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Top Posts of 2012 #4: The Surprising Links Between Food and Identity

In the few days before 2012 ends and 2013 begins, we’ll be looking back at some of our top posts from the past year, starting with number five and counting down to number one. If you missed these articles the first time around, now’s your time to see why we’ve found these particular pieces so compelling.

Why do International Students Crave Food From Home?
Contributions from Mohammed al-Suraih, Sebastian Sanchez, Javaria Khan

A common complaint among international students is how much they miss their native cuisine, so it’s no surprise that one of our most popular posts of 2012 was one examining just what it is about food that makes it so important to international students.

Hamburgers v. Vietnamese food, by Nick
Hamburgers v. Vietnamese food, by Nick

We learned that food interacts with your brain in some unique ways. Not only do you start forming your food preferences before you’re even born, so that by the time you study abroad some of your tastes for native food are pretty deeply engrained, but food is also deeply tied to memory, so nostalgia and food cravings become intertwined.

Read it: "3 Things You Don’t Know About Food and Why International Students Crave Cuisine From Home"

But one of the most interesting things we learned about food is that what you eat is part of who you are; food and identity are linked together.

In fact, one reason why international students miss native food so much is because they're also missing the stable sense of identity they had back home. Studying abroad redefines your sense of who you are, what you want, and what you believe, and it can be a difficult process.

We saw just how difficult in Senzeni's examination of how her self image changed during a year in the States, one of our most moving posts of 2012. "The certainty I once had about what I wanted to see and achieve is gone, the answers replaced by more and more questions about myself and my path," she wrote.

Read it: "Just When I Learn the Answers They Change the Questions"

Senzeni had to reconsider trivial things, like how she feels about snow (excited at first, then increasingly disenchanted after seeing what snow is really like), and how she feels about really important things, like homosexuality. Before coming to the U.S., "my family and I prayed that I would not get a homosexual roommate." But, she wrote:
I have sat in on intellectual and academic debates on homosexuality. I have made friends, loved them, discovered their sexuality, and realized that this does not change my opinion of them. I have had paralyzing crushes on boys who I later discovered to be gay, and I have questioned my own sexuality.

And the result has been an often distressing loss of identity. "Sometimes, I have risen to the challenge – gone ice skating, dated outside my race, danced to Katy Perry," Senzeni wrote. "Other times, my only comfort being the knowledge despite feelings of a loss of identity, I have still retained an ability to be vulnerable in a land where everyone is 'doing well.'"

Yu also struggled to find her identity in the U.S., as she wrote in another of our most compelling stories of 2012.

Read it: "Learning to be Thai"

Upon arriving in the U.S., Yu wrote:
I threw myself into creating a new identity as a student, and let those reminders of my Thainess fall to the wayside. I lost touch with my parents and my friends back home. I made almost no effort to connect with the Thais on campus, and allowed my Thai to get so rusty that I could barely bring myself to speak it to them.

But eventually, Yu began to realize that “[a]s much as I was resisting my Thainess, I was also really evaluating what it meant, and finally, adopting it as part of who I was." She's now writing her academic thesis about Thailand.

Ultimately, there are no easy answers to finding an identity in the States. Getting access to a piece of home, like native food, can help ease the feeling of dislocation, but it doesn’t answer the questions.

South Asian food
South Asian food
In a unique article about traveling from Massachusetts to New York in the quest for desi, halal food, Javaria remembered, "I had been building up Jackson Heights in my mind as the savior – the place where I would finally be able to satisfy my cravings and eat anything I wanted without worry."

Read it: "The Quest for Desi, Halal Food in America"

In the end, however:
Fall break, New York and Jackson Heights proved to be the respite that I had been longing for. However, it is not possible to go to New York from South Hadley every time I start craving native food. So what is the solution? Only to control my cravings and wait for more vacations to come to my aid. I know that I am sacrificing food in order to get a good education, and that I will be stronger because of it.

Other top posts of 2012:
#5: Navigating and Defeating Negative Stereotypes
#3: The Cultural Nuances of Language
#2: Keeping Standardized Tests in Perspective
#1: Taking Responsibility is the Key to Academic Success