I am seven years old, clutching my shoes to my chest and crying hot tears as I try to escape the scent of curry emanating from every carpet fiber and fleck of paint in my friend Bharat's house.
In the doorway, my harried mother is apologizing profusely to Bharat's concerned and bewildered parents. Bharat's mother is wearing a bright gold sari that I would normally find fascinating, but it too is saturated with the unfamiliar scent of curry and is therefore terrifying. My mother is taking far too long to apologize; she's making up some bizarre half-truth about why her only child is having a nervous breakdown after being invited over by a classmate for dinner.
"I was in a car accident a few months ago and she's been nervous about being away from me ever since," my mother explains. I am now half-indignant through my terror: I am not scared to be alone. I am scared of this weird smell and I want to put my shoes back on and I want to go home. I can't get out of this house quickly enough.
Finally, after what seems like months spent in purgatory in the small threshold of an Indian family's door, I am sitting in the passenger seat of my mother's old Toyota with its comforting cream-colored seats and I have somewhat calmed down. My mother is eyeing me suspiciously. She is wearing a royal blue skirt suit with shoulder pads that give her a strikingly geometric aesthetic, a faceful of bright makeup, jangly earrings in a clash of colors and triumphantly large '80s hair that's been teased and hairsprayed in the "Dallas big hair" model of the day. I look at her in all her suburban Texanness and am calmed. It is very white in this car.
The snot is drying on my face. My eyes are puffy and swollen, but at least I'm not crying any more. My mother is still staring hard at me.
"What in the hell was all that about?" she finally asks. Although as an adult I am one of the most adventurous diners I know, and am -- as the food critic at the Houston Press -- paid to eat, I have a confession to make: I was once a picky eater. I was terrified, in particular, of ethnic food and all the confusingly unfamiliar sights and smells and unknown rituals that accompanied it. While we all think of Houston as a wonderful melting pot of cultures and cuisines, it was considerably less integrated 30 years ago -- especially in the suburbs, where I was raised.
I'd been invited by Bharat and her parents to have dinner after school earlier that week. My mother, who always had to work late, was thrilled to have me occupied for an evening that didn't involve hiring a babysitter. And an evening where I would learn something, experience a new culture and a new cuisine -- even better. Off to Bharat's I went one Tuesday afternoon, not fully comprehending that my friend and her family didn't eat tuna mac every night as I did.
At Bharat's house, I was presented with the first of many unfamiliar requests that completely knocked the wind out of my tiny chest.
"Take off your shoes and place them here," said Bharat's mother as we entered the house. Everyone else was allowed to leave their shoes on except me.
At seven years old, I was already a weird little kid fully on my way to becoming a weird, neurotic adult, and I was thoroughly offended by the idea of taking off my shoes. I was raised to leave your shoes on when you visit, not to get too comfortable or make yourself too at home in another person's house. I didn't even take my shoes off when we visited cousins, making awkward small talk over casseroles and canned meat.
This one thing was already almost too much for my conservative countenance to bear. I was always a serious child, a nervous child. I couldn't bear to be looked at when I was answering a question in class, when I was racing down a lane in a swim meet, when I was carefully eating one type of food off my plate at a time. You didn't take your shoes off when you were company in someone's home -- especially at the dinner table. My tiny brain was misfiring, overloaded with conflicting ideals.
I finally, begrudgingly agreed, and as I slipped my jelly sandals off, I began to notice the scent of curry.
I didn't know at the time that the smell was curry, just that it was something I'd never smelled before. It had a resonant odor to it; I could already tell that I would smell like it for the rest of the evening. It was pungent and strong and composed of so many unfamiliar notes, layer upon layer of confusion and unfamiliarity washing up on the shore of my mind.
As I sat stiffly on one jewel-toned couch, watching cartoons I'd never seen before, the panic deepened.
I don't know these people. I barely know Bharat. She just moved here this year. What will they serve for dinner? What is that weird smell? What will I be forced to talk about over dinner? Will I have to talk about myself? Why is her mother wearing a gold curtain as a dress? What is that weird red dot on her forehead? Why are there so many decorative columns and vases in this house? Why can't I put my shoes back on? WHERE DID THESE CARTOONS COME FROM?
I sat silent as a stone while I contemplated all of these questions, throwing occasional nervous glances at Bharat. She sat comfortably on another couch and watched her strange, foreign cartoons. Her relative comfort in this situation was pushing me closer and closer to the edge.
Then, dinner was served and I snapped.
A bowl of yogurt and some sort of yellow curry dish with raisins was put in front of me at the dinner table. I stared at them both for a split second, then burst into tears.
"I want to go hoooooooome," I wailed pitifully. My outburst silenced everyone at the dinner table. But I couldn't contain myself. I was crying with every muscle in my body, my chest wracked with sobs and my face aflame with tears and humiliation. Embarrassed doesn't begin to plumb the depths of the shame I felt at bursting into tears at someone's dinner table, even at seven years old. I wanted to disappear into a puff of smoke and flame. Oh, did you hear about Katie? She spontaneously combusted at Bharat's house last week!
The food in front of me was just too unfamiliar, too impossibly bizarre to comprehend. Yogurt for dinner? Raisins in a main dish? And is this where that awful smell is coming from? I cried and cried while Bharat's mother attempted to comfort me and her father picked up the phone to call my mother at her office, throwing confused glances back at me as he tried to explain the situation to her.
I was inconsolable. I must have looked the way a small, hairless dog does when it's beside itself with panic at the sound of thunder, hackles raised and pupils dilated, rocking and shaking and petrified beyond all rational thought. And finally, my mother came for me.
She stood stoically at the front door as she tried to apologize, as I hid my face in her skirt and took deep, shuddering breaths of the Eternity she always wore. She led me to the car after Bharat's parents shut their front door, thankfully shutting out that deep curry smell and allowing me to slide my jelly shoes back onto my feet.
"So, you were upset...by the way dinner smelled?" my mother asked as we backed out of the driveway. I had already rushed hysterically through the list of reasons it had been imperative that she immediately leave her desk, drive across town and pick up the ball of snot and tears and frayed nerves that was her miserable excuse for a daughter.
"No," I sniffled back. "I just didn't know what it was. I was scared of it."
"You were scared...of dinner..." she trailed off. I looked blankly back at her. How much more did I need to explain the deeply off-putting situation out of which I had just come? They cooked curry, Mom. They made me take off my shoes.
We drove home in silence. I think my mother was both concerned for and annoyed with me, with a hefty dose of embarrassment on her own end for having raised a child who was afraid of the way curry smells. She cooked me dinner resignedly. It was tuna mac. I passed out after eating it from the sheer stress of the evening and the dozy comfort conferred by a casserole dish of canned fish, green peas and Kraft pasta.
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I was never invited back to Bharat's house, and we quickly lost touch after elementary school. I sometimes think of her and wonder what her mother and father must have thought of me, of how rudely I acted that night. I think of how this evening eventually colored the way I view food from different cultures: as a bridge to understanding something that may initially confuse or even frighten you. I think of how my over-the-top refusal to share a meal was an insult to a kind family, and I am ashamed of it often.
I think of her and I want to tell her, "I'm so sorry, Bharat. I love curry now."