Tandoori In His Lunchbox: Culture And Education

by Talitha V. Anyabwelé, founder of the Black Girl Speaks movement, and the creator of the Raising Imhotep Consulting firm and curriculum. She advises clients in educational remedies, cultural diversity training, and conflict resolution.

Apala Kapoor* was standing in the foyer.

She’s a regal, statuesque woman with piercing eyes, and thick, ebony hair interlocked into a single braid draped over her shoulder. She was adorned in an intricately gold-embellished, deep red kameez and dupatta, traditional casual wear for Indian women. She reminded me of the women I’d see walking in pairs through the street markets of Little India, an area in Singapore that had the highest population of its southern neighbor when I lived there.

My daughter asked, “Are you Indian?” Apala scrolled the length of her torso with her hand, a gesture referencing her apparel, and smiled. “Yes, of course.”

We first met when she entered my home, which was actually her home where she raised her two beautiful children. After months of tirelessly searching for homes in South Florida, our realtor introduced us to their family. They were moving and wanted to rent their home.

After exchanging a few pleasantries and learning that I was a homeschooling parent, she began to confide in me about her son’s challenges in school. “He’s very bright,” she says to assure me, and really more herself, “but, he’s having a very hard time.”

Turbans and jeans

I learned that her son is the only Sikh student in his class. For many in America, religion is often obscure. But, for devout Sikhs, Muslims, and a few other faiths, it’s visible in appearance or clothing.

Every day, her son, Daya*, wears a turban to school. I’m sure, by now, he’s probably grown accustomed to stares and questions from peers and teachers alike. That doesn’t mean he’s unaffected. I told Apala about my company Raising Imhotep, and our focus on acknowledging cultural differences in education. She was relieved to know that there was an approach that saw her son as a whole without trivializing or mocking one of the critical components that defines him: his faith.

She invited us to dinner, which we eagerly accepted, and requested I work with her son.

Tandoori in his lunchbox

As Apala prepared fresh dosa and sambar for the first course, I engaged with the children. Daya, initially reticent upon our arrival, was now showing me his favorite toys, his beautiful art and handmade creations, and his wardrobe.

He made certain that I took note of how his closet was divided into two sections: typical American casual clothes and traditional Indian attire. He had items he favored in both sections, but was a little more excited to show me his t-shirts and jeans than his kurthas and sherwanis.

We ate an amazingly delicious meal of naan, tandoori chicken and chicken tikka (two of my favorite Indian dishes), rice and lentils; all homemade. Apala expressed with great pride that she prepares similar homemade cultural dishes for each of her children to take for lunch every day. She tells them that they should be as comfortable in their culture as other students are in theirs. I agree, in fact it’s the driving premise behind my work. Yet, I also understand how difficult it is to be consistently the “different one.”

Mom shared that sometimes Daya will voice concerns about having foods and clothes unlike his peers. I’ve seen this kind of discomfort and singling out manifest itself in behavioral concerns or poor academic performance. As suspected, she also explained that his teachers adored his behavior and often remarked that he was “a sweet boy,” right before informing her that he was failing.

The cultural “why”

This is where I thrive. I understand the problem is greater than simply offering tutoring as a remedy. Daya has to understand his cultural “why.”

Though his family serves as a wonderful example of excellence, he and his sister are the only ones that understand what it’s like to experience childhood in America. Daya lacks no ability or aptitude, and has no learning challenges or disabilities, but he is struggling. Cultural factors can not be overlooked and dismissed. They critically impact if and why children strive to excel.

I’m looking forward to my journey with Daya and Apala, and to helping more parents in South Florida understand how to best teach their children…culturally.

What do you think?


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