Back in September of 2010, before I left St. Paul, Minneosota to trundle through Southeast Asia and set up shop in New Zealand, I worked as an ESL instructor at a non-profit that helped resettle refugees. It was about as awesome and rewarding (and low-paying) as you’d imagine. We played a lot of bingo, laughed endlessly over the difficulties of kitchen vs. chicken and fought a never-ending battle against cockroaches.Like any teacher, I loved my students. And like any teacher, I had favorites. (If you’re a teacher and you claim you don’t have favorites, you are lying. Or you’re a way better person than I am.) Because I taught adults, I somehow felt less guilty about having favorites. I imagined my students more like co-workers and we’re all allowed to have favorite colleagues, right?
My all time fave was T. She was only a year younger than me and worked as a teacher in her refugee camp in Thailand. We shared overachiever tendencies as well as a fondness for funny cat videos and eye rolling. She was my people.
We’d talk after class about her kiddos or her husband who was stuck in Thailand; sometimes we’d share recipes for curries. I told her she could work in a restaurant kitchen; she told me she’d never even eaten in a restaurant.
Of course not. She’d fled through the jungles of Burma as a child and then spent twenty years inside a Thai refugee camp, unable to leave under penalty of incarceration. And now she lived on food stamps.
I decided we obviously needed to hit up Trieu Chau, my all time favorite restaurant. T, the kidlets and I piled into a long booth and ordered up some kid-friendly dishes.
Somewhere along the way, I forgot that T. was KaRen, raised in Thailand and neither she (nor her children) had ever used chopsticks before. But this would not deter the children. There were many adorable attempts to eat noodles with a chopstick in each hand while the wee girl looked on, rubbing her stomach and cooing “Oh my Godddddd” – her only English phrase.After our dinner, I asked T. what she thought of all this – the menus and waitress and chopsticks. “It’s okay, teacher,” she nodded sagely. “But, I think it’s much easier to eat with your hands.”