This month marks five years since I moved to Canada. When I landed in Vancouver, B.C. in August of 2017, I wanted my first meal to be memorable. I wanted it to be a statement—a statement that "I've arrived." It turned out to be anything but.
Photo credit: Rithika Shenoy
My first memory of Canada is taking a cab with my sister from the airport to the University of British Columbia. And this memory's stuck for a reason: because I treat taxi culture as a barometer of a city's capacity for hospitality. And I've learnt it's the worst place to look for acceptance and love. I remember getting into the taxi, and being quoted a ridiculously high price. It had been mere minutes since I'd landed on a foreign shore, and switched to the compulsive mindset of converting Dollars to Dirhams, or, worse, to Indian rupees.
Fu**, I thought. The exorbitant rates of cabs plagues every city. From Dubai to Vancouver.
The cab driver was, unmistakably, a brown guy. Although he knew I'd just stepped into a new country, he had no time for small talk and meant business. That August of 2017, I was just another transaction in a series of chinks of loose change and clattering of cards.
But there was something reassuring about the cab driver. From Mumbai to Dubai to Istanbul to Vancouver, cab drivers play a pivotal role in bringing you down from the plane you just flew in and smacking you down to the tarmac of reality. The consistency, the familiarity - it's all essential at a time when everything feels new and foreign.
The taxi approached the lush, leafy, warm boulevards of the University of British Columbia. I got out of the taxi. No parting words with the driver, no wishes of luck. Not even a glance through the rearview mirror. CHINK! Transaction complete.
All this while, lugging my bags around, I felt like an ex moving out of a shared apartment. It did in some ways feel like I'd broken up with a city I'd grew up in, but that's another story.
Photo credit: Rithika Shenoy
One of the things I remember from Day 1 was UBC's Martha Piper fountain in full flow. (jk that fountain never worked. This is a picture of a random fountain.)
The first order of business—finding a good meal. Here's the thing about food: a good meal can undo a day's worth of melancholy. A good meal is the hero without the cape, but with capers. It can become the highlight of the day, the only redeeming factor. The saviour of the day. The thing you remember five years down the line—for better or worse.
ONE good meal, I thought to myself, could erase the whooping $35 I paid to the grumpy uncle. "So let's announce myself to Canada. To my new home," I tell myself. Eat something that you'll remember forever.
Photo credit: Rithika Shenoy
I leave my luggage in the assigned room and head out. Half-dazed, a quarter excited and full hungry, I walk around and observe what others are eating. It's like plagiarizing but for a higher purpose.
I spot a pizzeria. But I can't eat the meat—it's not Halal. And vegetarian pizza? I haven't sold my soul yet.
(For the uninitiated, Halal is the prescribed method of slaughter in Islam. It's Islam's Kosher. All seafood is categorized as Halal, unless you come upon an annoying uncle from India. And depending on which WhatsApp group you're a part of, people's obsession with nuances around Halal can range from mild to pedantic and petulant.)
The "Halal" space is a dangerous territory. It can raise enough suspicion to make a broccoli look like a hunky piece of ham. So, out there walking in a daze, my mind rules everything out quickly. I go to what looks like a bougie convenience store. And there, sitting behind a warm glass, I see a full rotisserie chicken sitting in its own herbed juices. As far a mildly-spiced rotisserie chicken goes, this one looks surprisingly colourful and inviting. The light glaze on the skin, the herbs and lemon rubbed on the skin—it all just looks like a delicious sauna for the tastebuds.
I stop myself lest I have to wipe out my own drool from the glass. I stop and tell myself this chicken didn't die for me. It didn't die for a Muslim. It belongs to someone else. It's not Halal.
I eye the snacks aisle. Instant noodles? Yuck. I didn't travel far to perpetuate the cycle of predictability. Predictability of a student's diet: salty, soupy noodles that enter your system today and come out with a vengeance the next morning. I want my first meal to be one for the ages. The fabled "first". One that's not comparable to drugs, sex and debauchery—but better. One that I can regale an audience with, especially if in that audience sits my mum.
I walk a bit further, to a strip that looks suburban to the main campus. At the corner of the block sat an establishment with the largest retail space.
Photo credit: Danica Torrens
I'd recently learned about the contentious history of McDonald's french fries in the Revisionist History podcast. A story about how a switch from animal fat to vegetable oil changed the fries forever, how it wasn't crispy and delicious anymore. Much of my inspiration to do audio journalism, at the time, could be traced to that podcast.
I've always believed life doesn't come in one big full circle. Rather, it comes in small circles sprinkled throughout life. So standing in McDonald's letting the smell of oil seep through my clothes and sink mere weeks after listening to that episode felt like the completion of one of many 'mini circles'.
And as if on cue, my mouth starts to water. My feet draw nearer to the golden arches. The universal insignia of commercialized fast food.
When you invert the golden arches 'M', you get a 'W'. That 'W' stands for: "What the fu** am I thinking?" Weren't instant noodles better than this?
I stand in the queue, staring at the solitary people left behind during the summer break. I haven't seen so many white people in a square footage space. I also wonder if I'd make any white friends, if I'd be the butter chicken to someone's Big Mac. My sensitives around internalized racism were less refined than they are now. Or maybe they're still the same.
The voice of "next" jolts me out of my thoughts. The woman asks for my order as if she's interrogating me. Medium fries, I tell her in a subdued voice. As if it's a confession. I want medium fries, I tell her, knowing fully that McDonald's fries are not the same anymore. I gloat to myself for knowing this little trivia. "That's it?" she yells. "Is that it?" I'm sure she's wondering who only orders fries. (A lot of drunk and broke students, I'd learn later.)
But I feel I can do better than fries. I make a quick calculation of what else I can eat from this greasy, oily dungeon. What can I eat that's Halal—that's an assault only to my taste buds and not to the command of God?
"I'll … have a Fillet-O-Fish," I say to my principal interrogator.
That hot afternoon, on Day 0 of my life in Canada, I announced my arrival to Canada. I was supposed to announce this with a meal, a statement meal no less. One that was supposed to mark a departure from my usual life, a rupture in my journey, a disruption of monotony and cliche.
Instead, in that damp and smokey McDonald's on University Ave, I started a new cycle of cliche.
I was supposed to feel optimistic. I was supposed to feel serendipitous.
Instead, with the first bite of Fillet-O-Fish and a handful of soggy fries, I felt like fish out of water.
This short essay was written as a part of a 50-minute writing exercise at workshop: "My Roots," organized by the Vancouver Literature Festival and presented by author Lindsay Wong. I made additions and edits to the original version I scribbled during the workshop.
Now from someone remembering their first day at UBC, to someone reflecting on their last. Ayşe Kabaca graduated this year, and I asked her to share some of her favourite spots on the campus. (And no, McDonald's wasn't one of them, thankfully.)