A few nights ago I was watching an episode of the new HBO series The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. The stories are set in Botswana. In the episode I watched, Mma Ramotswe, the No. 1 Detective, takes a client from the US out to do some investigation near the Kalahari Desert. Mma Ramotswe and Mrs. Curtin, her client, are served food by Mma Potsane, a woman who lives way out in rural Botswana.
When the meal is served, there are no utensils, so Mrs. Curtin asks Mma Ramotswe what to do, how to eat. Mma Ramotswe demonstrates by taking a bite sized portion of rice, balling it up using her thumb and two fingers, dipping it in the creamed spinach dish served with the rice, and popping it into her mouth. Mrs. Curtin manages very well. Having just published a book for middle school kids, Emily Post’s Table Manners for Kids, I was naturally intrigued by the wonderful display of great table manners by both Mrs. Curtin and Mma Ramotswe.
As I watched the scene it brought to mind the diversity of eating styles throughout the world. Depending on what culture you grow up in you might eat with your fingers (as Mrs. Curtin discovered), chopsticks, or a variety of utensils. That led me to think about kids in school cafeterias. When children who are refugees arrive in the United States, one of the first things they do is enroll in school. There are so many things to learn, including new styles of dress, language, forms of greeting, and different ways of eating. Mrs. Curtin was perplexed when she faced the dish without any utensils. Kids who were born outside the US, in a different culture, are in an equally unfamiliar setting–the American public school cafeteria.
It is not the job of kids to teach their peers how to eat. It might prove awkward and embarrassing for all involved. It is their job not to stare or make fun of another student having a hard time learning to use the tools of a new culture. The kid who is having a hard time cutting their meat with a knife and fork may be a whiz with chopsticks or use their fingers with a dexterity that the American kids could envy. The message to the majority of the American kids who are not perplexed by the cafeteria is to be as considerate and thoughtful as Mma Ramotswe was when she understood that Mrs. Curtin was not ignorant; she just knew a different way.
It’s all about learning about each other. And table manners are elements of the diversity in this world. Respect for other cultures leads to the building and strengthening of friendships, and the cafeteria may be a great place to start.