Saturday, May 06, 2006

Table manners

I'm just back (briefly) from the PSAC Triennial Convention in Toronto, and I'm still collecting my thoughts. But I couldn't resist a few comments in the meantime about little Luc Cagadoc.

Luc is the seven-year-old Filipino-Canadian kid in Montreal who was accused of "eating like a pig" and disciplined ten times for using a spoon and a fork at the same time in his school cafeteria. It seems fitting, somehow, that I post these few hurried remarks before heading to that city myself for a meeting of the Canadian Anthropology Society.

Reading the news reports on this has been a Rashomonic experience. One report has a teacher, serving as lunchroom monitor, calling him a pig; another attributes the word to both his teacher and his school principal, and another (from the Philippines) included this interview with the parents where the question of intelligence was raised:

She said she confronted Bergeron about the incidents. The principal, however, lectured her that Luc should learn how to eat like the Canadians using only a fork. [Note: another report has the principal insisting on both a knife and fork. –D.D.]

She said she got more angry when the principal of the 387-student Roxboro school told her: "If your son eats like a pig he has to go to another table because this is the way we do it and how we’re going to do it every time."

"I told him have you seen him eat like a pig? How can you tell me that he is eating like a pig. At that time I was furious, I was enraged. I was really mad," she told ABS-CBN.

Even Luc's father, Aldrin, was incensed after talking with one of the school officials. "He said that if you eat aside from this method, it’s not intelligent. I told him, 'You mean if you eat with chopsticks, it’s not intelligent?'" he said.

Little Luc is apparently an A+ student in math.

Perhaps the word "cochon" (pig) is thrown around freely at the school in question. In my day, though, when I lived in Quebec, the c-word was considered one of the gravest of insults: using it on a seven-year-old kid would have been unthinkable. In any case, the school board has its own spin on events: "What was questioned was the way he was eating that day," their spokesperson Brigitte Gauvreau said. She claimed that students could eat with chopsticks, or any other utensils they need. She went on to state:

This child has attended the Lalande primary school since preschool and has thus had those cultural practices since then and it has never been a problem....

What happened on April 12 had to do with the way he was ingesting his food that day and not with the utensils he was eating with, nor how he was using them. It was an educational intervention and in no way had any intercultural dimension.

And--quelle surprise--the parents have been threatened with legal action for speaking out. The issue has been taken up by the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, an advocacy group, and the mother is expected to file a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission on Monday.

The matter has generated international attention, and the Filipino ambassador in Ottawa, Jose Brillantes, describing it as an affront to Filipino culture, has called upon Canada to live up to its multicultural self-description. Demonstrators have shown up outside our embassy in Manila with large spoon and fork cutouts strapped to their bodies. And there matters lie for now.

I am assuming that a more complete story will emerge once the Quebec Human Rights Commission has done its investigation. I'm aware from personal memory that kids aren't always graceful at the table. Being lectured on table manners is not one of my happier childhood memories. They seemed to me to comprise a huge collection of completely arbitrary rules that took all the fun out of filling one's face.

But there does seem a bit more to this than correcting a bright little boy who may well have a mischievous side. There is at least a strong hint here that cultural differences are at the root of l'affaire cuillère et fourchette, not just kids' table behaviour. If even a fraction of the parents' account of what they were told by school officials is true, a kind of cultural indoctrination seems to have been going on, not untinged by the kind of ethnocentric attitude that would permit school officials to talk to parents in such a fashion about their child.

In any event the simple, unreflective act of eating has become hypostasized. Spoon-and-fork dining is now the Filipino way, the very essence of Filipino-ness; giant spoons and forks parade before our embassy, as noted; and indignant Quebec school officials insist for their part that the proper companion of a fork is a knife (preferably, however, not worn upon the person). If multiculturalism in Canada is, to a large extent, a collection of fetishes, so too is the reaction to it.

An article in the Philippines Times refracts some of this in a way that maybe lets us see things a little more clearly. Here are some of the highlights of "The boy who ate with a spoon," with some comments of my own:

[A] school in Quebec has cast collective contempt on a population of 85 million Filipinos and eight million more who live overseas.

Whereas the Montreal Gazette calls the whole matter a mere "flap."


The Chinese and the Japanese have their chopsticks, their staple being sticky rice that can be formed into a ball and picked up easily by clicking sticks. As a matter of fact, some Chinese families dispense with the serving spoon and dip their chopsticks into a common bowl of chow mien [sic]. Some of us would probably flinch, "eeew, serving spoon, anyone?" but culture no matter how strange is something to be studied, understood, and respected, not narrow-mindedly interpreted.

This paragraph sums up the complexities and ambiguities of "Othering" admirably. This is a liberal, not a conservative, take on the "strange," their "clicking sticks," their supposed distasteful habits (Chinese in fact reverse their chopsticks when taking food from a common bowl), so that, instead of discipline, we should "understand" and even "respect" such behaviour, no doubt at a suitable distance.

Theresa said she has been flooded with messages of support not only from Filipinos but also from Canadians and other foreigners.

I do like the "foreigners" part.

A letter writer to the Chronicle said the "arrogant and ignorant" actions of the school monitor and principal make him ashamed to be Canadian.

"That kind of 'superior' attitude belongs to the ugly past of the British Empire...[!] If the child is misbehaving, address that problem but do not insult the boy's culture and an entire nation," he said.

But I repeat all this not to mock, but to illustrate. The writing, a little foreign in its texture, smacks of Otherness to a Canadian reader. The oddnesses and errors in it bring to our consciousness attitudes which, if we would only step back, can be found right here at home, in the words of the schoolteacher and principal of the Ecole Lalande, in the institutional responses when the matter became public, and in the whole sad, hokey spectacle of identity politics known as Canadian multiculturalism.

I am sorry that a child has become the latest surface of emergence for these essentialist cultural battles. His vulnerabilities are many in this affair, and I hope he grows up to be a social activist and not a serial killer. For now, just let the kid eat his damn lunch, for crying out loud.

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