One morning before school, Alexander, our newest kindergartener, was fiddling with Egyptian coins and thinking through options at the school canteen. His eyes lit up when he realized he could buy a milk box … maybe chocolate, maybe strawberry, or maybe banana!
He looked up and asked, as if he had a revelation. “Mom, how do I say, ‘Can I try a sip of that?’ in Arabic?”
My mind immediately thought of a gross juicebox straw that some kid was slobbering all over. Conditioned by American cafeteria germ paranoia, my first answer was, “You can’t ask for a sip of something. Please don’t ever ask for a sip of something, especially at school!”
So instead he asked, “Mom, how do I ask for a bite of something?”
Alexander was just beginning his time on the school playground; clearly this was something he wanted to learn.
But I still wasn’t thrilled. “Iskander [as his name translates in Arabic], do kids ever ask you for a bite? Do they ever ask for some of your food?”
He frowned. “Yes, they always want a pretzel.” At the breakfast table his three sisters immediately chimed in. “Yes, they always want the pretzels!”
It was a cultural revelation. My kids, the Americans, bring weird snacks to school.
Egyptian culture breeds generosity, usually. When a child opens a bag of chips it is common practice to offer to friends. Same with a packet of cookies. What you have is meant to be shared.
Earlier this summer as we visited a school friend, she told her mother, “Layla [our daughter] never brings a sandwich.” She couldn’t comprehend it. She thought we were starving her.
But the system here does not include a lunch break, and to me, a sandwich is lunch. Egyptian kids eat when they get home around between 2-4pm, depending on the traffic.
For them a sandwich is breakfast, eaten at the beginning of the day, often at school.
I grew up on peanut butter and jelly, or perhaps ham and cheese. My kids, meanwhile, have encountered a whole variety of sandwiches, and often get a taste. Usually they are made in a long, thin Kaiser-type roll or pita-type bread.
Inside: French fries. Or scrambled eggs. Perhaps some strange sort of salty white cheese. Maybe liver. Beans, mashed or falafeled.
Our oldest daughter recently attended a church retreat for expat kids. Hosted by Egyptians, she was surprised at the shock other campers had at the French fry sandwiches.
“What could be better to eat for breakfast?” she wondered, telling us over her morning corn flakes.
I am sure our littlest kindergartener will try many “bites” of things in the years to come. Unlike me growing up, hopefully it will expand his palate and encourage him to try new things.
And maybe he’ll also stop frowning when friends ask him for something, and instead, like them, will learn to offer freely.
He has freely received, as the Biblical saying goes.
What’s in your lunch? Can I have a bite?