Other - FamilyEducation

Other

January 07,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Classes started back for me on Wednesday. It hasn't been the smoothest transition in the world for me: changes at work, stress over changes at my husband's college, the usual bumps in-the-road surrounding the children's transitions back into school, have made this week seem particularly long and jarring. For me, going back sometimes is like jumping into icy water, after getting all nice and warm in the sun.

Scott goes back next week, which has left him some time (time I'm jealous of) to better prepare for classes, and pop into both kids' schools for lunch. Yesterday I called him and he had just finished eating lunch with T.

"Was she having a good time?" I asked. Ever since the Mean Girl incident I worry about T., and her social world.

"She was," he said. "She loved the tofu you packed for her."

Scott and L. made a trip to the Asian Market on Monday afternoon and stocked up on the puffy tofu balls that both kids love so much. I packed a few of these in T.'s bento box on Tuesday along with a little container of sweet soy sauce

"Oh good!" I don't think I'll ever get tired of the fact that I can pack so many different things into T.'s bento box for lunch. It makes me giddy, sometimes.

But then Scott went on to tell me that a girl across from T. had made fun of her lunch.When she asked what T. was eating, and found out it was tofu, she called it "gross" and made the comment that it wasn't "normal food that normal people eat."

I felt the blood rush to my ears right then as Scott was talking--you know, in that way it does when you hear that someone has said something mean, or wrong, or ignorant to your child.

Luckily Scott was in the cafeteria to set the record straight (probably more kindly than I would have). He gave the girl a mini-lesson on how many people in the world do eat tofu, and that for them it's very normal, and that much of what the average American eats might be considered very strange or out-of-the-norm for them. I don't think the girl was truly being mean-spirited, but I do think she was being ignorant in a way many people are when they encounter something unfamiliar. I think about how many people out there make snap judgments about non-Americans just based on the way they might stumble through the English language, or the way they dress, or because of the things they eat; if it's other, than it's weird, gross, out-of-the-norm.

I think, unfortunately, there are a lot of kids out there being raised with little or no exposure to different foods from different cultures. I have many conversations with my own college students every semester about foods they see referenced in readings we might be discussing for class.

What's tofu?

What's papaya?

What is a guava?

What are latkes?

I'm not suggesting parents should regularly take their kids out to eat at ethnic restaurants (although now and again this is a great idea--there are many ways to find inexpensive ethnic foods in most areas--even at mall eateries), but I do think it's a wonderful and important practice to take your kids to the store, or to a farmer's market; instead of rushing them past things you wouldn't normally buy, take them through the store slowly. Stop and look at produce you don't usually buy, let them pick a strange fruit that appeals to them (one time, when L. was little, he wanted a star fruit. We bought one and he loved it--I would never have thought to buy it for him if we hadn't stopped to look at it). Avoid making comments about how "weird" a fruit might look, or how "strange" and different a food seems. Talk with them about what other people in other cultures might eat; talk about what it means to be kosher, or a vegetarian, or a vegan, or to be practicing a gluten-free diet.

I know that girl's reaction was a child's reaction to something different; something other than the chicken nuggets and soupy carrots she was eating from the school lunch menu. But I worry that she'll grow up thinking that any food that looks different is gross and, by extension, that the person eating it is other somehow, somebody different, and, therefore, somebody less-than-normal--somebody who can get teased and bumped to the fringes of those tight school friendship circles that mean so much when our kids are little and still innocent about matters of acceptance and unacceptance.