Category Archives: American Family

A Weekend With My Dad

This weekend we took P’s parents to my home town, about a five hour drive from our New England abode. My dad, who spends most of his time in Vermont these days, was back at the old house for the week, and was able to host us on Saturday night.

There were a few reasons I wanted to take them to my home town. First I wanted to show P’s parents where I grew up. We currently live in a city, and P grew up in a city, but I’m a country girl at heart. I grew up in a wooded area, climbing trees and going on adventures in the woods with my dog. We spent a lot of time outside, riding our bikes, swimming, picking wild blackberries and raspberries and eating them off the bush, planting vegetable gardens (and eating cherry tomatoes and small cucumbers off the vine as well!) If was a pretty fun childhood.

I also wanted to bring them to visit my dad because I wanted my dad to have the opportunity to bond with P’s parents a little.

My parents are divorced, something that P told his parents early on (and for a little while reinforced P’s mom’s view that—“See Americans will divorce you!”). They have met my mom a few times (in 2005 my mom came to P’s graduation and met his dad, in 2008 they stayed at her house in Virginia for a weekend, and my mom stayed with us a few days before the wedding) and they like her a lot. She is very entertaining (bordering on showy sometimes), but she is a great person to have when there is awkward silence, because she fills the silence with idle chatter (or embarrassing stories, which was the case during the wedding weekend). She is very extroverted, and animated, and easy to get to know because she lays it all out there for everyone right away.

One reason that my parents are divorced is because they are very different people. My dad is opposite to her in nearly every way—where she is loud and boisterous; he is quiet and reserved; where she likes to hustle and bustle, be close to the action and the city; my dad is happy to sit on his own, do things at his own pace, and live in the wilderness apart from others; where she is carefree, extroverted, and easy to know; my dad is difficult to know, introverted, and relatively serious (unless you get to know him well, then his dry sense of humor comes out).

P’s parents know very few divorced people (practically none). My theory is that they probably assume that in a divorce situation one partner was essentially “good” and one was essentially “bad.” Now my parents’ divorce is very complicated (much too complicated to begin sorting out in a blog post) and there are good and bad things on both sides, but the basic assumption that one person was totally wrong and “bad” and the other was totally right and “good” doesn’t fit this situation in the slightest. However that was the schema that made the most sense to P’s parents. Although they never outright said anything, since they met my mother first, and she is so bubbly and entertaining, right away they assumed my mother was the “good one” (I could tell by the way they would ask about her, but never my dad). I tried to explain to them in 2008 that the divorce was complicated, and they were only seeing one side (my mom’s side), but I think it was difficult for them to understand.

P’s parents first met my dad in 2008 when they stayed with my mother in Virginia. He drove down from New York to attend a program for my younger sister, and my mother insisted that he attend the “P and C family meeting” at her house, on her territory. Although everyone essentially behaved themselves (no arguments, etc), it was a bit of an unfair advantage for my mom, and I’m sure my dad was uncomfortable and more awkward and happy to escape to his hotel room once the meeting concluded.

I remember we were all sitting on my mom’s back porch. My mom was filing in the silence with stories (I remember one such story where she was telling about meeting P’s cousin MK for the first time, and how MK kept having to take smoke breaks—now the family kind of knows that MK smokes, but it’s one of those “she does it in secret” and they “pretend not to know” type of deals. I was standing inside the kitchen looking through the sliding screen door motioning with my hands for her to stop the story, and she said, “Oh look, C is trying to get me to stop, ha ha, anyway—so then…”)

My dad sat there mostly in silence. I remember P’s dad looking at him, hopeful for some “father to father” chit chat, but P’s dad didn’t know what to say (I think P’s family was relying on my parents to guide conversation since P’s parents were shy of their English), and I don’t think my dad felt that comfortable speaking. Eventually I said, “Hey dad, why don’t you talk with P’s dad.” And my dad turned and said, “So, how about the weather?” and that was pretty much it for conversation.

This awkward situation probably didn’t help their vision about my dad. He looked serious, quiet, and tough looking. Prior to their 2008 visit, when they would call and talk to me, P’s dad always asked about my mother and sisters and told me to say hello to them, but never mentioned my dad. After the 2008 visit he rarely, if ever asked about my dad (but at least slightly more than before).

Likewise, at the rehearsal dinner, between my parents, my mother dominated conversation again. She is just better at it, more comfortable, she doesn’t mind if P’s parents don’t really understand what she is saying, it’s easier for her to chat then sit through silence.

At the wedding my mother was dancing up a storm—dancing with everyone, including P’s dad. My dad mostly stood with his relatives on the porch, drinking beers and catching up on stuff. It’s the age old introvert/extrovert dichotomy.

I felt my dad needed his time and space to adequately share his personality with the P family. A short weekend trip to his home seemed like a good idea.

I’m glad we did it, because I think being in my dad’s space and on my dad’s time helped a lot. My dad had the opportunity to share his hunting stories without being talked over (my mom would surely find an extended conversation about hunting boring and dull). I think P’s dad really liked the one about my dad being on a bear hunt, and having a giant grizzly bear itching it’s butt on a tree no more than eight feet away from my dad’s hunting perch. My dad decided not to shoot it (P’s dad: “You had a gun ready, pointing at the bear?”) because his friend had killed a bear the night before and they were going to split the meat, so my dad just watched this giant animal walk around, so close he could practically touch it. Or the story about crawling two miles through the grassy plains of Montana stalking elk. Or about hiking out of the northern Canadian woods in waist high snow dragging a sled with 100 pounds of freshly killed caribou meat (my dad had pictures of the caribou hunt to help visualize his story).

My dad made a “Central New York” dinner—grilled deer meat (and veggie burgers for me and Mamu), fresh local corn on the cob, salt potatoes and melted butter, and apple pie made with local apples. We sat on the screened in back porch listening to the crickets, while my dad talked about things he was familiar with or that he enjoys—like how to make maple syrup (while we ate homemade blueberry pancakes in the morning) and which trees in our backyard were maples, what New York is famous for, what vegetables are locally grown, how he built our house himself, etc (again, conversations my mother would have found totally dull, but P’s dad seemed interested to hear).

My favorite questions that P’s dad asked that night were, “Do you have lions and tigers in America?”

Dad: “No. But we have mountain lions, which are big cats out in the Western US [He went inside and came back with a hunting advertisement with a mountain lion on it to show P’s dad what it looks like and how big they can be.] We don’t have them around here.”

P’s Dad: “Do you have elephants?”

Dad: “Nope.”

P’s Dad: “Monkeys?”

Dad: “No monkeys either.”

(I liked these questions because these animals are “normal” for P’s family, but exotic for mine. For P’s family it’s kind of strange that we don’t have monkeys running around, where as my dad probably thought the question was from left field.)

They talked about the animals we do have—skunks, beaver, opossum, fox, porcupine, etc—and which were also found in Nepal.

I think P’s dad liked being in the countryside. He desperately wanted to see animals (my dad told him there were generally some turkeys and sometimes deer around. We showed him a salt lick that my dad uses to attract deer to his backyard). On the screened in back porch P’s dad said it was like being on a jungle safari in Chitwan National Park—looking down into the woods to find the rhinos from a high perch. He told me in the morning that he got up in the night to watch the “jungle” from the porch to see if he could spot any animals but sadly didn’t see anything.

I think it was a successful trip. I think they realize that I don’t have one “good parent” and one “bad parent” but two very different parents, with different interests, energy levels, and personalities.

I feel confident that once they go back to Nepal and we chat on the phone again, they will now ask about and say hello to my mom and my dad.

My dad and I taking P's family around the sights in town-- including the city harbor on the shores of Lake Ontario

P's mom and dad pose outside my childhood home

I’m a Little Late for Father’s Day, But…

I called my father yesterday to ask him a quick question. He is a pretty quiet, relatively serious kind of guy, not the type of person to engage in idle chit chat. He used to intimidate my friends in high school with his weather hardened face (from many years of working outside in the elements) and air of silence.

After asking my question he said, “I was just on the phone with India for two hours.” Not the kind of statement I would normally expect from him.

“What were you doing talking to India?” I asked.

“My laptop wasn’t working properly so I took it back to the store, but they told me I had to call HP and gave me the number. When I called I was routed to a number in India.”

“Oh,” I said, kind of expecting him to perhaps complain about outsourcing or how he couldn’t get his computer fixed right.

“The woman on the phone was nice, we eventually had to uninstall and reinstall all the software to get it working again. It took about two hours over the phone.” He said.

“How did you know you called India?”

“I figured it was somewhere else when I heard her accent so I asked. She said she was in Southern India.”

“Oh, Chennai? Bangalore? Do you remember?” I asked.

“I don’t remember the name, but I mentioned to her that my daughter was marrying a guy from Nepal in a few weeks. She said ‘Nepal is far from me. It is north of North India.’ And I told her, ‘I know.’”

Perhaps this is my dad’s way of getting excited about the wedding. It is absolutely uncharacteristic of him to strike up conversation with a stranger over the phone, let alone share personal details. I find it sweet that he was able to connect to this random South Asian on the other side of the world.

I guess I don’t give my dad enough credit. I underestimate his willingness to “go with the flow” with a lot of my “different” ideas.

I’m sure the things I am interested in are kind of weird to him. In personality and interests I’m not sure if I could be any more different: he’s a hunter, I’m a vegetarian. He’s a republican, I’m a democrat. He loves American football, I don’t really care for sports at all. I love to talk, he enjoys silence. He would probably rather live in a small cabin in the woods undisturbed by the rest of the world, while I’d rather be out exploring it.

When I first started to discuss our wedding ideas with him, I met him for a Subway sandwich at a mall halfway drive between central New York and Boston. Even then I fully intended on doing both the “white” and “red” weddings, and my mantra was still that I didn’t want to force anyone to do anything that would make them uncomfortable. I couldn’t imagine my dad feeling comfortable sitting barefoot under a mandap wearing a topi and participating in a Hindu marriage ritual. During our meeting I explained to him that the parents of the bride have more of an active role in the wedding ceremony, but that if he didn’t feel comfortable taking that on I would understand, we could find a proxy or something, no big deal. I’ll never forget what he said: “Of course if you want me to do this, I’ll do it. You just have to let me know in advance what I should be doing.”

My cousin told me that the last time she saw my dad he said, “I know I’m going to be barefoot and have a special hat” when she asked him about the Nepali ceremony. That brought a smile to my face.

Regardless of any of the debates/discussions, at the end of the day I very much appreciate my family’s willingness to go outside their comfort zones for me. Both on P’s side of the family and mine. I hope they know how much it means to me… to both of us.

Downton Abbey and My Great-Grandmother

This probably doesn’t have much to do with intercultural relationships, but I still thought I would share.

A few months back the local NPR station was advertising the PBS Masterpiece Theater program “Downton Abbey” (which was originally a BBC production) during one of their fund drives. I didn’t take much notice at that point, but then a blog I occasionally look in on about a British housewife in Kenya recently mentioned the series and was relating it to hired help in the Kenyan context. I looked it up and the program was streaming on Netflix, so I thought I’d take a look.

I admit, I enjoyed it, and wound up quickly watching all 7 episodes. The series centers on an aristocratic titled family in the English countryside two years before WWI, and the servants that live and work in their house. The program does a good job at going back and forth between the two perspectives (family and hired help) and the dynamics between them.

But I also had another reason for having an interest in it. The show made me think about my maternal great-grandmother known to the family as “Nanny.”

I never knew Nanny. She came to the US on a White Star Line ship in steerage from Ireland around the time that this film took place (1912-1914) and died a year or two before my parents married. My aunt tracked down the manifest at Ellis Island from the ship and saw her signature, age, and amount of money she was carrying (a few dollars).

She arrived in the US and stayed with a sister and eventually applied to an advertisement to be a cook—for one of the richest men in America at that time—JD Rockefeller. I’m not sure if she realized it at the time of application. Apparently before Nanny took the position there was a Swedish cook that had a hot temper, and one night lost it at the butler and chased him with a kitchen knife and was promptly sacked.

Rockefeller sent Nanny to cooking school, and she worked for him at his Kykuit Estate in Sleepy Hollow, NY for nearly 20 years before she decided to leave so that she could marry. By the time she had my grandmother (an only child) my great-grandmother was in her 40s (conversely my grandmother married at 19 and had seven kids before she was widowed in her 40s).

Probably about ten years ago my aunt (the same aunt who tracked down Nanny’s ship manifest) took me to Kykuit so we could do a tour of the estate. We bought tickets, and followed the group and guide through all the fancy rooms that the Rockefellers lived in, but my aunt and I really wanted to see the servants’ quarters and the kitchen, where Nanny spent most of her time. Although it was still interesting to see the house, and the artwork and the gardens, the tour didn’t let us see where the workers lived. My aunt pulled the guide aside near the end of the tour and explained about Nanny, telling the two famous stories from the kitchen from our family lore:

1)      That Nanny had personally baked Rockefeller’s 90th birthday cake in 1930.

2)      When Nelson Rockefeller (later the governor of NY) was a little kid he used to come down to the kitchen to watch the cooks. One time he insisted on helping Nanny make cookies so she gave him some dough, but he wasn’t patient with it, and played too much until it became stiff and inedible. However since JD was such a stickler for waste he insisted that Nelson’s cookie disaster be baked, and he had to eat the bad cookies from the kitchen. Not to mention that Nanny supposedly used to scold Nelson by threatening to hit him with a wooden spoon (something my grandmother also used to do, although she never did make good on the threat).

The guide graciously asked us to stick around after the tour and snuck us to the kitchens to see where Nanny used to rule as the head cook. It was pretty neat.

Downton Abbey gave me some insights into what life must have been like for Nanny in the kitchen. Granted, she wasn’t in England, but the robber barons of the gilded age were pretty much American aristocracy, and the kitchens were filled with Irish and other immigrants. There was even a side story in one of the episodes about the head housekeeper who was contacted by a former suitor from twenty years before, and she had to decide if she was comfortable leaving the household and being in the “real world” again, or if she should stay serving the family until retirement. My great-grandmother probably had that same dilemma at some point—I’ve worked here for 20 years, however if I don’t leave now I might never have a family. Should I stay or should I go?

And now eighty years later, here I am, a byproduct of her decision.

I think I’ve mention this before, but after 20 years of cooking Nanny was  “done” with fancy cooking, and so she didn’t teach my grandmother that many dishes, or really any fancy dishes that she must have learned going to a cooking school. In turn, my mother also didn’t learn any particularly special dishes from either my grandmother or great-grandmother, and I too, didn’t learn. Most of the food I know how to make now is P-inspired South Asian cuisine, or stuff I experimented with myself!

I also never realized that P and I actually have something in common. P’s grandfather also worked in an aristocratic household– as a driver (Family Tree), kind of like my great-grandmother the cook.

Ceremony Chronology

This is kind of funny—the other day I wanted to tell a story about exchanging wedding rings, BUT as I started, all these other contextual pieces began jumping in first to set the mood as to why my family has been a bit “sensitive” about how the American wedding is organized. I’ll get to the ring story eventually—but first another side tangent.

Besides the lack of Catholicism in our American wedding, another sticking point in this process is that the Nepali wedding is happening chronologically first. We are doing both ceremonies in the US during one weekend in July. The Nepali ceremony was planned for Saturday while the American one was planned for Sunday. There was a very practical reason for this—in the US the most popular day/time of the week to get married is Saturday night. Thus wedding venues used to Western style weddings often charge (a lot) more if you book on a Saturday.

Since South Asian wedding ceremonies can happen at any time of the week because they are generally based more on astrology than social calendars, there isn’t really the same type of extra price tag for a Saturday booking (assuming you are using a South Asian venue). By organizing the Nepali ceremony on the more “expensive night” of the weekend, P and I were able to save a hefty chunk of change that we could put towards other details, like food for the Nepali reception.

I don’t think my family necessarily sees the practicality in the timings, instead I think they see it as me privileging the Nepali culture over the American culture “yet again.” It will be “the first” wedding, all the marriage rituals will be “first,” I’ve even heard the criticism that people will be too tired during the American wedding because of the party for the Nepali wedding the night before… or even bored, because it will be the second wedding party. Some of these criticisms are probably petty, but it is a way to voice disappointment that I gave the honored “1st” spot to Nepal instead of America.

“You let the Nepalis do whatever they want, and always give us grief. You respect them, but don’t respect us. Instead we are always bending.” is the mantra I hear.

But I beg to differ. Since the Nepali wedding is happening in the US, there are already a lot of changes that have been made—1 day versus several ceremony/ritual days, fewer guests, less family, less formal, fewer traditions, in a place unfamiliar and less comfortable for P’s family. But my family doesn’t really see that—they assume that we are doing everything the way it would be done in Nepal, and no amount of explaining seems to get the message across that there is quite a bit of compromise on the other side as well.

So to save myself from going crazy, and venting too much to family, I’m venting to the blog. I apologize for all the wedding related posts (please tell me if it gets annoying), and I appreciate the feedback and positive energy. I’m actually not tearing my hair out (although it might sound that way), but it is nice to have a sounding board.

Sometimes a Church Just Doesn’t Feel Right

Our wedding has made life interesting the past few months. Sometimes I feel like a lot of the preparation has been a giant negotiation. We want everyone to feel included, and we want to make sure we cover the important cultural aspects of each of our “traditions,” but we also want to be true to ourselves. Because of this, I feel it has made planning the American wedding (in particular) all the more… “challenging.”

I come from an Irish Catholic family (on both sides), and even though not every one of my relatives is “religious,” they still have church as an important part of their lives (Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, weddings and holidays, if not most Sundays).

On the other side I have really struggled with faith (a WHOLE separate and long blog post), and because of this, church has not been an important part of my life. So when it came time to choose where to get married, I was pretty adamant that I didn’t want to get married in a church by a Catholic priest. I have nothing against that choice for others, but it didn’t feel right for me.

This revelation, as one can imagine, was quite upsetting to some of my family members. At least on my father’s side I am the third eldest cousin and several years ago my eldest cousin decided not to get married in a church, and broke that barrier (while her younger sister did marry in the church), on my mother’s side, I think I’m probably the first one in generations (and generations) not to be married in a Catholic church by a Catholic priest.

I think my grandmother doesn’t get it. I think for her and some of my other relatives it is hard to image what a “white wedding” actually is (or means) without a church and a priest. I’m sure they blame my parents—thinking they “did” something to me to make me turn against my faith, or somehow “raised” me wrong (so I can understand the pressure/criticism they have been under/getting, because of my choices). However it has nothing to do with my parents—again religious musings surely deserve its own post—but ultimately I think my relatives probably felt betrayed.

Here I was, claiming that I wanted to make sure both of our cultures were represented—AND I was willing to get married in a Hindu temple by a Hindu priest (blasphemy!) BUT I was throwing one of my family’s main wedding traditions—Catholicism—out the window. In one phone conversation with my aunt, as I reassured her that we were still doing a lot of American traditions: white dress, wedding rings, vows, first dance, cake, wedding party, etc, she said “If you throw out the priest and church, everything else is just cosmetic.” Ouch.

So I feel I have had to tread carefully when deciding on what details are important to include in the American side of our ceremony/reception and what not to. What battles am I really ready to fight for, and what am I willing to concede because the biggest thing of all—not doing it in a church, was finally hard won (although I think my grandmother is worried about my soul and that I might be going to hell, and thus won’t see me in the afterlife).

And not to confuse the situation further, but the third side of this is that I feel I have little control of what happens in the Nepali wedding—sure there are details to iron out like what to serve at the reception, making playlists of music, organizing a program for those unfamiliar with Hindu weddings, but mostly I am just as much along for the ride as some of the guests. It’s really P and his family that have a say in the Nepali wedding—including what I wear that day, and what traditions are followed, so it makes me all the more adamant to make the American ceremony “my own” in terms of personality and flavor. So there is this constant delicate balance between what I truly would love to have and what others expect, and what is a reasonable compromise between the two.

Anyway, this has colored everything from creating invitations (and insisting that even though it was tradition to include an image of Ganesh on Nepali invites, it was probably more politically correct to omit that detail for now), to what I wear (no I cannot put henna on my hands, even  though I think it would be fun and beautiful–technically it isn’t a Nepali tradition anyway, but a newer trend influenced from India and Bollywood– but none-the-less, because it may, according to my mom, “ruin” the “white wedding” photos, I’m not allowed to do it), to ceremony details… and my next topic—to Ring or Not to Ring.

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.

“Pashwa’s” Name

A quick post for a Friday afternoon…

Names… as the Christmas cards are coming in this year, I realized that everyone in my family has finally starting to spell P’s name consistently correct after more than 6 years. He used to get all sorts of variations, often with “Os” and “Zs” and “Ss” and “Hs” included (letters that he doesn’t have in his name at all!) For example, my dad used to write his name as “Pazz” for several years, while one of my favorite variations is “Pashwa” which my Grandmother still kinda calls him, along with my little cousins who honestly think this is his name due to her mispronunciation. It’s kind of cute and endearing, even if it isn’t correct. I always get a smile when I hear my Grandmother ask, “How’s Pashwa doing?”

The uniqueness of P’s name (in my culture) has helped to keep him a memorable character in the minds of my little cousins. Several are still at an age where it is challenging for them to remember the names of people they don’t see everyday. At Thanksgiving I was christened “Aunt Eileen” (wha?) since the little guy couldn’t initially remember my real name, but “Pashwa” they remember right away. They all want to sit next to him, hold his hand, chat with him (he even had to escort one to the bathroom at a restaurant!) When he walks in a room you can hear little kids yell “Pashwa!” while they run over to greet him.

I mentioned before that it took me a while to remember P’s real name. The first week or two I knew him I thought his name was Parajuli (another friend’s last name that is similar sounding). This was just the first in a long line of my family members butchering his name. Luckily he has an easily pronounceable last name, or my family would have been doomed to mispronouncing it forever.

But one of the funniest stories about his name comes from one of his initial conversations with my mother. It was around the same time he had the Christmas in Nepal conversation with her. We shared a ride home from school and he planned to stay a night with my family and meet them before we dropped him at the local airport for traveling home to Nepal. I had talked to my mother about him before, and she had seen his name written out but it didn’t register with her. It went something like this:

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 the way she expected him to answer the question. The look on her face was absolutely priceless. She was thinking something like Pierre 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.”

Poor guy.

I have one of those names as well, which is easily mispronounced by people unfamiliar with it. The mispronunciation isn’t as drastic as P’s but it still happens. I guess it runs in the family now. Just wait until we have hypothetical kids.

Christmas in December… Only!

Can I talk about a pet-peeve for a moment? Okay… (deep breath in, deep breath out).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a scrooge. I like Christmas a lot, I really do, particularly now that Christmas is representative of a family cultural tradition that never existed for P before, it has more meaning for me. I never felt that the holiday had a personal spiritual pull, but I can really embrace the cultural aspects of it. I try not to buy into a lot of the consumerism that surrounds the holiday, but I like different pieces of it… like Christmas carols, and cookie baking, and putting up my fake tree that sits in storage most of the year. I enjoy getting holiday cards and sticking them around the doorway in the living room like my Grandmother does…

Christmas *doesn't* need to be celebrated all year round...

But one thing that drives me bonkers every year is how early the Christmas “season” starts. I was really bothered when I walked into our local grocery store on October 31st and all the Halloween candy had been replaced with candy canes and red and green foil-wrapped chocolates. October 31st! They couldn’t even wait for Halloween to be officially over! The next day the grocery store replaced the pumpkins outside with little evergreen centerpieces with red and green bows, and not too long after that I saw Christmas trees being sold in an empty lot on my way home from work.

My sisters and my mother’s family are of the opinion that the Christmas “season” begins when Santa arrives at the end of the Macy’s Day Parade on Thanksgiving. As kids we used to watch it while at my grandmother’s house, and it was always very exciting to see Santa arrive. I’m fine with that… at least Thanksgiving is almost December. But October? Come on people.

I try to refrain from any Christmas celebrating (tree decorating, carol-listening, holiday parties, etc) in my house until December 1st. I’m happy to keep the Christmas season confined to one month, and only one month of the year. Otherwise I feel it is too much. I’m glad that I don’t work in retail… my sister who has a part-time job at a department store says they have been listening to Christmas songs for a month now, and in college I worked at a bookstore that had so much extra holiday stuff crammed in it was hard to walk around! At least we don’t have a tv so we don’t see a lot of the holiday advertisements in between programs.

P trys to help keep me to my promise of “Christmas in December Only.” Before we departed the apartment for our Thanksgiving roadtrip south he warned me that he hid the Christmas cds so I wouldn’t feel tempted, and when scanning the radio if I fell on a station playing carols we would move on to a different station. It’s not to be mean or un-festive, we are just trying to control how overblown the Christmas holidays have become. Let Halloween and Thanksgiving have their time and space, Christmas already has a full month.

It is hard to think of the Christmas season from the perspective of a family who never celebrated the holiday, but I would imagine for those who don’t celebrate it must get annoying when everywhere you turn there is something Christmas oriented, even if it is dressed up as “non-denominational holiday” festivities. It is truly hard to escape. However, I’ve grown up in a household that has fully embraced Christmas, so I even have a hard time imagining life without it.

For example: The first Christmas season that P and I were dating he came back with me from school so that he could meet my family before flying home to Nepal for his first visit in almost three years. My mother had a hilarious conversation with him, because she just couldn’t fathom a culture that didn’t celebrate Christmas. It went something like this:

Mom: “So, in Nepal-India, what do you do for Christmas?” (for a while she didn’t realize they were two separate countries).

P: “My family is Hindu, we don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Mom: “Yeah, but, you must put a tree up or something, right?”

P: “Nope, we are Hindu, so we don’t celebrate the holiday.”

(This goes on for a little while, with different pieces of Christmas iconography…)

Mom: “But you must have lights… I mean, everyone has lights… like in your window?”

P: “No… we don’t put up lights. We aren’t Christian, so we don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Mom: “But everyone puts lights! You don’t put lights for Christmas? Not even the stores? The stores must!”

P: (sensing my mom just couldn’t understand, he compromises…) “Well, maybe in some of the stores in the tourist district, but otherwise not really. A lot of people are Hindu or Buddhist, so most people don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Mom: (grasping on to something…) “ah, see that sounds right… at least the stores celebrate…”

So the point I am getting at is, December 1st has come and gone, thus officially opening the Christmas season in my house. This week the tree will go up and the carols will play. But don’t come knocking on my door November 3rd expecting any Christmas cookies!

Cranberries and Thanksgiving Dinner

I was chatting with S about Thanksgiving earlier today. P and I are going to travel south to visit family next Thursday for Thanksgiving but will stop over at R and S’s place for our usually visit. Since S’s parents are in the US this year for the holidays, R thought it might be fun to plan a Thanksgiving dinner on Black Friday when P and I are driving back north.

I asked what was on the menu, and S replied, “turkey.”

“What else?” I asked, “Sweet potatoes with the little marshmallows on top? Green peas and pearl onions? Mashed potatoes? Cranberry sauce?”

S: “I don’t like most of those.. but sure, I want to celebrate Thanksgiving…”

Me: “So what is your plan besides turkey… daal bhaat?”

S: “No… maybe you should be put in charge of making the other things since you know them…just make sure that they are not bland—like in typical Thanksgiving dinner—my parents don’t like that. We should use flavor, for instance we will have a Turkey, but it will have Nepalese spice on it… it will be different.”

Me: “Wouldn’t it be fun to make a real American Thanksgiving dinner? It would be a cultural experience.”

S: “Trust me they hate real American dinner… they had bad experiences.”

This makes me a bit sad. I’m always willing to try different food. I guess it is different with older people, but it still makes me sad. I don’t know if it is easier to make the jump from “bland” food to “spicier” food then the other way around, but (in my mind) a potato is a potato whether it is covered in garlic, salt and cumin or if it is mashed with butter.

Me: “I guess we could ‘Nepali-fy’ things… we could make mashed potatoes that taste like veg momo filling, and we could make green peas like mattar paneer.”

S: “Yeah, and we should skip the sweet potatoes… that will work.”

Me: “Well then, I’m still bringing the cranberry sauce… because even if you don’t eat it, I will!”

As I explained to S, there are two types of cranberry sauce. There is the sauce that is more traditional… more “sauce”-like and berry-filled… and well, then there is the “sauce” which is more like jelly. Growing up we would rotate Thanksgivings each year, so that some years we were with my dad’s family and some years we were with my mom’s.

More "traditional" cranberry sauce... see the berries?

My dad’s family is more “into” cooking. This was the side of my family where my grandmother baked an assortment of pies for the holidays, and lots of homemade snacks (cookies, doughnuts, etc) were made by relatives and brought to the gathering for people to munch on throughout the weekend. This side of the family also had the more “traditional” berry-filled cranberry sauce.

On my mom’s side, people aren’t really into cooking… which is actually kind of amusing. See, when my great grandmother (“Nanny” as she was referred to) first came to the US from Ireland, she just happened to come along at the right time and in the right place to land a job as a cook for JD Rockefeller at his estate near Tarrytown, NY. As the family story goes, the cook before Nanny was a Swede with a hot temper, and chased the butler with a kitchen knife. Rockefeller sacked her, and found Nanny. As part of her training she took cooking classes in New York City, and made Rockefeller’s 90th birthday cake. Anyway, by the time she left the position and married she was in her 40s, and when my grandmother (an only child) was born, I guess Nanny was just sick of cooking. Thus she didn’t pass on a lot of cooking skills to my grandmother, who in turn, didn’t pass on a lot of cooking skills to her seven children (including my mom). Holidays at their house are still filled with lots of food… but it is mostly store bought snacks.

I love it! Can you see the ridges!! And the "plopping" splatter?

One thing in particular that they always had was the store bought canned cranberry sauce, and for some reason I always loved it, and preferred this one to the “real” stuff. I get such a kick out of it… the “sauce” comes in an aluminum can and doesn’t really have any traces of “berry” anywhere… it’s a cranberry colored mushy-solid flavored jelly, that slides out of the can with a sucking sound and retains the can shape after being plopped on the plate… can ridges and all! After sliding the “cranberry sauce” out of the can, you kind of knock it over and then slice it up. I love it, I think it is hysterical, and tasty, even if it is just over-processed jelly.

Anyway… that is my Thanksgiving cranberry story of the day. You bet I’ll bring a can to S and R’s place!

Education Abroad

I have been working on this really boring project at work. Basically we are installing a new database program for management of international student files, and as part of the program prep I had to go through all of our students files and cross-check their addresses, then update the current system and convert their “local” address to a new special address form called “IN” and then switch their “permanent address” back to their foreign address—an ongoing battle—since other university admins have different definitions of what “permanent address” means and are forever changing it (If anyone touches my changes I will hunt them down!!!) With nearly 650 students, and working on the project by myself, as well as having to meet with students for regular appointments, it took me the better part of 3 ½ weeks to complete. Today I finished the “Z’s” and I now realize just how many students have last names that start with “L,” “M,” “S,” “W,” “Y,” and “Z” (thank you China).

OnPointAnyway to keep myself sane while working on this (besides taking occasional breaks to peek at blogs) I have been listening to a lot of NPR (I could go on and on and on and on about the love I have for NPR, especially for WBUR, the awesome Boston NPR station I listened to before I even moved to New England). In particular I’ve been listening to archived broadcasts of one of my favorite programs, “On Point with Tom Ashbrook” (and no… he’s not my favorite just because his wife is also an international student advisor who I have done visa workshops with, but because he is totally awesome.)

Anyway, as I was finishing the “Z’s” today I started listening to an archived broadcast from back in July called “Global Students” and the intro on the website that caught my attention was this:

Everybody knows the straight and narrow, up-and-out formula for American success: good grades, good scores, good college, big debt … good luck.

My guests today, Maya and Tom Frost, say forget it. There’s a better way, they say. And the path leads abroad — early.

Stay home studying for SATs and taking on college debt, and you’re guaranteed nothing in this topsy-turvy economy. Go abroad — as early as high school, especially for college, they say — and you’ll find low tuitions, big adventures, and the future.

This hour, On Point: A new American way in the world. Going global, right from the start.

I really enjoyed the program and felt that these parents reflect a lot of my own feelings about education abroad. So I wanted to make sure I shared the program with you all. Feel free to listen to the streaming podcast HERE… it’s only 45 mins long.

When I was a kid I was dying to study abroad. I found out about the Rotary Youth Exchange program in high school and contacted the local chapter. My parents “went along with it” for a little while (probably hoping I’d lose interest or chicken out) until I started filling out applications to spend a year abroad. I think they were horrified (especially since I am the oldest sibling, so perhaps the “overprotective” parent syndrome was in full effect)… “you are too young!” “we only get to spend x amount of time with you before you go off into the world, we would rather you stay home…” “it is too expensive… we can’t afford it…” basically any excuse/explanation under the sun that they could give me to dissuade me from going. I applied to the program anyway, and once accepted my parents refused to pay anything and contacted the local Rotary coordinator to tell them to stop encouraging me to do something they refused to allow. Instead, one of my best friends in high school who found out about the program through me applied and spent a year in Hungary. I was so jealous.

Then I found out about the amazing school program called the “United World Colleges.” I was encouraged to apply through a leadership program I was involved in, and I was ecstatic. This was the very type of educational program I was interested in… I sent off my application (are you noticing a pattern?) and again my parents refused. They wouldn’t allow me to go to the required interview and thus I was automatically disqualified. It didn’t matter that I could get a full scholarship to go to the school, or what educational opportunities might have come out of it. As a university student I ran into other “UWC” students and I couldn’t help but wonder what high school would have been like if I was encouraged rather than discouraged to do these sorts of programs.

me_and_Maasai_woman

Yes, I am a total study abroad geek. This is me and my Maasai homestay "mother" in rural southern Kenya. I was living with the community (staying in the mud and cow dung huts behind) and dressed in traditional Maasai clothing for an age-set graduating ceremony. I was also thoroughly burnt to a crisp at the end of the day.

When I had my first chance, and my parents didn’t have too much control over my choices, I signed up right away to study abroad… second semester freshman year I was off to France (and Senegal in West Africa). Ever since then I have been eager to jump at any international opportunities I can find. I love everything about traveling… the planning, the prep work, the plane ride (even the plane food, believe it or not), the new experiences, the language, the food, the culture, the eye opening exchanges… everything!! (need I go on?) I’ve made international education a career… and I am even completing a master’s degree in the field.

Anyway, I guess I can kind of understand my parents concerns… here was this wacky high school kid, full of enthusiasm to travel to some unknown possibly scary or dangerous place. I grew up in a sheltered little town, what did I know about the world? They must have thought I was crazy.

But regardless, I have connected with the world in my own way… through travel, through my work with international students, through my intercultural relationship, through my interest in reading world literature and armchair travel books, the list goes on… I hope to continue feeling this passion for “global knowledge” and I hope to be the kind of parent interviewed in the On Point broadcast. I just hope I don’t wind up with kids who hate to travel… then what will I do?

So check it out if you have the time… or if you are working on a boring project and need a distraction… or if you are making dinner, or whatever your reasons might be.