St. Paul student's crushing 'sardines' essay wins $20,000 from Chipotle

Fue Xiong is a good soccer player and a damn fine writer.

Fue Xiong is a good soccer player and a damn fine writer.

<!————StartFragment————>For most people, our high school essays are things we'd rather not remember. 

Fue Xiong, a senior at St. Paul Central, has written a short, heartbreaking piece about a moment in his life he can't forget.  

It wasn't for class, though. It was for Chipotle. 

Xiong's entry in the Mexican food chain's "Cultivating Thought" contest was named one of ten winners across the country, and will earn him a $20,000 scholarship to the school of his choice. 

The essay will also be reprinted many thousands of times over on the sides of Chipotle's paper bags, giving customers something to ponder between bites. 

At 300 words apiece, these essays demand the writer pack a lot into a tiny space. Xiong does this handily, with an evocative snapshot of his last day in a refugee camp in Thailand. Xiong, then five years old, walked with an older brother to receive their measly daily rations, a portion of sardines and white rice that was supposed to feed their whole family.

Fue Xiong will always have a sad association with sardines.

Fue Xiong will always have a sad association with sardines.

After a year spent "trapped behind the barbed wire camp fence," the modest dish would be their last meal in that country before moving to America. The remembrance is not happy, or even hopeful.

"Mom," the young Xiong asks, "did you put a lot of salt on this sardine? Why is it so salty?"

"No, my son," she answers. "It's your tears."

But now it's got a happy ending: Not only can Xiong write, he's captain of the St. Paul Central soccer team, and is headed to the University of Minnesota next year. 

Xiong credits his mother and older brother as the inspiration for his essay. According to KARE 11, his father had recently drowned, and Xiong recalls asking his mother if their father would ever come back.

Xiong is also a member of the Army National Guard, and told Chipotle he plans to do a stint of military service and get a computer science degree. To KARE 11, he indicated he's leaning toward becoming a pharmacist. 

Whatever you wind up doing, Fue, you might want to keep at it with this writing thing. 

Read Xiong's essay below.

Two Minutes About Sardines by Fue Xiong 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.