Crossing Cultural Bridges


Tutoring Perspectives: Crossing Cultural Bridges

“Say bismalah,” six-year-old Adilah directed as she handed me a glass of water, “put your hand on your head.”

Her mother admonished softly in Urdu: No, no, she explained, The blessings were for Adilah to perform, not for her to use to direct others.

I began working with Adilah and Khustar (not their names) in early 2005. The children were of Indian descent, and spoke Urdu, with some Hindi and English. Khustar, a pre-kindergartner, was silent for a day or two. Adilah, just shy of her 6th birthday, spoke English in short phrases.

The first book I read them was Sesame Street’s It’s Not Easy Being Big. “Big Bird is a BIG bird!” I paraphrased, spreading my hands wide. As they pondered the world of big and small, the children’s eyes, too, grew large.

Within a couple months, Adilah was reading stories about her favorite subject, Biscuit the puppy. Her younger brother liked to print letters and do art projects, but needed more second language support. I encouraged English speech by asking yes-no questions or leaving out one word from a sentence to see if he could supply it. (Unfortunately, like big sisters everywhere, Adilah just loved to answer for her little brother.)

As Khushtar worked, I kept up a near constant stream of one-sided conversation, describing his actions, what he was making, the colors he was using. He loved to cut. “Cut?” he would ask me when I arrived. “I like cut,” he was soon saying. “I like!”

Sometimes I walked (quietly) through a prayer circle when I entered the house; sometimes I watched the children’s ‘auntie’ arrive at the house, swathed head to toe in black, only her eyes showing.

As any Sesame Street character can tell you, it’s not easy to be big or small, or to see the world from a different perspective than your neighbor does. The family returned to India later that year, Adilah carrying her treasury of stories about Biscuit the puppy. In a handful of months, they had taught me about their own culture, and about tolerance — love even — in a world of cultural misunderstanding.

“Watch in the mirror,” Adilah had told me one day, meaning look for us in the window.”

Every day for the rest of the school year, I would see the children at the window — their baby sister, too — waving ‘bye bye’ as, duffel bag in hand, I disappeared from view.