On eating with our hands.
When doing community work, I’m a firm believer in meeting people where they are as much as possible. Not only is it important to respect the culture you enter into because respect is important in and of itself, but it also makes your work much more effective by enabling you to get to know the community, understand their needs, and build trust. In Honduras, this can be as simple as dressing conservatively, attending church services with the community, eating (and complimenting!) their food, and engaging in conversation and asking questions. These simple gestures can go a long way in establishing relationships and demonstrating appropriate and necessary humility.
When I was in Honduras a few weeks ago, I had an experience that served to remind me how important it is to be conscientious of the ways that we, as outsiders, impact the communities that we enter into, despite our best efforts to be malleable and respectful.
On one of our last evenings in El Corpus, we sat down to dinner with Samantha and Andrea, the 7 and 16-year-old daughters of our hostess, Juana. The table had been meticulously set with a pitcher of fresh-squeezed juice and generous servings of Honduran enchiladas – fried tortillas topped with ground meat, chopped cabbage, avocados, tomato sauce, and boiled eggs. We dug in heartily, but I quickly noticed that Samantha was not being her exuberant, talkative self. She had an intense look of concentration, and even frustration, on her face as she wrestled with her fork and knife, succeeding only in spreading enchilada across her plate and onto the table. Finally giving up, she crossed her arms and glared at me across the table. When I asked her what was wrong, Andrea intervened, explaining that they didn’t usually use silverware, but that their mother gave strict instructions to do so whenever they hosted gringos – because that is how gringos expect to eat.
I was immediately taken aback. For all my care, conscientiousness, and attempts to adapt to this family and culture, I forgot the inevitability that my Honduran hosts, too, would adapt to me. I forgot that even if I did not overtly express expectations at how they should run their household while I was there, they assumed that I had expectations based on what they know about my culture from their own previous experiences. While I certainly don’t think that it did any harm to the family to eat differently while we were around, I couldn’t help but feel a little mortified that my apparent American desire for propriety at the dinner table had made a 7-year-old girl so uncomfortable. Though the repercussions of this are minimal, it left me feeling a bit unsettled, knowing that my presence may cause more serious discomfort that I’ll never know about. I am grateful to the honesty of Samantha and of children in general, as they can provide an excellent purview into the subtleties of cultural expectations that their painfully polite elders often wouldn’t dare articulate, but the reality is that more often than not, I don’t have access to their “expertise” in the context of my work with HHA.
After we all shared a laugh about Samantha’s outburst, Andrea went on to explain further. “Aqui en Honduras, decimos que todo sabe mejor cuando coma con las manos.” (Here in Honduras, we say that everything tastes better when you eat it with your hands.) With that, we all sat down our silverware and dug into our enchiladas with gusto. With sauce dripping down our elbows, we licked our fingers with satisfaction, giggling and teasing Samantha at how quickly she scarfed up hear meal without having to deal with utensils. This story is clearly simple and silly, and it certainly isn’t an issue I haven’t grappled with before, but for some reason, it has stuck with me and been the cause of much reflection since I’ve gotten back.
I hate to bring up a challenge for which I have no proposed solution, but sometimes, there just isn’t an easy answer. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, things don’t go they way you think they will, and your presence certainly can do harm as well as good. I suppose all that is in my control if I continue to do this work is to a) be conscientious and diligent about entering their way of life as much as I can and b) to keep my own assumptions about their expectations of me in check as well. Oh – and c) next time, to eat with my hands. Samantha, Andrea, and Honduras are right – it does taste better that way.