For my small farmer’s market business, I have space in a kitchen where the rest of the work force is Vietnamese, Burmese, Mexican or Guatemalan. I never know what anybody is talking about until it’s lunchtime.
Where language fails, food steps in to fill the communication gap.
The company from which I rent space prepares a daily employee meal of distinction, usually a stir-fry of Chinese influence. But the Vietnamese ladies, a few who have worked for the company for 15 years, bring their own special touches from home.
Every day they invite me to share their delicacies.
A tub of what tastes like young crunchy sauerkraut. A most pungent homemade fish sauce – with a fish fillet still in it. And containers of sweet, crunchy, pickled carrots, jicama and I am told "white broccoli" - which I am pretty sure is cauliflower.
The Vietnamese women, whose limited English is so heavily accented I can barely understand it, eat like little birds, delicately taking tiny bits with perfect chopstick etiquette. The Guatemalan men eat the same food with spoons, great gusto and several generous squeezes of sriracha. When asked what they eat in Guatemala, Antonio and Syd say, “the same arroz, pollo, chilies, cilantro – but different.” The men call sriracha Vietnamese ketchup and the egg rolls the women wrap hour after endless hour, Vietnamese tacos.
The women ask me "You got children?" then pull out photos of theirs to show me. One explains that her daughter will finish college in the spring but delay graduate work for a year. “She say, I work too hard. She help me for year, then more school."
There are also young women from Burma in the room, the latest wave of refugees to be settled in town. Stateside a mere four months, they are like deer in headlights, wide eyed and silent, as if all their energy is required to understand the task at hand. They say nothing, unable to talk to anybody but each other.
Their beauty attracts the unwanted attention of the young Guatemalan men. No language is required to understand their annoyance. At mealtime they search out other Burmese in the commissary. I am unable to ask them what they eat at home.
From time to time the Vietnamese women try to engage the Burmese girls in conversation. There is never a response until one day, during the recent celebration of the Chinese New Year, when homemade wads of coconut-scented sweet sticky rice get shared among the coworkers. As the three Burmese women tentatively taste the treat, one of them in a tiny voice simply says, "Coconut" and the entire room smiles.
This past summer, I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) to a family of six Iraqi children fresh from Baghdad. Their tiny two-bedroom apartment on the west side of town smelled like heaven – cinnamon, cloves, cardamom-scented chicken on a bed of rice, a casserole of olive-oil-soaked eggplant, slices of fresh tomato, onion and lemon baked to delicious perfection.
All plates get wiped clean with fresh flat bread. Another day there would be fresh cucumber lemon salad with cilantro and a whole baked fish covered in sesame seed paste devoured for lunch.
Their needs were bottomless and their resources limited. But the mother would always present me with a packet of food to take home.
Years ago, I worked in a restaurant with a young man from Cambodia, who informed me that the movie The Killing Fields was like Disneyland compared to the reality of Cambodian horrors he had escaped. Vita took me to Angkor Wat, a Cambodian restaurant in the city (now closed), where we slurped soup with bitter greens.
At his wedding, we ate pigeon served complete - head and feet included. As he and his bride passed out smokes, said a prayer and did shots of Jim Beam with every table of guests, the elders took to the stage to perform dances full of bizarre angles and exquisite finger work.
Salvador, a refugee from El Salvador, introduced me to thin beefsteaks with fried eggs. He lamented about the rapid assimilation of his seven children.
Through a translator he told me, "When I come home I want steak with beans and eggs – my kids, they want hamburgers, pizza and lasagna." Another El Salvadoran I worked with juggled two menial kitchen jobs, while his son attended the University of Houston with hopes of becoming an architect.
At a Valero station I frequent in the Woodland Heights, I once traded ginger cookies with the Sri Lankan attendees for a taste of their fiery coconut-based curry. We chatted about cricket and rejoiced over the end of the Tamil war. They shared their dreams of buying hot rod cars.
A Nigerian nanny laughed her head off at me as I diligently peeled a mango for my son. "In Nigeria," she explained, "we eat mango like apple – skin and all." Back home she had been a nurse. At night she took classes to Americanize her nursing certification.
Life is not easy for new immigrants, harder even for the refugees - language acquisition is vital. Chicken and other ingredients taste different here than in their homelands.
Marriages are strained. Wages are small. The learning curve is almost unbearably steep.
A Danish friend, struggling with the concept of her children’s high school homecoming, told me, "Every day in America is like an exam."
Homelands are missed. As I sat on the donated, used couch in the Iraqi family’s small apartment, the 16-year-old confirmed that I had actually accomplished my ESL goal when she said in her tiny woeful voice, "I want Iraq."
But through it all the immigrants and refugees persevere. What else can they do?
Meals are cooked, recipes are adapted, strangers become friends, schools are sorted, English skills acquired and, whether they want to or not, children assimilate.
Every day, a spirit of hope, fragile dreams of a future and their food customs sustain them.