Humming to myself, I laid out five pieces of thick bread, unscrewed the lid of the peanut butter jar and sank the knife into its depths. Tomorrow I was taking the four young nuns I teach English to on a fieldtrip to Lamperi Park, the first Botanical Park in Bhutan. We would be accompanying Adam and Ludi’s primary school students and I was doing my best to stifle my nervousness as to whether they would behave themselves, if they would open up and befriend the other students and what on earth I was to do if they didn’t have a nice time.
Lost in my thoughts, I jumped when I heard Adam’s voice beside me.
Adam raised an eyebrow. ‘Are you sure they’ll want these? I mean, don’t most Bhutanese not like sweet things?’
Anger flared alongside the doubt inside me as I slapped another pat of jelly onto a slice. ‘Kids love peanut butter and jelly, Adam,’ I said in my coldest tone.
‘Yeah, but I mean, have they ever had it before? Did they tell you they wanted-‘
‘Adam, did you eat PB and Js as a child?’ I intoned, ‘they’re sweet, full of protein and filling. They’ll love them.’
But as Adam left the kitchen with a shrug and I continued to spread the gooey goodness over thick, bakery-fresh bread, doubts began to fill my mind:
-What if one of them is allergic to peanuts?!
-No, I asked them if they liked peanuts already, and I’m pretty sure they understood what I meant.. Besides kids love peanut butter and jelly.
-Don’t the girls mostly eat rice at the nunnery? Who is to say they’ll want this?
-Goddamnit, Ellie, everyone loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, stop worrying!
I tried to continue the methodical and happy pace of my work as before, but that anxiety that grips mothers the night before they send their child off to school for the first time had ensnared me.
Quickly finishing up the sandwiches and wrapping each of the five carefully in plastic wrap, I felt Momo nuzzle my ankle. Upon meeting my gaze she cocked her head with that puzzled expression she usually reserves for when one of us does something outrageous or calls her to ‘Come.’
‘Don’t give me your sass, Momo, they’re going to like them.’ She sighed as if to say she was far more Bhutanese than me and has a much better grasp on the situation and nestled down on her bed for the night.
As we sat in the grassy field the next afternoon the long bus ride, the beautiful walk through the park and all of the excitement weighed down on the nuns and myself, making us very hungry.
‘Ready for lunch, girls?’ I asked, ‘I’ve made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!’
Ýozer, Ngawang Chezom, and Rinzin sat around me quietly chattering in Dzongkha while the oldest, thirteen-year-old Ngawang Yanden asked, ‘Hmm, Miss?’
‘Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,’ I repeated with mock confidence, ‘do you like peanut butter and jelly?’
‘Jelly like jam? Jam is good..’ Ngawang Yanden said, with a trace of apprehension, ’what is this pea-nut butter?’
’You’ll see, it’s really good! We eat it all the time in America! All the children do, they love it!’ I responded, my misgivings showing through the speed of my speech and the squeak my voice ended in at the end of every statement. I went about quickly unpacking the bag of sandwiches I had brought with us.
As each of my little nuns accepted their sandwiches, they studied them; the purplish red and brown congealing against the plastic wrap, the texture of the now slightly-sodden bread. Ngawang Yanden, being the most polite, was the first to take a bite, and the others followed suit soon after.
I don’t think I can properly describe the look a small Bhutanese girl’s face makes when she bites into something utterly foreign and thoroughly disgusting.
Ngawang Chezom’s freckles seemed to turn the shade of her maroon kab-ney and stood out against her sweet ski-jump nose. Rinzin’s lips, usually taking the form of a smirk or smile, turned down in a frown of confusion. Yozer, the sassiest of the four, promptly began to rip hers into pieces and throw it to a fat old dog nearby who, with several cursory sniffs, dismissed it and left them to lie in the grass.
The primary school girls, seeing the distress of their new friends, quickly came to our circle with offerings of rice, emadatsi, kiwadatsi and tea which the three younger nuns hungrily accepted.
’It’s good, Miss,’ Ngawang Yanden said, seeing my crestfallen face. Yet I couldn’t help but notice she was struggling to swallow globs of the alien gooey mass I had presented so excitedly as her lunch.
As Ludi and Adam sat nearby chuckling at the reactions my packed lunch had elicited, I had to admit that it had been pretty ethnocentric of me to expect little nuns from the other side of the world whose meals regularly consist of vegetables and rice to want the odd concoction of peanut butter and jelly I had provided.
As I looked down at my sandwich, shaking my head at my own silliness, I came to another shocking realization.
’Goddamn,’ I whispered to myself, ‘I don’t even like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that much!’
I guess it’s true what they say, by traveling abroad - you don’t only learn about the culture around you, you also learn about yourself.