Author: Robin Vukonich

Robin Vukonich is a stay at home mom and an explorer of world culture. She is an avid consumer of ethnic foods, an amateur student of international textile arts, and an aspiring writer. She is learning by immersion about the mysterious and fascinating culture of preschool civilization. Her daughter, Mila, has been an invaluable guide in this endeavor.

what’s in a name?

Sometimes we play a game with our daughter. “What if we named you…Stella?” we ask. She laughs and wrinkles her nose. “No, I’m Mila!” “Hmm. What if we named you…Ruby?” More giggles. “No, I’m not Ruby! I’m Mila!” And she is. She is Mila. I can’t imagine her as anything else. At least…I can’t now.

I wasn’t sure, at first, when my husband suggested the name Mila for our daughter whether it really met all my baby-naming criteria. Oh, it was old. A famous Croatian, Mila Gojsalic, considered by some to be a sort of Croatian Jeanne d’Arc for her role in saving the region from a Turkish invasion, bore the name in the 16th century. I had wanted an old name, something with a bit of history to it. Check!

I also wanted a name that would reflect our daughter’s ethnic heritage. And I wanted it to mean something good, something positive. Her father is half Croatian. And here was a Croatian name. The word itself actually means “dear.” Check! Check!

But, while I wanted a name that was uncommon, something she wouldn’t have to share with half her kindergarten class, I also wanted it to be recognizable, familiar enough that she wouldn’t have to be always explaining it, that she wouldn’t have to be always correcting mispronunciations. I had my doubts about the name in that regard.

As I say, my daughter is Mila now. I love the name and can’t imagine her with any other. And while we do, as I feared, deal with nurses at her pediatrician’s office calling her Myla (it’s pronounced Meela) or new acquaintances greeting her with the more common Mia, I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised by the conversations that have been sparked by Mila’s name with many people we’ve met beyond the boundaries of our Midwest suburb. While not so familiar in our own neighborhood, Mila is a name that has found use in many other countries and cultures. We’ve met, or met relatives of, Milas who are Filipina, Guatemalan, Bulgarian, Dutch…. Conversations that have started and might have ended with, “Oh, she’s so cute. What is her name?” have turned into explorations of family history, personal and historical events, even language and etymology.

“Mila!? That’s my name!” (Or, “my sister’s name!”) “It is short for Milagros. It means ‘miracle.'”

Or, “What a beautiful name. In Bulgarian, Mila means ‘darling.’ Please, may I give her a cookie?” This woman, gazing fondly and a little sadly at Mila, later shared how much she was reminded by her of her own little daughter, from whom she was separated by the Iron Curtain many years ago.

These points of connection, and others, have been a means to learning about other people, other languages, other life experiences. And these opportunities to learn have more than made up for the Mylas and Mias we’ve had to correct along the way. Aside from the fact that she just couldn’t be anything but Mila, our dear Mila, I’ve lost any doubts I once had about our daughter’s name in my appreciation for its cross-cultural appeal, for its ability to bridge borders by simply being a tiny little bit of common ground.

And anyway, just try to call her anything else – she’ll soon set you straight: “I’m Mila!”

dear valerie

“Miss Valerie, I love you.” Mila dictates as I write on the back of one of the post cards she has picked out for her dearest little friend, who has recently moved away. The two girls were born within days of each other three years ago and have been nearly inseparable since. We saw her and her family off several weeks ago with some sadness but also with expectations of many more years of friendship ahead. Although Valerie and her family will be living in England, much too far for play dates, the two girls have already begun what I hope will be a long and cherished correspondence.

For the moment their correspondence consists of post cards from the zoo, descriptions of pets, colored drawings, and passionate declarations of affection such as only a toddler can muster. “I miss you! I made this card for you and it’s so lovely!” “I love you…Miss Valerie, I love you!” It’s endearing in the extreme.

Even now, however, I encourage Mila to consider describing in her letters some of the sights she’s just seen on her trip to the Windy City or to her grandma and grandpa’s Midwest farm, sharing with Valerie the experiences she’s having in the world that her little friend can no longer experience at her side. In turn, Mila can learn about life in another country through Valerie’s descriptions of the places she sees and the things she does as she settles into her new life across the ocean.

It dawns on me that this is an avenue of learning about the world that we’ve taken pitiably small advantage of until now. Valerie has been Mila’s dearest little companion and, of course, it is natural that they wish to be able to continue to share their small experiences and that we, as their parents, should wish to encourage it. What a great opportunity for developing as an early habit the lost art of correspondence. But what of the child we sponsor overseas, a child not many years older than Mila herself…might he not also be excited to receive letters and Mila in turn to learn about what life is like for a child whose home and situation are vastly different from her own? What about old college friends now living in other countries, friends with children who might enjoy a pen pal as well? Would Mila be able to develop friendships by mail, to forge connections through these children to Haiti, Croatia, India, China? Of course there would be less history involved than there is with Valerie, so there may be fewer passionate declarations of love and affection, but the potential for cultural exchange must surely be there.

I find myself making mental lists of all the young children we know on an international basis. It’s a bit much to expect that Mila will be interested or able to correspond with all of them, but she loves to send cards and she loves to receive them so, as I say, the potential must surely be there…and it occurs to me as an afterthought that I’m definitely going to need more stamps!

chopstick kids

I like to eat with chopsticks when we dine out at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant or when we cook Chinese food at home…it really does taste better with chopsticks, doesn’t it? Of course, my daughter doesn’t like to be left out. She quickly fell in love with the idea of chopsticks (what kid wouldn’t?) and she simply will not accept a fork or a spoon if there are chopsticks available. But chopsticks can be tricky, even for many adults, and my daughter’s first attempts resulted in tears of frustration.

Enter Chopstick Kids by Fred & Friends. A cheerful little boy or girl in red or pink silicone sits atop the chopsticks (it will work with almost any pair) and keeps them in line, making them much easier for small hands to manage. Now my daughter can participate happily in the meal, chopsticks and all. Someday she’ll learn to use chopsticks on her own, but in the meantime Chopstick Kids is a great training tool and a wonderful way for us all to enjoy our dinner together!

exploring global cuisine…with food allergies

“When I grow up, I want to have butter. And cheese!” This is my daughter Mila’s answer almost every time she is asked what she’d like to be when she grows up. She used to say she wanted to be an astronaut, and then it was a character from one of her favorite movies, but lately…all she wants is to consume dairy products. Like a growing number of children in America, Mila has multiple food allergies. Macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets? She can’t eat that. Goldfish crackers, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? Nope. Actually, very few menu items typical to mainstream toddler cuisine in America are safe for her to eat. At restaurants the entire children’s menu is usually off limits. Now, I love food – lots of different kinds – and at first it was difficult for me to accept that my own child might be unable to share that love of food with me.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household where we sampled a wide variety of ethnic cuisines. My grandmother took Chinese cooking lessons from the Benedictine Sisters of Peking and I remember my own mother cooking us dinners from that little cook book in turn – spring rolls and Taiwanese Special. I remember Bangladesh chicken curry over rice, a recipe my mother received from some missionary friends. How I loved the way those wonderful spices seeped into the rice and turned it bright yellow! A family from Cuba lived in our home for a while and fed us sopa de frijoles negros (Cuban style black beans) and fricasé du pollo (Cuban chicken fricassee) and guava paste on crackers. Later on, as a college student in Chicago, I discovered a love for Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian cuisines.

When we began to face the challenge of feeding a child with food allergies, I became frustrated with the difficulties of providing variety in my daughter’s diet. Then I discovered that many of my favorite ethnic foods were already naturally safe for Mila to eat – no disappointing substitutes required! I discovered a wonderful alternative food source in the local Asian supermarket and in the inspiring dishes at my favorite ethnic restaurants. It’s easy to avoid wheat, dairy, and soy in Thai cuisine, for example, and Indian cuisine offers many vegetarian options, which makes it easy to stay away from eggs. As it turns out, these foods that I’ve loved and had previously considered something of a luxury or a special treat are the things that Mila can eat on a regular basis. Masala dal (Indian lentils), pho bo (Vietnamese beef noodle soup)? Yes, she can eat that!

I do hope she can grow up to eat butter and cheese (and if she’s an astronaut, I guess that would be fine too), but even if she doesn’t, I’m confident now that there are many varieties of foods and flavors she’ll be able to enjoy anyway. I want her to feel lucky for the opportunity at such a young age to explore the culinary traditions of so many different cultures. Because, really, those food allergies, when they might have meant a boring and restricted diet, have actually inspired our family to enjoy ethnic cuisines on a more regular basis and to explore the wonderful international supermarkets in our area. Maybe next time she’s asked, she’ll forget about butter and cheese and say, “when I grow up I want to have pud makua yow (Thai basil eggplant) and vindaloo (spicy Goan curry).” In the meantime I’m happily satisfied with her excited smile as she exclaims “mmm, this is spicy, right?!” and shovels in another bite….

francoise and the haiti house

“I love Francoise. She’s such a special, pretty girl!” Mila tilts her head and squeezes her eyes shut, her own little body language for conveying love or approval.

Francoise is a rag doll purchased from a market in Haiti. My mother brought her home years ago after several trips we made to Haiti together, and she gave her to Mila when she started to show an interest in dolls. She’s really a craft item made for tourists and was not necessarily constructed to withstand much actual play. Some of her stitches are coming loose and her dress is missing a few pieces. I’ve set them aside somewhere to be sewn back on but…well, you know how it is!

Flaws aside, Francoise is an integral part of the social scene in Mila’s bedroom. Tea party? She’s there. Play food cooking lesson? She wouldn’t miss it. Slumber party in the doll cradle? If she’s not in bed with Mila, she’s tucked in tight with the rest of the dolls, carefully burped beforehand. And when Mila wants to role play with her dolls, she asks me to “talk Rosalie” and tells me that she will “talk Francoise” (they are dear friends, those two rag dolls).

When we decide to make a little house out of a cardboard box and paint it (thanks to a dear friend of my own for the idea!), Francoise is chosen as the lucky recipient of said house. We have been discussing how to decorate the house and this gives me an idea. I pull out an old photo album, and Mila and I flip through it together. “This is Haiti,” I tell Mila, “this is where Francoise comes from.” I show her some of the little houses my mother and I visited on our trips. They are brightly colored: some are pink, some are blue, some are the sea-green color of the Caribbean. Naturally, they hold great appeal to my three year old daughter. And why not? They are happy colors. I have to admit that the color of our own home, one of a thousand shades of beige to be found in this town, certainly seems rather lackluster in comparison. Mila wants the little cardboard box house to be pink and, inspired by the brightly colored homes of Francoise’s native country, decides that the shutters and the front door will be a lovely sea-green.

Later, I am applying painter’s tape to the wall in preparation for my own painting project, finally applying the finishing touches to the front door and baseboards in our entryway after a little redecorating project we began last summer. I’ve been meaning to get it done all year but…well, you know how it is! Mila is delighted. Her eyes light up at the prospect of another painting endeavor. “Are you going to paint the door blue?! Like the Haiti house?!” She is positively glowing at the thought. It’s not what I had planned but…hmmm. I suppose it is something to consider!

red butterfly

I am reading Red Butterfly (by Deborah Noyes) to my daughter, Mila. The book tells the story of a Chinese princess who smuggles the secret of silk out of China. Mila is interested in the pictures, of course: the girl’s long black hair, her red slippers, the sparrows pecking mud along the road to the summer palace, the court musician plucking her pipa, the graceful coppery fish in the garden pool. But the story is about silk and about the little girl who wants to take a piece of home away with her on her bridal journey, even though it is forbidden. Much of this is beyond my own little girl’s comprehension…what does arranged marriage mean to a preschooler in the American Midwest, after all? But I want her to understand at least a little of what the story is about. I want her to understand why the girl speaks of silk as a splendor, as woven wind, why she longs to take its secret away with her on her long road from home.

I put the book down and tell Mila to wait for just a moment. In my closet I have a silk skirt. It’s not really Chinese, but it is silk. And it possesses just enough of that splendor, that woven windiness the princess describes, to do the trick. I set it in Mila’s lap and she oohs and ahs as she fingers the soft fabric. She has been curled up on the couch with a polyester fleece blanket that, for some reason, she’d become inseparable from earlier in the day. She goes from fingering the silk to rubbing it across her arms. Clearly, she is enjoying the sensation. Her expression is beatific. All at once she pulls away the fleece blanket, disdain evident in her gesture, “can you take this off, please?!” And, when the offending polyester has been removed, she spreads the silk over her bare legs, burying her hands in its whisper soft folds. Serenely, almost royally, she asks to continue reading the story. And I do. And I think, this time, “woven wind” and “swirls of silk” and “windy silken promises” actually mean something to her. I think she understands that little Chinese princess better than she did before.

After all, I cannot understand the world myself simply by reading about it. I must taste and see and feel and listen. As we all must. Mila is no different. It is not enough to simply tell her a story or teach her a lesson. I must share with her the warm spices at our favorite Indian restaurant, dance with her to the lilting traditional French songs on her favorite CD. I must let her find illumination in the woven whisper of silk against her own bare skin. If I want her to learn and to love, I must help her to experience. As we read to the end of Red Butterfly, I am already storing away ideas in the back of my mind, thinking about the books we’ve read and the conversations we’ve had and about how I might bring bits of those ideas to life for her in a whole new way.