Monthly Archives: June 2013

Let’s talk about culture shock

To be honest, of all the culture shock (and reverse culture shock) I’ve experienced in the past few years, I have to say that the culture shock of interacting with my students — inner-city former high school dropouts, mostly African-American — has been greater than Zambia, greater than Spain, greater than coming back home.  It’s funny, because they’re only about five years younger than I am, and most of us grew up in the same city, some in the same neighborhoods, and one would think that they are not so different from the children I went to elementary school with — but somehow it is.  I don’t know if the differences are more apparent as we get older, or if I just wasn’t paying attention back then, or if somehow it is different.

Part of what makes it harder, I think, is that culture shock is expected when moving from country to country.  Who expects it a 20-minute bus ride away, or even just a walk of a few blocks?

When I arrived in Zambia, I effectively had the skills of a three-year-old.  I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t wash my clothing.  I didn’t know how to get water.  I stumbled over the most basic human interactions.  I could barely wash myself.  But this was normal — this was expected — this was accepted.  The people I interacted with understood that Ba Miriam did not know how to be a Zambian because she had lived all her life somewhere else, and accepted that I had the skills needed to behave as an adult in my own society, but would require time to learn them in  Zambian culture.

The cultural differences between my students and I are not nearly that large, but no one sees that they are there.  Many of my students have barely been outside their neighborhoods in any significant kind of way, and often have no concept that there might be more than one way to live one’s life, and that just because I don’t do things their way doesn’t mean that the way I do them is wrong.

As I child, I was taught that you measure water and rice, bring the water to a boil, add the rice, stir, and then cover it for twenty minutes.  (You can also do it in the oven, if you have lots of time, or some people use a rice cooker, but we’re not fancy like that.)  But you MUST NOT stir the rice after that first time, or even lift the lid, or you’ll ruin the rice.  I didn’t really understand what that entailed, but it would be RUINED.

And yet, in Spain, my host mother stirred rice the whole time she was cooking it.  (And made really good rice.)  Her idea of plain white rice was rice cooked in chicken broth (and stirred the whole time); she could not conceive of something more plain than that.  In Zambia, no one measures; you just put rice and water in a pan and stir it sometimes, and if you run out of water, you add more.

Maybe I’m a rice Philistine, but I have to admit that I can’t really tell the difference (though both the oven rice and the chicken broth rice taste better).  It was pretty shocking to me to realize that you COULD stir rice while it was cooking without the kitchen exploding or something, but Pepi clearly knew what she was doing, so I kept my mouth shut and learned.  I’ve become pretty blase about cooking rice, and these days I mostly just dump rice and water into a pan and measure Chinese-style, with my finger.

While I was in Puerto Rico with my students, I tried to cook rice — and was immediately shouted down for not putting oil in with the rice and water.  (Apparently you CAN’T cook rice without oil.  Who knew?  Certainly not me, or the Spaniards, or the Zambians.)  And rice isn’t the only place I see it, although food is where it comes up most: there is One Right Way to Cook X, and generally I’m doing it wrong.  We bumped into that a lot on that trip: the bacon was cooked wrong; we didn’t put Sazón with the chicken; the students can’t eat x without y . . .

“Why did you dump the pan scrapings on the eggs?”  (Clearly implied: I had RUINED them; they were now unfit to eat.)

“Well, some people like them,” I floundered.  “Take from this side, where there aren’t any.”  It wasn’t until hours later that I realized that it wasn’t about liking or disliking; it’s a habit learned from my mother, learned from her parents who grew up during the Great Depression: I don’t waste food.

It even comes up when talking about my lunches: something that I consider as normal as veggies with peanut sauce is a foreign concept to my students, and probably not edible.  Forget tatsoi or quinoa or goat cheese anything with a name in a language other than English.

I think the amount of judgement from is part of what makes it difficult.  In other countries, I am strange, yes, but I’m a strange foreigner, which gives me a certain amount of license to be strange, and means that most of the people involved expect that I will be experiencing culture shock.  Most of my students see me as unreasonably strange, existing in some sort of weird incomprehensible lifestyle that maybe isn’t even possible.  It’s an odd thing, to interact daily with people who view you as an impossibility.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

More bees with honey than vinegar

WARNING: This is another post that features a lot of photos of insects, so if that’s not your cup of tea, you may just want to keep scrolling.

My mother acquired an opportunity to go on a beekeeping tour, and I was lucky enough to be included in the adventure. The tour was given by one of our neighbors; he and his bees live less than a mile from our house.

We met at the Wissahickon Charter School, where there are four hives, and ten lucky students a year are selected for the beekeeping program.

Suiting up

Suiting up

I was given the “hook,” a metal spatula-cum-hook tool, first, and got to open the first hive, a Langstroth hive (as designed by Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth in the 1850s, in Philadelphia. If you’re curious, there are lots of nice diagrams available if you do a Google image search), so there are no pictures of that. It was cool, though, after I got the hang of levering up the frames.

A Langstroth hive, with top (and upper levels) removed.

A Langstroth hive, with top (and upper levels) removed.

After a bit, I yielded up the hook to my mother, and took over photography, instead.

Mom holding up one frame.

Mom holding up one frame.

Did I mention that my bus home goes by this place every day? I never even knew that there were beehives there, though I think that they may be visible from the road, if you know where to look.

This frame is not very "built up," so what you're seeing is a shaped piece of wax that can be put into the frame as a guide.

This frame is not very “built up,” so what you’re seeing is a shaped piece of wax that can be put into the frame as a guide.

Mom got stung, probably through sheer bad luck, but luckily she’s not remotely allergic to bee stings. She had the distinction of being the first person to get stung this year working those hives, but I think it’s an honor she would have forgone.

I believe that two of the bees slightly to the left of the center of this picture are drone bees -- males -- unlike the rest, which are workers, and female.  The drones are a little bit bigger, and their eyes are bigger, too.

I believe that two of the bees slightly to the left of the center of this picture are drone bees — males — unlike the rest, which are workers, and female. The drones are a little bit bigger, and their eyes are bigger, too.

After looking at three Langstroth hives, and seeing lots of bees, but not as many eggs or larvae as expected, we opened up the fourth hive, an experimental design.

The top bars, which the bees build comb on, are sharply triangular, unlike a top bar hive, which you'll see later.

The top bars, which the bees build comb on, are sharply triangular, unlike a top bar hive, which you’ll see later.

This style of hive design doesn’t use any guide wax; the bees just go for it and start building. They can start in more than one spot, and the cells will line up perfectly.

Some of the cells in the center of this picture are filled with larvae, slightly yellowish coiled grubs, and if I zoom in very close to the center-left of the picture, I can see little white dots that I think are eggs.

Some of the cells in the center of this picture are filled with larvae, slightly yellowish coiled grubs, and if I zoom in very close to the center-left of the picture, I can see little white dots that I think are eggs.

Our guide Matt got stung, too, and the bees were becoming agitated, so we packed up.

Putting the lid back on

Putting the lid back on

We all shucked out of our protective gear, drank lots of water, and headed over to Matt’s house to see some top bar hives.

A top bar hive with legs.  There were two more without legs.  This one belongs to Matt's daughter, who's ten.  He was careful to point out his state-of-the-art hive covers.

A top bar hive with legs. There were two more without legs. This one belongs to Matt’s daughter, who’s ten. He was careful to point out his state-of-the-art hive covers.

We all arranged ourselves on the roof of the shed, and cracked open the first of the hives.

The first one wasn't as neat, and there were a few places where the comb was coming away from its rows.  Of course, the cool thing about beeswax is that you can often just shove it back into place (carefully!) and the bees will stick it back on and make everything shipshape.

The first one wasn’t as neat, and there were a few places where the comb was coming away from its rows. Of course, the cool thing about beeswax is that you can often just shove it back into place (carefully!) and the bees will stick it back on and make everything shipshape.

The first hive was “irreparably queenless” — a worker bee can lay eggs and take on some of the role of the queen, but the eggs are unfertilized, and only drones will hatch from them. Sometimes if fertilized eggs are introduced into the hive, the hive can raise a new queen, but this one wasn’t managing to do so. The second seemed to be thriving, and we saw eggs and larvae, but no queen. So we moved on to the third hive.

On the left, you can see the edge of the smoker, to slow the bees down.  There were a lot of smoking jokes throughout the afternoon.

On the left, you can see the edge of the smoker, to slow the bees down. There were a lot of smoking jokes throughout the afternoon.

The cells in the upper right of this comb contain honey; you can tell by the flakey white wax covering.  Bees put honey on top, for insulation.

The cells in the upper right of this comb contain honey; you can tell by the flakey white wax covering. Bees put honey on top, for insulation.

Worker brood -- sealed cells with developing larvae inside.  The darker cells are starting to be filled with nectar, and the leftmost bee has just hatched.

Worker brood — sealed cells with developing larvae inside. The darker cells are starting to be filled with nectar, and the leftmost bee has just hatched.

Of course, sometimes things get a little twisted around.  If you didn't see the larvae before, look closely at the edge in the center-left of the picture.

Of course, sometimes things get a little twisted around. If you didn’t see the larvae before, look closely at the edge in the center-left of the picture.

Bees create their own plumb line by hanging onto each others' legs and dangling, in a process called "festooning."

Bees create their own plumb line by hanging onto each others’ legs and dangling, in a process called “festooning.”

In our continuing search for a queen, we came across numerous queen cells, larger cells that hang pendant from the rest of the comb.

These are empty; you can tell by the hole in the bottom.

These are empty; you can tell by the hole in the bottom.

Sellers will often mark queen bees with a red dot, to make them easy to spot.

And then, at last we found her!

And then, at last we found her!

We quickly put that bar back in with the others, to keep the queen safe and secure.

After the tour, we had a honey tasting.

After the tour, we had a honey tasting.

I’ve now tasted honey from Dubai, and also eucalyptus honey.

Our host and his father-in-law.

Our host and his father-in-law.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Two pictures

I was wandering through old photographs, and found two pictures from Spain that amused me, so I thought that I would post them here.

Penguin graffiti:

que calor penguins

‘Que Calor?’ means ‘What heat?’ or ‘What hot?’

New Year’s Day parade in Granada:

I have no idea who this guy is or what that flag was, but I still think it's cool.

I have no idea who this guy is or what that flag was, but I still think it’s cool.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized