Using Food to Bridge Communities

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.

Sammamish Population (Data from US Census)

Sammamish Population (Data from US Census)


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…

  1. I feel satisfied that she is getting so angry at me in my shorts.

  2. Damn… I feel kind of slut shamed.

  3. WHY DO I FEEL SLUT SHAMED? THIS IS AMERICA.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

“No my parents did not get married when they were 14”

“No my parents did not get married when they were 14”

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 :) 

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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.

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Reclaim your Name ✊🏻✊🏼✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿

My name is Sharada (Sha-ruh-tha), but for the majority of my life I have introduced myself as (Shar-duh) to save Non-South Asians the discomfort of saying my name correctly. I had been introducing myself as Shar-da to Non-South Asians for as long as I can remember. I have no clue why my name became ‘Shar-duh’ and not “Sha-RA-duh” or some other random pronunciation. Maybe it was just easier for my school teachers to say and that’s how people interpreted my name based off how my parents introduced me.

Saraswati

Saraswati

My parents’ last name is ‘Chengalvarayan’, but when I was born they decided to shorten it to ‘Rayan’.  I have so many memories of white people being so amused by my father’s name. My parents selflessly changed my name, because they didn’t want me to go what they went through. From my birth I was inherently taught that I must change who I am to accommodate to white people. My last name had been colonized. The earliest memories I have from school include me being bullied for my name. Sharada is another name for the Hindu goddess Saraswati - the goddess of wealth and knowledge, and a name that pays honor to my great-grandmother, a matriarch from my dad’s side of the family. Instead of calling me by my name, I was called Shart-a, Fart-a, and Retard-a.


Every single time I had a new teacher or substitute-I knew that they had gotten to my name on the attendance list when there was a long pause followed by a very confused look on their face. Most of the time, these adults would make a big deal about how complicated my name was. Because it made them so uncomfortable, they felt the need to alienate me from the rest of the class. During my school years, I found it humorous and would laugh it off. But these moments subconsciously made me foster so much hatred for my name, for my identity and my culture. Looking back on it now, it brings me a lot of sadness. My name is sacred.  “Your name is a spiritual vibration that summons you into the space that you are in. “ - Becca, a friend I made today. All throughout my life, I had been dishonoring my name.

My name represents my family

My name represents my family

I am not sure when exactly this clicked, but I think I started to pronounce my name correctly about a year ago, when I heard someone (a non-brown person) say my name correctly and my heart felt so full and I had butterflies. Is this how it should feel to be called by your name? It felt so amazing to be called by the name my parents gave me. Why was I depriving myself of this beautiful feeling, just to make other people feel more comfortable? From that day on, I started introducing myself with my real name. It was really hard and scary to do at first, but now when I introduce myself I say my name with pride, and I correct people when they pronounce it wrong. Most people were very receptive to my feedback, and actually appreciated it.

I currently work at an Indian café where most of the customers come from a South Asian background. When I pronounce their names correctly when calling out their filter coffee or chai, they usually give me such a big smile, and we both share a look of understanding and empathy. Some people still give me their initials and fake names (out of habit). Sometimes I call them out for this, but other times I let it be. I understand how exhausting it is to have to explain your name every single day.

Hasan Minhaj on Ellen

Hasan Minhaj on Ellen

I came to the realization that if I change the way I orally say my name, when I die, my name will die with me. All that will be left is a pronunciation of letters that exist only because it made a certain subgroup of people feel less uncomfortable. If I mispronounce my own name, I am letting my culture and identity slip, and am giving way into internalized racism. That is why I am reclaiming and decolonizing, my name. I want to empower others to do so as well. So here is my challenge for you. The next time you order coffee or meet someone new, say your original name. Pay attention to how it makes you feel. The next time, say your original name, and correct them if they pronounce it wrong. Notice how It makes you feel. Keep doing this until it becomes a habit. Reclaim your name.



Below are some thoughts that I received from people about their relationship to their names:

  • “2nd grade soccer team, coach wants to call me Sam, he says Samia is too complicated. I ask Mom. She says fuckkk that…I named you Samia and he can learn how to say it right. Not complicated at all. I was embarrassed at the time. Now I’m so so grateful she made me stand my ground. Today, I’m proud of my roots. I’m not gonna whitewash the beauty out of my identity to make other people comfortable“

  • “Sometimes distancing yourself from your name to escape stereotypes can be cathartic“

  • “It used to bother me so I shortened my name. It’s easy for me.“

  • “Sadly at a certain point you get more comfortable with the new pronunciation.“

  • “It doesn’t bother me if it’s their first time pronouncing it”

  • “Seen groups of Indians who all call each other by the white versions of their names“

  • “Other Indians from different areas pronounce my name wrong“

  • “I changed my name for work :(“

  • “I’ve started pronouncing my last name with an accent because that’s what it is.“

  • “I order food as Duba but now they call me dubs and it’s too late to tell them my real name.“

  • “Many non-BAME ‘misread’ my name as Sadie - even when I introduce myself as Sadia.“

  • “My parents gave me an English name and Chinese name. Thoughts?”

  • “When people mispronounce the mispronunciation.”


Here is some advice I have for people who feel targeted by this post and/or trying to feel more comfortable with names

  • Do not ever tell someone that their name is spelt wrong or that it should be pronounced differently. For example, I often get told that my name has an extra “a” in it. Sorry my name is too complicated for the English language 🤷🏽‍♀️

  • If you are meeting someone with a name that you have not heard before, take some time to actually try and pronounce it right. If you’re embarrassed about asking, get over it. People who have had to assimilate their names are embarrassed that they have to westernize or ‘white-wash’ their name for the comfort of others. They will undoubtedly respect you more as long as you try.

  • It is offensive to “rename” someone or give someone a nickname because their name is hard for you to pronounce. If you want to give someone a nickname, do it with the person’s consent. Names are personal, and you have no right to change someone’s name for your own comfort.


Do you feel attacked? Why? Do you have similar stories? Thoughts? Please feel free to add thoughts and questions in the comment section.

Why I Wear My Pottu 🔴

* Pottu: A pottu, or bindi is a adhesive dot, or powder (usually red) that is worn in between the eyebrows on women and sometimes men in South-Asian cultures. The pottu has many different significances. Spiritually, a pottu is worn to activate the Ajna Chakra, or the third eye. The pottu covers this chakra to contain the energy that moves up the spine during meditation. It activates the eye that is responsible for spiritual guidance. In some traditions, red pottus are worn to signify marriage, like a wedding ring. These days, pottus are used for aesthetic reasons because they CUTE. When I asked my Ava (dad’s mom) why she wore a pottu, she said she wore in in lieu of lipstick…interesting, right? 

While I write this post, I am sitting at a coffee shop in Seattle feeling a little bit nervous. I have changed something about my regular, everyday appearance - today is different. Today, I am wearing a pottu* in broad daylight, accompanied with western clothes for the first time. No, I am not going to the temple later, or to a traditional pooja (religious ritual) at a family friend’s house. I am wearing a pottu today because I am training myself to feel comfortable expressing myself through my South Asian culture, something I felt the need to compartmentalize for so long.

Shout to my Amma

Shout to my Amma

‘Why do I feel nervous?’ I ask myself. When I start thinking about it, not one specific thing comes to mind. A mixture of feelings from past experiences boil to the surface. These aren’t positive experiences, but experiences that one-by-one taught me that my South-Asian culture is something to be hidden in the Western world, something that should not be shown off. In middle school I felt emotionally crushed and betrayed when the henna on my hands was made fun of for looking like an waffle maker burn. When I was in India I felt so good about it, but after I got back from school that day, I went straight to the bathroom and vigorously tried to scrub the henna away. When I was planning my 10th birthday party sleepover, I told my mom I wanted to rent a Tamil movie (with subtitles) to watch with my friends (mostly white). My mom shut me down telling me that no one would enjoy it, and that I should pick a Hollywood movie to watch instead. After that comment, I stopped watching Bollywood movies all together, losing a hobby that I used to enjoy with my family all the time. When I went to school one day with coconut oil in my hair, one classmate told me that I was greasy and needed a shower. I stopped asking for coconut oil head massages after this incident. My hair will never forgive me.  

Ajna Chakra ACTIVATED

Ajna Chakra ACTIVATED

Other than the fact that all of the things I was teased for are now ‘cool’ and ‘trendy’ (henna, foreign films, and coconut oil), these incidents have two other things in common. First of all, I don’t think any of these comments were fueled by hate. They were fueled by ignorance, fear, and a maybe even a little bit of curiosity in disguise. I don’t think any of the people who made these comments realized that they would still affect me 10, 15 years later. Secondly, these comments made me dig myself deeper and deeper into the hole that I had created for myself.  In this hole, I stored aspects of my South-Asian culture that I felt needed to be hidden. I felt unsafe bringing my culture out of that hole. It would mean risking being made fun of for the person that I was, being made fun of for my existence.

Today, I am taking one step out of that hole. I am doing that by wearing my pottu. Although I do feel a little bit nervous, I feel confident. I feel confident in my culture, in my customs, in my religion, in my traditions. I feel proud of all of these things, and nothing feels better than overcoming this fear, a fear created by colonization and western beauty standards. I am prepared to educate those who feel the need to make fun of me for wearing my pottu. Instead of viewing it as hate, I am using it as an opportunity to teach people why I wear my pottu, and what it stands for. 

Stuntin’ on the haterz

Stuntin’ on the haterz

I wear my pottu because when I was a kid, I had a treasure trove of pottus, each set unique, full of different designs and colors. I loved picking which one I would wear - Did I want to flex on them or keep it casual? I am realizing how much I miss that - expressing myself with my pottu. I recently came back from a trip to India where I was wearing a pottu routinely, everyday. I felt foreign when I forgot to put one on. It felt normal to me. Why did I feel like I had to change my beauty routine, just because I was in a different country? After asking myself this question, I realized that it was time to work on merging both my South Asian and American identities. I needed to work towards finding a cultural balance that worked for me. I feel a little strange, but I am excited for the next stage in my identity journey. I know that each day I wear my pottu, I will feel stronger and prouder of my cultural diversity.

If you are thinking about wearing a pottu at the next hottest music festival (FYRE amirite?), hopefully you will try to understand the cultural and personal significance of a pottu. You can do this by asking your pottu-wearing friends, your aunties, me, why we wear our pottus. Hopefully, you will realize that wearing a pottu as someone who has never felt ashamed of their culture is a privilege. For some people like me, it is not something that can be thrown away right after a music festival.

Pottu queens

Pottu queens

Why do you wear your pottu? How do you balance your cultural identities? Questions or comments? Please share!

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