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Fue Xiong thought his story was just about rice and sardines.

It was much more.

The 300-word essay, which has been printed on Chipotle food bags and has earned Xiong $20,000 for college, beautifully captures a moment filled with sorrow, fear and joy when the St. Paul Central high school senior was 5 years old and living in a Thai refugee camp. It was a moment of painful longing for his father, who he saw drown, and fear of moving to the United States, where he was told giants ate people. It also was a moment when, after a long absence, he finally saw joy in his mother's face as she anticipated a fresh start in a new country.

All of those memories came flooding back last spring when Xiong's English teacher had about 50 students enter Chipotle's "Cultivating Thought" essay contest.

"I forced every student to apply for this," said Cental High School English teacher Anthony Jacobs. He's always on the lookout to make his expository composition class more "meaningful" than just turning in a paper for a grade. The contest also dangled $20,000 over their heads as a bit of motivation, Jacobsadded.

Thousands of students across the country entered the contest, which required a 1,700-character essay about a time when food created a lasting memory.

As Jacobs' students brainstormed ideas, Xiong settled on writing about the rice and sardines his family ate during their last night in the refugee camp. His mother moved there with her nine childen after their father died.

"Sardines and rice. That's the food we ate nearly every day," Xiong said.

Jacobs knew a little about Xiong's life but not his whole story. As he teased out Xiong's memories, the story of sardines and rice unfolded and Jacobs had a feeling it could win. "It just had the 'it' that fit perfectly with the contest's requirement. … I knew it could be the one."

The salt of tears

It was more than a decade ago in Thailand when Xiong and his older brother lined up for food being doled out by soldiers. The two boys left with three raw sardines and two handfuls of rice that would have to feed their 10-member family.

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.

Xiong aspires to be a pharmacist and doesn't think he's creative with words. But with Jacobs prodding, he diligently rewrote and polished his tale about the meager meal on a dirt floor. His mother, left with only a meatless head to eat, took it and smiled.

The sardines tasted so salty Xiong stuffed his mouth with rice and then asked his mother:

"Did you put a lot of salt on this sardine? Why is it so salty?"

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

They were the tears of a frightened child who would move to a new country without his father.

"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.

To the judges, Xiong's essay stood above thousands of others. "We thought it was a really brilliant, honest and powerful story," said Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. The final winners were selected by author Jonathan Safran Foer, he said.

In August, Xiong got an e-mail from Chipotle that his essay was one of the 10 winners and he would receive $20,000 to put toward college.

"I was speechless," he said. "I didn't see it coming. I wasn't confident in myself or my essay."

"I don't think he knows what a big deal it is to win a national contest like this and his story being such a powerful story that it would get a lot of attention," Jacobs said.

While waiting for Chipotle to make the formal announcement, Xiong and his family learned his mother had stage 3 gallbladder cancer.

"When I first found out about it, I kept it to myself," Xiong said. "Then as time moved on, I decided I should stop focusing so much on school and myself."

He'll fulfill his summer training with the National Guard, which he joined last year at age 17. "I wanted to give back to the United States for allowing my family to have a chance to come to the United States," he said.

But Xiong quit soccer, a game he's played since coming to the United States, and decided to postpone college so he can spend more time with his mother.

"It's hard for me to focus right now," he said.

And, still, sardines taste like tears.

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788