A couple of weeks ago my mom and I went into a coffee shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was one of those shops that’s popular on Instagram, filled with white tiles, exposed brick, and lots of succulents. Their menu was fairly standard for a popular coffee shop with one addition: a “golden latte.” This was my first time hearing about what The Guardian called 2016’s “drink of the year”: a mixture of hot milk, honey, and turmeric. I turned to my mom and said “they’re selling $6 haldi doodh!”
My mom would serve me almost the exact same concoction when I had colds; she believed it could soothe coughs and rough throats. I used to hate it – the color reminded me of caution tape and I could never get over the gritty taste of drinking it. To me, haldi doodh was linked with home. I would drink it out of steel cups at our 25-year-old kitchen table, one of the first things my parents bought when they came to the United States from India. It seemed out of place in this café, a medicinal drink with an old past “rediscovered” in this new, sterile, white, stylish coffee shop.
Since its columbusing, the golden latte has trickled down from fringe hippie drink into the mainstream. It has reached the final frontier of commodification; Starbucks announced this month that they’ll be selling a golden latte in their London stores, where they’ll pour the steamed milk and turmeric over espresso.
The trend of ripping off Eastern medicine stems from a renewed Western interest in spirituality and wellness. It results from a panic over the extent to which the West’s capitalist excesses – and resulting climate change and other environmental destruction – have divorced us from our connection to nature. Earlier this year an article in Quartz declared that Brooklyn’s hipsters are being replaced by L.A.’s hippies: “the lifestyle include[s] supplies a person might find in a healer’s tipi: crystals, smudge sticks, and essential oils among them.” The “hipster to hippie” pathway takes basically the same people – young, white, middle-class Westerners with disposable income – and replaces their flannel and oversized glasses with bindis and dreamcatchers. But while hipsters, at least, were only dressing like lumberjacks, hippies rip their culture straight from marginalized people, most often those in South Asia and Indigenous peoples in what we call North America. They violently colonized their lands and are now turning to (or supplementing it with) a colonization of their culture. (The language of the Quartz article itself presents an inaccurate and flattened fiction of Indigenous cultures, tools, and healing practices in the white imagination.)
Hippies have slapped new labels on our old medicine, crowed about their “new discoveries” or “exotic superfoods”, and charged exorbitant prices for traditional home remedies. In doing so, they’ve not only erased the the history of their “cure” but also excluded the peoples who created those histories by pricing them out of their own food and medicines. Even though I used to drink haldi doodh all the time growing up, I don’t see any representation of my past in the golden milk of today.
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When I was growing up, I would mention my mom’s home remedies to all of my white friends. I would tell them that I couldn’t have ice cream because I had a cold, or that I had to gurgle a hot water and salt mixture in the morning to help a sore throat. My friends would look at me with disgust and concern: “Why doesn’t your mom just take you to the doctor? They can give you real medicine.”
My mom was raised in the Ayurvedic tradition, a type of South Asian medicine based on the principle of balancing the entire body system. Each person has a specific dosha, or body type, which tells us what, when, and how we need to eat. It combines nutrition, herbology, and yoga in one methodology. Instead of focusing on a one-size-fits-all Western medical system, it encourages a more spiritual, individualized practice grounded in our bodies and their connection with the world around them.
However, the resurgence of this ancient medical method tends to only include certain aspects of the entire canon of knowledge. Ayurveda is all about balance and a holistic approach to health, so the West’s selective focus on parts of the practice leads to a type of Ayurveda that betrays the philosophy behind the practice entirely. It’s a “pick and choose” method of convenient spirituality. If an Ayurveda principle is easy and trendy it becomes a part of the Western market, but the methods that are deemed “too difficult” or “too foreign” are discarded. While we have begun to see staples of the South Asian pantry like turmeric, ghee, and coconut oil in health food stores, none of these consumer goods come with any context about how they’ve been used, or their significance to the people who’ve historically relied on them. It’s like reading a sentence from the middle of a book without knowing what it’s about, where it’s coming from, or where it will go.
This trend speaks to a larger relationship that white people have with South Asians (and other marginalized peoples more broadly): they are happy to take bits and pieces of Eastern culture and co-opt it for their own benefit, but don’t want to make room for the full definition of that culture and those who have always belonged to it.
The Western consumption of Eastern practices has added a legitimacy to them that can only come from Western adoption. When my mom would give me haldi doodh to cure a cough somehow it was ‘uncivilized’ and ‘backwards,’ but now that Gwyneth Paltrow has recommended it, it’s entirely acceptable. White faces touting a recipe inspire trust in a way that my brown face never could.
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This “pick and choose” form of spiritualism didn’t start with the golden latte; it has been a feature of white people’s interactions with South Asian cultures for centuries. One of the earliest examples is yoga, which was “imported” to the west in the 1890s. Today it is often practiced in $20 classes made for mostly white women who own $100 yoga pants (with some very important and impressive exceptions). What most of the West considers yoga is actually just a fraction of the entire practice. Yoga is a philosophical school of thought that includes physical movements, meditation, and breathing exercises – but most contemporary (white) yogis teach just the asanas (movements). As a result, Westerners treat yoga just as physical exercise, rather than a spiritual lifestyle.
Because of the way that the asanas have been detached from the entire canon of spiritual knowledge from which yoga came, the Western market for yoga has become increasingly niche and bourgeois – and sometimes straight up disrespectful to South Asian culture and religion. Today, there’s a yoga for every practitioner. There’s hot yoga, prenatal yoga, yin yoga, Christian yoga, rage yoga (where people scream obscenities and give the middle finger while doing asanas to heavy metal music), beer yoga, and rave yoga. Yoga has been fragmented and stylized this way because there is no understanding of the rules of the practice, or the fact that yoga was intended to be a philosophy – not just a class to take while you’re pregnant, or want to yell swear words. Rarely in any of these classes do you see Black and brown folks; it’s white people who attend and profit off of these classes. And even though there have been recent efforts to decolonize yoga, decolonization can only happen with an awareness on all sides that wrongful colonization happened in the first place.
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Whenever I walk into a yoga studio I feel like an imposter, someone who is just putting on the mask of a heritage that I cannot really claim to be my own. It’s as if I am cheating on my culture with a newer, younger, hipper version. At the same time, even though my family comes from an Ayurvedic and yogic tradition, I never feel welcome in a yoga studio. I feel like I’m an outsider, watching as white people rewrite my history to fit their desires. The white women who invariably grace ads for yoga pants and studios have become the face of yoga in the West, de-centering me, an Indian woman, within my own cultural practices. At the end of the yoga class when the instructor says “nahm-ahss-tey,” I sit silently, a refusal to participate in the stealing of my culture. To me, the word (actually pronounced “num-uhs-teh”) is a simple respectful greeting, but often white yoga instructors use it to tack on contrived spirituality. It’s a lazy way to pretend that their yoga is “authentic”; easier than taking the time to truly understand what the practice asks of the practitioner, which is a spirituality that isn’t quick or easy.
It’s difficult to understand my place as a second-generation Indian American in this white-washed representation of my culture. My mom, who came to the United States in 1994 when there were very few Indian immigrants, is proud of her heritage being co-opted by the West. She finds it exciting that her culture is not only being accepted but also adopted here. It marks a very different relationship between the West and India than the relationship she experienced more than twenty years ago. It was the British themselves who made holistic medicine taboo in the first place when the East India Company banned all Ayurvedic medicine in 1883. It seems like a mark of progress to her, to see her colonizers (selectively) embrace her culture, rather than outlaw it.
I have a much more cynical point of view. I no longer talk publicly about my spirituality, or about growing up with Ayurvedic practices, knowing that most white people will react with condescension, bewilderment, or blatant thieving. Instead I’ve learned to assimilate, to focus on achieving Western metrics of success, to make myself into another instance of the “model minority” – not just for financial success, but also for safety. Instead of preaching something that has been in my culture for generations which is on the fringes, it is much less exhausting for me to get behind a practice with a Western face and name. I am accepted when I play into Western standards rather than being seen as overly spiritual.
But I am determined to keep my culture alive in its purest form in my own life. When I see something from my pantry on the shelves of health food stores, I’ll go the extra twenty miles to buy the same thing cheaper at the nearest South Asian grocery store. It’s a small cost to reject Western commodification, respect my history, and support businesses owned by people of colour.
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I’m reminded of a parable we like to tell in my family of the fisherman and the businessman: the businessman tells the fisherman to franchise his simple business of fishing, so he can make more money and then invest and gain capital so he can ultimately retire. “And once I retire, what would I do?” asks the fisherman. “I don’t know; maybe you could go fishing,” says the businessman.
I feel a similar situation is now facing me and many other young Indian Americans. We have been taught, coerced, or outright forced to assimilate into Western capitalist standards of success, to accumulate wealth which we’re then expected to spend on the latest trends. Right now, those trends happen to be the bastardized culture of our ancestors. But there remain very few avenues to bypass Westernized practices in favour of traditional, historically grounded medicine or spirituality that I grew up with. Yoga or Ayurveda are only ‘acceptable’ when they’re handed to me by a white yogi wearing expensive spandex, or in a mason jar poured over espresso. It’s considered ‘success’ if it’s bought packaged as a Western trend, not if it’s what I grew up with.
I have come to call this the turmeric tax. It’s the price that Eastern traditions have to pay in order to enter into Western consciousness. In order for the West to take them seriously, these ideas have to be branded in a certain way, with a white spokesperson, at prices that make the products completely inaccessible to the immigrant communities they’re stolen from. To me, when I see these products on pristine store shelves it looks to me like a child playing dress-up; a Disney movie loosely based on a sacred book.
This is not to say that Westerners should never practice Ayurveda or yoga. I wouldn’t want to deny anyone the spiritual and physical healing that comes from understanding your dosha or practicing yoga every day. I also believe that it is healthy for cultures to change and evolve to fit the people and time in which they are being practiced. However, I believe it is the responsibility of those who want to introduce these ancient practices to the West – most often those with money, power, and racial privilege – to make space and pay homage to the roots of the practice. It’s their responsibility, too, to center the people who created the practices, and make sure that the profits are reinvested into the communities of colour from which the practices sprung. It starts with a full understanding of what one is consuming and how it came to be.
I hope one day I can tell my white friends about haldi doodh, use the Hindi word, tell of my family’s history of Ayurvedic knowledge, and drink it with them out of steel cups at a 25-year-old kitchen table.
ADITI JOSHI is second-generation Indian/American from Richmond, Virginia. She's currently studying Design Innovation and Citizenship in Glasgow, Scotland after studying engineering at Olin College in Boston. Her passions include learning and understanding new languages, increasing the representation of people of color in media, and baking for her friends. You can follow her on Twitter, @aditisjoshi.
Image by thedabblist on Flickr.