I’ve been feeling lately that I need to make an apology, but I am unsure to whom it ought to be directed. Maybe to my parents. Maybe to myself. Maybe to all of the gracious Rwandans who have given me a meal with me in the last several weeks. Or, alternatively, I could just apologize to white rice, or whole milk, or any of the perfectly good foods I previously deemed “unacceptable.” At the moment, apologizing to foods is my preferred option, as I have learned that asking forgiveness from a person is very hard.
Kigali, Rwanda – June 2016
A pile of rice, a handful of French fries, half an avocado, and a glass of whole milk. I am happy to be eating; I am hungry, and the food is good.
While scraping the remnants of the meal from my large porcelain plate, I stop abruptly and realize what I’ve just eaten. White Rice. Fried potatoes. Fat. Sugar. I am disturbed by the fact that I finished that whole plate without thinking, or fighting, or crying about it first.
I am supposed to be a healthy person. I am supposed to be worried about what I eat.
Often, eating disorders are misunderstood as an unhealthy or an irrational fear of “becoming fat.” When I was told by a psychologist that I had “disordered eating” in 2012, I possessed a similarly naïve understanding of the condition. My eating wasn’t “disorderly,” so I thought. Never mind the way I routinely put myself and my family in fits of tears because I refused to eat rice and meat and cheese and potatoes and pasta and bread and anything with sugar and fat. Never mind the times I got uncontrollable body tremors from low blood sugar because I wouldn’t eat the aforementioned foods, even if nothing else was available. Never mind the way I laid awake at night mentally cataloging and recatologing every bite I had ingested throughout out the day. “My BMI is above the minimum threshold,” I told myself and everyone else. “I am fine.”
Several years since the worst of my struggle with food have passed, and I am now living in Kigali, Rwanda for the summer, where the culture surrounding food is completely foreign to my American self.
I have not yet met a Rwandan with an eating disorder. I believe that a person’s eating habits far less likely to be “disorderly” when real hunger is an all too present reality. Spend a day in rural Rwanda, and you’ll find children whose stomachs are bloated, not from excess food, but from parasites that have ravaged their digestive system. There are many families who eat the same food every day because they simply don’t have the money or the opportunity to get something else.
Contrast this with how I grew up in America, where I had the money and opportunity to buy items such as powered, fat-free peanut butter for myself whenever I decided I didn’t like the full-fat, “unhealthy” version of peanut butter my parents purchased.
During that period of my life, I wanted desperately to be in control of something, and it so happens I had the luxury to control my food consumption. My parents served a food I deemed unhealthy and therefore didn’t want to eat ? No problem, because I could easily find some, carbohydrate-free-fat-free-sugar-free version of whatever it was to consume alone in my room later that night, when the hunger that resulted from me not eating dinner was bothering me enough that I could not sleep.
It is not just the availability of food in America that is causing our population’s problems with eating — be it obesity, bulimia, or anorexia. It due every bit as much to the manner in which Americans consume food. How often to we eat meals alone, or while working, or while en route to our next destination? How many times per week are we “too busy” to have breakfast, lunch, or dinner? If your experience has been anything like mine, your answer to that question is “often.” Frighteningly often.
Food works quite differently in Rwanda. Dinner (and often breakfast and lunch, depending on the family’s schedule), are eaten together, with every member of the household present. There is no snacking. At the scheduled meal time, all are served equally-sized plates from a communal pot, and everyone eats together. If you choose not to eat at the designated meal time, you are going to be hungry later, because no one is going to buy fat-free powered peanut butter to for you to snack on in the middle of the night.
Adapting my habits to this structure has been somewhat of a challenge, but I am now able to do it with more success than I ever thought possible. I know from where I come, and to eat a plate of rice in the company of my Rwandan friends is a personal victory that perhaps no one here will ever understand. But a victory it is, nonetheless.
As my food consumption assumes more of a Rwandan character, my impulse to apologize for my “disorderly”, American eating habits grows. I want to apologize to the foods I am able eat in Rwanda with eagerness, which only two years ago in the States I had deemed unacceptable in my “healthy diet.” I want to apologize myself for the pain my irrational rules about food introduced into my life.
Most of all, though, I want to apologize to my family, whose food I turned down countless times because I thought it was not “good enough” for a healthy, controlled, thin person like me. I see now how wrong this was, and how much pain can be caused to someone who prepares a meal especially for someone else, only then to have that person turn it down.
Yes, I want to apologize to my family.
However, I am not going to do this because I have also lately been learning something else: apologizing too much is not going to get you anywhere, or have the power to really make anything right again. The only thing to do when you know you’ve done something wrong is to change your behavior. Maybe the one you have offended will notice, and maybe they won’t, but a sincere change in heart and a concerted effort to make things right again do not go unaccounted for in the grand scheme of things.
When I return to the United States, then, I am not going to apologize to my family. I am just going to hope that they will have read this post, and that the next time we share a plate of rice together, they will know that I love them, and that I am sorry.
Then, I’ll do my best to just eat a lot and be happy, which, as I am learning in Rwanda, is the only right and proper way to do things.