#Unlearning in the 21st Century Economy: Lessons from a Vietnamese Spring Roll

  • from Marjorie Brans, a guest of a Nowhere Kitchen dinner that served ‘Social Rolls’ inspired by the Vietnamese rice paper rolls. Originally published by the author in 11 January 2017, two years after attending this dinner.

A few years ago, I attended a formal business dinner with a surprise: guests were to prepare the meal.

On the menu? Vietnamese gỏi cuốn spring rolls.

The challenge announced, my heart swelled with dismay and delight. My father hails from Saigon, and I have fond memories of sitting at our vinyl-covered kitchen table wrapping noodles, fresh herbs, and morsels of shrimp and pork into pretty parcels of rice paper.

But, I had a bad feeling about this group’s culinary skills. I suspiciously surveyed the dining room, studying people’s hands for tell-tale signs they could tightly roll a burrito. Unable to identify competent burrito hands, I doubled my napkin over my trousers.

The ingredients arrived for inspection. In addition to the expected Vietnamese elements were ingredients outrageously foreign to my father’s homeland cuisine. Piled high on platters were stacks of grape leaves from the Middle East and seaweed sushi paper from Japan. There were also peaches and lemons. Guacamole. CHEESE. My lactose intolerant ancestors rolled over, offended, in their graves.

I shall spare you the description of the gong show, gỏi cuốn rolling session that transpired. Suffice it to say that after 90 minutes of hard labour, people had worked up a serious appetite, and it came time to taste the chaos.

I cautiously lifted a mess of a wrap to my lips, sniffed, and plunged my teeth into the chewy mass.

The roll was delectable. The combination of guacamole, peach, shrimp, and Vietnamese fish sauce was surprisingly complex and pleasant: salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. Not a single one of the rolls was bad, even where the stuffing had half slipped out.

That dinner humbled me. Unlike my non-Vietnamese fellow diners, I had been blinded to the potential of the ingredients laid before us.

As a self-styled gỏi cuốn expert, I had misunderstood the goal of the culinary challenge: it was not to reproduce a Southeast Asian dish faithfully, but simply to make a delicious meal and make new friends. Framing the problem too narrowly, I had spent the last 90 minutes fretting about what seemed ill-advised ingredient decisions.

Starting January 19, the School for Social Entreprenuers Ontario will be launching its “Unlearning Series” of workshops. As we gear up the program, I’ve returned to this thought-provoking dinner as a metaphor for #unlearning.

Paradigm-shattering, fusion cuisine offers lessons that humans of the 21st Century economy must master. We are all experts in how the world works today. But our emerging reality of automation, technological evolution, climate change, globalization, and shocking politics is a so-called Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) world.

Noted futurist and author Alvin Toffler writes in Future Shock: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Nearly 40 years after Toffler offered that prediction, humanity finds itself at a key turning point in history. Before us stands a chaotic, colorful buffet of social ingredients. We can continue combining these elements in traditional and familiar ways, blinded to the full range of delightful, novel blends. But we will also continue achieving results that are less and less up to the needs of our world.

Or we could all learn to unlearn. Unlearning is about altering our conception of how the world works and could work. Have we defined society’s goals too narrowly? Are we underestimating the potential of whole categories of people and institutions? Are we individually capable of achieving what we deem unthinkable for ourselves?

Unlearning is a skill that allows us to see past our socially conditioned worldview to one that opens up new a universe of possibility. Unlearning is difficult, but if those sloppy spring rolls have anything to teach us, the results can be deliciously worthwhile.


Categorized as Archives

By Pepe Dayaw

performance artist and choreographer from Manila, based in Berlin / Brandenburg

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