There was a time when the mere mention of a hamburger frightened me. I declined to eat it the first time it was offered. It had nothing to do with my being from India, where the cow is a sacred animal and eating beef is an act of sacrilege.
The size of the hamburgers scared me.
The height, to be precise. I would have to open my mouth so wide! I did not want to do that in the company of others. Imagine an Asian Indian - someone who had not eaten a hamburger before - having to open his mouth three to four inches wide! He might ask if it was worth it. I did.
My wife and I were visiting my wife's family in Thailand. Through marriage, her extended family was beginning to take on an international character, and trying out different kinds of food was the order of the day. Hamburgers, for instance. I declined and settled for some leftover Indian food.
Later my wife told me, "You missed a very good dinner." She had enjoyed eating the hamburger, although it was her first.
"I know," I said. "It smelled good."
"Why didn't you try it, then?"
"Well, it's too big. I was afraid I'd make a mess of it."
My brother-in-law's American fiance, Gail, who was visiting, asked me, "Why didn't you eat a hamburger?" She was the one who had helped prepare the meal.
"I wanted to eat vegetarian food," I said. I did not want to offend her. "Everyone enjoyed your meal. There will be a next time."
But I had to wait 11 years before my next time. Hamburgers are not so common in India.
We decided to go to the United States for a few years to study. On the plane, they served us western-style food. I thought about all the good Indian food I would miss. Now I had to get used to American cuisine. What would it be like? How would it taste? Could I eat hamburgers?
Within a week of arriving in the US, we stopped at a fast-food restaurant. I noticed the pictures of hamburgers. The hamburgers seemed huge. Eating one of them would be a challenge, I thought, but I would have to meet it with an open mouth. Wide open, perhaps. I ordered one.
When nobody was watching, I measured the height of the hamburger with a French fry. It was very tall. How could I bite into it without smearing the sides of my mouth with ketchup? I got some more napkins. I said a prayer. I took a small bite of the hamburger and a piece of onion fell out. Nobody noticed. I took more bites, and my mouth was smeared with ketchup.
'HOW do you like the hamburger?" my brother-in-law asked from across the aisle. He was sitting with his wife, Gail.
I motioned to him to wait since I had a mouthful. "Great!" I said, after a while. But he was not even looking anymore.
My wife was doing a good job on her burger, even with her small mouth. She had no problem eating it, since she had neatly cut it in half and held it sideways. I should try that next time, I thought. Funny, I was already thinking about the next time.
I noticed that the other customers in the restaurant were having a good time eating even bigger hamburgers. Some squeezed them between their fingers to fit them in their mouths. That seemed easier. Everybody had his own way of eating a hamburger, I observed. That knowledge was liberating. I, too, could find my own way to eat a hamburger.
"The hamburger was good," I told my wife once we were back in the car.
"I told you that 11 years ago," she said. She smiled at me.
"Welcome to America." I heard another voice from behind me. It was Gail.
A few months later, we sat in a restaurant eating hamburgers.
"You see the Indian couple?" my wife whispered to me.
"Yes," I nodded. "What about them?"
"What do you think?"
I looked again. "The man looks nervous," I said. "Perhaps he is eating a hamburger for the first time."
"Look familiar?" my wife asked me.
I wanted to shout, "Welcome to America!"