“Ewww! What is that you’re eating? It looks and smells so disgusting!”
Growing up, this exclamation of disgust always confused me. To me, my lunch looked delicious, and it tasted even better. The sweet aroma of cardamom and the texture of the warm rice was like a comforting embrace from my mother, who cooked it fresh every morning before the sun had even risen. Looking over to my side at the kids covering their noses, or scrunching their faces in disgust, really confused me. Their PB&J sandwiches couldn’t be that tasty, right?
Although a small part of me knew better, later that night I nervously asked my mom if she could just pack me a sandwich the next day. When she asked why, I did not have an answer and just shrugged, hoping she wouldn’t pry. The next day, I opened my lunchbox excitedly, but my face quickly dropped and turned into a scowl. Rice again. I didn’t eat lunch that day.
That night I asked my mother for a sandwich again, this time a bit more harshly. Couldn’t she see that I did not want her extravagant, pungent cooking? I just wanted a sandwich! It’s so much easier to make anyway, why can’t she just listen?
She looked at me quietly, and said “okay”. I huffed in relief and looked forward to lunch the next day. I stared at the sandwich in my box, feeling giddy. Finally, I can understand what makes this thing so tasty! With each bite, however, my chewing slowed and my confusion only grew. This…was nothing special. In fact, it wasn’t tasty at all. I felt a slight sense of betrayal and was about to stop eating when a girl at my table suddenly turned to me, “Omg finally, you don’t have that smelly weird food you’re always eating…it was hard to eat next to you”.
That one sentence changed my life.
My sweet mother ended up learning how to make things like pasta, chicken bites, and all kinds of sandwiches... anything but Indian food. And I sat there every lunch period, robotically eating everything just to fit in.
I think back on this moment in my life, along with many others, and realize that if someone said that to me today, it would automatically qualify as racist. I think back and wonder why that behavior was so normalized towards people of color then. Like how I was often met with remarks about smelling like curry because I had some for lunch. This deep rooted desire to fit in with a community led me to change my eating habits for the rest of my life. Even today, I do not take Indian food with me to go - it remains tucked away within my home because I cannot bear for it to be disrespected the way it was years ago.
This subtle racism has followed me throughout my life, with a deprecating effect on both my identity and my self-esteem. My parents have also admitted to being treated poorly compared to their white colleagues, and still struggle to receive their undue recognition.
What remains the most ironic part, however, is how parts of my culture are being used as aesthetics and trends for certain groups of people today, while I used to get bullied for doing the same. How is it that the same people who used to tease me for my darker complexion are spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to achieve a “tanned” look each summer? How is it that I was labeled “greasy and dirty” when I came to school with oiled hair, but now it’s “the number one TikTok hair hack” that achieves the perfect “clean girl look”? How is it that when I wore Henna on my hands to celebrate my culture’s festivities, I was told I look “cursed”, but apparently drawing on fake freckles with Henna is an overtaking trend?
As I trudge my way through college, I realize that you do not have to be part of a “minority group” to experience this feeling of alienation. You just simply have to be a minority of some form.
This post was written by Aashika Hannurkar (she/her), a Psychology major at the University of Washington, Seattle. An aspiring physician, she strives to explore mental health issues in minority communities in relation to their physical health. The daughter of an Indian immigrant family, Aashika decided to share her struggles with identity, racism, and imposter syndrome through her writing to bring awareness to the issues that minority groups in the United States experience daily.
As a Content Creation intern at Neolth, she's graciously and bravely shared her story for the betterment of others. Read more of her blogs on the Neolth app!