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Chopsticks and peanut butter

My four-year-old life consisted of watching Sesame Street every day after preschool, playing with my extensive Fisher-Price toy collection and taking trips to Japan, Disney World and the beach. While embarrassing home videos and pictures capture these moments, I honestly don’t remember any of them. In fact, my first childhood memory is eating dinner with my family one evening, a monumental experience because it was the first time I did something “very, very bad.”

You see, I had always been the easier Kubagawa child to raise compared to my then six-year-old brother, who didn’t mind sharing his tears and puke with innocent bystanders. My mother willingly brought my munchkin self with her for errands and “big people” events because I was painfully shy. Even when the “big people” pinched my cheeks or petted my mushroom cut hair, I just smiled and acted like a good girl, happily bopping around in my own world with my imaginary friends.

Yet, in my first childhood memory, I had been playing around with my chopsticks, when I decided to make the grave mistake of sticking a chopstick straight into my rice. The next thing I know, my mom immediately took it out and slapped my wrist, an action that signified serious disappointment in me. I learned that by sticking my chopsticks into my rice, I was essentially performing a practice only carried out in funerals of some Asian cultures. In my pre-school mind, I thought this death-offering custom was trivial, but to my parents, I had seriously disrespected the Japanese culture.

And so when I celebrated my friend’s birthday this weekend at a local, Duke-favorite restaurant, which strives to serve dishes that are not only delicious but uniquely presented, I once again relived my earliest childhood memory. My friend’s dish, which required the use of chopsticks, was served to him with the chopsticks sticking straight up from the entree.

Now, because my friend was familiar with appropriate chopsticks etiquette, he immediately took them out once his dish was before him, as we both awkwardly grinned and explained to our friends this cultural blunder. Surely, on a day when we were celebrating our friend’s birthday, the last thing we wanted was a wish of death. Feeling the same disrespect my parents had, but knowing that the restaurant owner was probably unaware of the major faux pas, I sent an e-mail to him explaining the need to change the entree’s presentation.

Sure enough, the restaurant owner was sincerely apologetic as he called me the next day, citing that another customer had referenced the same mistake previous to my complaint. Changes had been already made prior to my visit, but with a few newly hired waiters, some miscommunication must have occurred. And while that was all done and good, I couldn’t help but think of my own personal experiences when I had unintentionally disrespected someone other than my always-forgiving parents, simply because I wasn’t culturally aware.

“Multiculturalism” and “diversity” are thrown around so much here that we often lose sight of their real-world importance and implications, just as it is for “effortless perfection.” Even as a melting pot country, we frankly aren’t that culturally competent. Take, for example, our humanitarian aid efforts in Afghanistan during our military bombing campaign. Though we dropped hundreds of thousands of packets that were vegetarian and Muslim dietary-friendly, we sent vegetarian and Muslim dietary-friendly American foods like peanut butter. And while we may have viewed it as a “rare and sumptuous treat” (CNN.com) for starving Afghans, international news reports indicate that products like peanut butter were not what the Afghans truly needed. If anything, Afghans were left asking, “What is this?”

Even at Duke, we parade around the banner of multiculturalism and diversity, but the stigma is that a student does not truly become “culturally aware” until one studies abroad and then suffers from the “2nd semester, junior year” syndrome. Yet, campus-wide events like today’s Springternational should not be regarded as another empty promotion for multiculturalism and diversity (or another excuse to have beer on points). If anything, we possess valuable resources for attaining cultural competency right here on campus, that can prevent chopsticks and peanut butter blunders: each other.

Miho Kubagawa is a Trinity sophomore. Her column appears every other Friday.

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