Last month, Trami and I grabbed coffee and discussed her debut novel, released in July. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Kim Huynh (K): In VietnamEazy, your main character struggles to find both acceptance in American culture and approval from her Vietnamese family, while trying to forge her own identity. Knowing you personally, I see a resemblance. Would you consider yourself as rebellious as the protagonist—a “ruthless Asian, bad chick,” as she puts it?
Trami Nguyen Cron (T): In real life? Oh no. I was a big chicken. Maybe that’s why I decided to make the character stronger than who I am or was growing up. If I had been, maybe I’d be the Trami I am today in my twenties. But I wasn't. I didn’t become this way until I opened my own business. And when I did that, it was a decision to no longer follow the path that was given to me. This was when I was 36.
K: What happened that year?
T: I get my blood work done every year, and at 36, I was particularly stressed with my job as a pharmaceutical drug rep.
K: You went to pharmacy school?
T: Growing up my mom wanted me to, so I did two years of pre-pharmacy in college. I didn’t like it. I wanted to study business instead, but she wasn't supportive. It's like you have to be a doctor or an engineer, right? And for girls, it’s okay to be a pharmacist. When I changed my major, my mom's bottom line was that since I'd already wasted two years of college, I'd better finish in two years. So I finished my new business marketing major, which was normally four years, in two.
My school was on a quarterly system, so typically you'd take three classes a quarter. I was taking seven to eight. And working. That’s why I think that if you do what you love, you have energy. I had straight A’s. Whereas before—well, okay, I breezed through high school since it was easy to get straight A’s.
K. What an “Asian” thing to say!
T. Ha! I actually graduated from high school early, just because I didn't like anymore. But in college, during those pre-pharmacy years, I’d literally show up to class to take the test. I wouldn’t study, I wouldn’t go to lectures—nothing. And because it was graded on a curve, an A was like 40/100. I never failed a class, but I would get C's because I’d show up, take the test, and answer questions randomly.
Imagine going from that level of apathy to getting straight A’s and being on the Dean’s List. That’s the difference when you do something you love.
So as a pharmaceutical rep, we’d receive automatic promotions and pay increase based on our sales numbers. Not personality or knowledge—strictly numbers. I met the standards along with my colleagues, and was told that we'd all receive our promotions. But I was later pulled aside and informed that I wouldn't be promoted. The reasoning was that I "wasn't ready." Just so you know, everyone else on my team was white and male, and nowhere in the guidelines did it say promotions needed managerial approval. Without a real explanation, It was hard to stay motivated after that. By the way, a year later, the company lost a $200 Million class action lawsuit for discrimination against women. I later received a formal apology from the company's management.
That year, my tests showed that my white blood cell count was completely off the charts. My doctor sent me to specialists, hematologists and oncologists, and every week they'd take gallons of my blood for testing. Their rough diagnosis was that I either had some rare form of blood disorder, or cancer—although the results weren't conclusive yet.
That's when I decided I wasn't going to do what I didn’t love anymore and quit my job. Meanwhile, I’d always loved skincare. I had been selling Mary Kay and getting those little red jackets since I was 16, alongside my "real" career. So I decided to go to beauty school and get my certificate, and then I opened my own facial salon in 2010.
The next time I got my blood work done, the results were perfect. I really believe in the mind and body working together. It may not be true for everyone, but I know that if I’m not physically okay, my body is telling me something about my life.
K: That's quite the eclectic background. What made you decide to write a book?
T: When the salon became self-sufficient, I was able to travel and do more things. I had time. In the corporate world, your job is nine-to-five, but it’s more than nine-to-five. Your company kind of owns you and you’re brain-dead.
Once I was able to shift from that to becoming my own boss, I was far more creative. I realized I’ve always wanted to share these Vietnamese stories that had nothing to do with the war, because there are so many other interesting aspects to our culture. I wanted to write something.
I told a friend, who at the time was helping someone move out of this beautiful estate in the Santa Cruz mountains, which later became a writers' retreat called the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods. The person who moved in happened to be a New York Times best-selling author. My friend asked if I'd like an introduction. I said sure. And that's how I met Steve Kettmann, who mentored me through the process of writing and publishing my book. It’s one of those things where you put it out to the universe, so to speak, and the universe responds.
K: Food and cooking feature prominently in your book. Was this a lifelong passion for you, or was there a moment when you realized you loved food?
T: I’ve always loved food. At home when we'd turn on the TV, my whole family would watch the Food Network. My mom didn’t speak English, so that was the only thing we could all enjoy as a family. We loved Yan Can Cook—I don’t know if you even know him.
K: You do mention him in the book.
T: Right, so he was one of the first TV chefs. This was back in the day when shows were shot in studios, without any panning in and out—very old-school. He was our family’s favorite.
K: Were you ever interested in being a Food Network star yourself? How did you research the audition process in the book?
T: I was browsing the Food Network website one day when I saw an ad to be their next star. The try-outs were in Los Angeles and the application didn't look too bad. Since I had decided to live my life without fear or confinement and do things I would never normally do, I drove to LA the next morning, auditioned, and drove back.
K: Wow. So a lot of this was real.
T: It was real! That’s how it happened. Obviously I didn’t make the first round, okay? But the rest of it was real.
K. I’m sure it was competitive!
T: It was competitive. But it was so cool. When you think about American Idol, sure, the people trying out can sound really bad and you’re thinking, why are they there? But sometimes it’s just a matter of trying. That you went through the process, sat with all these people, waited in line. It was fun. It was something I would have never done otherwise, because we're taught not to do things unless you know you’re going to succeed. You know what I mean?
T: It’s like, you don’t try anything new because you think, “No, I think I will fail at that, so I won’t.” Similar to how you decided to compete for Miss California.
K: And that’s exactly the lesson I learned. I mean, theoretically, we know failure is good for us. It means we went out and tried and made mistakes and learned. But women tend to do that less. As we grow up, we're taught to be obedient and "good." We try really hard to be perfect. So we also internalize and avoid any criticism.
I used to think I really put myself out there to achieve things but in reality, I'd only put myself in positions where I was likely to succeed. At Miss California, I would emotionally implode every time I'd make a mistake, because I didn’t know how to handle failure.
So I definitely understand. You have to make yourself uncomfortable or you’re never going to grow.
T: Right. Everything we do is so calculated. It’s like, when you consider trying something new, you think, okay I can reach this level, so you only strive that far. And you never think about much higher possibilities, because there are too many risks. But my god, what if we did, and even if we didn’t make it we'd still achieve so much more in the process. You know what I mean?
K: I know exactly what you mean. I think it’s a female problem and definitely an Asian problem. When you mentioned the typical Asian options of becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer—i.e. the safe route—I thought about how we need so many more Asian faces in the arts and entertainment, because then we'd be embedded in the American culture in a more impactful, meaningful way than we are now. And that’s what needs to change. It's clear that overall, Asia-Americans have achieved moderate academic and financial success. But we’re not in the larger cultural dialogue in the way that we should be.
T: You know Viet Thanh Nguyen, the recent Pulitzer winner?
K: Yes! I’d love to meet him eventually.
T. I attended one of his readings, and when I rose my hand to ask if his parents had been supportive of his writing, he said he'd basically lied to them his whole life. He had been pretending to be something he was not. Of course they're proud of him now, but can you imagine? He’s probably in his forties or fifties, but if he had their support, maybe he would have won the Pulitzer 20 years ago.
I feel like if I had been supported to be who I was, I would have been this person 20 years ago. I’m such a late bloomer, and part of me hates it because I’m going to lose my looks and—like we talked about before—looks matter. You also start to lose being brave. Because being young, there are certain things you do without fear that, as you get older, you start to think about more and more. Which is kind of a paradox. When I was younger, I was not afraid of many things, yet I was afraid of the things that were important.
K: Do you have plans for a second book?
T: I want to see how this one goes. I don’t consider myself a full-time writer, so I only wanted to write if there were people who wanted to read my writing. Some people keep journals, just for them. Or they have to put out it out to the world for whatever fulfillment they get. For me, I only want to write something people want to read. Not something that's only interesting to me.
K: I understand—you want to find the audience before you find the story.
T: Right. So I want to make sure that this one goes well, and when it does I’ll consider writing another.
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Editor - Literature
A Bay Area native, Kim graduated from Stanford in 2014 with an Honors Degree in English Literature and an emphasis in Creative Non-Fiction Writing. She has worked on the editorial team of the Stanford Lawyer, blogged for the statewide non-profit close the gap CA, and had her writing published in The Stanford Daily, the Tracy Press, and on GradeSaver.com, an essay editing service with a reach of 4.2 million monthly users. Her honors thesis, "Bitter in the South: On Race, Place, and Allegory in Monique Truong's Bitter in the South," was sparked by her deep interest in Vietnamese American literature—an interest she's thrilled to pursue through Chopsticks Alley.