The Transition Generation

Re-Defined Culture | September 26, 2012

Hello, all! I know it has been a while since I posted, so I apologize. Well, this week, I think I’ll talk about food again (it is one of my favorite subjects, after all). I recently read this online article from The Washington Post which got me thinking again how immigrant cultures adapt their food for the American masses, and how we re-define ourselves to avoid bad situations.

The article discusses the (former Iranian) owner of a U.S. restaurant serving “American” food who was asked to cater a Persian celebration, despite the fact that he had not cooked Persian food for decades. He relied on his sisters to train him and eventually got the taste he needed. But I’d like to point out a few things in the article I found interesting: 1) That Iranians have re-defined themselves as Persians to avoid the suspicious stares and comments the word “Iran” evokes, and 2) The loss of culture.

Let’s first talk about redefinition. This is something I can completely relate to – my family background is Pakistani and I often refer to myself as Southeast Asian to avoid the troubled looks and hurtful comments that could (and have) come my way. Let me make myself clear: I am in no way ashamed of my lineage, my home/parent country, or my family. I just want to avoid being unjustly accused of being a terrorist by random strangers. In the article, the Iranians who have redefined themselves are also business owners who, understandably, don’t want bad press and want people to feel at home in their restaurants.  In my first post, I talked about how a name can affect people’s perception of you; the same is true for ethnicity. If you go into a Persian restaurant and see the name Maziar, you wouldn’t think twice. But I, as a writer, do hesitate at times and prefer to use a pseudonym.

Next, let’s talk about the loss of culture. In the article, Maziar had given up on Persian food while his sisters (also in America) had not. We could talk a lot about the role of women in preserving culture (and I may at some point in the future), but let’s talk instead about the fact that Maziar opened an “American” food restaurant and not a Persian one. Maziar states in the article that he “felt the pressure of representing” his culture when catering the Persian event – this is something I can relate to. People often come to me and expect me to be the Pakistani representative – they assume that how I act and behave is how all Pakistanis behave, and, if they see something contrary on the news, will expect me to behave that way as well. A lot of this is ignorance of a culture or unwillingness to learn about new societies and cultures, but it can also be about the media perpetuating stereotypes. Pakistanis are just human beings – there are good ones and bad ones, just like in the U.S. and it’s wrong to generalize an entire group of people on one person or their actions. But, in Maziar’s case, coming in the late 1970s, I can see how he just wanted to fit in (don’t we all?). I’m reminded of an episode of Seinfeld, where Jerry convinces a local Mexican restaurant owner (whose background is Pakistani) to open a restaurant of Pakistani food instead. He does, it opens, it does very badly, and the man is deported.  A comedic half-hour, but a true tale nonetheless for those who took a chance on opening a restaurant of traditional dishes once upon a time.

These days, especially in the bigger cities, it’s not hard to find food for every culture and country, or even the supplies you need to make it at home. Here’s hoping things continue to get better in the years to come, and that immigrants won’t have to redefine themselves in the future.

Thanks for reading!

-M

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    First generation born and raised American, and member of the Transition Generation © (aka Generation T ©). Join me as I discuss the struggles and joys I have faced as an American. What's your story?

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