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Proud (and ashamed) of my culture

May 2, 2021

Hello readers. I had been drafting an essay to share with you all. Then India’s second COVID-19 wave worsened, so I wrote a short poem about it. I asked my sister for help; she floored me by writing her own (longer and better!) poem, coming to you in a bonus newsletter later this week.

Sending love to India.

The motherland in crisis

a poem by me, with contributions from Sheila Raghavendran

My last hazy Indian memory
Bangalore, sweltering in May
I can’t remember
Who am I in that country
Who is that country to me

The motherland in crisis, my mother’s land
Not enough oxygen, hospital space, helpless
Because of my parents’ migration,
I’m saved from this wave of destruction
India to me, she’s closer than a friend
Familiar in my scores of extended family
Other people’s stories, memories
Who is India to me

Skimming social media and guilt overwhelms
American brown people are mad at white people:
You can’t use India when it’s convenient for you
And look another way in its time of crisis
They mean, turmeric lattes yoga ayurveda chai

Maybe I pick India when it’s convenient
Pick the U.S. when it’s convenient
Is this my new island, my offspring’s motherland
Shall I plant a flag here
Who am I in this country
Who is this country to me?

In my day job, I’m a journalist, and I’m not comfortable advocating for ways to help India (also, I haven’t thoroughly researched this area, and I’m nervous to give anyone advice). If you want to learn about charitable efforts, these articles seem to have ideas. And if you choose to donate, please learn about where your money is going.

On to the rest of the newsletter.

An essay on food

At my first summer internship, my thermos of leftover rice, vegetable and dal exploded like a rocket one afternoon while I was away from my desk. Maybe my lunch had gone sour or a part of the thermos had broken. Maybe I’d unknowingly loosened the lid before being called away, triggering my own volcano. Pieces of wet rice and dal sprayed everywhere: my desk, the carpet, the ceiling of the local newspaper newsroom.

On my hands and knees, I remember picking grains out of the carpet. The looks of others, wondering why rice was on the ceiling.

South Indian food courses through my veins and still I am a chameleon, choosing when it suits me. I hate that I do this. Sometimes I celebrate Indian food, hosting chaat parties in my small apartment, telling myself I do love my culture because, look, I can make dosas from scratch! Other times, I hide my food, wolf it down, pray no one asks me what I’m eating, taking no pleasure in the food I usually relish.

My play, “Meera’s Kitchen”, explores this seesaw I find myself caught in: I’m proud of my food. I’m ashamed of my food. I love my culture. I wish I could be normal. This is my truth. Now, I know I feel that way because white American culture has always been elevated. So lately, when I find myself thinking, “I wish I could be normal,” I sit down and write my own stories.

That’s how this whole “Meera’s Kitchen” thing started. I interviewed my parents and my grandmother in long oral histories. In one of those conversations, my mom talked about her early days as a new immigrant living in California. Her coworkers would make fun of her lunch, a dish we call uppittu, made with rava, or cream of wheat and packed with spices and veggies. One day, my mom’s boss ordered Mexican food for the whole office — except for my mom. To my mom, her boss said: Hope you have your cream of wheat in the fridge.

After she told me that story, I cried. It’s all familiar. Shame that’s pushed down, then evolves in new generations. It stings helplessly. You don’t talk about it because it lives in the most painful part of your soul. An indignation: Why can’t they see what I see, that this food is beautiful? And an insecurity: Maybe they’re right. Maybe uppittu is gross.

Decades after my mom’s lunch memory, I had to tell my mom I couldn’t eat the lunch she’d packed for me that day at my internship, because it had exploded in front of everyone.

Smart stuff has been written about the lunchbox moment for Indian kids, when the cafeteria falls silent and everyone laughs at the “worms” or mushy soup the kids packed. The kid feels deep shame and either brings in Lunchables the next day or gives a soliloquy about the power of ethnic food. Then there are counternarratives. An eye-opening Eater piece by Jaya Saxena highlighted people who grew up eating different cuisines, and were met with peers’ curiosity. The article pushed back on this cafeteria image in immigrant storytelling:

“The lunchbox moment doesn’t require the reader to think about how class, religion, or caste could all change an immigrant’s experience. It doesn’t point out all the invisible ways immigrants and people of color are made to feel unwelcome. It doesn’t allow for muted or shifting feelings, or the complications of systemic racism. It’s just the hard clarity of Us v. Them, Shame v. Triumph, a white boy telling you you’re gross and a different white boy telling you he actually likes lumpia.”

We need to tell more immigrant and children-of-immigrant stories, about the painful moments and the good ones. Our stories are complex. We have moments when our food explodes and sticks to the ceiling. We have stereotypes and our own mental health-driven insecurities that make it hard to be proud all the time. Maybe I have such a hard time reconciling the shame and the pride because we don’t talk about this liminal space enough.

I hope the stories help. I hope this one helps. You can be fiercely proud of your culture but also be ashamed of it. It doesn’t make you a bad child of immigrants. In fact, better and beautiful things can come from this struggle.

Next week’s newsletter

“Meera’s Kitchen” is built on memories — my own memories, family memories passed to me, and anxieties that warp memory. For example, these personal and family food memories are just how I remember them, no bulletproofing or fact-checking with witnesses, as I would do in my journalistic work. Next week, I’ll talk more about writing my own story.

About the guest editor

Because life doesn’t happen in a silo, every issue of Inside the Kitchen is edited by a special guest editor — a person in Beena’s life who’s also intimately familiar with the subject at hand.

Sheila Raghavendran has known Beena as long as she can remember — siblinghood is funny like that. In that time, they’ve picked up similar passions: for theater, writing, and cooking. Though no longer in journalism herself, Sheila continues to celebrate the stories of young people in her new career as a 6th grade English/Language Arts teacher in the Indianapolis area. Sheila’s experience with loving and accepting Indian culture has taken its own twists and turns, and while she disagrees with her sister — uppit is definitely gross — she can’t resist their mom’s freshly-made chapatis with beetroot palya, homemade yogurt, and cranberry upinkai. The vibrant colors of dark pink, white, and bright red clash on a plate like a firework of appreciation for home.