinch of lime till it’s squeezed dry, and no bean sprouts—that’s exactly how I like my phở. A perfect swirling galaxy of flavors.

I’m very picky about how my food is done, but I don’t even like cooking all that much. Really, I don’t like how Mom scolds me for my slipups in the kitchen. That’s why I wait tables.

It’s past noon—no more surge of regulars who crave piping hot phở or crunchy bánh mì after church. TV’s off. I have the restaurant to myself. On one hand, I like that. I can barely hear myself think in that post-church surge. People hate the buzz of mosquitoes, but I don’t understand how they can tolerate their own buzz. On the other, I don’t, because it reminds me of having a cafeteria table to myself at school.

Someone says “hello” when I sip the broth. I whirl in my seat. No new customer’s coming in. My family’s busy back in their second home, the kitchen. “Hello?” I ask to an empty restaurant. Then I feel stupid. The voices fizzle away with the taste of broth as I swallow. I shrug and slurp up noodles from my chopsticks.

<<You can hear us, Daniel Vương. We are very pleased.>>

I choke on the noodles and the voices go on,

<<Do not be afraid. We cannot hurt you.>>

So these voices respond to what I’m thinking, not saying. I force down the noodles, coughing and gasping, and I’m forced to think. Who are you?

A minute later I catch my breath, but get no reply. I drink from my glass of water. Still no answer. I return to sipping on broth, carefully and slowly this time. Rich warm meatiness dances on my taste buds and sings through the nerves leading up to my brain. So do the voices.

<<We call ourselves the Alrcyk. We are a galaxy away from yours, Daniel Vương.>>

“Aliens?” I blurt out. I clap a palm over my mouth and my ears get hot. Mom can’t catch me talking to myself. I’m already in trouble for repeating what people ask me. I do that to let my slow brain catch up, but it annoys her.

The voices, the Alrcyk, are barely above a whisper. No wonder I wouldn’t hear them over the hubbub of customers and the blaring TV.

If you’re all the way from another galaxy, how can you talk to me?

<<We are a simple race. We are not capable of telecommunications that you humans have perfected. We contact other races through their palates. Their sense of taste.>>

Talk through taste? Never heard of that before.

The Alrcyk can talk more the longer I chew and sip. <<Indeed, it is rarely achieved. Every part of the palate must be stimulated for us to establish two-way contact. Most do not activate enough of their palates, or overload certain parts. Contact is not possible through that imbalance.>>

I’m halfway through my bowl. I try to eat even slower, even as the broth grows lukewarm. You’re saying that you can talk to me because I have that balance?

<<You are the only one who has achieved it, Daniel Vương. The only human with whom we have success in mutual communication.>>

I almost fall out of my chair. No way. Someone else has to know that you exist.

<<No one else knows. We have tried hundreds of thousands of times and places around your planet, in which humans sit down for a meal. Not a single one had responded to our greeting. That dismayed and frustrated us. We were on the verge of giving up when we found you.>>

I shake my head, even though the Alrcyk are nowhere near Thiên An. I’m no one special. I’m not the smartest, or the most popular, or the best athlete in 10th grade.

<<Your strong desire for perfection and harmony in your food is exactly how we can understand each other. Two pieces of cilantro, three of basil, four of the spicy red concoction you call Sriracha, all of the lime, and of course, the soup that your people call phở—bitter, sweet, sour, salty, umami—those are the pieces that connect our galaxies.>>

Um, what about the bean sprouts?

<<The part of the palate that senses bitterness is already satisfied with inclusion of the herbs such as cilantro and basil. Bean sprouts would be unnecessary.>>

Finally, someone who understands. And they’re not even human. I want to run up to Mom, who never likes how I leave bean sprouts out of my phở, and say, “I don’t need to eat them! The aliens said so!”

<<Again, we are very happy to have reached you, Daniel Vương.>>

These aliens, heard but unseen, simply say what they feel. I don’t have to make guesses, like with so many people that seem to expect that I read their minds or something. I really like that.

Why is it so important that you talk to someone on Earth?

<<We do not possess technology for interstellar travel, so visiting Earth is impossible. We have settled for distance learning. We are a race that craves and values knowledge. Tell us everything you know about Earth, if you would be so kind.>>

Why? I’m just weird.

<<We do not understand that word. What we doknow, and what you must know, is that you are exceptional. Your perspective of the world you live in is what we want to hear. We want it inscribed on our shells for us to carry and remember forever.>>

Okay. I’ll tell you more next time I eat phở. And call me Danny. All my friends do.

I savor the last mouthful of broth along with my new friends’ last words today: <<Very well, Danny. We look forward to further discussion.>>

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Allison Thai is a born and raised Texan, and the oldest daughter of Vietnam  War refugees. She is studying to enter the medical field and has a current interest in pediatrics, emergency medicine, surgery, and anesthesiology. In 2016, she ventured into writing and submitting  original work. She tends to write stories with the aim to make people cry, as well as stories populated by talking animals. In her free time, she enjoys lap swimming, taking scenic walks, hoarding graphic novels, learning foreign languages, and visiting art museums. She is currently trying to fill her shelf with the pantheon of mythology and folklore from every corner of the world.




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