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!
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.
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.