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!
“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”
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.
1, 2. Chilombiano 3. Jason Hutchens
What a lovely post! Thanks!
Why thank you Liz – really appreciated. When is the big move to Asheville? ~Terri
There’s a hell of lot can be solved over a meal instead of pointing guns.
No truer words were ever spoken Roger. Thanks for stopping by. All the best, Terri
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!
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
So simple, yet so powerful. Thank you for sharing this amazing experience
Thank you Filip! And anyone who knows me knows how much I love to keep things simple. It’s my mantra. Hope that you and Ana are well. All the best, Terri
This is such a great story, and a brilliant idea for helping bridge the gap. Thanks for a great read!
Many thanks Jessica. Isn’t it amazing how we bond over food – around the world! ~Terri
Great post. Inspiring!
I’m so glad that you liked it Linda. Thanks! I’m sure it’s a topic you can really relate to. All the best, Terri
thanks . You go Viet nam
You’re welcome! So glad you stopped by. ~Terri
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!
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
Really loved this post Terri! 🙂
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Terri, what a fantastic and poignant experience. I loved reading (and re-reading this post). Thanks for sharing. ~K.
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
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!
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?
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.
Have a blast! Can’t wait to read all about it.
Once spent a week in Ubud… many fond memories… and I can still taste the food. Nice blog, Terri. My wife Peggy was trained as a special ed teacher. Curt
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
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
Great story! They actions speak louder than words, but actions involving taste are even stronger 😉
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
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!
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
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
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
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!
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
Terri — what a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing this. Cheers!
Thank you so much Steph! It really was a life memory. ~Terri
Outstanding post, guys. Yet another, I might add. Love it, and please, keep ’em coming. Steve, AKA Twenty First Century Nomad!
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
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.
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
Teri…this is our Graymont friend LIN. This story made me realize how I e njoyed U & James.you are both Powerful teachers. Living @ 5 Graymont is is a young newly married very sweet couple. You have enriched life in so many ways
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
Food is definitely more than just calories and vitamins!
You said it perfectly Bronwyn … and fun too! 🙂 ~Terri
One of my favorite cuisines! The Vietnamese people are tough as nails–really an amazing culture with so much to teach us.
The parents introduced me to these delicate little spring rolls that I’ve been questing for years. I finally stumbled across their twin at a little hole-in-the-wall place in London. It’s funny how those sensory memories stay with you. ~Terri
I, too, was an educator for almost 52 years now, and we looked for common ground each and every day. My students were always required to give “How-To” speeches, and the ones the immigrants gave were not only welcome but also insightful. There are many commonalities; we just have to look for them.
Thanks, too, for these adorable photos. Faces of children should be one of our universal blog post ideas — we all love them!
Rusha, I love your idea of the “How-To” speeches. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for some of those! I had only been teaching for a couple of years, and had not traveled outside the US yet, so I was definitely on unfamiliar footing. But hearing from people like Chau Wu (above) makes me so glad to have had the experience. ❤ Terri
Oh Terri how lucky those children were to have you as their teacher. And how inspired you were. It must have been so much fun to learn about Vietnamese food, and how to use chopsticks, and even more wonderful to find a way to connect with the kids.
I have strong memories of the time of the war in Vietnam. There were protests in Australia about that war too. There is a generation of American and Australian women (my mother’s generation) who could have lost their father in WWI, their husband in WWII, and their son in Vietnam. And some did. So heartbreaking.
But you found a way to help heal the wound by showing those kids a way forward in their new home.
Your kind words mean the world to me, Alison. The situation you described of protests and loss is all too familiar. We were university students when James was part of the final US draft lottery for the Vietnam War. I remember the day they announced the birthdays on the radio as the blue capsules were drawn from the container. Fortunately his birthday landed in the higher numbers, meaning he was unlikely to be called to service. Our hearts went out to all his friends who were drafted.
In all honesty, we were young and naive. Never having faced war on our own soil, we were eager to help the refugees, so we were coming from a place of ignorance and compassion – a good combo in this case. And look at those sweet faces. Who could NOT want to help them. 🙂 ~Terri
What a beautiful story Terri. As I read I could visualize the scene of the parents teaching the teachers. Such an equalizing of the playing field so to speak. I wonder if you know what happened to the families in the decade that followed?
Many thanks, Sue. We moved to Dallas the next year, so keeping in touch was a challenge. But I exchanged annual Christmas cards with two families and was able to follow their children up through university. The parents still live in the same area near Washington DC where there’s a thriving Vietnamese community. ~Terri
I have goosebumps reading of their success! In the rural area where I grew up in Saskatchewan, the small church we went to sponsored a Vietnamese family. they went on to be highly successful in the restaurant industry in a nearby town.
I just love stories like that. What a compassionate thing for your church to do. ~Terri
Terri, I can just picture you as a young teacher. I love that you had a chance to teach at such a diverse setting, as you have described a ” gritty inner-city school and a yuppie suburban academy”. Very lucky students to have you as their teacher. Food is always a great way to find common ground and unit people. I love Vietnamese food, but chopsticks are hard work 🙂
Thanks Gilda! The two schools were definitely at opposite ends of the economic spectrum, but the teachers were determined to share their love of education with all. And I was such a klutz with chopsticks then – there’s nothing like having a bunch of kids watching and giggling as you try to eat. I hope I’m a little more adept now. 🙂 ~Terri