Indian Grocery Stores and Awkwardness

Indian Grocery Stores and Awkwardness February 28, 2014

First of all, Happy Maha Shivratri! Wish me luck on the fasting and staying up all night!


In my experience there are few things more difficult than walking into a new place where you don’t really fit in or know the protocol.

Going to the Indian grocery store is like that for me. Or at least, going to a new one is. There’s one really close to my home and I feel pretty comfortable there. I know where things are.

But last week I needed more hair oil and I had recently discovered an Indian grocery store that was more on my way home from work, so I stopped there.

I felt extremely uncomfortable as soon as I walked in the door. Like I was intruding. I probably was. Just by my look I seem to scream: I want to be part of your club, why won’t you let me in? 

It reminded me a lot of this comedy sketch:

In it, Eddie Murphy goes “undercover” as a white man to see how the world is different. It’s comedy so not literal truth, but there’s a part where they’re on a bus and as soon as the one Black guy gets off, all of a sudden there’s a literal party on the bus. That was the sort of feeling I had. Like I’d just interrupted a party.

Yes, that’s right. I just compared myself to the Black person in the video. Inappropriate, but it was really what my mind thought of when I tried to articulate what I felt.

Not to get all poor little white girl here. I realize that I’m lucky that I can usually avoid putting myself in a situation where I feel that way. Many people can’t.

Also, it isn’t the job of the girls at the store to make me feel at ease. They’re in their world and they’re under no obligation to let me into it.

So, I couldn’t find the hair oil easily and had to ask for where it was. I stumbled over my words (I’m not nearly as articulate in person as I am in writing, believe me!). I got it and tried to check out, but I only had a credit card and I was under the minimum. So I asked for the CD that was displayed behind the register. Karwa Chauth Vrat Katha. I felt like such a spoiled jerk being like, “Oh, I need more stuff? Okay, give me that thing.” But I did honestly want the CD. Walk-throughs of the prayers and chants for Karwa Chauth? I can use that!

I know this whole messy feeling is me. It’s in my head. Nonetheless, I cried on the way home. But even as I write that now, I’m rolling my eyes at myself.

On the positive side, I heard one girl behind the register say “Kya Hua?” and I understood it immediately! I know it’s just a tiny phrase, but to understand something in Hindi without having to stop and think about it was pretty cool. Baby steps.
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  • SB

    I think viewing it from another perspective might be helpful here. Indian Americans are almost always the only member of our ethnicity/racial background wherever we go in ‘public’. You are a member of the dominant racial/ethnic group, which is also the majority group. You are not used to this feeling of discomfort at all, and although this is a real discomfort, the reason you are not used to this is a privilege accorded to you because of white supremacy. Racial minorities have to deal with this discomfort (and much more) all the time. Might be something to keep in mind.

    • Ambaa

      I completely agree!

      I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. As I’ve said before, being a minority and putting myself in a situation to be a minority is very eye-opening.

      I try to remember my privilege at all times now. Sometimes I don’t succeed, but I think the exercise is making me a better person.

  • Trish Velapanur

    I remember that feeling when I would go to the Indian grocery store with my husband and then a bit later on my own. I feel like a seasoned pro now though! I know my way around the store we frequent most. I pride myself on being able to manage the throngs of people and their carts, that are often left in random places or in the check-out line.


    ” I want to be part of your club, why won’t you let me in? ”

    You already are part of the club, but you just don’t know it yet or you have not accepted it yet. ( Wink)

    When ever you go into a public place remember one thing, that, it is a public place and you are allowed in as long as you follow few protocol of that place. The most important thing that I can teach you is, you must recite the name of the lord ( your choice of the name ) five times, take a deep breath and walk in and say Namaste to the first person who looks into your eyes and that’s it. Everything will be alright.

    BTW what kind of oil were you buying, was it Dhabar Amla or coconut ?

    • Ambaa

      That’s a good tip. I get nervous about saying Namaste because it seems like such a cliche. I’m way over thinking this, aren’t I?

      It was Dhabar Amla!

      • Rohan

        Why do you get nervous while saying namaste?Is it because you think you are stereotyping indians or you think that the person will perceive you negatively?

        • Ambaa

          Good question. I guess because I avoid doing things that make me look like the stereotype of someone who just knows the very surface level about things and just thinks India is “So COOL and exotic, man!” Does that make sense? The white people I see saying “Namaste” sound obnoxious and pretentious to me and I don’t want to be that!

          And then add to that that I’m not sure how common it really is as a greeting in India, so tell me, is it really common to say Namaste or Namaskar?

          • Rohan

            Yea it can sound pretentious even if you genuinely know the culture and customs.Namaste or Namaskar is probably more common amongst older generations but just saying ‘Hi’ of Hello is more common these days

  • It isn’t a club; it’s a grocery store 🙂 They got stuff you need; go there, buy it. It’s not personal; it’s business… Do you feel the same apprehension going to an Indian restaurant?

    I do think it’s important to be aware when we are in spaces (physical, emotional, virtual) that are created with people of color in mind, that we are not necessarily the target audience and sometimes, yes, to question if we should be there at all and quietly exit if we should not be. One good example is the people who constantly @-reply PoC activists on Twitter with their thoughts and opinions when they are not necessary or asked for. Another in the US would be a sari shop; if you are there to buy clothing (not costume) for a function or time when it’s appropriate, that is quite different from going in asking for an ‘Indian princess dress’ to wear for Halloween or just for sightseeing in Jackson Heights or Devon Street for ‘ethnic street cred.’

    But a grocery store? To get a product you use daily? That came recommended to you by someone from India and you love it? I’m not sure that’s intruding on PoC space, unless of course you expect people to roll out the red carpet for you or give you extra/special/preferential treatment because you’re an outsider. Be respectful of the space, but be confident too – the whole feeling of ‘omg they are all looking at me’ that stems from white guilt is also not productive and can have the unintended effect of requiring people to treat you differently than they would treat their Indian customers, just to put you at ease (or get you to leave quicker!)

    I was intimidated the first few times I went to the Indian grocery, mainly because I wasn’t sure what i was looking for and there was so much I didn’t even know what it was. But my in-laws also went to some of these stores and there was so much THEY didn’t know either, because the big stores in cities serve the entire South Asian diaspora. What is my Bengali mother-in-law going to know about the intricacies of South Indian snacks? Don’t expect to be an expert; you won’t be and can’t be. Just work within your own understanding, ask questions of the staff if you do need help finding something, but don’t expect them to be your window into Indian culture. And I don’t think that you DO that… just something to be aware of, how whiteness works in PoC spaces and how sometimes we unintentionally expect people from a particular culture to be our mentors in understanding that culture, when all they really want to do is sell you some hing.

    • Ambaa

      I guess I should clarify that I am not actually thinking or intending to convey “let me join your club”, I just feel like that’s what comes across in how I dress, etc.

      Guilt has found new and interesting ways to intrude on my life. Which is really not very helpful for anyone. Awareness is good, being sensitive to others is good, but the guilt is probably only causing trouble for everyone.

      “sometimes we unintentionally expect people from a particular culture to be our mentors in understanding that culture, when all they really want to do is sell you some hing.” This is exactly it. I don’t think that I’m doing the former, but I’m sensitive to worrying that I might be!

  • Rohan

    Kya Hua – tiny phrase lol that description was so sweet

    • Ambaa

      🙂 Tiny, but so important!

  • Rohan

    Is it true that white people feel uncomfortable when too many non-whites surround them?

    • Ambaa

      Probably depends on each individual. I wouldn’t say I’m uncomfortable, but I’m “aware.” When you’re almost always in the majority, it’s very starkly noticeable when you’re in the minority.