Writing between Multiple Cultures

A Case Study of Corn Cobs Cooked in Sand

A friend tagged me into an instagram post, which highlighted the various types of hidden grief of being an immigrant. Some of that hidden grief can be associated with loss of language, roots, traditions, and heirlooms that were left behind. I kept the post in the back of my mind and let it percolate.

Later in the day, I was asked about something I had written in my book Chai Chats: Personal Essays to Fill Your Cup in which I mentioned corn cobs cooked in hot sand. I was asked what does that even mean and if I could clarify this notion of corn cobs being cooked in sand. I realized that I had assumed corn cobs cooked in sand is understandable because I had grown up eating them. Often times, I think that what I’m writing about might be understood by the reader.

I thought about it from the perspective of the reader, who didn’t grow up in Pakistan. Corn cobs cooked in sand sound like narwhals, which my daughter explained are the combination of whales and unicorns. It seems impossible to have corn cobs cooked in sand. Who in the world would want to eat food cooked in sand?

It turns out that corn cobs cooked in sand do exist and they are not a figment of my imagination. There are corn cob sellers, who carry hot sand around in their cart, with corn cobs nestled therein. They are the most delicious corn cobs I have ever had and I wish others could enjoy them, too. Here is a video of what it looks like:

Back to that instagram quote of feeling loss. I’m not sure if I feel loss. I feel this perpetual struggle in trying to be understood. As a person who grew up in both cultures of East and West, I’ve given up some elements of each as I embraced some parts of the other. How do I properly express myself especially in terms of writing when my brain thinks in more than one language? I think about which culture and language is mine. Do I dream in Urdu or English? I’m not sure. This is the plight of being bilingual and also holding onto more than one culture.

In trying to find a close equivalent, I feel I rob the reader of the experience. Sometimes there isn’t an equivalent. For example, I don’t have an equivalent for the excitement of seeing the corn cob man walk down the street. The closest I can come to is waiting for the ice cream truck in hot summer evenings. Even that remotely does not cut it.

In exchange of ten rupees, I would receive warmth and comfort served on a husk. Standing close to the cart near the warmth of the sand as the winter wind pierced my skin, I’d ask him to get me a corn cob that had soft kernels. He’d claim that all the corn cobs on his cart tasted delicious. Unveiling the cart by picking up the burlap sack cover, he would ask me to pick a corn. After picking one, I would be asked my preference level of spice. The corn would be stripped from its husk and a lemon dipped in various spices would be applied on it. The husk would become the holder of the corn and passed onto me. Biting into the sweet roasted corn drenched in the citrus salty spice made me appreciate how hard the man worked to earn his daily income.

A few sentences fail to encapsulate the experience. I suppose this is the struggle of any writer. There is a world in my head and as I try to thread some words on paper, I hope to recreate the experience. In a way the writer is trying to build this lens through which the reader can see what they see. The struggle is increased when the writer is coming from a different culture and context.

Image courtesy of ShutterStock

6 thoughts on “Writing between Multiple Cultures”

  1. OH!!! This is just like Mexican street corn! The vendor takes the cob, pulls back the husk (the oja) and swirls the cob into melted butter with lime juice. Then he shakes out salt with ground chile peppers on it. You grab the oja and eat right off the cob and it’s the most delicious thing. Thank you for the wonderful memory!

    1. Cindy, that’s amazing. While I was looking up images for street corn, I came across images of Mexican street corn. It’s wonderful to see the similarities. I would love to try the oja one day.

  2. Ahhh the memories of that time sitting in my car eating a corn with masala. The spices of chili salt and mixed masala tantalising my taste buds and burning my lips at the same time.
    An experience that is nostalgic and a part of every day life in sunny Pakistan, care free days filled with laughter, loud music and shopping trips!

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