I don’t usually hide in bathroom stalls and text friends to avoid social situations. But sometimes, no other course of action seems viable.
It was last February, and Varun was months into his job hunt. It had been suggested to him to join professional engineering organizations and shmooze with people in his field. So, he joined an Indian engineering association. Actually, it was Punjabi, but pretend you’re me, and you don’t know that yet or didn’t bother to differentiate.
Varun announces one day that the association is having it’s yearly dinner which means people to whom he can give his business card, bhangra dancing, and of course, unlimited Indian food. I immediately began contemplating which sari to wear and convinced Varun that No, I wouldn’t find it boring and would love to come and support him. And binge on butter chicken. Everyone’s happy.
I vaguely remember asking Varun if he cared what I wore and he replied rather absentmindedly, that I look lovely in anything. Later, I would come to wish I had pursued this conversation further.
So, the big day rolls around and I went to my friend Pooja’s house to have her mom help me with my sari. I picked Varun up at the train station and we headed to the banquet.
Two things happened when we stepped inside: I realized I was the only white person in the room, and I realized I was the only woman in a sari. This is the moment when the Indian/Punjabi distinction came bouncing into my brain. Although Punjab is a region in India, unlike many other Indians the formal dress for women is a suit. In fact, thanks to my generous Mother in law, I have a trousseau of suits. Waiting to be worn. And so there I was, the only woman in the room exposing my belly. My white belly. Taking a deep breath, I smiled and decided to go with it. Just because I’m wearing the wrong outfit doesn’t mean I’m socially doomed. Right?
Apparently, someone had forgotten to assign us a table, so we were seated at the extra table. Alone. After awkwardly looking around and realizing that everyone was socializing with people at their table, we headed to the appetizers buffet. Varun got to talking with some business men and I sat at the table and tried to look lost in eating my kabob.
Tired of staring at my plate, I got up and headed toward Varun. He was talking to a group of 4 middle aged men so I figured I could quietly stand next to him and listen, or at least look social. As I reached Varun, the group stopped talking and looked at me. They waited. I waited. Varun smiled and walked with me back to the table. Embarrassed, I was eager to know what had gone wrong. Varun explained that men and women don’t really approach each other or mingle in these situations; a fact he had known implicitly but never mentioned. Humbled, I encouraged him to go back to mingling as I’d “entertain myself”.
To spare the gory details, the highlights of my night included wandering around pretending I was looking for someone, eating copious amounts of food and realizing that, having not been assigned to a table, I had no means of meeting people. I watched the men on the dance floor. I took small plates of food to keep me busy, and yes, I hid in the bathroom and texted so no one could see I was alone.
Ever the concerned husband, Varun kept checking in with me and asking if I wanted to go home. I knew, however that it was a good opportunity for him so I encouraged him to stay. I learned a few things that evening, not the least of which was humility. I learned that India is a very diverse country, and I still have a lot to learn. I also learned that, in conservative Indian circles, women shouldn’t approach groups of men. And I think I got a glimpse into what Varun must feel all the times he makes cultural faux-pas. And, as a bonus, he got to laugh at/with me the whole ride home.