Growing up, my parents were fairly poor. In order to take us out to little things like the fair every summer, my parents would go hungry and take food with us to feed my sister and I. Doesn’t sound like a big deal; I mean, they were still taking us to the fair. But they did that so that we could have as good a childhood as possible.
When I moved away for university, I got all my mom’s recipes and took a whole bunch of Indian spices and cooking equipment with me. But I never used them.
The first year, it was mostly because the kitchen was never free long enough for me to make the food I wanted — curries can take anywhere from an hour to two hours — and I was too busy to adjust my schedule for when the kitchen was open.
The second year, I was afraid to bother everyone on my floor with the spices, especially once another person started cooking with similar spices and people responded with, “Ugh, it’s too strong.” I had always thought of that, too. Even I get sneezy and irritated at times from the spices.
In my third year, I started using the spices more, but never for curries or other Indian dishes. I was still worried about irritating other people on the floor. I once made fries and just added a few spices to add some taste, and when someone tried them, they told me, “The spices you used are interesting,” and didn’t have any more.
I couldn’t wait to move out and finally make my food.
Even when I did, I was nervous for my current partner, Grady, to try it. He’d tried Indian food before, but nothing like what my mom used to make at home. It’s pretty different, and it’s hard to explain why. Partially, it’s because it’s not Indian food exactly — it’s Fijian-Indian, which does make a difference. It’s not as rich, and not as oily, for one. Beyond that, you’d have to try it to understand.
When Grady responded with enthusiasm and excitement, I was so relieved. I hadn’t even realized how worried I’d been that he wouldn’t like my favourite kind of food until then.
But even now, I wouldn’t try making it for any of his friends.
I know a lot of people who say they love Indian food, but when I used to take it for lunch between classes or at work, I always noticed weird looks. I didn’t want to be that brown girl who brings brown food. I didn’t want to be categorized as not cool. And yes — that’s how it felt. I felt uncool for bringing food of my own culture.
It reminds me of how a fellow “brown” person saw me in a reverse French braid, and looked at me with a smirk.
“You look so… Indian!” she said, as if looking Indian was unfashionable.
“I am Indian,” I said to her.
“Yeah, I know, but you know what I mean.”
I nodded, not really knowing what to say.
It’s always been a conflict within me, wanting to be “cool” as a kid and knowing that being Indian was not cool. I wore my hair in two braids for pretty much my entire grade seven year, and with the braces and thick glasses (and actually enjoying school), I was quickly dubbed the uncool kid.
But I never felt like the braces and glasses were the cause.
I just looked like a “typical” Indian girl. And Indian girls aren’t cool.
Every cool Indian girl I saw straightened her beautiful wavy hair and never ate Indian food in public. Lots of them wore makeup and never wore anything remotely Indian unless it was an event like International Day at school. None of them hung out with me. All of them wanted to get away from their culture. (Well, mostly — they still loved the food, but only ate it at home.) They even shied away when asked about the other language they spoke.
Until recently, I refused to take Indian food to work. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of wearing Indian clothing either, unless it’s for a special event. I never liked makeup or straightening my hair, but I never saw it as an act of solidarity with Indian people and culture either.
Maybe that’s because I didn’t realize until now that I was avoiding my own culture.
Even though I never wore makeup or straightened my hair, I wanted to. I even tried it a couple times, but I didn’t like myself that way; it didn’t suit me. I wished I could pull it off, but I couldn’t. I tried so hard to feel like I belonged and never did.
Because apparently, my culture isn’t cool enough.
One day, I decided to try taking chicken curry and rice to work, after reading an article where a woman experienced the same thing I did, only with Chinese culture. (She also gets into how after feeling shamed for her food, it’s now a “trendy” food. An interesting read, do check it out!) I was surprised to receive compliments about the smell of my food, though I noticed some rejection in the looks on others’ faces.
But the unexpected approval is not the point. Though I rarely experienced direct, violent, hateful racism, my whole life I’ve been learning that “white,” or Canadian culture is the beautiful one, even the right one. I’ve discussed that I’ve struggled with feeling that I’d be prettier if I were white, but it extends beyond appearances as well.
How can this be, in a country so proud of how multicultural it is?
You tell me.
On one International Day at my school, I wore an Indian lengha and someone asked me if I wear it a lot at home. I told him no, and explained that lenghas aren’t generally everyday wear. He asked me more questions and after telling him that my family is culturally quite Indian, he responded, “But you’re white,” with a knowing tone of voice. He was referring to my so-called real cultural identity.
I guess because I’m friendly, outgoing, and speak my mind, I must not really be an Indian girl. I’m Canadian, whatever that means.
So now it’s time to stop being afraid to offend people with my culture. Now, I refuse to hide my food. I refuse to apologize for my culture by being “considerate” of how others might react. None of them are being considerate of me. No one was respectful of my culture when I was in school — in fact, even some teachers weren’t. It’s time to stop caring whether or not people judge me as being that Indian girl, that stereotypical, sheltered, uncool Indian girl.
Because you know what? I’m no longer ashamed of it. I am Canadian — but I am Indian, too.