My mother and I speak two different languages; she speaks Punjabi and I speak English. We choose to speak different tongues. My mother asks a question in Punjabi, and I answer in English. Even though we communicate, the truth in our words is lost.
I never understood how our words lost meaning until I read Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club. Tan describes language as a key factor in the cultural gap between Chinese mothers and their American daughters. In each story, there were misunderstandings because neither the mother nor the daughter understood one another. After reading The Joy Luck Club, I wanted to understand why my mother and I spoke different languages. Was it my limited knowledge of Indian culture? Or was it my mother’s fractured English? How could we speak, yet not understand each other?
When I finally asked my mother, she replied with a simple answer. In Punjabi, my mother said, “That is the way it has always been.”
As I was born and raised in Los Angeles, I am 100% American. But, my parents emigrated from India in the 70s, so that makes me an Indian-American. While I grew up around the language (Urdu), culture, and cuisine, I actually did my best to abstain from a lot of aspects of my Indian heritage. Although I loved the food, I refused to learn Urdu, I protested any Bollywood film viewing, and I begged my mom to let me wear western style suits (instead of the traditional shlwar-kamis) to important functions and parties.
I shunned all these aspects of my parents’ upbringing because my biggest objective growing up was to fit in. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, and my greatest fear was for my peers to think my family’s customs were weird. My reluctance was so great that, on move-in day four years ago, I rolled my eyes and made a fuss when my parents said they met a nice couple from Bangladesh and that I should meet their son.
This wasn’t the first time my parents wanted me to meet and befriend a kid my own age just because he or his parents were from the Indian subcontinent. So I did what I usually do – I greeted the parents with respect, exchanged a few words with their son, Waiz, and told him we should definitely get lunch sometime (not really expecting either of us to follow through on the invitation).
But as it turns out, we actually had very similar interests. And after running into each other repeatedly at different events the first couple months of school and sharing the same dreadful CHEM 105a class, we became really great friends. Soon enough, we decided to room together for our sophomore year and continued to remain roommates and best friends throughout the rest of college.
I know what you’re thinking. Of course it is, food is essential to life. It tastes good, and it gives you energy to get through the day.
But it’s more than that to me. Growing up both American and Japenese, my mother made it a point to make sure I was exposed to a wide range of foods. I experienced all kinds of cultural foods from a young age and quickly developed a refined palate (for my age, at least) and a love for exploration and experimentation with cuisine.
One of my favorite things about being well-versed in food, aside consumption of the food itself, is that nearly anyone can talk about it,and everyone has a different experience to share. We all grow up eating different things, passed on to us by our parents, depending on their own upbringing and cultural backgrounds. Just like celebrating culture-specific holidays, the type of meal you eat for breakfast (in my case, cereal on American days and rice, fish, and soup on Japanese days) can shape your childhood and, by extension, your appreciation for other foreign food in adulthood.