My roommate and I have a running joke, the perfect encapsulation of our on-going dialogue about our place in society as the children of immigrants. What do white people eat for dinner? She is Korean and I am Sudanese and we are visibly otherenough so that when someone looks at us, they automatically bring with them a set of assumptions and act out a set of prejudices.

They can see that we are different, but they don’t know that we see the difference as being one of smell, as well as sight. Our homes are filled with the rich aroma of spices, smells that belong to foods with names that they cannot pronounce, smells that have wafted into our kitchens from far-away lands across the ocean.

“What do white people eat for dinner?”

“No, but actually,” she giggles. “I asked my friend and he just goes, ‘Oh well last night we had tacos.’”

“Not American!”

“‘And the night before, we had Chinese takeout.’”

“Not American!”

My mother’s kitchen is my grandmother’s kitchen, reincarnated in our Fairfax home. My mother does not use measurements when she cooks (“What’s the recipe?” I ask. “You know, a dash of this and then maybe some of that, depends how it feels.”), she simply reads the pot, using the senses drilled into her by my grandmother. I have eaten her cooking since the day I was born. I have sat at our kitchen table (in New Jersey, Washington, Alabama, Virginia), and waited patiently for her to serve the rich mulah,Sudanese stew; it binds us, no matter where we are in America, to our ancestral home across the water.

But my palate is changing and it scares me. I do not like the kisrah and mulah quite so well anymore (“I think I’ll just have some cereal tonight”) and my mother fears that I am losing my connection to our roots (“Your kids won’t eat kisrah at all!” a close relative to “Your kids won’t know how to speak Arabic!”) This is what they call assimilation, the slow process of being absorbed into a culture, of becoming “white”.

What do white people eat for dinner?

The dining hall is filled with unfamiliar foods, the staples of everyone else’s dinner tables, and my friends don’t get why I am not familiar with any of them (“You’ve never had clam chowder?!”) I am homesick for my mother’s rice, heaped with vegetables, filled with spices and love (I am moved up a level in Arabic class; perhaps my mother’s fears are unfounded and my children will speak her language fluently).

“What do you eat for dinner?” They ask me incredulously after we play yet another round of “Wait, so you’ve never had ______?”

I shrug. “Sudanese food, mainly.”

What do immigrants’ children eat?

I know that America is a land made up of immigrants and that almost everyone here had to come over at some point. We bring with us our cuisine and, after a few generations, it makes its way onto the American dinner table. Perhaps this is the new great American melting pot, bubbling on someone’s kitchen stovetop. I don’t know – I hate to be cheesy (I sit with my mother spooning mixtures of feta cheese and vegetables onto circles of dough; soon the house will smell of sambuksa).

What do white people eat for dinner?



Chinese take-out.


Kisrah and mulah.

Maybe also American.

My mother pulls a lasagna out of the oven. The elaborate three-cheese layer has melted beautifully and the smell is divine.

Italian. American. Sudanese.

It’s a balancing act, trying to keep in equilibrium the American and Sudanese parts of my soul. There is so much that I am terrified of losing. I don’t want my children to reject kisrah and I don’t want my children to have an accent when they speak in Arabic. I want them to be Sudanese, like I am.

I also want them to understand that they are not the sins of their fathers and that they can be whatever they want to be. That is, I want them to have the uniquely American opportunity to be able to reinvent themselves as anything they want to be. When they grow up, I want them to make their way down to the polls and vote without fear of being stopped. I want them to be American, like I am.

And what about me? I want to be considered an equal citizen by everyone. I don’t want to hear someone telling me, or my family, to go back where we came from. I was born here and raised here and I am an immigrant’s daughter, but not an immigrant. I don’t want people to see my last name and ask when I moved here. I am American (and also Sudanese).

What do I eat for dinner?

My mother puts a large piece of lasagna on my plate. It sits prettily beside my sambuksa, sambuksa that I made with my mother, altered very slightly from my grandmother’s recipe.

They are both delicious.

-Zeena Mubarak