A Taste for Diversity
Violette Chamoun, Campus Dining
2015-2016 Staff Essay Contest
Diversity: This profound word, with all it embodies, is an inevitable reality. It exists in almost every aspect of one’s life. Diversity, though, is a double-edged sword of similarities and differences in race, gender, culture, religion, language, ethnicity, age, and education. Some people embrace diversity by accepting the similarities and respecting the differences. Some simply fear difference and change.
Yet, above all, diversity is uniquely human. It is not a scientific phenomenon like hunger or cold. It manifests itself within individuals, and it is defined by a person’s interaction with and interpretation of the outside world. Diversity has traveled with many people from different parts of the world, settling in one town or another not knowing what challenges were awaiting them. Yet diversity, although we may attempt to affix a definition to it, has evolved. Diversity is not the same today as it was in the past for me: I have seen the world change into a more accepting place.
In late October of 1988, I landed at Newark Airport from Lebanon and was swiftly on my way to New Brunswick, New Jersey. I was fascinated by the Halloween and Thanksgiving Day decorations and festivities that left their mark on the lawns of townspeople and in shop windows. A week later, I celebrated Thanksgiving dinner—something completely new to me, as I was never asked to give thanks to the United States before. Yet I just loved it. That night, I learned what the holiday was about, and I was (and still am) grateful for being able to step foot in the land of opportunities and dreams.
Like every immigrant who wants to be able to communicate and interact with people, I had to go to school to learn English. Little did I know that I would have to keep correcting people mispronouncing my name to such an extent that I almost forgot the sound of my name myself! In 1988, I was a young girl with a French name and speaking Arabic that sounded “weird” and was hard for people to understand. I was an immigrant who was born and raised in the midst of the Middle Eastern war. To some people, this image was disconcerting. My country, Lebanon, was a strange name for Americans, as if it did not even exist on a world map. And for those who knew where Lebanon was on the globe, it certainly was not a good place in their minds. Yet despite the many practical challenges, my biggest challenge was to form and feel a sense of belonging without losing my identity. How could I reinvent myself without losing myself?
In February 2006, after I got a college degree, I applied to Princeton University for a job in the Campus Dining department. That day, I was so happy to hear the two people who interviewed me correctly pronounce my name when they called me into the room. It was a moment of self-recognition, and I said to myself, “Well, I guess I am at the right place.”
In my current job, I interact with students and faculty in the dining hall during meal services. In those interactions, students discovered that I speak Arabic. They were curious about my ethnicity and language, and occasionally have invited me to join them at the Arabic Language Table to practice. It was a place where I felt appreciated for both whom I was and whom I had become.
The beautiful memory of Lebanon and my home town of Beirut was also brought back to life at Princeton. Because of the negative reputation my country portrayed, I almost gave up identifying myself as Lebanese. However, I soon found myself saying it again with pride and confidence. I worked my first Reunion events at Rockefeller College as an event manager for the 45th Reunion, and it was a turning point in my diversity perceptions. While in the past Lebanon was perceived as a country of terror and conflict, Princeton alumni saw it as Paris in the Middle East. Princeton alumni were uniformly so compassionate to me. By showing me their appreciation for the good service they received at their events from the Campus Dining team, which is the most diverse department on campus, they made me realize that this is where I belong.
Twenty years ago, in 1995, my oldest son entered kindergarten. I can never forget what happened on the day when parents were invited to eat lunch with their kids in the classroom. I packed lunch for the two of us, and without giving it any thought, I made the traditional pita bread, ham, and cheese wrap. At the table next to my son was sitting a six-year-old girl who was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white toast. With a frown on her face, she looked at my son’s wrap and asked him, “What is this?” To which my son said, “This is a sandwich.” In an innocently obnoxious way the little girl said to my son, “What? That’s not a sandwich,” and she pointed to her sandwich in a gesture, saying, “This is a sandwich.” It was an embarrassing moment for both of us. My son’s face turned red, and he put his sandwich down and stopped eating. I explained to the little girl that we are not from New Jersey, that we come from another country and this is our bread: it is called pita. I offered her a piece to try, but, sadly, she shook her head, saying no thanks.
I felt guilty putting my son in an uncomfortable situation, and the girl probably thought we were aliens coming from another planet after she saw the bread and heard us speaking in another language. After that day, pita bread never left our house, and my son’s school lunch became peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was a sad moment. I realized that I had to raise my child to learn both the Lebanese and the American culture. Fortunately, this memorable incident turned out to be a rewarding one in 2010, when my son was hired at Chromocell Corporation, and he was asked to bring hummus dip and pita bread to the staff dinner because it was their favorite dish. We were happy and proud to see that a part of our culture was recognized and loved.
Here at Princeton, hummus, pita bread, and tabouli salad are on every menu and served at almost every salad bar in Campus Dining. The Mediterranean diet became the new topic of health and nutrition. Now, after all these years, I am proud to say that I work at a school where I can pass by the salad bar and see Lebanese food on the line and walk into the dining room and speak Arabic to some students and staff and share beautiful stories about my country. That is what makes someone like me feel a sense of belonging and acceptance. This is why I became an ambassador on the Diversity and Inclusion Committee on campus.
Diversity, with all its challenges, goes beyond physical ethnicity. It is a question of what makes someone the person he or she is. By simply living one may contribute to the world’s diversity, but what is even better is to be able to embrace and accept the differences around us.