Tearing Down Cultural Barriers Through Traditional Cuisine and Conversation

Posted by eszter vajda

It was at a recent dinner with a group of exchange students from Hungary, that I was reminded of my experience as  a 12-year- old moving to the United States. I distinctly recall sitting alone during recess at school one day when a boy yelled “go back to your communist country”.

Decades later, I was invited to cook and eat with the host family and the four exchange students at Brooks School in North Andover, MA- a prestigious private high school. The meal was traditional beef stew, noodles, and cucumber salad. The four students have been away from home for a month so they craved Hungarian cuisine and conversation.

We spoke in English most of the time, but because I was born in Hungary, and still speak the language, we did go back and forth between English and Hungarian.

The four 17-year-old students, had to go through a competitive process to take part in the exchange. They all attend the same High School in Szeged, Hungary and are named Akos Varga, Aurellia Vadaszan, Noemi Anna Pal, and Attila Simko.

Before travelling to the United States, their opinions were formed through the lens of movies or speaking to expatriates. So for them, this experience was a real eye opener. Some misconceptions were revealed, new opinions formed, and new connections and bonds were built.  But whether they are aware of it or not, the four also had a tremendous impact on the community.

We talked about everything from food (for example, in Hungary people start dinner with soup instead of bread and butter or salad), music (they could easily bond with students over music), travelling (the students visited Boston, NY and Washington DC), and politics.

Akos Varga says most people he talked to have a very simplistic view of good versus evil, referring to the communist occupation of eastern European countries, including Hungary.

“They should know it’s not just a combat of political ideas and interests. Its much more complicated than that. They have a Hollywood view of that era and don’t understand how bad it really was.”

Aurellia Vadaszan was surprised at how little students know about world geography, and other countries’ culture and society.

“All they really care about is what is American. Those who travel know there is something else, but those who don’t are not as aware or even care about others.”

Noemi Anna Pal says Hungarians also have some misconceptions about Americans.

“Everyone had general idea that Americans are fat and stupid. But that is not true.”

Attila Simko observed that Americans were much friendlier than he expected, making it easy for him to stay in a foreign land.

“Leaving home was hard.  Before this, the longest period I was away from my family was two weeks so leaving for two months was hard, but getting here was easy because people were nice and it was easy to fit in.”

There have been several foreign exchange students that have passed through the home of Leigh Perkins and husband Mike Grant. Both are faculty members at Brooks School and have travelled extensively around the world with their two children, 15 -year-old Sam and 12-year-old Jake.  Perkins says interacting with people from around the world and international understanding is integral not only to a person’s career but also how they operate in society.

“In today’s world that’s important because it gives them the skills of empathy and understanding and flexibility in any situation – domestic or international. It means they can assess a situation and decide how best to react to make the person they are with comfortable.”

Perkins and her family took in a foster girl from Afghanistan for two years giving both her children and the other students a unique experience with someone from a country at war with the United States. Jake says he often finds himself correcting his classmates about their ideas of Afghanistan and its people.

“I feel like if I personally know someone from another country I’ll understand that country better.  When Marjeela (foster sister) lived here I learned a lot about that country. So in school when anyone brought up something wrong about Afghanistan I knew what I was talking about when I corrected them.”

Sam says at first, some people may look at people from other countries like they are “aliens”. But after talking and getting to know them, they find out they have a lot in common.

“It’s cool that we like the same artists and you see how connected our cultures are.  The main barrier is language once you get past that there is no difference.”

Movies, headlines and sometimes even history books may be the only source we have to construct a story about another country or culture. But whether you are American, Afghani or Hungarian we are all people with very similar needs, wants and feelings… and are more alike than we could have ever imagined. Interacting and engaging with people from other countries, whether here or abroad, is perhaps the best way to tear down the wall of misconceptions and hate. If only the boy on the playground had asked, I would have told him Hungary is no longer communist and in fact was one of the first countries to over throw the communist regime in 1989.

Incidentally, the women in the middle of the picture with the apron is my mother, Klara Vajda. For the past few years she has been invited for a night of cooking together, eating and talking with Hungarian exchange students at the Brooks School to ease home sickness.

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Posted by eszter vajda on Nov 16 2011. Filed under Featured - For home page featured article, Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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