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Celebrating International Education Week – Cooking as a Second Language

Posted on Thursday, December 12th, 2019 at 8:05 pm.

By Marjia Panic, Teacher Exchange Participant from Serbia

“Now everybody – wash your hands! Let’s do this! I’m hungry!” Marjia Panic teaches participants how to prepare a traditional Serbian meal at an International Education Week event.

My name is Marija Panic, and I am a Special Education Teacher from Serbia.  Currently, I’m participating in Greenheart Exchange’s Teach USA program, and am working at Harvard Elementary School of Excellence.

When I first decided to make a move and start searching for a way to improve my knowledge and expand my experience in teaching, I was longing to find the best option for me and that was the Exchange Visitor Program.

In honor of International Education Week (November 18-22), my sponsor Greenheart International worked with Hosteling International-Chicago to plan a cultural event where I would have an opportunity to share my culture. So, I decided to prepare some traditional Serbian food together with all the guests. This was an exciting opportunity, so I did not think much before I have agreed to it! When I accepted this challenge, I did not know which meals I should prepare, I did not know how long this would take… I was thinking to try to prepare some of traditional Serbian meals like SarmaPodvarak, Serbian kind of homemade bread, or even Ajvar… I kept thinking and thinking, until slowly I realized that I would need a lot of time to prepare hard-core Serbian traditional meals. So, I decided to go light. This light version of Serbian cuisine is actually my favorite!

It is so easy to prepare those meals and I haven’t had them for a while. This will be a lot of fun.  Sladak Kupus and Projara – that was my perfect combination.

I didn’t know how many people would attend the event, and I was little nervous before everything started. However, once people arrived, I was relieved (somebody to cook with), and I decided to play the role of a teacher (imagine that!). Before we started cooking, I prepared this little name game I like to play. This icebreaker went well, and everybody was laughing.

Chef Marija (center) leads an icebreaker game.

I wasn’t fearful that the food would not be tasty, because this was and is my favorite “healthy,” easy to prepare (put everything you have at the moment) food. (I just call it food because I’m Serbian).

We started to chop and chop, to talk and talk, to mix and stir, to cook and bake… There were some instructions on how to chop, is it too big, and is it too small, or how many eggs, cheese and ham… but somehow we managed to prepare two dishes at the same time and I think that everybody could recall at least part of each meal preparation process.

Sladak Kupus (a traditional Serbian cabbage stew) …mmmm!

When the food was almost ready, I spoke about Serbian traditions and Serbian people. In that manner I said the next sentence loud enough: “If this food is not tasty enough that is your fault! You prepared it! I just told you what to do…”  But I could already sense that smells just right…

Throughout the evening, there were tons of normal “how do you do this or that in Serbia” questions, but one question stood out: “Do you in Serbia have this kind of electrical stove?”

I know that Serbia (ex-Yugoslavia) often got confused for Siberia or Syria, but electricity, c’mon!

I replied, “No, we do not have these… We usually put some logs in the middle of our room, light a fire, and cook on that fire…”—I was so serious until this moment – until I realized that someone believed this was true and gave me the “so sorry to hear that” look—“Have you ever heard of Nikola TESLA?!”  I’ve asked them after long laughter. This was so funny to me!

I’ve enjoyed this event too much! It was so precious to me to share my culture and food with people from so many different cultures and nationalities. At the end of the day, and when we finished eating what we made (It was good – just like it should be!), we came to some conclusions together: every country or nationality has similar meals in their culture as we have in Serbia. It’s Just that some of the ingredients change. This led to an even bigger conclusion: that we are all just people of Earth. No matter where we live, or what we do, we all have our similarities and differences and there is just one thing that matters.

Chef Marija (left) and one of her “students” show off their finished dish.

I would recommend this kind of an activity to all exchange teachers and students, and to all people who have something to share! This is a precious experience because you get to know and share one part of you to people, who can become your friends. You get to learn more about yourself and your capabilities, and learn more about other cultures around you. You can have some of the “smart conclusions”, or you just can have tons of fun! If any of you decide to share part of your culture, make sure to put me on the list! I’ll be there – wouldn’t miss it!

So, happy sharing and happy caring :).

Categories: J-1 Visa, Participants, Program Spotlight

About Rebecca Pasini

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Private Sector Exchange

Rebecca Pasini

Rebecca A. Pasini joined the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Private Sector Exchanges in July 2023. A career member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Minister - Counselor, Ms. Pasini has been an American diplomat since 1997.

Ms. Pasini previously served as the Director of Public and Congressional Affairs in the Bureau of Consular Affairs from 2021-2023. Other Washington assignments have included positions in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, the Office of Foreign Missions, and as a liaison to the Department of Homeland Security. She has also completed multiple overseas tours, including as Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs in Islamabad, Pakistan, and as the Consular Chief in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Belfast, Northern Ireland. Other tours included Mexico City and Kuwait.

A Maryland native, Ms. Pasini has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Indiana University, a master’s degree in National Security and Resource Strategy from the Eisenhower School, National Defense University, and an undergraduate degree from Mary Washington College.