Welcome to America, Part 1

"Do you have any questions for us?" Angie asked Suan and his wife through our interpreter, another Zomi refugee who has picked up a fair amount of English in his few years in the United States.

Angie's question set off a series of back-and-forth exchanges in Zolai, the language of the Zomi people. The Zomi are from the Chin territory in Burma. As a minority (strike one), largely Christian (strike two) nation in Myanmar's Eastern border, the Zomi have suffered under the military junta that still controls the Burmese government. Many have fled as refugees, and some of those refugees have been given a home in the Chicago area.

As the chatter died down, the interpreter, Pau, turned back to Angie and said with an embarrassed laugh, "Um, yes… my wife would like to know what the bag of white powder is for." Answering our uncomprehending stares, Sing, mother of two daughters, gesticulated toward the kitchen.

"White powder?" mumbled Angie. Then again addressing Pau, she asked, "Can Sing show us?"

Who would have thought a simple little exchange like this would lead to the fulfillment of one of Angie's childhood dreams?

Angie grew up a stone's throw from Phoenix, Arizona. Having only one sibling, a brother four years her senior, she tended to rely upon her active imagination to fill those scorching childhood summers in the desert. Envisioning herself as Julia Childs, little ten-year-old Angie would stand before her bedroom mirror and host a cooking show. In a matter-of-fact tone, she would walk through the process of beating an egg, mixing dough, or baking a pizza. She was always careful to explain the details to her imaginary studio audience.

As Angie grew up, the practical concerns of everyday life replaced her childhood fantasy. She had all but given up her aspiration to host a cooking show until that very moment when Sing pulled the paper back out from under her sink: All Purpose Flour.

The Zomi people are an agrarian society. In a climate conducive to farming, they grow corn, rice, fruit, and vegetables. Apparently, they do not grow wheat. They had never seen wheat flour, and hadn't any idea how it should be used. And as Angie realized this, a light rekindled in her eyes as she enthusiastically offered to show them how to cook with it.

When Pau translated this to Zolai, Suan and Sing nodded their assent. Someone, I'm not sure who, ducked out the front door of the small studio apartment provided to the refugee family, and called down the hall. The Rogers Park apartment building into which Suan and Sing were placed houses several other Zomi families, and in some ways they act like a tiny village inside of the large urban Chicago building. As Angie was busy finding the necessary kitchen utensils, other Zomi families streamed into the apartment, removing their shoes (as is the custom in Burma) and making a beeline for the tiny five-by-five kitchen nook.

Glowing with the enthusiasm of Rachel Ray, Angie began demonstrating how to make pancakes. Explaining the function of each utensil as she went, she scooped, leveled, mixed, poured, and cooked. Her audience stood rapt, interrupted only rarely by the exclamations of an inquisitive Zomi child.

Fifteen minutes later, the plate of pancakes passed from hand to hand. I'm not sure that our American cuisine immediately won over the hearts and stomachs of the Zomi refugees, but all of the pancakes were consumed. Everyone expressed their thanks to Angie, "lung dam mahmah." Thank you very much. Angie glowed.

Follow along with part 2 and part 3.

This is a guest post from my husband, Matt.  Matt is a software developer with an amazing gift for writing. His passions include theology, philosophy, grilling and reading. He wrote this story as a way to share our recent experiences with refugees and the organization that connected us with them. This is the first of 3 parts I will be sharing here on my blog. (We have changed some names for privacy.)

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