Eat the Octopus

Trust is a tricky thing. It can take weeks, months, even years to develop — only to evaporate over a single misunderstanding or careless word. When they begin working with Neighborhood House, many families may understand that education is extremely important to life in the U.S., but become nervous when faced with the layers of bureaucracy that complicate our educational system.

Several months ago, Amanda Williams, program manager for Parent & Early Childhood Education, worked with a family of recent immigrants who relied heavily on friends and neighbors for information about the educational system in the United States. Shortly after their child began attending our preschool program, Amanda offered a home visit to the child’s mother, who hesitantly agreed. “After a few successful home visits with the family, the child’s mother shared that at first she was nervous to have me in their home because she had been told by friends and neighbors that teachers only want to visit students homes to see if they are clean and would take the family’s children away if anything is out of place.”

Developing rapport with the families we serve is a tremendous obstacle, but also an opportunity. Relationships are everything in our work and the chance to overcome barriers has powerful implications for the future of our shared community. Once parents open their doors to our teachers, they end up looking forward to and loving these home visits. Parents seeking advice from a knowledgeable source are relieved when they are finally able to open up to someone they trust who knows their children well.

To effectively partner with parents and provide the best opportunities for their children, our teachers carefully navigate a diverse range of cultural perspectives and practices around parenting. We recruit staff who represent the communities we serve and can help bridge the language and cultural divide, but we also seek out flexible, culturally adaptive teachers who are passionate about building strong, meaningful relationships with all people.

Many Neighborhood House teachers experience the rich cultures of our participant community in surprising ways. Oftentimes, many of these encounters involve unfamiliar foods. During one visit, Amanda was given a large plate of Somali pasta and salad and told that the home visit wouldn’t begin until she had finished. Another time she confronted her strong dislike of seafood when offered fresh octopus. The student’s mother shared that while growing up in China, eating octopus was reserved for special family occasions and that offering it was her way of demonstrating gratitude. “When you have a genuine love of other people and cultures and are willing to take the time to get to know the families you’re working with, they are naturally more comfortable sharing their lives with you.” Amanda says. “I was so happy to know that she appreciated the work I was doing with her family, and I would eat all the octopus in the world for that.”