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Posts Tagged ‘Americans’

Comfort Food

“Americans can’t adjust because there’s no such thing as an American. Variety is in the name.”

I sat back and thought about this as I looked at my Indian friend. We were having a delicious lunch that Nisha had cooked, and she had asked me whether I was sick of Indian food yet. I admitted that, while I wasn’t sick of it, I was certainly missing the variety I used to have in my diet.

It’s never felt like a strange concept to eat everything under the sun. Tonight we’ll have Thai. Tomorrow sushi. Salad for lunch. Risotto for dinner. This weekend we’ll grab a burritto. The quintessential American ‘restaurant’ tells us to “have it your way.” We don’t consider that almost everyone else in the world subsists on whatever type of food is native to their country.

And in India, unless you’re in the very very top bracket of people who can afford fancy expensive ‘alternative’ restaurants, most people eat Indian food pretty much every day of their life. They’ll get some fast food or pizza here and there, but the concept of variety is really mostly limited to whether you’ll have roti or rice.

It’s always strange whenever I get reminded that the American way of doing things isn’t necessarily normal across the world.  But maybe people don’t mind eating the same thing because it’s comfort food. And I think I have a better understanding of this after getting a little taste of my own comfort food here in Bombay.

Recently, I was able to have a food flashback. Or at least, a food recollection. Because one of my favorite restaurants has opened in Bombay.

I noticed it a few weeks ago – I was driving in South Mumbai and suddenly, like a flash or like a person you see unexpectedly in the wrong place, I noticed a sign with a very familiar symbol and name: Le Pain Quotidien. For those of you who have not had the pleasure to eat at one, it’s a Belgian chain that focuses on the art of bread and everything delicious that can go on it. And in New York I eat there as much as possible.

So the first minute I could grab Daniel to go, we drove into town and sat down at a table. It was bizarre – this just wasn’t India. It was like any other Pain Quotidien. Communal tables. Counter with bread behind it. Menu with tartines and mint lemonade. My comfort food. This wasn’t just in the ballpark of something I was used to, this was a place where I could have recognized the food anywhere.

I ordered a sundried tomato, mozerella, prosciuttio and olive tapenade tartine. It tasted like home. It was like being at an Embassy – I may physically have been in India, but I was in Belgian territory.

In that moment I could have agreed to eat this food every single day. I got it: people want what they know.  They don’t mind eating something every day if it’s embedded in their system.

I do suspect though, that once I’m in a place again where I have Le Pain Quotidien and all my other favorites, I’ll stop appreciating the idea of consistency. I’m still an American after all.

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They were four little words you definitely do not want to hear while living in India:

You. Might. Need Surgery.

It’s bad enough to be lying in a fetal position after spending your day taking tests. It’s another to contemplate having your body chopped into while living in a foreign country. I was not a happy camper.

It probably started with me boasting that I hadn’t gotten ‘India sick’ yet. I like to say this to people a lot – to be fair, it’s mostly to try and comfort people who are visiting. Such as, “Oh, you won’t get sick from the food. I’ve lived here six months and I haven’t gotten the notorious ‘Bombay Belly’ yet!’ I think I do better than my friend D who just likes to declare that she has a stomach of steel.

But I think there was a little bit of karma involved when I started to feel ill. It was as though the India gods were saying, “ok, you don’t need to get sick from food. We’ll give you a good-old-fashioned-regular-illness instead.”

I felt a bit ill on Friday but I only started to worry in the evening, when I took my temperature and it was above 100. I called my friend A.

“I have a weird question to ask you,” I began. “I have a fever. And Daniel is out of town. If this was America, I wouldn’t be nervous…”
“But it’s India.” she responded, clearly understanding where I was going.
“Right, so maybe you could spend the night over here in case something happens in the middle of the night?”

She, of course, said yes. You see, there’s an interesting thing that happens to all expats who live here: you get paranoid. And it’s justified. You hear too many tales that begin with, “Oh I thought I had a cold. But really it was dysentery” Or malaria. Or dengue. Everyone has horror stories about eating the wrong food or drinking the wrong juice. And these horror stories are much worse than your average food poisoning tales. So even the smallest hiccup or cough suddenly starts your brain ticking. What did I eat yesterday? Did I see a new mosquito bite on my ankle? Did I really wash that apple enough? You could go crazy worrying about getting sick – which is why most people stop obsessing over the small things after they’ve been here awhile. We start brushing our teeth with tap water and accepting ice from places that say they use mineral water. But it always lives in the back of your mind, the fear that India’s many health scares are coming your way.

I thought about all of this as I tossed and turned throughout the night. I couldn’t get comfortable no matter which position I picked. At 2am I looked at WebMd’s symptom checker. Bad idea. Once you say you’ve travelled to a third world country it starts giving you even more ideas. At 4am I wikipedia’ed dengue. That was comforting – apparently I would have had a rash, so it couldn’t be that. At 6am I took my temperature for the 20th time and was nervous to see it had gone up to its highest point so far. By 8am I woke up A.

“I think it’s time to call a doctor.”

My symptoms sounded bad- pain in the abdominal area on the right side of a female usually means appendix or ovaries, neither of which should be left unchecked. So we headed over to a clinic the doctor had recommended in order to get an ultrasound.

As I waited my turn in the plush waiting room I thought to myself, “This isn’t so bad.” It looked nicer than any clinic I’d seen at home. I was able to stretch out on a leather chair while a flat-screen tv showed the day’s cricket match (not my cup of tea, but interesting enough). Even with the nice setting the whole ultrasound only cost 1,200 rupees, or roughly $26. That’s before I even submit it to my insurance. For all the things to complain about the on the potential-diseases-you-could-get spectrum, I also had to be impressed by the low cost of everything. It’s not a low cost relative to the average income in Mumbai (where a large percentage of people only make a few thousand rupees a month), but compared to American health care, it’s a steal.

However my initial optimism soured a bit with the results of my ultrasound. I had “edematous gall ballder walls with sludge’ and ‘enlarged lymph nodes with fatty hila’. How was I to know what that meant? Sludge certainly didn’t sound good. Most annoyingly, they unfortunately they couldn’t get a close enough shot of my appendix to tell if it was bursting. So it was off to a CT (which, just as an FYI, cost around $120).

I’ve never had a CT before, but I can assure you that it is all the more unpleasant when 5 out of 6 techs in the room do not speak your language. They didn’t really understand that I was in a lot of pain, and therefore was having difficulty lying in one position. I couldn’t explain that my elevated fever was giving me the chills, which was also making it hard for me to not shake a bit. Finally a woman came in who spoke English and put a few blankets on me. I thought she might be my savior until she informed me that I would need an IV that would pump warm contrast into my veins as well as a tube going into another area (which I won’t go into depth describing here, since this blog aims to remain family friendly!). Needless to say, by the end of the CT I was feeling worse for wear.

That didn’t compare to my doctor’s visit after it all, where the idea of surgery was finally raised. As I lay curled up, exhausted from tests and fever and an unflinching pain, I listened to what the doctor had to say. You see, my appendix was fine. But that darn gallbladder was indeed inflamed and it would either need to respond to multiple medications or it would have to come out. A surgeon was lined up and at the ready in case I needed him. I suppose that was supposed to be comforting. We would just have to wait and see whether the inflammation and infection could go down before surgery became necessary.

Luckily the combination of the largest antibiotics I’ve ever seen, anti-inflammatories, pain medication, and an anti-nasuea medication normally reserved for chemo patients (the antibiotics apparently can be too strong to handle without some other medication) has made me start to feel like a new person (and all the medications together cost around $5). Within a day my fever went from almost 103 to almost normal. I’m certainly not at my best (those antibiotics are really not making it too easy on me), but at least it’s looking like I can keep my gallbladder.

So what have I taken from my few days of true illness in India? Well, firstly I will never make the silly claim of not having been ‘India sick’ again (although technically, lets be honest, 6 months of no food poisoning is pretty amazing in here. Knock on wood). I’ll also appreciate the cost of medicine here; it’s really something we Americans forget when we have insurance and something we decry when we don’t. If India can do it this cheaply why on earth can’t we even lower our costs a bit? I alternately appreciate being able to see a reliable doctor here and having the means to pay for it. I couldn’t help thinking of all the women I’ve met in Dharavi who clearly can’t afford to even get the kinds of tests I was able to get. It’s scary to think of how much pain I was in and the idea that someone couldn’t get the right diagnosis to lead them to the proper medication. It’s certainly something to be reminded of.

Mostly though, I’ll just appreciate (almost) having my health back. I’ve been lying around thinking of writing and being sad that I have no stories to tell other than the woes of a nauseous person with an enlarged gallbladder. It’s time for me to get better and back to everything I enjoy about living in India. Other than, of course, its predisposition for making us foreigners ill.

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Let’s Discuss

There’s been so much talk about Obama’s upcoming trip to India. For people here, it’s both exciting and a nuisance – the same person who will marvel: “Did you hear that he’s staying in India longer than any other country he’s visited?”, will turn around and scoff “Doesn’t he have enough cultural sensitivity to not come during Diwali? Did you hear no one can use fireworks?”. At any rate, it’s certainly a topic on everyone’s minds – and as an American I definitely hear all the opinions in the peanut gallery.

So when a friend asked me if I would be willing to sit on a panel about youth opinions on Indo-US relations, I agreed. After all: I had lived in Britain when George Bush was president. How much more hatred could I receive as an American than I had during that time? Wouldn’t it be fun to get back to the roots of my International Relations degree?

The panel was being held by Gateway House, a think tank in Mumbai. As the time of the panel got closer I started to worry that maybe I’d agreed to something a bit larger than I had expected. I found out that the content of the panel’s discussion would be used to frame a paper on what the new generation of Indian and US professionals feel should be discussed by Prime Minister Singh and President Obama. The paper would then be presented to the US Consul General to pass along to President Obama. No pressure there.

Then in the run up to the panel the Times of India ran a promotional piece. I just hoped that I wouldn’t make our American side look completely inferior.

The panel

But the day arrived and the discussion got underway. We had three Americans, including myself, and three Indians. The discussion was moderated by the head of the American School here. The questions ranged from nuclear relations to climate change to education to the UN. I tried to keep in mind advice Daniel had given me the night before: “no one likes the person on the panel who talks too much. Just say something when you know what you’re talking about and keep it brief.”

 

And overall, I actually think it all went pretty well – by the time the audience question time had arrived they were all raring to jump in and ask us our opinions and the dialogue felt real and genuine. I think everyone on the panel had gotten over their initial nerves and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to speak about the issues facing the US and India.

And who knows- maybe the paper will make it into some important hands. Or not – either way, I at least enjoyed a chance to be part of the dialogue in a small way.

(Also: If anyone is interested, Gateway house has posted portions of the discussion online (I’ve included Part 1 below)).

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I’ve always gotten a kick out of seeing young girls hanging out of a rickshaw on their way to school with Hannah Montana backpacks over their uniforms, or watching a family strolling down Carter Road with small pink spoons dipping into a Baskin Robbins cup. The Indian interactions with American products and companies are often jarring and comforting all at once. In a foreign setting it can make you start humming “one of these things is not like the other…”

But it’s often even more interesting how lower-end American brands can become upscale here. McDonalds and KFC are ubiquitous and are often seen as a sit-down restaurant (and yes, you can get a McCurry but no beef burgers here).
So when everyone started talking about the new California Pizza Kitchen coming to town, I wanted to take a seat and watch the action. Who could resist seeing what happened when an American pizza chain decided to plant itself into a city that has it’s own odd love affair with our cheese, bread and tomato concoction?  Watching cultures collide, and having at least a small understanding of both sides of the coin, is part of the fun of being an expat.

The crowd waiting to get a table

And the collision was massive – we went for a weekend lunch day and it was packed. Every table was full and by the time we left there was a line out the door. But the most jarring piece of the puzzle, was that this American chain had an oddly wealthy clientele. The pizzas were on average around 400 to 500 rupees (or a bit more than $8 – $10). That might not sound crazy, but considering most other sit-down pizza places sell for 100 to 200 rupees, it’s a bit steep.  So it shouldn’t have been surprising to see well dressed grandmothers in pearls doting over pizza-hungry grandchildren or teenagers toting their Louis Vuitton bags – but it was such a weird disconnect. We were in California Pizza Kitchen! This just wasn’t normal.

We got to talking with one of the ‘Franchise Management Specialists,” who basically spends his life overseeing the openings of California Pizza Kitchen’s across the world (who knew that was a job?). Due to India’s heavy import taxes, they’d had to find a way to make every element in the restaurant feel authentic while being purchased locally- except the oven. Apparently no CPK pizza could be complete without its specific oven.

The team on hand had come from their California headquarters to train the Indian servers. It apparently had been tough to instill their values: don’t bring appetizers and entrees all at once. Assume people aren’t sharing all their food. Service with a smile. Could Indians really emulate Californians?

It was all such an odd pairing – sure, you could get guacamole, but it was made with the less fleshy Indian avocados that don’t taste quite right. You could certainly order a classic pizza, but there was also an option for curry pizza (really?).
I was happy when my pizza came – for just a moment it was good to step out of ‘learning and exploring’ mode and just allow myself to enjoy the familar. It’s always nice to find small oases of home in a unfamiliar place. But I like my Indian things to be Indian. The cultural collision isn’t quite as interesting as the actual culture, although it seems like the Mumbaikers around me would disagree- they want that piece of California.

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I made 200 rupees today.  That may sound impressive. And perhaps it is. But you should know that 200 rupees equal a whopping 4 dollars and 28 cents. But I made it from selling something that I formerly considered trash.

Our apparently valuble cardboard boxes

I’ll start at the beginning. Yesterday I said to Nisha and Ray (the manager of all the work going on in our apartment, who today fixed a broken light, our broken toilet and a broken doorbell. There seems to be always something new!) that I needed to find a way to throw out the many furniture boxes we had sitting around. I couldn’t put them outside because of the monsoon but they were just taking up space in the spare bedroom.

“Throw out?” they both responded, looking at me like I had three heads.

I stared back. “Well, we have to get them out of the house eventually,” I said a bit sheepishly. I didn’t know what I’d said that was incorrect but clearly I was in the wrong somehow and I might as well be preemptively embarrassed for my own stupidity.

“No, you get these guys,” Nisha explained in the manner of someone talking to a very nice but very slow child, “they come around every day. They buy cardboard and newspaper from you. You can get money for it.”

“I tell guy at gate if they come by to send them up,” Ray said, as he walked out of the apartment, clearly on a mission to inform my doorman (or “guy at gate”, apparently) to send strangers into my house foraging for heavy-duty paper products.

And as promised, they arrived the next morning. They came in and sternly began evaluating my ‘goods’. They spoke in quick, sharp Hindi to Nisha. She turned to me and said, “They’re offering you 150 rupee. I don’t think that’s enough.”

“Well, tell them that it doesn’t bother me if they sit in the extra room for a few more days.”

“Yes,” she said, “Good. We’ll get them to 200.”  She talked animatedly to the man in charge, clearly rejecting his initial offer. He moved away from her and started to look at the boxes more closely. I wondered what on earth he was trying to find. It clearly was part of his negotiating strategy.

She leaned over to me as he looked away. “Say to me loudly that you don’t need the boxes to go away yet if they don’t give a fair price.”

I just looked at her. “They don’t speak English, I could say anything and they wouldn’t know the difference.”

To make the point, I said some make-believe gibberish about pigs flying in my most stern voice to see if I could get Nisha to laugh. She did, but with her back turned to the men all they heard was my insistence. Clearly I was VERY serious about pigs flying.

But it worked and we had a deal. The men agreed to 200 rupee and began to collapse and take away the boxes. Nisha took the plastic wrapping off some of the boxes.

“Is ok if I take these? My roof is leaking from monsoon and this will help.” I wanted to cry. I wanted to go over to her house and single-handedly fix her roof (as though I could do that without breaking her roof and/or killing myself). I wanted, though, to not embarrass her.

“Yeah of course. Take whatever you need!” I said, as though my enthusiasm for plastic somehow made it all better.  But it’s only ME who is embarrassed. She seems to feel this is a normal question that shouldn’t faze me as it is clearly not fazing her.

It’s a funny thing, the American guilt. It’s clearly one sided and not even recognized here. She’s not upset; she just wants some plastic.  It’s me who is embarrassed, not her.  It’s me who has to get over it because she was never in it or under it. She folded up the plastic without noticing my own pathetic internal Greek tragedy.  And the boxes continued to be collapsed and taken away.

Victory! The newly earned 200 rupee

A moment later, once they finished, I opened my hand and two crisp 100 rupee notes were pressed into it.  Success. It was my very own trash into treasure story, but clearly I could take no credit for the victory.  It marveled in the uniqueness of that experience.

“Some things are very different here,” I said to Nisha.
“Like what?”
“Well, I never knew you could sell cardboard to men who came to your house.”

Just then the monsoon started up again and the noise took over the room.  “And this constant rain is different,” I said.

“You don’t have rain in New York?”
“Well, we have rain, but we have it in short spurts all year.”
“You have rain all year?”
“Yes, but it’s not like this all year. It rains for a day or two then it doesn’t rain for a few weeks. Then it rains some more and then no rain for a bit.”
“Even in winter? Or spring?”  She was clearly shocked at the idea of rain in November or March.

That question, that kind of moment, is when I’m reminded that there’s a whole world whose experience with even the most basic parts of humanity – such as rain – is completely different to my own.  There’s no right or wrong – just a whole new way to see the world.

I had spent a larger portion of my day at a coffee with the American Women’s Club than I did with the boxes or the conversations about rain. But the interaction with the day-to-day life of India stuck with me more than the attempt to find remnants of home here (even if it was nice to be around a bevy of American accents for 2 hours and I will definitely be happy to have those coffee respites while I’m in Mumbai).

What a world of learning I’ve entered into. Today: rain and cardboard. Tomorrow, who knows what’s next.

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