When I was preparing to live in India for nine months, my first fear was not getting run over by a rickshaw or contracting Japanese encephalitis, but missing the food back home too much. Considering that just riding my bicycle through Varanasi’s non-existent lanes, I have to evade much greater obstacles, among them horned livestock, it sounds like a bit of a silly concern to have. However, it wasn’t just Indian food that I was scared of not liking or food back in California that I was scared of missing, it was everything connected to these particular foods. It was sitting around the dining table with my grandmother sharing the stories of our day. It was Sundays at the park after mass, the family united, arrachera and nopales grilling in the background. It was waking up on January 6 (Three Kings’ Day) to find my shoes filled with treats, my siblings ecstatic over their new toys, and a wax figurine of baby Jesus in my piece of rosca. I could extend this metaphor even further to include plastic cafeteria food. It doesn’t matter that sometimes the cheese pizza tasted like cardboard because it always included an order of laughs with friends and the safe routine of high school days. For me, eating Indian food for nine months doesn’t translate into a plate of rice, dal, and chapati. It means California is twelve hours and thirty minutes behind me, and I’m not just on another continent, I’m on another day. It means I am learning a new language, wearing different clothes, living with a strangers that are family, and breathing unfamiliar air. Aloo gobi is a constant reminder that I really did move here for nine months.
During our week in Sarmoli, Jane, Christine, and I stayed with a woman named Kamla. Kamla’s son and daughter had grown up and left home, and her husband was very reserved. Our Hindi was limited to a few polite phrases, and this hindered our ability to interact with our homestay mother. When we did get to connect with Kamla, it usually revolved around food. In the morning, she would make us a cup of chai. Then, we would go down to her garden to harvest potatoes. Half an hour later, we headed back, washed the earth from our fingernails, and had breakfast in her kitchen. After breakfast, she would hand us a lunchbox, usually containing chapati and some arrangement of the potatoes we had gathered. Much later in the day, we would return with empty lunchboxes to have dinner. So much of our interactions with Kamla occurred during meals, that I was surprised to learn that she didn’t eat with the other women in the collaborative she was part of. She could knit with them, laugh with them, and work with them, but because of her husband’s status as a Brahmin priest she could not share a meal with them.
This past month in Uttarakhand, our group delved deep into the topic of food. We visited seed banks to learn more about the importance of seed diversity and the negative effects of seed commercialization. We watched a documentary on the food industry in the US and another documentary on the suicides of farmers in India. We talked about religion, the suffering of animals, and personal decisions to become or not become vegetarians. September really felt like one long discussion, the kind in which people, suddenly impassioned, resort to using their hands to clarify what they are trying to say with their mouths. There were moments of excitement, moments of exhaustion, and moments of feeling powerless – or perhaps empowered – because there are so many conversations left to have in a divided world.
On our last night in Princeton, I said I wanted to find comfort in the unexpected. In some ways, I have. I do feel a lot closer to food. It’s not just because I have to be extra careful and make sure that my water is filtered or that my fruit is properly peeled or washed. Sometimes I grab a spoon out of habit, but at the end of my meal the spoon is still clean because I have used my right hand to eat. I have been eating in a set way for so long that whenever I eat now it feels different; it’s not as automatic. Now, I’m paying a bit more attention, forming new connections, and slowly finding my way.
This is is not to say that I’m ready to apply for Indian citizenship – although everyone here takes a look at my face and asks me if I’m Indian. I am still adjusting to my service site, my homestay family, and even the food. Since we arrived in India, I’ve had chow mein seven times. In my defense, I wanted to try the regional variations, and chow mein is delicious. To be completely honest, occasionally, I still pile aloo gobi onto my chapati, fold it, and pretend it’s a taco.