Image source: Food for Health

A Reflection on Rejected Lunches

I took off the plastic lid and looked inside.

“What is that?” the girl sitting next to me asked innocently. “It looks weird.”

“I don’t like it either,” I said, laughing a little. “My mom just makes this kind of food.”

Getting up, I dumped the contents of my lunch into the cafeteria’s nearest trash can.

My efforts to reject a part of my cultural identity continued, from throwing out lunches to being embarrassed at my parents’ use of Hindi or Gujarati in public. I sought to throw out aspects of my identity that did not conform to the environment of the white-majority, suburban elementary school I attended.

I couldn’t understand why my family was content with being conspicuous.

Being Indian and portraying our heritage led to us receiving strange looks at the grocery store and having adults ask me where I was really from.

It was a repulsive action, throwing out my lunch. I felt as though I was denying my heritage — in addition to wasting food — yet I couldn’t stop. My meal seemed to be a recurring reminder that I was different, and I didn’t view different as good.

This mindset changed drastically when I entered an interdistrict middle school, where I met students from diverse backgrounds. I was no longer the only Indian in my class; my grade was a mix of colors and characters. I found that many of my peers were proud with their cultural identities, comfortable with being different in a world that all too often seeks to make uniform.

As my state’s Department of Education puts it, the purpose of interdistrict magnet schools is to “voluntarily reduce racial, ethnic and economic isolation.”

I can honestly attest to the truth of this statement.

Being in a climate in which diversity was present helped me embrace my identity. I was able to grow into a more confident person, sensitive to cultural affairs and willing to stand up for the differences that I used to despise.

No longer do I hesitate to recommend a Bollywood movie to an interested peer, talk about my love of biryani, or engage in discussions centered around racial and religious issues in India. I’ve started learning Hindi, and one day, I hope to be able to fluently converse with my parents.

I don’t wish to have a different identity, as the second grade version of myself once desired.

At the time, self-rejection seemed to be the only path to acceptance. What I didn’t realize was that accepting myself was the first step to getting society to accept me.

It was impossible for me to expect others’ tolerance, I discovered, if I did not tolerate myself.

I think that my cultural identity is valuable — an asset to promoting creativity, empathy, and knowledge in my community. I can be Asian and American; I do not need to sacrifice my heritage for nationality.

Being American and patriotic doesn’t mean I need to be of a specific race or culture. After all, what is America, if not comprised of the world’s various races, religions, and backgrounds?

Wherever you go in life, you will encounter individuals who are not used to some aspects of your identity.

It’s possible that they’ll call your behavior or customs peculiar, unusual, or, as was a common adjective used to describe my lunch in elementary school, weird.

But weird isn’t necessarily bad.

Maybe, like my former classmates, these individuals haven’t been exposed to your differences. Maybe, what they need is for you to consider how their upbringing and environment has shaped their views and teach compassionately because you are proud of your identity.

Sometimes, this means being the bigger person and facilitating conversations rather than taking offense and disengaging.

It is easy to feel frustrated and back away from uncomfortable situations. It is harder to dispel misconceptions and confront hostility with a desire to teach.

As the Indian independence movement leader Mahatma Gandhi puts it, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

How can you achieve this “change,” the growing awareness and tolerance of different cultures, if you are not ready to work toward it?

This article was written by Melina Joseph and edited by James Noh.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Young Asian Leaders of America.

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