When she was a child, Chieng Pe showed up at school with deep-red marks on her neck. The marks were the result of "coining," a Cambodian and Chinese tradition of rubbing a coin dipped in ointment against the body to rid it of fever or respiratory problems.
Her mother had performed the coining when Chieng felt ill. But upon seeing the marks, her teacher suspected child abuse and sent Chieng to the school nurse. Because Chieng had not yet mastered English, she couldn't explain coining to them.
Her tale is included in "Our Own Stories," a selection of 20 compositions by Cal State Los Angeles students about times when culture and language differences have created uncomfortable situations.
Their stories were collected by retired Cal State instructor Norine Dresser, who taught an English composition class for students preparing to enter required English classes at Cal State Los Angeles. The accounts were class assignments collected from students since 1990.
The book, published this year, will be used as a reader and workbook for students learning English. Dresser is awaiting word from her publisher, Longman Publishing Group of White Plains, N.Y., about whether any ESL programs have ordered the book.
Most of the stories were written by students from other countries. But the book also includes some embarrassing incidents experienced by American-born students as a result of ignorance about religious beliefs or cultural taboos.
They illustrate the difficulty of not only understanding a new language, but the trials of getting accustomed to a different way of life.
"Where they come from is not important," Dresser said after a recent reception at Cal State L.A. for the students. "These are universal issues."
At the reception, Chieng said there were many things in the United States that took getting used to. For one, she and her mother for a time would get carsick every time they rode a car or a bus. In Cambodia, the family did not own a car and was not accustomed to riding in one, she said.
And when the lunar New Year rolled around, she and her family had to warn their neighbors that they were going to burn paper in their front yard as part of a traditional Cambodian celebration.
John Gomez Jr., who was born in Los Angeles, recalled bringing hamburgers to a high school friend who was a Hindu from India. He didn't know that people of the Hindu faith who consider cows to be sacred do not eat beef.
"That's a thing that's neglected in school. It's a problem of ignorance," Gomez said. "They should have it as part of the curriculum because it would help. In Los Angeles, we have Asian, black, Anglo and Hispanic and it would help to have sessions to sit down and get to know about one another and maybe learn something about other cultures."
Each chapter begins with a story from Dresser's former students, whose names have been changed in the book to avoid any embarrassment. Chieng's name, for example, was changed to Wendy in the book. Their stories are followed by questions about the lessons of the story.
In addition, a "Culture Capsule" explains how things are interpreted in the United States and how they may be seen in other countries. The capsule explains subjects including proper greetings, idioms, acceptable displays of affection and traditions.
Many stories related harsh treatment by teachers who failed to understand their students' customs. In response, Dresser is working on another book scheduled to come out in September and aimed at helping teachers learn about the cultural backgrounds of their students.
Rosa Rodriguez-Cabral, 24, who emigrated from Mexico when she was 2, wrote about being disciplined for not looking directly at her teacher while being scolded.
"Look at me when I speak to you!" the teacher demanded.
But, Rodriguez-Cabral wrote, Mexican children show respect by bowing their heads and not looking an adult directly in the eye. She had never looked into the face of an adult who was speaking directly to her, including her parents and grandparents.
Her mother finally helped resolve the problem by explaining to the teacher that the child was showing respect. The teacher understood and responded by giving the child a big hug.
"I was only about 9 or 10 and I couldn't explain to her," Rodriguez-Cabral says now. "Little by little I've had to learn to look people in the eye, but I still have a hard time."
Now an elementary school ESL teacher's aide, she hears the teacher in her classroom demand eye contact from the students and remembers her childhood fear.
"I'm going to take this book to class and read it to the students," she said. "I think they'll learn something from it."