Don't Indianize me...

12:06 PM

My friend Alexandra from the blog "Madh Mama" just wrote an excellent piece about loosing yourself in your spouse culture, that you all must read. This is something people who are in intercultural relationships, women in particular can all relate to.

The interesting thing, is that very topic has been on my mind a lot over the past few weeks. Mostly because some people keep thinking that just because I married an Indian man, I MUST do my damnest to be as Indian as possible. A lady I met recently even assumed that because I delegate the tiffin box cooking to my maid, it means I don't know how to cook Indian food. After 11 years in the country, that wears really thin. Nobody questions an Indian woman for having help in the kitchen.

What's more, it seems that some people are only really interested in how Indian a foreigner is in India. When ironically, the Indian diaspora abroad is known to cling to their own cultural values and work hard recreating a mini-India wherever they go.
In brief, if you are Indian abroad, you need to stay as Indian as possible. But, foreigners living in India are to adapt to India and if possible become more Indian than Indians.
I don't know about you, but how twisted is that? To be frank, I don't mind when people from India hold to their cultural heritage abroad. I never felt the urge to go and ask them "So do you cook western dishes?" Or ask a saree clad lady "Have you ever tried to wear jeans" or "Why do you not celebrate Christmas?".

Yet, I get asked these reverse questions ALL the time : "Do you cook Indian?" If it is not plain old "Can you cook?".
"Do you like to wear sarees, or salwaar suits" or "Why don't you do Puja for Indian festivals?".
With the added bonus questions related to parenting since I have a child.
Basically I am on perpetual interview that will help whoever asks determine how much I belong. Often as per standards that do not even apply to the modern urban dwelling Indian woman of my generation.

In many ways, the message that seem to transpire is that the West is less good, than India. The West is not worth learning about, just good enough to make big bucks and returning home. Foreigners that left the West probably did because they were having a crappy life and looking for a cultural upgrade.

This is sadly not even close from the truth. India is just not used to be a land of immigration. But, expats are coming to India, not just for love, not just for the ashrams, yoga and spiritual fix. There is a solid percentage of people that come here to work, on short to medium term assignments. Because they got sent by their company abroad to India. Just like Indians get sent abroad by theirs.
Some, will only work there a couple of years. Some will hang around longer. Some will get to know their soul mate in India, get married and stick around for life. We are a world that is going global, these scenarios will happen more and more.

After living in India for over a decade, let me tell you were I stand. I married my husband for him, not his nationality, not his culture. He loves me for who I am, and I love him for who he is. For all I care, he could come from another planet. I did marry the man, not his culture. His culture is part of the package but it is not all of it. If DH wanted a perfect Indian woman who dresses Indian, cooks Indian, breathe Indian and behaves an archaic form of Indian he would have married one.
He didn't, so how ironic is it that people assume I must turn Indian to be perfect and a good wife? My choices clearly don't matter, but apparently neither do his.

When it comes to our daughter, there is that expectation from those who don't know any better that she needs to be Indian and that it is my job to ensure that.
Well no offence, but I did. I grunted and screamed and pushed her out of my birth canal on Indian soil, and her father is an Indian national that ensured she has herself an Indian passport. So, do not worry about her being Indian, because she is. Her papers say so. She goes to school in India, she is surrounded by Indian culture in her daily life. So, please don't tell me that just because I decide to feed her Swiss cheese and continental dishes I am insulting her heritage.
The way I see it she is half and half, and it is not my job to teach her about Indian culture. My half of the heritage matter as much as the other half.

I married an Indian, but I am not Indian. I made India my home, just like many Indians made the US or Europe theirs, complete with their cultural baggage. So, don't Indianize me against my will. This is neither fair nor respectful to anybody.
Being a world citizen means you take from many culture, and blend them. It makes one a richer person, in every ways.

Just look at me. I can cook Indian food as well as I do continental cuisine. I'm not bad at cooking Chinese and pan Asian dishes either. I know how to eat with a fork and knife, my hands and chopsticks. I know how to say Thank you in quite a few languages because my parents told me if one must learn only one word in a foreign language it must be this one. I can wrap a saree and know how to wear an evening dress. I know which dress code applies where in both European situation as well as Indian ones. I know how to prep my home for both Diwali and Christmas and how to be a good hostess to Indian guests and Western guests alike. I travelled a lot as a kid and teenager and got exposed to a lot of different cultures early.

Those who choose to see me for who I am, know these things, and love me for them, and this is the vast majority I am talking about. If all you are interested in is my degree of Indianess you are missing a whole lot of me don't you think?

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  1. Hey Cyn,

    "The way I see it she is half and half, and it is not my job to teach her about Indian culture. My half of the heritage matter as much as the other half."

    SO true, if anything people should be encouraging you to teach your daughter your culture seeing as she is immersed in India! I seriously don't get it.

    Blending cultures is so beautiful, trying to bulldozer over someone else's culture because it is not your own is offensive! People really should be encouraging people to hold on to their roots whilst appreciating their spouses culture, not pretend it doesn't exist!

    From what I have seen, you are doing very well at blending!


    I think next time you are faced with this you should ask why they are not wearing jeans seeing as they are speaking to a Swiss woman :P or some other come back lol xx

    1. I think I should start asking embarrassing questions :-)
      But then again, that is not the very polite thing to do.

  2. YES YES YES. No words other than so powerful and love it!

    1. Thank you :-)
      I loved your blog post too. The part about how people liked your post about tiffin cooking more than they liked your first magazine article spoke volume. People just expect us to only write about India related topics all the time when we are foreigners with ties to India.

  3. hey.. i could agree a lot to whatever you mentioned Cynthia.. especially below line.. seems hilarious because Indians create a mini India wherever they go, observed this a lot, but they want foreigners coming to India to leave their western culture and adapt to Indian.
    "In brief, if you are Indian abroad, you need to stay as Indian as possible. But, foreigners living in India are to adapt to India and if possible become more Indian than Indians. "

    1. Once when I was living in Bangalore, this lady kept talking about her experience in the US and how she loved how easy it was to find things to cook India cuisine in her area, and how tolerant people were about different cultures and she never had a problem being Indian. I have no experience with the U.S. but I agreed with her that even in Europe it was similar.
      Next thing you know, she ask me "Why don't you wear Indian dresses, you should do it more often".

      Wha-at? And what was this whole speech about how lovely it was to be able to stay Indian abroad?

      I remember telling her it didn't feel practical to me to wear ethnic all the time and left her at that.

  4. The last time I was in Delhi I wore a salwar kameez to shop at the City Select indoor mall in Saket (a very popular mall). Twice I was stopped by Indian women (one a fellow shopper & one a sales associate at Sephora) - whom both complimented me on my attire & thanked me 'for representing India so well by wearing Indian clothes'.
    I smiled & said 'thank you' politely.
    So now a gori wearing a salwar kameez in India's national capital is representing India?
    I suppose they meant well.

    1. I think they meant well, but the irony is that they thing a foreigner wearing ethnic is the best representing of India.
      Another thing that is funny is that these aunties only think about India in matter of what you wear and how you cook. There are so many Indian women who don't wear ethnic wear and are no less Indian for it.

  5. Anonymous8:20 PM

    I was introduced to this blog and several other such blogs through Sharrel Cook's blog. I found a foreigner's perspective of India quiet fascinating. Blog writing is still a new thing in India and so people are curious about it. Writing about one's life in public space is even more rare. Not quiet an Indian trait I guess. So, these blogs are intersting. India is a labryinth, maze which even Indians are afraid to traverse. That makes a foreigner's journey more fascinating or should I say thrilling. Has she got it right? Yes, she has!! It is like watching a new driver at the steering wheel and how well he negotiates the bends. We rejoice the sucesses of the blog writer and feel dejected by her frustations.

    Foreing women are also uniquely placed to do things which Indian women cannot like breaking the hierachy. For eg., Alexandra established a good relationship with her MIL through sheer hard work and perservernce. Yes, she had to make a lot of effort but in the process she freed her MIL of her insecurities. They are like two women and not rivals. There are many Indian MILs/DILs/Men who think after reading this "I wish this could happen in my home". This happened because the foreign DIL looked at the entire relationship in a refreshing manner or should we say that she was uniquely placed to do so. In India this can rarery happen because we dare not step out of our stereotypes lest we loose control. I know there are other factors which made this happen in Alexandra's case but I tend to see the positive side of it. Her blog represents hope that things can work out and evokes certain respect for her for the effort that she has invested in her relationships. Her packing tiffin for her husband was also a sign of her love which we appreciate.

    Similarly, when we see Lauren wearing sari and performing those rituals the only thing that come out of our mouth is "Wow, she looks so beautfiful". The way she has effortlessley adopted the Indian way of life is beautiful. Yes, we Indians like when a foreigner adopts the Indian way. Perhaps, an endorsement of the fact that there are lots of things beautiful in India which need to be perserved. It does not matter where the message comes from as long as it comes.

    I believe that beneath the debris of exploitation, patriachy, mysongy etc. Indians are romantic people who are forever searching for perfect human beings like our mythical characters. The search for the elusive "domestic goddess" who is the custodian of family tradtions, holds the family together and nurishes them, continues. Perfect Man like Ram (well almost), Wife like Sita, Brother like Lakshman, Devotee like Hanuman, perfect parents, perfect teacher, perfect everything. In reality, we continue with the cycle of repression and call it our search for perfection. Our search for perfection has created a giant cess pool of bitterness handed down over generations like ancestoral property. It is time we abandon this search for our own good.


    1. You are right, this search for perfection has to end :-) because perfection doe not exist.
      What I think is a problem is when Indins go abroad, they stick to their traditions, customs and are often not willing to interact much with the people of their host country, or adopt any of the local culture. In Europe and US we are widely fine about it, we don't expect people to drop everything to belong. Europeans have a big fascination for cultural diversity.
      The same type of Indian who refuse to try anything new abroad, is also ironically the type who think foreigners in India should completely adapt to India's culture, dress code, age old tradition and diet, with no middle ground.
      When the foreigner happens to be married to an Indian there is even less concession for foreign culture from that type of people.
      definitely no longer a majority in urban areas, I found that a vast majority of people around accept the whole package and are as interested in my familiarity with Indian ways as they are with my being a real foreign culture representing person who can shed light on what is like a road for real and not just on TV.

      As for MIL issues, we all have them. My friends I. Switzerland have them too, maybe not as extreme as what you tend to see with Indian MILs but not everything is rosy. Alexandra is one of the few ladies in the masala couple community who has such a great relationship with her MIL, many have the same type of average relationship with theirs that you would find in a Western MIL just the same. And a few of us have MILs who still won't warm up despite us trying. Probably because the bitterness passed down from generations has cumulated into too big a pool for things to ever work out. I know this is the case with my own MIL, she could let go and embrace the change and refreshing new perspective, but it probably scares her to do it, because it would put everything she knew and was used to back into perspective and force her to look a certain things within herself she might not be ready to face.
      I also know Indian women who have awesome relationships with their own MIL, MILs who have completely accepted their DILs and the fact that times are changing and that they can't expect their sons and DILs to do things the old traditional way. There is one lady in my neighbourhood whose MIL was a traditional lady, saree wearing married woman, aspiring to be the perfect housewife. When she saw her son marry for love and bringing his wife in the household, she was very open minded, she never forced any dress code on her DIL or way of cooking or anything. Over the years the MIL decided that if her DIL could go around wearing different types of outfits and socialise with all kind of people, so could she. She decided to give Indo-western wear a try, and broke the established norms of her community. 10 years later, the two still live together in a joint family that works. Both son and DIL work, the MIL takes care of the kid when they are working.

  6. Anonymous4:59 PM

    Amen. Just amen. I am back home right now. On one hand this made me want to stay home for longer, but on the other hand to go back and fight for my rights.

  7. What's even sadder is that many of us foreigners get asked these same questions by other foreigners married to Indians. It's also become sort of a competition for some to see who has conformed more to the Indian culture and become the more loved DIL. That saddens me the most.

    1. Oh yes! This is extremely sad, and disturbing. Though, I noticed the foreigners that are into this the most are the ones who live outside India and rely on what the Indian diaspora abroad tell them. Not even really realising that like all expats said diaspora has lost touch with whatever is current in their country of origin. The Indians living abroad usually are sticking to old fashioned and uber traditional ideals, especially the old generation.
      And sadly this is these old aunties that have become the ultimate source of Indian culture knowledge for these ladies new to it.

  8. Welcome to India! And no, I'm not proud of it. In fact, it probably bugs me as much as it does you too. The Indian society has never quite warmed to the 'live and let live' or 'let's not poke our noses into someone else's life' philosophy. They like asking uncomfortable questions which in retrospect, speak more about their stupidity than anything else.
    Of course, the other side of this coin is that when Indians (yes, I'm generalising - exceptions are always there) go abroad, we create a mini-India there. So really, we're great at not practising what we preach. I did briefly touch on this on my last post, which was a letter to my son.

    Out encounter via Twitter was accidental, but I'll be coming back to your blog for the fresh perspective that you offer.


    1. I'm really glad the Twitter accidental meet occurred, your blog is offering a very refreshing persoective view on parenting too.

      And you are right, the art of "Live and let live" is lost on many over there. Not all of course, but quite enough to prompt that blog post above.

  9. Anonymous4:10 AM

    "India is just not used to be a land of immigration." Some people say Indians have a village mentality, which is not surprising considering millions haven't travelled even in their native state.

    I spent some holidays recently with my mixed race child in a small Swiss village, and we got quite a few questions and comments... but I enjoy chatting so I didn't find that annoing ;)

    1. The little Swiss villages aren't even that comfy with big towners that are all Swiss :-) So I totally know what you mean. There is a difference between asking a few questions, and making assumptions or trying to correct someone's else life based on stereotypes.

      In the case of the lady who found out my maid cooks lunch for my husband, she was horrified and immediately jumped to conclusion by saying "You come to my house I teach you how to cook". She never asked me if I could cook, what I could cook, or even asked me why I delegate the cooking to the maid, To her it was clear to the start that as a foreigner I wasn't good at cooking and took the lazy approach.
      I found that the questions in India are often very loaded compared to the genuinely curious questions asked across Europe.
      I think what I am trying to say is that in Europe questions are usually motivated by a desire to know more, while in India many people just ask them in order to validate a preconceived idea they already have.

  10. Your comment about Indian living abroad is very on the point. Right now we live in a US town were around 50% of the population comes from India. In summer it's not uncommon for me to be the only women not wearing a Kurta at the american grocery store.

    A lot of young Indian couple who live here would probably love to be more integrated into american society but to be honest keeping the Indian traditional lifestyle (high involvement in children, in-law's visiting 6 to 8 month a year, different diet and thousands of festival preparation) makes it nearly impossible for most. Surprisingly I find that elder indian-american are much more open to build ties out of their own communities, probably because with age they do not have to worry about shame anymore.

    1. Exactly, Indians living abroad usually stay true to their cultural heritage as much as practicality allows it. So I find it incredibly funny if not irritating at time that some people here in India question my lack of indian-ness especially since my husband is Indian.

      I get those comments more from older ladies (aka aunties) and ladies who come from a more traditional family over here.


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