Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

15 Dec 2008, 20:42 p.m.

You may be aware that Indians, like so many others,…

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2008 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

You may be aware that Indians, like so many others, have an expansive sense of hospitality. Admire one of your host's items of property out loud at your own peril; s/he may give you it, or a similar object. In my parents' circle, a visit isn't complete until the guests have taken some colored powder -- turmeric and kumkum -- and anointed their heads.

And of course there's the food thing.

Another Indian-American woman I once met described a meal at an aunty's as like one of the legendary battles at Kurukshetra -- a plate a foot wide and an inch deep, piled with food, and refilled as soon as she made any headway.

My mother and I visited a sort of grandmother a few weeks ago. She insisted that we have a single dosa -- it happened to be lying around, already prepared, she claimed. We laughingly demurred, then cheerfully agreed to split it. She gave us each a dosa, then went into the kitchen, then gave me another dosa while I was eating my first. We cracked up.

When Leonard visited India, I taught him a few Kannada words. Hesaru, name. Santosh, happy. Thoomba, very. Snana, bath. And jasthe, saku, beda: too much, enough, don't want. But it is as though Kannada doesn't even have those words; people go ahead and ladle rice and broth onto your plate as though the sounds you've made have no meaning.

But it's all with a smile, because it's all about demonstrating love and prosperity.

On my recent trip to Mysore, as a visitor from afar, I sometimes visited four or five homes in the course of a day. This led me to decline food even more desperately, in the interest of my own safety. And it led me to grasp some troubling game-theoretic implications of this custom.

If I plan on visiting other hosts the same day, I need to refuse food even if I am hungry, to ensure that I have enough appetite to eat later. Thus, a host who wants to feed me has an interest in keeping me from visiting the next house on my schedule.

Social schedules change often in my parents' India. So I have little confidence in my own knowledge of whether I am visiting more houses later. Since food is available at home but appetite is, in the short run, a nonrenewable resource, the more dangerous scenario is the one where I have eaten my fill and suddenly must confront a new host, an aunty or uncle hungry to feed. Thus, the safer course for me is to always refuse food as vociferously as I can -- again, even if I am hungry.

Sometimes hosts offer tea instead. Don't be fooled! Black Indian tea with milk and sugar will arrive, accompanied by a sweet or salty snack that is barely optional. And jet lag requires carefully titrated doses of caffeine to treat; hundreds of milligrams at unpredictable intervals wouldn't help.

A Russian textbook once advised me that the only sure way to get Russians to stop peer-pressuring booze upon you was to say, "I am an alcoholic." I worry that telling Indians "I am a binge eater" would only result in getting adopted.


15 Dec 2008, 22:56 p.m.

I made the mistake of eating dinner before visiting a friend in Romania once. I had to eat 5 sarmale (those pickled cabbage beef rolls) and I don't even like those!

And I love what you said about admiring an object... Like Seinfeld and the space pen.

16 Dec 2008, 9:09 a.m.

That sounds awfully familiar, only with heaping piles of Chinese-Filipino food and words of protest in Fookien. Only the metabolism of a growing teenager (and now a ravenous 22-year-old) has saved me so far, but I fear time is running short on that.

16 Dec 2008, 12:17 p.m.

Mel beat me to the punch, but yes, the Chinese and the Filipino communities will ladel food right into your plate.

I was always so careful to make sure I always had food in my plate, even after I was done eating, to avoid an empty plate, because an empty plate means seconds to them. And I always tried to keep my plate full of the foods I liked. But alas they always figured out what I had not yet tasted and would eagerly add it to the pile.

Once, at a dim sum joint, our guest insisted on ordering thousand year-old eggs. My mission companion at the time could not stand the thought of having to eat one. So when our guest went to the powder room, we put all the eggs on his bowl. I'm not sure if what we did was rude, but we were sure we couldn't eat them.

16 Dec 2008, 12:30 p.m.

Mexicans are good at that too. I sometimes dread visiting some relatives because they will insist more food and alcohol than we can consume and make us feel super guilty when we finally need to leave.

Zed Lopez
16 Dec 2008, 14:57 p.m.

I worry that telling Indians "I am a binge eater" would only result in getting adopted.

I just wanted to say that that was hella funny.<br/>

16 Dec 2008, 20:26 p.m.

This pattern seems to be just about universal in any society that has known widespread poverty within the last, say, fifty years.

Also, it's my understanding that the "I'm an alcoholic" line is far from infallible.