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Global Kitchen

Food is an Emotion

Kazi Niaz Ahmed January 7, 2017

It is eight PM. After a hectic day, you walk into the dining hall, look around to see what is on the menu, and all you can do is helplessly wince – I am sure many of you can relate to such an experience in university dining halls at least once. This is especially true if you are an international student.

One of the most vital attributes international students possess is that of adjusting to change. It starts with a change in location and time zone. Next, bring in American food: something that used to be a weekend’s treat is now a daily staple. This change initially seems like a dream-come-true for many. Some of my Asian and Indian friends have shared with me how ecstatic they were to have burgers and pizza for all three meals in a day. Some international students do get wonderfully adapted to this diet and love every part of it.

However, there are also many others who get accustomed to the food, but can never connect to it emotionally. It is quite common that every person feels more physically and mentally satisfied when eating their favorite food. However, if it is not, the meal simply feeds the body to satisfy hunger, but rarely feeds the heart to influence positive emotions.

One of the most challenging transitions faced by most international students is the transition in their diet. American food is a beautiful delight for anybody who eats it, but when you’ve been away for several months or years from the food that you’ve grown up, American food is not emotionally satisfying at all. This illustrates an important point: food is not just a material for consumption, it involves a deep emotional connection.

For most international students, it is an undeniable truth that amongst the mouthwatering taste of mac n’ cheese, burgers, and sandwiches, you certainly miss that noodle soup that your grandmother would prepare for you at dinner if you are South Asian or those fiery samosas that your aunt would cook for you as an evening snack if you are Indian. This emotional attachment to the traditional foods from each of our home countries makes the transition to a foreign environment even more difficult. And occasionally, when the dining halls do provide meals that even remotely resemble those delicious dishes from back home, you experience an exhilarating roller coaster ride of emotions and flavors.

Every now and then, an insatiable emotional craving causes international students to switch to food trucks and local restaurants that offer foreign, non-American cuisine for many of their meals. These restaurants and food trucks do not simply offer the food they long for: they are places that take their hearts back to their home countries, albeit only for a short while. The cooks and servers at these food trucks are mostly from other countries as well. Interacting with them reinforces the feeling of momentarily traveling back home.

However, if you know of any international students who have friends or family from their home country living in the United States, then you know that the most precious experience that any international student experiences is visiting them during breaks or weekends. Indeed, it is a special occasion for them, helping them to overcome homesickness, have fun, and most importantly, enjoy the foods that they have missed so dearly.  

So, the next time you walk into J&H dining hall and watch an Indian international student eating flatbread with soup, you can be certain that he is simply an Indian guy who misses his home food and is trying his best to replicate a “daal-and-roti” experience. For him, it is more than just food; it is what connects him to his roots. It is a nourishment to his body, as well as to his heart.

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