Connecting Across Cultural Divides
March 3, 2016 § 4 Comments
When I was eighteen, I spent a few months abroad, living with a Vietnamese family in the beautiful coastal city of Nha Trang. I hadn’t known the family before arriving at their front door, and I knew exactly two words of Vietnamese. The father spoke a bit of English; the other members of the family spoke none. In my first moments in the house, nothing prepared me for the blow that I felt: the adrenaline that had coursed through my veins in the weeks leading up to my trip suddenly emptied, pooling beneath my feet, as I took my first inhalation of the unabated loneliness that would become a frequent companion in the days ahead.
The father was a carpenter and gone for much of the day, leaving me surrounded by smiling women, who chatted incessantly with one another but largely averted their eyes from me; and boisterous, inquisitive toddlers, who liked to peek around doorways, explode into giggles, and dash away. That first full day was painfully void of activity. I was there to teach English to the children in the neighborhood, but I had not received permission to enter the schools, so I had to wait until the children could come to me. Sure, I had things I could do on my own. I had novels to read. I had my Walkman. Eventually, I would procure a bike and spend my days touring the city, mingling in coffee shops with men and women who wished to learn English, and taking in the breathtaking views along the coastline.
But that first day, I had no idea where to begin, no one with whom to converse. I was miles away from the only pay phone with which to contact my parents, and I felt at once displaced from the bustling activity around me and foolish in my utter uselessness. I stared at the wavy line of ants making their way across the wall of my bedroom, a room that had been vacated for my exclusive use and whose previous occupants would sleep on reed floor mats in the other bedroom for the duration of my stay.
And then something happened. The grandmother of the family came into the room and placed on the floor in front of me a bowl of rambutans (or chom choms, as the Vietnamese affectionately call them). I had never seen or heard of this small round fruit—the size of a ping pong ball—whose translucent flesh is encased in a tough skin covered with long, coarse, brown hairs. The old woman had a face that was at once soft with wrinkles, severe with dark, piercing eyes, and sly with the hint of a smile. I never saw her without her fine grey-black hair pulled immaculately back into a tight bun. Now, she nodded—once at the bowl on the floor, and then a second time to acknowledge my “thank you,” which I hoped was uttered with enough enthusiasm to mask the confusion and hesitancy that I felt. She then began to leave.
When she reached the doorway, she looked back. She said something that I imagined was, Go on. Eat. I crouched down and tentatively picked up one of the hair-covered balls. The grandmother let out a low guttural sound—whether in exasperation or in an attempt to conceal a laugh, I’ll never know. But then she did something that I will never forget. She walked back and sat down on the floor beside me. She put her hand on mine. With heartbreaking gentleness, she took the fruit from me, showed me how to squeeze it in just the right place so that the skin popped open, then how to peal off the thin paper membrane inside and pop the grape-like ball into my mouth. I followed her example, once, twice, three times, until at last she smiled and nodded her approval.
But still she didn’t leave. Instead, she began to eat beside me. We didn’t talk, but for every chom chom that I ate, she ate one. In the distance, I could hear the banging of pots and pans in the kitchen; I could hear the barking of dogs and the cackle of laughter from the nail salon across the street. But my corner of the world—where I sat, sharing a bowl of fruit with a stooped stranger sixty years my senior—was quiet. I can’t explain it exactly, but that silence felt like the biggest hug in the world.
Generosity. That’s the word that came to mind in that moment with the chom choms—and still comes to mind every time I reflect on that memory. It’s also the word that comes to mind each time I read Mango, Abuela, and Me (Ages 5-10), a new picture book by Meg Medina, with illustrations by Angela Dominguez, in which a young American girl seeks to bridge the language divide between her and her Spanish-speaking grandmother, after the latter comes to live with her.
I’m talking about a generosity that goes beyond sharing. That goes beyond opening your home or sharing your bedroom (which the girl in the story must do with this near stranger—something I’m guessing my own children would not embrace nearly so readily).
I’m talking about a generosity that comes from taking time—really taking the time—to connect with someone, to make that person feel in a single moment that she is seen and heard and understood. It’s a generosity that is extended when we open up our hearts. And it’s a generosity that I fervently want my own children to understand, to experience, and to deliver—again and again—in their lives.
Mango, Abuela, and Me begins with disconnection. Young Mia is initially reserved around her “far away” grandmother: she knows little about the older woman’s past, including the sunny tropical (unnamed) country where she has spent her entire life; and Mia’s limited Spanish means she can’t tell this woman much about her own life. In the hours between school and the time her parents come home from work, Mia and her grandmother sit side by side in their respective loneliness.
My español is not good enough to tell her the things an abuela should know. Like how I am the very best in art and how I can run as fast as the boys…And her English is too poquito to tell me all the stories I want to know about Abuelo and the rivers that ran right outside their door.
But Mia is both perceptive and determined; and although she vents privately to her Mami (“Abuela and I can’t understand each other”), she begins to brainstorm ways to unlock the silence between them. She channels her favorite teacher and points out English words as she goes about her chores (Abuela in turn answers with the Spanish translations). Mia even tapes homemade labels to household items.
And yet, even as Abuela begins to pick up more and more English, there’s a sadness that hovers over her—and which Mia can’t penetrate.
“In as much as language has the power to connect, it can also be an obstacle,” author Meg Medina recently said, during the December meeting of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington DC, which I was fortunate to attend. The vivacious Medina titled her talk, “Writing the American Family,” and she spoke passionately about the disparity between the 54 million self-identified Latinos living in the United States—seventeen percent of our population—and the mere 3.5% of books published in 2013 that were by or about Latinos. “The American family needs to be everybody,” she said, “not just the white Anglo-Saxon family.” Specifically, Medina sees herself as writing for the English-dominated Latino children: those who identify strongly as Americans and who are more likely to welcome and experience Latino culture if it’s presented in the language in which they are most comfortable (English).
Mango, Abuela, and Me is semi-autobiographical, inspired by Medina’s own grandmother, who came from Cuba to live with Medina’s family in Queens, New York. Despite Medina’s fairly proficient Spanish as a child, she remembers coming up against numerous aspects of her American life (like Girl Scouts), which she couldn’t adequately convey to her grandmother. And vice versa.
While Mia’s dilemma will rightfully appeal to Latino children privy to similar struggles with cross-cultural clashes, it would be a mistake to assume that Medina’s story is intended solely for a Latino audience. Both my (Anglo-Saxon) children have requested this story many times. They are drawn to the inter-generational relationship, to the instinctual, human yearning for connection on both sides. “We read like we eat,” Medina also told us, a lovely notion that we read different books to get different things. Sometimes, it seems to me, we read books because the people in them look like us and and lead lives like ours (all the more reason why publishers need to heed the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign). But we also need to read things about people who look different from us and lead lives different from ours—but who feel many of the same things we do. This is how we connect with our society and with the world.
Mia eventually recognizes Abuela’s loneliness for the homesickness that it is. With all the innocence and optimism indicative of childhood, Mia reaches across the language divide and touches Abuela’s heart. On a routine errand to the pet store with Mami to pick up food for Mia’s hamster, the girl catches sight of a large golden-green parrot; she suddenly remembers the red feather that Abuela unpacked from her suitcase the day she arrived. Mia implores her mother to buy the parrot. “For Abuela. Like the parrot that lived in her mango trees! He can keep her company when I’m at school.”
The loquacious parrot, which Mia and Abuela name Mango, not only brings with it much needed frivolity (Abuela teaches him how to give beaky kisses and to bob his head when she sings “Los Pollitos” to him), but it serves as the basis for a new, more intimate kind of language between the two of them. (The un loro is also autobiographical, only Medina points out that her parrot never uttered a single word in its THIRTY years of life.) Each time Mia and Abuela teach the parrot an English or Spanish word, something bigger occurs: exchanges arise about memories of the past and hopes for the future.
…now when Abuela and I are lying next to each other in our beds, our mouths are full of things to say. I can tell her about my buen dia and show her my best pintura of Mango.
Abuela reads my favorite book with only a little help, and she tells me new stories about Abuelo, who could dive for river stones with a single breath and weave a roof out of palms. I draw pictures for her. She still misses their old house, she says, but now only a little bit.
I regret that I didn’t stay long enough in Vietnam to grasp more of the language. And yet, I feel an undeniable connection to the people I met there, one that goes beyond many of the relationships I’ve had here in the States. Perhaps it is not coincidental that, when we lay aside the hangups of syntax and pronunciation, we begin to notice the language of humanity: the smiles, the laughs, the nods, the frowns, the tears. Never did more than a few hours go by on any given day when I—and whomever I was talking to—didn’t resort to waving our hands or scrunching up our faces or otherwise looking like two dancing monkeys trying to get our point across. And we would laugh—oh, how we would laugh—at the surprising revelation that, stripped down, we are all so much the same.
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Review copy provided by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!