By Minnia Feng
The hardest thing to get right about pho, a well-loved Vietnamese beef noodle dish, is the broth. It’s a deceptively complex brew, typically made by simmering beef bones, oxtail, charred onion and ginger, seasoned with a variety of spices that includes cinnamon, star anise, and clove. With such a wide variety of necessary ingredients, the experienced pho enthusiast can immediately pinpoint even a subtle addition or subtraction.
Canadian figure skater Nam Nguyen was sipping a bowl of pho last year, as he had done so many times in his life, when something made him stop in amazement. At that moment in Saigon, on vacation and half a world away his home in Canada, he tasted something that immediately took him back to his mom’s kitchen in Burnaby, B.C.
“I was expecting something different, but it tasted like the exact same as my mom’s and I was baffled at that,” the 18-year old said during an interview at his Toronto practice rink on a bright Friday morning.
“Everywhere it tastes different– there’s something off or something that you add into it, but it was really cool to see that the pho in Vietnam was the exact same as my mom’s.”
Born in Ottawa and raised in Richmond, B.C., Nguyen rose quickly through the ranks of figure skating after he first strapped on skates at the age of six. He was the youngest skater to capture Canadian national titles at the Juvenile, Pre-Novice, and Novice levels. The 2015 Canadian national champion was born to Vietnamese parents, his father Sony immigrating to Canada in 1988 and sponsoring his mother Thu six years later.
“My parents raised me to make sure that I know where [they] came from,” he said. “I was born in Canada but my bloodline is Vietnamese and I have a lot of family members back home in Vietnam. It’s important to just always remember that I’ll have two identities to go under and never just one.
“It’s just an honour for me to be able to wear the Canada jacket proudly and say that I’m a Canadian and that I’m a Vietnamese, too.”
Like many Asian-Canadians, Nguyen was introduced to the skating rink at a young age. In what’s become something of a rite of passage for Asian immigrant families new to Canada, enrolling their kids in skating and hockey programs has become a seamless part of assimilating to their adopted home.
The success of Nguyen, and fellow national, Patrick Chan, a three-time national champion and Olympic silver medalist in 2014, has only bolstered this phenomenon, especially apparent in urban centers like Toronto and the greater Vancouver area.
Regions that have seen significant growth in Asian immigrants in recent decades have also seen a proliferation of Asian-Canadians at the rink. This is a dramatic demographic change that Ted Barton, Executive Director for Skate Canada in BC, has witnessed firsthand.
“I’ve been around a long time here, and as far back as the 70’s and 80’s, you might have one or two, maybe four or five Asian skaters at the rink,” said Barton from his office in B.C. “But nowadays at the Centre of Excellence in Burnaby, we probably have 95% Asians, maybe 5% Caucasians. It sounds a bit odd, but when I see a Caucasian skater, it’s a bit of a shock.”
As the number of Asians enrolling to skate began to grow in the 90s, so, too, did the sense of a familiar Asian-Canadian community. The rink became a place to assimilate in newly familiar environs. Here, Asian youth could find a way to adapt to Canadian life with other Asian youth.
“Skating is a big part of Canadian culture,” said Barton. “If you are an immigrant, learning to skate is very Canadian, so that attracts them to the rink to begin with. If you spend your time with many others from your culture who are enjoying that, then it’s an attraction in itself.”
Beyond the community aspect, Barton points out that there are many aspects of the sport itself that are appealing to parents raised in Asian cultures.
“Every sport takes discipline, but figure skating takes extreme discipline,” he said. “I believe that most of the parents were in a very disciplined culture, so they demand a lot out of their kids– they’re all in piano, dance, or some sort of arts, and skating is a sport-art. I think they’re attracted to the musicality, the discipline, the difficulty, and the beauty.”
Nguyen agrees that the unique hybrid of athleticism, artistry, and discipline within the sport makes it especially compelling for parents looking to enroll their kids in an activity that builds both physical and mental strength.
“I think it’s just parents wanting to get their kids into it because they see the artistry within the sport, and they also see there’s an aggressive part to it, too,” he said.
Nam Nguyen is proud of both his identities, Canadian and Vietnamese, that have allowed him to feel twofold the significance of appearing at international events.
“The first time I represented Canada was when I was 13 years old,” he recalls. “I was at a small junior international, but it was a big deal for me. When I got to skate out and they announced ‘representing Canada,’ it just gave me chills.”
Being able to represent the country he now calls home was emotional for Nguyen, but his Vietnamese heritage brought an added dimension to the moment.
“Especially for a Vietnamese-Canadian like myself and the fact that there aren’t many Vietnamese skaters in the world,” he continued, “it was really cool to be a part of that experience.”
While the sport has brought countless Asian-Canadian immigrants closer to their new home, for Nguyen, it was skating that built a bridge back to Vietnam. It was on his vacation in Saigon where he realized just how much the impact his skating had on this homeland that had once seemed so far away.
“When I skated there, there were a lot of people watching,” he said, describing an impromptu practice session at a small rink in a Saigon mall. “The ice rink is not big, so space-wise it was restricted but I would say [there were] a good sixty people surrounding the ice rink.”
Being recognized in a country where skating is such a marginal sport was unexpected for Nguyen. He had gone to Vietnam to get away from skating, but his surprising celebrity there was evidence of not only a burgeoning international fan base, but also of the influence he had in growing the sport where it had once been completely foreign.
“I thought it was pretty cool because I didn’t think skating was big in Vietnam,” he said. “But it’s getting bigger and bigger and bigger — they have three ice rinks now. I didn’t know that people were like watching me skate online, that I would have people supporting me in Vietnam.”
For many Asian-Canadians, skating is their first foray into Canadian identity, bringing a sense of belonging that links the often contrasting cultural worlds they inhabit. As Nguyen skated, there was an undeniable feeling of home on this familiar surface, but this time in a distant homeland in Saigon, under the adoring watch of fans he never knew he had.
Cover photo courtesy of Nam Nguyen.