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Crosscurrents

Navigating food in a new land

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photo courtesy of Peralta Hacienda
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Peralta Hacienda community garden

It’s barely past 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, and the PeraIta Hacienda Park is already teeming with life.

The historic La Hacienda House sits right where 34th Ave. ends. It’s a Victorian style home left by some of Oakland’s original Spanish settlers. The building towers in comparison to a woman carefully plucking herbs from one of its side, gated gardens. Her name is Nai Sae Chow, and she works the garden with her sister, Mai Sae Chow.

At La Hacienda House, the Chows are known as the somewhat informal managers of the garden. The Hmong community has basically taken over the job of tending to the land. But other community members work the garden, too.

“People live close to here, and a lot of people come here,” Mai says. “Chinese, Japanese. Everyday -- Saturday, Sunday, weekend, weekday people come. It's fun.”

Agriculture is something long practiced in the Chows’ home country of Laos. So here, in the garden, lifelong traditions find new ways to flourish.

For many, food can be a connection to home, and for those who’ve immigrated having a garden like this is special, allowing age-old practices to live on. But for individuals who have newly arrived, like refugees, there are a few other things to sort out first.

Grocery shopping 101

Across town, the International Rescue Committee, or the IRC, is hosting a cooking class. Or rather, a grocery shopping 101 class, since the IRC knows learning how to navigate big U.S. grocery stores can prove quite challenging.

Teacher Lauren Gauthier is showing recently arrived refugees how to read food product labels on processed foods --  an oftentimes less than healthy alternative to whole fruits and vegetables.

“So that's four,” says Gauthier, reading the different types of sugars on a label. “So there's six different kinds of sugar in this box. do you think that's probably a bad thing?”

“In my country there's only one kind of sugar only,” replies Robert Tin.

Tin is from Myanmar. Back at home he was a chef, so he really doesn’t need cooking lessons.

But Gauthier and fellow teacher Annie Maas aren’t here to instruct Tin on how to chop his vegetables; they’re leading a conversation about American food products. And they’re giving Tin a chance to vent about how chefs in the U.S. cook very differently than he did back home. For one thing, as a chef in Myanmar, he cooked for a lot more people -- up to 500 at a time.

Tin even has some pictures on his phone of the food he’d cooked in Myanmar. Passing the phone around, Tin scrolls through shot after shot of dishes he’d prepared.

“Oh wow!” says Gauthier.  “The presentation -- the way you put the food on your plate is very beautiful, very cool.”

“I miss it,” says Tin. “Now I go to interviews only.”

Tin’s still looking for work as a chef here.

New roots

These classes are one small way  to get refugees resettled, and to help them prepare for the next step: Starting a new life, or settling “new roots.”

At the IRC, “New Roots” is also the name of a resettlement program.

One area is of focus is food security. One reason for this focus is to make sure people are eating. It’s also to make sure people can afford good food.

“Everyone we work with is really, extremely low income,” says Deepa Iyer, who runs the program. “They tend to be low income for a very long time, if not that whole first generation that arrives stays low income, very often.”

Iyer says in America low income communities often don’t have access to healthy food.

“The health indicators go down pretty quickly for immigrant populations in general to the American standards which are not very high, in terms of diet related illness and consumption of … horrible things,highly processed things,” she says.

Which is why the IRC hosts these cooking classes --  to show refugees how to keep the healthy eating habits of their previous countries alive.

“We talk about what knowledge they already have around eating healthy, and the system they'll be confronted with here,” Iyer explains.

Robert Tin says meals in the U.S. are much different than meals in Myanmar.

“In my country nobody eats this, just fresh fruits only,” he says while preparing a salad. “They don’t know sugars. In my country, Malaysia, they eat fried eggs, or another fruit. For lunch, just rice for lunch, and then I eat rice and veggies for dinner, or a fried egg only.”

Tin may have left Myanmar behind, but he certainly hasn’t lost his love for food or cooking. The roots of his cooking practices may never change, but how and what he cooks here might.