I’m not a fan of sophisticated dictionary words. In fact, my word knowledge is very limited, but when I heard the word “Ethnocentrism” for the first time in my life in one of the ESL classes that I took, it got stuck in my mind, forever. Ethnocentrism is judging other cultures with a mindset that one’s own culture is superior. Or, evaluating other cultures with certain pre-existing beliefs in the mind. Don’t we always feel that we do things better than other people? And this thinking is universal. We all feel that our culture is much better than other cultures. It affects every aspect of life starting from personal hygiene habits, rituals, attire, accent, and most importantly food.
Throughout the world, food changes from continent-to-continent, country-to-country, state-to-state, city-to-city, family-to-family, person-to-person and even it changes as the person changes with time. Isn’t it? Think of any dish that you prepare and think if it tastes exactly the same each time you make it. So many divides… So many opportunities to discriminate.
My parents are from different parts of the same state, Maharashtra. A huge mountain stands across the state dividing the state’s cuisine into two main types regional cuisine. Both my grandmothers were great cooks, and they always thought their own way of cooking is better. I always noticed the somewhat hidden feeling of superiority that they felt. Their food was hands down the best, but it was funny to watch that harmless ethnocentrism. Now, I realize that it was so silly to compare the thickness of the roti, the way rice is cooked, the amount of milk added to chai, or if the curry is made from fresh coconut or dried. I remember one of my neighbors who used to complain that her mother and mother-in-law liked different shapes of the bread and thought that triangular bread is better than round one. Overall, it is actually idiotic how we find ways to criticize others based on such micro-preferences.
Peer pressure is another thing that either encourages or discourages ethnocentrism. When my best friend told me that the vegetable dill tastes like a toothpaste, I, who loved that vegetable felt ashamed of liking it. I stopped eating dill for many years because I didn’t want to sound “not cool”. What I didn’t understand was that it was my friend’s preference. I didn’t have to like or dislike the same food that my friend did.
Peer pressure can also work in a positive way. You may start trying out new foods or even drinks that you didn’t try before. They may not be all healthy choices but we change as we meet new people from different backgrounds. My son, one day, came home and asked for seaweed. He had exchanged his snack for some seaweed from his friend’s lunch box. My son was extremely picky when he was young. I made sure that my inhibitions about certain foods do not reflect on his choices. So, he has complete freedom to eat whatever he likes. When he asked for seaweed, we found it in an Asian store and tried to look for the recipe as the instructions were not in English. Now, I have subscribed to several cooking channels on YouTube showing world recipes. And the choices are now infinite. In fact, now we have so many options to make that many times I get tired of thinking and order from outside.
Ethnocentrism can be funny too. I remember one of my Indian friends was sharing the experience of his date with a person from another country. She asked him that if many Indians have elephants as pets. My friend took that opportunity to amuse her by agreeing with her. He even entertained her by telling her that his own family has an elephant who throws flowers at him when he goes home. It happens in some fancy places but definitely not at his home since he didn’t have any elephant as a pet. He was just being naughty. This was not about food but anyway shared it because it is very funny.
In another case, someone I knew who works for the merchant navy, was posted in Singapore. He is a religious person and doesn’t eat non-vegetarian foods on certain days of the week. Once he had to go to the city and order food. He was keeping fast that day and decided to order a salad. The menu was not in English and he literally jumped out of the seat when he saw raw shrimps in the salad. Traditional Indian salads are purely vegetarian and he just assumed that the salad cannot have any animal in it. So that’s how he got introduced to a new type of salad. Interesting, how we learn.
I also would like to share some uncomfortable situations that I witnessed. It was a complete disregard of the other person of culture and that too intentionally. My office colleagues went out on lunch one day. One of them didn’t eat pork due to religious beliefs. But the person who sat next to him ordered a huge platter of pork and kept offering it to the person who didn’t eat it. Everyone was uncomfortable because it appeared that it was just to hurt his feelings. So, we all felt uncomfortable. If I were in the same situation, I would have given the second person the benefit of doubt and explained it calmly why he didn’t want that meat instead of just refusing it again and again. It happens, we meet different people in the world. And I think based on the behavior of one person we shouldn’t be judging the entire community. In fact, if we could remember the goodness of one person and keep that in mind while making an opinion that will help everyone more.
So far, I have lived in three different countries, all very open to different cultures. I feel very fortunate that I got this opportunity to meet people from different countries, cultures, and thinking. It really affects how you look at the world. It is very important to travel and see the world if you want to make these boundaries disappear. As I met new people who encouraged me to try different cuisines, I feel much more comfortable and happier to try new dishes, aromas, and even eating habits. I feel food should connect people and not divide them. The best way to do that is by eating foods in their purest forms like vegetables and fruits. That’s the reason I grow a number of edible plants in my home garden. Many of them, I wasn’t even aware that they existed. I had so many inhibitions about certain vegetables. But when I started growing them, I knew them more and loved them more. So, let’s pick the best of every culture and make our life happier.