By Mara Klecker
Jess Wollenburg misses the food the most.
The spices, the texture, the different kinds of noodles. She cooks remembered recipes now, in the kitchen of the farmhouse she shares with her husband in Plymouth, Nebraska.
But this small town 60 miles to the south of Lincoln is nothing like China. The sectioned-off fields of corn and soybeans are nothing like the white sand beaches of Behai, where she spent her childhood. Nothing like the busy streets of the Chinese metropolises she visited, joining the streams of people walking shoulder to shoulder. Nothing like where she thought she’d raise her children – she’s 24 weeks pregnant.
Wollenburg came in Nebraska five years ago. She’d met a nice American man at her job at a joint venture company that built equipment for hog farms. He told her of the farm country that he called home. They fell in love, and she agreed to follow him there. She’d grown up working the land. She knew about tractors and farm equipment and early mornings out in the fields.
But so much was different.
“That first year I didn’t even like it here,” she said. “I felt very lonely.”
In those first few months, Wollenburg would look out her window, hoping to see someone walking by. Anyone she could talk to.
“Here in America, people just stay in their home,” she said. “But it’s like living in a box. Like a jail. I wanted to go outside and see so many people.”
In China, Wollenburg remembered neighbors walking by. They used to smile and greet her by her Chinese birth name—Cuiping—the one that causes confusion now. “Jess” is just easier these days.
The farmers in Plymouth are friendly people, she said. But they are Americans. They get in their cars and drive to where they need to be, always on a regimented schedule.
“The vehicles just pass by me,” she said. “I didn’t know who to talk to or how to go out and [figure out] what I could do with my abilities.”
Wollenburg spent her days thinking of ways to meet the others living in Plymouth and how to get involved.
It seemed everyone was a farmer or a farmer’s wife or a shop owner, she said.
Everything in Plymouth was new to Wollenburg. But after that first year of trying to adjust her life to theirs, she began to realize that everything that was “normal” and “home” to her was foreign to them.
So she decided to share her stories, her culture, her abilities.
“My loneliness stopped,” she said. “I am happy because I have the chance to tell everyone about my experience in China. I have the feeling that as I am learning about them, I can help them understand about my country.”
Wollenburg joined the Plymouth Improvement Association—a group of 15 community members dedicated to making their community better.
She told the group what she missed the most about her home: real, genuine, handmade Chinese food.
Many of those living in Plymouth had never been out of the country. Had never tasted food from other cultures. So she’d bring the plates to them.
She told them of her plan: Plymouth could host an international food festival.
The members listened but they warned her – “Nobody has done this here before.”
Association member and Plymouth resident Ellen Vorderstrasse thought the idea sounded great. But she could feel that everyone was worried. What if no one showed up? What would that say about the community of Plymouth?
“The town just doesn’t know what this would look like,” Vorderstrasse said on a recent afternoon shopping for ingredients to make her own family’s Thanksgiving meal.
Gladys Yost, another association member, didn’t know what to think about the idea. After a deep inhale, she finally said it: “We were skeptical. This is a small community, and we people just aren’t aware of ethnic food. But I guess that’s why we need this.”
Wollenburg wasn’t fazed by the initial hesitance. On an October day during her lunch break from her job as a cashier at Milius Hardware, she said she knows it’s a challenge.
“But I’m definitely up for it,” she said with a tone of determination and conviction.
The Plymouth Improvement Association will host the first annual WESN (West, East, South and North) Food Festival International on Jan. 23, 2016.
Wollenburg has already invited cooks to make food from Germany, Denmark, Russia, Hungary, Kenya, Ethiopia, Mexico, Korea and Japan. Yost will make German potato salad with bacon and vinegar dressing. Another woman will make traditional Czechoslovakian duck meat with dumplings and kolaches for dessert.
An Ethiopian man from a neighboring town has agreed to bring a dish.
In addition to the food, there will be music and dance and conversation across cultures, Wollenburg said.
The event is being advertised as a fundraiser for new historical lighting on Plymouth’s main street in preparation for the town’s 125th anniversary in 2017.
“Our organization is all for community improvement,” Yost said. “We are in it to promote the best things for Plymouth and we are all trying to help Jess with it. This is important for us.
And, as Vorderstrasse put it, there will be culture learning, needed conversation.
“The world is kind of unstable right now,” she said. “That causes people to assume the worst about these other cultures. It’s so important to embrace these other cultures. It’s something to celebrate.”
That’s Wollenburg’s belief too, she said.
And if those gathered around the table don’t love the food? “Well they can spit it out if they need to,” she said. “But they have to try so they don’t misunderstand the people around them.”