About a year ago, my mom called me and said (in Vietnamese), "I want to make a cooking show for YouTube. I heard there's a lady who's teaching people to make pho using canned chicken broth -- NO!"
I was delighted by my mom's enthusiasm. It was the first time I heard her talk about starting a passion project purely for herself. Growing up, my mom never pursued any hobbies or personal projects. Her entire life was dedicated to providing for her family. Every morning, she woke up early and got the kids ready for school, dropped us off at the bus stop, worked 10-12 hours in the laundromat, ran errands, came home and made dinner, did the dishes, cleaned the house, got the kids ready for bed, watched a little TV, went to sleep, and did it all over again the next day.
Now, with all three kids out of the house, she finally has time to do something for herself. Together, we started my mom's YouTube dreams. I helped film and edit her cooking videos, and she shined naturally and effortlessly on camera. I never saw this side of my mom before -- carefree, charming, a student to the craft of performing. Watching my mom pursue something outside of her comfort zone and embrace the camera with such confidence and courage, I was inspired.
In addition to cutting onions and egg rolling techniques, here are 5 things I learned from watching (and filming) my mom's YouTube cooking show:
1) It's never too late.
My mom lived 50-something years, escaped Vietnam by boat, lived in a refugee camp, came to America with no money, met + married my dad, raised 3 daughters, and worked in a laundromat for 20-something years before she decided to start her YouTube show.
When I hear people in their 20s, or 30s, or 40s and beyond, complain about how they feel it's "too late" to start XYZ project or pursue a new career path or make a simple change, I immediately say, "Stop." The more time and energy you spend talking about how you feel it's too late to do something, the more precious time and energy is wasted. Life is long. There's no race. When you say, "it's too late," whose timeline are you comparing yourself to? Goals don't have expiration dates. But lives do. Focus less on the life other people are living, and focus more on the life you are living (or not living).
2) Authenticity trumps social media metrics.
My mom has no Twitter, no Instagram, no Facebook, and she's never paid for any advertising or optimization. She has over 500 YouTube subscribers and her "Pho Bo" video received over 16,000 organic views in the first 9 months. She currently has only 5 videos published. Yet, earlier this year, an agency working with The Huffington Post reached out to us about signing my mom as one of their talents for a Huff Post platform. The trick to her growing success? Authenticity. There is something singularly special about my mom that's resonating with people -- and that's her voice, her style, her passion, her food, her culture, her identity.
We're living in a digital age where influence, opportunities, validation, and marketing economies are heavily driven by social media metrics and quantifiable impressions. Sure, these things matter in some contexts, to some people, and to some extent. But as this cultural economic path evolves, so will the tools to optimize and too often imitate this perception. Meaning, this type of value system may implode as it proves to be less impactful than anticipated. The only true way to stand out is not through the number of followers, it is through your unique voice. Because honestly, it's not hard to build your numbers given all the tools to do so these days. But only you can be you. Focus less on numbers. Focus more on being you.
3) Following your dreams is a luxury.
Growing up, my mom always pressured me to take on traditional careers like doctor, lawyer, or pharmacist. She didn't understand me when I talked about pursuing my dreams as an artist or creative person. At the time, I didn't understand that my mom never had the opportunity to pursue her own dreams, because she was focused on survival. Within her unique experience and circumstance, a better life came from financial security -- so she encouraged the jobs that she believed would provide me with that.
If you have the means and the opportunity to pursue a dream or passion, know that it is a luxury. Some people, like my parents, never had the chance to. So don't take your position for granted. Make something happen.
4) There will always be an excuse to not do it.
Once, my mom told me that when we had (English-speaking) friends over, she refrained from conversing at the dinner table because she felt insecure about her limited English skills and Vietnamese accent. Now, she's the star of her own YouTube show! It's still not easy for her; during recording, my mom would get stuck on certain words and phrases. She would get frustrated with herself on set. She practices and practices until she gets it right. It makes me proud to watch my mom overcome an insecurity and work through her challenges.
In addition, my mom doesn't know how to use an internet browser. She's never had an email or YouTube account. She doesn't know how to film or edit video content. These could've all been excuses in my mom's mind like, "I want to make a YouTube show but..." None of these things stopped her. Whatever it is you want to do, there will always be an excuse (or 20) to not do it. But if you're focusing on the excuses, then you're already failing. Failure is not trying. Don't focus on failure. Focus on the goal, and what you need to do to meet it.
5) Take charge of telling your story, before someone else does.
My mom has been eating and cooking Vietnamese food her whole life. I grew up on fish sauce, pho, shrimp paste, cha gio, goi cuon, banh cuon, thit kho, bun thit nuong, and every other delicious Vietnamese food you can think of before Anthony Bourdain called Vietnam his favorite country in the world. My mom is finally overcoming her insecurities and stepping into the spotlight to share her personal story of family, cooking, and Vietnamese culture.
Vietnamese food and culture is hot right now in the mainstream culinary world. Who will be the biggest profiteers of this culinary "trend"? Is it the people who have the money and networks to fly to Vietnam on a food tour and broadcast it on TV like they're the American purveyors of ethnic culture? Or is it the Vietnamese family who has been running the mom and pop pho restaurant for over 15 years? Culture is a hot commodity. The people who are best equipped to share a specific culture are those who live it. Otherwise, you run into western-centric headlines like "Ube is the New Matcha," and "Pho is the New Ramen." So whatever your story is, your passion, your ideology, your mission -- write it, speak it, and share it because no one can tell your story better than you.
Click here to watch episodes of "Cooking With Mrs. Nguyen."
Sahra Vang Nguyen is a writer, creative producer, and entrepreneur focused on telling underrepresented stories at the intersection of diversity, culture, and the human potential. She's currently working on a new documentary about deportation for NBC News, an indie film about Vietnamese graffiti writers in Ho Chi Minh City, and growing her restaurant brand, "Lucy's Vietnamese Kitchen." Connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.