Aug 9, 2009

Adoption Adjustment: Language and Food

These are the two questions people always ask me lately; "how are you doing with the language barrier? How are the kids doing with food?"

I'll answer both questions here for the benefit of curious parties and also people in the process of adoption. I've had 3 years to think about the language and food thing, and so I planned in advance, and boooooy am I glad I did.

For language, I knew I was pretty much hopeless to become any kind of fluent. Amharic is not a widely-spoken language, not really a course offered anywhere, except the standard CD + book kits which really aren't that helpful for fluency. So after reading and listening to a few of these, I realized that what I needed was a list of important words and phrases. I asked around on my adoption lists and came up with this, often-suggested option: Amharic for Adoptive Families. It's a little flip book with words and phrases divided up into sections (eg "at the table" "boundaries and directions" "bringing home your child" etc) and comes with a CD read in English and Amharic.

Skywalker converted the CD tracks to Mp3's and I put them on my MP3 player and bascially listened to them every day while I did the dishes for 3 weeks or so before we left. I expected to not be able to understand anything when I got there, but I was surprised by the amount I could communicate with our girls. Things like "tinish" (big) and "teleg" (little) and "Shint" (pee) and "Aye" (no) and "Ah-oh" (yes) immediately came in handy, not just because I could say the important things and play a little, but I think it showed the girls that I respected the fact that they didn't speak my language. I learned a little of theirs, and they delighted in teaching me more of it. My list of words has expanded quite a bit since I first met them. And they are constantly talking to me in their language, and most of the time I can figure out what they're saying even if I don't know most of the words... when I don't understand, I know how to say "I don't know" or "I can't understand" in Amharic. I think it has provided an additional level of intimacy and security for them, to feel like I am trying to understand them and sometimes can understand them.

OK, so the food.

I had planned all along to try to provide things that were familiar to them along with all the puzzling new American stuff, especially the first little while. To that end, Skywalker and I bought a huge load of fresh injera (ethiopian bread, they eat it every day probably two meals a day) and spices to make the stews and sauces that Ethiopians eat with their injera. The first few days we had them, we could give them the fresh injera (even on the plane, with the airline food, we pulled some out.) and then it went sour, and I tried and tried but couldn't make it right on the cooker. At this point, my plan is to visit with my Eritrean friend soon so she can show me how to make it right. Until then, we've managed.

I think giving them familiar foods right at the start had a similar effect to trying to learn some of the language... they recognized that I was accomodating their needs, and that I would do my best to make sure some familiar foods were present often enough-- if not at one meal, then at the next. So they were willing to try new stuff. I've heard of families where the kids refused to eat anything except, like, bread and bananas for months. But our kids have done all right. Tonight I made a dish out of roasted buckwheat, spinach, corn, and ume vinegar (all very foreign, not only to Africans but to my own kids as well) and the girls ate it all up. I gave them each half a banana on their plate, too. I think it's reassuring for kids to see one familiar thing with each meal, and I've done my best.

Some things I've found they'll always eat are:

Bananas (we probably go through 2 lbs a day! Honestly)
Mangoes (they loooove mangoes.)
beans and onions fried in a little oil with some Shurro and Berbere spice added (can buy this in Ethiopia)
Eggs (this has been a lifesaver!)
Milk (we buy organic whole milk)
rolls (white bread)

I try to have one of these things present at most meals. For instance, yesterday I gave my kids chips and salsa as part of lunch, and served some beans-with-shurro with it. Bella gobbled everything up. MayMay ate a few of the chips and gobbled up all the beans.

I try to always say "yes" to bananas, but I do set the boundary of "No food an hour before meals" and I've also had to limit the number of bananas... after banana #2 I say no, now (but the first day I think MayMay ate 4 in a row. Wow).

At any rate, food IMO, should go under the category of "too unimportant to pick a fight about" at this point. Accommodate as much as you can without making things difficult for yourself, and save the boundary setting for what really matters. Especially consider the fact that food, for kids, is BIG. It's almost their whole world, I think... even if they haven't experienced severe privation like a lot of African orphans have. So say yes whenever you can and still be a good mom. :)

So that's my spiel on the food and the language. I highly reccommend the course I linked to, and I highly reccomend buying the spices especially, to get some familiar tastes into the diet. They're good, too... you'll also like the flavors. And it's a wonderful way to incorporate some of your child's birthculture into your home.


Alisha said...

Thank you so much for sharing this information. Do you have a recommended shopping list for when families visit Ethiopia? I don't think I would have ever thought to buy spices.

The Zimmers said...

The fact that you thought so much about both language and food before hand and have been so intentional about them since is such a bridge builder for your family. Any time you can start out the relationship on their terms is FANTASTIC! Thank you for sharing such great insight and information! I am sure that many future families adopting older children will be grateful! You are doing a great job! Keep it up!

David L said...

Food and language is one question I've had, but the big one for me is how are you all fitting into your car?!?! :-)

Really... Inquiring minds want to know.

NoSurfGirl said...

The berebere and Shurro are important if you're trying to make familiar food. Also an Ethiopian barley snack called "Kollo" (or at least that's how it is pronounced) is a favorite. In Ethiopia, that's all I can think of, aside from buying a piece or two or three (lol) of art for your home, maybe buying an Ethiopian coffee pot for your home. Also Tea, in the morning (with sugar and bread) is what the kids are used to eating for breakfast, but as far as I've seen it doesn't matter what kind of tea. Since we don't drink caffineated beverages in our home I've been giving our girls herbal teas and they like them just fine.

If you want to go for the whole tamale, find someone who can teach you how to make injera before you leave, and then plan on buying teff flour and an injera cooker while you're there. There are also places you can probably buy it fresh and ready made if you live in an urban area with lots of international-type restaurants and groceries... look for an African market that caters to East African cuisine and ask about injera or injera starters.

It's complicated but it has been worth it.

NoSurfGirl said...


we have ousted Loli from her carseat and now fit much better :) WE drive a large white van. You will have a heart attack when you see it. That's right... we're now a mini-van family.

Debbie said...

What great information for parents adopting older children.

merrilykaroly said...

"So say yes whenever you can and still be a good mom." That is some good advice. Way to be so prepared!!

Meg, Gregg and Sammy said...

it's SO GREAT to hear how you guys are doing. I knew you of all people would be SO prepared that things would go more smoothly than most could ever hope for with older girls. Now, you just HAVE to post some more pictures because I am smitten for your little ladies!

Skywalker said...

A word of advice, do not buy an injera cooker in Ethiopia. They're not worth the money!

Instead, buy a good electric skillet or Lefse griddle, with a lid.

The cooker we purchased looks like a high school shop project that wont last a year of real use. It cost $100 and is not worth 1/5 that. We purchased it sight-unseen—a big mistake!

Silverstone makes a Lefse grill (see pic) that I would like to try.

Whatever you try must provide up to 500 degrees of even heat and a fitted lid. Pan size is less important, though low-to-no sides may be better for handling the bread (according to this post).

Ady said...

I just stumbled onto your blog and have enjoyed reading what you have written.

About the food, you can buy teff in the US now. It is becoming very popular. Here is a website that sells it:

Additionally, just about every large city in the US has an Ethiopian restaurant. Once in a while this might be a good option to have some good food and also to meet other Ethiopians in the community.

Allison said...

Food...its such a comfort thing. In adopting from China, we have the good fortune to be semi-familiar with what the cuisine is like, and many of the ingredients are available here. BUT....American Chinese Food is NOT the right stuff. Even food prepared according to genuine Chinese recipes is not the right stuff. I will affirm that buying spices "over there" is a wise thing to do. We have been subsisting on fruit, eggs, doctored up Ramen noodles, and stir fries. Oh yeah, chocolate and bubblegum are also staples in the diet. And I agree...making food an ISSUE is not a good idea. Saying yes unless you absolutely have to say no is, indeed, great parenting advice.