Passion Pit's Xander Singh Discusses Living With A Peanut Allergy, Part II
Xander Singh, the keyboardist for alternative rock band Passion Pit, discusses his peanut allergy and how it has affected him when he's on tour with his band and in daily life.
In Part II, he talks about how he had a horrible reaction when visiting Mexico, how his peanut allergy has affected him when flying internationally, and gives some good advice for people traveling with a food allergy.
Have you ever had a really bad allergic reaction?
Yeah. It was actually my most recent one. It was on Thanksgiving last year, and I was down in Mexico on tour and we all went out to this Mexican restaurant in a really small town called Pueblo. This was definitely a moment where I was a bit more lazy and irresponsible than I normally am.
The menu was all in Spanish, and I don’t speak Spanish or know the word for peanut in Spanish. I figured I live in Los Angeles, and I eat Mexican food all the time, and I’ve never encountered any problems, so I’m fine. I ended up ordering an enchilada with a mole sauce. I realized I’d never had mole sauce, so I figured I’d try it out. I took about two bites and realized I’d just had peanuts. So I went over to our translator, and I didn’t have my EpiPen either, so that was another contributing factor, and asked if he could ask if the restaurant put peanuts in the mole sauce.
Our translator didn’t know the word for peanut in Spanish and there was a language confusion, and eventually they said “Oh yeah! There’s peanuts in it!” So I said, “Okay I need to go the hospital.”
We were in this really small part of town, and I didn’t even know where the hospital was and there was this whole big confusion. Then the anaphylaxis started to kick in, and I was having trouble breathing and was breaking out in hives, and everyone was telling me that my lips were turning blue. Our sound guy kind of saved my life because he spoke a good amount of Spanish, so he just dragged me out into the street and hailed a cab and said, “Take us to the nearest hospital.”
I remember we got stuck in traffic, and it was one of the scariest moments of my life. I remember thinking, because I was lazy and irresponsible for my own well-being, I could now die in traffic in a small city in México. At this point, I was starting to lose consciousness a little bit and the cab driver communicated to the sound guy that the hospital was two blocks away.
There was about one person in the hospital that spoke English, so I was having a lot of trouble communicating what was going wrong with me. But they could see that I couldn’t breathe, that my lips were blue, and that I was about to pass out, so they threw me on the bed and I remember, right before, that I was minutes away from dying and an intern walked in and asked me what my birthday was and I just started screaming at her. I was like, “Why do you care what my birthday is? I’m going to die in like 30 seconds!”
Luckily I made it out okay and a few hours later I was back at the bar taking a couple shots of tequila. So I bounced back pretty quick. But that was definitely a scary moment. Especially since I hadn’t encountered any bad reactions in a couple of years, and I think I just got really complacent. I think that happens with a lot of people with food allergies. When you haven’t had a reminder of how easy it is to have a reaction and how severe the reaction is, you can get really complacent. You just always have to be on guard.
As part of a band, you inevitably have to travel extensively. How do you cope with your peanut allergy when traveling on planes?
I have had a lot of issues with air travel, and its probably the most frustrating part of having a food allergy and just realizing the ignorance people have about how serious a food allergy can be. I’ve definitely encountered a lot of difficult situations. Most airlines don’t serve peanuts on planes, with the exception of Delta and a few others.
I always call weeks ahead to see if they did serve peanuts, and if they do if they could not serve peanuts and offer an alternate snack, like pretzels or something. Most times it’s been really good, and I haven’t had any problems until I started traveling internationally. There was this really bad experience I had with Singapore Airlines, where I called them ahead of time and said “I have a very serious peanut allergy and I’m going to be flying on a certain flight, if you could not serve peanuts on the flight and serve an alternate snack that would be great.” And they said they would accommodate.
So right before I checked into the flight I went to the front desk to confirm everything, and they said that they hadn’t processed that request and I got into this big disagreement with them. I said, listen, I had confirmed this weeks ago and I’m flying to England for a show from Singapore, and I can’t just get on the next flight, and they were about to not let me on the plane.
I said, "No I have to go and get on this flight with the rest of the 17 people I am traveling with." And they were not going to let me get on the flight, and I don’t know if it was because I was pissing them off or if they were nervous that if I died my family would sue them.
But eventually our tour manager convinced them to not serve the peanuts, and then I got the plane. It was a redeye flight so I immediately fell asleep, and I kept on being woken up throughout the 10 hour flight maybe once every hour or so by a member of the flight crew, basically tapping me on the shoulder and saying, "We just want to make sure that you’re fully aware of the inconvenience you’ve caused everyone on this plane because we can’t serve peanuts." And I literally said to them, “Listen. Would you rather put another human being’s life in danger? Or would you rather serve peanuts to other hundred people on the plane.”
I always think it’s so funny that expression “Oh that’s peanuts!” and literally this issue was about peanuts! It shouldn’t be a debatable thing. Its like we could potentially kill this kid or everyone on the plane gets a little bag of peanuts. It doesn’t seem like it should be an issue!
And even at one point the captain of the plane came and woke me up and made sure that I was aware of the trouble and inconvenience that I’d caused for everyone on the plane. And I’ve come across situations like that a few times.
There’s nothing that either the airlines or I can do if somebody buys peanuts and brings them on the plane. I can understand that there’s nothing I can do about that.
Anyhow, I think for any food allergy people, American Airlines has been, domestically and internationally, very accommodating for me. I’ve been able to call ahead and request a nut free meal, request they don’t serve peanuts on international flights, and they’ve been totally cool, so that’s a good airline to go with.
But I was on this one flight and I remember a guy took a bag of peanuts out of his backpack, and I noticed them right away. So I asked him, I was like “Hey, excuse me sir, I have a severe peanut allergy and you eating those right next to me could throw me into anaphylactic shock and it’s a life-threatening situation.”
I had a bag of Chex Mix so I just asked, “Would you mind not eating those, and in turn, I’d be happy to provide you with a bag of potato chips or pretzels or give you my Chex Mix.” And he just got so irritated. He was like, "Are you kidding me? You’re literally telling me not to eat peanuts right now?” And I just said, “Well I’m asking you very politely to refrain from doing something that could potentially kill another human being sitting next to you.”
It’s just so beyond me how some people could be so bothered by something like that. It’s just a testament to how, as much as the world has become aware and understanding of food allergies, there’s just some people out there that don’t understand and I think its because they can’t relate to it. Most people don’t spend everyday constantly surrounded by something so minuscule that it can end a life, and most people don’t deal with being in that situation everyday like people with severe peanut allergies do.
So, in some sense I can understand it, but I can’t understand how some people can literally be told to their face that by sitting next to me and eating a bag of peanuts, it could cause me to die and then not understand that language. I don’t know how to put it more simply, but, you know, there are some people in the world like that and they can’t change and won’t every change.
In turn, there are a lot of people who will really go out of their way to help you, which is really nice. You know, like the waiter that doesn’t mind going to the back to go check if the fries are being cooked in peanut oil. Or I have even experienced moments when a waitress has come and assured me that they are going to prepare my food away from the other food products and use clean utensils to prepare it. So some people are good like that.
What are some tips you have for people traveling with food allergies?
In general, I think the biggest thing is being prepared. When I had that experience down in Mexico, it was really eye opening for me. I said, "Okay I need to get back on track with being super diligent." So when I went to South America in March, I made it a point to learn the simple phrases like “Do you use nut products in your food?” in both Spanish and Portuguese.
Whenever we’d go out to dinner at a restaurant or bar, I would take a sharpie and write it on my hand because I don’t have the correct annunciation of the words probably, so I would hold my hand up and show it to the waiter. Especially when you go somewhere internationally and you don’t speak the language, its important to have some sort of plan.
But, as hard as it is to have a severe food allergy and deal with it, and sometimes its hard to avoid getting into those situations, I find that when I have gotten into really life-threatening situations with my food allergy, that it was all things that were very easily avoidable. For example, in Mexico, I should’ve brought my EpiPen with me and then that situation wouldn’t have gotten as far as it did.
So, once again, you just always have to be on guard and be super careful. Your biggest ally in having a food allergy is really yourself and you also need to make sure that those around you are aware of it and know how to use an EpiPen. Like, when we travel, both our tour manager and a lot of times our assistant, has an EpiPen with them, as well as I do. I always have it in my backpack.
So there’s a lot of things you can do to make sure that you never have to the in that situation. And, sometimes, as hard as it is to avoid, because food allergies are sneaky characters, they are also very easy to avoid in most respects. You just always really have to be on your guard.