More “Nepali” than a “Real” Nepali?

Let me start out with a video clip… thanks to “Blonde Bahu” who recently introduced me to “Goodness Gracious Me” a British-Indian sketch comedy group from the 90s.

Phew, I’m not that bad (at least I hope not! ha!), but as the saying goes what makes humor funny is that it comes with a little “kernel of truth.” It has been discussed on this and other blogs before about how foreigners (non-South Asians) are sometimes more interested (perhaps “enthusiastic” is the better word) in embracing aspects of South Asian culture than a native South Asian living abroad might be. Of course this clip is a highly exaggerated version (perhaps there are people out there that go that “native”) but I’m sure we all do it to some degree or another…

(Although, on a side note, sometimes I feel like my family thinks I act like the person in this video—I promise you, I don’t—but I’m still pretty sure that my participation and interest in Nepali culture weirds them out a bit and anything “different” gets hyperbolized in their minds and blown a little out of proportion).

Anyway, one such example (in my own life) of the “outsider enthusiast” versus the “insider non-enthusiast” (for lack of a better term) is the female fasting festival of Teej… I discussed this back in August (you can re-read the post here). Gori Girl left a thought provoking comment on the post:

I think it’s a very interesting (and important) point you bring up about the outsider/insider perspective on “borderline” (not the right word, but I’m inarticulate at the moment) cultural practices.

I feel like many of the younger South Asians I meet – both men and women – are trying to distance themselves from cultural practices they grew up with because they see them as unfeminist or “too ethnic” – and then they’re bemused (or sometimes offended) by the Western significant others of South Asians (almost always women) trying to bring these practices into their lives.

In some ways the tone of these conversations/remarks remind me of the generation split between the “original” feminists – people of my mother’s generation – and today’s younger women. The older feminists, I think, felt they had to work outside the home, be successful in business while raising a family, etc, in order to prove that they were just as capable as men. In contrast, I feel like a lot of women of my generation feel like there’s nothing to prove, and thus have no problem with quitting work to raise a family. I suspect South Asians might see a similar reversal to acceptance of various rites in a generation or two to a more balanced approach.

Other examples I’ve seen between “outsider” enthusiasts vs. Nepali community non-enthusiasts: I’ve been in situations where we have hosted a Nepali oriented event (such as P’s Bratabandha) and only the Americans showed up in sari while the South Asians were wearing jeans or other American clothes. Likewise, in our household it is usually me that encourages P to keep up with different festival traditions (“Hey! It’s Lakshmi Puja… let’s light diya candles and draw Lakshmi feet on the floor!”) because I find these traditions interesting, different and fun, and I want to learn about them myself so I can explain to potential children someday what the different festivals are all about, and the stories behind them, and I want to take part in the cultural experience too.

In my opinion, when you are living in a dominant culture (the US for us), you have to work harder at accentuating the non-dominant culture if you want to keep a balance. If you don’t go out of your way to acknowledge the passing of events, or cultural traditions, it is easier for non-dominant cultural processes to get lost in the mix of daily life. It doesn’t mean you have to wear salwaar kameez everyday and tikka around town and speak in a fake South Asian accent like the woman in the video, but it’s okay to go to your significant other’s cousin’s wedding in a sari if you want to, why not?

So I just wanted to take a moment– maybe start a discussion about where others might see these types of things in their own lives, perhaps laugh at ourselves a little (yeah—I like getting dressed up in Nepali dress when I get the chance for weddings and parties, even if I have to encourage my neighbors to do so too so I don’t look a little silly), and remember that being in an intercultural relationship is all about compromise and finding the right balance.

6 responses to “More “Nepali” than a “Real” Nepali?

  1. Wooo lawd…. that white women’s impression of a pindu was spot on. Jattis are like that in real life…

  2. I found this interesting because I’ve been reading a lot of blogs by American women in intercultural relationship and the Goodness gracious me clip is something that occurred to me too. I went back and read your Teej post and GoriGirl’s comment on it. I think her opinion is the closest to why younger South Asians are not very enthusiastic about some festivals/customs. It does have to do with a lot of us being the first generation in our family “not” following these customs and taking the flak for it. But to add to her point, it isn’t hard to see the undercurrent of chauvinism in festivals such as Teej in their original form. People who have struggled to do away with them are likely to resent them being celebrated by people who haven’t seen the unpleasant sides of these customs and are only participating by choice. Just to put things into perspective, think of the Christian wedding ceremony and the vow women used to take to “obey” their husbands. Is it just a nice, ethnic Christian custom that you’d like to preserve, or something that you wouldn’t really want to do no matter how important it was to your husband, in-laws ?

  3. I am also introspective about my appropriation of desi stuff. Some people might find it to be misappropriation, actually. They would feel that I have no right to enjoy their culture like a buffet. (I recall a post by you, maybe in the GG forum where you say P said something to you like ‘you cannot choose all the fun stuff but leave the family obligations’…I have found myself dealing with the same thing) Where do we cross the line at genuine interest, natural adaptation, and become sort of cringe inducing wannabes? When is it okay to show we are down with South Asian stuff without offending people by patronizing them or not fully understanding that we are taking the fun stuff without taking on the burden truly of belonging to a culture (like anti-woman undercurrents in SA cultures that we can rebel against, or being discriminated against for being SA, etc.)?

    It gets more complex as I have bi-racial kids, too. How can I, as a white American mom, help re-inforce my kids’ PK identity while it is not my culture to give them? How can I best support my husband in that? Since I do find some of the stuff anti-woman, how can I weed out those things without condemning the Other culture?

    Truthfully, I LOVE going to functions for which I have to get out a fancy shalwar qameez and put on my 22k gold jewellery. I love cooking and eating desi foods. I find reading English language literature on SA to be stimulating and interesting. I have learned to speak Urdu/Hindi and can communicate a bit in a couple of other SA languages. I like Hindi film songs and Urdu and Punjabi music. Am I a phony? I mean, I REALLY love these things. I am not using South Asian cultural items as hollow symbols, they are really a part of my life. Things just sort of evolved that way. Am I a wannabe? Is this all because of my SA riends and husband? I know women who were married to SA or Arab men and very ‘into’ the culture of their husband, but after they divorced, they rejected all of those things. Would I do the same if…?

    Okay, I am really going on and on here, but your post just struck a chord with me because I wrestle with the same things. Right now I am living in a SA majority environment in Dubai, but when I come back to the US soon, does my interest in SA culture cross over into misappropriation? I don’t want to be doing the wrong thing and offending people. At the same time, like you, I like SA culture a lot, and have connections to it that are a major part of my life. So my thoughts aren’t fully formed on the issue, I guess.

  4. I find this blog post very interesting. It is fun to see non-south Asian perspective. Atleast I know about India or in particular to my culture (more eastern part) where women are expected to do some of these traditions. But it is different when you are willing to do or when you are expected to do. Also, there is a lot of issues behind expectation from a woman in this whole patriarchal society. Sometimes, I feel atleast in my culture woman is not a simple human being but everybody wants a “superwoman” who can do everything besides keeping fasting for husband’s lifeevery month or other…..Whether, any thing done for good life of a woman, thats a very different story.
    I do think it is very appreciable in the part of the people who do not belong to that particular culture to learn another another culture…. But, I have some experience not in the context of a couple… but I saw somebody chanting a holy mantra from Hinduism in a public show with guitar etc…., so perhaps I should not be saying “chanting” where people were enjoying that mantra with liquor in their hand…. I know this is not the story here what we are talking about… but anyways…

  5. Another point is how culture & tradition is transmitted through the generations – in most cultures, it’s the women who are seen (and to a large extent *are*) the holders of the culture. There’s a reason why you don’t see many male bloggers in this interracial circuit. There’s a reason why South Asian men have largely adopted western clothing for every day wear, while South Asian women (at least of the older generation) still hang onto saris and salwar kameez.

    Combine that with the ubiquitous of American cultural knowledge worldwide, and you have a situation where in a South Asian guy/American woman relationship the woman is likely the only one who will have to stretch out to the other culture – and the only one who is particularly interested in doing so.

    And, of course, there’s a whole lot of signaling going on…

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