Tag Archives: Eating

Use And Misuse Of The Left Hand In India

Informant’s Background:

My informant, SV, is a recent graduate with a Master’s from the University of Southern California. He is 25, was born in Hyderabad, Telangana, India, and moved to the United States to attend a graduate program at USC. Post-graduation he remains in Los Angeles hunting for a job.

Context:

My informant, SV, is my roommate and a close friend of mine. I asked him if he could share some Indian traditions, customs, or folklore with me. NOTE: For this dialogue, I am AT.

Performance:

SV: “So… In India there’s a tradition of eating with your hands, and-which is quite common, and one of the, I guess, major rules or things that may offend someone is if you use your left hand to eat or grab things or get things. And the primary reason for this is it is considered unclean, because in older generations in India, uhm, when you’re cleaning yourself, uhm, after taking a shit… It’s usually using water and your hands, and most people are sort of taught to use their left hand, so that’s one of the reasons why your left hand is unclean, even though obviously you’re going to wash it with soap or gonna wash your hands. So that’s one of the kind of traditions there is that’s kind of prevalent in India.” 

AT: “What if you’re left handed?”

SV: “So that’s sort of a weird, uhm… So the way it started was even if you’re left handed you use sort of- you use your right hand to eat or like you use your right hand to for example, if you’re in a shop or in someone’s house and you’re giving something or taking something from them you’re always taught to use your right hand, or maybe if it’s heavy both hands, but never your left hand. But uhm… Like, I don’t know, I think that maybe in slightly older time they didn’t want people to be left handed for this reason, but I think nowadays less emphasis is placed on this thing.”

Informant’s Thoughts:

SV: “Overall I think like… There’s sort of like some reason-like some reasoning behind it that is sort of valid to some extent. But like I guess like with modern like, uhm, advancements and like stuff like washing your hands with soap and I think now in most urban settings people have a bidet they use to wash their like, bodies once they’re taking a shit. So I don’t think it’s as big an issue, using your left hand, and now being left-handed or using your left handed doesn’t make you any worse than any other person. I think maybe if you were in some more rural areas and you used your left hand I think maybe some people might like be offended. But in general I think this is not very common a lot now.

Thoughts:

I had never really heard of anything like this until now, but I think SV is right in that it maybe seems like fairly sound reasoning in times before advancements in modern day sanitation and cleanliness. Upon some further research, it appears that the left hand is not only used for wiping one’s rear but also for other “unclean” actions as well, such as the removal of shoes, and cleaning your feet. Apparently left-handed activists in India today are attempting to fight prejudice against left-handed people, in schools some left-handed kids are taught to only use their right hand and are beaten for using their left. However overall, as SV said, it seems these practices and prejudices are fading in modern India.

Gendered Dining Customs In India

Informant’s Background:

My informant, SV, is a recent graduate with a Master’s from the University of Southern California. He is 25, was born in Hyderabad, Telangana, India, and moved to the United States to attend a graduate program at USC. Post-graduation he remains in Los Angeles hunting for a job.

Context:

My informant, SV, is my roommate and a close friend of mine. I asked him if he could share some Indian traditions, customs, or folklore with me.

Performance:

SV: “So… There’s an Indian tradition where during uh festival or if like, if you’re inviting guests over, like at a gathering the… women are expected to, uhm, when people are having to eat, the women are expected to be the ones to serve, and the men and children are expected to eat first. The women are not allowed to eat until the men and children finish eating. Only once the men and children finish eating, they usually eat, and sometimes they may not even eat at like, the table, they may just eat in like the kitchen. So… this is kind of like, mmm, sort of a general kind of important sort of hierarchy and level of importance that’s sort of present that even when you’re like visiting a house, or like you’re invited to a person’s place as a guest you’re sort of expected to greet people based on their age, that’s one of the criteria, like the older they are the more important they’re are as people and you’re to prioritize them. And also the men are more important than the women, so it’s like you greet the oldest man first and then go down to the youngest man, and then you go down to the women if you’re greeting someone.”

Informant’s Thoughts:

SV: “That’s uhm, kind of a very… I guess sexist way of thinking. Which… was quite prevalent like in older times, where I think more urban and more modern a setting this is less and less common. And for the younger generations, it’s getting close to being more and more equal for men and women, and there’s no kind of like, oh women have to serve and the men just have to chill and wait to get served. Like my grandad, cause he’s quite old, and he follows these traditions a little more like strictly, like even though me and my sis would both be in the room, he kind of rather expected like my sister to be the one to serve and I didn’t have to do anything, and I used to find that odd. I was like “what’s the difference?” Like they’re our guests, and we can both like, serve if we have to serve them. So that’s my kind of-my personal experience with that. “

Thoughts:

Separation of women and men is common in many cultures, especially historically, but the ways in which these gender groups are divided are changing as we move into the modern world. The rate at which these changes occur of course differs from culture to culture, in this case this is a tradition that would most likely be seen as near appalling by Western audiences, yet in India it is still being gradually phased out more recently, but was still by the sounds of it surprisingly common up until not that long ago. The health consequences should also be considered alongside the social ones in this case, as this tradition has to do with the consumption of food. Waiting until after the men are finished eating could easily lead to the women only ending up with scraps of the original dinner, leading to malnutrition, both in themselves and potentially in any babies that they might give birth to. So not only is this tradition without a doubt considered sexist by today’s standards, as SV noted in the interview, but it also could easily lead to negative health effects as well.

Eating Tradition at Visitor’s Home

Context & Background: 

KR – informant and friend from college of the collector. They share the same ethnicity and often talk about the similarities in their lives. SD – collector

Performance: (via face time)

KR: Another one of these is that if you are at someone else’s house, you have to eat the food you say or they say the name of the food. 

SD: What?

KR: It’s kind of extreme. But you have to be respectful to the people you are visiting, so if they offer you something, you have to eat it at least a little bit. Maybe even a nibble, but you gotta do it.

SD: Okay, I feel like this can put you in some tricky situation, huh? (laughs)

KR: Well if you think about it that way, then yes, but most times the people are old aunties and uncles, and they don’t abuse this power. It’s mostly with chai (tea) and mithai (sweets). But now that I think about it, it could be really easy to abuse this if we both believe in the rule. (smirks and laughs)

SD: laughs. 

Analysis:

This belief goes with the duty to respect older people and the wishes of the people we are visiting. Indian society has a pretty strict hierarchical structure, and so to be respectful to your elders is very important to be considered obedient. From the tone of the conversation, it seemed like it wasn’t a big deal anymore, and the strictness of this belief has been worn away. KR is from Gujrat, a state in India known to be big on food, and maybe that’s why this belief is a big part of his culture.

Eggs – Persian New Year

Description of Informant

PK (79) is a small, frail woman with dyed blonde hair and piercing eyes. PK was born and raised in Abadan, Iran in an “Oil Company Family.” OCFs were families whose primary income came from the large British oil company in Iran. They were well compensated and taken care of, living in western-style homes in protected communities. Many OCFs were secular or subscribed to a western religion in favor of Islam. PK immigrated to England in 1976 before coming to America (California) in 1978.

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Context of Interview

The informant, PK, is cooking a traditional Persian stew (khoresh) while describing the custom to the collector, BK, her grandson. Text spoken in Farsi is translated and italicized.

Interview

PK: The one thing is, for the haft seen, we always boil the eggs for the number of people in the house. And after the… new year starts, the new year starts, we all… there are sweets, we eat sweets. One by one we eat eggs…

BK: Do you eat the egg for the haft seen or do you make a new egg?

PK: No, we make it— we eat the egg we made for the haft seen, because you cannot keep the egg, you know, the fresh boiling egg for 13 years [days] on the table! You just eat it, you know, it’s a custom. Because there’s no sin in it, but there’s some other meaning. Like rice. There’s some other meaning.

BK: What’s the meaning of the egg?

PK: Egg is like… lots of kids, for example.

BK: Like fertility?

PK: Yeah fertility for… kids.

BK: Why does it mean that?

PK: It means, for your home to always be full. You know? Iranians like for the family to be big and the home to be full. It’s these days that people don’t have kids or only have 1-2 kids, or none. But those days it was like that.

PK: We didn’t color it either. Just like that, white. But now everything is different.

BK: Why do people color their eggs now?

PK: These days it’s just showing off… vanity play. Back then, nobody colored their eggs. We boiled it and put it on the table. Now here [America] when you look at a haft seen table, it’s like a wedding table! It’s a lot different. For pictures, for sending [pictures], for parties, and this should be prettier than that and vice versa. In the old days [when your father was young] when I’d set up a haft seen I did a lot of work, but slowly over time I got sick of it.

BK: But when you were in Iran—

PK: It’s a simple sofre [table]. Whatever is needed.

BK: Why do you eat the egg? Because I never ate them growing up.

PK: Well here you keep the eggs [sitting on the table] for 13 days. In Iran, we wouldn’t keep the eggs out. We’d leave the sabzeeh [greens] and sheereeny [sweets] out. They didn’t have any cream. Like chickpeas, this type of thing. Those would sit out for 13 days, then you pack it up and toss the sabzeeh.

BK: So when do you make the eggs?

PK: That day. Right before new years, right before the haft seen [ritual]. Like one or two hours before the new year we’ll boil the egg, and right when the year changes we eat it. I don’t know why we eat it, but it doesn’t make sense to keep an egg. So we’d just eat it. I don’t think there’s any significant meaning. We didn’t want to waste it, it would stink and go bad.

Collector’s Reflection

PK’s experience with Persian New Year Eggs is simple: an hour or so before the new year, the family will boil eggs (one for each member of the household). When the new year begins, the eggs are eaten. There is no decoration or display involved in the process. The eggs stand for fertility and prosperity in the new year (fertility being the common theme of eggs across cultures). This aligns with historic, pre-Western influence Persian New Year traditions.

PK is one of my grandmothers. My other, NV, is only 4 years younger than PK, and was born and raised in the same city/community in Iran as PK. Their families were even friends! Yet, NV’s family practiced eggs the way I always have growing up: the eggs were prepared in advance of the new year, decorated by the children, and displayed as part of the haft seen, a table decorated with symbolic objects for the new year. NV’s family is much more westernized than PK’s; they often summered/vacationed in Europe, while PK remained in Iran. The practice of decorating and displaying eggs, then, seems to have originated from the modernized Western practice of Easter Egg decoration. Since the “westernized” eggs sat out, they would be thrown away, not eaten. This goes against the core of Iranian philosophy: never waste food! It was absolutely criminal to throw things out. Leftovers, no matter how small, are always kept. The idea of “wasting” an egg would be insulting to more traditional members of society.

Eating and Swimming Superstition

Piece:

Interviewer: “Where did you learn the superstition about waiting thirty minutes after eating to go in the ocean?”

Informant: “Oh, that? Everybody did. You would be struck dead, I mean you would… you would seize up in a cramp and go to the bottom. I mean, we all lived in fear of that. I bet you your mom had that too. You know, you would go to the beach for the whole day, and the moms would bring lunch or something, and then you had to bloody well sit there for longer than thirty minutes, it just was forever! (laughs)”

Background:

The informant indicated that this was a highly pervasive belief during her childhood that almost every beach goer subscribed to.

Context:

This was recorded during a conversation at the informant’s home in San Diego, CA.

Thoughts:

Although I am familiar with this superstition having grown up near the beach, it seems pretty clear that actual belief in this superstition has decreased dramatically. I have heard it mentioned but have yet to meet a single person that actually takes this advice to heart. Interestingly, the informant proceeded to describe everyone’s fascination with sunbathing at the time directly after this, which might suggest that this belief could serve as an excuse to avoid the water and simply sit in the sun all day.