-by Megan Painter, TRP Volunteer
Let me tell you about the miracle of Thai coffee and curry. Thai coffee is a concoction of nearly any type of dark bean brew, sweetened and condensed milk, and cream or evaporated milk. The result is heaven in a cup. Non-coffee drinkers rejoice, this cup is for you. I was converted into a coffee drinker after trying it and I have converted others; Starbucks is overlooking a gold mine.
Many of Fort Wayne’s Burmese population are Thai coffee masters. They adopted the recipe while living in Thai refugee camps. If you teach English in a Burmese home, you have most likely been offered a cup. While offering coffee is a sign of hospitality in several cultures, in my circumstance as a volunteer English teacher, it represents much more. A cup of Thai coffee is a means towards a relationship where teacher and students contribute towards something that both recognize as fair exchange.
Let me explain. When I visit my parents, they usually laden me with groceries, household appliances, etc… . It’s all free, given with the best intentions and from the goodness of their hearts. I don’t ask for or really even need a majority of these things. But still I feel a tinge of guilt every time I accept their gifts. I never like a relationship where taking and consuming is all on one side, and giving is all on the other. It makes me, as the taker, feel either needy or as if I’m abusing the other’s generosity. Even with my own parents I try to avoid a relationship where integrity is at stake because nothing was contributed by me; making the exchange unequal.
So when I signed up to teach English to five Burmese ladies, these types of thoughts of unequal exchange were the last thing I wanted my students to have. Fortunately, my ladies were way ahead of me. Coffee and curry were offered the first night. I love both, and the option of a Burmese curry for an English lesson is highly attractive to someone who loves exotic food but is clueless about how to cook it. Have you ever made a good curry? It’s an elusive, mystical dish and I have failed many times. In any case, I am not above accepting such a rare thing. I must confess, I go to my lessons hungry.
But back to my point. Thai coffee and curry not only delight the palate, but, in my case, they also have the power to uphold basic human dignity. My student, Ma Nige, smiles with delight whenever I ask her to teach me how to cook her curry dishes. If I am shrewd, this cooking lesson will also be an English lesson. Because after all, if Ma Nige is so generous as to teach me how to make curry, I’d like to be able to give her a little something in return.