Vietnamese dinners in East Dallas
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Vietnamese dinners in East Dallas

 VIETNAMESE DIINNERS IN EAST DALLAS: “Using lots of examples, explain a ritual from another culture that you are familiar with.”
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/>I became familiar with South Vietnamese culture when I taught refugees English. We had the class in the basement of a Lutheran Church in old East Dallas from 1998-1999. Most of the students were very dedicated. Only a few knew much English when they arrived in Dallas. My best student was Ai, a former nurse for the South Vietnamese army. Like most 60-something year old Vietnamese veterans, he had served five years in a Viet Cong-run POW camp for five years when the Communists took over.


/>Anyway, they loved to have big dinners with lots of food and beer—especially for the Tet New Year in January/February and to celebrate Chef Dung’s (Yoom) birthday in July at his restaurant. If the celebration was at someone’s house, dinner was served on the floor. Typically, Vietnamese cover most of their living room carpet with a giant piece of sheet vinyl, which is taped to the floor. Then they put newspapers over the vinyl and bring out bowl after bowl of food. Everyone has their own plate, which is used to gather delicacies from the serving bowls—not unlike home-style serving anywhere. Sometimes the food was what you would see in a restaurant, something of a cross between Chinese, French, and soul food. Unlike Tyler, Dallas County is full of Vietnamese restaurants in certain areas like Walnut Street (Garland/Richardson), west Richardson, and old East Dallas. Other times, you would receive food that would not be considered kosher in the U.S.—like my favorite, fried pigeon. Apparently, they would shoot the slow-witted birds with pellet guns.


/>Let us look at a few of the major Viet dishes and some adaptations of American cuisine. The national dish of Viet Nam is pho; a hearty stew with beef slices much like a Philadelphia cheese steak (but no cheese), together with other meats, including meatballs. Green onions and thin rice noodles are cooked in a tasty broth with a fish base. Then add fresh vegetables like mint leaves, cilantro, raw jalapenos, lime, romaine lettuce, and bean sprouts. Sauces range from Sriracha hot sauce, hoisin, red chili paste, to the ubiquitous nuoc mam, a fermented anchovy sauce. Sometimes nuoc mam has chili powder in it. I could never go back to soy sauce after enjoying nuoc mam so much.  Goi is a spring roll; rice, boiled shrimp, beef stomach, and mint leaves are wrapped in rice paper. Then you dip your goi in a sauce like hoisin. Vietnamese find ways to adapt American staples to their taste. Ketchup and Sriracha mix well together. Bologna tastes better fried to them and me. The different combinations of meat and vegetables that they mix in their stews seem endless. My Vietnamese friends love Budweiser and were no different from most Americans who find surprise in my choice: Schlitz. They started drinking Heineken the following year, a sign of greater wealth as much as increased knowledge.
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After the feast, singing Vietnamese karaoke was a common event. The videos feature the beautiful scenery of Viet Nam. The hills of Da Lat and the beaches of Nha Trang are among the best. I learned how to pronounce Vietnamese because we relied heavily on the picture dictionaries. I do not care what English purists say; it helps to read the chapter title in the target population’s language. Judging from the audience reaction, I could sing Vietnamese fairly well even though I have knew very little. Ironically, Dalena, the American singer of Vietnamese songs does not know the language either, but can get passionate by reading the English translation. Furthermore, one develops an appreciation for the difficulty in saying sounds that are not in your first language.
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Let me reminisce about a few gatherings. One of the dinners that stands out was the first Tet New Year blast when I supplied the vegetables, Chef Dung brought some meat, and Ai brought the beer—all at the last minute. Snacks were a culinary stretch too as we had dried squid with Sriracha hot sauce, together with dried fish dipped in honey and sesame seeds. We had a six-months of the class celebration at my house.  We had a feast at a former colonel’s house that became wealthy with his wife by making clothes. I have never seen a marble-floored living room before or since. We watched Hamburger Hill with English subtitles for the less fluent guys after karaoke. The colonel insisted the movie was authentic. Another time, my friend and I were paid with rice mixed with boiled chicken and ground meat for roofing an elderly man’s patio. There’s no doubt in my mind that food brings people together, and the less finicky you are about eating, the more adventures you’ll have in life.
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Note: This essay was a model essay for a Freshmen Composition class in which I was substituting.