A personal journey through food and assimilation
My eighth grade classroom was in a portable with a faulty air conditioner. At lunch, the little tin can of a classroom would fill with the pungent smells of masala—a distinct whiff of bay leaf, turmeric-infused curry, and kabobs marinated in garlic paste. The class was predominantly South Asian kids; technically, the white kids were the minority. Still, there might as well have been hundreds of them—loud and popular, they owned the classroom. And, at lunch they always complained: “Ewwww, this place stinks.”
I knew exactly what food they were talking about. My food. The food my family has eaten for generations. But I joined in, pretending the smell of these “foreign” lunches also repulsed me. I desperately hoped it would spare me from the rude stares and comments about “those people’s” food. You could say it worked: nobody ever aimed their snide remarks directly at me—and yet they did. It didn’t matter that my lunch wasn’t centered out. I was there, obviously the “Other,” with my big nose, frizzy hair, and olive skin. I was “those people.” My Grade 8 lunches taught me that.
My story is the story of many non-Western kids living in the West—particularly those of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent. I’m sure some of us escaped the subtle racist teasing, but for so many others any lunch but crackers-and-cheese, Fruit Roll-Ups, or bologna sandwiches, became a source of deep cultural shame. Add to this our clothes (in my case, shalwar kameez and gold necklaces with Arabic calligraphy, courtesy my pious aunts), our foreign languages (Urdu and my family’s village Persian dialect), and our status as the “Other” soared. Seven-year-old me cringed at the thought of the other kids hearing me call my father “Baba.” What started with humiliation over school lunches, ended with everything that made me, well, me. But I did what many kids like me did: attempt to assimilate.
I begged my mother to start buying me Lunchables, those strange artificial pre-made lunch meals for little kids. The cold cuts looked like plastic and the cheese tasted and felt like rubber. But I chose that over homemade kabob wraps.By the end of elementary school, my culture felt worthless; my food felt like a burden. White and western seemed better, cooler. Eventually, I embodied this feeling of cultural inferiority so deeply that it grew bigger than asking for bland pre-packaged foods for lunch. In place of cultural pride, manifested a self-loathing I would use to show the white kids that I was just like them. I pretended to hate the green chutney sandwiches my mother packed, made fun of my own food and my own people, all for the amusement others.
As I went through high school and now university, my South Asian and Middle Eastern friends talked frequently about the relentless lunch-time teasing. We even laughed about it. But it was an odd laughter, one with an undercurrent of rage and sadness at the erasure of our cultural identity. Why were we all so okay—or at least pretending to be—with the pressures to assimilate, to figuratively blanche our meals and ourselves? Why chose to look back on it as if it was all just some big joke, rather than confronting our collective embarrassment? The wrongness in the way our lunches—and us—were treated as dirtier, stinkier, and lesser?
I knew it wasn’t just me and my small circle of friends who had experienced the grossed-out reactions to our roti and curries, so in August I took to Twitter and asked others to share their experiences with me. The replies flooded in—from all over the world. Many wanted to speak with me privately, uneasy about expressing this cultural hurt and anger in the open. Some were willing to speak out publicly. Public or private, my suspicions were confirmed: variations of my Grade 8 lunch had happened, and continues to happen, to so many of us.
One story that struck a particular chord with me was that of 18-year-old university student Tasnima Uddin whose parents emigrated from Bangladesh to the UK, where Uddin was born and raised. She recalls the first day of Grade 4 where she took out her lunch and her classmates let out a chorus of “ewwws”; they even complained to the teacher about the smell. “I can remember crying about this for a long time in my room,” says Uddin. “It wasn’t just the food I was crying about. It was my culture and especially my skin colour.”
Eventually, Uddin started to throw away her lunches. When her mother noticed none of her lunch containers were coming home, she said nothing about it. The next day when Uddin unpacked her lunch, there was no Bengali food—instead, a tuna sandwich. She never brought her “own food” into elementary or secondary school again. Uddin has only recently began bringing her own cultural food to university. She says she still gets negative responses, but feels stronger this time. She’s determined to develop a thicker hide to withstand the backlash. It occurs to me, though, that she shouldn’t have to.
This shaming doesn’t just happen to kids. Liane Khoury, now 30, moved to Halifax from Jordan 12 years ago to go to Dalhousie University, where she’s majoring in Spanish. She lived in an apartment-style residence, and whenever she ate home-cooked meals, she received comments. “Such as,” she says, “‘Oh this smells spicy’ or ‘that looks weird’ and even ‘Oh my god! You eat hot yogurt? That’s disgusting.’” It bothered Khoury, but it didn’t stop her.
Now out of university, Khoury says friends often ask her to make Middle Eastern food.A self-described “serious foodie,” she loves when her friends want to taste her cooking. Recently, she made them kusa and warak—stuffed zucchini and grape leaves, a very popular Middle Eastern dish—and freekeh, or green wheat, which is similar to quinoa.
I wonder if this change has less to do with maturity—leaving the school environment and entering adulthood—and more to do with the new hipness of “ethnic” food (a term that makes me cringe). Every time I walk down Toronto’s trendy Queen West Street, which Vogue recently named the second-coolest district in the world, I pass multiple Indian restaurants, a Korean restaurant, a Vietnamese restaurant, and a sushi place. NOW Magazine’s Toronto’s 25 Hottest Restaurants 2014 includes Japanese restaurant Kinton Ramen and Indian restaurant Pukka, which is described as going “beyond the clichés of mainstream Indian restaurants.” The latter looks like a cool place, but I doubt the food is truly “authentic.” I certainly can’t imagine my father, born and raised in Mumbai, eating there. For so many of these restaurants the key ingredient to success isn’t food, but people—specifically the restaurants white patrons.
These restaurants serve a sanitized Westernized version of our food, something to keep customers comfortable, to let them experience the “exotic” within the safety of the fashionable Western realm. In the trendy areas, I see patrons of all backgrounds in so-called “ethnic” restaurants— where the waiters don’t speak in strong accents, the food is described in Anglicized terms on the menu, and the food is served stylishly in porcelain white bowls, rather than tin plates. But I rarely see white patrons in Indian restaurants in the heart of Toronto’s Gerrard Street India Bazaar. Here, there is no jazz playing softly through the speakers. Here, we blare over-the-top Bollywood hits, and there are no stylish 20-somethings sipping wine with their butter chicken. Instead we have loud South Asian families of five sipping mango lassi from foam cups.
Maybe there’s nothing inherently wrong with the trendy spots, but it’s hard to avoid the fact they’re making money serving Indian-style food that is, in many ways, disconnected from Indian culture (and the same is true of Thai food, Chinese food, Korean food, and on and on). This doesn’t creates cultural pride or erases racism in—in fact, it might even make it easier and more normal for white people to appropriate it.Take the experience of Keerat Sandhu, a 22-year-old student and social activist, immigrated with her parents to British Columbia from India in 1994.
When Sandhu was 19, she suggested her group of friends—all white—go to her favourite Indian restaurant for dinner. Immediately, her friends responded with a chorus of comments like “All the food looks weird,” “I just don’t like the smell.” “I don’t know, I just find it gross.” Before that moment, Sandhu believed the older people became, the more accepting they would be. As she stood listening to her friends, she realized that wasn’t the case. “From the food, to the clothing, to the language—it was all seen as a savage foreign concept until the titular moment where being exotic became cool,” Sandhu says now. “But please remember, it was still only seen as cool if you were white and doing it, not if you were brown.”
I’ll admit the recent popularity of cuisines from all over Asia has certainly made my life a little easier. I no longer feel the overwhelming paranoia that a white kid will tease me for eating curry; friends flock to my house to taste my mother’s homemade biryani. But the uneasiness of heating my lunches in the Ryerson University student lounge microwave hasn’t entirely disappeared. It’s a bittersweet victory—if it is one at all. The mainstream may enjoy eating Indian, Arabic or Chinese food, but not the culture that comes with those foods. Racism is still bubbling under the surface of the pseudo-acceptance; it’s not as if it magically disappeared when shawarmas became popular.
I no longer secretly loathe my culture—in fact, I’m immeasurably proud—but the reasons behind my transition are complex and difficult to articulate. I often ask myself if I’ve based my newfound cultural pride on the acceptability of the Western gaze. Am I only okay with my food now, because the West has reached surface acceptance? If the teasing were still harsh, would I be as openly proud as I am now? I’m not really past the racism, or past the teasing. Some of this pride, I know, stems from anger—a middle-finger response to the humiliations of my grade school days. And, as an adult, I understand now the problem isn’t actually the food, but the deep-set toxicity of racism and anti-immigration sentiments. The food was only a conduit for people to unleash their perceptions, perhaps without even knowing that they had them.
It makes a difference, too, that I now live in a city as diverse as Toronto. I’m not sure I would feel the same kind of confidence in my culture and my people were I living in a homogenous, predominantly white town in northern Ontario. Still, I’d like to believe I could walk into any lunch room, not even remotely embarrassed at the smell of some homemade, expertly seasoned kabob. And if anyone said something, I’d proudly declare, “I’ll take my green chutney sandwich over PB&J any day.”