This is Part II of my mini-series about my experiences in visiting India.
I have the opposite of stage fright. I actually really love having an audience. Whether it’s emceeing an event or captivating friends around the dinner table, I enjoy being the center of attention. *Eww–narcissism alert*. Seriously though, lots of people are afraid of public speaking or raising their hand in class, I’m not. I enjoy it. For the most part, this does not make me a fame monger.
What it does make me is a perfect candidate for an intercultural marriage. One trip to India and I got all the attention I could want for the next decade. I learned during that first trip that there are two kinds of attention: the good kind where I am in control and look awesome and funny, and the kind where I am an awkward and ridiculous deer in the headlights. And I’d be lying if I said my visits to India were the first kind.
Being a white bahu (daughter-in-law) means many things. In my family, it means I get to wear gorgeous, colorful Indian clothes and jewelry. It means people have low linguistic expectations. It also means lots of friends and relatives want to meet me.
This is a very interesting phenomenon. One thing I love about Indian culture is how relational it is: family and friends can sit and chat for hours–there isn’t the same compulsive need for productivity and action that I experience in North America. So here’s what happens. We visit someone’s house or entertain guests so they can meet me. I get decked up in a sparkling salwar kameez or saree. We enter and I politely say “Nameste” and take whatever seat is offered me. After a few questions in English (How do I like India? Would I like chai? Is Varun a nice husband?), the conversation drifts to Hindi. And there I sit, fiddling with my bangles, deciphering head bobs and trying to pick up words in Hindi. Most of the time, Varun or Vasudha is with me and can translate tidbits or rescue me from tricky quesitons (“Which country is better: America or India?” *Hint:* Do not answer!).
Usually, these visits last a few hours and feature a procession of water brought on a silver tray, chai, Fanta or Limca, salty snacks, samosas and sweets. I love being included and welcomed. But I’ll be honest: sometimes it’s a bit odd to be the guest of honour and be out of the conversation, day-dreaming about henna patterns and wondering why the chai I make is never as delicious.
These experiences, however, are just me being the awkward and fawned over deer in the headlights.
But the real fun starts when I open my mouth. Or dress myself. Or go out in public. For example: Varun’s Mom often gets outfits custom made for me while I’m in India. A nice tailor works in their neighborhood and graciously sizes and resizes blouses and pants until they fit my little American self. One day, Varun’s Mom told me to go to the tailor and just ask him to remeasure my bust. Somehow I understood that he had requested that and all had been arranged. I was rather proud of myself for running an errand alone. So I boldly went to his hut. When he looked up, I realized I had no clue how to say “Please measure me for that saree blouse you’re working on. My Mother-in-law sent me. I believe you require my bust measurements?” in Hindi. So I did it the old fashioned way: I opened my arms wide and stuck out my chest. Oh that poor tailor. The man could not have looked more embarrassed. Thankfully, my dear cousin had been sent to check up on me and clarified everything. Or, at least apologized for my errant and loose behaviour.
Going to India as a white bahu is not just being a naive white tourist in an exotic land. It’s being the only family member who does not understand, who does not see social rules or conventions. It means mis-stepping and speaking out of turn. It means laughing when no one else is, and not laughing when everyone else is. But it also means being treasured, and protected. It means family going the extra mile to interpret, explain and guide. And it means having an audience. When I’m awesome, and when I’m awkward.