Imagine a Bollywood movie about a beautiful, respectful, graceful and demure Indian girl. Okay, now imagine a white girl, botching words in Hindi, inadvertently wearing shirts backwards and speaking her mind at inappropriate moments. I am, of course, the first girl.
In April, I wrote a letter to a dear friend who was wedding her South Asian beau. This week, the same couple headed to South Asia for a two month trip. In reflecting on my own visits to India, I compiled the following list about how to be Awesome While Visiting Family In India.
[This is random, in no particular order, mildly offensive and decidedly not exhaustive.]
1. Don’t make jokes about India, or really any references to North America being cleaner/safer/anything-er than India. When your family asks you over chai in Bombay, “So, how do you find India?”; don’t think, don’t search your heart: bob your head and say, “Bahut acha. Very good. I love it! The people, the food, the colours…!”
2. Show less skin. In general. Everywhere. All skin—less of it.
3. Eat it. Whatever it is, whatever it smells like. Close your eyes, eat it and smile. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the way to an Indian family’s heart is by their food going through your stomach. And guess what: 9 times out of 10 it’s delightfully tasty!
4. Learn 25 words/phrases. Being able to say “Nameste, aap kaise hoo?” to his Nanaji or Mamiji is priceless. Shokria, bahut acha, tikh...Write them on your hand, put them in a notecard in your chunni, hide them in your henna. Just be able to say something in his family’s heart language.
5. Be interested. Especially on family visits–you just may be the showpiece. The conversation could be in Mahrati or Tamil or Hindi, but your presence is vital. Look pretty (you always do!), look interested and laugh/smile when they fawn over you.
6. Know who is having a feud with whom. Don’t mention fights, estranged family members, alcoholism or anyone’s boyfriend or girlfriend.
7. During your visit to India, bring Canada with you. Read or munch on whatever reminds you of home and your life in Canada (gummy bears, chick lit, etc). Remember, you are an Indian man’s wife, you do not have to become Indian.
8. Choose to believe that Indian culture is advanced, refined, valuable, beautiful and healthy. Your in-depth exploration of his extended family, your walks along the streets of Chennai and your shock at some interpersonal dynamics may threaten to convince you otherwise.
Remember, it is easier to see a pile of dog crap on street in Delhi than the overflowing toilet in your own bathroom (to (loosely) quote Jesus). Yes, India is a developing country, but there are many, many gems in that beautiful country. The moment you get into the mindset of “These Indian aspects of my husband needs to be reformed” (and trust me, it can happen), you are in dangerous and murky waters. Find the value and beauty of Indian culture and cherish it.
9. Journal. Much of what you find confusing or odd or upsetting is second nature to your husband. Before you deliver your rant, journal it. Venting to him every detail you find disturbing will likely drain you both. Journal to remember the journey! Journal to remember the hilarious stories, the intoxicating smell of jasmine, and the dust between your teeth. And slowly, you will fall in love with India.
10. Watch. Listen. Watch again. Then act. When I visit Varun’s family, I feel like the KGB. I watch people’s non-verbals, I watch who serves whom, I watch who talks to whom. Indian culture is filled with “rules” about family interactions. When you enter a room, track what your Mother-in-law and husband do. Try to imitate, but in a docile, charming, submissive bahu kind of way.
11. Be willing to be laughed at when you fail at touching feet. Be willing to laugh at yourself when you pronounce words wrong in Hindi and say potty words instead. Be willing to laugh off staring street vendors, ungracious glances from Aunty’s and moments that are generally cryptic.
12. Keep your husband in the loop. Tell him when you need to hide in your room or when you just need to phone home and hear someone pronounce “Vancouver” and “vehicle” like a North American.
13. Dance. Somehow your blonde hair disguises the fact that you have hopeless white girl rhythm. Dancing has gained me favour at a wedding where 90% of the guests spoke only Hindi and got me out of an awkward moment in a slum. See #11.
India gets under your skin. It is a deluge to the senses: the beads of monsoon rain, the scent of simmering curries, the flashes of colour and din of horns. There’s no single trip or experience that can sum up India; be prepared to be amazed and surprised. Your husband comes from a rich and vibrant land. Some days, you may go mad with the heat and the bedlam. And some days, you’ll want to stay among the pulsing throngs for a lifetime.