Category Archives: Cross-Cultural Issues

What’s in a Name?

About a year ago 4B introduced me to the British comedy serial “Goodness Gracious Me” and their sketches really are priceless. Many of their sketches explore the conflict and integration between traditional Indian culture and modern British life. And some, like the following, reverse the roles to view the British from an Indian perspective or poke fun at Indian stereotypes.

“Jonathan”

I saw this particular sketch back then, but recently an acquaintance reposted it on facebook and it reminded me of a post I wrote about a year and a half ago called “Pashwa’s Name.” The writing of the original post was inspired by the fact that many of my family members were finally writing P’s name correctly on Christmas cards after 6 years of crazy spellings like: “all sorts of variations, often with “Os” and “Zs” and “Ss” and “Hs” (letters that he doesn’t have in his name at all!) … My dad used to write his name as “Pazz” for several years, while [my Grandmother used the name] “Pashwa” which [she] still kinda calls him.”

The first time my mother met him they went through this exchange:

Mom: “Does your name translate into something in English?”

P: [honestly ponders this question for a few minutes…] “Well, I guess you could say light or maybe bright light.

Mom: [looks a bit puzzled, this was not how she expected him to answer the question. The look on her face was absolutely priceless. She was thinking something like “Patrice” is the French form of “Patrick,” and “P” is the Nepali version of “Peter”] “Huh? Light? I was thinking Peter or Paul or something like that. Don’t you have an English name?”

P: “No, I guess I’m just P_______ or you can call me P__ for short.”

The “Jonathan” sketch also reminds me of my new freshmen students during international orientation. At one point we had them stand up and introduce themselves, and there were quite a few students who introduced themselves by English names instead of their original more “ethnic” sounding names.

This happens a lot with Chinese students, who are often advised by educational consultants back home to pick an English name since many Chinese sounds are butchered by our American tongues. From experience I know that Burmese students tend to have particularly challenging names—not necessarily long names like Thai or Sri Lankan (I have ten Thai students this year and the average number of letters in their last names is 16!)—but Burmese names tend to have strings of letters you don’t expect to be next to each other—this year I have one student whose first name is Hnin Pwint. I tried several times to say it properly, and the poor girl kept correcting me, and finally she said she goes by the name “Snow.” (Also kind of interesting, since I don’t think it snows in Myanmar).

One of our new Nepali students also has a challenging name—Kshitij. I had to check with some friends before I met him to make sure I was saying it correctly—it is pronounced kind of like chee-teej, but when he stood up to introduce himself to the new students he proudly told the audience his name was…

“Ken.”

When I got home that night I told the P family that one of my Nepali students didn’t want to use his Nepali name, and decided to call himself by an American one.

“Why would you do that?” P asked, “Having an ethnic name is kind of cool. It’s different. It makes you stand out.”

I was a little surprised by P’s answer, since his name can and has been butchered as well, however I also agree. My name is “ethnic” in that it is mostly used by Irish-Americans (or perhaps other Irish-in-diaspora communities*), and although the combination of my first name and last name is quite common within these communities (if you google it, you will get pages of “CCs” that are not me, and as the original C____C____@gmail.com email account I get emails for the wrong “CCs” all the time!) it’s not that common of a name in general. Whereas I had a truckload of “Jennifers,” “Elizabeths,” “Marys,” and “Sara(h)s” as friends growing up, it wasn’t until high school that I met another “C” at an event I attended. During my school age years I don’t think I could have dealt with being in a room and someone calling out “C!” and more than one of us turning around to ask, “What?”

If/When P and I decide to have kids, I think we are probably in agreement that we would want to name them something  “different” but we will have to keep in mind that it should be pronounceable by both my family and his.

So I guess no “Jonathans” or “Kshtijs” for us.

* I wanted to quickly note that all my life I thought of my name as very “Irish” not “Irish American” until our (real) Irish friend RH told me that no one in Ireland is actually named “C.” It’s a noun in Ireland, and has been appropriated by Irish-in-diaspora descendants as an “Irish” name. It really rattled my world when I found out that my supposedly super-Irish-name was really inauthentic… although I guess not really, since I am not really “Irish” but “Irish American.” If it is an “Irish American” name, I guess it actually is authentic in my case.

Wedding Crashers, Nepali Style

For a similar post check out “Invited to the Wedding.”

You know you are in an intercultural-South-Asian relationship when you have run out of invitation cards, and the RSVP date has passed, but you are still inviting people to your wedding.

You also know you are in this type of relationship when you hear other people talking in town about your wedding, who might “come anyway” even though they weren’t technically invited (“Maybe I was invited, but they didn’t have a chance to give me the invite?”), because extra guests aren’t usually that big of an issue back in Nepal.

This has happened to us a few times. In particular it is difficult with Nepalis we know in town through P’s university who might not be our close friends, but who are still part of the local Nepali community, so we kind of feel an obligation to invite them. We used to have this issue with our annual Christmas party too—P and I have had many a debate over why or why not this or that person should be invited. My argument was always, “If you don’t see them or have dinner with them at least every now and then, you don’t have to invite someone just because they are Nepali, especially if they don’t invite you to their things.” But alas, the issue persists, why did I expect our wedding to be different?

Case-in-point, at our Christmas party this year I was talking to one such person (a Nepali who we are friendly with but not really “friends friends” in the close sense) and while making conversation I asked, “So do you have any plans for the summer?” The guy responded, “Other than your wedding, not too much.” Er—he wasn’t at the time on our list, but found his way there!

Something similar happened over the weekend. Two friends of ours (non-Nepali) were eating at an Indian restaurant in town where a Nepali acquaintance from P’s university is working as a server. He had met this friend briefly at a dinner we hosted several months ago, and recognized her when she sat down at the restaurant. While taking her order he struck up a conversation about our wedding—he knew all the details—date, time, place, etc. We hadn’t invited him because he fell into the category of “acquaintance” rather than friend, and we hadn’t seen him since that dinner, but someone must have said something to him. Anyway, since he knew all the details our two friends assumed he must have been invited too. So when he asked them, “Are you going?” they responded yes and asked him, “Are you?”

Nepali acquaintance: “I haven’t been invited yet. I’m sure I will be, but if not I might just go anyway. I’m sure they won’t mind.” (Me: “Whaaaaat?”)

After dinner our friend gave us the heads up. Perhaps this is another person we might have to add to the list at the last minute?

It’s tough to draw the line. With close friends it’s a non-issue, they are obviously invited, but with various acquaintances it’s tough. We live in the same Nepali-community-abroad, so we don’t want to hurt other’s feelings, especially when the culture in Nepal is to invite as many people as you know, but P and I can’t keep adding to the list indefinitely. We have had many a discussion at the dinner table that goes something like,

P: “I feel really bad. We didn’t invite X, we’ve been to her house for momos several times, and even though I haven’t spoken to her in a year, I think she has done bhai tikka for me before as well. She might be sad that she didn’t get an invite.”

Me: “But Y lives near her. We aren’t as close to Y. So he might be sad if he hears that X was invited but not him.”

D: “Yeah—and if you invite Y you have to invite his girlfriend too. And he is always with Z as well, and might bring him along.”

P: “I don’t really mind not inviting Y, and I certainly don’t want him to bring Z along, we barely know him.”

D: “But X and Y see each other every day. If you invite X you will probably have to invite Y… in the end that might mean 4 extra people!”

In addition, we are also not sure if some of our Nepali guests might bring along extra people as well. It’s not such a big taboo in Nepal to do this, heck I was brought along to a neighbor’s wedding the last time we were in Nepal, and I certainly wasn’t listed on the invitation card. With the buffet we have set up for the Nepali wedding it won’t be such a problem, but with the sit down dinner at the American wedding, if extra people show up they won’t have any food.

D was joking at dinner last night, “Well at least the Nepali wedding is first—like a rehearsal to see who might show up for the American wedding. If someone brings along extra guests you can talk to them about not bringing them the second day. Maybe you can get someone to be the ‘guest enforcer.’”

In my “type A”-list-making-American-personalitiy-ism I have been trying hard to keep tabs on who is and isn’t coming, so that I know how many favors to order, programs to print, and table set ups, etc, but I might just have to realize that I won’t know with 100% certainty who will be at each event until they happen. Hopefully the numbers from my list and the numbers who show up are not that far off.

Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above

I can’t pass up reposting another article I just saw on Facebook–

The New York Times today had an article on the growing population of young Americans of “mixed-race.” The article focuses on how mixed-heritage is no longer something to shy away from.

“I think it’s really important to acknowledge who you are and everything that makes you that,” said Ms. Wood, the 19-year-old vice president of the [University of Maryland “Multiracial and Biracial Student Association”]. “If someone tries to call me black I say, ‘yes — and white.’ People have the right not to acknowledge everything, but don’t do it because society tells you that you can’t.”

The article notes that 1 in 7 marriages in the US is between partners of a different race or ethnicity according to 2008-2009 data from the Pew Research Center. In July I’ll be part of that statistic, and eventually my children will as well.

The article was an interesting look into the identity issues of biracial/multiracial Americans, and I thought other readers might enjoy. To view the full text click HERE.

Dashain Ideas

Dashain is soon to be upon us. The first day of the ten day festival is October 8th and it ends on October 17th.

A reader asked me what she might be able to do for her Nepali partner for Dashain. In her specific situation he is across the country. I brought the topic up at dinner last night to see if my in-house Nepali focus group had any ideas.

AS: “That’s tough… Dashain is all about getting together with family and eating lots of food. So if you are far away? I don’t know.”

P: “Make some goat curry and send it through the mail.”

Hmmm… not the most helpful advice.

So I was googling around during lunch today and found a website that explained the importance of Dashain in Nepali culture and the individual aspects of it quite well. It’s not necessarily specific advice, but it might give some ideas:

Dashain is big in Nepal mainly for the following :

  • Holidays – Rest and Relaxation for nearly 10 days!
    This is the longest festival in Nepal. It allows one to travel and be with family and friends for up to a week or more.
  • Shopping – Clothes for wife, children, dad, mum… In spite of extreme hardship, during the festival season, Nepalese families manage to shop if not for all, but at least for the children. Clothes are the most selling item during the season. Those who could not afford to wear even a single new cloth in the entire year will now attempt!
  • Eating – Meat Products, Sweets, Fruits, and meat products again! Dashain’s most popular cuisine is meat, and in popularity order are goat meat, sheep, buffalo, duck, and chicken. Meat is expensive and poor to middle class families usually cannot afford it. So dashain is the time of eating lots of meat. Usually animals are bought live from the animal market such as Kalanki Bazaar, Bag Bazaar, and sacrificed at home or in temples. At home, the whole family is involved in cutting and preparing the meat which usually lasts for 2 to 3 days of feast. But some family prefer to buy the meat already prepared by Butchers
  • Visiting – Meet your Family and Friends near and far
    Dashain is also about forgiveness, kindness and respect, all of which prevails so broken families come together. Cities suddenly seems to empty itself, more people returning back in villages or terai (lower, flat region of Nepal) than that of people joining families in cities. During this season, city rushes to book tickets, bus or plane!
  • Kites – Children love the season also for flying Kites
    If you visit Kathmandu or any other city during this season, the day-sky is filled with colorful kites like shinning stars in the night!
  • Tika and Love – Receiving and Giving Tika and Respect.
    Getting a tika from an older person in your family or from relatives or from anyone is a blessing. Dashain tika begins from the oldest person in your family giving tika to the youngest then the second youngest in the family and so on. Faith, hope, inspiration and blessings, all come alive in Dashain.
  • Money Notes – stacks of notes to give!
    Receive a tika and offer money notes as an appreciation. Popular Dashain notes are Rupees 2, 5, 10, and Rupees 25. Everybody tries to exchange for smaller and new notes, so banks are usually busy during the season.
  • Cleaning – Clean and decorate homes
    Walls get a new coat of paints, roads are cleaned better than before, temples are decorated with lights, villagers join together to clean and build new trails, paint their homes using red-colored mud. People clean themselves mentally too by visiting various temples and worshiping during the festival.
  • Puja – Worshiping God for Peace and Prosperity. Various pujas are performed from beginning to the end of Dashain.
  • Gambling – although not legal in Nepal, but it’s played! Playing cards are popular during Dashain. Usually family members play cards with each-other or with friends for money.

Perhaps you could send or gift your loved one a new shirt or pair of pants and some playing cards, cook a goat curry meal, and/or send Dashain greetings to Nepali family and friends. If you live in a community with Nepali people, you might visit the homes of elder Nepalis for tikka.

Other ideas out there?

The Pasta-Rice Wars

It’s the age-old debate in our house… what’s for dinner or as P so aptly puts it, “Ke khane?”

The two contenders on the field are generally daal-bhat or pasta and salad. With four Nepalis in our house these days, bhat is generally the winner.

Although last night AS tried a new recipe. She had been searching different cooking videos on youtube and found a chef making a salad out of pasta—but the pasta looked like rice! She had to try it! So she went to the grocery store and carefully searched the pasta aisle, scrutinizing each variety until she found it—orzo.

So last night we had soup and salad made from orzo pasta. P assumed it was a rice salad until AS announced to the table that the salad was, in fact, made with pasta.

“No…” P said, disbelieving, “It looks just like rice, just bigger and thicker!”

“Yes,” AS triumphantly smiled, “It looks like rice, but it’s pasta!”

P looked at me and said, “All these years you’ve been making pasta out of the wrong noodles! I’d eat this any day… do you think it would taste good with daal?”

“You could but the orzo pasta in a lentil soup” AS offered, “I’m sure that would taste good.”

So orzo pasta might be the armistice the Pasta-Rice Wars have been waiting for.

High Context/Low Context Culture Clash in Diagrams

I received a funny email forward today, so I thought I’d share some of the diagrams with you.

The concept of “high context” and “low context” cultures was developed by British anthropologist Edward T Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture. His ideas were discussed at length in some of my international education classes, and it reminds me that when I look at something completely different than others around me, that there is an underlying concept as to why. The diagrams below actually highlight a lot of the sterotypical differences between cultures that are “high context” (generally speaking more “eastern” cultures) and “low context” (again, very generally speaking “western” cultures).

The email forward said:

The images below have been done by a Chinese artist (Liu Young), who studied in Germany. These images show his version of the differences between Western and Eastern cultures in a very simple way.

BLUE=WEST RED=EAST

Opinion


Way of Life


Puncuality


Contacts


Anger


Party


Three Meals a Day


Queue When Waiting

I particularly like the party one, as often larger gatherings tend to evolve into everyone sitting in a circle in the living room singing songs and dancing. I also like the food diagram, since there have been many a hot summer day when a salad would have sufficed for dinner but instead my friend AD couldn’t live without chicken chili ;)

Co-Habitation

I read a few articles recently which prompted me to write about a topic that I was hesitant to post on at first… but then I figured, what the heck, I’m all about confronting taboo subjects on this blog if need be…

A few years ago my eldest cousin married an Australian man. At the wedding one of my more conservative aunts was standing with me, talking to the groom about how Australian culture was different from US culture. The groom mentioned that in Australia it was pretty common for people who are dating to live together before marriage and my aunt cut him off saying, “I’m so glad you decided to follow our culture and not do that.” Knowing full well I was standing right next to her, and knowing full well that P and I were living together. Slam. (I think the “culture” she was referring to was religious Catholic).

Even though “American culture” is supposed to be a lot more open in regards to people living together before marriage (look at the messages we receive through television and movies), in my family I think it still makes people a little uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it is a Catholic thing or what, but P and I have never had a visit from my aunts, uncles, cousins, or grandmother, even if they are relatively close by visiting others or vacationing, and I can’t help but wonder if they are uncomfortable (even after 4 years) that we are living together. When my cheeky little cousins, who are getting to an age where they can figure stuff out but aren’t afraid to blurt out the obvious, say, “Are you two roommates? Do you live together?” my aunts hush them up like it is some sort of taboo. Luckily my immediate family (sisters, mom, dad) aren’t so conservative in this regard, but it is one reason in particular that I’m excited to get married… so that people don’t have to be uncomfortable and awkward. (Although interestingly, our Nepali friends assume my family must be fine with the living situation since I’m American, and Americans “do that kind of thing”).

Meanwhile, P’s family (at least his immediate family, I’m still just a “friend” to anyone living outside of the main house), although probably not overly happy that we live together and are not married yet, have been surprisingly okay with our living situation. While P was doing his master’s degree at a school nearby to where I grew up, P made it sound like he had his own place and I was just around a lot. Perhaps it sounded a little suspicious, but it wasn’t unreasonable, my hometown was just down the road. Yet when P decided to move to a different state and I tagged along, I’m sure it all “clicked” for the family back home. Instead of outright saying, “Mamu, Daddy, C and I are living together” he said, “C is looking for a job, and while she looks she is keeping me company at my new place. We aren’t sure yet where she will be.” At that point P’s dad said, “I hope that she finds work near where you are studying, otherwise it will be really sad.” I guess that was convoluted South Asian speak for, “We know what you are trying to say, and we think it is better that you stay together and support each other.”

So they knew we were living together, but it is one thing to know something, and another to see it. I wasn’t sure how they were going to react when his family (mom, dad, aunt) came to live with us for part of the summer in 2008. P and I have a two bedroom apartment—one room we share, and one with a single bed that is more of an “office with guest space.” Before the parents arrived there was a debate about whether or not we should make it look like I lived in one room and he lived in the other. The reality is, parents aren’t stupid, they knew we weren’t “just roommates” so there was no point in putting on a charade.

I wasn’t sure what the expectation was going to be that first night when they arrived and everyone was ready to settle down for bed. We had decided to put P’s parents (on one mattress) and brother (on another) in our room and P’s aunt and her daughter in the “office” room. That left P and I outside in the living room. We pondered, should we sleep on the futon together or should he sleep on one couch and I sleep on the other? Luckily everyone was too tired from traveling to care (or perhaps practiced a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation) and after everyone went to bed we slept on the futon. Since the older generation was up by 4am the next day, and the living room was already bustling before we got up, everyone knew where everyone slept and there was no discussion beyond that. Ice broken, moving on.

When we went to Nepal in 2009, again, I wasn’t sure what would happen. Sure, J Phupu, Mamu and P’s dad all knew the living situation, but would things be different around P’s grandfather and younger cousin? Again that first night we were exhausted from travel, and P’s dad directed us to his room. No questions asked, we were put together in the same place. Ice broken, no drama.

Actually the funny thing is… of all these various sleeping arrangements, the one that bothered P’s family the most was when a friend came over to P’s KTM house. Before our friends’ S and R’s wedding, S’s family was in Chitwan arranging wedding details, and S was alone in KTM. Rather than stay at a lonely apartment, counting down the days to the ceremony we invited him to stay a few days at P’s place. Amongst our friends in the US it is not unusual for a bunch of guests to stay overnight after a dinner party or for the weekend, and often a whole bunch of us (guys and girls alike) wind up sleeping on couches, air mattresses, futons, or on the floor, so when S stayed over all three of us slept on mattresses on the floor in the same room at P’s house. I didn’t sleep next to S, but I think P’s family found it odd that I slept in the same room on a nearby mattress with this other man there (even though the family has known S since high school).

When we were leaving Nepal and waiting at Tribhuvan Airport J Phupu was trying to tell me something in Nepali. I couldn’t really understand what she was talking about, and I figured (like usual) that I was misunderstanding the language, because why would she be saying… “Don’t… sleep with… other people…”

So I asked, “On the plane?” and she looked back at me startled, “Not on plane… not anytime.” This is now a running joke when we have guests… that I’m not allowed to sleep with other people, I should be segregated somewhere.

Anyway… here were a few articles that made me think about this—

I stumbled upon an interesting online magazine today called “South Asian Parenting” including a column called “No Sex in the City.” One article of interest in particular was… “Sex, Lies, and a Desi Take.”

Another was a posting from the same online magazine about an intercultural relationship including a conclusion on telling parents about “co-habitation” (“Out of Bounds“).

Next was a BBC article about a Tamil actress that had charges brought against her in the Supreme Court for saying it was “not fair of any educated youth to expect his wife to be a virgin.” As part of the defense judges noted that even Hindu gods Krishna and Radha were co-habituating lovers.

And lastly another BBC article about the “virginity industry” amongst some Muslim communities in the Middle East and Europe.

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.

Linguistically Jealous…

Last night we had dinner with two sets of “couple” friends. Rice; daal; potato and green bean curry; P and AS made a Mule Deer curried stew from some of the meat my dad gave us at Christmas time; I experimented with some cheese and spinach stuffed mushrooms. Everything was tasty and the dinner was fun.

As with most dinners, the conversation went back and forth, and eventually we were talking about a couple we knew who was struggling with jealousy issues. From that stemmed a conversation about whether anyone of us has ever been jealous.

I’ll admit it. There was one time in particular that I was a bit jealous…

Last week I attended one of the Black History Month events at my work. Former MTV reality star Mohammed Bilal came to campus with a really interesting speech on “12 Steps toward Appreciating Diversity.” One of the steps (I can’t remember which) was, “Learn a new language. You won’t truly understand someone else unless you can talk to them in their own language.” Which brings me to what made me jealous:

The first few years at university the only Nepalis I knew were guys. There were about four or five of them and there had been several others along the way, including P. Some people at the International House used to joke that Nepalis mustn’t let women study abroad, since only guys came to our school from their country for as long as any of us could remember. However, my third year, while I was abroad, a few more Nepalis came to the school, including one girl—KS. I used to hear from P about all the stuff going on at school while I was gone, and by the time I got back to the school in January, I felt like I already knew these new students.

I was surprised though, the first few times I listened to P interact with KS. They weren’t flirting or anything remotely like that (for pete’s sake, KS always called the other Nepalis “dai,” older brother, and you don’t flirt with your older brother!) The thing that made me jealous was that they could communicate with each other so fluently in P’s own language, something that I simply couldn’t do. I remember feeling like I couldn’t connect with him linguistically in the same intimate way that she could because I didn’t understand that much beyond the basics. It wasn’t what they were saying that irked me, but that they could say it. Being able to communicate with someone at that very personal, primal level, so far from home– of course it’s comforting, and I was sad I couldn’t provide that same feeling as well. It is one of the reasons I try not to object too much when others speak Nepali in the US around me (at least when I’m the only non-Nepali speaker in the room), because I know it is such a part of their identity.

The jealousy didn’t last long, but I’ll never forget how I felt, listening (for the first time) to P talk in Nepali with a Nepali girl. I know it was silly, but language is so personal, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy. You’d think it would make me even more inspired to learn the language, but fast forward six years or so and I’m still not too far along (I just wish I could enroll in a proper class!!). I’m getting better little by little, but it’s been a very slow and disappointing process.

So there is my jealousy story to share around the dinner table.

Letting Go (or) How to “Chill” the Control Freak…

I was having a conversation in the comment section of a Gori Girl post with another (I’m assuming male Indian) reader who was asking how non-South Asian “significant others” are able to adapt to various common South Asian cultural quirks. The conversation started like this:

I am very curious to know about relationship dynamics in your [Gori Girl] Indian American Household, with regards to the cultural differences in customs in India and America. More specifically, in India, people invite each other over and unexpectedly drop in and hang out and do things together. In the US its more planned, and “khatirdari” is less common in this DIY land. How does it work in your family? How do you handle all the social obligations of an Indian wife?

I responded:

I hope you don’t mind me jumping in, this happens all the time at my house. Not as much as it used to because a lot of our friends are more established now in the community and don’t feel the need to drop by as often, but when we first moved I used to have people at my house 6 out of 7 days a week. It could get really exhausting. Most visits aren’t really planned, and I know there have been times when someone has rung our doorbell and I really didn’t want to answer, but they could tell we were home because the lights were on or something. I remember once or twice I stalled as long as possible before offering tea to a guest (almost to the point of being rude) because I knew if they had tea they would stay longer rather than just dropping in, saying hi and leaving, but eventually I had to offer (that’s what the guest was looking for) or I’d look like a jerk.

I don’t mind the visits in general, and 85-90% of the time it’s totally fine and even welcome, but every now and then I wish we lived in the middle of the woods where it would be hard to find our doorbell ;)

Likewise, I take full advantage of this, and feel no shame in dropping in on others who would do it to us. Even people in different states if I am driving by! I’ll call and give a 5 min heads up and say, “hey, are you home? I’ll come and have some tea!” Usually it’s really fun, and if I knew someone was driving through and didn’t stop by I’d probably be a little sad.

I’d like to add that, I’ve become so used to this habit of “dropping in” or “going out of your way for a friend” which is common amongst our South Asian friends, that I can’t help but feel a little bad when this isn’t reciprocated in my own (extended) family. You can’t really just “drop in” unannounced, and you can’t really ask for a favor that is “going out of the way” (at least with most people). I can’t help but now feel this attitude is a bit “cold” even if unintentional.

Anyway, the reader responded with:

Please do jump in. Again, Indians usually find it insulting if their boundaries have NOT been violated obscenely in the name of togetherness and community. (:D)… It’s good to know that you enjoy Indian visitation habits and have started adapting to them as well… Are you able to relate to the quintessential South Asian “Chaltha Hai” attitude (Let’s wing it/everything goes!)?

So I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about this.

For those of you who might have known me when I was younger (middle school/high school) you might remember that I was a bit anal retentive. Yes, I’ll be the first to admit it. I was definitely one of those students that had to have my hand in absolutely everything (this committee, that committee, this team, that club, all the honors classes… even math, which I totally suck at, and whose classes have scarred me for life!), with a schedule packed solid 99% of the time. As part of this I was the queen of organization, and completely anal about my stuff… everything had a place, had a system… even lending out books or movies I owned… I’d keep a list with dates, like a librarian or something.

When I moved on to college I tried to keep this up. I regimented a lot of things: I had a day when I did the laundry, a day when I cleaned my room, I scheduled my on-campus jobs at times when I knew I needed an excuse to be motivated and productive, like the first morning shift in the library so I’d be forced to get up early. But it was also in college that I had to start relinquishing some of the control in my life. It wasn’t a bad thing… it was more of a “chilling out” process and it happened for two reasons.

One: I studied abroad.

Two: I became very active with the international students, and realized, not everything and everyone in the world can be regimented. (sounds like a history lesson from the British empire…)

I got a brief taste of “relinquishing control” in France, but it wasn’t until I was in Kenya and India that “white girl with control issues” really slapped me in the face. For anyone who has ever heard of “African time” or “Indian time” you know exactly what I am talking about… stuff happens at a different pace. You can’t always accomplish everything you set your mind to in the time frame you set for yourself. I realized quickly that by “letting go” of my control I could enjoy myself more and be less frustrated and cynical. I watched other students for whom this realization came too late, or never came at all, and I saw them struggle. It was a painful process coming face to face with uncontrollable obstacles all the time and having to bang your head against the wall about it. This became even more pronounced when I later worked in South Africa with American students but South African staff. There were two different ways of thinking about and doing things, and being stuck in between and interpreting the other’s side for each was a bit maddening, but definitely a learning experience. (I’m of the opinion that you could pack up and send anyone overseas to a fundamentally different place and they would come back a changed person…)

plain cheap ubiquitous bic pens

Secondly, P later told me a story from one of the first few times we sat studying together. He asked to borrow a pen, so I gave him an extra pen. When we were done I nonchalantly asked for my pen back. He later told me he was really surprised by this. It wasn’t a special pen, it was probably one of those “dime-a-dozen” plain bic pens. It wouldn’t have been a big deal if he kept it and used it, but I asked for it back. It seemed kind of rude, as if I didn’t have twenty other pens exactly the same back in my room. I don’t remember the interaction specifically, but I’m sure I thought, “hey, he asked to borrow it not to have it, it’s mine, I have x number of pens in my desk, so I’d like it back. If everyone took my pen when they borrowed it, I’d have none!” That interaction initially made P think I was either kind of selfish or a control freak. (He also really likes pens. He has about a million of them.)

Yet as the years went on, I became less of a “control freak” and more laid back. I realized that “stuff” wasn’t all that important, but that people and relationships were. Helping someone out or lending someone something wasn’t that big of a deal—so what if I lost a few pens or a novel or two. And the world would not end if the laundry wasn’t done on laundry day, and dust bunnies collected under my bed.

I’m still a bit of a control freak about certain things. I love to organize, I like schedules, I am a “list person” (you should see all the sticky notes stuck to my computer monitor at work!) but I’m also more adaptable now then I was before. Someone ringing the doorbell randomly doesn’t throw me off for the rest of the night… so good thing we made three cups of rice instead of 2! Or finding out at lunch time that we will have a dinner party tonight for 8 people… no problem… I’ll just pop by the grocery store after work.

It’s nice to have things in moderation, a fine balance between organized and free spirited. Does that count for “chaltha hai” attitude? I think so, at least a little bit ;)

I’d pop in the video for the Bollywood song “Just Chill” but I don’t like the dance scene, or Salman Khan… but this just proves that there seems to be a  Bollywood song for every occasion!

Instead I’ll let you listen to Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” because that’s how I roll :)