Tag Archives: Intercultural Relationships

Gori Watching Part I

During the Bratabandha weekend P and I spent two full days hanging out at his relative’s house. The first day was more of a “prep” day. Nepali friends and family members were frantically cooking; there was a group of women monopolizing the kitchen—cutting cauliflower and onion, tossing fried noodles, and peeling potatoes—while a second group was stationed in the garage making stacks of beautiful sel roti. I was the sole Caucasian guest mingling in the crowd, and although I offered to help cook, or even just chop vegetables, there were too many seasoned experts and eventually P and I found ourselves on kid duty, playing tag, “duck, duck, goose!” and “Go Fish!” (which we Nepali-fied into “Macha!”)

Confession time: I have to admit that I have grown very comfortable being the only Caucasian around. Being the resident “American” has kind of become my niche to the point where sometimes, while in a group of other Caucasian-Americans, I feel a little lost, like I’ve lost my “specialness,” my major point of identity. Perhaps that’s why I feel myself playing up the Nepali side of me in an American crowd, so I can feel different and comfortable again. Does that sound weird? Do others sometimes feel the same way?

The following day, I figured that I might meet some non-Nepali friends of the family at the Bratabandha/after party, but I was a little surprised to see other Nepali-American couplings. By day’s end there was a total of four.

Other South Asian-Western couples I’ve met online have discussed “the Gori Gaze” before. Perhaps you find yourself at a restaurant, and a few tables away you spy a South Asian-Western couple, or maybe you bump into one on an airplane or at a shopping mall. You imagine what their story is—perhaps projecting on the westerner parts of your own experience. You can’t help but size the other couple up—does she look more “into the culture” than you? Can she speak the language? Part of you wants to walk up and introduce yourself, swap phone numbers, facebook names, or give them a high five. Maybe another part of you just wants to keep to yourself.

The morning of the Bratabandha was chilly—only about 40 degrees (F), and I had packed a thin sari expecting better weather. Groups of people stood together in the garage where the head shaving was due to take place. We watched as P’s cousin razored the two Bratabandha boys down to a clean, close shave. A few moments later I noticed a white woman dressed in a warm coat and a pair of slacks—smarter than me, since I was shivering in my sari—walk up the drive way holding the hand of what I presumed to be her eight year old daughter and ten year old son. They mingled in the crowd as well, checking out the puja staging area and chatting with the women who were putting the finishing touches on the cauliflower curry dish for lunch. The woman looked about ten or fifteen years older than me, light brown hair, and fair complexion, while her kids had brown hair had a tanner skin tone. The little girl was dressed in a salwaar kameez. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were Nepali-American.

The woman moved around like she was familiar with the house and the cooking women who were local Nepali, so I was hoping she might approach me as the out-of-towner, but instead she moved into the house. A few minutes later I went inside to grab a cup of steaming chia to thaw and saw her sitting on the couch with her daughter, looking through a coffee table book about Nepal, and talking about the pictures with some authority. I lingered on the edge of the living room, hoping to catch her attention, but she didn’t acknowledge me, so at first I thought that maybe she wasn’t interested. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was put off by me being trussed up in a sari, tilari, and bindi?

I moved outside and wandered to the second puja staging area under a tent in the back yard. The pandit was preparing the wood for the small fire under the mandap, and another Nepali man was helping him make the arrangements. The white woman’s son was hanging around too, asking questions to the man, before scampering off. After a few minutes the Nepali man looked up and smiled, “You look very nice in sari. Is your husband Nepali?”

He had picked up on my wedding tilari, a clear signal that I wasn’t just a friend dressed up in a sari to watch the event. I nodded yes.

“Have you been to Nepal?” he asked.

“Yes, three times.”

“Nice.” He said, “My wife has been too. She lived there for four years.”

“Is that your wife inside?” I asked, and he indicated yes. “I wanted to talk to her, but she looked busy.”

“You should go talk to her, her name is Jenny*.”

*name changed, for privacy.

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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.

A Shout Out to Two People in Philly (AKA another post about how the Nepali world is very small)

(Just to try and clear up confusion… I think everyone knows P and C, U= P’s brother. T= Nepali guy in Philly, Z= American girl in Philly. I= me, it’s not another character)

About two months ago, while P was in Nepal, I received an excited call from P’s brother U who lives in a suburb of Philadelphia. He was thinking of moving and was looking for a roommate, and had placed an ad on Craigslist.

It just so happens that a Nepali guy responded to U even though they didn’t know the other was Nepali at the point of initial contact. Once the coincidence of nationality was out of the way, they thought it was interesting that they had lived not too far away from each other for the past year or so, but didn’t know the other was around. Eventually they started telling each other about themselves. The other guy (let’s call him “T”) also had an American girlfriend, so U mentioned that his brother had an American girlfriend and that “P and C” were planning to get married in July in Massachusetts. T and his partner (we’ll call her “Z”) were also planning to get married in the summer as well. They chatted about some other stuff, and parted ways, thinking that they might move in together as roommates.

T tells Z about his conversation with U, and some of the details about U’s brother and his American girlfriend sounded kind of familiar… C and P, Nepali and American weddings on July 9th and 10th in MA, etc. It just so happens that Z occasionally reads my blog and asked T to check with U to see if his brother’s girlfriend blogged, and if so was she “AmericaNepali.”

So that was already a pretty neat connection, but then it gets even more interesting…

Shortly thereafter, unfortunately, there was a family emergency and T had to unexpectedly travel back to Nepal. P was still there, and hadn’t yet heard about the conversation between me and U. One day while P was traveling in the city, someone mentioned T’s family to P (which he didn’t personally know) and asked if he would like to travel to T’s house to pay respects to the family.

P arrives and T realizes that this is U’s brother P… the P from the blog. So he says, “I know you, you are getting married to C in Massachusetts on July 9th and 10th…” and explains how he knew U from Philly, and that his American girlfriend Z reads my blog. P thought he had a great story (I’m always giving him grief about never having good stories), so he excitedly calls me from Nepal that evening and starts telling me about a guy he met in Nepal who was going to be roommates with U, etc etc etc. I said, “Oh yeah, I know…” and explained the rest. He was surprised I knew the story, and was bummed I ruined a good story that he finally had to tell.

So Memorial Day weekend (two weekends ago), P and I traveled to Philadelphia to help U move, and he thought it would be nice to organize a dinner at his house between me, P, U, T, and Z.

I’ve met a small number of fellow bloggers (Big Bad Blond Bahu, Gori Girl, Gori Wife Life), but I had never met someone who found me through a google search before. It was neat to talk to someone for the first time who already knew a lot of my backstory, and it was equally interesting to hear her backstory too. Due to the situation that originally caused T to travel to Nepal, she and T will be moving to Nepal soon (instead of moving in with U) and staying there for at least the next year. I hope, if she is interested in documenting her experiences online, that she might be willing to share some of her experiences with us as well (either in guest posts or on her on blog).

So I wanted to make a quick shout out to T and Z in Philly, and reiterate yet again, how small the world can be when you meet other Kathmandu-ites around the world :)

Eating With My Hand

Sara at A Little of That Too, as a student of psychology, has been working on a Gori Racial Identity Development Model. Although the exercise is a bit tongue-in-cheek, I think a lot can also ring true in this potential model.

So far her development stages include 1) “Pre-Partnership” (aka “normal”), 2) “Courting South Asia” (aka “omg my eyes are opened to this AMAZING culture!!”), and 3) “Re-immersion” (aka “oh yeah, I used to like that”), with several more steps to follow.

She was looking for some stories, which made me think of something—

When I first started dating P a lot of things were new. Language, food, music, clothing, religion, holidays, points of view. Some of these I embraced right away—curries, spices, cooking—others not so much: have I mentioned my Nepali skills are still pathetic?

One thing that I embraced relatively quickly was eating with my hand– or I should clarify, eating wet foods like curry, rice, daal, etc, with my hand (I guess you can call this phase 2—courting South Asia).

The first summer we were together I was living in an apartment with 3 Nepali guys. We would take turns making dinner, and eat together at the table each night. Not long after moving in one of our Nepali friends took away my fork and insisted that I eat with my hands. “The food tastes much better this way!” he insisted (something I’ve heard again and again). At first it was mostly a joke—pick on C and see if she could eat without making a mess, but eventually it was more about feeling comfortable eating that way, and learning the way that they did it. It wasn’t long before they didn’t have to take the fork away; it was my decision not to use it.

School started and I was back to my old ways of eating at the university cafeteria, but when we would cook in the International House kitchen late at night, I could pull out my “yeah, I’m a white girl, but I can eat with my hand just like you” skill, which felt particularly satisfying when sharing food with other non-Nepalis, like I was “in the club” because I knew the “better way,” the “more authentic way” of eating this type of food. It was the same type of pride I still feel when I get compliments on my momo wrapping skills.

The second summer we were back in an apartment—3 Nepali guys and I, sharing the cooking duties and eating with our hands. That spring P’s dad had come for his graduation and he stayed with us a few nights at the apartment before traveling to visit other relatives. When we all sat together to eat, P’s dad asked one of the boys to get me a spoon, but P explained that I knew how to eat with my hand—again a source of pride, my skill had been unexpected. This would come back to haunt me my first night in Nepal, when nerves made me eat so slowly with my hand that I was demoted to a spoon.

Not such a flattering picture of P, eating daal-bhat with his hand at a Phakding guest house during our Solukhumbu trek in 2009

The semester after that summer I studied in India, and felt like a rockstar when I was able to show off my hand eating skills the first few days we were in Delhi to my American colleagues. They wanted me to show them “the right way” to do it so that they would also look competent and “in the know” when staying with local families and eating dinner. In a silly way it made me feel more “cultured” and more prepared, like I had an extra “in” with South Asia.

At some point after I returned from the trip and after being demoted to a spoon in Nepal, I just stopped doing it. I don’t remember when, or why, it just lost its appeal. I didn’t like that the turmeric tinged my finger nails yellow and that my hands would smell more strongly of onions and garlic even after washing them. It was like all of a sudden I didn’t have to prove that part of my “in-ness” with people any more, and it allowed me to “see” that I didn’t really want to eat with  my hands all the time. Where I once enthusiastically dug in fingers first at home with P, I now grab a fork or spoon.

It’s not that I stopped eating with my hands entirely—I’m still a voracious momo eater with my hands, but I just don’t feel I have to anymore. Even in Nepal, I often ate with a spoon during our visit in 2009, unless I was visiting another family’s house, in which “American eating with her hand” was a surprise revelation.  So I guess that means I’ve transitioned in this regard to phase 3—Re-Integration to my fork using world.

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.

“Marrying Out”

National Geographic this month has a short article on “Marrying Out” as part of their continuing series on population. It briefly highlights that marriage demographics are changing in the US (using Barak Obama as an example– when his mother married in the early ’60s only 1 in 1,000 marriages were between someone of African descent and a Caucasian, however now it is 1 in 60).

[Nat Geo article pdf]

The article visually represents different spouse pairings, and explains that black women are least likely to intermarry while Asian men are second least likely. (hmmmm!)

The information is based on a report by the Pew Research Center by the same name with the tag line, “One-in-Seven New US Marriages is Interracial or Interethnic.” I haven’t had the chance to read the report yet, but I thought I would share.

It’s kind of reassuring. I started this blog because sometimes I felt like I was the only one who had cross-cultural issues. Sometimes when I talk to my family, they make me feel like the only one in the world who wants a bi-cultural household, or wants to organize two weddings to highlight different cultural traditions, or wants to learn another language– but you know, we are not alone. And it feels good.

The Differences between White American and South Asian Parents

I know that a lot of readers of this blog probably troll a lot of the same material that I do, so perhaps this is redundant, but I thought it was a nice post and wanted to give it an extra shout out.

Sara at A Little of That, Too was responding to Casey at White Girl in a Sari‘s post about “Being Accepted by Family in an Intercultural Relationship.” Sara had quite a bit to say, and it sparked another post back on her page, and I found her comparison nicely laid out. From what I have gleamed, Sara is also a phd student in psychology– which I think helps with her analysis!

If you have time I recommend checking out the post: “White American and South Asian Parents.”