I grew up in Sammamish, Washington in the early 2000s when it was mostly a homogenous population of white people. In the past twenty years there has been exponential growth number of Asian people living there.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, my classmates and friends were mostly white. There were a few other asians kids, and maybe 1 or 2 black kids. There were no Indian grocery stores like there are today. We would have to drive 30 minutes each weekend to get the groceries we needed for our cooking needs.
I spent my time in between two communities. My ‘American’ community, and my ‘Indian’ community. My ‘American’ community was comprised of my school and swim team friends. My ‘Indian’ community, however was comprised of an even smaller breakdown of communities.
Dance community: Girls my age from Sammamish and surrounding neighborhoods who would meet every week to learn and practice Bollywood/Folk dance for the yearly Indian Association of Western Washington (IAWW) Diwali show.
IAWW Youth Board (YB) community: Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers that were part of the Indian Association of Western Washington. These kids would end up being camp counselors for Camp Bharat every year (yes, Indian camp). This group was fun at times, but there was also lots of drama and bullying within this organization. It was not inclusive at all.
Family Friend Community: The closest community I have to family. This is the community of people my parents first met when they immigrated to Arkansas.
More Indian communities that I was not necessarily a part of…
The exclusive Medina Indians ($$$): These people usually lived in Mansions on the lake and had exclusive friend circles.
Not part of the ‘Indian Community’ Community: The Indian people who couldn’t give an ‘f’ about being part of an ‘Indian community’.
Tamils/Malyali/Marati Communities: Communities that correlated with the different Indian regions and subcultures.
These communities would often time overlap and I am sure there are a lot more, but this is my initial thought list. Basically the Indian community was also divided into sub-communities depending on where in India you came from, your class, and sometimes what you did for fun. The Indian community itself was very divided and had its own complicated dynamics.
As you can see, I grew up in a lot of spaces that did not intertwine. For example, I would never think about having my school friends and my Indian dance friends hang out together. There lived in separate spaces and I would feel uncomfortable bringing the two together.
Although we were a part of a bigger ‘Indian community’, I would also never expect my family friends and my YB friends to hang out either.
I consider these invisible, but enforced rules boundaries. People don’t cross boundaries because don’t want to feel out of place. I set up boundaries within my own communities, because I didn’t want to make anyone else feel uncomfortable either.
Last week I went to the Indian grocery store in Sammamish because I was in the neighborhood. I was wearing shorts, and while I was checking out, I got the dirtiest look from a South Asian aunty. These are the thoughts that went through my mind after that happened…
I feel satisfied that she is getting so angry at me in my shorts.
Damn… I feel kind of slut shamed.
WHY DO I FEEL SLUT SHAMED? THIS IS AMERICA.
I am annoyed but at the same time this woman probably just wanted to preserve her traditional values and culture, but at the same time she was projecting negative energy onto me.
How can we preserve culture but also not be assholes? (That requires extra thought. Let me know if you have any comments on this.)
This interaction was probably really confusing for me because I was in Sammamish, a space I feel comfortable in. I grew up there, and no one had ever given me a look like that in the many years for wearing shorts. But at the same time, I was in an Indian Grocery store (which has its own subculture), where a young woman wearing shorts is not a common site. If you are reading this and have never had to exist in multiple spaces at once, you might feel confused. But these are the type of dynamics that you are exposed to when you grow up in multiple cultures and spaces.
The main conclusion that I drew from this experience is that THERE ARE A LOT OF BOUNDARIES IN PLACES WHERE MANY CULTURES EXIST! The fact that I had to think so much about my interaction at the Indian grocery store annoys me. My dream world is a place where people can just exist as themselves and not have to think about these ‘unspoken rules’ or feel like they are too ‘American’, too ‘Indian’, too ‘Black’, too ‘Latinx’, too ‘Asian’. We should just be able to be ourselves and not feel like we are making anyone uncomfortable by doing that.
My solution to breaking down these boundaries is FOOD.
Last month I was invited to JoAnne’s house on Lake Sammamish, where I catered a banana leaf dinner for JoAnne and her 9 awesome friends. These women all lived in Sammamish. Some of them had lived there for 10+ years, and some of them were new. There were two Latina woman in the group, and the rest of the women were white.
For those of you who don’t know, ’Banana Leaf Rice' style is a traditional way of eating food in Southern India from a banana leaf. This dining ritual promotes community, and is very common during special events (wedding, birthdays, religious holidays). You sit with the banana leaf in front of you, and the host walks around and serves you small amount of various dishes on your leaf. You eat with your right hand. Seconds are encouraged (while supplies last). The banana leaf meal comprises of rice, sambar (tamarind lentil stew), salad, sweets, chips, pickles, and cooked vegetables. These meals stimulate all of your senses (including touch), and also all of your taste buds :)
During my banana leaf dinner with JoAnne and her friends, I talked a lot about what it was like growing up in Sammamish as a South Asian girl. I talked about the times that I was made fun of at school for bringing Indian food, and how I had to maintain separate lives, an American life and an Indian life. I answered questions they had about Indian culture, and Indian cooking. I deconstructed stereotypes. I gave them advice on what spices they should have in their kitchen, and where to find them. I encouraged them to visit the Indian store. I taught them how to eat with their right hand (spoons are never provided at my meals), something the majority of them had never done before. Although they felt out of their comfort zone at first, it became less of a ‘thing’ towards the end of the meal. I think it was really important for them to understand how difficult and awkward it can be to learn a new culture, and cross those boundaries. I drew parallels to this and the immigrant experience.
At the end of the meal the guests were extremely appreciative of the experience. They felt more connected to their South Asian neighbors. They had an experience they were able to talk to their Indian acquaintances about, they had more empathy for the immigrant experience and also felt educated on what it was like growing up as a person of color in Sammamish.
I am so grateful that I was invited into this space to share my culture and break boundaries. It makes me feel one step closer to my goal of being able to just exist in a space without overthinking it.
This is my goal with my Mother Tongue, and Mother Tongue banana leaf dinners. I want to build community and break boundaries. Recently, one of my teachers from High School informed me that the entire staff read my piece about the importance of pronouncing names correctly. The entire high school staff is making it a priority to respect people’s names. It makes me proud to know that I am one step closer. If you are interested in hosting a banana leaf dinner or attending a banana leaf dinner, please send me at DM at @_mother.tongue.
Do you disagree with me? Have you done anything to break down boundaries? Have you experienced boundaries that you want to share? Please leave a comment below.