Long before I wrote cookbooks I wrote a children’s book called Trip to Freedom about how my family escaped Vietnam. It was an illustrated short story book for a bilingual education series aimed to teach kids about America’s diversity. Meg, a childhood friend who is now a school administrator, suggested me for the series and the publisher commissioned a Vietnamese American artist Winson Trang to do the illustrations. Trip to Freedom (Nuestro Viaje Hacia La Libertad) was published in 1997. Now and then I’d get a random email from someone about the book but last month, I received a wonderful surprise.
Alisa, a fifth-grade teacher in Iowa, had her class read the book and they had follow-up questions. The students wanted to know how exactly my family got our fake tickets to fly out of Vietnam, what it was like growing up in Vietnam, and how I learned to cook. I emailed my responses and Alisa presented them to the students, who then hand wrote thank you letters along with a few more questions. I was touched by their comments (who gets letters in the mail anymore?!) and the wonder and appreciation that they expressed (my eyes welled up a bit).
I thought of responding but figured that the class may have moved beyond Trip to Freedom. So my solution is to share some of the letters with you and answer a few of their questions. That way, they can get their responses at their leisure. As a class, I suppose they could comment on this post too. It's amazing how today's technologies can allow students to dream and connect far beyond their immediate surroundings.
The letters fell into three or so categories, one of which was cooking. Alisa said the class had read up on me so they knew about my career. What was surprising to me (and them) was that I’d started cooking in earnest when I was about ten years old. That’s when my mom taught me to make rice followed by lots of wontons. Because I don’t have children, it had escaped me that fifth graders are ten years old. (Duh!)
Several of the students shared that they liked to cook and eat, and that they were helping their moms in the kitchen. (There are some smart moms in Iowa.)
To answer Charlie’s question: My favorite thing to cook is rice. It’s fun and you can make lots of different rice dishes. I’d love to learn to make chicken and dumplings from Megan. Bring it on!
The students also wrote about writing as a profession. At ten years old, I thought about writing but it seemed like a distant dream more than a viable option. It’s wonderful to read that to these students, a writing career is cool and something to consider. Selicia wants to be a writer and it looks like she’s on her way; she’s been cooking since she was seven. Wow. Hold on to those family recipes.
How did I become a writer? It was a long road. I was not an overnight success story. It took a combination of lots of luck (you never know who may help you), pluck (let “Why not . . .?” guide you), and work (keep on polishing what you write).
What is my next book about? Sandwiches, and some of the recipes have received the thumbs up from young people around ten years old.
Finally, some of the letters focused on my family’s escape from Vietnam. We were among the fortunate ones to be able to leave by plane. Nonetheless, it was very frightening. Was I brave? I don’t know. I think my parents were the brave ones to find safe passage for our family. They wanted the ability to lead the lives of their choosing. They wanted freedom.
I get some really nice thank you messages from readers but I have to admit that these were among the best ever. Thank you Alisa and all the students for taking the time to make this one of the highlights of my career.
P.S. I wish I had teachers like Alisa when I was young!