first_imgAs an Indian born and raised in the United States, I’d like to believe that I straddled two different cultural identities with relative ease. My parents, both South Indian Tamil Iyers, raised me with a deep rooted understanding of my heritage. Meanwhile, the environment that I grew up in outside the home, which was not conducive to openly displaying my Indianness for fear of ridicule and exclusion, gave me the opportunity to embrace my American side.However, growing up in a relatively all white suburb of Philadelphia in the early 1990s, one thing I could not hide from my peers was my strict vegetarian diet. School lunches were not vegetarian friendly, so I was fortunate that my stay-at-home mom packed my lunch (as well as my dad’s and brothers’) everyday. My mom made sure we were properly nourished with food from every food group – peanut butter and jelly sandwich, fruit, fruit juice, a granola bar, and usually a sweet (always the first to be devoured). I rarely bought lunch, and when I did, it was on Domino’s Pizza days when I could be assured that I’d get a slice of delicious, plain cheese pizza – and that, like everyone else, I would be paying a meager $1.50 to buy a school lunch. As much as I tried to fit in, people noticed that I wasn’t like them. Not only was my skin darker than theirs, my hair was always braided in two plaits and my forehead occasionally adorned with a miniscule red dot in the center of my eyebrows. My diet made me a subject of constant questioning and even harassment…“If you don’t eat meat, you eat fish, right?”“If you can’t eat meat, what do you eat?”“Have you ever tried meat?”“What if you ate meat?”I was always dumbfounded by these questions, because I never went home thinking that I lacked a variety in my diet without meat. My mom is an amazing cook and she always had an array of dishes for us every night. From a Tamilian staple dish rasam saadham (rice with rasam) to yoghurt rice, chapathis, to pooris, dosas and adais, potato curry, cauliflower curry, broccoli curry and every other curry possibly imaginable. It was always a surprise to see what she had made for dinner that day. Indian friends enthusiastically accepted invitations for dinner just to eat my mother’s cooking.So, why did my peers make me feel like I was abnormal? Was I handicapped because my diet didn’t comprise of meat, poultry or fish products?This constant scrutiny and criticism forced me to reevaluate my vegetarianism. I felt like an outcast, for not eating meat, and I felt worse because I had no desire to – as if there was something inherently wrong with me for not even wanting to try it. I never had any curiosity to experiment with meat, because in my upbringing I was taught that eating meat was wrong. Eating the flesh of animals would be just as bad as eating the flesh of a human being, and of course, I would never do that! So, essentially, eating meat was just as heinous an act.But, I eventually allowed my peers’ comments to dictate how I felt about myself as a vegetarian and as an Indian. I started to believe that what they viewed as limitations on my diet translated into limitations in my worth as a person. As much as I tried to fit in, my vegetarianism would somehow give me away as being different from “them.” I began feeling as if being vegetarian was an inconvenience, especially when I went to friends’ houses for parties and get-togethers. I felt guilty for being the one person who couldn’t eat the pepperoni pizza and had to ask for a substitute. Yet through it all, I remained devoted to remaining a vegetarian, because of my faith as a Hindu and my love and compassion for animals.It was only in my late teens and early twenties that I began realizing that there was nothing “wrong” or “different” about my vegetarianism. It took me a long time to realize the reason why I never felt like I lacked a healthy, complete meal was because I didn’t. My Indian American identity allowed me to eat cuisine from two different cultures, which didn’t limit me, but in fact expanded my selection. I started realizing that my friends were the ones who were limited in their diets and in their thinking. I came to understand that my American friends (those who had no other immediate culture to claim) didn’t realize I had more than just salad and French fries to choose from. They were so used to meals always containing meat that nothing else existed to them. But, oh, how they missed out on sambar, bhel puri and potato cutlet! I was the lucky one! It’s amazing how cultural nuances once deemed deviant eventually are embraced by society. Whereas I was ridiculed in school for wearing a red dot, Madonna made bindis a fashion statement. Hinduism was often scoffed at as an idolatrous religion, yet major clothing companies sell apparel prominently featuring Ganesha and the Om symbol. Even the attitude toward vegetarianism has changed and it has grown in popularity since I was a child. Today, restaurants and grocery stores offer an assortment of items for vegetarians. I can go to a cookout and have a meatless burger or look at a vegetarian section in a restaurant’s menu. People are beginning to understand the benefits of excluding meat from their diets. Meatless diets promote a healthier and cost-efficient lifestyle in the face of recent scares of disease infected livestock, the expensive prices of meat, and the various human diseases associated with eating improperly prepared meat.Although my vegetarianism was always questioned, increasing numbers of Americans are jumping onto the “healthy lifestyle” bandwagon. I am proud that I didn’t give up my beliefs at a time when they were often scorned upon. As I learned to embrace what others saw as “different” about me, I became more comfortable with myself as a vegetarian and as an Indian.I would like to believe that those two aspects of my life are intertwined and that if I had tried to give up my vegetarian-ness in an attempt to “fit in,” I would have somehow lost an intrinsic part of my Indian identity at the same time. With pride, I can now affirm that I am a vegetarian going 23 years strong and in being one, I am a more disciplined, healthy, and happy person.   Related Itemslast_img

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