Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Day the Americans wanted to know us Better

I had mentioned earlier in my Post titled "Uthishta Bharata" that I was due to give a presentation in my son's pre-school about India and the Indian culture. This was a part of an exercise by the Director of the school to bridge the cultural gap and equip themselves with skills to better deal with children of the Indian origin. I was asked to do the honors and I was more than happy, public speaking being something I love and India and the Indian culture being one of my favorite topics.

Some of the questions that came up were:

1. Americans:What is the meaning of the mark on the forhead?
Me: To myself: I think I know the answer thanks to the spiritual literature I am reading.
To Them : The mark is applied by the Indians who follow Hinduism (a name given by the Western scholars)or Sanatan Dharma ( Eternal Law/Eternal teachings). It is done for aesthetic purposes too. But the religious and cultural connotation being that it celebrates the power of the mind. It is our mind which explores all that is good in us and stifles the evil. Immense power lies within it and hence after we worship the creator we worship that mind which will lead us to him.
Honestly, followed by (mostly) blank looks.

2. Why do many people of the Indian origin eat with their hands?
Me: To Myself: I would rather not eat, than eat Rajma Chawal with a spoon and I am sure my South Indian sister feels the same for Dosa-chutney...
To Them: An elaborate process of cleaning up which includes hands and sometimes feet and face too(remember:"haath munh dho kar khane baitho")precedes our eating. Our food is such that we cannot possibly eat with a spoon/fork/knife. You would not think of eating a Pizza or a Burger with a a fork or spoon
Followed by laughter!

3.Are there any foods you do not eat and why?
Me: To Myself: Beef.Gai Humari Maata hai!!Why else?
To Them: Many Indian Hindus are vegetarians (they do not believe in killing animals for food) and almost all of them do not eat beef. We consider the cow a sacred animal (amongst a host of other things) since it is the source of the most nourishing food(which is actually for its young one)and hence we have given the animal an elevated status and no Hindu will be found killing or eating a cow. I understand the Indian Muslims do not eat Pork.
Followed by "you are crazy to give up steak and ham " kind of looks!!!

4.Why do Indians celebrate birthday parties with the cake first?
Me:To Myself: Another example of aping the west. Why, oh why the tradition of offering prayers, seeking blessings from elders etc is replaced by one upmanship birthday parties. The kids sometimes more concerned with the gifts they receive and the return gifts they will take back home.
To Them: Cutting the cake is not part of our culture, we adopted it from the west and took the liberty of changing it to suit our needs. We eat sweets on any special or joyous occassions hence we eat the cake first???? Maybe?
Followed by Hmmmmmmmmms!!

5. In childcare we the satff strive to make the children independent and self- sufficient. Does this conflict with your cultural beliefs?
Me: To Myself: You will be doing us a favor.
To them: Exactly that.."You would be doing us a favor" we appreciate the efforts you take to make our children independent. Gone are the days of extended families and extended childhoods... being pampered by grandparents and aunts and uncles. In a situation where nuclear families and working moms are the norm, the children need to grow up fast and be independent. So the culture is changing and hence needs to be follwed by relevant practices too.
Follwed by smug satisfied looks.

6. Do extended family live with you?
Me : To Myself: I know so many who are scared to move back because of their extended families and so many, who want to move back for the very same reason.
To Them: Extended families was the way we were. It is fast changing because of the economy. People have to move away from their towns and cities and country in pursuit of career/money/what have you... But when the parents get too old or sick to take care of themselves it is understood that they will move in with their children. This is the usual practice and one cannot easily get away with something otherwise. This accounts for less old age homes and less societal acceptance of such instituions. (Thank God!)
Followed by Admiration and "I wish I could say the same for our family value system"(especially by the elderly staff)kinda looks

7.If a child is able to walk- why do you carry them?
Me: To Myself: Hmmm why do we do that? Is it just that we are a very loving people and amotionally expressive? Not really when you come to think of it.
To Them: Not sure about this one. Maybe because the Day-Care thing is a relatively new concept for us and the Indian mother is still struggling with a lot of guilt about it.Guilt and motherhood go hand in hand.
Followed by "we can so relate " response.

8. Please explain jewllery and its traditions - e.g. a gold chain around the waist of a little boy. Also there was aboy who wore ear-rings for just a few weeks and then didn'twear them again.
Me: To Myself: We today do many things merely as rituals , not knowing or bothering to find out why we do it. But everyhting had a reason which may have been contorted beyond recognition.
To Them: This is my understanding in the Indian culture which dates back to pre-historic times emphasizes upon the connection between metals/peircings(which is related to accupressure) and good health or healing. We also are believers of Astrology and the influence of various stones on our well being. Many things like threads around our waist and vermillion on our hair-parting are symbolic in nature.
Follwed by very interested queries. Many wanted to know wether they shoud wear a moonstone or a topaz....I was like Whoa!!! wait a minute I can't help you need to see some expert.Having said that the image of crude ads of Bangali Baba as seen from the trains flooded my mind. :)

9. Please explain "oils"that are used in the children's hair.
Me: To Myself: LOL I am sure the mustard/sesame/coconut oil fumes must be making them dizzy.
To Them: We believe in natural organic products (this organic word sells like hot cakes here)The oils have been proven to be good for healthy lustrous hair besides having a cooling/warming effect. I personally have kept friday nights as the 'oiling night' when I liberally oil my children's hair and shampoo it the next morning. Is it a wonder that India is the biggest exporter of natural hair and the US the biggest importer. The Indian hair is considered the best in the world and is used for wigs.
Followed by laughter and questions on natural beauty care products.

10. What is the discipline used for children?
Me: To Myself:You really don't want to know. We think of innovative ways to threaten,scare, coerce and traumatize(unknowingly) our children. We ourselves are products of childhood 'pitai'..the occassional thrashings and many a spankings.We have masterd the art of covertly pinching our children in public places where we fear recrimination esp. in the US. God forgive me for the blatant lies I told that day.
To them:We do the usual thing like 'time-outs' and taking away priveleges or TV time etc. We also resort to the occassional spanking.
Followed by approving looks.

11. As raising a girl versus raising a marriage...
Me: To Myself: Girls are over-protected and boys over-coveted. Though I thoroughly dislike the over exposure in the US which leads to sexual maturity and sexual activity at an obscenely young age followed by increasing percentage of teen pregnancies.
To Them: We are generally more protective of our girls.Marriages mostly arranged and the love marriages are also mostly eventually arranged and paid for by the parents. Marriage is between two families rather than between two individuals.Dating is a big no-no for teenagers and anything of that sort will have to be done in clandestine.Divorce rates are low inspite of these practices or maybe because of these practices.
Followed by queries on the state of happiness of the women.

12. What do the children like playing with?
Me: To Myself: Are you kidding me?
To Them: Are you serious? They love the same things as an American child would. Blocks, puzzles, cars, dolls,legos,balls......
Followed by sheepish looks.

13. Is it ok to shake hands with the Indians?
Me: To Myself: I am ok with shaking hands but distinctly uncomfortable with the peck on the cheek. I could happily do without it.
To Them: Namste with folded hands is our traditional way to greet each other. Though we may not refuse a proferred hand, many women ( esp. those not working)might be uncomfortable shaking hands with a man.(actually I am more ill at ease while shaking hands with an Indian Man..I am like why does he need to do that?)
I added that it was a better way to greet consdiering the times we are living in ..swine flu, bird flu etc etc etc.
Followed by the very very germophobic Americans' whole hearted agreement. They left the room practicing the Namaste.

All in all it was a great evening. They loved my collection of bangles and my baluchari saree. They liked the fact that my family does the evening prayer together. They tsked-tsked about the undue academic pressure on the Indian children, as did I, though appreciated the parental involvement.Their jaws dropped at the number of languages we have and the thousands of unaccounted for dialects. The many religions and the regional variations.They enjoyed the samosas, the kadhai paneer and the chicken tikka(we had an Indian dinner). I came home happy with a pot of daisies and sent them pleased with a hand painted clay diya.


Ashwadhy said...

Lady you are a supper mom! Cheer to you.
Awesome introduction to our culture. Btw... I didn't know about the connection with the bindi/ mang tikka and worshiping of the mind. Lol. All in all interesting read.

Anonymous said...

Oh that was fantastic!!! You sure explained things very well!! I did find that Americans in general know very little about other cultures.. Here in Britain, I have found that they are very familiar.. I had a colleague who was very informed about India, politics, culture everything - sometimes even more than Indians themselves.. My landlady of the last house we lived in - lives in India for 3 months of a year. And my current neighbours.. are so informed that last sunday we were discussing election results :) ANd this lady - she apparently taught herself Tamil - the script!
Americans on the other hand - I found to be more or less clueless..

Kislay said...

Good answers . Did no one ask you about religious stuff ?

Nisha said...

wow...hats off to you! the pitai part is sooo funny!
and good you knew the tikka thing...i would have looked like a fool in such a situation.
i love reading your're one of the very few people i can relate to in blogosphere :)

Poonam J said...

You reminded me of the time , in 1989 when my husband had gone for a Defence Course to The U.S.A....i had faced many such questions...How could we converse in English? was I his first wife, or second ? Did I touch his feet every morning...Did we see elephants walking on the roads...did I eat after my husband..Joe my Husband gave a presentation, and dispelled many such notions about India. Interesting Postand an Interesting Presentation.

D said...

Those are a lot of questions! And wow, you did a great job at answering them. I would be groping for answers to so many of them!

If I may add to the answer to question #1, the dot or bindi is also worn because of accupressure. Read the last paragraph here for more info:

Interestingly, the anklets, kamarbandh and the bichiya are also related to accupressure points in a woman's body.

The Indian culture is more scientific than the west can imagine. Sadly, we do not know half the scientific explanations behind our traditions/culture as well as we should.

Chrysalis said...

Ashwadhy: Hey no supermom or any such thing.But thanks anyways:)

Smitha:Oh ya te American in general are pretty poor as far as general knowledge goes.It is a lil surprising though since I am in a area which has a huge Indian Immigrat population...

Kislay: There were some questions on our religion. What surprised many is that the Hindus send their kids to Catholic/Missonary schools...not for the religion but for the education.

Nisha: Hey thanks Nisha. You are sweet. I though you would give this post a skip condidering the length. And yes who born in India or raised by Indian Parents doesn't know about Pitai..;)

Poonam ji: Thanks. And it is so funny..the elephants on the road...reminds me of my school days when classmates thought that I stepped off a train in Jammu and took a shikara to my grandparents place...LOL

D: Thanks. Oh yes there were many questions, besides the ones I have posted here. But I had fun. And yes our culture and also Hinduism is very reason based ( I choose not to say scientific because it limits the scope). We are ignorant and misguided and hence either lable it as archaic or senseless.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that was good and I learnt a lot of things myself. It is good to know that in the United States they are taking interest in other cultures and the positive and negative aspects of the cultures and that the initiative is taken by the schools. Here the only initiative taken by schools as far as I know is to arrange special classes till 8 PM in the night! The answers were very good both the versions!

Destination Infinity

Chrysalis said...

destinationinfinity: thanks and where is 'here' where they take classes till 8 pm. And yes the Americans can be frustratingly ignorant about countries and cultures besides theirs.

rupa said...

Awesome..........Jai ho!

Chrysalis said...

Rupa: Thanks :) and Jai Hind!!

Anonymous said...

Here is Chennai. Where I was born and brought up. And boy, you ought to see how many geeks and studious people are there! Even in colleges, they take education (read: marks) seriously. You wont believe that there was a slow learners special class in the engineering college that I studied there!!

Destination Infinity