Feeling like an Outsider at an Indian Buffet

Recently, Sasmita and I went to an Indian restaurant called Woodlands, in Langley Park, Maryland. We rarely eat Indian food outside of our house. Sasmita is a fantastic cook, and she makes most dishes either of us might order out, usually they taste better than any restaurant.

She has craved South Indian cuisine for a while; dosas, idly, sambar, etc., and after some ‘Yelping’ we decided to try Woodlands. The restaurant was on the way to the Indian grocer, Patel Brothers that we use to stock up on spices, so we ate lunch beforehand.IMAG0038

Immediately after we walked in, I felt like I was back in India. Save for an occasional white face, the whole place was buzzing with the tongues of South India: Malayalam, Telugu and Tamil to name a few. Sasmi was hoping to hear some Oriya, but she was disappointed. It was not dirty; it just felt like it had never been renovated. It is hard to describe, it just did not feel modern.

The decor was minimal, white paper tablecloths, a solitary fork and spoon, no knife, with walls painted a sky blue. Towards the back of the restaurant was Sanskrit writing on the wall about the joy of food, but otherwise the walls were bare. There was only one Hindu deity in statue form, the ubiquitous ‘Nataraja’ or “Dancing Shiva,’ displayed near the cash register.

IMAG0036I wanted to feel comfortable with ‘my people,’ but I never was. Even venturing up to the buffet line, I was not sure what I was putting on my plate, because the names of the dishes were unfamiliar to me. Someone asked me a question in an Indian language, I presume about the food that I could not answer. It brought the now familiar look of disappointment, that I look like I ‘belong,’ but the fitting in is literally only skin deep.

In addition, of course, since I am a lefty, serving myself and eating is always a challenge, because Indians do not use their left hands around food.

While my issues were mainly physical, Sasmi felt like the women were staring at her because she did not have any gold jewelry. Indian’s, if you have never noticed, LOVE their gold. More on this in a future post.

Sasmita does not like to wear gold and usually only wears the gold gifted by her parents during our wedding in Orissa last summer on special occasions. Otherwise, her wedding band and engagement ring are palladium and white gold. Similarly, I was given two gold rings by her family, including a second wedding band, which has a large pink stone on it. My US wedding band is tungsten, heavy and understated. My Indian wedding ring is the opposite, 22-karat gold, malleable by hand, lightweight and conspicuous. I rarely wear it.

Most of our fellow diners were large families. There were only a few couples and most of them were not Indian. Sasmi remarked to me that going to a place like this, if she were still in India would only happen if her whole family went. She would never for example, go with just a sister or a friend. It was a subtle reminder of two things, we do not live near the rest of my family and two, even if we did my family is not all Indian.

Perhaps both of us are over-thinking the experience. After all, we came for a good meal. I was satisfied and want to return. Sasmita was less enthusiastic, but she is willing to go again.

In the meantime, we will continue having friends dine at our house, creating our own Indian meals and in doing so, molding and shaping our unique Indian identities here in the U.S.


  1. Regarding married women wearing gold jewelry and not going out to a restaurant without the entire family: hmmm. May be your wife is from a more orthodox or rural background? It’s certainly not uncommon in most parts of India today for a married woman to walk around without gold jewelry, or to meet-up with friends/siblings/cousins for coffee or drinks at a bar or get dinner at a restaurant. Certainly in most urban areas, and definitely when Indians hang out with each other in the US.

    And there are plenty of Indians who don’t speak Hindi. Many Dravidians speak English to communicate with Hindi speakers (and there are many Indian Americans who cannot speak any Indian language).

    So to some extent, yeah I think you two were overthinking it.

    1. Yes, I agree with you. I wrote this because it’s more a summation of how I’ve always felt around the Indian-American community as someone adopted from India. I happened to feel it strongly that day and I could sense that Sasmita knew I was uncomfortable, which made her feel uncomfortable also; a vicious cycle of awkwardness.

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