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Refugees Get Taste of U.S. in Turkey 101 Holiday Class

December 03, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

Long Beach City College officials decided that their Thanksgiving dinner would work better this year if they left out the cranberry sauce.

Previous holiday guests "didn't know what to do with it," said Jim Martois, director of refugee programs at the college. "A lot of them spread it on their rolls. They couldn't stand the taste of it."

So there were no berries at the recent Thanksgiving bash the college threw for new immigrants. And none of the 130 revelers seemed to notice.

"I liked everything," said Nan So, 57, speaking through an interpreter as he was eating the last bits of food off his paper plate in the college gymnasium at the Pacific Coast campus.

Like most of the others seated at five long tables, So--a native of Cambodia--had arrived in the United States within the past year. "The turkey tastes like grilled chicken," he noted with relief.

New Arrivals Mostly Peasants

Long Beach City College decided six years ago that Thanksgiving dinner was a good way to Americanize recent immigrants beginning a three-year English program at the campus.

Lately the job has been getting tougher, Martois said, because the more recent arrivals--most of them Cambodian peasants--are illiterate even in their own language.

"They really don't understand much," he said. "Thanksgiving isn't part of their culture."

To help get them ready, the college conducted Thanksgiving preparedness classes during the week preceding the holiday. And during the feast itself, Cambodian-speaking staffers were on hand to guide the newcomers in just what to eat and how to eat it.

"This is the most American holiday (we have)," said teacher Kenton Cooper in explaining the college's rationale for the feast. "At some point in our ancestry, we're all refugees."

These latest newcomers were strangely silent last week as they entered the gymnasium, which was outfitted with folding tables, each containing 30 sets of plastic utensils. At the end of each table was an 18-pound turkey guarded by a college administrator wearing a chef's hat and brandishing a carving knife. And on a table nearby were all the trimmings, including mashed potatoes with gravy, corn, rolls, pumpkin pie and apple juice.

Several of the refugees winced noticeably upon taking their first bites of mashed potatoes. Many ate with their hands and gobbled down the pumpkin pie before the turkey. And one man refused to eat any of his corn, claiming it would give him a stomachache.

But the diners seemed to have learned the good manners of guests, asserting that absolutely everything about the meal suited them just fine. That made at least one staffer suspicious. "They do this out of politeness," said Carl Wells, the college's coordinator of employment services.

As for further revising the Thanksgiving menu to conform to the refugees' tastes, according to Martois, it isn't going to happen. "They don't like mashed potatoes, but we give it to them anyway," he said. "You need a staple."

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