i’ll have some snake with that pb&j

  • “I got made fun of for all the smells of Indian cooking and on how Indians eat with their hands, because they were too ‘uncivilized’ to eat with utensils like normal people.”
  • “In the 5th grade I had classmates tell me my food smelled bad and that it was gross without trying it. Even now, I get disproportionately angry and insulted when I hear people insult other people’s food, especially ethnic food.”
  • “I had a classmate try to convince me that as an Indian I of course ate snake…wrong on many levels. I think he watched too much Indiana Jones…”
  • I was mortified when classmates teased me about having smelly lunches so I asked for PB&J. My dad tried to appease me by packing me a PB&J, but he used roti instead of bread so I started packing my own lunch.”

These are samplings of the shame and embarrassment my peers and I had around the food we grew up with. It’s probably one of the most universal immigrant experiences. This article is fantastic and captures a lot of the ambiguities and emotions of that experience: Craving the Other: One Woman’s Beef with Cultural Appropriation and Food.

I relate to this article, from the tantrums I threw in second grade because some kid made fun of my smelly food (“that looks like dog crap”) and I couldn’t even tell my mom because I felt like it would hurt her feelings, so instead I did the unforgivable and pretended I preferred sandwiches but please put fake soy lunch meat in that so it looks like pink-disgusting-plastic-baloney and my friends (all white, not a person of color in sight) wouldn’t target me for being vegetarian; and once she caught me tossing her homecooked food, which she had woken up early in the morning to make for me, tossing it like a piece of shit into the trash, and it made her cry. Then there’s college, when my white roommates informed me that they were scared of mustard seeds popping and also it made them cough and didn’t it look kind of questionably yellow (they didn’t know that turmeric has antiseptic and anti-Alzheimer’s qualities built in with the Anti-Americanness); and last year when my (white) friend informed me it made him uncomfortable to see me eating the curry (that I cooked for my friends) by using my hands and getting them messy.

Food is the most basic imperialist project, a way of “othering,” a way of making foreigners and immigrants seem “dirty” and “smelly” and “colorful” and all those other culturally appropriative terms used when visiting another country, a method of exotification (now it’s hip, mainstream, urban), and it’s almost like the white blank-slate color of my well-meaning, close friends’ skin means they are entitled to absorb my colors. And in the meantime I am told that my brown skin, my yellow food, my spices, which I’ve been apologizing for and white-washing until I reached the age where I wanted to reclaim that, are now a form of cultural capital, a tasty little masala appetizer to feed the carnivorous market forces that absorb “the other” and shit out homogeneity.  And seriously, fuck Lunchables, I used to beg (absolutely BEG) for those, my poor mom just gave up and said “at least don’t touch the meat” and was resigned to me coming home hungry, cranky, and yet socially victorious because Lunchables were the coolest lunches any American kid could have and honestly, fitting in was worth a lot, it still is. For the record my favorite Indian food is rasam, hot peppery tomato lentil deliciousness that isn’t sold anywhere like my mom makes it, and will never be.


a quote for the lost twenty-something

My friend has this quote taped to his door. It’s so wise and gentle. I want to tape it to my face.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. 

-Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

the bay – inspired by the thought of my close friend leaving it

The Golden Gate Bridge is not mine. Ever since childhood, it’s been a destination only to be visited when hosting tourists, a display of beauty and riches – ‘this is where I live’ – but never a part of my life except for in the distance, though I have as much or more of a birthright to that bridge as anyone. Despite calling the Bay my home for the past twenty-five years, I feel the divide in my heart, the divide between the golden city and the cities that fall in its shadow on the East. To me, the Bay is our campus, which we occupied, where we came of age, where we wrestled with identity and finding real friends and first kisses and first protests. The Bay is our community – potlucks, farmers’ markets, usually-losing sports teams, gay clubbing, the Fox, the open mics, the vegan Thai tea ice cream. And yet the Bay makes me so angry these days – the oblivious tech industry, the constant self-absorption, the overconsumption, the lack of diversity, the self-disgust when I realize I’m just another entitled young person in the sea of entitled young people who take over Dolores Park every weekend. Not to mention our sports teams win all the time now (what’s the deal?). We like pretending we’re natives, but none of us are, really.

What can I consider mine – or in other words, what is my place? Maybe the Bay is my kitchen. My first attempts at constructing a home and a routine and inviting people into my life. The well-traveled freeways between Oakland and Pleasanton, the comfort of my parents watching the 6 o’clock news every night, walking around Lake Merritt at 9 pm on a weeknight with my roommate (rats and all), and endless conversations till dawn in living rooms everywhere. We carve our own little channels and settle comfortably into those grooves, invisible lines on an invisible map.

The cranes on the Port of Oakland are permanent fixtures on that map, silent sentinels of change that is not always good. (News came last week that Uber is moving into the Sears Tower in downtown Oakland; the relentless march of gentrification continues.) Those cranes bear witness to my own well-worn pathways across this place I call home. Maybe that makes them partially mine, even though they existed long before I was born, even though I’ve made no mark on them, even though they’ll exist long after I’m gone.

growing up brown in a sea of white

Last week, I posed the following scenario to my Facebook community: “I’ve been thinking a lot about what it was like growing up as one of the only Indian kids in my elementary school. That shit has some lasting effects and I want to write about it. So help me out: If you’ve ever been one of the only brown kids in any grade, school, or class, like this status and leave a comment telling me one of the most traumatic/weird/interesting/masala-filled memories you might have from that very odd stage of our childhoods.”

The response was pretty incredible – almost 100 comments and replies in all. I also received texts and private messages about the thread, many of which describe the experience of participating as cathartic. These stories range from hilarious (“whenever someone said ‘Indiana,’ I thought they were having trouble saying India”) to stereotypical (“do you worship cows? what tribe are you from?”), to heartbreaking (“someone called me dirt – brown on the outside, brown on the inside….to this day, it is the most hurtful thing anyone has ever said to me”…or “I was really embarrassed about my mom’s accent so I never invited people over and, sometime in middle school, asked her to not talk to people from school.”) These stories touch on really complex issues – power, gender, politics, race, and it made me think a lot what I want to explore on this blog.

It’s obvious that many communities can connect with these experiences. Most immigrants and minorities have similar or worse stories; not only that, I’m sure anyone who’s ever been bullied can relate. Many of my friends have pointed out that these experiences have made us into who we are today – strong, adaptive, empathetic, resilient people. Identities forged through struggle. In fact, sometimes I feel a weird sense of loss when I think about how the next generation will probably never go through any of this; they may not be able to relate to our experiences. The world has already gotten significantly better. We’re also a little more mature ourselves. We seem to have kind of collectively gotten over the traumas of stinky foods (because Indian food is freaking delicious and we all know it). I don’t wish my name to be ‘Melody’ any more, and when my name gets butchered nowadays, I know it’s not my problem. I’m glad to report I haven’t been asked what tribe I’m from since elementary school.

But some of it sticks with us to this day, and not always in a productive way. Sometimes I feel like we take these memories and crumple them up into a tiny ball and tuck them away into a hidden part of our hearts. Sometimes I think those of us who are part of communities with non-Indians just don’t even bother sharing these stories, because when those friends or loved ones don’t get it or say the wrong thing, it hurts. Sometimes I think we forget that others share these same experiences and could be a community for us. Sometimes I think some of us don’t even know how to be our full, true selves because, from such a young age, we’ve always been hiding parts of ourselves, performing parts, playing roles.

Not to get all Freudian, but these childhood experiences definitely have implications for some of my issues today. Struggling to define my spirituality. Not wanting to be a representative for my culture but feeling like I have to. Not having any language beyond what was learned in high school to deal with complex issues like caste or patriarchy. Figuring out whom to be friends with or date. Realizing that I want to stand in solidarity with other movements and minorities, but not necessarily feeling like I fit in there either.  Trying to live up to parental or grandparental expectations. I know I’m not the only one.

This is what I want to explore. So many people really needed the experience of sharing and hearing what others have to say; I know there’s a hunger to make those connections, to find out more, to figure out why we are the way we are. I want us to unleash the voice that we may have hidden for years. I speak American so well that I’ve learned to silence the Other voice – many of us have. It’s the voice that tells me when something feels weird, or isn’t quite right, or makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s the voice that’s hard to resolve, the voice of ambiguity and pain and struggle, but it’s also the voice that I find is truest to myself.

The Facebook post was just the beginning.