Difference


I was often asked in the early years of my marriage to a man of different ethnicity, how do I deal with the cultural difference. I scratched my head and pondered. Was there much of a difference? Sean and I were different culturally but the core values were (and still are) very similar. We both firmly believe in honesty, integrity, transparency, we are both stubborn, control freaks, we both love being parents. We have similar views on world peace, gun control, liberalism so on and so forth.

There were some cultural differences though. And the differences came to mind as I slit two green chilies and threw them in the egg curry I was making for supper a little while ago. When we were newly married, he called me a hot chick and I took extreme umbrage at the endearment. I lashed out at him for not respecting me as a woman. He was flabbergasted at my reaction to his effort at being romantic and quickly mollified me by saying, ‘Must be a cultural difference, I meant you are attractive!’ After asking around and being laughed at by our mutual friends I accepted the fact that he was genuinely trying to be cool and romantic.

He called my purse ‘pocket book’, I never figured out why.

“Why do you call this a pocket book? It is neither a book nor is it a pocket!” I exclaimed.

“Well that is what it is called. Not purse. Purses are small!” He countered.

Then we would get into a major argument over it till we decided to let it go by terming it as a cultural difference.

He laughed hard when I swatted at him and said, “Don’t give me that cock and bull story!”

“What is cock and bull?” He laughed.

“What!!!! Don’t tell me you don’t know what that means! You are a native English speaker! Hello!! Do I need to teach you English now? I laughed back at him.

“We call that bull shit!”

“Well, I am classier than that, I guess!” I came right back.

One time we fought over the meaning of ‘karma’ all morning. We both got dressed in a huff and ran over to Enoch Pratt library to look at dictionaries and encyclopedias. This happened at a historic time, pre Google. Can you believe time existed, life existed before smart phones and Google? There you go, I went ahead and dated myself.

And we joked constantly over British English and American English. It took me a while to drop the ‘u’,s in favor, color. But eventually I did. I conformed. I gave in. Although I am still an anglophile at heart.

After 20 years of knowing him we don’t think of cultural difference any more. Now the difference of opinion is in our choices of football teams and baseball teams. So why did I think of the cultural difference as I evilly threw in the green chilies? Because Sean, despite his fondness for Indian food, can not tolerate the smell and spice of green chilies. And I can not ever become American enough to forego my love for it. I put green chilies in dal, vegetable, paneer either as a garnish or I make a puree of it by processing it in the food processor. I assure you, I go easy on the number of chilies I put, but if Sean happens to chew on one, he yelps and hiccups. I feel slightly guilty and decide not to add them next time. But when I see the golden daal simmering beautifully in the pot, the Bangali in me reaches for a lovely, lush green chili (errr…maybe more). It looks so beautiful and familiar, it smells so fragrant and yes, familiar. How can I resist it? Similar with achaar (Indian pickle). I have indoctrinated my two children into loving achaar – lime pickle. Their meal is not complete without it. While Sean can not stand the smell of it.

“You are not a true Indian!” I say to him. “I have failed to Indianize you!!”

“Uff, I don’t know how you can stand that stuff!” He replies.

And then, when he discovers a green chili in his daal, he says to the kids, “Your mom is trying to trick me again. She is trying to kill me! Help!”

You will think of me as very mean, but I will go ahead and confess that I laugh hysterically (although soundlessly) after he bites into a green chili by mistake. What? It has some vitamin or other. It is good for him. As they say in India, you don’t really grow up unless you learn to eat green chillies. I am just helping my husband grow – culturally.

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I am going to go ahead and say it ‘I lucked out!’


My husband and I had to cross several cultural barriers to start understanding each other. I may have mentioned in my earlier blogs, we had several disagreements at the initial stages of our relationship. It was mainly due to our cultural differences. One big divide was how we expressed our feelings for each other.

I grew up in a semi conservative, protected environment where voicing your feelings was frowned upon. In romantic movies, two flowers coming close together was symbolic of the intimacy shared by the protagonists. A lot of silent, amorous  messages were passed through eyes. I grew up with the romantic notion that if my partner really loved me, there would be no need for words to communicate, he should be able to read my mind through my looks, decipher my expressions and know what I mean. This notion, in my particular case, flopped. My husband, I am sure, wanted to bang his head in frustration, because he didn’t understand why I was mad at him…again. ‘Tell me, please, what did I do wrong this time?’ Finally, I realized the power of words! Now I let him have it (exaggerating a bit) , he probably wants those days of silent treatment back.

He, on the other hand, embarrassed me numerous times in front of my immediate and extended family by professing his love for me openly. My parents and my uncles and aunts were uncomfortable at this display of verbal affection. My cousins and friends loved this novelty, they were amused and somewhat perplexed at the same time. I reminded him often not to verbalize in front of people how much he is in love with me, it was simply not done in India (this was almost 16 years ago)! The poor man, a white guy from a different culture and country, was desperate to reassure my family that his intentions about me were honest. He was also trying to fit in but in the wrong way.

Although, I pleaded with him not to make comments like ”Oh she is beautiful’ when one of my cousins said ‘she is too thin’ I liked
them. I felt cherished when he told my family and his family how much I mean to him, while I still cringed outwardly. Slowly, I changed too. After being married to him, I realized it is actually a wonderful and honest feeling when I acknowledged that I love my husband. India, has opened up a lot more when it comes to the matter of heart, but when I go back I still notice some reticence in admitting ‘Yes, I am in love with my spouse. Yes, I am lucky. Yes, s/he is handsome or beautiful!’

On Facebook, some dear friends (all Indian) were discussing what qualities they love in a man. Sense of humor, sensitivity, intellect, charm et all. After going through the posts, I realized, these were
the qualities, I, too, looked for in a man when I was a young woman. And I found them all in my husband. I mentioned that in the chat. I said, ‘I looked for all that in a man too, I got lucky!’ I was subjected to some good-natured ridicule for that. I was amused at the reaction, it seemed appreciating one’s spouse was still not a ‘done’ thing amongst many.

A couple of days later, I saw a post of one of my American friends where she said how lucky she was to have a wonderful husband and how much she appreciates what he does for her and how special he makes her feel. I know the couple very well, one can see the love and friendship they share. She was not ashamed or embarrassed to let the world know that she loves and appreciates her spouse. Her post made me smile.

I come from a country which has many things to offer to the world. My country is rich in heritage which I am proud to carry and hopefully pass on to my children. I have also had the good fortune to adopt a country which has a lot to offer and teach the world. Here, I have learnt, amongst other things, to appreciate another human, my spouse in this case, and not be ashamed to admit that I lucked out the day we chose each other and decided to spend our lives together. Life is a journey, people say. On this journey we can leave that we don’t need, and pick up new lessons that will make this journey, if not smoother, at least more beautiful and joyful. What is more joyful than to admit that the one who is walking by my side on this journey is the most special person to me? Why on earth should I not say it?

Dating a white guy.


I started dating my “white” husband in mid nineties in a very parochial (I think) place called Kolkata, India. A white man with a brown woman was a rare sight in those days in my city so we got our fair share of snide comments and stares, bumping-into-telephone-pole kind of stares. We roamed the streets of Kolkata, the gardens of the National Library, the campus of my university, exchanging ideas and learning about our vastly different cultures in the musty yet magical Kolkata evenings. We even sat on the grounds of the infamous Victoria Memorial (supposedly anti-social activity is rampant there in the evenings), till the ‘peace keepers’ felt we were disturbing the sensitive morality of the city by sitting next to each other and drove us away, along with other amorous couples. I believe, it was there that I was called a “lady of the night” keeping company of a white man. I have to defend my earlier statement of Kolkata being extremely parochial here, where ever we went, we met a relative, a friend or an acquaintance of mine. And since I was sneaking out to meet my boyfriend, that was a ‘slight’ inconvenience. ¬†I don’t even want to talk about what happened when one of my aunts saw me walking down the street with Sean, holding hands.

Our romance survived all the surreptitious rendezvous, or in other words, sneaking around and we decided to take the plunge. My wedding was the first Catholic mass I ever attended. Growing up, I had dreamed of getting married in a white wedding dress, they looked so ethereal and beautiful in movies. Yet when the time and opportunity came to get married in one, I opted to wear a sari. I got married in Catholic ceremony, wearing a golden and black sari, ¬†Sean looked dashing in a tux. After the homily, the priest started giving the communion. I followed Sean’s lead through out the entire mass, like a two step dance routine. I kneeled when he did, stood up when he did, sat when he sat. So when he extended his hand to recieve the communion, I did the same. I am pretty sure Sean ¬†pinched me then, to deter my enthusiasm, although he denies it now. Instead of giving me Communion, ¬†the embarrassed priest put his hand on my head and blessed me. I was slightly miffed as I went through the rest of the ceremony.

Catholic wedding.

It was important to Sean to incorporate some Hindu traditions along with the Catholic. For him our marriage was not just a union of two people but also a union of two cultures and two religions. He wanted to know “what ¬†can we do that is a Hindu wedding ritual”? How would I know? My focus in a¬†Hindu¬†wedding was always on fun, frolic and food. Did I ever pay attention to the rituals? ¬† So we did the very basic sindur ceremony where the bridegroom puts vermillion powder on the bride’s¬†forehead, after we exchanged rings. I was just ecstatically happy to sign the marriage certificate and be done with it, but the rituals, both Catholic and Hindu, were important and meaningful to my husband, I respected that. Even the euphoria of marrying the sweetest guy didn’t take away the feeling of being slighted by the priest. I asked Sean why the heck was I denied the bread that everyone got, that too on my own wedding! That was NOT a nice way to treat a bride! He explained I had to be a Catholic to¬†receive¬†the body of Christ. I felt discriminated against, but let it slide. Later, when we went to enter the Temple of Jagannath in Puri, in India, Sean was denied entry for being a non-Hindu, I was appalled again. How can one be kept out from the house of God?

We decided to go to Cyprus and Israel for our honeymoon. Cyprus, because Sean had a meeting there, and Israel, because we felt it would be symbolic to go to a place where a new religion began, like our new relationship. Getting into Cyprus was easy, those island people were pretty laid back about the difference in the skin color between my husband and I. But Israel? Oh, we confused them. Those young immigration officers weren’t sure we were telling the truth when we said we were husband and wife. I have no idea why our relationship ¬†would ¬†matter to Israeli immigration, anyway! First, here was a brown woman and a white man, who claimed they were married, second, my passport said my maiden name and third, we didn’t carry our marriage certificate. They detained us for more than three hours along with some unfortunate Palestinian travelers, and asked us the same questions again and again, “Who is he to you?” and “Who is she to you?” “Why did you choose to layover in so and so place?” etc etc. It went on and on, till Sean smiled and said, “No matter how many times you ask, the answer is not going to change, she is my wife, I am her husband, we are here for our honeymoon. And why we chose to fly the way we did? Because we got a better deal with the airlines. Do you have any other ideas?” Finally, they let us go with the warning that we should stay in Israel and not stray into the West Bank. ¬†We, of course, promptly forgot the advice of not straying into West Bank, Sean’s organization has an office in Ramallah which we visited along with several other places.

Painted white at our Indian wedding.

A year after our Catholic wedding, we went back to India to have an Indian wedding. My country, I am sad to say, ¬†has a white skin fetish. Abiding by ‘the whiter the better’ rule, women spend a fortune on fairness creams and lotions to lighten their skin tone. Being dark is akin to being ugly, in most cases. When the beauty parlors do bridal make up, they lather foundation on the face of the bride. The face and neck turn very white while the other exposed body parts remain the original skin color, brown mainly. The same was done to me. Sean saw me at the reception hall and exclaimed, ‘What have they done to you? If I wanted to marry a white woman, I would have found one in the US!’ Between smiling and greeting over three hundred people I reproached my husband for reverse discrimination. What does skin color matter, white or brown, he is head over heels in love with me for my inner beauty and he better remember that!

We had our share of misunderstandings mainly due to our cultural differences. My poor husband, trying to be romantic (????) referred to me as “chick” one day and I let him have it! I thought the word was insulting and demeaning, to him it was complimentary. He didn’t know what hit him. Finally, when he figured out what caused this outburst he burst out laughing. Chick was supposedly a cute endearing term that was meant to convey the woman is young, attractive….whatever! ¬†There were others, I didn’t get the humor of Saturday Night Live, or Jerry Seinfeld for that matter. And when he said, “Are you bringing your pocketbook?” I gave him a blank stare. What in the world is a pocket book? ¬†He didn’t understand my Indian English and phrases sometimes, especially when I used phrases like “Come on, don’t give me that cock and bull story!” “Cock and what?????”

Most of the times we laughed about it and learned about each other’s culture. Sometimes we got into fights and argued about who is right. ¬†At the expense of sounding like a Fisher Price advertisement, we literally laughed, learned and grew together. ¬†And then came our golden skinned children….How they dealt with their ethnicity is another story. Sort of a sequel to this one.