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Abstract

Migration to a new country often results in a variety of social and economic challenges, often reflected in foodways. Food is of central importance in maintaining connections to home, and signifying ethnic identity among diasporic community members. Alternatively, new opportunities may be represented by the incorporation of new food elements into consumption patterns. Focus group interviews conducted with Arabic and South Asian immigrant women residing in a smaller Canadian city reveal the meanings women imparted to their own and their families' food choices and dietary habits. Women shared their struggles of maintaining ethnic cuisine as a marker of community affiliation while to varying degrees, integrating new foods, usually at their children's request. Experiences were not uniform, yet comparisons within and across these two communities suggest the importance of local social factors and politico-economic context in shaping commonly shared food and migration experiences and such shared realities highlight areas for advocacy.
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Department of Anthropology,
University of Alber ta
Consuming Food and
Constructing Identities
among Arabic and
South Asian Immigrant
Women
Helen Vallianatos
··
Centre for Health Promotion Studies,
University of Alber ta
Kim Raine
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ABSTRACT
: :
Migration to a new country often results in a variety of social and economic challenges,
often reflected in foodways. Food is of central importance in maintaining connections to
home, and signifying ethnic identity among diasporic community members. Alternatively,
new opportunities may be represented by the incorporation of new food elements into
consumption patterns. Focus group interviews conducted with Arabic and South Asian
immigrant women residing in a smaller Canadian city reveal the meanings women
imparted to their own and their families’ food choices and dietary habits.Women
shared their struggles of maintaining ethnic cuisine as a marker of community affiliation
while to varying degrees, integrating new foods, usually at their children’s request.
Experiences were not uniform, yet comparisons within and across these two
communities suggest the importance of local social factors and politico-economic
context in shaping commonly shared food and migration experiences and such shared
realities highlight areas for advocacy.
Keywords: gender, migration, family food practices, culinary heritage, identity
Introduction
: :
Migration to Canada frequently entails adapting to new lifeways, and part of
this process may include adjusting conceptualizations of self and
performance of identities. Experiences of this process of adjustment depend
on how various aspects of self are contextualized in specific historical and
spatial locations. Many immigrants hope to retain their cultural practices
and identities, although some modifications are common especially as
immigrants cope with socioeconomic realities encountered in Canada (Buijs
1996). One such example is the transformation of gender roles, as financial
stress necessitates the participation of both women and men in the labor
force, which in turn may challenge customary ideas of womanhood and
manhood. This may lead to tensions within families and communities
(George 2005; Hyman et al. 2004). Analysis of complex symbolic meanings
and associations of food and foodways provides a window into understanding
how individuals construct subjectivity, and how various kinds of
sociocultural boundaries (e.g. based on class, caste, religion, etc) are
demarcated. Thus, food both delineates and connects.
Food also connects across time and place, and for many migrants, food is
an essential component of maintaining connections to home. How and what
kinds of food are consumed recall families and friends left behind, and by
continuing to consume both everyday and celebratory foods migrants
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preserve these transnational relationships and enact their companionship
with those back home. David Sutton, in his book Remembrance of Repasts:
The Anthropology of Food and Memory, recalls being told prior to his
departure from the Greek Isle of Kalymnos, to “eat, in order to remember
Kalymnos,” accordingly through the act of eating, to remember and to be
Kalymnian (Sutton 2001). Food practices mark social boundaries but are
also used to construct identities. Losing traditional culinary practices, for
many immigrants, is equated with the “abandon[ment of] community, family,
and religion” (Gabaccia 1998: 54).
Societal food choices and meanings reflect cultural mores that are
instilled early in life as part of the socialization process; consequently food
habits and the significance imparted to foods are thought to be relatively
stable (Beardsworth and Keil 1997; Lupton 1996; Rozin 1987). Because of
this strong connection between food and identity, immigrants tend to
conserve dietary habits (Gabaccia 1998). Nevertheless, incorporation of new
food elements and changes in meal patterns have been noted among
immigrants in diverse contexts (e.g. Goode, Curtis and Theophano 1984;
Guendelman and Siega-Riz 2002; Ray 2004; Satia-About et al. 2002;
Vallianatos and Raine 2005). New opportunities for socioeconomic mobility
may be represented by the incorporation of previously rare or inaccessible
foods and inclusion of new food elements into immigrants’ diets (Diner
2001). These dietary changes are dependent upon a range of factors that
belie attempts to define a single immigrant experience (e.g. Diner 2001;
Satia-Abouta et al. 2002b; Vallianatos, Ramos-Salas and Raine 2005).
Through women’s gendered roles in providing, preparing and presenting
food to their families, they act as “gatekeepers;” they balance the need to
impart family and community values via traditional foods and cuisines, with
adjusting to life and foodways in Canada. Although women are
predominantly responsible for food work, this responsibility is not equivalent
to power over food choices. Women frequently privilege the tastes of other
family members, particularly husbands (Counihan 1999; DeVault 1991;
McIntosh and Zey 1989). Family meals may be an important place where
shifting gender and ethnic identities are negotiated between generations and
genders. In this paper, we explore the meanings immigrant women have
imparted to their own and their families’ food choices and dietary habits and
consider how this relates to their conceptualizations of self, particularly in
terms of how gender and ethnicity are constructed and understood. Through
our examination of various women’s experiences from two communities
(Arabic and South Asian1), including individuals who migrated in different
time periods (recently, in the past decade, or non-recently, ten or more years
ago), we demonstrate how the migration experience is shaped by social,
political and economic structures that in turn relate to food consumption
patterns and identity constructions among immigrant women. Before
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presenting our analysis of women’s voices, we describe where and how our
research was conducted.
Contextualizing and Learning about Immigrant Women’s Lives
: :
A significant proportion of the Canadian population is composed of
immigrants (18.4 percent according to the 2001 census). Most immigrants
(74 percent) settle in Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal (Statistics Canada
2001). Although there may be some overarching similarities in experiences
of settling in urban areas, the immigration experience may be different for
those living in other regions of Canada (Jabbra and Jabbra 1984; Ralston
1996). This research will add to our understanding of migration experiences
in different Canadian locales. Our study was conducted in Edmonton, a
large city (approximately 1 million persons) in Western Canada. According
to the 2001 census, 17.8 percent of this city’s population consisted of
immigrants, and 14.6 percent of the population were visible minorities. Of
the visible minorities residing in Edmonton, the South Asian community is
the largest, at 21.4 percent. The Arabic community makes up 6.7 percent of
this visible minority population (Statistics Canada 2001).
The findings presented here are part of an ongoing larger ethnographic
study examining adult women’s migration experiences. This study was
designed to be community-based, and was conducted in collaboration with
a local community organization composed of immigrant women from various
countries. This organization helped us define which immigrant communities
would participate in this study, and located research assistants (one woman
from each participating community). Research assistants assisted with
development of the research design (e.g. defining appropriate questions and
how to best phrase them), recruitment of participants (via convenience and
purposive sampling), translation when required during the interview process,
and transcription of interviews. One goal of the study is to provide this
community organization and other interested parties with information that
can be used for advocacy in addressing immigrants’ needs.
In order to compare changes over time in immigrant women’s experiences
we recruited recent immigrants, who had lived in Canada for fewer than ten
years, and non-recent immigrants, those who had resided in Canada for ten
or more years. Six focus group interviews were conducted in 2005–6 with
each community, three with recent and three with non-recent immigrant
women. This number of focus group interviews was found to be adequate for
understanding the range of experiences immigrant women shared (Morgan
1997). A focus group consisted of five to eight women. Discussion was easily
elicited, and groups of this size were considered adequate for collecting a
range of opinions yet allowing all women’s voices to be heard. A total of
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thirty-six Arabic and thirty-eight South Asian women participated. In
conjunction with these interviews, demographic and anthropometric
information was collected, and acculturation and body-image scales were
administered. Findings from the focus group interviews are the focus of this
article.
All women gave informed consent prior to participation in focus group
interviews, and had the option of ceasing participation at any point,
requesting that their comments not be utilized after it was over, or not
participating in some portion of the interview. Interviews were conducted in
women’s homes or community centers, and lasted approximately two and a
half hours. The first author and a research assistant were present at all
interviews; the first author took notes and asked probing questions and the
research assistant facilitated the discussion, using predetermined interview
questions. The Human Research Ethics Committee of the Department of
Anthropology, Faculty ofArts at the University of Alberta approved the study.
Interviews were recorded, translated into English where required, and
transcribed. Data analysis from the interviews was content-based (DeVault
1990). In other words, the interviews were examined for thematic patterns.
Interview data were coded by reviewing all cases. Codes were formulated
through a line-by-line analysis of concepts that were identified in the data.
Comparative analysis of codes led to the development of larger units of
analysis (categories). Themes were then developed from the categories that
emerged from the data, and by comparing these themes with those reported
in the literature. Data analysis was conducted by the first author.
Gendering Migration Experiences
: :
Individuals immigrating to Canada may be admitted through one of three
modules: economic immigrants, family class immigrants, or refugees. Since
1967, economic class immigrants were selected based on Canadian labor
needs and skills assessments. Family reunification became the primary
criterion for immigration in 1975 (Ralston 1996). As a result, proportionally
more immigrants were women, who followed their husbands already
employed in Canada. Recent data indicate most immigrants enter Canada
as economic immigrants, although more women enter as economic-class
spouses or as family-class immigrants (Chui 2003). Most women from both
communities who participated in this study entered Canada as spouses.
For many of these women, the migration experience itself was less
traumatic or stressful in that they had a family member waiting for them in
Canada or traveled with others with whom they could share the migration
event. They did not have to cope with the unknown, in part represented by
new foods. One South Asian woman’s first meal consisted of non-traditional
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foods—she had pizza. However, this was “Indian pizza,” homemade
(including the dough) by her sister-in-law. The vast majority of South Asian
women described their first meals as consisting of traditional foods—curries,
rice and rotis—that were consumed in their relatives’ homes.
Part of the reason for the pattern of not eating out is concern with
ingesting something that is prohibited. In the above “Indian pizza” example,
the dough was made without eggs, which were proscribed. Dietary
proscriptions are delineated by various religious traditions, including Islam
and Hinduism, which are practiced by the vast majority of women. Women
have the primary responsibility for ensuring that food proscriptions are
followed and that suitable foods are available for their families through
appropriate food preparation and cooking activities. As one South Asian
woman said, “I have to cook everything at home because of the halal factor.”
This is especially important during traveling and migration, when the
availability of appropriate foods is questionable. This is exemplified by
another South Asian newcomer’s experience: “I was traveling with my
groceries, pots, pans, rice, flour, and lentils. We rented a room with a
kitchenette so I started cooking the next day.”
South Asian and Arabic women immigrants’ experiences of settlement, at
least among study participants, were gendered through their relationships
with others. The security and support provided for these women by their
kinship relations eased some of the strain of arrival in Canada, as illustrated
through the familiarity of their first meals in Canada. However, immigrant
women who enter Canada on the basis of family connections also face
challenges.
Immigrant women’s status in Canada is detrimentally affected through the
lack of access to language and other kinds of training and services geared to
spouses of economic immigrants (e.g. Man 2004; Ralston 1996). This is
important because women are more likely than men to have little knowledge
of the official Canadian languages (Chui 2003), and would need training in
these languages to pursue employment. While immigrants of both genders
face the prospect of the non-recognition of foreign credentials and lack of
work experience in Canada, which is frequently associated with a downward
shift in social and economic status for the family unit as a whole, women
newcomers lacking access to training opportunities may experience
diminishing economic standing within their family. Both men and women
who are recent immigrants to Canada are predominantly employed in sales
and service occupations, an increase of two and three times respectively, of
the proportion employed in this field prior to migration (Chui 2003). This is
echoed in our study, where recent immigrant women who were highly
trained (e.g. medical doctor, dentist, architect) were either not employed or
worked in the service sector. These women reported the same experiences
for their husbands, who generally found employment in manufacturing,
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construction or driving taxi cabs. The financial strain that arguably resulted
from the lack of Canadian work experience and non-recognition of foreign
credentials was evident in the levels of poverty among study participants.
Calculations of poverty levels using Statistics Canada’s Before-Tax Low
Income Cut-Offs (LICO), which determine poverty lines according to
community and family size, showed very high poverty rates among
participants’ households: 55.26 percent of South Asian and 52.7 percent of
Arabic participants were living below LICOs. As expected, non-recent
immigrant women reported relatively higher household incomes. Census
data on income distribution among immigrants in Edmonton indicate that
recent immigrants are under-represented in upper-income brackets (above
$50,000), and a greater percentage of recent immigrant women than men
have incomes under $10,000 (Strategic Research and Statistics 2005a).
Experiences of financial stress shared by many of the women have arguably
affected dietary patterns and family dynamics around food.
Constructing Gender through Food
: :
Household controversies over access and distribution of various kinds of
resources may emerge in social transactions around food, which Appadurai
has entitled “gastropolitics” (1981: 495). Gender roles and relations often
become strained or undergo modification with migration, and this is often
exacerbated by financial challenges. Consequently, analysis of immigrant
household food transactions, or gastropolitics, may reveal how women
negotiate their identities and roles after settling in Canada.
The roles of mother and wife were of central importance to the
construction of womanhood among women from both communities
(Jacobson and Wadley 1995; Zaatari 2006). Other studies have suggested
that an important component of Arabic women’s definitions of self reflects
their roles as family cooks, as meal providers for their families (Maclagan
2000). Our study participants indicated such definitions of self continued
post-migration, as demonstrated in the words of one Arabic woman: “We
have more obligations to our family, we cook for our husband and children,
we believe that family comes before everything.” She asserted that food
provisioning, particularly cooking, is a practice through which womanhood
is constructed, and in turn a means of communicating love and respect for
family members. At the same time, ethnic group boundaries are being
established and affirmed as the position of Arabic women within the family,
symbolized through their food work, is implicitly contrasted with Canadian
women. This statement was made during a discussion among a group of non-
recent Arabic immigrants of how Canadian women seemed to make time for
themselves, to focus on their own wellbeing—and this was seen to be in
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contrast with Arabic women, who were described, both generally and from
women’s own personal experiences, as always putting family first. These are
sweeping statements, not reflective of the variation within Canadian and
Arabic women’s family lives, but we suggest it is precisely this generalization
that serves in the construction of ethnic group identity.
The prioritizing of women’s family roles as care-takers was also
emphasized by South Asian participants, perceivable in this exchange among
recent immigrants:
1: If we are healthy, we can take care of our children.
2: And our husbands. [laughter]
3: Yeah.
1: Yes, our biggest responsibility. [laughter] Yes, women have to
cater to the needs of all family members.
As with the Arabic participants, South Asian women underscored the
importance of their responsibilities toward their families, albeit laughingly in
the above exchange. For Hindu South Asian women, preparation of food has
been described as holding spiritual significance, like an act of worship,
consequently the act of cooking and serving food has symbolic power (Ray
2004). Similar patterns of deference in Muslim South Asian women’s food
work have also been described (Mandelbaum 1988). Perhaps deference of
tastes can also be viewed as a means of fulfilling spiritual obligations. In our
interviews, it was clear that South Asian immigrant women were
conscientious of the tastes and preferences of family members, and strived
to meet others’ likes and dislikes when planning meals. Thus, many women
subordinated their own preferences, as seen in this exchange among South
Asian recent immigrants:
1: So we cook according to our husbands’ choice.
All: Yeah [everyone nodding in agreement]
2: My husband doesn’t like seafood, so I rarely buy seafood.
1: Yeah, I don’t like seafood, but my husband loves it so I have to
cook it. I don’t even like the smell of it, and my kids love it too,
so I have to.
This exchange echoes the pattern of women subordinating themselves
through catering to others previously reported in a variety of societies and
contexts (e.g. Charles and Kerr 1988; Counihan 1999; DeVault 1991;
Harriss 1995; Lupton 1996; Maclagan 2000; McIntosh and Zey 1989).
Deference to others, particularly husbands, reflects cultural constructions of
gender and power. Further support is demonstrated by women’s cooking
efforts as newlyweds. Both Arabic and South Asian women made a point of
learning to cook dishes in the manner favored by husbands—even though
the majority of women had learned at least basic cooking skills prior to
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marriage. Yet adapting to husbands’ tastes can also be viewed as women’s
agency, as a way that young and relatively insecure women can proactively
connect with and learn about their husbands’ personalities (Harbottle 2000).
The gender dynamics depicted through family foodways is also
demonstrated in women’s definitions of gendered space. Among both
participant communities, the kitchen was considered to be the woman’s
domain and men were not supposed to interfere in kitchen activities beyond
dictating their food desires. However, the long hours men spent working in
Canada (due to economic pressures described previously) affected how men
and women interacted post-migration, and this is evident in both discussions
about food and distribution of food work. One Arabic woman explained,
I think back home they’re more involved, but not like in the kitchen
or cooking; there they would tell you “I feel like eating this kind of
food’ or something, but here, they will eat whatever you make …
Like here, the men come home later in the evening and are hungry,
and the first thing they want to do is eat, they don’t care what it is.
But in Lebanon, they’ll tell you what they feel, and you have time to
make it.
So, men were customarily involved in terms of contributing to food
choices and meal planning. In Canada, however, where the lifestyle was
unanimously reported to be more harried and stressful, men reportedly did
not have the time or energy to contribute in this manner; rather, they
exhaustedly ate whatever meals their wives had prepared. This may be
indicative of shifting intrafamily gender relations, as these women take on a
greater responsibility for daily food planning.
The demarcation of gendered food spaces and food work was challenged
among some immigrant families. In terms of domestic kitchen duties, some
women spoke of men being more helpful and supportive in Canada, as
demonstrated by this exchange between three Arabic women, recently
arrived in Canada:
1: They help more than back home. I think because they see that
life is stressful for both, so they help out.
2: And because there is nobody around to see him, so he helps
out, because back home there are mothers and aunts and
family to help, so the man doesn’t come into the kitchen. Back
home they will blame the woman if the husband is in the
kitchen.
3: My husband taught me how to cook. At the beginning of the
marriage he helped me more than he does now.
This exchange demonstrates the fluidity of gender roles, dependent on
family context. Extended family structures were common practices for both
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Arabic and South Asian women participants. Such living arrangements
ranged from sharing the same house and all the living spaces within, sharing
a multistorey house where each nuclear family unit resided on one level, or
nuclear family units living in discrete homes that were located in close
physical proximity to extended family (e.g. same street). Living in close
proximity with others offers both advantages and challenges. In extended
families, both men and women face more social pressure to maintain their
gender roles, whereas after migration, and if living in a nuclear family, these
roles may become less defined. This was evident in the above exchange, as
women recalled the role of extended family members in maintaining
appropriate gender roles and spaces. Coming to Canada then, may afford
more freedom for both women and men to cross gendered spaces. Yet,
extended families provide daily social support that is missed. Many women
spoke of the loneliness and stress that followed migrating to Canada, for
even if relatives lived nearby, few shared homes for an extended time (i.e.
beyond a year). Living in nuclear households meant there were no others to
share domestic work, especially labor and time-intensive foods and dishes.
The result was that “women have to do all the work here,” as said by a South
Asian migrant.
Household gastropolitics commonly shifts post-migration, but how this is
manifested depends upon specific contexts which belie a simplistic
association with recent or non-recent, Arabic or South Asian migrant
categories. Generally, women continue to prioritize the needs of others,
particularly their husbands, and this is reflected in menu planning and
related food work. Women from both Arabic and South Asian communities
have commonly lived in extended households back home, thus prior to
migration, they have had to consider the meal and taste preferences of their
relatives. Post-migration, household gastropolitics change for those shifting
to a nuclear family structure. Although the women still predominantly spoke
of subsuming their own needs, those who now only had to focus on their
immediate family members may have had increased opportunities to
incorporate their own preferences.
Shifting social class identities is another important factor shaping
household gastropolitics. Adjusting to life in Canada is often stressful,
especially for recent immigrants whose credentials are not recognized—
recall the high rates of poverty among study participants, which mirror
census findings that twice as many recent immigrants compared with
Canadian-born Edmontonians, live in low-income households (Strategic
Research and Statistics 2005a). The resultant downward social shift from
professional to manual laborer or service provider has emotional and
economic consequences, both of which may be revealed through the quality
and quantities of food purchased. Socioeconomic status has shaped who
shops for food, which grocery stores are patronized, and the frequency of
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shopping excursions. For example, the women did the grocery shopping
either alone or with their husbands. Both Arabic and South Asian women
recounted that back home, they did not often have to leave their homes to
shop because husbands or other extended family members often undertook
this task, and vendors routinely sold food products door-to-door. This was
not a uniform experience; whether the women came from rural or urban
communities, their life stage (e.g. newlywed, mother-in-law), socioeconomic
status and family dynamics all influenced their previous shopping
experiences. Nevertheless, more women had the primary responsibility of
grocery shopping post-migration. Access to private transport was an
important factor. Shopping at ethnic grocery stores, which are
predominantly located in ethnic enclaves, may be costlier than shopping at
large box-store supermarkets, which now also carry many ethnic food items,
but access requires a car (or money for a cab). Yet, patronizing ethnic
groceries may be a way of connecting with other immigrants, and through
the familiar smells, sights and food products, connecting with home
(Mankekar 2005). The role of food in creating and maintaining communal
and transnational ties with others is discussed in the following section.
Constructing Ethnicity through Food
: :
An important idea voiced by immigrants from both communities centered on
the importance of traditional cuisine and foods, of the challenges they faced
in continuing to cook these foods for their families. These foods are an
important ingredient in the maintenance and propagation of ethnic identity.
The function of food as a symbol of ethnic identity is demonstrated by the
importance women placed on being able to purchase food elements necessary
for their cuisines. Because of the important role food plays in constructing
ethnic identity, not being able to find these foods easily contributes to the
anxieties of migrating and settling in Edmonton. The lack of ethnic food is
symbolic of isolation, as shown with this South Asian woman’s words:
We knew nobody, no Pakistani/Indian community; we had a hard
time … I made baked potato with bread. I had all my spices with
me. I had to boil the potato because I couldn’t find the right oil. I
made cutlets [potato patties] and ate it with boiled rice, as we knew
nobody there … we couldn’t find halal meat, so we were fasting.
Not only were religiously prescribed foods such as halal meats difficult to
acquire, but even “parsley was not available. This is very important for Arabs.
Parsley is needed in every Arab home” recalled one Arabic woman who
immigrated twenty-five years ago. Language barriers were a further
challenge, as recalled another non-recent Arabic immigrant:
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When I first came here, it was me and two kids, and we had nobody
here. We went to Safeway, and back home, we had the cans of beef
(bollabeef), so we saw the can, and we never paid attention to it
(laughs). So, our first meal in Canada was dog food.
The isolation experienced by many non-recent South Asian and Arabic
immigrants to Edmonton is slowly being alleviated, although recent
immigrants from South Asia, Western Asia and the Middle East
overwhelmingly continue to settle in Toronto and Montreal respectively
(Strategic Research and Statistics 2005b). A symbol of the growth of these
particular communities in Edmonton is the availability of ethnic foods. The
proliferation of South Asian and Arabic grocery stores, and availability of
these particular ethnic foods in supermarkets has occurred only recently in
Edmonton, within the past six years. The immigrant Muslim women
reported that grocery shopping was an especially time-consuming process
because of the necessity of reading labels to check for proscribed ingredients
(i.e. pork products). Thus ethnic groceries, once available, provide a haven
for these immigrant women. In these stores, one can find the same products,
with the same packaging as back home. Even growing arrays of convenience
foods, such as frozen rotis, are available. Ethnic grocery stores become a
cultural space where women can connect with others, and recall home.
However, the familiar is not always equivalent with security and comfort, as
foodscapes, including foods and grocery stores, may evocate complex
emotions (Mankekar 2005). Furthermore, the costs for many foods found in
these small stores are high, not only in comparison with food prices back
home, but also with large supermarket chains that are now attempting to
meet diverse populations’ needs. Study participants who had access to
transportation regularly patronized such supermarkets rather than small
ethnic grocers as a strategy of stretching household food dollars, thereby
foregoing the security of ethnic grocery stores. Yet Edmonton foodscapes are
rapidly changing, exemplified by the stocking and display of appropriate
foods required in making celebratory dishes for Diwali and Eid in
mainstream supermarkets—a great contrast to the above descriptions of
food shopping provided by non-recent immigrant women.
Through their food work, the women impart onto their children what it
means to be Arabic, South Asian or Canadian, Hindu, Sikh or Muslim.
Because food consumption and transactions symbolize group identity, the
women must teach their children the social meanings of food
pre/proscriptions. This has not been easy in Canada, where many children’s
friends and society at large do not share the same food meanings, as
demonstrated by this exchange among South Asian women:
1: Yeah of course for us and for our kids it’s hard, but I try to pack
a snack, lunch from home. We feed them a heavy breakfast,
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like parathas [fried flat bread], and teach them at home to
abstain from meat, but it’s hard for the kids.
2: Our children also abstain from these things.
3: But we can always make [halal] chicken, beef at home for
them.
2: Yeah, yeah.
4: I think it’s our teaching about our religion, we make them
understand.
5: Yeah, it’s hard for young children to understand, because when
we go to McDonald’s they ask for chicken burgers but when we
say no, they don’t understand.
3: Yeah it’s hard, because at least we can eat fillet fish burgers, but
you [looking at 1, who is a vegetarian Hindu], it must be hard
for your family.
1: Yeah it’s tough, but we have no choice.
In this exchange among Hindu and Muslim South Asians, we see a
number of strategies used by mothers to assist their children. First, there is
formal teaching about religious beliefs and requirements. Second, the
women pack school lunches, as opposed to allowing children to purchase
lunch in the cafeteria. Third, some women provide their children with
substantial breakfasts in order to decrease the chance that their children will
become hungry and snack on proscribed foods. Fourth, the families rarely
eat out, because of the difficulties of finding appropriate foods (e.g. halal).
Because of these dietary proscriptions, most socialization occurs within
ethnic/religious group boundaries, thereby diminishing the potential
difficulties associated with cross-group food transactions. For example, some
Arabic women would not send their children to non-Arabic children’s
birthday parties, worried that “You don’t know what’s going to happen; you
don’t trust what they’re going to eat, or if they’re going to be taken care of.”
Other Arabic women felt more comfortable sharing dietary restrictions with
non-Muslims, and noted that Canadians were respectful towards dietary
concerns, as seen in this woman’s experience: “My daughter went to daycare,
and I told the manager that she can’t eat pig, pork, so she doesn’t serve it at
all in the daycare.”
A common concern voiced by immigrant women centers on children’s
diverging food taste expectations. One complaint centered on children
refusing to eat meals, as shared by this woman, “They used to eat whatever
we used to give them in India. But here they don’t eat, they want munchies
and snacks.” The women were consistently frustrated with their children’s
refusal to eat what was prepared, not because of the extra work entailed in
meeting children’s desires (although this was an issue), but because their
children were frequently preferring non-traditional foods. Because of the
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significance of food in marking identity, the women were concerned that
children’s rejection of traditional cuisine marked a rejection of traditional
values and worldviews.
Children pressure their mothers for the inclusion of new foods, cooked in
new ways, which they may have consumed at school or friends’ homes. One
South Asian woman explained:
As far as we [my husband and I] are concerned, we are set in our
food habits, but our kids brought a lot of change in our food patterns
because when they eat pizza, spaghetti at school and they like it, so
I try that. Now it’s changed a lot, you can’t stick to the same meal
pattern.
As migrants to a new country, the continuance of traditional food patterns
is a means of connecting with home. Yet the food desires of children prompt
a foray into new foods and tastes, symbolizing the process of adjusting to life
in Canada. It should be noted, however, that the incorporation of new foods
is not without adjustment—pizza and pasta, for example, become
“Indianized.” The types of toppings, sauces, and spices are modified so as to
be more acceptable to immigrants’ palates. By modifying the food item so
that it is less foreign to the palate, its symbolic meanings change. In turn,
the new food becomes more familiar and less threatening before the items
are incorporated into the body (Fischler 1988). Thus, dietary acculturation
is not unilateral, but a complicated process of give and take with various food
traditions. The words of this non-recent Arabic migrant suggest that
incorporating new foods into dietary practices alludes to the process of
adjusting to unfamiliar lifeways: “I learned how to cook the unfamiliar
vegetables [e.g. broccoli] and now we eat them; we accepted them.” We
suggest that this process mimics that of adjusting to life in Canada, as
different ideas, habits and behaviors become selectively incorporated, and
parallel the development of local heterogeneities in the globalization process
(Appadurai 1996).
Although meal patterns have changed and new foods have been
incorporated into immigrant families’ cuisines, the importance of traditional
foods does not diminish. The women reported that at least one meal per day
ought to consist of traditional food elements and be presented in a
customary manner. They perceive that it is a necessary, moral issue, to
ensure that children incorporate what it means to be South Asian or Arabic
through the symbolic consumption of ethnic cuisines. Without eating at
least one traditional meal per day, the women spoke of not feeling “satisfied,”
clearly demonstrated by this South Asian woman: “Yeah, one eats these
Canadian foods like a sandwich, pasta, etc. but you don’t feel satisfied; but
once you eat roti and sabji [flat bread and vegetable curry] you feel satisfied.”
The importance of traditional cuisine and foods rests not only in their
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physical attributes, but in how these foods satisfy emotional needs. They
serve to connect with oneself, and to recall the foods, tastes and people of
“home.”
Contextualizing Gender and Ethnic Identity
: :
We have presented how Arabic and South Asian immigrant women in
Edmonton have utilized food’s symbolic nuances to construct and represent
gender and ethnicity. The shared realities voiced by these particular women
highlight common experiences of immigrants, and in turn underscore how
Canadian lifestyles shape family foodways for both newcomers and long-
term residents. Similarities between these immigrant women are due to their
shared experiences of entry into Canada based on family connections, their
emphasis on roles as mothers and wives, the commonly experienced shift
from extended to nuclear family structures, their relocation to a Canadian
city with relatively small South Asian and Arabic immigrant communities,
and their marginalized political-economic status. The downward shift in
economic status so commonly experienced was emphasized by all
participants. Approximately half of the participants were poor, living below
Canada’s Low Income Cut-Offs. Arguably, part of the reason for the
economic disadvantages immigrants face is political—policies that lead to
non-recognition of their credentials and experience earned elsewhere. This
results in underemployment (Chui 2003; Man 2004). Financial difficulties
shape women’s dietary choices and shopping strategies, as they aim to meet
their husbands’ and children’s food desires. Most of the women shared
experiences of grocery shopping that highlight linguistic and cultural
obstacles in adjusting to Canadian society. This was particularly evident in
non-recent immigrant women’s recollections of when traditional foods were
unavailable and South Asian and Arabic communities were extremely small
in Edmonton. The recent increased accessibility of ethnic foods and stores
has helped women purchase food elements required to re-enact “home.”
Physical availability of ethnic foods does not equate with accessibility,
however, as the costs of many of these food items can be quite high,
especially when considered relative both to prices in home countries and
income in Canada. Mainstream markets are responding to increasing
diversity among Edmontonians, but for recent immigrants in particular,
access to these stores is constrained by transportation and language barriers.
Socioeconomic contexts have resulted in the need for immigrant men to
work long hours, and for many women to enter the workforce. Differences
in women’s employment patterns were evident within and between
participants: more non-recent immigrants were employed, and more South
Asian women, both recent and non-recent immigrants, worked for wages.
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One reason for this pattern may be the higher language capabilities and
education reported by South Asian women, particularly among younger
women who had pursued “English-medium” schooling in India or Pakistan.
Regardless of whether or not women were employed outside the home, the
vast majority retained domestic duties, with occasional “help” from husbands
with domestic tasks. Only in a few instances did a shift in gender roles and
relations ensue, with men entering the “woman’s domain”—the kitchen.
Women’s primacy in food work, including negotiating their families’ food
desires, is arguably a greater challenge post-migration, as children more
aggressively assert their identities via food choices. Accordingly, traditional
household gastropolitics patterns continue, in the sense that women
prioritize others’ food choices before their own while negotiating family
dynamics and gender/age hierarchies. However, change is also evident based
on shifts in family structure and economic status.
We have suggested that women bear the burden of teaching their children
cultural/religious values (e.g. dietary rules of consumption), thereby molding
children’s understandings of what it means to be South Asian/Arabic/
Canadian. This is not to suggest that there are no tensions around identity
and food consumption choices “back home.” Rather, we suggest that
migration may further stress parent–child relations, as children are exposed
to a variety of foods through the media, school and peers, and want to fit in
by consuming these foods. As Claude Fischler has expounded in his theory
of incorporation, the foods consumed directly influence our identities,
through physiological and symbolic constructions (1988). So, children
actively assert their desire to Canadianize, or at least to be like their friends,
symbolized in part through the incorporation of “Canadian” foodstuffs (a
wide array of foods, most commonly including pasta and pizza, as defined by
participants), while parents, particularly mothers, aim to maintain and
propagate customs and values that they cherish through the provision of
traditional meals.
This tension between children and their mothers is not inflexible. In fact,
the women incorporated “Canadian” foodstuffs into their culinary repertoire
to varying degrees. We also suggest that women are important conduits of
their family’s dietary acculturation, as they negotiate family members’
competing desires and incorporate new food elements and dishes into
traditional cuisines.
Pierre Bourdieu, in his seminal work on taste, recognizes the important
functions of food:
It is probably in tastes in food that one would find the strongest and
most indelible mark of infant learning, the lessons which longest
withstand the distancing or collapse of the native world and most
durably maintain nostalgia for it. (Bourdieu 1984: 79)
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Immigrant women value their habitual cuisines, and through continuation
of their culinary practices, evoke and connect with “home” and all the
sensory and emotional experiences that this conjures. Non-recent
immigrants, however, appear more nostalgic, idealizing foodways and
lifeways to a greater extent than recent arrivals to Canada. Recent
immigrants also report a change in foodways back home, including a greater
availability of “junk foods” and foreign fast-food than recalled by non-recent
immigrants.
It is important to remember the particular contexts in which these women
lived. Here we have highlighted the shared realities of immigrant
experiences, as articulated by Arabic and South Asian women in focus group
interviews. In these conversations, women emphasized their relatively
weaker financial status in Canada, and their critique of lifestyles in
Edmonton—particularly the pace of life and the need to work long hours to
maintain, let alone improve, economic status. The similarities in their
experiences serve to highlight common issues that may be addressed by both
local and regional policy makers and activists. This is not to suggest that
experiences of immigrants are uniform, either within or between
communities. Differences within and between these two groups of women
are expected to be highlighted through individual interviews, where the
nuances of women’s stories of migration and settlement, located in both time
and place, can be teased apart.
Food conveys meanings that are actively used by immigrant women in the
construction of self. By means of menu planning, grocery shopping and
cooking, women assert their individual connotations of womanhood and
ethnicity. Via eating and the associated symbolic meanings of food, identity
is evoked and embodied. The women’s food choices represent and echo the
process of adjusting to life in Edmonton, and the course of their shifting
subjectivities. Identity is also socially constructed, thus how women talk
about food also reveals how they are situated in relation to their families and
communities, within a specific socio-politico-economic locus. Food
practices are not only a symbolic expression of self, but also reflect social
inequities, demonstrated by the political-economic challenges faced by
many of these immigrant women. The issues and struggles these women
face, such as providing appropriate home-cooked meals, balancing food
budgets and negotiating meal composition, are not unique to immigrant
women—Canadian women commonly share these concerns. As such,
immigrant women’s voices provide a window for understanding broader
Canadian concerns.
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Acknowledgements
: :
Funding for this project was provided by POWER (Promotion of Optimal
Weights through Ecological Research), a New Emerging Team research
grant provided by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research – Institute of
Nutrition, Metabolism and Diabetes, in partnership with the Heart and
Stroke Foundation of Canada. We would like to thank Shaymaa Rahme,
BSc, BEd, and Hina Syed, BA, whose work as research assistants was
extremely valuable, as was the help and advice provided by Yvonne Chiu and
her colleagues, at the Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative. We would
also like to acknowledge the thoughtful critiques of the anonymous
reviewers, which strengthened the presentation of our work.
Note
: :
1The labels “South Asian” and “Arabic” were self-defined and applied by community
members and the community-based organization with whom we worked. Participants who
identified as South Asian were from Pakistan and North India. Those who identified as Arab
came from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, although the majority were from Lebanon
and identified as Palestinians. Of course, there is a great deal of cultural heterogeneity
within South Asian and Arabic communities, and this is reflected in food practices.
However, broad culinary patterns were evident within Arabic and South Asian women’s
food-related experiences and cuisines.
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OUR WORK ON FOOD PREFERENCES AND AVOIDANCES COMES from a psychobiological perspective, but has been aided and enriched by information and perspectives from anthropology. I hope in this paper to show how a psychobiological approach can ask questions and provide information and points of view that can enrich the anthropological approach. I shall deal first with the biological roots of food choice in the human omnivore and then discuss the psychological dimensions of preference and avoidance. I will then describe what we know about how foods get to be liked or disliked and, in particular, how people come to like one innately aversive food, chili pepper. This is followed by discussion of a series of somewhat unrelated topics: disgust, the interaction of psychology, biology, and culture in determining food preferences, and the importance of traditional flavorings in understanding food choice, and then by some questions about the ways in which cultural institutions may be accounted for in terms of individual human psychology and biology. (See Barker 1982 for an excellent collection of papers representing the approaches presented here.).
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Hindus and Muslims of northern South Asia share the belief that women should seclude themselves from men, including some kinsmen, and that men must supervise the conduct of women so that their behavior will not sully men's honor. Considers the traditional social roles of women and of men - and the relations between them - in these regions. Explores in detail differences in purda as practiced by different economic classes, as well as common and distinguishing elements of Hindu and Muslim practice. Also argues that, contrary to outsiders' perceptions, women in fact have much more power than is sometimes evident - power masked by and couched in purda and izzat, which many women aggressively uphold. Women who achieve success in the broader society provide another means of contributing to a family's izzat, which may lead to their acceptance in new roles. -from Publisher