Food is a powerful tool for immigrant families. Parents feed their children for sustenance, yes, but also to pass along traditions and teach the next generation about their lineage. Mealtimes are when everyone, mom and dad, son and daughter, can connect. The very act of providing something to eat is one of the most beautifully subtle moments in the new romantic comedy The Big Sick, written by husband-and-wife duo Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.
The couple fictionalized their unconventional real life meet-cute: Pakistani boy meets white girl in Chicago, boy and girl fall in love, boy’s parents can’t know about the girl because they expect him to marry an approved Muslim female, they break up, and she falls into a coma. Typical.
Considering she co-wrote the script, it’s no spoiler to say that Emily (played in the movie by Zoe Kazan) survives her medical scare. But even before she’s hospitalized, her relationship with Kumail is struggling because he kept their love a secret from his parents, fearing their disapproval. They eventually break up. He cares about Emily, but he also knows that his decision will disappoint his parents. Kumail has to keep up the facade of being their ideal son, which means coming home to family dinners even though he knows his mother will invite potential (and unwanted) Pakistani suitors for his consideration.
These dinners are no special occasion; it’s just a regular meal where his parents, his brother, and his sister-in-law can get together to eat and talk. (I took issue that they used utensils at the table and no one ate with their hands, which is what I associate from my home dinners.)
It’s through food that parents can continue to take care of their children. When I talk to my Bangladeshi parents on the phone, they always ask me, without fail: “What did you eat? Did you have breakfast? Why didn’t you have breakfast? Why don’t you cook more?”
I live over 1,700 miles away from my parents in New York, and I still crave my mother’s cooking. My parents know this. Whenever I come home for a visit, I’ll gorge on familiar dishes: Bengali vegetables, curries, samosas, kebabs, and Indian sweets. My parents will send me back with packages of home-cooked food, frozen so it can withstand the plane ride back. My younger sister is even more dependent on our family cooking. My parents have developed a system where my mom cooks large batches of curries and rice, my dad portions everything out into disposable containers, and they make an hour and a half drive to drop it off. They can’t be with her all the time, but they can still tend to her through the home-cooked food she craves.
Midway through The Big Sick, Kumail has a falling out with his family after he unleashes everything that he had kept hidden from them, including his romantic relationship with Emily and the fact that he doesn’t know if he believes in Islam. His parents get upset and refuse to talk to him because their son is rejecting their ways, even though he is doing what he believes in.
Everything comes to a head near the end of the movie in a scene that hit close to home both times I saw it. Kumail is preparing to drive to New York to pursue his unapproved career of standup comedy, and his parents unexpectedly stop by. His mother remains in the car, but his dad finally talks to him. He reiterates how upset they are, but he still hands Kumail a Tupperware box full of food. His mom wanted him to have something to eat. It’s mutton biryani made with extra potatoes, just the way he likes it. “She made it herself,” his dad explained. They don’t hug, but he asks him to send him a text when he reaches New York.
He doesn’t say goodbye to his mother, she doesn’t even look at him, but he knows, and she knows, that she still loves him. Yes, his parents don’t agree with his life decisions, especially when it feels like a complete rejection of who they are, devout Muslims. But they’re still family, no matter what, and they can still connect and take care of their son in their own way. Even if it’s through a Tupperware of home-cooked rice, meat, and potatoes.
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