This article was written by Gurvind Dehar, a 14-year-old Punjabi-American high school student from Woodbridge, New Jersey. He is a Sikh activist and community organizer. He also advocates for gun violence prevention and serves as a group leader in the Students Demand Action Woodbridge chapter.
As I recall memories of second grade at my elementary school, there’s one thing I seem to vividly remember: lunchtime.
Specifically, I grew up in Iselin, New Jersey and attended an elementary school where there was a majority of white students. In the entire school, only a few kids looked like me. Everyday, I would enthusiastically attend school with my homework, supplies, and a lunch.
When it was lunchtime, I would enter the cafeteria with my massive lunchbox filled with Punjabi food, which my mother had lovingly prepared the night before. Typically, my lunches were aloo parathas with achar, roti and subji, or even rice and dal.
But once I sat down at the table and opened the foil-wrapped roti and container of subji, I felt quite odd. All around me, kids were eating sandwiches or pasta for lunch. I began to notice that my yellow-colored, aromatic masala subji stood out among the other foods. This made me feel really different. For the longest time, I felt like my Punjabi lunch did not belong amongst the other lunches.
“Why can’t I be like the rest of the American kids? Why can’t my mom give me normal food?” I remember these questions swirling in my mind everyday as I opened my lunchbox of Desi khanna. I realized I was beginning to feel ashamed of my culture.
One day, I decided that I did not want to bring the Punjabi food, which my mother had cooked, to school anymore. But I was scared to tell my mother about this choice, so I often made excuses like purposely forgetting my lunch and telling her I wasn’t hungry. It came to a point where I tolerated hunger during lunchtime because I did not want to feel embarrassed by bringing my typical Punjabi lunch.
As a result, I started packing my own “American-style” lunch to school. My roti-and-subji lunches were replaced with veggie sandwiches and cheese burritos. My mom saw this as a coming-of-age trend, she did not know that I felt ashamed about my culture.
But over time, as I met people who showed me that it was okay to be different, I began to embrace my identity. I first started to embrace my religion – Sikhism.
In middle school, I educated myself on Sikh history and culture. I learned that Sikhi teaches us to be proud of who we are and to never forget where we come from. Suddenly, my Punjabi lunches did not seem so bad anymore.
Looking back at my elementary school years, I realized that I had traded my authenticity for approval. I thought that I would be more accepted by my peers if I had blended in with my surroundings. But in all honesty, it really did not change my relationships with my peers. It just made me miss my spicy roti-and-subji lunches even more.
Over time, my interaction with my Punjabi lunch changed. Initially, the uniqueness of the food made me feel ashamed of my culture. However, now the uniqueness makes me feel special because it represents who I am: a Punjabi-American. The uniqueness of my Punjabi lunch was always there, but now I greatly embrace it.
Today, I live by the belief of being true to yourself. I proudly express myself, without caring what others think of me. Now, school is one of many places I show off who I am, whether it is by singing Punjabi songs during recreation time, or eating aloo parathas in the cafeteria.
I have so much love for my values, religion, and of course – my Punjabi lunch.