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entering the gauntlet of Indian food discourse; or: how I learned to stop worrying and do a critical race theory
As a child, growing up in my Diaspora Household, full of Brown Bodies, I would often lift a handful of smelly spices to my nose to smell how good they smelled. Damn, these were some stinky fuckers!
“Yummy,” I would think in my beautiful and lilting native language, “there’s no way that Wh*te People would ever make fun of me in an elementary school lunchroom for this.”
How wrong I was.
20 years later, I have hunted down each one of the children who once were sort of mean to me about the food I ate and summarily executed them.
If this sounds familiar, it means you’ve been reading a very specific genre of online writing: the South Asian smelly lunchbox essay. A prime example of these popped up recently: this Eater piece from last week.
These pieces almost always begin with some sort of personal anecdote about the author’s childhood. The author is shamelessly mocked by their cruel, racist white classmates. Crying, they dump their lunch into the school rubbish bin (garbage can for all you Americans) and implore their parents to pack them Dunkaroos or Lunchables or some other disgusting branded pre-packaged thing.
As these young Brown Bodies get older, they notice that the same white people who may have made fun of them at one point learn to enjoy Indian food. This unleashes a tidal wave of fury within their Brown Body — This is my culture, how Dare You — and, seeing red, they put pen to computer to type out some incoherent mess about how they’ve been personally wronged. This gets run in some food magazine and is effusively praised on Twitter for being a great encapsulation of everyone else’s rage, and aren’t we all just exhausted by the White People.
Food is a shared experience, a way for all South Asians in this country to sort of feel like their lives were collectively shaped by varied—but, overall, sort of similar—blends of spices, aromatics, and vegetables. We’re never really taught of a shared history, because most South Asian families came here after our discrimination de jure. We don’t have a shared religion, nor do we necessarily share a home country. Even stuff that’s taken for granted as being core to the South Asian American experience, like a strict parental focus on academics, varies greatly across class lines.
All of this is to say that we use food as a shorthand for our culture. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it makes food an ideal weapon for a certain class of wealthy, upwardly-mobile (mostly) Indian-Americans who are desperately searching for ways to narrativize their own life for profit.
I think this is really what bugs me the most. In a world where anti-South-Asian discrimination is very real, we obsess so much over petty annoyances that they’re worth a thousand-word lament in some elite media outlet (or a two-thousand-word newsletter post). Our problems as the wealthy media and corporate class no longer center around lifting our people out of poverty; instead, our concerns are our personal and professional barriers to becoming respected as One Of The Cool White Media People. And a lot of very Internet-savvy writers have figured out that they can transcend this by branding themselves as being shaped by racial trauma when, in fact, they grew up in some Westchester suburb and went to Dartmouth.
I’d like to focus more specifically on the offending essay in question, which displays an astounding amount of tErMinOloGy as a substitute for any analysis:
I’ve also seen the effects of colonialism in how people explain my own culture back to me, with no awareness of the power dynamics. This happens a lot at restaurants. At an Indian restaurant in Manhattan, a white server felt compelled to explain kulcha to me; farther downtown at a tea house, my Pakistani friend and I received a lecture from a white woman who proudly told us how she was bringing Indian tea to the West. Although she was well educated, she didn’t acknowledge that we were South Asian ourselves and wasn’t humble or self-aware about claiming expertise of our culture in front of us.
People telling you about the food they have served you simply cannot count as one of the “effects of colonialism.” It cannot. The phrase “power dynamics” here supposedly means the idea that one side of an interaction wields social or economic power over the other. Why would food service workers ever be able to wield power over a restaurant customer? If anything, the “power dynamic” swings in the author’s favor, considering that she has a platform from which to complain about these interactions. And the second lady sounds frustrating, but would you rather she point out that you’re South Asian? Wouldn’t that actually be worse? Sometimes, people are simply that: annoying, frustrating, irritating. Casting this as injustice or emotional violence feels like it cheapens and dilutes harmful racism, actual violence.
By the way, the original version of this article named the restaurant in question as Bombay Bread Bar, which was famously owned and operated by the late Floyd Cardoz, an Indian chef. I think it’s safe to assume the waiters were directed to explain the meal to everyone, regardless of race. In fact, the author undercuts her own point further down in the article:
For this reason, I’ve never felt fully comfortable going to Indian restaurants with non-South Asians. I know that, in some way, I will be responsible for translating the menu, affirming people’s choices, advising on spice levels, teaching them how to eat with their hands, and commenting on whether the food is authentic — a temporary tour guide. But it feels strange to be considered an authority when I don’t always recognize what’s on the menu. There are dozens of regional cuisines within India, but in the U.S., only a handful of North Indian dishes are mainstream, and many of us didn’t grow up eating them.
So she’s not an expert on North Indian cuisine, which is fair — in which case the explanation of a kulcha would probably be totally fine? I also didn’t grow up eating North Indian food, and until recently, I didn’t know exactly what a kulcha was. It’s okay to not know things! And I think the author’s friends would probably understand that if she just told them, but it’s easier to act like there is some huge burden being placed on you. She later refers to this as “emotional labor,” a term which has become so divorced from its roots that I can only entreaty anyone reading this to stop thinking of their friendships as transactional.
Most of the author’s other grievances center around bourgeois white people being annoying. This sentence in particular stuck out:
I met people who were hesitant to try my homemade nimbu pani, but would happily pay $6 for South Indian filter coffee made by a white woman at Smorgasburg.
First off: nimbu pani is lemonade, so I have no clue what you could have told this person for them to not want to drink it. Secondly: Smorgasburg is already a marker of atrocious taste, so your friend may be beyond saving.
Look, I don’t doubt that there’s some racial element to this — white people thinking Indian food is disgusting or too foreign or weird — and we all encounter this kind of stuff all the time. But to be honest, I do not care about those people, because they’re basically just making their own lives worse by not trying very tasty food, and they could mostly be converted with one good conversation about food and culture. But that’s not the point of this article. The point of this article is to say stuff like:
“Namaste” is a word that no longer even belongs to us: I cringe when I hear it used in all sorts of inappropriate situations, like as a catchphrase to “namastay in bed.” Its loss echoes the one I felt my first year in New York, when I attended a Diwali puja (prayer service) only to feel sick to my stomach when I realized that I was the only brown person in the room. It’s traumatic to see your culture taken from you.
There is no way that this was a puja, by the way, with only white people. I straight up do not believe that, because non-Hindus barely know what a puja is. Perhaps my least favorite discourse is the crowing about how the whites have destroyed the meaning of “namaste.” They clearly haven’t, because Indians still say it. Nothing has been lost, you just spend your time around non-Indians now.
And finally, the last line, “It’s traumatic to see your culture taken from you.” You can’t just say that it’s traumatic without interrogating the feeling more thoroughly! Here, I can even do it for you: I do not like when white people say “Namaste” because I grew up hearing it in a specific context and it bothers me when white people, who inhabit a level of cultural acceptance I can never achieve, do it, because it means I have one less thing that belongs to me to make my difference make sense to me.
All of these are completely valid feelings, if not actual trauma; in fact, engaging people one-on-one in discussion about your feelings is probably a good thing, instead of stewing about it. And it’s not wrong to want to feel accepted amongst your peers. But I have to ask: if you’re fully aware that you’ve internalized the idea that white people are some kind of untouchable gatekeepers of acceptance, and that you’ve been manipulated into thinking so by your education or the media, why don’t you just make an effort to identify that within yourself and squash it? We’re not children; we don’t have to just accept that things are going to make us unhappy. We have agency over our own reactions.
The Namaste discourse, of course, also discounts the idea that any Indians who historically may have said the word “Namaste” were slack jawed idiots without a fundamental understanding of what the word means, which I refuse to accept. Slack jawed idiots exist equally across cultures and races! There is no purity, there is nothing more fundamentally Indian than anything else from India. Indians raised outside of India often internalize the idea of “the motherland” as being an extension of their parents or grandparents, and are let down when the country ends up being more ideologically, culturally, and ethnically diverse than they could have imagined.
This is, of course, assuming they care at all, and aren’t part of the Indian Drake Fade Basketball Consulting mafia of guys who just do all of those things and don’t think about any of this stuff.
When I read this piece, it bothered me more fundamentally than I could even imagine, because I just find this discourse so utterly useless. Maybe I’m not being charitable enough. Interrogating racism is important, but I do think it’s crazy how a truly revolutionary movement on the streets for Black lives has been diluted upwards into elite media spheres. There’s a lot of South Asian people waving around the “Person of Color” label to try to get better jobs these days without ever having been disadvantaged at all. In fact, many (certainly not all) of these “diaspora” immigrants’ families hail from the educated, monied, cosmopolitan Indian class (👋🏾), providing them with the advantage of a robust safety net back home, and a startling lack of credibility when billing themselves as part of “Black and Brown Bodies” to ask for a promotion.
When they write stuff like this, it’s for white people to read, and nod, and think, wow, I feel sorry for them, I had no idea it was like this at all. White people won’t ever disagree with this kind of fake analysis because we’ve trained them to think of us as experts on our “Lived Experience” and so have stripped them of critical agency when dealing with something so massively reductionist. (I should make clear when I say white people throughout this piece I am referring only to liberals; conservatives are working with a whole different framework and would all probably hate this for all of the wrong reasons.)
Upwardly Mobile South Asians: I’ve often felt like in our search for “meaning” in our identity, we focus on the minutiae of our lives and ascribe them to these systemic social forces. But I think we fail to see the forest for the trees — in looking for acceptance in the West, we end up working at high levels for massive tech, finance, consulting, and manufacturing firms that do everything they can do keep Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi labor cheap. We can push the narrative that we’re somehow victims of a tragically cruel society, but the fact remains that the only material barriers remaining for educated, wealthy South Asians in America are getting that final promotion at a big bank, being invited to a Hamptons party, or being connected enough to get into an Ivy without trying. Our grievances all lie with not being let into the uppermost echelon of Western culture and society, without a thought to those who come from our roots but don’t share our privileges. So the next time we want to focus on how we’re being wronged by white people, maybe we should look inward and ask ourselves if we’re the ones wronging Brown people.
PS. I know this newsletter post was probably actually a bit controversial so I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts — feel free to shoot us a reply or leave a comment on the web version of this post!
Unsurprisingly, if you know both of us, I agree with all of this. I am finding it incredibly uncomfortable to watch everything simultaneously going on in the world—radical, revolutionary protesting in the streets for police abolition and social equality; a global catastrophe that has ruptured the American experiment and laid bare decades of policy failures; a rapidly worsening climate, etc.—get coopted into personal essays by Indian people about the correct pronunciation of turmeric.
In the last couple of episodes of season 1 of Ramy, the protagonist visits his family in Egypt to try to reconnect with his identity and reignite his spirituality. All he wants to do is visit Tahrir Square and pester his cousins about is what the revolution was like. All they want to do is drink and smoke and party.
It seems, weirdly, endemic to second-generation South-Asian-Americans to use words like “diaspora” and “motherland” and “cardamom” when we make art about being South Asian. It’s like we all decided that was the lingua franca, a way to mask our exoticizing of a “homeland” that is not actually ours, but still yearn to feel some sense of ownership over, with ethereal phrasing that suggests some sort of otherworldliness. I’m down to grapple with my South Asian identity as much as the next person, but it feels like there should be a less cringeworthy way to do this. Something that doesn’t involve fetishizing a place we visit once every other summer—a place whose lived-in experience we cannot claim to truly know—or talking about, like, “our mother’s blood.”