The Donald family
Many nations, one table
Background: An international family
Emily Donald is a 47-year-old single woman who hosts international students studying at a school in Massachusetts specializing in teaching English to students from around the world. During most of her involvement with The Family Dinner Project, she had three students living with her, two engineers from Korea and one 17 year-old from Venezuela who is hoping to study computer science.
Emily has been hosting students for a number of years and really loves having different cultures represented in her household. Initially, she became involved with hosting students as a way to earn extra income after she and her husband separated, but since that time (several years ago), it has come to mean more to her.
Starting point: Balancing American food with global cuisine
The entire household eats together 4 or 5 times a week. Emily does the cooking, while the students help to set the table and clean up. She has the challenge of incorporating foods from her students’ cultures while still having a variety of foods and pleasing everyone.
One of the students often brings a notepad to the table to write down words he can’t pronounce or to take notes of words and phrases he learns at the table. Typically, they talk about how their days went, and what the students learned that day. The students talk about new words, ones they didn’t understand, idioms, things they might have experienced on their way to and from school. There’s always plenty of conversation.
Emily usually cooks, and they have meat or seafood and vegetables. She tries to have balanced meals. She lets everyone have some input about what kinds of food are served. She let them all write down the foods they like or would like to try so she can make sure that everyone feels included.
An ideal dinner: Making sure every voice is heard
It is particularly important to Emily to have meaningful conversations at her dinner table. Even though they all have very different schedules, she works hard to make sure that dinner is a time when everyone is able to check in with one another, voice any concerns and learn from each other.
Emily comes from a large family with a Greek background, and she has warm memories of Sunday meals. She remembers a lot of food, conversation, laughter and eating. This is the kind of experience she would like to share with her students.
When asked about meals that are particularly satisfying, she thinks about holiday meals with extended family. There are sometimes 30-40 people, including Emily’s parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles. Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday because there’s “no angst” about gifts. They have traditional Thanksgiving fare as well as some Greek dishes.
When growing up, Emily remembers there were times that her father would watch the news during dinner, and she hated having to be quiet. She believes that talking is every bit as important as eating.
Setting goals: New food ideas and conversation topics
Emily believes that turning off cell phones is important during dinner. It’s important to have everyone’s attention. She also has concerns about conversation around values and ethics. She thinks people shouldn’t talk about politics and religion at the dinner table because the conversation could get heated. Although she had nothing in particular in mind in terms of goals for improving their conversation, Emily believed there is always room for improvement.
In particular, Emily sees her role, or her “job” to assimilate the students to the United States: our foods, our culture, our politics, etc. This is part of what motivated her involvement with The Family Dinner Project, believing that she could find some new ideas in terms of food and in terms of conversation topics.
One of the students Emily was hosting when we first met with her wouldn’t eat vegetables or salad at first, drank a lot of soda, and preferred white bread to wheat. She was making an effort to get him following a more healthy diet. She makes balanced meals and has the challenge of making one meal that will appeal to all three students. It’s important to her that the students will eat food that’s different than what they might experience in their home countries. She would love to get some new ideas so they don’t get “in a rut” and end up eating the same old things.
Success #1: Eating more vegetables and trying new foods
Emily told the students about The Family Dinner Project, and they were excited, and looking forward to trying different foods, also looking forward to cooking some of their own dishes as well. They tried the kabob dinner from our website, and everyone loved it.
She asks the students to expand their horizons a bit, and would like them to try Italian, Greek and traditional American dishes. During the fall, they were planning to try apple and pumpkin dishes, and they are very open to everything.
There was one student who would only eat meat when he first came to live with her, and Emily insisted that he have some vegetables. By the time he left, he liked several vegetables and loved salad in particular.
Conversation has never been an issue, and they are never lacking in this regard. The students are always full of questions, and they talk about their days together. Before each meal, they say, “Enjoy your meal” and one of her students was asking how to say “cheers” in Greek, and in Korean.
Success #2: Helping in the kitchen
In terms of helping out, the schedule varies quite a bit. If the students don’t help with the preparation of the food, they help with clean up. Usually someone will get the drinks on the table, or salad, or help cut some onions – they all take part in one way or another.
One student was initially not used to helping out (a single child who came from a wealthy family) but he was eager and open to learning, and happy to wash dishes. Another time, one student came home and said, “I’m cooking tomorrow night,” and planned a meal of Korean beef. Although this was appreciated, Emily also said that it could get tricky if her students wanted to cook more often (hard to coordinate, and also harder to control).
Success #3: Balancing schedules
As with any family, Emily’s household has some challenges with scheduling. Sometimes her students want to eat a little earlier than others, sometimes they go out with friends, so they call and say they won’t be coming home, and that can be frustrating.
Nevertheless, a month into her involvement in The Family Dinner Project, they still managed to eat together 5 times a week. Later in the project, the schedules continued to be hectic – sometimes field trips with school got in the way – but they did their best to make the time when they were all together as meaningful as possible.
Room for debate: Navigating cultural differences
Emily believes that her household is unlike some other families, because they don’t have issues of feeling awkward or talking about things. They have fun and look forward to spending time with one another.
On the other hand, they have different personalities coming and going. Two months into the project, one student had just left, and another just arrived, from Venezuela. In another week, she was expecting a second student from Korea, and because there will be two students from the same country, Emily laid out ground rules that she will not allow them to speak Korean in the house. It’s important that they learn English, but it’s also important that the rest of the household doesn’t feel excluded.
In particular because the members of her household come from such different cultures, conversations about values and ethics come up quite readily. For example, the student from Venezuela has talked about how dangerous it is to live there, and how he is always aware of his surroundings. He made an interesting comment about how safe he feels here, and Emily felt she needed to advise him not to be naïve, but to be careful. He was saddened by how corrupt is government is, and they all spoke about this.
Another student had tickets to a Celtics game and Emily asked him if there was a girl he wanted to ask along. She said he was clearly glad that she brought this up, and Emily gave him some ideas about how to ask her.
Reflecting on progress: Creating community through dinner
When asked what they have gotten out of The Family Dinner Project specifically, Emily described it as a continuation of habits they are already cultivating. One student helped with getting pictures onto the website. They have looked at the conversation topics, and picked up some recipes. As Emily describes it, their attention was drawn more deeply into something that was already important to them.
As an example of how much she learns from their experiences together, Emily told us about a gift from one of her students who always referred to her as his “American mother.” On Mother’s Day he gave her a leather bound photo album full of pictures of things she has a passion for: plants and flowers from her backyard and her golden retriever. He wrote a poem about what Emily means to him and included it with the gift. She feels responsible to these students, and does her best to help them and guide them.
The connection between their relationship and their dinners together is “huge.”
Reflecting on Progress: Thinking about nutrition
When asked what she gets out of their dinners together, Emily emphasizes a few different things. She asserts that if she were alone, she wouldn’t be eating as well as she should. Planning the meals that she does forces her to eat better, to think about nutrition, and she doesn’t have to worry about her weight. As she gets older, she’s more aware of these things, and it’s easier when there are other people to motivate her.
Reflecting on Progress: Learning about new cultures
Emily’s degree was in travel and tourism, and she has always been fascinated with different cultures and other worlds. She learns something new from her students, and believes she’s a better person by being around them. She likes to show them that she cares, that she wants to learn from them, and she feels they want to learn from her. She tells them not to be afraid to ask questions: good or bad, they should talk about it. They’ve talked about everything from politics to the celebration of American holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving and the pilgrims.
Looking Ahead: More great conversations and new foods
A successful dinner might begin with a student walking in and saying “that smells great” – or they may also be puzzled if they are unfamiliar with what the meal is. They may spend time with her in the kitchen, and talk, or if they don’t have as much time, help with setting the table.
Usually conversation starts right away, and Emily will explain the food if it isn’t something they’ve had before. They’ll ask about something in class that didn’t make sense, or they’ll talk about the news, or plans for the weekend. Almost all of their dinners (9 out of 10) Emily counts as successful. What gets in the way of successful meals is when one or the other of the students is preoccupied, and wants to get going. And Emily says that sometimes she just doesn’t feel like being there, either.
Emily is always looking for new ideas and new recipes. She is hoping to focus more on health, on quicker meals (30 minutes) and learning more about other cultures. The Family Dinner Project website is a good resource, and she was planning on asking her students to use it, to see if they understand all of the conversation ideas. If not, this is a good tool to learn more about American culture and language.