A lovely garden party. Inviting platters of delicate shrimp rolls and crusty banh mi sandwiches. Groups of people in lively conversations, getting to know each other. But there is another powerful thread running through this recent South Bay get-together, brought into focus as hostess Thoa van Seventer shares her story of leaving Vietnam and suddenly chokes up with emotion. When American troops pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, Thoa was 17 years old. Six years later, her father succumbed to despair and passed away. Thoa, her mother and sisters remained in Saigon under Viet Cong rule until 1985 when the former French Ambassador to Vietnam sponsored her family for French residency. But at that point, Thoa had a hard choice to make since she had just received a marriage proposal from a chief military officer's son in Vietnam.
Her voice breaks as she explains to the assembled guests, “I told him ‘No, thank you’ because freedom is everything; freedom is more important than a broken heart. I made a hard choice to leave everything behind.” Thoa and her family had few possessions when they arrived in Paris in the freezing cold winter of 1985. “We came to France as beggars,” she says. “When we landed, we didn’t know if we would be welcome. But I felt like a child, who was lovingly adopted by the French people. They helped us a lot. I am so grateful to the country that adopted me.”
“When I see pictures of the refugees now,” she adds, “I feel respect for the refugees and for the people who help them.” And with that, Thoa serves a tray of flavorful crab and asparagus soup to her guests.
This moving encounter is from the first in a series of “Tapestry Suppers” organized by Danielle Tsi, a freelance photographer and owner of the blog Beyond the Plate. Her goal is to get people together to share their experiences and break down barriers by showcasing immigrant stories and cuisines. “I want to bring people together to connect offline, instead of just getting sucked into the digital black hole of news,” says Tsi, who emigrated from Singapore ten years ago.
“As an immigrant myself who is not a citizen and can’t vote, what can I do? Give money to causes. But I want to do more. There is so much culture and diversity in the Bay Area,” says Tsi. “In Singapore, enjoying food together is a big unifier across all the different cultural groups there. People often underestimate the power of food—besides feeding and nurturing it can also to foster empathy. And food is a way to chip away at the public’s ignorance.”