Eating & Belonging: A Conversation
15 July 2012
I got called American last week. Not once or twice, but a few different times, by a few different people. “Entering your home is like entering an American house.” “Oh you’re so American.” “You sound so American!” “Your door is an American style door.”
I had to be polite. This wasn’t racism or xenophobia by a longshot, but the remarks had an edge; they weren’t precisely compliments; more like paper cuts: not deep, not debilitating, but persistently painful. So, with each new remark, I smiled a little wider, and gritted my teeth a little harder.
On one level, there was the truth of it. I had lived in North America, after all, for just about all my intellectual and professionally formative years. I hold an American passport. I work for an American University. My two babies arrived there, natural born Texans. In some keen sense, each of us four grew up there, and the place, the ideals it represents, and the possibilities it has opened up for us, the friendships it has nurtured, remain central to our senses of self. Of course we carried traces and telltale signs. How could it have been otherwise?
On another level, there were ironies, slathered on thick. It took a move across the continents and seas, back to the motherland, to acquire our “American” identification. All the years we spent in North America, we had been, visibly, racially, ethnically, culturally Indian, South Asian, even “Pakis” sporting “Paki dots”–as the red dot that Indian women mark on their foreheads, called the pottu or the bindi, laughably becomes in the misinformed language of white racism: Pakistanis, being generally Muslim, don’t wear bindis. When we moved into a neighborhood, or got jobs, or enrolled our kids in schools, people were happy that we made these places more diverse–or so the official story went. We were consulted by well-meaning friends on all things Indian, including said Paki dot. Friends coming to dinner would ask what alcoholic beverage would best complement “Indian.” They would experience the spices and the tastes of our meals as exotica; they would ask about ethnic aisles in American supermarkets as though these were the gullies of far-off bazaars. We were, each of us in our hundreds of Indian homes, mistresses of spices.
So much so, we worried, when our house went on the market, what impression the lingering smells of “curry” would leave on potential buyers, and then we did everything we could with vents and windows and paints to neutralize the impressions we’d crafted so carefully at dinner the night before. At work, I was almost effortlessly an “India specialist,” consulted as such on the strength of close to two decades of research on India, politics, gender, religion, and social movements. My students would gawk when I spoke about caste, while others either marveled at the impenetrability of the topic or bristled when we refused easy explanations. But nobody would deny that if there was one thing that was irrefutable about us, barring the handful of times that we were mistaken for Mexicans, that other brown-skinned group around, it was that we were Indian.
When we became Americans, it was not at that solemn ceremony held in a high-school basketball stadium with seating for thousands somewhere up in North Houston, at which smiling well-meaning American (nay, Texan) women sidled up to ask, with so much feeling, how we felt at that precise moment of citizenship. Not even when we stood in the immigration queues at Chennai airport and stuck out our spanking new American passports rubber-banded to OCI [Overseas Citizen of India] documents. No, when we claimed the identity and presented it proudly, we noticed how the immigration officials smirked at us while they smiled broadly, even giggling, at the white Americans who stood before and after us in the queues–not once or twice, but routinely.
The moment of our citizenship came later, unexpectedly, when my older one joined school and the girls laughed at his accent and the story of his origins. Or when well-meaning friends leveraged the term to speak their discomfort at the foreignness of our aesthetic choices, or our demands for responsiveness, responsibility, and precision. Or when other US-returned Indians called us, to ask not about spices but restaurants, or where the heck one gets fresh cream in this town, pleaseplease something close to the heavy cream of the American dairy case, something that doesn’t, well, stink. We huddled together as Americans when “American” became an epithet: when we were not-so-kindly or ever-so-slightly-cuttingly called American, our ways smirked at, our desires more-and-less out of place. When we were interpellated as American subjects, as Althusser might have said.
Hey, you there! calls the police officer.
Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject. Why? Because he has recognized that the hail was “really” addressed to him, and that “it was really him who was hailed” (and not someone else). [Althusser Lenin, 1970: 118]
“Take it as a compliment,” advised another friend. Indeed. What else is left to do but to answer the call to becoming an ideological subject?
So: Hell yeah, I’m American. I’m Canadian, too, and (South) Indian through and through, but never mind my multitudes. For now I am singular, distilled. I claim the identity that calls me, in something the way feminists reclaim “bitch,” African Americans “n—–,” and the gay movement becomes, quite self-assuredly, queer.
American. One hundred percent American.
Fiddling around for some quick way to embrace my new ideological existence, something quick and greasy: “burgers and fries.” I’m playing with the idea here, of burgers and fries as an ideological state apparatus, or an ISA, as Althusser has called the complex of institutions (family, media, educational system, religious institutions etc.) that constitute us as willing subjects. [ISAs are to be contrasted with RSAs, Repressive state apparatuses which coerce rather than compel identifications with prevailing social norms. Think of the police, or the law, for example.]
It’s a stretch, possibly, but burgers-and-fries are virtually an American institution, if you think for a moment of their centrality to the American diet [think: fast food and read Eric SchlosserÕs Fast Food Nation], their place in defining American regional cuisine [Read: John T. EdgeÕs Hamburgers and Fries: An American Story or explore A Hamburger Today], their role in shaping the American drive-in drive-through and drive-by landscape that, in turn, instituted the preeminence of the automobile and its massive, supporting political-ideological infrastructure.
Look at it thus, and burgers and fries are larger than life mirrors which we recognize our reflections: American.
And why not? The burger is a quintessential American icon, à la Linton, all the more given its unknown-yet-probably-global composition: a patty that derives from practices of shredding meat that traces back to medieval Eurasia, through to the German “Hamburg steak” that was, by the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, being sold in between bun halves. And so was born, from a history of the world, the all-American hamburger. Fittingly a proletarian dish, since it used ground beef and leftover trimmings. Iconically American as mom and apple pie, not for its verifiable authenticity but for the grand immigrant story it also narrates.
[We didn't do beef, though. We couldn't. Why not? Because we ain't no Pakis.*]
*That means that we’re Hindu, who generally hold beef eating taboo for semi-religious reasons (or, if you ask Anthropologist Marvin Harris, because the cow is worth more to the Indian economy alive than dead). Muslims, on the other hand, have a taboo against consuming pork, though beef is fair game.
And the fries. Potatoes, frenched (that is, julienned) and fried in “a French manner” (as Thomas Jefferson is reported to have described the technique imported to the Colonies in the 1700s), theyÕre irrevocably assigned French origins. So much so that renamed “freedom fries” were the popular nationalist retort to France’s opposition to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq: a boycott down to dubious origins. And now unfailing partner to the burger, in sickness and in health.
We embraced the burger and fries partnership as resolute consolidation of our agency as immigrant Americans in Pondicherry. Our condiments and beverages completed the demonstration: Heinz 57 (none of this Kissan-Maggi local stuff), Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Coke (not the mimicry of Indian Thumbs Up, and no ordinary soda either), iced tea. We could have gone on to shakes and finished things off with apple pie and ice cream, but we figured enough; we’d made our point. We’d responded to the call to citizenship; we’d recognized ourselves in the mirror held up. The kids had waited patiently for the meal with considerable anticipation, and had even hugged me for my recreation of greasy American fare, which we all admittedly miss.
“In ideology,” says Althusser, “the real relation is invariably invested in the imaginary relation, a relation that expresses a will (conservative, conformist, reformist, or revolutionary), a hope or a nostalgia, rather than describing a reality.” [Althusser, For Marx, 1970: 234]
And now time to sit down and eat.
Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press,  2001.
Althusser, Louis. For Marx. New York: Vintage, 1970
Harris, Marvin. 1966. The cultural ecology of India’s sacred cattle. Current Anthropology 7/1: 51-66.
Return to conversation home + index…
Previous entry: none
Next entry: You Are Having One American Nature Only, I Am Telling You (MBJ) 14 July 2012