Dinner parties and seeing your culture through the lens of white people

The spicy potatoes are crackling on the stove and the house smells wonderful from the baingan, cholle, and roasted brussels sprouts I cooked earlier. I’m waiting for my friend Afsa and Nidhi to arrive for the first dinner party I have hosted since moving to San Francisco.

This party feels significant for several reasons. The first is obvious, it’s signals the beginnings of a social life in this city I moved to 16 months ago. This is exciting, especially considering just 6 months ago I still felt quite isolated and lonely in this bustling and crowded city. The second isn’t as obvious. It’s the first time I’m hosting a dinner party exclusively for Indian guests. Previously, almost all of my dinner parties have comprised primarily of white guests.

Cooking my traditional food, based on the recipes and methods my mom taught me since I was a child, and which in turn her mom taught her when she was a child is a vulnerable and intimate thing. Sharing this with other Indian people takes some of the vulnerability away because they are way more familiar with the food and the traditions and I don’t have to go through an entire episode of teaching someone that you don’t say chai tea, and that it’s just chai, for example. Sharing my traditions with other Indian folks is a little easier, even though we all come from different regions in India.

But not only that, I don’t feel as much that I’m putting on a dog and pony show for them – like look, this are my culture and my traditions on display for your approval, consumption and entertainment.

My first dinner party was when I was in college and I invited a handful of my closest classmates to dinner. I think I have dinner parties in my DNA which I got from my mom who also has been hosting them ever since anyone can remember. At every single one, she cooks all the food herself. That’s something I try to do too, though I have learned that with a big group, it’s easier to make it potluck and cook only a couple of dishes myself.

I lived with my parents at the time of my first dinner party so this meant my mom did the cooking. I helped. It felt very vulnerable and intimate to let my architecture school classmates, who were mostly white, into my parents house and to introduce them to my mom and my brothers. Looking back, I can’t believe I had the courage to do it! It was the first time my mom had ever cooked for or hosted white and non-Indian people in the house and I’m sure for most of my classmates, it was probably the first time they were having dinner at an Indian family’s house.

Let me assure you, it was awkward for all involved. But I thought dinner parties were supposed to be awkward. I grew up attending lots of dinner parties in our local Muslim community. Usually the women would sit in one room, the men in the other, the kids in a third room, and no one in any of the rooms had much to say to each other. We just looked at each other, sized one another up and tried not to be noticed but eventually, usually after we got up to get food, the ice would melt and we would start talking. Sometimes the conversations would get off the ground and I wouldn’t want to leave and sometimes they just sputtered and died and I couldn’t wait to leave.

I was hell bent on impressing my classmates that evening. There was nothing I could do about the very modest and small duplex we lived in with our cheap second-hand furniture and kitschy Indian décor and I prayed my mom or brothers wouldn’t do or say anything embarrassing. My dad, thankfully, was at work because he would have just added to my anxiety.

After the food was served, everyone started relaxing a little and let their guard down and we actually all ended up having fun. It turns out my friends really liked my mom and said she was very funny and charming. They also thought my brothers were cute and most of all they LOVED the food.

That’s when I learned that I could use our traditional food as a gimmick to impress white and other non-Indian people I wanted to be friends with.

My attempts at ingratiating myself to white and other non-Indian friends were sincere but at the bottom of it there was something a little putrid about it too because I was devaluing myself and over-valuing them.

For the longest time I hid my culture from Americans because I thought they would never understand it, and worse, would look down on it as backward or unsophisticated. I was definitely worried about this at the first dinner party I threw for my architecture school classmates. (Architecture school is all about sitting on a pedestal and looking down on others after all.)

I found out through trial and error that there were some aspects of my culture that were readily acceptable for consumption and others that are little scary or too different and maybe even repulsive. Like chicken tikka masala at a restaurant is looked on favorably but if you or your clothes smell like spices, then it is unseemly and dirty.

Food has always been the great binder of different cultures. And this is a good thing. But the insidious thing about my cooking Indian food for my white and non-Indian friends at dinner parties was that I began seeing my culture from the white perspective, as exotic and spicy and interesting and different. I began seeing my entire culture mostly from a white and non-Indian lens because I hung out with them mostly. It was almost as if I was checking in with what white and non-Indian people thought of my culture before I myself approved of it.

Is this part of my culture ok for you? If yes, I will wear it on my sleeve proudly. Does this make you feel uncomfortable or repulse you? Then I will repress it and blot it out from my life.

You see, at this particular dinner party, my first in San Francisco and where I am hosting Indian friends, well, it doesn’t have that aspect of jumping through hoops and figuring out which parts of my culture to display and which to hide. This leaves room for actual connection and sharing and bonding and other kinds of vulnerabilities.

This is not to say I’m going to stop inviting white and other non-Indian people to my house for dinner, because I have friends of all different backgrounds and I love that and am proud of it. What I am saying is that I am learning to be truer to myself and my culture and to stop seeing myself and my culture through a white and non-Indian lens.

I am learning to cease looking to white and non-Indian people for approval or disapproval of my culture and to inhabit my own skin, my own traditions, and my own culture fully and unabashedly. If someone finds it uncomfortable or repulsive or too different, then, well, we are probably not meant to be friends and that’s ok.