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When Indian food made me an undesirable tenant

food
(Keystone)

University student Shubhangi was shocked and upset when her landlady asked her to stop cooking traditional Indian food.

I was not allocated university housing due to huge demand.  Hence, I was forced spend countless hours looking for alternative accommodation in Zurich. After encountering some very nice people, a few scammers and a lot of competition, I finally landed a contract for an apartment that I thought was perfect for me. It had everything I needed: proximity to my university, reasonable rent, private bathroom and nearby supermarkets. I visited the place on my second day in Switzerland and had a chat with the landlady with whom I would be sharing the apartment. She was an 85-year-old lady who seemed nice. I signed the contract without any reservations. 

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One week into the undefined rental term, things were going well. The lady would sometimes help me with my laundry and cleaning. It all seemed perfect until I started cooking in our shared kitchen. To my astonishment, she would call my food “stinky” while I was eating. It was one of the rudest things anyone had said to me. This would occur repeatedly over the days to come.

Despite this, I continued to be polite to her as she may have had a bad day or facing personal problems. However, this behaviour showed no sign of ending. 

In the days following this incident, she removed my utensils from our shared kitchen without asking or telling me.  She even removed my food from the refrigerator. It then escalated to the point where she told me not cook at all, as it was her kitchen (although the contract clearly states the kitchen is communal).  

This was the breaking point for me. I could not handle this treatment anymore. My coursework was already building up and becoming complex, and I could not study in such a negative environment. Even when I tried to finish my assignments at university, I could not completely focus and dreaded coming back home to face derogatory comments. I thought of complaining to the local authorities, but the woman’s old age stopped me. I also did not want this matter to escalate even further. 

I am happy to have free use of my kitchen now.

(Shubhangi Makkar)

Every day, I hunted for other accommodation just to get out of this place. Meanwhile, it became difficult to manage my meals as I was afraid to cook Indian food. Instead I had to resort to ready-to-eat microwave meals. While I was able to prepare fare like pasta, quinoa, boiled vegetables, and sandwiches, the inability to cook traditional Indian dishes was depressing. 

In such situations, it’s crucial to be strong to face such racism and discrimination. It was an unexpected reaction that I believe could have been prevented by being clear about each other’s lifestyles and cultural differences. This was definitely a bad phase, but I aim to learn from it. For anyone facing any of kind of discrimination or racism, I strongly advise you to tell your friends and family about it. Ask the person responsible to stop behaving in a wrong manner. In my case, I believe my landlady was unaccustomed to different cultures and probably wasn’t well travelled. However, there are better ways to handle the situation. 

I finally signed the rent termination contract and was happy to move to a new place. I believe things happen in our life for a reason, and I will certainly learn from this and strive to eradicate racism – as we are all the same on the inside. Sharing different cultures has been an enriching experience for me.  I hope we progress towards building an international community in the future. Based on my personal experience, the Swiss are generally very nice and welcoming. Many times, I’ve been surprised by the extent they go to help you. I am sharing this experience, only to say that victims of discrimination of any kind should be strong and try to understand why the other person may have acted that way.

Shubhangi's response to reader's comments

To all the people who have been commenting and saying that it is not racist and discrimination then the fact is that you do not know the entire story. I did not cook Indian food everyday and whenever I did, it was with a bare minimum of spices with all the windows open and exhaust on full power. I completely understood the perspective of the old lady not being familiar with Indian spices but at the same time, is it really ethical and moral to open your letters (private mail) or move stuff without asking? Being a student who is moving abroad for the first time and facing a lot by herself, it is a little difficult to take in.

I know a lot of people are now going to ask me to move back to my country but I just moved here to get some quality education. I have also lived in other European countries with my parents before but never had any problem. I am not tagging all the Swiss people as racist as you can see by the language I have used and also, I have talked about the good more than the bad. I could have shared the incident where she manhandled me to the migration office blackmailing me that she will get me deported. After all these everyday incidents against me, one would think it is because of racism and discrimination that this is happening, even after I had stopped cooking Indian food. I don't imagine anyone being so aggressive even after I had stopped cooking. So, in my perspective, this is a matter of discrimination given all the facts of what happened to me. I did not write this blog to gain any sympathy or to play the race card. 

As you can see from the last paragraph, my motive was only to support others to stand against any kind of discrimination. Lastly, if you think the lady was right in her treatment towards me, then why did I continue to face these problems even after stopping cooking Indian food. 

P.S.: I have already mentioned in my blog that I did not always cook Indian food and I am not conservative. But I strongly oppose the behaviour as it could've been avoided rather peacefully.

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