My story begins when the white St. Lawrence University van I was riding in came to a stop outside of Madrid-Waddington Central School (MWCS), home of the Yellow Jackets, 20 minutes from campus. Inside the van, 15 St. Lawrence students waited to begin the first-ever cultural exchange mission organized by Common Ground Connections (CGC), a brand new club at the time.
“After the activities today, you guys will get a chance to have a school lunch here!” said our advisor Megan Putney excitedly. As expected, murmurs immediately broke the van’s contemplative silence. Our U.S. members let out ominous “ummm’s” but the rest of us, mostly international students from around the globe, were thrilled. Walking slowly behind everyone else as we exited the van, I thought back to all the TV shows and cartoons I’d watched before coming to the U.S., and I knew that the moment I laid my food on my school lunch tray would be a dream come true.
I feel like now is a good time for a backstory. I’m an international student from Hanoi, Vietnam, so like most of my international friends, I have only seen American schools on TV or film. When I learned that CGC members would be visiting local schools, I knew that I could swap out the images in my head for real ones! I’m grateful that CGC allows me to share my culture and stories with the students, but it’s even more rewarding to reshape some of my perceptions of the U.S. while comparing and contrasting what I learned on TV with my real-life experiences.
When lunch came after an exciting panel discussion with a group of high school students, a volunteer led us to the dining hall. His eyes gleamed as he said, “We don’t have much at our cafeteria, but we hope you enjoy it!”
Then, just like I imagined, the lunch line was in sight. I can’t remember what I said or did, but I know I ended up on the other side of it, grabbing utensils and sitting down at the nearest table. My lunch: a ham sandwich, celery and carrot sticks, tomato soup in a Styrofoam cup with Saltines, bright red jelly for dessert, and a small container of milk. With that, I was transported into a scene from the TV show Freaks and Geeks.
As I savored the last of the tomato soup and tried bites of raw celery (yes, we always cook celery at home), a thought came to my head. This lunch greatly differed from what my school in Vietnam offered. At home, our lunch consisted of rice, a stir-fry of meat or tofu, boiled veggies like bok choy or water spinach, and boiled vegetable water for soup on the side. That got me thinking, too, about what we eat on a daily basis, which inspired an idea for an upcoming panel discussion with the first graders.
When the day of the panel and the time for me to try out my strategy arrived, I introduced myself and my food and eating habits at home. I was met with wonder and disbelief as questions from the first-graders flooded in.
“You don’t eat pasta?!”
“What about cheese? No?!”
“Oh rice? I like rice. My mom makes rice! But not every night.”
Food sparked a light in the room and opened the gate for questions about everything from geography to linguistics. Just like that, another hour passed. When our time was over, I felt happy more than anything else because all the first-graders knew how to say “Hello” and “Thank you” in Vietnamese by the end of the session.
Food had always been a big part of my life before college, but from that moment, it took on an international role. It became a way to connect with others and through that, preserve my identity. I think I joined CGC for the same reason. The club has allowed both international and U.S. students to bring home wherever we go and to channel our homesickness into lessons for students in the North Country who may not have heard of our countries or cultures before. It’s also taught me that a global identity starts with curiosity and sustained eagerness to get out of your comfort zone over time.
It should come as no surprise then that when the pandemic put the world to a halt, CGC still found a way to connect with MWCS students through food. We delivered 38 snack boxes, each consisted of snacks from different countries along with activities like puzzles, coloring, and riddles. We couldn’t be there to see their faces, but we hope that they brightened after opening their boxes. Just like me with my milk carton and celery bites.