East and West, a clash of cultures
  • | | January 04, 2010 04:42 PM

It was autumn and I thought Minnesota, known as “the Twin Cities of Ten Thousand Lakes”, was the most beautiful place on earth. On my bicycle along the quiet roads, I admired the trees in luxuriant colors: crimson, gold, copper, orange, yellow… While making a circle of Lake Harriet, I inhaled the fresh morning breeze. The gentle wind was wafting through the city, bringing me a sense of inner peace, clarity, and hope for a new life.

Autumn in Minnesota  

That first autumn I went on a weekend trip with my American sponsors to the north, visiting Duluth and Lake Superior. We stayed at a charming cottage with windows facing the great lake. Eating at nice restaurants, I would remember the freshly baked bread, the wild vegetables salad, and the fried filets of bluefin -- a specialty white fish. And I would remember the gentle walks along the lakeshores with Anne. My new family was interested in hearing about life in Viet Nam during the war. I enjoyed the opportunity to express myself and to improve English.

Before I noticed it, winter had already arrived. All the beautiful leaves were gone. Anne offered to buy me a winter coat but I rejected her reasoning. One day I woke up and saw snow for the first time. Cascades of snow were falling down rapidly, covering all the tree branches, rooftops, cars, roads, alleys, and even people. The brilliant crystal white and its pure beauty amazed me. I went out and scooped up some and let it melt in my hand. In no time, the temperature went down to 10 F. It was freezing.

Getting ready for my workday at the bank, I put on a heavy winter coat I had borrowed from the elderly neighbor, Alice. But I was reluctant to step outside. Anne said,“My dear, I had told you that it was going to be very cold here in winter.” I wasn’t sure about going to work that day. After much reservation, I went out and took the bus, heading to downtown as usual. I wished I had not chosen to live in Minnesota. I wished I had gone to a warmer state. I wished I had a Vietnamese friend to share my anxiety. Having grown up in the heat and humidity of Sai Gon, how could I cope with such extreme contrast in weather? I felt so much alone, missing my homeland and my family. Sometimes it was unbearable. To help me build a new life, I was powerfully lucky to have an American family.

Buying food at an Oriental grocery store was a good way to meet other Vietnamese. That was where I met Kim and her husband, Nhac, who lived in a suburb of Minneapolis. Some months after their resettlement, Kim decided to host a dinner party for their American sponsors. Since I enjoyed cooking, I was expected to be at their house in the morning, to help with the food preparation.

Winter in Minnesota  

It was a cold winter day following the Christmas and New Year season, no snow, and with beautiful blue sky. I arrived early and brought a bouquet of fresh white lilies for Kim’s Buddhist shrine. I thought of doing some prayers while at their house. To my surprise, Kim grabbed the little Buddha statue at the top of a big chest, and without saying a word, she hid it in one of the drawers. She replaced the Buddha with the Virgin Mary. Quickly she took out a gold chain with a cross and put it around her neck. I then realized that their American sponsors had converted them to Catholicism.

About twenty guests arrived. Most of them were members of the Catholic Church where Kim and her husband had recently joined. Since Kim and Nhac spoke little English, I was asked to be the interpreter for the evening. We had been busy diligently preparing a variety of dishes, which included fried imperial rolls, charcoal grilled fish, roasted spicy chicken, pork simmered in clay pot, hot and sour seafood soup, papaya salad, watercress salad, steamed dumplings, fragrant steamed rice, assorted fresh fruits… The host and hostess wanted to show their hospitality the Vietnamese way.

Lake Superior in winter  

In the nicely presented dining area, the Americans were looking forward to the exotic homemade cuisine. Nhac stood solemnly and said to the guests in a respectful manner, “I am happy welcoming you to our humble little house. I thank all of you for helping us with a new life. Now, I’d like to invite the oldest guest to start the dinner.” He took a plate, waiting to give it to the most senior guest. But to his surprise, nobody came forward. The guests stared at each other in silence. At that moment, it occurred to me that Westerners, especially women, were very conscious of their age and would not reveal it. I pulled Nhac aside and whispered to him in Vietnamese, “You should say ‘ladies first’.” He quickly asserted, “Ladies first, please!” All the ladies smiled and proceeded to pick up their plates.