July 29, 8:17 PM – The Special Dinner

by sunnyfong

There was a lot of hype for the special dinner we were being thrown. All day, everyone gathered in groups to give their prediction of what treats the staff might be hiding from us. After all, we had worked so hard for the last few days and we deserved a break. There was talk of wine or even meat. I was extremely happy with the vegetarian menu (who is going to complain about feta and spinach tarts with caprese salad?) but a glass of wine was something I was craving in this heat.

We even got a little dressed up. My luggage had finally arrived at the villa during a session and I decided to bring out some colour for the special occasion: red shorts, plaid shirt and leather sandals. We waited anxiously at the arch and when it was 8:15 PM, we were let in one by one. When I entered the dining room, I was handed a piece of paper with a story on it. We were told not to look at it. Mystery theatre perhaps? Reading proverbs before dinner maybe?

I was ushered to my designated area and told to sit down with the others. We stared at each other in confusion. I sat down on the dirty mat and I noticed how dark it was on our side. The rest of the group were divided and sent to other tables dressed with candles and wine glasses. I looked back to the centre of the mat and there were two metal bowls covered with tea towels, 5 plastic cups and a few bowls. Japanese fried rice? A curry dish? Ethiopian?

The dinner bell rang and we were told to read our pieces of paper out loud to our group. Everyone had a different character and all the stories were supported by Oxfam. I still remember my person and his story even though it has been a few weeks since this dinner:

I’m Tran. By day, I’m a field labourer but the jobs are slowly disappearing due to economic reasons. I can try to find a job as a night labourer in a factory but available positions are scarce.  I work all day till sunset but I make a mediocre salary equivalent to 80 American cents a day. I have a young son and a teenage daughter.  My son will finish primary school this year but I cannot afford to send him anymore. Next year, he will be working with me hopefully. My daughter stays at home and takes care of all the chores, cooking and takes care of her brother. Once my son starts working, my daughter will look for a job in a factory. We cannot afford to eat most of the time so we go days without food sometimes.

When I read it, it hit me really hard. This is basically the story of my mother. She dropped out of school at 11 and started working in the fields. Then she moved to Hong Kong to work in a factory in which all her earnings were used to support her mother and 5 siblings.

After I listened to everyone else’s stories, I started to get really sad. We were then told to eat so we lifted up the tea towels to reveal a bowl of burnt rice and a bowl of tap water.  I distributed the bowls and only the more vocal people took the initiative to distribute the food. Staff came over again to warn us to stay in character. We were being tested. Our hunger was being tested.

I tried chatting because like my mom, Tran was probably a sweet person with a sense of humour. In Asian culture, when there’s food, you eat it. Because produce and meat is so scarce in villages, food should not be taken for granted.

The silence in our group was deafening, interrupted every few minutes by someone’s stomach growling. The hunger was not only palpable but absolutely real.

I started to overhear the other conversations happening around the room. The far table was busy sharing cheese plates and chatting about the stock market. The middle table chatted about the long work hours but the great benefits. Someone from the middle class/working class table handed us a bowl of vegetable soup. I felt ashamed and pitied. How dare he treat me like a charity case! How dare he think I would be desperate enough to eat his half-eaten scraps! Samia commented that she felt that this gift of pity was a blessing and that we should store some veggies for our children.

A staff member gave me an information sheet to read out loud to the entire room. I didn’t look at it but dreaded having to show any emotion to my colleagues. My mind wandered as my hunger grew.

I thought about the refugees I used to work with for so many years.  How they lived these horrible lives and left everything they earned and built to come to a strange country. I thought about Kumbi who escaped mass genocide and made it to Toronto. I thought about how she had to leave her grandmother and son behind at a refugee camp. I thought about when she came to me to tell me that she couldn’t reach them. She had a standing phone call each weekend with her little boy but for the last two weeks, he has been unreachable. I thought about how she didn’t seem to be distraught but kept her professional demeanor. I thought about the two jobs I got her and her Monday to Sunday schedule. I thought about how surprisingly young she was.

As the hour approached, Mirna was a crying mess. I was happy to get some water since it was so hot in the room. Kim came up to me and passed me an information sheet to read to the room. I was afraid to look at it. After the wealthy and middle/working class got up to read their sheets, I knew that mine was going to be difficult to get through. In the middle of reading about the world’s poor and Oxfam’s depressing statistics, I started to think about my mother and my former clients again. And I choked up. I looked at my roommate who gave our group the soup and I just started to cry. I suddenly remembered why I was here at this program: to challenge myself and others around me. I came here as a first step to changing the world, whatever that even means. But I had an assignment and I was here in Lucca to complete each and every one of my assigned tasks. I quickly recovered and my voice got louder.

I looked at the wealthy table and made eye contact. A few tears came down and fell on the photocopy. Normally, I’d try to hide my face if I was welling up but this time, I looked people in the eye. It was a liberating experience as I’ve never cried like that in front of people I had just met.

I read the information about world poverty with conviction. I wanted to give these people who we have been playing a voice. Seeing names and small blurbs on these individuals was humbling and disappointing at the same time. I immediately wanted to find Paulo to help his children pay for primary school. I wanted to fly to Bangladesh and help Noorani pay for her brace. I wanted my character Tran to know that money was coming for him so that his son can finish high school and his daughter can enrol in reading classes. But all I could do at that point was to finish my reading and sit back down to finish the rest of my burnt rice and water.