The Spanish-Speaking Afghan Cook

angry woman is screaming

Raising young children is a paradox. Time moves both quickly and slowly. The annoyances of today are the nostalgia of tomorrow. Behind every milestone reached is an exhausted caregiver that rejoices that they will never again need to change a diaper, puree baby food, or whatever the case may be. But even as the chaos is unfolding, there is a persistent reminder that there is a last time for everything. The last time you take a child out of a car seat, the last time you hold them in in your arms, the last time you as their caregiver are needed for daily function. This bittersweet reality stalks us all in some capacity or another. One day, we will outlive our ability to be useful and only our legacy will remain.

The goal is to enjoy your children as they grow. Invest in their interests. Work with them to solve their problems. Cuddle them. Discipline them. Read to them. Teach them life skills. Comfort them when they are sick. Or scared. Or lonely. Love them unconditionally. While being mindful that they are their own person. Make sure to respect their boundaries while standing firm on your own boundaries. Don’t yell. Or swear. Or make things too complicated. But not too simple either. Make sure to challenge them intellectually but be careful to not overwhelm them with unreasonable expectations. Try to do this all with grace and composure. No pressure.

Every year I make goals with my husband. Some are broad, others are very specific. One of my goals for this year is to “Stop Yelling.” Last year I came to the conclusion that there is not a circumstance, other than catching someone’s attention who is in danger or to shout words of support in a loud area, where yelling has benefited me or those around me.

My mom was a yeller. Yelling was her preferred mode of communication. She’d yell from one room to another or from the bottom of the stairs or from outside to inside or vice a versa. Because of this, as a child I associated yelling with power, not fear.

When I worked in the kitchen professionally, I yelled often. I yelled over the noise of the cooks line, over the sound of the dishwasher, and over the music that always played loudly from the prep kitchen. I yelled to assert myself as female in a male dominated workplace. I yelled to be heard. I yelled because I felt empowered to do so.

Then I met a lovely cook from Afghanistan. This was shortly after 9/11 and people were generally cautious of Muslims. To avoid any negative attention, the cook from Afghanistan learned a few words in Spanish and pretended to be Mexican. He never actually told anyone he was Mexican but never corrected anyone either. Because of his thick accent, he remained as quiet as possible. He relied on the chaos and background noise of the kitchen to protect his secret as he passed as a native Spanish speaker.

Within the first week of working with him, I knew all his secrets and I was impressed. I tried to model my behavior from his, as he was quiet, respectful, and probably most importantly, he never seemed stressed out. His reasoning for not yelling may have been singularly focused on maintaining his alternative identity but surly the benefits of talking to every single person in a respectful tone helped elevate his position.

My efforts failed spectacularly. I was incapable of being quiet and respectful. At the time, I told myself that my identity had to be “tough” or surly I would fail due to my gender. It’s cringe worthy to think that I thought I was the disadvantaged one in this scenario. The idea that the cook from Afghanistan, who had fled his homeland to protect his wife and daughter, lived in an area that did not accept or welcome him, and was working a job that well beneath his skill level, couldn’t possibly grasp my perceived hardship of being a young white woman working with men, (who for the most part couldn’t have cared less about my gender) is comical at best. Within a few weeks, I moved to a different restaurant within the hotel, where my hyper language and enthusiasm for colorful words was better appreciated.

Over twenty years later, I found myself examining my use of language once again. My kitchen days are well behind me. I left my bad attitude and need for validation burning on the stove. However, my time in the kitchen did teach me that somethings are habits and others are defaults. Having a bad attitude is a habit. Acting out by swearing in a quest for validation of position or authority is a habit. Habits can be changed, updated, or eliminated if the motivation to change is there. However, for me, yelling became a default behavior, not a habit.

How does a behavior become a default? The same way anything becomes a default: at one point in time, it served a purpose. Coffee drinking is a habit. The thought of coffee comes to mind and the person decides if they are going to drink coffee or not. There are several things that can happen at any point during the obtaining coffee part of the habit where the habit can be broken. Tea could be ordered instead. It could be avoided all together. Gum could be chewed to dissuade the weird taste combination of coffee and mint. There are as many solutions to breaking a coffee habit, all one needs to do is be motivated to try.

A default behavior would be blowing on coffee before taking the first sip. If a person takes a sip of coffee and it is too hot, the next time they are put in the same situation, they try something different to avoid getting burnt. Through trial and error, they determine that blowing on coffee best suits them and reduces the changes of them getting hurt. Therefore, blowing on coffee becomes a default behavior. As time goes on, this person may start to blow on soup, tea, or even on something that doesn’t require it, like a cold glass of water, because it is ingrained in them to do so.

The risk of blowing on something that does not require a cool down is inconsequential. Perhaps, it even generates a few laughs from those who observe. There is no reason to change. Until there is a reason to change. There appears to be no downside. But for the sake of this example, imagine that one day this person decides they need to stop blowing on coffee. Maybe their mouth is injured in such a way that blowing is physically damaging, but not painful. Or perhaps, their bad breath is so obnoxious that request was spurred on by their significant other.

Knowledge that a default behavior exists is not enough to change it. For a mild habit, that has not yet become an unconscious default, being aware is the catalyst for change. But for a default behavior, the origin story of how the behavior became default in the first place, is key to changing the behavior to a new and improved default behavior.

My mother thoughtlessly yelling from room to room, solidified yelling as form of communication for me. This form of communication later became a default whenever I felt like I need to establish my presence, like in the kitchen. Or like being a parent to two young children.

It’s been two and half months since I set out to “stop yelling”. I can count on my two hands the number of times I’ve yelled since then. Each time it has happened, I’ve been perplexed on how I got there. I then must examine the events leading up to it. Talk about it with someone. Figure out what I could have done differently. Apologize to my kids, husband, or dogs, as they are the ones most commonly getting sucked into my vortex of loud words. And I keep trying.

When I think of the soft-spoken Spanish speaking, Afghan cook, I think about how he replaced his natural reaction (default behavior), to speak his native language, with quiet Spanish words. He changed his default and it worked. This gives me hope that I too can break my default to yell when I want to be heard.

Last week, we had yet another round of illness hit our house. Our five year old son and our three year old dog either had food poisoning or shared a stomach bug. We picked our son up from school early that day and when we arrived, he was laying down on a mat holding his stomach. It was clear that he did not feel good. When we got home, he collapsed on the couch. Then he started vomiting.

It’s only in hindsight that I can see the moment that my son started vomiting as something meaningful in my quest to stop yelling. My husband was there with him as he began to vomit all over the couch. He was holding him. Comforting him. I saw what was happening and felt worried. Then I had a shadowy memory of my mom yelling at me to “stop” vomiting when I was throwing up on her couch as a child. Suddenly my inner child was right there with our son, and I was able to comfort them both.

It may seem insane to yell at a child who is vomiting. Yet, I shudder to think that if I had not made the goal to “stop yelling”, that I could have defaulted to the behavior I was familiar with as a child and yelled for my son to not vomit on the couch. That feels like progress to me.

Our house is finally cleaned up from the carnage of illness. The couch cushions have been washed and sanitized. Both our dog and son have returned to health. Life has moved on. To be able to reflect on life as it is occurring is a gift. I don’t know when the last time my son will uncontrollably vomit on our couch will be. But if that was it, I’m at peace with how I showed up.

Today, I will embody the Spanish-speaking Afghan cook from my younger days. I will be mindful of my words and my reactions. When I am stuck in a default behavior, I will remember that understanding the origin of a default is the best way to effect change with compassion. I’m grateful for the awareness that this time is fleeting and for the two little humans that are my daily reminders to continue to work on being the best version of myself possible.  

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