In my recent post on my vexed relationship with food I made brief note of my changed dietary habits after migration from India to the US. My brief response does not do justice to the full complexity of that change over the past twenty-eight years. One important component was the change induced by my altered financial situation upon arrival in the US (and my work and study schedule as a graduate student.)
There’s no getting around it: my financial circumstances, as an international graduate student, were dire, and I was busy with a full schedule of classes and working in the cafeteria as a dishwasher. No glamorous graduate student research or teaching assistantship for me, not even a library gig. So I buckled down and cut back on expenses. (I made a little over $300 a month, and $157.50 of that went to rent.) Unfortunately, good food–come to think of it, just food, period–was one area where I chose to economize. I drank coffee–terrible crap, brown water most of it–and smoked cigarettes all day; those two classic appetite suppressants obviated the need to spend precious dollars in the school cafeteria. On the days I worked there, I was given a free meal at night. Once I went home at night I ate a big meal; more often than not, this amounted to a heaping plate of rice and beans (or lentils.) Once in a while I would make myself a white-bread sandwich or two with mayonnaise, American cheese slices, and bologna. On the weekends, because I worked again at the cafeteria deli and pizzeria, making sandwiches and baking pizza, I would indulge in those two food items. Alcohol, obviously, ameliorated some of the misery of this state of affairs, and I would gulp down bad beer and cheap wine by the liter whenever I had the opportunity.
This dietary regime was, to say the least, an unmitigated disaster. There wasn’t one culinary catastrophe that I had forsworn. I snacked on candy, soda, and orange juice at the cafeteria; a deluge of sugar. I ate refined carbohydrates by the boatload; I ate processed meats; I smoked; I drank acidity-inducing coffee; I starved myself and then feasted; I drank calorie-rich alcohol excessively.
My weight ballooned. My face grew puffy. My belly initiated a policy of rapid, aggressive expansion. I began a rather pathetic exercise routine after my first year in the US–by which time I had secured a graduate fellowship–but could not keep it up. And despite my financial circumstances improving, thus rendering unnecessary my coffee-n-cigarette diet during the day, I did not eat any better.
Bizarrely enough, when I was able to make my first visit back to India–two and a half years after my arrival in the US–my changed appearance was greeted rather cheerfully: “Well, look at you; you look rather healthy. A rather nice change from your former skinny self, don’t you think?” (Or something like that; the translation isn’t precise, but it captures the spirit of what was often said to me.)
It took a very long time for me to become educated about the right way to eat; I haven’t mastered that art yet. (More on that transformation anon.) Meanwhile, I remain convinced those early years in the US did incalculable damage to my long-term health.