By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“The initiative reminds me of the Vietnamese proverb ‘Một cây làm chẳng nên non, ba cây chụm lại nên hòn núi cao’—A single tree can’t make a hill, but three trees together turn into a high mountain,” said Vietnamese author Quế Mai Phan Nguyễn on why she was inspired to join the cause of supporting frontline healthcare workers in Seattle. Currently in Indonesia, the writer has paired with local Vietnamese business owner, Uyên Nguyễn, to spur on a fundraiser Uyên and her restaurant, Nue, have been doing since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“We started with this passion for our community and also for bringing cultures together,” explained Uyên, on how she and her husband, Chris Cvetkovich, decided to open a restaurant that would bring diverse menu items to Seattle. But she could also be talking about their efforts to help healthcare workers during this challenging year by feeding them with Nue’s delicious meals, thanks to their own hard work and donations from the community. Now, Quế Mai has donated a signed copy of her award-winning book, The Mountains Sing, as a prize to be given away to someone who donates to the food drive initiative between now and Jan. 15.
“When the pandemic happened, restaurants were forced to close. Many small businesses went bankrupt. Rather than complaining or giving up, Uyên and Chris initiated a food drive that has delivered more than 4,000 free meals and many masks to frontline health workers,” said Quế Mai. “I have watched from afar how bravely Uyên and Chris have put themselves out there to show care and love to medical staff members who need our appreciation and support and who are crucial in our fight against COVID-19.”
Uyên, who is a Sister on the Planet Ambassador for Oxfam America, has consistently demonstrated this year how one person can make a difference—by treating their city and its inhabitants like a village, and as we know, it takes a village. With the help of just a few people on her staff, and some friends and restaurant patrons, Uyên has personally delivered these meals to Seattle’s hard-hit hospitals, in her own vehicle, hand-drawing decorations on the bags and hand-writing messages that delineate the donors for each delivery. All year. And nearly every day. This is in addition to the remarkable efforts Nue has been making to meet the challenges of a lockdown and with severely reduced customer traffic, while staying safe themselves.
“We started being careful at the beginning, but we didn’t close down our restaurant early…you might get two customers at night, so we weren’t busy or packing anybody close to each other…March 15, when the governor demanded the shutdown, we were heartbroken.”
But Uyên and Chris had some advantages that other small businesses did not have. A shared background in business, information technology, and science allowed them to adjust to the upheavals.
“We were, in some ways, ready,” Uyên said. Chris rebuilt their website, and they pivoted to emphasize take-out and delivery. Even when allowed, Nue declined to offer indoor seating.
“We have a small space and so realistically we wouldn’t be able to get even eight customers in there after we followed all the procedures,” Uyên explained. “I didn’t feel it was worth it. We were the state where the first real case of community transmission happened—they were wearing masks, they were indoors, they took precautions—so I didn’t feel comfortable.” Nue has focused on outdoor seating, which after nearly a year, is starting to seem pretty permanent.
These changes came with the passion to help those most severely affected by coronavirus—our healthcare workers.
“With almost everything in this pandemic, we just started doing it first and then everything caught up after that,” Uyên said. “I didn’t even know if we could get donations at first and I just did it. I posted on my own personal Facebook page and then some friends said, ‘Can we donate?’ or some said, ‘Can we sponsor?’ ‘Can you make some meals for my husband’s hospital?’…It took on this momentum on its own.” This philosophy of “doing first and thinking after” has led to over 4,000 meals delivered and still counting.
Quế Mai, who met Uyên and sampled Nue’s fare during a visit to Seattle, told us, “Uyên is a Vietnamese refugee who, rather than choosing the easy option of offering Vietnamese food, brings the international culinary culture to Seattle via Nue and its varied and constantly changing menu. For example, Nue’s Trinidadian Goat Curry was the #1 bestseller, but Uyên and her husband…bravely took the item off the menu for two years and recently added it back. They said they did it ‘because we want to continue to introduce new items and world food to people.’”
Nue’s vision thrives on creativity and this has helped them during the lockdown. For summertime, they concocted popsicles in-house. They’ve also created a couple’s meals and “jet set meals”—three-course meals from around the world. Want to get your drink on for New Year’s? They have cocktail kits. They are all available online at nueseattle.com for pickup or delivery. Their latest endeavor has been adding shipping of pre-made meals in time for the holidays.
So we come to the present day and a giveaway that combines the good will and hard work of community members both near and far.
“The Mountains Sing is a journey into Vietnam’s 20th century history via the lives of four generations of the Trần family… It is a ticket to visit Vietnam, be immersed into Vietnamese history and culture, taste delicious Vietnamese food, and gain insights into the Vietnamese traditions and literature,” Quế Mai said.
The book has been touted by reviewers as a Vietnamese history lesson “not often available to American readers” because, as Quế Mai elaborated, “it puts the Vietnamese people on the center stage and highlights how the war divided our families, our community, and our society.”
Like Nue, the novel strives to breach the gap between disparate people and provide understanding of another culture. Like Uyên and Nue, Quế Mai has stepped up to help those in need while encouraging everyone to become more involved. They’ve shown us by their example that one person can make a difference—that one person plus another person quickly makes a village.
“Uyên and her husband have done so much for the community,” said Quế Mai. “I am in awe watching how they have helped take care of health workers. They are my heroes.”
Donate to the food drive, enter the giveaway, and view Nue’s efforts, including a calendar of every day that food has been delivered, on Nue’s website at nueseattle.com/donations.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.