She poured the piping chai back and forth between the pot and cup—cooling it down for my sensitive tongue—and set it down before me alongside a plate of samosas. While relishing the flaky pastries packed with potatoes and peas, my mother would vent to me about the latest outrage at work and listen to me detail my positively riveting day at middle school. Each day without fail, I would retrieve a pack of biscuits from our stockpile sourced from the local Indian grocery store and just about finish it before finally retiring to my room to do homework.
Few things are more mundane than this daily routine, but to me these afternoon tea sessions were more than just the early beginnings of a caffeine addiction; they were one of my numbered cultural connections.
My childhood was a recipe for an identity crisis. The daughter of an atheist father and a spiritual mother, I attended a predominantly Caucasian Catholic school at which I was the only Indian student in my grade. I could never tell you about the history of Hinduism but confidently recited Catholic sacraments. I devoured English novels but never understood my own mother tongue.
But, if nothing else, I could tell you about my food. I gushed praise for my mother’s flavorful crab curry and looked forward to the sweet, creamy payasam (a dish resembling rice pudding) she made for festivals more than the actual holidays themselves. I returned from school lunches of grilled cheese and pizza to a home filled with the cough-inducing scent of masala—an Indian spice my mother used liberally in her cooking.
As adolescence crept up on me, so did a desire to better understand my roots. But I had little exposure beyond food.
It wasn’t until I entered the significantly more ethnically diverse world of public high school that I realized a lot more comprised my culture than its food. My Indian peers could relate to each other through everything from Bollywood cinema and music to shared religious beliefs while I had little more to contribute to conversations than my primitive knowledge of early 2000s Indian pop culture and an undying worship of my mother’s home-cooked meals.
I was increasingly bewildered by the limited connection I had to my culture. I was at the cultural crossroads typical of second generation immigrants; I was never decidedly American but too distanced from my parents’ culture to really identify with it. As my father might say, I was “neither here nor there”. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I identified more closely with Indian cuisine than the ethnicity.
A bit overdramatic? Possibly. But there truly was a period in my life when I believed myself to be only Indian in name. In the search for an identity to claim, I was disappointed to find myself so ignorant of the one that should have belonged to me.
I still often struggle with feeling out of place and lost within my culture, but things have definitely changed since then. I’m not about to say that my love for Indian food managed to overcome years of puzzling over my connection to my heritage and allowed me to feel 100% in touch with my culture (though that would be a lovely way to wrap up what has turned into a meandering story of my life with no neat conclusion in sight). But Indian food has certainly left its mark on me. Those afternoons spent stuffing my face with samosas and sipping hot chai are my gentle reminder that, though I might know a bit less about my roots than I should, I will always have something to come back to—something that will always mean home.