Finding Common Ground


As the war in Vietnam wound down in the late 1970s, I was a fresh-from-university Special Education Teacher, starting out first in New Orleans, then moving on to teach near Washington D.C., where I split each day between a gritty inner city school and a yuppie suburban academy.

Every week a new wave of Vietnamese immigrant children and their parents arrived at the schools – confused and frightened. Many were “Boat People ” who had survived the ravages of war and the trauma of relocating to countries totally foreign to them. And since few of us teachers had yet traveled (certainly not to Vietnam), we were ignorant of the culture these families had left behind – only aware of the horrors shown on the nightly news for the past decade.

As the kids struggled to adapt to the new environment, we teachers grappled with how to bridge the immense cultural and language gaps. We racked our brains to find a way to connect … to find common ground.

The clues came at lunchtime when the students streamed into the cafeteria, lining up for chocolate milk and trays loaded with meatloaf and mashed potatoes. But not the Vietnamese children. They sat quietly with their lunch boxes, opening plastic containers of mysterious stews and thermoses of steaming noodles. Then the chopsticks came out.

There was our answer for how to connect. FOOD!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”
–James Beard

We invited the families to the classrooms to teach us how to cook their favorite foods. While we coached them on vocabulary, the kids taught us how to use chopsticks – and trust me, they were more adept with words than we were with two sticks and some slippery noodles! Our clumsiness seemed to boost their confidence.

The parents nurtured us with bowls of salty Phở (noodle soup), plates of crispy Bánh xèo (pork-filled crepes), and piles of healthy Gỏi cuốn (fresh spring rolls). It was heaven! From these shared experiences we learned about and from each other. To this day, many of my favorite foods were first tasted in those exotic communal meals.

It was the best teaching experience of my life … and motivated me to travel and explore the world. And over the years, on each journey to an unfamiliar culture, I continue to search for common ground … and it’s often food.

Peaceful Trails,

P.S. This post was inspired by fellow blogger James at Plus Ultra. His excellent article Beyond Cholon, the scars of history brought back this powerful memory and I thank James for reminding me. If you haven’t yet discovered this talented writer, check him out.

A bowl of canh chua (Vietnamese hot and sour soup)

Photo Credits:
1, 2. By Chilombiano
3. By Jason Hutchens via Wikimedia Commons.


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

49 thoughts

  1. Sometimes all it takes is a few words or a photo to bring back a stream of memories – food is such a powerful connector and one of the greatest joys of travel. Thanks for the shout-out Terri, this is a beautiful, heartwarming read!

    1. You’re welcome James … and thanks for the kind words and inspiration. It is amazing how our senses can bring memories flooding back. In addition to photos and words, I find I’m instantly transported to the original event by smells and music. I can still remember the scent of the frying Bánh xèo to this day! All the best, Terri

  2. I am so touched by your story. Thanks, Terri. I can see how a wonderful teacher you are! Understanding other cultures is the key to good outcomes in teaching. You got it. You like it. And you embraced it! Lovely people! Your students must have loved you! Respectfully yours!

    1. What kind words Denise. Thank you so much. In addition to being a wonderful teaching experience, it was fun! The kids and their families were so engaging … they stole my heart. All the best, Terri

    1. Thanks LuAnn. I’ve always considered myself lucky to have been there in Washing D.C. at that time in history. It truly broadened my worldview. Are you and Terry going to Vietnam when you travel to Southeast Asia? ~Terri

      1. Yes we are and we are getting excited. Now that we have some home projects out of the way, our thoughts are turning to planning our trip.

  3. Food (and drink) is such a big part of the travel adventure. Every new location has its own unique flavors and customs. Each one expands horizons.

    1. You are so right Tom! I remember my very first overseas trip was to the Hague, and at the entrance to my hotel they were selling steak tartar sandwiches. But being a rube, I just thought it was hamburger that was going to be cooked. As I watched in amazement, people were snarfing them down … and I was incredulous! Thus began the expanding of my horizon! It’s so good to hear from you. How are you feeling, because from this end your recovery seems nothing short of miraculous? All the best, Terri

      1. Thanks, Terri. I’m feeling well. We’re planning my first post-operative day-trip tomorrow, to Besalú (Spain). Hopefully, there will be no steak tartar.

    1. Many, many thanks Kelly! It was one of those situations that started out incredibly challenging and turned into a wonderfully fun, life-changing experience. So glad you stopped by. Where are you off to next? ~Terri

      1. Awesome Terri. It must have been wonderful, too, for your students and their families to feel embraced and know that you valued their culture. :: I’m off to BALI for a long weekend starting next Wednesday, as next Friday is a holiday here. Can’t wait! Haven’t been back since our honeymoon in 2002. Rented a villa (not a hotel) with your recent posts in mind! 🙂 Thanks for the inspiration and help!

      2. That’s wonderful Kelly! I love Bali. We went back last year for the first time in 10 years and it’s still paradise. Are you staying in Ubud or traveling around?

      3. Staying near Seminyak for beach and sunsets and will day trip to Ubud. Last time we were there we went inland (in the sticks!) and climbed Gunung Agung, then ferried to Lombok, then one night in Ubud. This will be our first stay near the beach.

    1. Many thanks Curt. I knew I liked Peggy immediately – then she went on to be a principal, right? I’m with you about the delicious food in Ubud – we had some Mie Goring that I wish I could duplicate! ~Terri

      1. Yes she went on to be a principal, and I might add, a strong advocate for special ed.

        When we were in Ubud, a food editor for Sunset Magazine was staying at the hotel. We had several meals together. Some fun. Curt

    1. Thanks! You are so right about actions. It was fun to watch the other students’ faces when the Vietnamese children pulled out their chopsticks and started eating. The other kids we so curious and everybody wanted to learn how to do it too. Thanks for stopping by. ~Terri

  4. Hi Terri,

    What a lovely story, this one really resonated with me because my family was part of the boat people experience. We left Vietnam in 1978, spent two years in refugee camps in Malaysia and Phillipines and arrived in the US in 1980. I was only 5 at the time so the experience feels like a dream as I remember only bits and pieces. I remember eating cheese for the first time in the school cafeteria and I didnt like it at all, the texture was gooey and it had a horrible smell. To this day, I can eat cheese but not a big fan of it. It’s wonderful that you and your fellow teachers made such efforts to help these families adjust to their new environment. It’s people like you and others that help families like mine achieve the American dream. Thank you!

  5. Oh my Chau, you totally caught me off guard with your amazing story, beautiful words, and kind comments. Thank you so much – you’ve totally made my day … no, make that month! I can’t even begin to imagine what your family went through. When I shared my memories with James at PlusUltra he said, “Perhaps those experiences could be something to write about in the future.” I would suggest the same to you. I look forward to it if you do. Wishing you all the best, Terri

    1. Thank you Terri. Your story brought back many good memories for me. I hadn’t thought about writing about them in my blog but perhaps I will one day. I just need to write more frequently and become a better writer first :-). Chau

      1. Chau, I think you write beautifully! I hadn’t thought about writing this story either, but then I realized the experience sparked my curiosity about the world … and who I am today. So I just went for it! 🙂 Terri

  6. What a beautiful memory! I recently sent off all my important documents to South Korea in the process of gaining a teaching position there and I am so excited to be able to teach and to learn… and to find common ground through food!

    1. Thanks so much Jade. Your news is wonderfully exciting – teaching in South Korea sounds like a great adventure! Good luck on the position and let me know how it goes. Do you know when you’ll find out? ~Terri

    1. Many thanks Steve! So glad that you stopped by. I’m sure that after teaching in Korea you can truly relate to coming up with creative ways to handle communication challenges! All the best, Terri

  7. Thanks for your beautiful post.. It would have been such a heartwarming and heartbreaking experience to be a teacher right at that time. If you ever get the chance you should read “the happiest refugee”, it’s an Australian Vietnamese comedian’s experience.

    1. Thank you so much Tanny. It was a marvelous experience and I learned so much from the children and their parents. Thanks for the recommendation of “The Happiest Refugee” – I will definitely check it out. It looks like you’re having a blast on the Fourth Continent! 🙂 ~Terri

  8. Teri…this is our Graymont friend LIN. This story made me realize how I e njoyed U & are both Powerful teachers. Living @ 5 Graymont is is a young newly married very sweet couple. You have enriched life in so many ways

    1. Hi Lin, It is SO good to hear from you. Thank you so much for your very kind words. As you know, James and I think you’re fabulous and have missed having you as our neighbor ever since we left. So glad your new neighbors are sweeties – that makes all the difference. They are blessed to have you as a neighbor … and we’re blessed to have you as a friend. 🙂 Love, Terri

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