“I feel like a bad brown person sometimes,” I laugh over my eggs benedict, layered over avocado, tomato, and sourdough. Freeing my hands of my knife and fork, I turn over a bottle of Cholula hot sauce in my left hand and gesticulate with my right as I explain to my date why I can’t handle the heat of hot sauce even though I like the subtle undertones of flavor.
He responds with a straight face, “I was wondering why you didn’t use any of that.”
I am affronted. I return with a bland smile. I don’t feel like he can say it, even though I just did. In fact, how dare he? He isn’t brown. Who is he to place the judgment of my ancestors upon me, too? I know that his stereotypes come from a place that I am familiar with. But, creeping into my twenties, I have still not managed to unlearn the overbearing politeness I am expected to give to men and to people older than me, and so I don’t utter so much as an uncomfortable word.
Heat and Indian flavor palates have been tied together in the collective international psyche for years. But at home in Tanzania, my mother’s food comes from a gentler place. Her words are softer, and her scoops from the angry red part of the masala dabbo, the spice box, less generous.
When I visit her in the dead summer months of December and January in graduate school, I spend as much time with her as I can. So, I watch her cook in the mornings, sometimes helping, sometimes not. My mother says while scooping out jeero (cumin) and hing (asafetida) and haider (turmeric) into blistering oil, that if we didn’t burn our away taste buds, we wouldn’t need any more marchi, chili powder, than before. She is referring to my father and his mother in a less than subtle reference.
As she stands over the counter, I watch her, hands busy where I can’t see them from my position on the floor.
“I’m taking out the seeds now, okay? Remember not to touch them when you throw them away.” She holds up a marcho, a green chili, sliced in half for me to see. She is reiterating an old lesson.
“I know, mom.” I look up from my behind my laptop screen, staring up at her from my position on the kitchen floor. I had sat here often while I wrote to keep my mother company through high school, and later when I visited through my undergraduate degree; the cool floor always kept me from melting away into the humid air. Staying away from the heat is habitual.
“You said that in high school before you burned your eyes, lalu, idiot.”
I laugh, “that’s why I don’t use marcha anymore, mom.”
She rolls her eyes at me, laughing.
One of my favorite stories to retell is not mine, but my sister’s. The way she tells it, emphatically, offended and offending, sends our extended family into peals of laughter around the dinner table.
My sister was in college when this occurred, placing me at 12–16 years old and uncomfortable with my family. When we were invited places altogether, I often brought a plus one: my current book. The newest text or fifth reread often meant that I managed to escape the goings-on around me, but this was in time for dinner and I was called up to eat. I leaned my page-turner open-faced across the arm of the sofa, and walked into this memory:
My sister is standing over a dark wooden dinner table. My great uncle (my father’s mother’s brother), host, is sitting down at the head of the table. His wife, Bharti mami, walks in and sets down two steaming pots of mutter bhat (a turmeric and cinnamon heavy vegetable rice dish) in succession. They smell like they’re supposed to, but they don’t smell like my mothers.
She tells us that she’s made the smaller pot for us, there’s less marchi in ours. A lot less, I discover upon inspecting the pots. In one, the rice is yellow (as it is meant to be). In the other, it is speckled red (one might mistake it for orange from a distance). My nose, having caught a whiff from the latter, scrunches up and I take several large steps away to sneeze.
When I look up, Bharti mami is laughing at something that has just been said. My sister is sitting down and serving herself dinner.
“Eat some marchi and I’ll call you smart.” Bharti mami says to her. This statement, while strange in a foreign tongue, holds the hand of judgment in Kutchi.
Later in the car my sister fumes, “I got into Princeton, I think I’m smart enough.”
This is the part of the story that makes our family laugh – the clash of old-fashioned values against ours. My mother tries to explain that “her measure of worth is different from yours. An education isn’t one of her yardsticks.” My sister, rare to anger, is enraged. Years later, she laughs about it, but always with a snort of derision at the values of the elderly.
In the heart of the Illinois summer, I spend several weeks at my uncle’s home with my grandmother (my father’s mother); she loves to feed her grandchildren.
She sits down with me when I come home from my first day of work at the table and asks what I want to eat. Am I hungry? How was work? How was the drive? She hands me corn on the cob that has been gently boiling in time with my arrival. She asks if I want butter or marchi. I say no to both, preferring my sweetcorn salted.
She asks me, subtly, if I’m dating anyone: “do you have a friend?” I tell her about how my other grandmother has already been telling me that I needed a friend. That is what all partners are until their status has been officiated by a ring and they are a fiancé.
She says she is glad she is not the first one to bring it up: “I didn’t want to be old fashioned.” But she brings up marriage and commitment over and over again for the next five weeks as I step through the door at 4 pm, and she sits down with me at the table. The talk of marriage stops when everyone else begins to arrive an hour or two later.
“I’m in graduate school,” I tell her. “I don’t want to be in a relationship right now.” We don’t talk about my preferred method of dating, keeping everything casual in anticipation of it falling apart, because it hasn’t crossed her mind. To her and to tradition, a woman only dates to get married.
Halfway through my stay, she begins to add marchi to my food, and to my protests responds “You can handle that much! How else will you get used to it?”
When I leave, I am delighted that I stop saying no to offers of arranged marriage (“this is the perfect time!”) and stop saying no to marchi—voices at a distance can be hung up on.
The longer I stay away from home, the more foreign the flavors become on my tongue. My antagonism of marchi and of marcha (the plural of marcho) in my food feels like a product of anti-traditionalism, of home.
Jhanvi Ramaiya is a nonfiction MFA candidate at George Mason University and holds a degree in Sociology from Gettysburg College. Originally from Kutch, a tiny territory in northern India, she is fourth-generation Tanzanian who now lives in America and spends a lot of time thinking about the distance between those places. She writes about place, culture, travel, and belonging. She currently serves as a social media coordinator for Hellscape Press, is the nonfiction editor for So To Speak Magazine, and teaches Literature to undergraduates in her free time. Follow her @jhanviactually on Twitter.