It is said that practicing empathy is akin to walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. And what better way to open our children’s hearts and expand their world than with tangible experiences? If we engage their five senses, we might (literally) be one step closer to raising a new generation that can imagine life from a different point of view!
But, what do you do if your family lives in a relatively small, land-locked town, or money is tight? Multicultural resources, events, and experiences may seem out of reach. I can relate! My hope is that this post will give you sensory-rich ideas that can bring the wider world closer to home.
International Cuisine (Smell and Taste)
- Get the family involved in the kitchen! The following photos represent some of the international cooking we’ve done, over the years. Dishes represented: Chicken Peanut Stew (Ghana), Tandoori Chicken (India), Corn Tortillas, Aztec Soup, and Chocolate Snowball Cookies (Mexico), Date Cookies (Middle East), St. Lucia Saffron Buns (Sweden) Paatupsuki Corn Stew (Hopi Native American)
- Support a minority-owned business. We took a shopping trip to a local carnicería (butcher’s shop) where we bought polvorones (cookies) and some little pieces of painted pottery. The triceratops out in front was a bonus. We’re definitely going back!
Song and Dance (Sight and Sound)
- Dance Party! We have enjoyed watching and following along with videos of traditional dances (you can find some of our favorites on my YouTube playlist).
- Heritage Site. Every town has a story. Even the tiny ones! We learned more about ours by attending Apple Days at Cashmere Museum and Pioneer Village, 2019. The highlight of the day was observing the dances and traditional clothing worn by Native Americans in our region. They graciously invited the audience to join them in a final dance circle.
Next Town Over
- Museum/Festival. When we visit another city, we try to include a cultural experience.
Traditional Clothing (Touch)
- Costume Collecting. Well, what could be more tactile than wearing textiles from other cultures? Most of the garments, below, came from our local thrift stores. I’ve found fall to be the best time to look for them. It’s a thrill to find authentic folk-wear tucked in the racks of Halloween costumes. They stand out, since many are made from natural fibers. (Not to mention their superior quality, texture, and embellishments!)
- Traditions Trunk One day, it occurred to me to give my international clothing collection to the kids! They are old enough to treat them well and learn about their cultural significance. (i.e. not kept in the same, haphazard way as the contents of their dress-up box!)
- Textile Travel So, for the kids’ first experience, I curated specific outfits for each of them. It took some time, but I did some online sleuthing to trace where each piece is from and what they are called. Please message me if I have identified any of these costume pieces incorrectly, or if you would like to tell me more about them and their significance in your culture. Our goal is to learn about and honor your traditions!
Emma is wearing a sarong kebaya from Singapore. It consists of the traditional, batik kebaya blouse and sarong skirt. There are many different styles of kebaya worn throughout Indonesia. This is a wonderful YouTube Video tutorial on how to identify and wear the pieces of the Kebaya Encim primarily worn by Peranakans (Indonesians, Malaysians, and Singaporeans of Chinese descent). You can purchase this exact outfit here.
Before Emma could wear the sarong kebaya, I had to sew on a skirt hook and raise the hem. See how I used a pair of her leggings to gauge the hemline? It’s my favorite way to do simple alterations when the kids aren’t available for fittings!
In order to complete her look, I made Emma a floral comb to wear in her hair. I found a wonderful, PDF magazine issue about many aspects of Peranakan culture, featuring the significance of flowers.
Elliott is wearing what I *believe* is an older style of shirt (camisa) and pants (pantalones) from Oaxaca, Mexico. There is a vast richness and variety among the clothing of its indigenous peoples! The pockets on the tunic resemble those found on guayaberas. White outfits, or Juan Diego Trajes De Indito, are worn by little boys to observe the Fiesta de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Additionally, Elliott wears a serape and a very old sombrero that Jeff’s great-grandparents bought in Mexico.
Eliza is wearing a dirndl, the traditional dress of women and girls in Bavaria, Austria, and parts of Switzerland and the Italian Alps. Her outfit consists of a bodice (mieder) attached to a skirt (rock). Underneath is a blouse (bluse), and on top is her apron (schürze). Since Eliza is a child, her apron bow (schleife) is tied in the back. Traditionally, a woman could signal her marital/relationship status by the side on which she tied her apron.
Oliver is wearing a sleeveless zarchapan from Uzbekistan. It is a robe (chapan) covered in elaborate, gold embroidery. A tubeteika (skull-cap), tops his look. Traditionally, he would also wear a kuylak (shirt) and ishton (trousers). Lacking these pieces, he is wearing a modern tuxedo shirt and pants, instead.
Annika is wearing a Japanese kimono. Its pastel colors indicate that it is intended for spring wear. I cheated and used a gold cummerbund instead of an obi belt. (Even if I owned a real obi, I would need training and practice on how to tie even a simple style!) Lastly, I made Annika a floral hair ornament (hana kanzashi) similar to how I made Emma’s. Japanese people have a passionate love and reverence for flowers and their symbolism in their culture. Annika’s resemble yellow jasmine, which stand for friendliness and grace.
After everyone was dressed, we visited a favorite mural of mine. I’ve driven past it multiple times a week, for years! In hindsight, I think it reminded my subconscious of Disney’s “It’s a Small World“.
The kids are often squirrely during pictures, and I wonder if they are having the hoped-for experience! Later, however, they are always excited when we pass by past photo locations. They chatter amongst themselves about how crazy and fun it was. If this is also your experience, take heart! Our kids really *are* taking things in.
Just know that there are twenty goofy pictures for every single beautiful one of these sweet, little faces.
Even though these costumes cost less than five dollars each, I recognize that collecting them may be out of reach for many. (It was for my family, when I was growing up!) However, my mom was still able to foster my love for people around the world with simple things we had in our house. In this circa 1998 photo, we had “transformed” our downstairs room into India. The occasion was an international-themed party. We didn’t have real saris to wear, but we *did* have bedsheets!
We served our guests an Indian chicken and basmati rice dish, which made our entire home smell amazing. In the background, sitar music played on a CD from the library. My senses swept me away, and I could *almost* imagine myself in India.
It gives me great joy to carry on what my mom began. Here, Emma is wearing a shirt that I believe is from the Indian State of Gujurat.
In her compelling 1895 poem, “Judge Softly“, suffragist and poet Mary T. Lathrap exhorted her readers to come alongside a sufferer and “Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins”. I hope you will pause a moment to read the entire poem. Its powerful words go straight to the heart and are completely relevant for today.
There are many paths to practicing empathy. Costumes and cuisine are nice, but curiosity and compassion are really all you need to build global awareness and appreciation. Yes You Can!