During the Spring of 2018, I studied abroad in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where I lived with a host family that consisted of a couple and their seventeen-year-old daughter. In my family, only the daughter spoke English. My program included Vietnamese language classes; however, learning Vietnamese was a slow process for me. My host mother empathized with my situation. At the time, she wanted to learn English because her other daughter attends University in Canada. We struggled together over the many differences between Vietnamese and English.
While it was an obstacle, the language barrier didn’t prevent me from building a relationship with my host family. My host mother and I had many interesting conversations using Google Translate. Vietnamese and English do not directly translate to each other. Often our Google Translate conversations consisted of random sentences that resulted in laughter, rather than the other person understanding the intended message. We tried to teach each other our languages. We would point to different objects and I would try to remember the Vietnamese word while my host mother tried to remember the English. Our English/Vietnamese lessons often took place around meal times; resultingly, most of my Vietnamese vocabulary was food related.
My host mother was a talented cook. My favorite meals in Vietnam took place at home. As my program neared its end, I knew I would miss all my favorite homecooked Vietnamese foods. I asked my host mother to teach me how to make a Vietnamese dish in hope that cooking would be a fun way to spend time together while we practiced our food related vocabulary. She decided to teach me how to cook the Vietnamese dish bánh xèo. The dish is like a thin savory crepe. It is filled with bean sprouts, shrimp, green onions, and ham. Unlike a crepe, it is eaten by breaking up the bánh xèo, wrapping it in lettuce, and dipping it in fish sauce.
My host mother patiently reviewed the Vietnamese word for each ingredient as we prepared them. After watching her fry a few bánh xèo, I attempted to copy her steps. I succeeded until it came time to flip the bánh xèo. The result was a tray of mostly perfect bánh xèo, made by my host mother, and a few awkwardly folded ones that I had flipped. During dinner, my host family kindly commended my crumbling bánh xèo.
While it is important to try to learn the local language of your host country, it is possible to build relationships without extensive language skills. Furthermore, even if you are already fluent in the local language, cooking is a fun activity to exchange culture with your host family or friends you make abroad.