Learning doesn't require a native language

July 20, 2012|Lisa Prejean

I bought a pineapple at the grocery store, and the process of preparing it for dinner brought back a flood of memories.

Suddenly I wasn’t standing in my kitchen, but in a stark mission compound in San Jose, Costa Rica, helping to prepare a noonday meal.

Two women worked alongside me.

One was young and petite. The other was mature and large.

Neither of them spoke much English.

Everything was in Spanish, even the words on the microwave.

Cooking together was interesting.

Mainly we used hand gestures and body language to communicate.

The mature woman insisted that I wear a bandanna on my head. I suppose to keep my hair out of the food. She also helped me into a colorful apron.

Then we were ready to work.

The stove was the first thing I noticed. I had never seen such an appliance. It was twice the size of a typical range and had curved legs, fashioned much like the old-time pot-bellied stoves. However, that wasn’t what I found especially odd. Because electricity in Latin America is often unreliable, this enormous, antiquated stove was powered by gas.

The task before us seemed a little challenging. Our group had brought a cake mix from the States because one of our team members would celebrate her birthday while we were on the trip.

I looked at the mature woman and tried to explain in English what ingredients (an egg and some oil) I needed to make the cake. She pointed at the refrigerator and the cupboard. That worked. The ingredients were easy to find.

Figuring out how long it would take to bake the cake was a challenge. I pointed to my watch and then to the stove. She just shooed me away and pointed to herself with an “I’ve got this” attitude.

I thought I better get out of her way.

Meanwhile, the petite woman was waiting for me beside the kitchen counter. She pointed to a spot where she had placed a pineapple, cutting board and a knife.

I could tell that my services were being requested, but I didn’t want to admit that I had never cut up a pineapple. Remember when grocery stores had pineapple cutters stationed in the produce aisle? I always had one of those guys cut the pineapple for me.

Obviously, the petite woman had faith in my pineapple-cutting abilities. She gestured that I should cut off the leafy top first, then the bottom and at last, the sides. We sliced the pineapple down the middle, divided it into quarters, cut out the core and sliced the fruit into bite-sized pieces.

Every time I cut up a pineapple, I follow the guidance she provided, and I think of her homeland, Costa Rica, one of the top five pineapple-producing countries in the world.

She taught me that I can learn something from each person I encounter, even if we don’t speak the same language.

And the mature woman? She taught me that cakes in gas ovens don’t burn if you watch them closely.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail’s Family page. Email her at

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