Friday, June 26, 2009

Quick notes on some refugee stuff

FYI, these days I have just joined facebook and begun using google analytics to follow readership on this blog, I am momentarily obsessed with these things, the so-called "new media" and trying to learn how to use them best. For the last couple days or so I've been feeling "jacked-in" like some sort of cyberpunk character from a William Gibson novel from the '80s. Took a break, forced myself to go to the gym and offered a refugee-friend a ride to the supermarket to prepare for a visit from an out-of-town relative. They brought another friend, a Karen.

Random thoughts and observations.

More lightbulb problems. This refugee apartment had about half the sockets in working order. Turned out the husband knew how to change lightbulbs but had not bothered to. In fact, he had taken the three lightbulb sockets over the sink and inserted a bulb into one and stuffed the other two sockets, live electrical sockets, with dry toilet paper. He and I changed them together after I bought lightbulbs. (I have a policy of not spending money on refugees, instead offering time and advice. Sometimes I break it, like when lightbulbs are 77 cents for four at Walmart and I fear a fire hazard.)

So, if they knew how to change lightbulbs, why didn't they? I don't know. I didn't have time to ask and felt that if I did it could be taken as accusatory. My guess, probably the same reason I don't have twitter. I've been living without for years and am perfectly happy. And it's widely noted that there are certain obsessive behaviors that come into effect among humans when they become accustomed to technology, behaviors having to do with trying to get things perfect, like changing all the lightbulbs, instead of just "good enough," like having enough working lights to make sure you can see what you are doing. Perhaps they had no idea where to buy lightbulbs and had never seen it as a priority.

Burmese tribal people love frozen pizza.

I have seen both Chin and Karen refugees eagerly gobbling up frozen pizza on more than one occasion. Frozen pizza is high in both fat and salt. This Karen woman had put four frozen pizzas in her cart. Burmese also love potato chips, including the sour cream and onion ones. Now my cousin's husband, the professional chef, once told me that one possible key to gourmet cooking is to remember that people like to eat salt and fat. If you add extra salt and fat, the food tastes better and this is one secret as to why restaurant food often tastes better than homemade stuff. The restaurant unashamedely adds unhealthy amounts of salt and fat to everything, making the patrons go "yum! yum! how do they get it to taste so good?" (The secret: salts, fats and oils.)

FYI, the refugee center does offer all incoming refugees a nutrition course. I have not taken it and cannot offer comment. None of the refugees I know have shared their opinions on it with me, although I will say that they seem to have a very positive opinion on the center's effective communication class. Quite honestly, when I first became involved with refugees my immediate reaction was that it was a bit ethnocentric to teach nutrition to people who have been eating food for a long time. Actually, I was dead wrong. It makes a lot of sense. In this new land, Burmese refugees are exposed to a thousand new temptations that did not exist back in the old country. Among these temptations, alas, are frozen pizzas and sour cream and onion potato chips. Alas! They'd be better off if they stayed with the curry, a staple of the Burmese/ Karen diet.

Secondly, why frozen pizza? Why not make your own? As we roamed the aisle I lectured on the ease and economy of making one's own pizzas, using store bought dough, cheese and sauce and a three dollar tray. (For those interested, I make pizza a lot. I went through a phase where I was making everything but the cheese from scratch but backed off.) I'm not sure the poor woman believed it was quite as easy as I claimed. She also claimed that despite an obvious love of frozen pizza, she did not like cheese. Which is not surprising as few Asians like cheese, but in this context was absurd, until I sort of grasped the fact that frozen pizza cheese is probably not very much like real cheese at all, instead being some high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar, non-dairy concoction that would be much more palatable to such consumers as greasy American teenagers and Burmese tribal peoples who have not yet developed a palate that appreciates the subtleties of good cheese.

But I pushed. In the end, the only way I could get her to seriously consider trying it was to refer her to a neighbor, another refugee, who had been enrolled in a church-run job-training, kitchen-help program where I know they learned how to make pizza.

Finally, the WIC program is really something. WIC is "Women, Infants and Children" and is a program designed to get low-income women and young children healthy food for free. This is a good idea. Healthy immigrant children are more likely to become successful and earn a good living. When they become successful then the government can tax them and use the money to support old people like me who will surely need it. Unhealthy immigrant children go no place, and then we have to support them for life. However, as almost every social service program gets abused in some way, this one is unwieldly in its definitions of healthy foods.

WIC recipients receive coupons for different kinds of food. When they go grocery shopping they are supposed to select food that meets the guidelines on the coupon from the shelf. If they select the food correctly, then they get it for free. If not then they are sent back to the proper supermarket aisle to try again, often accompanied by a stressed out supermarket worker to make sure the job is done right.

I am a native English speaker. I hold a master's degree from a prestigious school. (Yes, I am very proud of that. I earned it. It was probably the toughest achievement of my life.) I have taught English to foreigners and am studying to obtain certification in that field. I have been widely published (and, yes, I fully admit that much on my blog is clunky and ridden with typos and such. Very unprofessional. I am, alas, usually writing quickly.)

Nevertheless, I confess, I cannot make complete sense of the WIC guidelines. I have no idea how a Burmese refugee who does not speak English could possibly use these coupons. (The refugees I was with both spoke some English, one quite well. Still time was limited so I got sent off to use the WIC coupons. Since my English was the best, this struck me as efficient and I had no objections.)

Still, I tried and got 90% of the stuff correct, although it was my second attempt to use WIC coupons. The first time I think we only had about 80% of the stuff selected properly.

Some of these items are quite specific. For instance, you need to select a one pound, no larger, loaf of whole wheat bread. In two different supermarkets we found only one kind of bread that fit these guidelines, most loaves of bread being over a pound, that being Pepperridge Farms Whole Wheat, an expensive brand that I normally would never select. However, that is the only loaf of bread in the entire store, neigh, in two entire stores, that fits the WIC guidelines.

Also there are no escalators in the highlands of Burma or in the refugee camps of Thailand, apparently. What a shame. Perhaps someone should hire Haliburton to put some in. This resulted in an incident with two of us getting on an escalator while the third stood behind scared and then I had to run halfway back up the down escalator, being told not to do so by an employee enroute, and then teaching the person how safely use an escalator.

All in all, it was a more interesting way to spend an afternoon than sitting at home, watching TV would have been.


  1. WIC can be quite overwhelming to native speakers let alone an immigrant faced w/the endless myriad of possibilities! Remember we have a whole aisle devoted to our pets, most unheard of to many of your immigrant friends!

  2. Thank you. WIC is indeed confusing. I don't know about them but I am learning. I can now recognize appropriate WIC bread and WIC cereal. I am working up to the daunting task of recognizing WIC grains. Then again, although they face the daunting task of selecting in a new language (quite frankly I cannot imagine someone without a working knowledge of English -or maybe Spanish, I suppose- understanding WIC requirements. Many supermarket workers don't understand them either so even flagging down people to ask is tough.

    On the other hand, although they face language difficulties, I faced the daunting task of having to face a stressed out refugee woman who insisted she did not want the pound of dried split peas that I'd chosen even if WIC did cover them and made me take them back. Hey, I've eaten her cooking several times. (I don't just give rides to the supermarket for free, you know. I make these people cook me lunch in return, at least when we both have time.) I thought for sure she'd served me something with split peas in it at some point. Now I guess I have to wonder what I ate (although it tasted good, even better than frozen pizza, for sure.) Again, at least it tasted good.