Josna Rege

446. Musings on Multiculturalism

In culture, Education, Food, Inter/Transnational, reflections, Stories on December 7, 2019 at 1:49 pm

Our new house is just a block away from the campus of the University of Massachusetts, the largest public research university in the state. For the past four years in a row its dining program has been ranked the best in the nation, bar none. My family can attest to this; my nephew Tyler completed his four years of undergraduate studies at UMass this year and in his first year, I remember, the often-rocky path from home to dorm life was made smooth by the fabulous food. Better still, family members eat free, so we would regularly be invited to join Tyler for an all-you-can-eat meal with a dizzying array of choices, master chefs and fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Since Tyler graduated we don’t go as often, but it’s a terrific side-benefit of having UMass on our doorstep. Last night Andrew and I walked over to the nearest dining commons for dinner, since we didn’t feel like cooking and on Fridays there’s fried fish on the menu. Among a great many other things.

During the stressful last 12 days of classes, UMass Dining is additionally featuring special treats, comfort foods, and student favorites every day. Yesterday, according to the schedule, the special was the intriguing-sounding Jian Bing crepes, today, sticky rice with mango, and tomorrow, Tonkotsu Ramen bar. But when we entered the main dining hall all we could see were the regular stations—the fish with roasted acorn squash and stuffed red peppers, the gluten-free Jamaican jerk chicken and sesame collard greens, the risotto bar, made to order as you watched, stir fries, also made to order with a choice of ingredients and sauces, the obligatory pasta and pizza sections, burgers of course, including vegetarian black-bean burgers, salads of all descriptions, organic teas, milk from the local dairy farm, fresh fruit and hot chocolate to go, in compostable cups. But ornery as I am, I was disappointed. Where were the advertised specials?

We started with the fish, but even though it was melt-in-the-mouth fresh and flaky, I fretted about what wasn’t there. Still, we enjoyed our first course as I looked around and people-watched. Having endured an undergraduate experience in the early 1970s with a pretty homogeneous group of classmates in terms of race and class, I delight in the international diversity of the UMass student body with so many students from South and East Asia. In my day I had not a single South Asian classmate. But where was the Asian food this evening?

Finally I made inquiries and was directed to an adjacent dining room. There I saw students with promising-looking deep bowls, suggesting the proximity of ramen. But all I could find behind the food counters was the dessert special, freshly made waffle bowls filled with the ice cream and topping of your choice. With ramen on my mind, these failed to tempt. Eventually I was directed to a third room adjoining the second one, and Bingo! There were all the missing specials I’d seen on the online menu. And there, too, were almost all the Asian students.

After racing back to tell Andrew the good news I loaded up a bowl and a plate and came back later for a second plate. After filling the bowl at the ramen station with dumplings and a choice of toppings, I found the Indian food station: pullao rice, naan, chicken, paneer and vegetables, channa (chickpeas), and mini-samosas. Reminding myself that we could make this at home, I took a very modest helping, so as to save space for other choices. It was ridiculous–I was already full, but this food was begging to be enjoyed. The Jian Bing crepes were delicious, made with besan (chickpea flour), egg, and chopped scallions and filled with lettuce, crunchy fried wonton strips, and shredded chicken, and the obliging cook made an all-vegetarian one for Andrew. The station next-door was making sushi to order, but I reluctantly had to give it a miss this time. We ate our fill, followed up with a bowl of sticky rice with mango (delicious) and a gratuitous slice of chocolate mousse pie (too much, I know, but not to be missed) and waddled home clutching cups of hot chocolate (me) and coffee (Andrew). But what I really wanted to talk about was the people.

As I was finding my way to the dining hall with all the deliciousness, I noticed that there were more and more students of color sitting at the tables in the room adjacent to ours, and when I found what I had been looking for, I realized why. On the way back with my first bowl of ramen and plate of Indian food, I saw a long table filled with beautiful, happy, animatedly-talking South Asian students and—I kid you not—a row of young men who all looked like twin brothers of Hasan Minhaj. Now you know that I don’t think all South Asians look alike, but this was completely true, even taking into account my penchant for exaggeration. I was happy to see East Asians, South Asians, students with hijabs, students fresh from sports practice and still in their shorts (it was snowing outside, mind you), students with Santa hats, all laughing and chattering and being warmed inside and out with that delicious comfort food.

Back at our table in the “traditional” room, as the empty plates piled up and I slowed down considerably, my eyes strayed to the students at the tables around us. Even in this room there was a diversity of students, some eating alone, some in couples, and some of the small groups were mixed: men and women, Asians and African Americans, jocks and gaming aficionados, all bonding over food. I can’t say for sure if there were any mixed couples, though, and wondered whether the past fifty years had seen much change in this area, one particularly dear to my heart. There were two women across from us, one South Asian and the other East Asian, and the East Asian student had a large, soft, buttery piece of naan which she was trying to eat with chopsticks. I watched her out of the corner of my eyes with a huge smile spreading over my face, as she tried to handle the naan daintily with the chopsticks, nibbling away at the edges and, as it kept lurching dangerously and threatening to escape, she bit off larger chunks to get it to a manageable size. It looked like one of those contests in which people have to try to take bites out of apples on a string with their hands tied behind their back. By the end of it she was a pro, and, undaunted by the rising carb count, began to tuck heartily into a bowl of sticky rice and mango.

I couldn’t help reflecting on U.S. multiculturalism. It was all here—the benefits of diversity showing in the mixed groups, the exposure of meat-and-potatoes Irish American students to stir fries and sushi, of strictly-stir-fries Asian students to pizza and burgers that their mothers might never prepare at home, the options to suit every dietary restriction. Andrew asked a server to put some kale on his plate of beer-battered fish, but they insisted on giving him a separate plate so as not to accidentally mix a gluten-free dish with a gluten-containing one. But on our way home I thought of the table of Hasan Minhaj lookalikes and the dining room filled almost exclusively with students of color. I thought ruefully of my own student days with not a single South Asian student to be seen (and no vegetarian options but cottage cheese and pasta without sauce), but also, with a pang, of the tables of laughing Latino and African American students to which I didn’t belong any more than I did among the prep-school white American students (we had only immigrated to the U.S. the year before). Much of the time I ate hastily alone and then smuggled some of the meager vegetarian options, such as there were, up to my dorm room for Andrew. Here at UMass, there was not only hot sauce, there were choices of hot sauce, from the ubiquitous tabasco, to Mexican salsas, to the glorious Sriracha. What I would have given for even one of those back in college!

But the celebration of multiculturalism has notoriously meant exposing students to a diversity of holidays and foods but not much else in terms of meaningful structural change. For the most part, despite the diversity in the UMass student body, they still sat together in their separate racial and ethnic groups; and the dramatic demographic difference between the two dining halls was sobering. Still I consoled myself that there had been progress. Asian and Caribbean American students had a taste of their own home cooking and people of their own ethnicity and cultural background to bond with. Although UMass Amherst, out in the boondocks of Western Massachusetts, has far fewer African American students than UMass Boston does, it was heart-warming to see a small group of South Asian and African American students together. And the image that stays with me: the delightful hybridity of that young East Asian student working to maneuver that unmanageably large piece of fresh naan bread into her mouth. Even now, in my mind’s eye, it makes me smile. It’s messy, but we’re getting better at it.

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85. St. Nicholas’ Day

In Stories on December 6, 2019 at 11:25 am

This is my first re-blog ever. Since it’s going on ten years since I started Tell Me Another, I’m guessing that very few of you will have seen this early story, posted 9 years ago today.

Tell Me Another

As children, no matter where in the world we were living, on December the 6th—St. Nicholas’ Day—we always put our Christmas lists in one of our shoes. In the morning the lists would be gone, and there would be candy in the shoes. There was always the mild threat that if we had been bad children we would find coal in them, but that never happened.

I don’t know where the custom came from, since I doubt if it was a tradition in our mother’s family and it certainly wasn’t in our father’s. I don’t remember whether we put the list out on the eve or the night of St. Nicholas’ Day; we didn’t quite know who  St. Nicholas was, although we assumed that he was Father Christmas. But once our lists had been accepted, the magical Christmas season officially began.

After that day we were not to…

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445. A November Gift: Rosemary for Remembrance

In Nature, seasons, Stories on November 13, 2019 at 11:12 am

It is a frigid weekday morning in mid-November, and my second cup of tea has failed to satisfy. Last night, temperatures were forecast to fall to 16°F, less than -9°C, and it certainly looks like it this morning. Outside, the bird feeder is empty and the bird bath is frozen solid; inside, I’m still huddled in bed. But a long day of grading, meetings, and committee work looms, and I need to be able to bundle up, step out, and face it with resolve and good cheer.

I’ve just gone into the laundry room to put a wash in, and found to my dismay that large strips and flakes of plaster from the ceiling have curled away and dropped down onto the floor. A clogged dryer vent? A leak in the heating system up in the attic? I don’t have time to check before leaving for work.

There is time, though, to tell a little story.

Last weekend was the first time this season that overnight temperatures were to drop well below freezing. We hadn’t done much yet to formally put the garden to bed for the winter, but I did remember the lone rosemary plant on the terraces out back, facing its first winter with only hardier perennials like sage and lavender for company. For a temporary fix I found a five-gallon plastic tub and upturned it over the rosemary, robbing the plant of light but also, I hoped, insulating it until I could decide on a longer-term solution. (That was a few days ago now and I haven’t yet ventured to tip up the tub and see how it is faring under there.) As I lowered the tub over the rosemary I had to tuck in the branches all round the edges, as gently as I could so as not to damage them. As I did so, they gave off that rich, concentrated, distinctive scent that we recognize as the essential oil of rosemary, a scent that lingered on my fingers all evening. Was it the plant’s defense system, concentrating itself along all its leaves and branches as it dug deep inside itself to face the coming cold? All that evening just raising my fingertips to my nose lifted my spirits.

Searching the U.S. National Library of Medicine on the National Institute of Health website, I found recent studies on the effects of inhaled rosemary oil on subjects’ feelings and central nervous systems. The results were overwhelmingly positive and confirmed what has long been believed about the medicinal powers of rosemary: “significant increases in blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate after rosemary oil inhalation. After the inhalation treatments, subjects were found to have become more active and stated that they felt ‘fresher’” (Sayorwan et al). The researchers elaborated on “the alterations of mood states after being exposed to the aromas,” supporting the findings of earlier studies:

Our results indicate that rosemary oil inhalation increases the level of arousal as assessed through our test subjects’ self-evaluation. All the data has collectively shown a medicinal benefit of rosemary oil when inhaled, by the removal of feelings of boredom and by providing fresh mental energy. . . Moss and colleagues assessed the olfactory impact of rosemary and lavender essential oils on cognitive performance and mood in healthy volunteers. They found that rosemary produces a significant enhancement in memory performance. In regard to mood, subjects felt significantly fresher and were more alert than in the control group. Moreover, massage with the use of rosemary oil also resulted in more vigor and produced a more cheerful feeling. Thus, our results confirm that rosemary oil contains mood-elevating bioactive components that prove to be beneficial to its users.

Now, before I leave for work, I will go out back and lift the tub off so that the little rosemary bush can get some light today. I hope I will be greeted by a still-healthy plant.

Done! All’s well, and that heartening aroma has once again transferred itself to my fingertips. Thank you, rosemary plant; I’m ready for my day now. This evening I will return to cover you back up for the night.


“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.”
                                Hamlet: Act 4, Scene 5

Are you going to Scarborough Fair/Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme/
Remember me to one who lives there/For once she was a true love of mine
                        Scarborough Fair, Traditional (sung here by Ewan MacColl)

A well-established rosemary bush in full flower, Golders Hill Park, London


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