I lost touch with a life of barbecues and hiking in the foothills and swimming in Lake Lagunita, says Mohsin Hamid
These days, there is much frightened talk of migrants coming from poor countries to rich ones. I made the same journey 35 years ago, but in reverse.
At age 9, I left Palo Alto, California, for Lahore, Pakistan, the city where I was born, but which I could no longer remember. Many things were different in my new home. And things tasted funny. Not the Pakistani food. Milk tasted funny. Bread tasted funny. Cereal tasted funny. And not in a good way.
I found myself missing what might be called American supermarket cuisine. There was no Nestlé Quik and no Hershey’s chocolate syrup. No Heinz ketchup. No Lucky Charms. Worst of all, there was no peanut butter. Not just no Jif, but no peanut butter at all. Which was a bit of a crisis, as I ate a couple of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches a day.
In time, I grew accustomed to the local hamburgers and fries. And I loved chapatis and matar keema and dal and shami kebabs, so I wasn’t going hungry.
Discontent and Its Civilizations: Global citizen, local impressions
I remember, though, being crushed when we heard about a new restaurant that had pizza on the menu, supposedly the first pizza in Lahore, and rushed there, only to order it and discover a round piece of bread — like a larger version of a water cracker — with a few pieces of unmelted cheese on top. My dad, perhaps the gentlest man I know, asked for the manager and said, ‘‘This isn’t a pizza.’’ I couldn’t have expressed it better myself. But I was finding it difficult to speak.
American food, and supermarket cuisine in particular, continued to exert a powerful emotional force on me through my childhood. There was a war raging in Afghanistan, and many American families in Lahore. I had American friends whose parents worked at the consulate, or for USAID, and they had access to a mythical place called the Commissary, where American products were sold. I never got there. But once in a while, I got to eat an American hot dog with American ketchup, mustard and relish, or chow down on a piping hot Pop-Tart, and in those moments I felt like a captive dolphin returned to the wild.
I didn’t visit California again until I moved to America for college. There was no Internet when I was a kid, and phone calls cost a fortune. I lost touch with all of my friends. I lost touch with a life of barbecues and hiking in the foothills and swimming in Lake Lagunita. I lost touch with being the child of young parents, as we all do. Somehow, American supermarket cuisine was like a way back.
The young and the stateless
A few weeks ago, I took my two young children to the big new supermarket at Al-Fatah, our local Lahori department store. It had everything a Californian kid could have desired in 1980. My daughter asked me to buy her some Kisses, and my son hefted an oversize pack of Doritos. I wonder what it would feel like to them to move from their home in the way that I had. I wonder, as cultures mix and overlap, if moves often seem so complete anymore.
This article originally appeared on The New York Times