Wednesday, October 19, 2011

“You got a homesick, I got a homesick too.”

UMass/Boston has a reputation as a wonderful place for international students to study business. I taught Professional Writing at the College of Management for several semesters, and I tried to focus the in-class writing exercises on topics and formats one might use in a business setting, such as memos, emails, and reports. I knew that a lot of my students were very homesick, however, so one day when we had to go over how to write a letter, I decided to read them an essay by my friend Monica Bhide about what it was like for her when she was a student far away from home and far from all the people she loved and all the foods that might comfort her.

I read the class a section from her contemporary Indian cookbook Modern Spice. In it, she spoke about being so lonely when she arrived at graduate school in Lynchburg, Virginia that she cried and prayed to Lord Krishna. She missed familiar foods, so she borrowed some rice and cardamom from a neighbor and began to make her mother’s rice pudding. The aroma filled the apartment with the smells of home. The scent of the cardamom enticed a neighboring Indian Engineering student and drew him, as if by magic, to her apartment.

Dear reader, she (eventually) married him.

All the students in the class – men as well as women – gasped with surprise and then sighed with pleasure at the fairytale ending of this story. (For another retelling of this story, read Monica’s article on cardamom from Saveur magazine.)

As I read this essay to my students, I could feel an odd combination of emotions stirring in the room: sadness and longing combined with the comfort of being in a place where these feelings were not only recognized but shared with others. I could sense some eyes tearing up, including my own.

The students set about responding to Monica’s essay by writing letters to her. Nineteen out of the twenty students in the class were non-native speakers from other countries. There were students from Russia, the Dominican Republic, Poland, Thailand, Nepal, The Republic of Congo, Japan, Taiwan, China, Bangladesh, Korea, Lebanon, and Ghana. There was only one student, a young woman, who was raised in America. I realized that I had placed her in a difficult position: clearly everyone else could relate to what it was like for Monica to be homesick, but what would the native-born student have to say about this story?

As the students composed their letters to Monica, I thought about my own family’s immigrant past. My great-grandfather grew up in Limerick, Ireland, where his father was an estate manager at Croom House, one of the Great Houses of Ireland, and one of the only ones that was still in Catholic hands at the time. There was limited opportunity in Limerick, and my great-grandfather wanted to work and own his own land. He knew he needed to leave home in order to create the life he imagined. First he went to England. He was unable to find work there, I assume because he was an Irish Catholic. He announced to the family that he was planning to go to America. Lady Lyons, the mistress of Croom House, wrote my great-grandfather a letter of recommendation naming all of his gardening and farming skills, and she also wrote a letter to him, imploring him not to go to America. It was the height of the Civil War and, she noted, “Young Irish men are cannon fodder.” He came anyway. He encountered a lot of NINA signs (No Irish Need Apply) and he eventually settled in Vineland, NJ, where he grew tomatoes for a living. His two sons went on to become surgeons – a great leap for first generation immigrants.

I recognize the same ambition and drive in my students. Many have extraordinary job responsibilities in addition to caring for their families. The students who take the once-a-week night classes are so busy that it is sometimes hard for them to find time to do their homework, but they manage it somehow. It was very clear to me that most of them were operating on a huge sleep deficit.

When it was time for the students to read their essays to the class, everyone was completely engaged. Students spoke of being overwhelmed by the price of food. One young woman said, “In Taiwan, the food is affordable, delicious, and you can get it anywhere. Here, the food is expensive, it doesn’t taste good, and it’s hard to find.” Others commented on the fact that the food here just doesn’t taste right because the ingredients aren’t as fresh or as good as they are in their own countries, especially those from warmer climates with year-round growing seasons. “At home, our food is never more than a day from the field, and sometimes only a few hours,” one student observed. “I miss my tropical life,” mused another wistfully.

Learning to cook was an issue for many. “When I came here,” said a student from Bangladesh, “I didn’t even know how to cook rice! Now I can make enough food for a party for fifteen people!” Several students described having to learn to cook for themselves, and those who live by themselves talked about how odd it felt to eat alone. A student from Lebanon described smelling the aroma from a dish prepared by her cousin and recognizing it as one that her grandmother used to make. She said that the scent reduced her to tears instantly.

When the time came for the American-born student to read her letter, she too described the feeling of homesickness and what it felt like to long for a specific food: “I had always heard that the food in Italy was fantastic, but when I got there, I missed my Nana’s noodles in gravy!” She spoke about the importance of tradition and taking time to cook and eat with family. Everyone in the class nodded in agreement.

One student’s letter to Monica began, “You got a homesick. I got a homesick too.” His grammar wasn’t perfect, but the sentiment was heartfelt and exact. Recognizing and sharing a feeling of loneliness and isolation brought our class together, and it really made me wish that we had access to a kitchen, so that we could share our culinary love letters to home at one big table.

3 comments:

  1. I had an epiphany when I read this essay; love is sensual - formed felt and triggered by all the senses.

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  2. I love this essay. Sometimes homesickness itself is the common bond.

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