Friday, March 26, 2010

What We're Hungry For

All of us are hungry – for the same thing, for different things, for that one perfect taste we remember from long ago and can’t quite recreate. Many of my friends, adoptive parents, hungered for a family and found a child half a globe away. Those children, all of them, arrived hungry. We fed them in as many different ways as there are families in the world. Some of us have strict rules and set mealtimes and a firm “three – not two, I said three” policy on how many green beans must be consumed prior to the granting of dessert privileges. Some won’t allow eating meat, or nonorganic produce, and some wish there could be a 50-foot restraining order standing between Fruit Loops and their darling one. There are those who shrug and say, “Hey, I grew up on Kool-Aid and Wonder Bread, and look how great I turned out.”

I’ve found that many of my friends whose families were formed through international adoption often search for the deeper meaning that might be inherent in the food of their child’s country of origin. For those of us with children from China, we find that our children have come from a culture that happily admits its food obsession, a place where “how are you?” as a greeting is, literally, “Did you eat yet?” Many of us look to food as the strongest human connection our children can employ when trying to conjure positive thoughts of a homeland that is already ancient history to their candy-coated U.S. lives.

And every time one of our children says “I’m hungry,” we once again step on a path that connects our own pasts, our deeply held beliefs, their birth culture and their own unique selves, as expressed through appetite.

It turns out that my own parenting style tends toward intense firmness regarding sleep (my kids would say rigidity, but that’s just because they need a nap) and a willful ceding of my authority regarding food. “What are you hungry for?” I ask at mealtime, because I think they need to learn to ask themselves that question, several times daily for the rest of their lives, and discover what the answer is. Once they have an idea, I see what I can rustle up. (I am definitely more of a “rustler” than a cook). I’ve had to modify the rules over the years, of course, especially when I admitted to myself that one child, the white-atarian, would answer “pretzels” every time. But mostly, the non-plan plan has worked. They have listened to themselves and eaten what they wanted until they didn’t want any more. They’ve grown up relatively straight and somewhat tall, and I haven’t spent a fortune on dental bills (at least not yet).

Flush with this success, I waited until last May to announce to my sprouting adolescents that “The Summer of Independence” would commence upon last day of school. The main feature of said summer was that the current Chief Rustler (me) would be on sabbatical until Labor Day. With the Grownup Kitchen closed, they adapted, at least eventually.

The eldest, operating with the iron-will laziness visible mostly in the teen-aged, began with a two-part plan: 1) staring into the refrigerator for long stretches, apparently hoping for a reenactment from “Beauty and the Beast” that resulted in a dancing plate of steaming hot nachos rolling onto the kitchen table, and 2) existing in a state of extreme hunger until someone else in the family was moved to prepared a meal for themselves. Then she’d use her last ounce of energy to find a fork and start “sharing.”

Eventually, she broke down and cooked for herself. One day, as I was working upstairs on my computer, I smelled an onion being fried. I allowed myself as brief Victory Smile for winning this round. I came downstairs to discover that she had stopped willing the food to dance itself into meal-readiness and was actually preparing fried rice for herself. It would be, she told me, her signature dish. With each subsequent cooking attempt that summer, it became increasingly edible, until it veered right onto the onramp of actual palatability. These days, I prefer her version to my own, or to takeout. This has created a new burden for her – other people want to eat what she cooks. “Hey,” she squawked the other day, as I shamelessly shoveled in her most recent creation. “I’m taking that to school for lunch this week. It takes a long time to cook something that tastes good, you know,” she informed me.

Let the record show that I refrained from comment. Of course, my mouth was full of rice, but still.

For most of the world, including many, many people who live very near to me, the enormous variety of parental rules and children’s choices does not exist. Dinner is still that same block of government-subsidy cheese from the Community Food Pantry, perhaps with the most offending bits of mold scraped off. Or, not so very far from the United States, dinner is what a parent could pull from the ground that day. Dinner, for many children in this world, is nothing.

Which is why, with all the ways they have to satisfy their hunger, it’s great to see our own children reach out to help others with this most basic of needs. One night in November, a group of our families who have children adopted from China gathered to restock a local food pantry. For one night at least, we were neighbors who helped their neighbors. At events this past summer, more families gathered at Feed My Starving Children to create packets of hope, dignity and nutritionally dense meals for kids who might be just like them, if they weren’t so hungry.

At the Feed My Starving Children event in August, we gathered some of the participating teens for a photo. This group would be heading to high school in a few days, with worries about homework and sports and boys and if those jeans made their butts look big. In the months to come, they would be hungry for fun and acceptance and the headlong rush into “being older.” It was nice, for a moment, that they thought about the hunger of others, and tried to satisfy it as best they could.

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