DESI DINNER PARTY
When your mom says you’re spending Saturday night at Sunnah Auntie’s house, you groan and try to convince her otherwise. Your mom instructs you to pick out a Pakistani outfit. There’s no use in arguing with your mom, who has already laid her clothes on the bed. For this dinner party she picked a black salwar kameez with white embroidery and white pants. It’s the dress she bought last week from an auntie’s basement shop, so she would have a newer outfit for casual parties like this. Otherwise, all of the aunties would think she’s too poor to buy clothes every three months.
You always fight over these Desi dinner parties. None of the other Desi girls that you see wear Pakistani clothes. You always see them in skinny jeans, with a plaid or loose-fitting shirt, as if they’re trying to prove that they can still seem “American” but conservative. It’s not fair that you have to wear clothes that’ll cause stares when you stop by a supermarket to grab dessert for the dinner. None of the other Desi girls endure those glares that make your face burning red.
Your mom thinks you should feel proud of your Pakistani clothes. These ornamental displays allow you to clasp onto South Asian culture while living in this American suburb. When your mom was a child in Ohio, her parents made her and her siblings wear them to every Desi event. And now you must do the same. Otherwise, you’re pushing part of your life away.
You push away the dresses, shirts, and cardigans in your closet until you reach the Pakistani outfits tucked away in the back. Your fingers touch the silk and cotton fabrics as you search for the perfect outfit. There’s that yellow one with purple beading and pants, but you wore that two weeks ago at another party. The biggest rule of Desi dinner parties: never wear the same outfit twice. The aunties will recognize it. They may not say anything, but you know their shifting eyes remember the outfit as if you wore it four hours ago. If you want to wear one again, you must wait at least six months.
After an eternity, you decide on a rose-pink kurta with chocolate brown leggings. To your American friends, kurtas look like exotic knee-length dresses worn with skinny jeans or colored leggings. They haven’t seen you wearing kurtas, so they only have conjured images of women in articles and shows about India and Pakistan to go on. Perhaps someday you’ll garner the confidence to exhibit one of your kurtas for them, so they can see their true intricacies.
To you, Pakistani kurtas with American leggings serve as a silent act of rebellion. You aren’t Pakistani enough to wear salwar kameez and their wide-legged pants, but also not American enough to wear jeans and a t-shirt. It’s a compromise that your mom never seems to fight over. Perhaps she compromised when she was younger, when she didn’t have a chance to complain to her parents about her Pakistani clothes.
Since your mom is showering, you’re tasked with ironing all the clothes for tonight. Thankfully, your family isn’t preparing for a Desi wedding, where you spend an extra hour flipping clothes inside out and under layers to iron them completely. You have to be careful not to iron off the delicate beading or burn the fabric. If you don’t iron out all the wrinkles, the aunties will think you are sloppy. And according to the aunties, if you can’t keep yourself presentable, how can you manage a home once you marry?
You return to your bedroom to put on clothes still warm from the iron. You smooth the fabric over the mini belly that pokes out of the kurta while staring in the mirror. Since you haven’t eaten all day, your stomach growls, knowing that you’ll stuff it with heavy Desi food later that night. That meal alone counts as your calories for the day. Lately, your mom’s been pushing you to lose weight because you’ve grown from a size two to four in the past year. Your body always bounces in sizes, and Pakistani food, with its rivers of oil, is one reason why. You have to detox when you eat tons of Pakistani food in a week. Usually, that detox consists of going longer between meals or using a tiny plate that’ll barely hold your food. Sometimes, you skip dinner, or treat your lunch as one.
If you don’t look “acceptable,” the aunties will say things that will further damage the reputation you’ve always heard about but never quite grasped. It’s a shadow that hangs over you as you navigate your life the way others want. You sigh and put on some makeup, since that will make the aunties praise how beautiful and grown-up you look and how you’re one step closer to marriage. That’ll put a positive dent in your reputation.
Hurry up, Bushra! We’re going to be late to Sunnah Auntie’s!
You don’t know why you always call these people aunties and uncles. Your American friends get confused when you can’t sleep over because you’re going to a neighborhood auntie’s dinner party. If you had to define an auntie, you’d categorize her as a married woman who thinks she knows what’s best for every Desi child. She holds the key to your culture, sees herself as the sole preserver of traditions that you will inevitably forget while living in America. She gives the unsolicited advice you always knew you never needed, inflicting harsh judgment with a swift flick of the wrist. You aren’t even related to them. The only thing that binds you all together is the place where your families come from – a foreign land you’ve never visited but always feel connected to. You don’t know if you will ever go there in your lifetime, but your parents have done all they can to make sure you experience as much of its culture as possible.
Don’t lose touch of who you are, of where you came from. You can’t forget your roots. No matter what, don’t forget.
Your family is 30 minutes late, but half the guests haven’t even arrived yet. In reality, 30 minutes late means early or right on time. Shoes that belong to children, teenagers, and uncles crowd the inside entrance. Your mom, however, doesn’t remove her heels. Aunties never take off their shoes. The host family, whose grins fill their whole faces, never break character as they welcome and usher you into the house. While your dad joins the rest of the uncles, you follow your mom to where the ladies sit. It’d be better to rush down into the basement where the other kids are, but your mom says it’s insulting to ignore the aunties. So stand next to her as she goes around saying hello. When necessary, engage in brief conversation with them. A quick hello, a self-conscious smile, as they ask about your life plans.
Saalam, Auntie. Yes, I’m doing well. Oh, yes, I’m studying really hard for the SAT. No, I’m not doing medicine. Law actually. Yes, well, Inshallah I’ll go Harvard Law. Yes, I’ll go get some food. Oh, you brought the tandoori chicken? I’ll make sure to grab some then. Bye, Auntie.
Unlike the other girls in the community, you don’t speak fluent Urdu like you’ve been plucked fresh from a different country and placed into this American world. You speak slowly, saying the simplest phrases in an “American accent” that resemble more of a foreigner visiting Pakistan. When you speak broken Urdu, you can see the judgment in the aunties’ eyes.
What a stupid girl, only speaking simple phrases. She can’t even use the right grammar. What is her mom teaching her? Shame on her for not speaking Urdu at home. Well, the mom can’t even speak it right. She speaks it like an American, and her daughter is worse. How is she going to be a good Pakistani girl if she doesn’t speak Urdu like a good Pakistani girl?
Get out of there as soon as you can. Get away from the weighty stares and go to the food. Take a paper plate from the corner and start piling everything on there – the sauce of the chicken tikka masala drizzling off the pile of golden chicken biryani, chaana masala squished beside it. Snag two potato samosas and place them next to the goat curry and tandoori naan on your plate. Your murmuring stomach reminds you that you’ll regret all this later, but you know others will comment that you have nothing on your plate. According to your calorie count, this is plenty for the rest of the night.
Luckily, you can escape the aunties and retreat into the basement, into a world that your mom has lost touch with. She, on the other hand, must remain with the aunties as they talk about their weekly dinners, extended vacations and trips, and traditional clothes they buy every week $400-$600 each. Since your family doesn’t indulge in the same expensive practices, your mom just smiles and nods. Why does she insist your family attend these Desi dinner parties? None of you feel included enough to enjoy them. Your family is always invited, though, so how can she say no? In her opinion, they are inclusive enough by asking.
The girls in the basement all huddle together on the couches like a school cafeteria. None of them wear traditional clothes or comment on yours. They probably think your mom is strict for making you wear them. Their moms don’t know that they do things like drink at house parties or sneak out and smoke weed at wild concerts. But these girls can speak Urdu perfectly, wear makeup and perfectly ironed clothes like model Pakistani daughters.
Sometimes, you actually know almost everyone and spend your entire time chatting and playing animated games of ping pong or fooze ball. You never get a sense that you don’t belong. Those dinner parties never feel like a timed obligation. Sometimes, you’re even reluctant to leave. You don’t really see these friends outside Desi dinner parties, so you’re unsure when you’ll see the group again. Then it’s back to loneliness. When you don’t know a single person, they don’t usually want to know you. To them, you represent another Desi kid that their parents will always compare them to.
Today, no familiar face greets you in the basement. So go sit in the corner alone. When feeling insecure or unsure of what to do, eat the food on your plate. Food occupies your mind and distracts you from the gossipy girls who will someday become gossipy moms. Chew on the tandoori naan. Suck in a breath because of the overwhelming amount of cumin, curry powder, and turmeric that’s rushed into your nostrils. Allow your teeth to consume the salty chaana masala. Crunch on that cold potato samosa. In situations like these, food equals as your best friend. Food never discriminates you at a dinner party. It keeps you comfortable and busy, especially when no one wants to talk to you.
An hour into the dinner party, two sisters come down with their plates. You’ve met them at a couple of dinner parties last month. Those times, they wore kurtas and skinny jeans and you all bonded over a shared love for YA fantasy books. Anam and Fatima excitedly wave and sit cross-legged on the floor with you. They don’t acknowledge the other girls on the couch with a hello. Like you, they don’t know anyone else. Maybe if you weren’t there, then they’d also be alone in the corner, on their phones and talking amongst themselves. Well, at least Anam and Fatima have each other. They don’t have to spend their time eating and moving the food on their plates. You don’t have anyone to share the experience with. No one to distract you from the sharp spices that sting the back of your throat or your kurta fabric squeezing and riding into your armpits. No one to make you smile and look fun and approachable.
Did you get the read that new book in the series? No? But it’s fucking amazing! They finally get together, and my god, it’s soo worth the wait! You have to!
Fatima grimaces at the bitter piece of cardamom that she accidently bit into.
Ugh, that’s so fucking gross. I feel like I have to throw up. Don’t any of those auntie’s know how to dial back on the masala, or take these goddamn things out?!
You laugh and hand Fatima a napkin that isn’t stained with masala and oil. Anam scrolls through her phone and shows you fan art of the book they were insisting you read. It’s almost like you’re sitting in the school cafeteria with your friends. Almost like you belong to a community different from the South Asian one your parents pull you into. Is there a way for you to bring them together, a way for you to fully belong in both?
After rating the eighth picture you guys discovered, your phone lights up. Your dad has finally sent that text, that holy signal to leave the premises. At this point, you don’t really want to leave. Anam and Fatima are rare gems that you don’t know if you’ll find again. Who knows when you guys will cross paths at another Desi dinner party? Anam and Fatima pout when you insist it’s time for you to head out.
No, you can’t leave now! Stay for longer – they’re going to take an hour to say goodbye anyway! Okay, fine, bring that 1,001 Nights retelling and we’ll bring that new book we were talking about.
Even though you talk to them about your favorite characters and books for hours, none of you ever exchange books like you always promise. Anam and Fatima just took your phone number down, even though you’ve met before. They probably won’t ever call you back. They included you just enough, so you don’t feel totally unwelcome. Maybe if you weren’t there, they would sit with the other girls on the couch, absorbing themselves in the world you’re never a part of. At least they would have each other if things went south.
Glance at the girls huddled at the couch and rush upstairs without saying goodbye. It will take a while for your family to actually leave. Don’t worry, it will happen eventually. Don’t stress and pull them along. It will look rude to sneak out the front door with one small goodbye. Your mom has to say goodbye to every present auntie, going off on a tangent to some other conversation that wastes more time. The host needs to feel special for arranging such a spectacular dinner party. Pleasantly smile at her as you hug her goodbye. Tell her the food was delicious and that you had the best time with the other girls. Eventually, after what feels like two hours after the first goodbye, you’ll leave the dinner party.
In the car, you rest your head against the window as you watch the suburban trees filter into highway trees. Your parents are discussing a gift for a Desi graduation party next weekend. At least with this party you can sit at a table on your phone and seem uninterested. You even hear your parents debate when you can host your own dinner party. At least then you can spend your night acting like a kitchen servant. You can distract yourself by making sure there’s enough cutlery and plates at the table and that the food is hot and that the ice is refilled in the pitcher.
Tune out your parents as your painted toes rest on the heels you threw off and shoved under the passenger seat. You can already see the swelling start to form on your feet. You’ll have to drink two glasses of water and elevate your feet before you fall asleep. Slowly, the rhythm of the bumpy roads coaxes you to close your eyes. Your stomach rumbles from the Pakistani food as your mind groggily focuses on the cool leather.
Your phone buzzes on the seat as it lights up. With one eye open, you lift the phone and see a message from an unknown number.
Don’t forget the 1,001 Nights retelling! Are you going to Yassin’s grad party next week?
It’s unclear whether Anam or Fatima are texting, but that doesn’t matter. You smile and text back.
I think so! My parents were just talking about it. Don’t forget that book
Maybe this Desi dinner party isn’t as bad as you thought it’d be. It wasn’t anything like the parties where you actually know most of the people, but it was close. You feel hesitant in getting comfortable with Anam and Fatima. They definitely won’t be around for long. You might see them at more parties in the future, but what will happen when college comes around? If your college has any South Asians on campus, will you connect with them? Or will you get shunned again? Maybe, though, maybe it takes a new place, a new home, for you to find pride in this part of you. Maybe you’ll be able to come back home and feel content at a Desi dinner party no matter who is there. You sigh as you unbuckle your seatbelt and watch the car drive into the open garage.
Mariya Khan is a South Asian and Muslim American writer from Washington, DC. She is a graduate of The George Washington University and Summer Institute at the University of Iowa International Writing Program. Her work has appeared in 50 Word Stories, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, Asians in America, Constellate Literary Journal, and Scarlet Leaf Review, among others. When Mariya is not writing, she’s trying new recipes and watching crime dramas.