Challenging cultural understanding and beliefs around food allergy

Anuradha

As an infant, my parents could never understand why my skin was perpetually riddled with an inflamed, scaly rash. They changed my skincare products, shifted to formula and even intensified their hygiene practices. But the itchy rash persisted. At the age of one, I was fed a cashew and a violent reaction ensued. It was then that my parents were hurled into the world of hospitals and doctors, who diagnosed me with severe food allergies to dairy, nuts and eggs. Their daughter’s unfamiliar medical condition now had a name; allergies. But what was an allergy and why did their daughter have it?

My parents are just one of many migrant parents who have been handed a diagnosis for their child that they do not understand. But having allergies and coming from a migrant family is much more than just educating yourself – it is an issue that must be addressed with the broader community. For many, which I have witnessed first hand in India, the notion of allergies is absent.  For example, growing up, my family and I would frequently travel back to India to pay visits to our relatives. Feeding people is a tradition there, and refusing to accept food can at times be misconstrued and appear snobbish or rude. As a young child I would wave my hands, shake my head and respond “no thank you, I have allergies” only to receive replies like “There’s just a little bit of milk, nothing will happen” or “You have to eat something child”.

While my relatives have good intentions, I have always wished they could understand the severity of my situation. Many of my extended family suggested giving me the food would build my tolerance. Others spent hours convincing me that restaurant food in India had no contamination, when in truth, the ingredient lists of packaged food items themselves were amiss and erroneous. Exposing my condition to others has frequently been looked upon with pity because it was often perceived as a debilitating disease, rather than merely having strict dietary requirements.

I truly salute my parents and other migrant parents who actively educate and enhance their knowledge on this common condition. There is undoubtedly a steep learning curve that is attached to adapting to this lifestyle in any context. Particularly, travelling taught us of being wary of unmarked ingredients in foreign products, often carrying a whole suitcase of food.

Looking back on my childhood, I acknowledge that things are beginning to change in India and exposure is slowly widening. My parents’ efforts to ensure I never feel like the odd one out is truly a testament to all parents and their unconditional and genuine love. However, I still get told time and again by friends and family that my story was their first education about the condition. When I most recently visited India now as a young medical science graduate, I took pride in being able to confidently educate people I met about my condition and demystify common misconceptions like the difference between intolerances and allergies. Being able to reach out to one person meant that this information could now propagate, slowly but surely. I am now proud to be a part of this movement to bring more awareness and educate the society. 

 

Content created March 2020

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