Story by Michelle Bui
Reporting by Erica Kim
Just a 20 minute drive down the street from my hometown of Huntington is Little Saigon, the largest settlement of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam. For 19 years, I thought this area had been influenced exclusively by Vietnamese culture. This past weekend, I found out that an equally diverse culture has also started making a home away from home there, despite all the odds currently against them in modern-day America.
Turning into a small neighborhood nestled between a variety of Vietnamese shops and restaurants, I wondered if Google Maps had taken me to the wrong location. I was deep into Little Saigon, looking for the Halal Food Festival. After driving down a narrow street, I noticed people gathered behind a building — Orange Crescent School — with tents and bounce houses. It looked like a mix between the carnivals my elementary school used to host and the yearly OC Night Market.
After spending half an hour looking for free parking and finally settling on paying the five dollars to park across the street from the event, I made my way toward the school to find several men holding up signs and screaming through microphones at the entrance. The signs read insults like “Islam is a religion of blood and murder” and “Jesus is the way, the truth, the life; all others are thieves and robbers,” followed by citations from the Bible. As I got closer to the entrance, I put my head down, afraid of the men and disturbed by the profanities they were screaming just outside of the largely Muslim gathering.
I was greeted by much more pleasant women at the entrance, all of whom were wearing hijabs and layers of decorative cloth, much like most of the other females present. Despite their friendliness, I felt rather out of place. This was not the Vietnamese environment I had grown accustomed to every time I came to Little Saigon. Not to mention, everyone who walked through the gates seemed to know somebody at the event, whether it was through attending the same mosque, school, or living in the same general area.
Despite my feelings, I figured I would do what I do at any fair or festival: I walked around searching for the most appetizing food and the best deals. The setup was similar to that of the OC Fair, with vendors lined along the edge of the space — which was probably a playground — with posters advertising their cuisines and prices. I saw food ranging from Halal chicken and rice to samosas and sandwiches. There were also vendors selling clothing, jewelry and other items, and on the far side there were the bounce houses that I saw from afar where little kids were playing with their friends.
As I started taking photos of the event, I approached one vendor who was selling ice cream. In the middle of catering to his long line, one of the sellers started speaking to me in a foreign language. I smiled and in English said, “Sorry, I don’t understand.” He replied with, “You don’t speak Chinese?” Teenagers in line started chuckling and remarking at how racist his comment was. “Just kidding,” he said, before explaining that he and his colleague had spent a year in Taiwan. I walked away with the smile still on my face, although I was admittedly a bit offended.
Between the men protesting the event outside the gates and the man who mistook me for a Chinese speaker, I felt like I was a sore thumb in the middle of a major culture clash. But these feelings soon dissipated once I started interacting with more of the vendors and trying the food.
For my first dish, I went straight toward the Chez Salim food truck right at the front. In addition to the short line, I was attracted to the simple Halal chicken and rice dish that it offered. If you ask me, you can’t go wrong with chicken and rice; it’s one of the best comfort foods. I peeked into the little window of the large yellow truck and asked the man for the dish, to which he replied with a small smile and directions to wait for my name to be called.
After receiving my white to-go box, I went over to the large dining area in the middle of all the tents to find a seat. To my surprise, all the white folding tables were filled. There were old women talking to each other, families eating together, and groups of teenage boys laughing at the latest joke someone had told. Although some of them were dressed similarly to the women I had met at the front, I saw boys dressed in jeans and t-shirts, little girls in puffy dresses, and older men in slacks and nice jackets. Seeing this, I felt a little less strange in my boots, jeans and black jacket.
I found a seat at the edge of the eating area, excited to finally dig into the Halal chicken and rice I had ordered. The orange rice was moist and soft, perfectly complementing the seasoned chicken, which was so delicate that it would fall apart as I picked it up with my fork. There was a refreshing white sauce drizzled on top, adding a nice coolness to each bite.
Other vendors did not disappoint. The $1 samosas from Bismallah were soft and flavorful, and I wanted to buy ten of them to take home with me. The Golakabob Paratha stand served freshly-grilled chicken and beef kabobs with crispy flatbread and salad, the meat warm and soft and the flatbread oily, yet addicting, like most fair foods.
Perhaps the best part was dessert. There was a Persian bakery with a table displaying plastic-wrapped baklava and cakes. The man and woman running the tent had woken up at five in the morning to make all of it and kept repeating, “Tell your friends to come here!” to people who bought their sweet treats. Their baklava had a crunchy, thin upper layer lightly doused with sweet syrup, and a soft and cinnamon-seasoned center that would satisfy any five-year-old with a sweet tooth. Their basbousa coconut cake was even sweeter, like something that adults would eat served with tea in the middle of the day.
Just as enticing were the shops, which sold everything from clothes to jewels to candles and carpets. One store was Hilwah Baby Clothes, which opened only three months ago but was already overflowing with merchandise which any new mother would want for her daughter. Little pink outfits that read “Say Mashallah” lined the racks while the table displayed sleek and stylish handbags Another charming store was Native Immigrant, which advertised “ethical street chic threads.” The urban and eco-friendly clothing store originated in LA. When asked how they found themselves in the OC, they replied that they found out about the event through Facebook and simply contacted the coordinators to ask for a booth. It seems that the event was set up in such a way that welcomed any member of the Muslim community from far and wide.
Among these creative and open people, it was impossible to justify the current stigma against Muslims in America. One woman, when asked about the pervading sense of Islamophobia in the country, recently reinvigorated by Donald Trump’s campaign, replied confidently that she was not worried.
“Nothing will happen to you that God didn’t already write on you. At the end, God will not ask what you did, but he will see your heart. So continue to be a part of the community. Learn more, raise your kids, do your jobs.”
And this community is not exclusive. One of the attendees, although herself Muslim, remarked, “Some of my non-Muslim friends are coming to just enjoy the food, the company and just to learn.”
At the end of the day, that’s exactly what I did. I learned that, although most people associate Halal with food, it is in actuality the process of upholding purity. The opposite of Halal is Haram, which means “forbidden,” and with regards to food refers to blood, alcohol and meat from animals like pigs, or food which was not prepared in the correct manner. These standards of purity, however, are a part of a larger process of thanking God and being intentional about one’s choices.
The people at the Halal Food Festival made their intentions clear: They wanted to share their culture with the community in a peaceful and light-hearted manner. In generalizing the Muslim population as terrorists or extremists from what they see in the media — similar to how they generalize their understanding of Halal from the few places they have been exposed to like the Halal Guys — many Americans are turning a blind eye towards a rich and inviting culture.
Driving away from the festival that night, I felt happy to have taken part in such a unique event. Turning out of the little neighborhood, I saw the familiar Vietnamese shops lining the streets. While proud that my own people had found a home away from home, I was also excited to see the growth of the community that had begun establishing itself behind a quaint neighborhood. I felt like that space was a little secret I shared with them, one that I hope will someday be revealed to the rest of the world as something kind, something peaceful, and something worth supporting, not fighting.