• Shyamla Eswaran is using spices to educate young children about how to accept cultural difference. (Mohini Eswaran)
How one woman is using an aromatic spice tin and a personal story of schoolyard bullying to teach pre-schoolers to embrace different foods and people of all cultures.
By
Yasmin Noone

25 Nov 2019 - 12:36 PM  UPDATED 26 Nov 2019 - 1:07 PM

“My bullying all started with my lunchbox,” children’s entertainer, Shyamla Eswaran, tells SBS reflecting on her first experience of racism.

“I was four-years-old and at primary school at the time. I remember I had a chicken curry wrapped in a roti. The kids at school were not used to the smell of the spices that were used for the food in my lunchbox and used to say ‘that stinks’ and ‘we don’t want to sit with you’.

“Very quickly I learned to go home and ask my mum to make me devon and tomato sauce sandwiches instead of curry for lunch so I could be like the rest of the Anglo-Australians. That was my first memory of feeling ashamed of my culture through food.”

"Even though they are only young. They respond with statements like ‘that’s not very nice’ and ‘we wouldn’t do that’ without me prompting them."  

It was this early experience of social and cultural exclusion that inspired Eswaran, currently aged 35, to incorporate a food diversity message in her children’s entertainment programs. Now Eswaran, who’s of Indian and Fijian heritage, performs a 45-minute cultural diversity show, Bollykids, in pre-school centres around the country, teaching young children how to accept difference with a sense of natural empathy.

“In my shows, I do Bollywood dance and dress the children up in saris and costumes. But the most powerful part of the show is where I show the children my spice tin containing the spices that I was bullied for and I explain to them what happened to me at school. Their faces usually drop in response. Even though they are only young. They respond with statements like ‘that’s not very nice’ and ‘we wouldn’t do that’ without me prompting them.  

“I then say to the children that when you go to school, these spices might smell different to you. But if you say ‘yuck’ or ‘peew’ you may end up really hurting someone’s feelings and make them feel bad about who they are.”

The cultural lesson continues with a spice smelling experience. Eswaran says the children who have never smelt, say, turmeric before the show maintain an obvious reaction to the new aroma after they are exposed to it. But with Eswaran’s help, they learn the mighty power of their words and how to replace insulting phrases with new language and comments like ‘that smells different’ or ‘that smells strong’.

“The one spice that changes the children’s attitude to all spices is cinnamon. From the moment I whip out the cinnamon stick and explain to them that it is in their Christmas puddings, banana bread, apple Danish and donuts they say ‘wow I love all of those foods’. I respond with, ‘well this is the spice responsible for that’.”

“I once had a three-year-old child say to me ‘go back to where you came from’ with a smile on his face, not knowing what his words really meant but already knowing to link those words to whatever I look like.”

Eswaran has performed the show over 400 times since she first launched it in 2017. Although it mostly ends with a positive reaction from the children, she’s also experienced some negative responses displaying early signs of racism and discrimination.

“I once had a three-year-old child say to me ‘go back to where you came from’ with a smile on his face, not knowing what his words really meant but already knowing to link those words to whatever I look like.”

The incident wasn’t isolated. During another one of her shows, the performer explains, a different child threw a tantrum saying ‘my mum and dad doesn’t want you to stay here’ followed by the phrase ‘go back to your own country’.

“After that happened, the child care centre realised they had to do a lot more work around multiculturalism. So one year later, I returned. That kid ended up basically reciting my show word-for-word.

“That was the first time I could see how much difference the show could make to the lives of young children. The childcare centre also really put in a lot of work in that one year.”

“If I can achieve that, that’s a huge shift compared to the times that I grew up in in Australia. So many people were not conscious of their words back then."

Eswaran’s main goal now is to continue to spread her message of cultural acceptance through her famed spice tin in the hope that young children across Australia will move into primary school and later, grow into adults who value difference.

“If I can achieve that, that’s a huge shift compared to the times that I grew up in in Australia. So many people were not conscious of their words back then.

“But if that consciousness can start with food, today, then I think it will have a beautiful flow on effect into other parts of life.”

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