Sitting here nibbling on some cave-aged Gruyere and sauscisson sec between sips of duty-free Rioja, I feel a little tug on my conscience - am I cheating on India? Am I doing my whole-hearted, hand on heart best to understand Indian culture by sitting in my apartment with my gourmet foods lovingly flown thousands of miles to me from New York by my sister (This after the cheese was flown from Switzerland and the wine from Spain; at least the sausage only traveled from St. Louis. How many trees must I plant to atone for such a carbon footprint?!). True, I was eating these delicacies on my bed, the way many Punjabis take lunch in the heat of the summer, their bedroom often being the only room in the house with an air conditioner. But somehow I don't think this qualifies in the UN-y sense of mutual understanding.
I posed my question to a friend who responded by assuring me that because I had become accustomed to eating these foods, I could not be expected to deprive myself for such a long period of time (Nine months with Indian paneer as the only cheese to speak of! Paneer, loved more for its texture and ability to absorb heavy Punjabi gravies than for its flavor, of which it has little.). I like this answer. And when you put it that way, well, as a card-carrying New Yorker who lived for ten years in a city saturated with psycho-therapists, CSWs, LCSWs, psycho-analysts, psychologists, psychiatrists and numerous other shingles adorning Park Avenue apartment buildings, really, I can say that it is not my fault - my cravings are simply a matter of habit, one might say they are my part of my nature; if not my nature, then at the very least, my nurture!
To me, comfort food - anything that reminds me of home or my life in New York - has become a necessary part of living in a foreign country. Amid the honking horns, the motorbikes that seem intent on running me over, the young boys calling out, "How are you?!" as I pass by, the lack of freedom in how I dress...my nerves need some soothing. And right now, when my friends and family are sleeping in the U.S. and everyone else seems to be busy, cheese is my way to unwind. True, I have only been in India for just over three months, so all of this might seem a bit dramatic. And, frankly, a little indulgent, given I'm in one of the poorest countries in the world and studying the topic of food security.
So after this cathartic writing exercise, I seem to be back where I started - confused, torn and feeling a little guilty. I suppose I will move past this for the time being, and I'll continue to snack, drink wine, and request items from the next sister (on that list: olives, blue cheese and more peanut butter, creamy and salted). But these issues inevitably nag on me. And I think that's ok. Because I think that's part of the point of what the Fulbright calls 'mutual understanding.'