“What did you have for lunch?” she asks, over Zoom. I promise, I wasn’t watching the whole class. I had other things to do. But I caught that. I stop and listen. What will he say? Will he tell her the truth?
“Rice and dal,” he says plainly.
I realize I’m holding my breath. Waiting to hear what she says. To hear what the others say. Will they allow it?
I am transported back to the school canteen, where my beloved puri and potato are currently being sneered at. “What’s that yellow mush?” One of them ask me. She is not really interested in the answer.
To have my meal thus slandered, hurt. But I also see what they see. A sad curled up little circle of oily bread in my lunchbox. And a square of unrecognizable, save for the peas, yellow mash.
Under their scrutiny, I am ashamed. They don’t know how tasty it is. The chewy bread is so satisfying, even cold. I’d been looking forward to it all morning. It’s a different but equal pleasure as leftovers. A pleasure twice anticipated and twice savored.
I tear off some puri, scoop up the potato and eat it. My mouth is watering with pleasure. But my heart isn’t in it. I try to be nonchalant, and it seems to have worked. They’ve moved on to other topics. They don’t really care. But look at me, 27 years later, remembering and still hurting. I’m still chewing on it.
I think of a story a friend once told me. It had been a similar thing with a teacher asking each child to state their favorite foods. “Rice and yogurt,” one boy had said. The teacher shook their head. “That’s not a real meal, honey.” The boy had looked crestfallen, my friend told me.
I imagine him baffled. If it wasn’t a real meal, why did he eat it every day? And love it so much? My friend had been there, another fellow yogurt-rice eater. But she’d stayed silent. She’d let him swallow the humiliation alone.
“Well, what did you say?” I’d asked at the end of the story.
“About what?” she’d asked.
“As your favorite food.”
“Oh, I don’t remember. Probably pizza.”
I don’t blame her. I probably would have done the same. It’s not a big deal. Whatever, right? But why did she tell me this story, so many years later?
I’m watching a documentary on Netflix. It’s hosted by a famous chef. He is of Korean descent. He’s got a famous restaurant in New York City. There’s this one segment where they film him in his parent’s house.
He’s asked about what he ate as a child. And he talks about how embarrassing it was to bring his home food to school. This guy? Are you kidding me? That food has literally made him a millionaire. A household name. But he still remembers having his food called stinky. When he talks about the taunting, his eyes wander. He doesn’t look at the interviewer or the food. I shake my head in disbelief. He shouldn’t be holding on to this, but clearly, he does.
Back in the present, I am still looking at the screen. “Rice and dal?” the teacher asks. I brace myself.
“That’s your favorite, right?” she asks tentatively and smiles.
He nods. No big deal to him. Or her. She’s already moved on to the next child. Anyway, half of them aren’t even listening. Distance learning with 5-year-olds is a mess.
It was all so matter of fact. I am relieved. No, it’s not just relief. I am grateful. I breathe again.
S. P. Venkat is a writer and comedian obsessed with the idea of displaced and reforged identities, aka immigrant lives. She also creates interactive comedy experiments, like her viral “Parenting in a Pandemic Simulator” which was featured in the Huffington Post. She is currently working on her first novel, Fired Up, which is a finalist in the SparkPress STEP contest for BIPOC writers. Find out more at http://www.almostfavorite.com.