Saturday, March 16, 2019

How to Survive India in 3 Easy Steps

For those of you who have followed along, you probably by now understand my love/hate relationship with India. It is like no other place on Earth I have visited, and probably not anything possible to recreate. It’s kinda like if Mexico (for its climate, look, and people’s complexion), China (For the overpopulation), and a post-tornado town (for it’s broken and incomplete buildings and roads, as well as the garbage and various items; including barn animals strewn around) had a baby.  

There is plenty I enjoy about India, in spite of the sarcastic things I have written about my stays here. The people are some of the most kind and welcoming. Relatives and friends alike treat me with a lot of respect and consideration. Always concerned for my well being and comfort. Sit here, take this water, have you eaten. These are all regular questions I get. I’ve also been given lavish gifts and just showered with love and affection, in spite of me not being able to communicate much with any of them. This is a very heartwarming feature of visiting India and definitely one of the things I enjoy the most.

I’ve complained in the past about the heat, the overcrowding, the food, and the lack of personal space. These are all real challenges of visiting India and essentially living as an Indian by staying in the same house, using all the same facilities, eating the same, traveling around the same. As opposed to most foreigners who visit India, I don’t stay in 5 star hotels sipping bottled water and dining in fries and milkshakes. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve frequented many a McDonalds and KFCs looking for a little bit of ‘normal’, but overall this isn’t the everyday standard.

This time around, living logistics and wedding location necessitated a hotel stay for all, as opposed to all staying with my MIL and SILs. I was happy to learn about this, but also reserving judgement knowing Indian standards vary a lot from Western standards. If you aren’t careful you can end up in a hotel scarier than any horror movie. Luckily I’ve been pleasantly surprised by both the hotel we’ve stayed at here near my MILs place and especially the hotel where the wedding took place. Roy took the risk of looking rude by booking us a room at the hotel there, where all the other relatives stayed at a less costly option down the street.
Keep in mind before you pass judgement, that wedding customs here dictate you covering the costs for all travel, food, and lodging for all relatives and the entire groom’s weddding guest list! So, although more convenient for all to stay right where we were, it just was more costly than we apparently cared to pay. It didn’t end up being much of a big deal for us to stay elsewhere, and honestly I’ve learned that being comfortable in this completely foreign world isn’t just a luxury, but a necessity for me to function. The jet lag and overall tiredness takes such a huge toll, that without a few comforts of home I simply can’t survive. I’m not myself in anyway and it just makes for a miserable trip. 

Air conditioning here isn’t overly common, which for most of my cold weather friends is impossible to believe- especially in a hot climate. Don’t underestimate how horrible you feel when you sit in your own sweat all day and the power keeps going off and even the fan isn’t available. For me, this is just miserable and makes me hongry.(hot and angry) So, being in a place that has AC makes me feel 1000x  better. 

Food is my next big problem. Most people eat a lot of the same type of food here for each meal- at least from my perception. They feel like every meal must include rice to be considered a meal, I simply can’t stomach it more than a few days in a row. Bangalore has lots of US type restaurants that have very similar food to what I’m used to. Visiting these places, helps me feel human again. Trying to ‘fit in’ too much just makes me miserable.

Here in India, families and even friends function so close together sharing food, clothes, living quarters, even the same bed. People genuinely enjoy being together in close proximity all the time. Growing up, my husband shared a 1 bedroom house with his mom and dad and 2 sisters. All 3 of them shared a small bed until into their teenager years. There is no such thing as separate space of your own. Being raised like this, along with your extended family so close forms deep bonds and therefore sharing space and everything else isn’t much of a problem, if not a pleasure. Even here for the wedding, booking hotel rooms isn’t as fussy as having 1 room per couple or separate rooms for individuals, they just all bunk together 3 aunts per room or a husband and wife and a spare uncle. For me, this really doesn’t work. I like having my own space in a separate private area that isn’t invaded by others constantly. I don’t know if this is considered selfish or not, but to me it is necessity. Same as the food and AC, it just makes my life way more bearable here!

A few other things that help include shopping- you’d be surprised to know how many modern malls Bangalore has, even high end stores- more in this later. Also, having our own transportation helps a lot. Roy rented a car this time and although the traffic is horrible, it is so nice to be able to come and go as you please.

These are the basic survival tactics I have learned along the way, and overall I have to say this trip was more comfortable and enjoyable due to these simple items!

Friday, March 15, 2019

A Tale of a Final Wedding

I’ve found this wedding to be considerably different from other Indian weddings I’ve attended. First off, the groom is from a different culture so rituals and customs are quite different. Apparently this caused some early friction, but has been accepted now and compromises between the wedding customs were put in place.

What’s funny about the bride and groom is that although the families are from different cultures within India (still considered less than ideal) they have the same last name, which makes updating documents and things super easy!

Within the wedding itself, I noticed a lot of differences in overall structure, but also a few familiar things. It started with the bride coming out last and sitting on a small wrapped board which will be carried by the married male members of her family over to where the groom is standing.

She covers her face with leaves as a symbol of shyness- I think or maybe like weddings at home where the woman has a veil covering her face at first- same situation.  The bride is transported around where the groom is standing numerous times- I want to say 7 times. By this point then men are sweating and rapidly trying to complete the task. (As you can tell by the pained look on Roy’s face in this first picture)

Eventually they are ready to see each other in a sweet moment I was able to capture courtesy of being taller than everyone!

And then the rituals begin. The oldest male is responsible for sitting in on most of the initial rituals. In our case this is Boro Baba, as he is called (aka:Big Daddy) or Naked Uncle as I have referred to him in the past.

Some guests watch, but most wonder away to visit or eat. This is a funny dynamic for me as guests attending a wedding wouldn’t find it necessary to watch the actual wedding happen. I’ve learned early on that this is ‘Indian normal’ and there is a certain flexibility I’ve come to appreciate.

This wedding was considerably shorter than others I’ve attended. It was maybe just an hour max, which is about 1/2 or 1/4 what I’ve seen. Some of the same rituals were done: fire, sindoor (the red powder Hindu women put on the part of their hair as a symbol of being married) and of course the 7 trips around the fire together which ultimately is what ties the knot- celebrated by loud applause and flowers thrown.

The bride and groom them retire to the stage for pictures and gift receiving by all the guests in a scene fit for an Aladdin movie!

Meanwhile, guests ate and danced. This wedding had a DJ (from a Bangalore radio station courtesy of the groom being in the entertainment business as a side job) which was unique and seemed to be enjoyed by most. I personally need a little liquid courage to partake in such activities at this point. See ‘Forbidden Fun’ post for more info!

The bride and groom are last to eat, and guests begin to disperse. By midnight, all was over and we ventured back to the room for some much needed rest. 

The last wedding in the books!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Forbidden Fun

I get asked a lot how different Indian weddings really are from American weddings. So, let’s see- where to start! Let’s start with timing. Dates are typically chosen based on astrology and how it works out with the guy and girl’s specific birthdays and other information. This generally means the wedding is going to take place on a weekday and sometimes late at night. Nobody seems to specifically mind and the festivities go on as planned.

The bride will typically wear red or pink in a Hindu wedding, although I suppose it varies some by region as everything does. What I know for sure is you don’t wear white. As a woman, only a widow would wear white which isn’t always practiced but still never a wedding color.

As the wedding begins, people typically spread out and either watch the wedding, visit with family members or just go off and eat. There seems to be no specific etiquette, just do as you please.  It’s almost comical to see most people not paying attention or talking loudly, in fact the wedding last night had loud party music playing the background which apparently wasn't an issue.

What you won’t find in most Hindu weddings is alcohol. It isn’t typically served out in the open, but what I’ve found to be an interesting outcome is that many younger folks will sneak around to have it. This act of defiance reminds me of my teenage years and makes it all the more fun when you know you aren’t ‘supposed to’. I’ve learned this about several forbidden things in India. Take the style of dressing for women here. Most people I know find it impossible to believe that women don’t wear shorts or show their legs or much else here. Yes, weather conditions are hot and it would be more comfortable to wear something lighter, but what I’ve found is there is something more elegant and exotic about the element of allure in the unseen. You might need some time for that to process, but honestly my exposure to India has changed my view on this topic a lot. I now find it a little uncomfortable and distasteful to be too exposed. It just feels unnecessary and excessive to me. Some might find it an oppressive idea that a woman is covered, but I see it the opposite as an act of power that one could control who and when sees what and how vs. being on display for the world to see.

Back to alcohol for a second, we managed a little pre wedding girls party in our room for the bride and all the younger girls. Booze provided courtesy of Roy, which is pretty unique, as you technically don’t drink in front of your elders here. All the more fun knowing it’s fairly forbidden and the rest of the family is just nearby. 

The boys had a party of their own- again, just the younger crowd away from the more conservative older guys. We exchanged some funny messages and all ended up having a great time until the late night hours!

More on the wedding to come.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Two Girls, Three Weddings

So, you might be wondering on the purpose of our trip this time. I realize I didn’t give any backstory or prep to this year’s trip. Life has become too busy for me these days and I just didn’t get a chance.

A few years ago, there was rumbling of trouble with the marriage of my oldest SIL. This is the first Indian wedding I attended, I blogged a lot about it and it was the only wedding my FIL would live to see. Hindsight is always 20/20, but to be truthful, there was rumbling of trouble even before the wedding. Indian weddings and the process of finding a spouse is complicated here. Yes, it seems that more of the younger generation is finding someone on their own, but still plenty opt for a traditional arranged marriage or semi arranged where the couple kinda knows each other, but not completely. 

My oldest SIL had what I would deem a semi arranged marriage. Although she knew guy well from work, I think she more saw him as a friend. My in-laws seemed to push for the marriage and she ended up agreeing. Being the sweet and considerate girl that she is, I think she tried to do the ‘right thing’ while her Father was in his last days. On the surface it seemed to be fine, but slowly it started to unravel. I don’t know all the details and don’t need to, but ultimately divorce seemed like the best option.

You can imagine my surprise a year or so later when I come to find out that she has a new guy and they want to get married. All the costs, travel and logistics again??? After going through so much it seemed unfathamable that we were going to start over. But, here we are. This time feels different already. Not many relatives are coming and much of the planning and costs are already handled, but still Roy is running around like a crazy person buying things, picking up relatives from the train station, calling vendors to deal with confusion and incompetence. Same deal just on a bit lower scale. He got up at 4 am today- after getting to bed only at 2:30 since several of our relatives arrived late last night, so he could get the groom’s family setup from their train travel down here (They are from Calcutta area I’m told). We are all staying at a hotel this round, which is a big improvement from the hectic group travel in ridiculous traffic at all hours of the night we normally partake in and not to mention staying in a 2 bedroom apartment with 35 other people! This will limit the ‘fun’ of all hours relative interaction, but I’m ok with that! I guess some people are at one hotel and others elsewhere for cost sake- just a reminder for those who don’t follow along or forgot that the brides family pays for travel and lodging for all family guests!!! It’s crazy, but that’s just how it is. For this reason, most are staying at a lower cost option down the road from the resort, but we are staying right at the resort where the wedding is happening. Seems awkward, but honestly I’m happy to have a room I can sneak off too if need be. I’ll report back how this works.

So, here we are again getting ready for the 3rd wedding when we only planned in two, but hey, who am I to judge. If she is happy and this works out better, then don’t we all deserve to be happy? Even in India, divorce and remarriage are becoming more common so nobody seems that bothered to be doing it all again. Apparently there will be less rituals and things we did in the past. I’ve heard mixed stories as to why. At first it was because she was already married once, but then it came out that maybe some of the older aunts who made this decision didn’t want to pay the costs they normally are on the hook for- gifts and things. Oh complicated India, when will I ever understand???

As I am sitting in my air conditioned hotel room waiting for this transport bus to pick me up (due at 9:30- it’s now 10:56, of course I’m the only one who will notice or care) I’m given the rare opportunity to reflect in quiet (ok, semi quiet as I can hear the constant honking of vehicle horns and the occasional shout of a street vendor and moo of a neighborhood cow outside my window) and realize this is all just part of the journey of learning and growing and relating to a different environment. And do you know what, it’s not so bad. Three times a charm?

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Somewhere Between English and Bengali

People generally find it curious that my MIL doesn’t speak much English, yet we somehow find ways of communicating. It isn’t for lack of trying, but maybe lack of effort that we haven’t learned each other’s language. I honestly think my ‘learn another language’ gene is not present, I simply can’t learn and recall the words. Maybe with months of dedicated schooling I could, but in present state it isn’t possible. 

Regardless, the interesting part of this story is the fact that in spite of this deficit we both possess, we get along remarkably well. I might not ever get to hear stories from her childhood or deep, dark secrets but I do get an opportunity to relate and discuss and share opinions. I’m a lot like her in reality, which is actually an ironic twist of fate. We both are very methodical, planfull, and opinionated. We both are care takers and the one to keep the order, but also sometimes create the chaos. We are both simple, yet complex. Mild mannered on the surface, but passionate and feisty at the core. I learned most of these things through observation, not necessarily through her telling me, but nonetheless I have spent enough time with her to understand I’m spot on.

We were alone today in my hotel room for an hour or so, chatting the entire time. Gossip about relatives, last minute wedding plans, funny YouTube videos. It was fun. I can say I very much enjoyed it, and even decided together when she would return to the States to live. Roy smerks when we joke about these ‘conversations’. I’m sure he is both intrigued and horrified that we learned to communicate. Who knows what notes we will compare or stories will be exchanged. 
What I do know is this is yet again another example of how barriers in culture can be overcome to prove that humans are all the same under the surface. If you let the surface dictate you, the potential to lose out is pretty much guaranteed.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Carbs on Carbs Always Make Me Cry

Out of all the challenges faced in an interracial, cross-cultural, irreligion relationship, I sometimes feel like food remains high on the list.  

It's one of these things that is so ingrained in your life you don't stop to think much about it until it changes.  Throughout the years we have certainly undergone several changes and evolutions regarding a lot of topics, but food has not yet really become something that is 'settled'.  It's difficult for most people I know to fully understand this impact, and maybe it is a human nature thing to make some level of assumption that everyone pretty much eats the same thing.  Not having much exposure to other cultures, I never gave much thought to what other people ate but likely assumed it was pretty much the same stuff.  

Turns out that is totally incorrect.  I mean, there are so many possible foods that can be eaten, but the way they are assembled and flavored varies widely and what I have also learned is food is deeply rooted in culture, so when faced with regular changes it doesn't always feel comfortable.

I've probably incorrectly assumed that my husband didn't mind eating American food as much as we do, for all these years we have been together.  I've remarked about this before, as somewhat of a misleading 'talent' he has of making things look so easy and invisible that I forget they may exist.  I don't mean to be insensitive to his feelings, but I'm kinda a 'no news is good news person' and therefore,  if he doesn't complain then everything must be ok.   So, reality is that over the last 10 years we have eaten minimal Indian food on a regular basis.  But, to be fair, we don't exactly eat 'American' food constantly either.  Another realization I have had about food is that here we have the luxury of a HUGE variety of food types, tastes, textures, and volume.  You virtually never need to eat the same thing more than once ever 6 months if you didn't want to- maybe more!
I don't even know what 'American' food is per se, unless we are talking about the roast beef and potatoes our forefathers used to eat.

My experience with Indian items and eating style in India is that much of the food looks, tastes, and is seasoned similarly.  I realize that different regions eat differently (as they do here to some level in the US), but as far as places I have traveled, the food is pretty close to the same from my observation.   This immediately impacts my need for variety and quickly turns into a problem for me.  I suspect this isn't easy for my Indian relatives to understand, but then again, as with most things- it isn't easy to tell.

So, let's talk about ethnic food a second.   For those who have never traveled to Mexico, it might be easy to think that the food you get at Taco Bell is Mexican, when the reality is that most is adapted from Mexican items, for an American taste bud.  Same with Chinese, while I haven't been to China, I can suspect General Tso's and Orange Chicken aren't regularly eaten foods, otherwise I can imagine that would have a pretty significant impact on health and size of Chinese people.  Well, Indian food is somewhat similar in that the things I had experienced early on from restaurants or made as special meals, turns out they aren't typically eaten on a regular basis.  Roy explains that his family had chicken once a week when he was growing up- this still is mind boggling to me when I think about the volume of meat consumed here not just weekly, but daily.   The issue this has caused for me is that the foods I have a taste for are chicken based, rich, and aren't widely served in India which almost always leads to disappointment in whatever I am served there or as my MIL is here living.

I don't necessarily see this as anyone's fault, but a product of the circumstances we operate under.   Last night I came home from a meeting to find potato curry and roti (pan cooked dry bread) served.  Needless to say, I pretty much went to bed hungry and while that isn't a tragedy by any stretch of the imagination, it does bring out some level of sadness that somehow my food consumption is not my choice.  It evokes those same feelings I get in India when served some vegetable curry and rice that everyone seems all jacked up about and all I can think about is how I can turn it into a sandwich or toss it off the balcony without someone noticing.  It's a hard dynamic to explain and maybe until experienced it can't be fully understood.  I live an incredibly blessed and privileged life, so at times this topic makes me feel spoiled or ungrateful that I'm even remotely concerned about having to compromise on food here and there.  Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't- who knows.  The reality is it's a challenge for me and I don't see that changing any time soon.


Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Silence Says It All

It is during rare moments of absolute silence when I feel the most enlightened.  Maybe it's the time to think or the lack of distractions, but regardless I know during these moments I can generally find clarity for everything I am looking for.

Religion continues to the source of on and off confusion and frustration.  This week Shivali started religious education (Catholic- she is set to make her first communion this year), but it was also the Hindu festival time Ganesh Chaturthi- celebrating the birth of Genesha, the Elephant head baby of Lord Shiva)   I am sure my husband and MIL wish I knew more of these holidays and filled the role of Indian Daughter in Law as far as prayers or food preparation, but the reality is - I can't.  We knowingly entered into not only a cross cultural relationship, but also a cross religion.  And while Roy enjoys attending Church and GOD knows nobody dislikes celebrating Christmas, I have found it hard to relate to Hindu holidays.   Whether it be lack of knowledge, cultural barriers, or just hesitation to learn something new, I don't feel connected in anyway to Hindu holidays- even after 10 years in.
Religion is pretty deeply engrained in the Hindu culture, where people here generally just focus on the 'fun' aspects of religion.  If I reflect on the true complaints for me about Hindu holidays, what comes to mind first is - they aren't fun for me.  It isn't the kind of fun I am accustomed to, and like other things Indian which frustrate me- nothing starts on time, in between festivities everyone seems to just go about their business, I don't especially see the appeal in much of it.  I get that it may not have always been like that in Catholic religion, but in 2018 in the US it is, therefore it is all I can speak to.

It may have come to a surprise to my MIL that I was taking Shivali to Church Wednesday for religion classes, just as she was preparing to head to the temple when Roy returned from work.  I'm never sure what he tells her or if he told her, but she appeared surprised to me to learn we were going to church.   I can imagine there is a lot of confusion on her side, so in fairness, I really can't establish how much she understands of the situation and I can see that it would be odd to have an only grandchild not be overly involved in the religion.  In the days following, Shivali has accompanied them to the temple (Have I mentioned that Wisconsin has 3 Hindu temples as of last count, and 1 is right down the street from us?? How that happened in our small town I'll never know) and at some level I believe she has enjoyed it.

For those who are unaware, the temple is much different than a church.  There is a lot of floor sitting, chanting, rituals involving fire. It's non completely uninteresting, but I can definitely do without the floor sitting.   These sometimes serve food, nothing that I care to eat in anyway- rice and lentils, sometimes served on the floor (picking up on the theme?) not so much here, but definitely in India it is.  Questionable cleanliness is always a concern, as it is all volunteers and big pots cooked under the sun just don't say 'guaranteed to not have salmonella' to me.    So anyway, Shivali has been eating there during her visits this week, and I think it is safe to say she is less than thrilled.

I personally see no issue with engaging with multiple religions, especially when the point is to learn and feel connected and involved with something bigger than you.    I stayed home from both today (I think it's the last day of the Ganesh festival, but don't quote me) to both catch up on work and household chores, but also to have a few moments of quiet without the usual commotion and TVs blaring, someone asking for something.  With a clear head, I can say- I needed it.  I've been running on empty for awhile and needed a little reboot.   I can imagine once again that my MIL is unclear or unhappy I don't go.   If I dressed up in my Indian best and tagged along for group entertainment value only, it probably would have been a nice gesture.  Today I couldn't do it- for lots of reasons and I right now I don't regret that in spite of a little Catholic guilt.

The bottom line is this- the blending of cultures, religion, food, values, and approach never gets any easier.  The target keeps moving and we have to keep adjusting.  I don't know when it will be 'solved', I don't think that is even possible. I don't know if I should look for it or try for it, I guess I'll do what I always do and just keep forging forward doing my best to stir this concoction into a digestible substance.
Ganesh Festival pic from India. The statues are very impressively done, and if my limited Hindu knowledge serves me right, the crowd is bringing it to the river to immerse it on the last day of the Festival. Seems like an awful waste of a beautiful statue, but reincarnation has it's sacrifices I guess....