Fue Xiong has always liked to write.
But the 17-year-old senior at St. Paul’s Central High School was “speechless” when he found out he’ll keep company with literary greats such as Jonathan Franzen, Neil Gaiman and Toni Morrison when his words appear on bags and cups at Chipotle restaurants, starting today.
Fue Xiong was one of 10 students, and the only one in the Twin Cities area, to win a nationwide essay contest, and his essay scored the highest of any winner. The feature is part of the restaurant’s Cultivating Thought Author Series in which quotes from inspirational leaders and authors grace its cups and bags.
Fue Xiong’s English teacher, Anthony Jacobs, made all his students apply for the scholarship.
“I had always written essays about my parents, but never involved with food,” Fue Xiong said of his winning submission, titled “Two Minutes about Sardines.”
The essay describes a scene from the day his family left his native Thailand.
Fue Xiong said his mother was very proud of her son.
“She shed a couple tears (after she read it),” Fue Xiong said. “Then she gave me a hug and she was happy about it. My whole family was speechless because no one in my family ever got any scholarship.”
That scholarship, which was awarded to all 10 winners of the essay contest, is worth $20,000. He’ll spend it at the University of Minnesota, which he will attend in 2017 after spending a year in the military.
More than a million Chipotle customers will see a quote from his essay every day during its run.
Fue Xiong said he’s leaning toward a major in science, possibly chemistry, but he did say winning the contest was making him reconsider a little.
“I’ll give English a thought,” he said. “There’s a chance. A possibility.”
Writing the essay, he said, was cathartic.
“It empowers me,” he said. “My words speak up and tell the people around me, tell my story and what I’ve been through. It just gave me a voice.”
Here’s his essay, in its entirety:
“A helicopter overhead. A truck engine roars past. Soldiers in dirty green uniforms, surrounded by a cloud of warm brown dust, unload buckets full of raw sardines. All the refugees rush to get in line for food.
“My teenage brother held me back saying, ‘Today is our last day to get a meal like this before we depart to America. We can take our time.’
“When the crowd was gone, my oldest brother, nearly an adult, walked to the soldiers and returned with three raw sardines and a bag filled with two handfuls of rice. We walked the dirt road home, my five-year-old stomach wanting me to hurry; my bare feet telling me to slow down and avoid the tooth-sharp pebbles. My mother stood waiting in her black dress outside the bamboo hut. Usually full of worry and nervousness, she smiled when we handed her the rice and silver fish. Our departure from a year trapped behind the barbed wire camp fence was tomorrow. Twenty minutes later, my mother, eight siblings, and I surrounded a paper plate of fried sardines and rice on the dirt floor. My youngest sister, Yer, ate first. Our hands unwashed, we each took turns. For my mother, there was nothing left except the meatless head. She took it and smiled. The sardines were so salty I had to stuff my mouth with a handful of rice.
“ ‘Mom,’ I said, ‘Did you put a lot of salt on this sardine? Why is it so salty?’
“ ‘No, my son,’ she said, ‘It’s your tears.’
“An airplane flew somewhere far above us. I was frightened of what life in America would be like.
“ ‘I miss dad. Will he ever come back?’
“ ‘He won’t, but he is up there watching over you,’ my mom said. ‘Let go of everything. It’s time to start a new life.’
“Twelve years later, sardines still taste like tears.”